Marcus Smith is going to blow us all away

Develop sat down with the Creative Director of Insomniac Games at EB Expo to talk about the creative process behind what the studio is most known for: its weapons.
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So, having just played the Chaos Squad co-op multiplayer mode, I can safely say it's difficult to tell what's going on with all those weapons going nuts at once.

Then Chaos Squad lived up to its name, for sure!

Talk me through the process for designing weapons on a game where they're as much the focus as they are in Sunset Overdrive.

One of the things about the way that we designed weapons on this game (which is a little different than what we’d done before) was that it was much more almost clinical trying to figure out what we needed.

We had three different enemy types: we have the OD (who are the mutants) which have a lot of different abilities, then we have humans (we have a few different types of those), and then robots (FizzCo robots). All of them have certain susceptibilities to certain types of weapons, so for example the OD are susceptible to fire-based weapons, the robtos to energy, things like that.

We kind of had to plot out all of our weapons from a purely functional analytical, clinical approach. We’d know we’d need a certain number to be this or that type, and then design them in a way where they'd be effective as well as compliment the player's abilities.

The player has certain abilities (traversal being the big one), where they can move very fast, they can geta round enemies pretty quickly. So we needed enemies designed to kind of counter the players abilities, then we need weapons that can counter the enemies’ abilities so the player can strategise a lot better.

And which of those elements comes first for Insomniac?

We always start with player abilty. What you can do in the world dictates everything else, so if your only interface in the world is shooting a gun (if it’s a first-person shooter say), then you need to figure out what the enemies are going to force the player to do. The player should always have a strategy coming in and then the gameplay should always contradict that strategy a little bit – that’s what gameplay is, right?

So for us, honestly, when we start creating the weapons, it’s kind of boring. It’s very academic – it’s almost spreadsheet driven. You know there are certain archetypes of weapons that you have to fulfill due to the nature of the gameplay, and from there is where the fun part starts. Then our lead gameplay programmer Doug Shehan jumps in - he’s amazing with weapon programming and just loves it. He’d do things like send out an email saying ‘Hey, I need a weapon that’s basically kind of like an RPG, it’s going to be an area of effect explosion, but how do we make that Sunset Overdrive?’

And that’s shorthand for 'How do we make that…'

Completely insane! And the thematic restrictions were always that we wanted it to feel relatively homemade, and we wanted it to be based on reality. But 'fun trumps realism' was always a theme that we had, so we didn’t want people scrutinising the firing mechanism on these crazy things.

I don’t think you’ve got to worry about that.

Yeah, definitely not at this point.

In the case of the rocket launcher, I remember the email exchange which was one of our designers Mike Birkhead sending a picture of a teddy bear, then a plus sign, then a stick of dynamite. And it was just ‘Yes, of course! A teddy bear launcher!’

So that’s how we came up with the TNTeddy (the name came afterwards obviously), but that idea spawned the audio department to put these cute little Teddy Rexman-like voices on the thing so when you equip it it says ‘Yay!’, and when it goes out in the world it’s talking and the animation department put on all these clever little animations of him trying to get the dynamite off of him, and all this sort of stuff, and everybody starts adding these ideas to really make the weapon more than the idea of just a rocket launcher.

Were there any ideas for weapons which ended up on the cutting room floor?

Sure. I mean, sadly most of them die at the functionality level. We’ll usually prototype something in completely grey box – it just shoots out like a ball, and we’ll add the theme after we’ve proven the functionality of the weapon.

For example, we have a weapon that we knew we wanted to bounce around and be a wind-up weapon which was super-powerful. When we got the functionality in for it, we realised it was kind of like a bowling ball, and then everyone was like ‘Well of course you’ll need it to be a bowling ball gun’, and then of course we had to call it 'The Dude' because we’re all fans of The Big Lebowski.

So that’s how we develop the guns for Sunset.

And the bowling ball gun stayed in?

It did stay in, actually. Sadly, a lot of the guns just die in purely functional land. We had one gun which would attract a lot of enemies, but it exploded our ability for physics to work, because we'd have 40 or 50 rag-dolling enemies going at once. That was one which wasn’t sustainable and we pulled it out before we could put a good theme on it.

But there’s always DLC, right?

Thanks for your time!

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