A team of over 110 staff is a small game development studio. At least, that’s the opinion of Sucker Punch, the team behind InFamous: Second Son.
“Today that’s not really a large team anymore,” asserts Ken Schramm, brand development director at the Bellevue-based outfit. “We’re proud of what we’ve done with that number.”
Nate Fox, Second Son’s game director, is nodding in approval. He and his team have just seen their latest creation reach the public, and are finding time to reflect on their effort.
To an indie squeezed into a shared office, or an eager start-up kept at full steam by freelancers and contractors, a three-figure desk count might seem overbearingly vast. And in a time when the rise of the small and mid-sized studio is a point of industry fascination, it’s easy to be quick to contest Schramm’s claim. But he makes a reasoned point in context.
InFamous: Second Son is an ambitious game on a new generation of console hardware. The title’s open-world cityscape serves as a sprawling stage for its superhero fantasy, and its rooftops and alleyways are picked out in superb detail and lighting. Building textures glisten with moisture, neon signs flicker authentically, and pools of rainwater capture the scenes above them with faithful clarity.
110 IS THE MAGIC NUMBER
It’s certainly a technical achievement, given that 110 developers have crafted a triple-A game for PS4 when other studios reportedly devote 1,000 staff to blockbusters. Perhaps Sucker Punch is that ‘small’ team.
“To achieve that kind of a game with this kind of team, you need to really know what you’re trying to make from the start,” explains Fox. “You have to focus, and know every detail of the story you’re trying to tell, and the emotion you’re trying to feel. Then, you need to be clear about what rendering effects you want to use, what details of the environment you need and so on, to answer those first questions about what you want your game to be.”
Next, insists Fox, directors and lead designers have to get used to saying ‘no’.
“You can’t be too distracted if you want to get the job done,” he continues. “Great ideas will keep coming up, but you have to be prepared to say ‘no’ to a lot of stuff. You have to stick to your guns the whole way through. That’s when it gets tough, because there’s so much to say ‘no’ to. Everything needs to be held up to the lens: does it support the intended experience? We kill our darlings at Sucker Punch. It’s not easy; it’s necessary.”
That’s all well and good, but Second Son – the third full release in the InFamous series – is a game in part designed by its players. At least, they had a significant part to play.
ALL HAIL THE PLAYER
InFamous 2 concluded with a monumental decision for players; one that would change the game world forever. Sucker Punch’s senior team watched their customers making that decision, analysing Trophy data before reaching a decision of their own. They would build a sequel upon the popular choice, and so it was that Second Son is a release with a new protagonist and a new setting.
In pandering to player behaviour, there’s a contradiction to Fox’s explicit devotion to sticking to his creative guns. It’s a incongruity in his method he recognises, but not one he thinks needs to be the basis for creative conflict.
“As a game designer, I think the most beautiful thing in the world is a playtest with real gamers. Because I might have an opinion about what’s cool, and my fellow designers might have an opinion about what’s cool, but that’s all just theory until we pack all our ideas in together and make it a functional game.”
According to Fox, making a game remains a worthwhile pursuit only if you start with utter faith in your vision. “Your idea has to stand on it’s own two feet,” he asserts.
The direction he takes that vision, and the mechanics and environments through which it plays out, it would appear, are utterly entities of the designers’ minds. But exactly how do they function? That is where Fox is prepared to be flexible.
“After all your commitment, you can only really tell how good your ideas are if you hand your game to people who weren’t there when you conceived those ideas. Only then do you find out what’s cool, what really works and how well you’ve communicated your game to the player.
“We playtest a lot internally and externally, and act on it. We have to be focused on our vision, but we really listen to our playtesters. It can be difficult, it can feel really personal when it doesn’t go your way and is the most dramatic point of the creative process, but it’s hugely important. You have to watch, listen and adapt.”
That, claims Fox, is how 110 people build a game like InFamous.
But it’s also about partnering. With Second Son, Sucker Punch has pushed its effort with performance capture beyond anything seen in former InFamous games, bringing on board long-serving VFX specialist Digital Domain, which counts on its show reel everything from the movie Iron Man 3 to games such as Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome.
Working with acting talent, a vast capture space and Digital Domain’s technology afforded Fox the opportunity to return to traditional directing; something the art school graduate with a drop of theatre experience embraced with abandon. And his lesson for other developers afforded the same opportunity? Leave the actors to it.
“InFamous 2 taught me much about directing. Second Son proved and expanded on my theory,” explains Fox. “Get out of the actors’ way. You don’t need to be in their way as a director. These people spend all day long in VO and mo-cap booths, and they are great at bringing the character you need out of that.
"My job, as a representative of the game, is about giving them context; letting them know where a scene fits and what it means in the bigger picture of the game. You need to let them understand what you need from a scene, but the actors are so much better equipped to deliver that than me.”
Fox and his colleagues also – perhaps unsurprisingly for a studio acquired in 2011 by Sony – attribute much of their achievement to the PS4’s oft-promoted developer-friendly guts. It was, says Fox, that very asset that let his technical colleagues accomplish so much in terms of the scope of their project.
“The team at Sucker Punch has been very grateful for the PlayStation 4 having architecture that is, compared to previous platforms, more like that of a PC. That means they can do more with the ideas we have. Second Son’s graphics and detail are so much better than what you often see this early in a console’s life. We really feel like we’ve lapped ourselves in terms of what’s possible, simply because the PS4 is easier to develop for.”
Fox has 15 years at Sly Cooper creator Sucker Punch behind him, and has no doubt InFamous: Second Son is the team’s most ambitious achievement yet. Schramm’s point stands: 110 is not a tremendous number with which to make a triple-A, open-world game for a new console. The support of a parent company – which conceived the said console – no doubt helped, but Fox insists that the right partnerships, system architecture, vision and focus were the defining factors.
If he’s right, then we may see less teams with four-figure headcounts, and a few more mid-sized studios dedicate teams to ambitious projects on the PlayStation 4.