When Brad Meyer wants to create fire, he doesn't just light a match. He rubs two pieces of charcoal together, then burns some charcoal, then pours water on burning charcoal, then rubs more charcoal together, then drops charcoal on a steel chimney, then crushes up charcoal with a mortar and pestle, and then, just for good measure, he blows air through a tube.
Meyer isn’t trying to make a real fire, of course—he’s making sounds. As the audio designer on Infamous: Second Son, his job is to record and fashion aural effects for the game, which means paying a ridiculous amount of attention to details you might not spend a lot of time thinking about. Those birds you'll hear when walking around Second Son’s forests, for example? Real sounds from real birds, recorded in the woods of Seattle. Every rain drop and tire squeal in the game has to be layered and designed by Meyer and the rest of his team. “Meticulous” might be an understatement.
Of course, there’s no default sound for making a superhero shoot a fireball from his hands, so when Meyer designs audio for the abilities in Second Son, he has to get creative. Hence the charcoal.
These are the types of creative processes we don’t normally hear much about in the world of video game development, but last week in Washington, I got to see quite a few of them. Sony had invited a handful of journalists for an “under-the-hood” tour of Sucker Punch, the Bellevue-based studio behind Second Son, which is one of the PS4’s biggest upcoming games. (It'll be out in February of 2014.)
The idea: to give us unprecedented access to the designers, artists, and programmers who make a game like this possible. And maybe there would be an added effect: to show us how much better-looking a next-gen game can be.
“We are gonna show you our junk,” said studio director Nate Fox, addressing us before the tour, “from a game development standpoint.”
That’s pretty much what they did. Sony insisted that Sucker Punch use burlap sacks to cover up their PS4 development kits, and we could only take photos of certain parts of the studio, but outside of those silly restrictions, the tour felt quite real. Intimate, almost. We saw motion capturing, raw animation work, and even a couple of game crashes. We heard presentations from environmental artists, designers, and visual effects specialists—the type of people who don’t talk like they’ve been given media lessons by PR people. And we got some serious face-time with one of the PS4’s biggest games.
Sucker Punch is on the second floor of a glass-and-steel office building in downtown Bellevue, a city just across the lake from Seattle. When you reach the second floor and walk out of the elevator, all you can see is a nondescript wall. This is on purpose, marketing boss Ken Schramm explains—they don’t want strangers getting excited and taking their own impromptu studio tours. There’s a lot of confidential stuff back there. Even if sometimes it’s hidden in burlap sacks.
The studio, which has been around since 1997, has spent the bulk of their time working on two big franchises: the gritty Infamous and the cartoony Sly Cooper. The walls are covered with remnants from both eras—posters, statues, silhouettes of their ninja racoon. If you look closely enough, you’ll find other assorted decorations, too—icons and figures from all sorts of games, from Final Fantasy XII to Halo 4.
Like many game development offices, Sucker Punch is cordoned off by field: art, design, programming, QA. It’s a spacious studio, full of standing desks and big technical areas, like a motion-capture room and a stenciling desk. There’s one large conference room—”Where all of our decisions get made,” says Schramm—and a kitchen full of free treats and soda. Another room is nothing but boxes and unassembled desks—extra space to expand as they hire more people, Schramm explains. Near a bank of computers in one corner of the office, there’s a board full of hand-written letters from children who wanted to show their love for Sucker Punch.
During our tour, we heard from a number of people working on Infamous: Second Son, and we got to see some of the granular processes behind making a PS4 game. I’ll tell you more about that shortly. First, a brief excerpt from a conversation I had with Fox.
Nate Fox, game director: Games are like—I always think of them as like a Christmas tree, and everyone’s working on their one Christmas ornament. The engine is kinda like the tree. It has to hang together. One thing can’t be too rad and one thing can’t be too lame.
Jason Schreier, Kotaku writer: What’s on top? What’s the star?
Fox: I dunno. I gotta complete my metaphor… The story? I dunno. What do you think is the most import- no, ‘cause the tree’s the most important thing. It’s a fundamental thing. What do you think? Well you’re a gamer—
Schreier: I’m the interviewer, not the interviewee.
Fox: Oh, sor- I’m derailing the interview by talking about Christmas trees.
Schreier: No, it’s okay, it’s all good—so you think the story is the most important part?
Fox: Oh, I dunno, I think a lot of people tend to remember… I’m lying! I don’t think people remember game stories, I think they remember weapons or abilities in games most.
Schreier: Not moments? Not experiences?
Fox: I mean every game’s different, right? Like, Unreal Tournament I’m guessing it’s not the story. Uncharted 2—I’m guessing it’s the setups, like oh when the hotel fell and I jumped through a window, like everybody remembers that, or being on top of the train.
Schreier: So what are people gonna remember in Second Son?
Fox: Mmm, I think people are gonna remember Second Son for being able to revel in having super powers. We work hard to have an open world third-person action adventure. We have a lot of choice and agency, and that’s not just in how the story plays out but in what power you’re gonna use and how you’re gonna use it and even which type of power you’re gonna go to. And be able to make freeform choices, have these kinda superhuman abilities, that’s where a lot of the joy comes from. It puts a smile on my face when I’m kinda cruising around in the game… and I lose track of time.
Powers. That’s what the people at Sucker Punch like to talk about: creating a game that make players feel like they’re powerful enough to take on the world.
Infamous: Second Son stars a guy named Delsin Rowe, who is transformed into a superhero by accidentally absorbing someone else’s super-abilities. His newfound powers revolve around fire, smoke, and electricity, and although Sucker Punch hasn’t revealed them all—”We’re not talking about that yet” was one oft-repeated (and hilarious) statement during my visit—what we’ve seen so far looks pretty great. Rowe can dart around the air, shoot projectile fireballs, and transform into a puff of smoke to zip through building vents.
But if you’re gonna make your character a superhero, you have to follow certain rules. During our tour, lead designer Jaime Griesemer gave us a powerpoint breakdown of edicts that the design team had to use while creating the powers and levels in Second Son. One example: superheroes don’t fire guns or take cover. They have “superior mobility,” but they don’t hail cabs or steal cars. They don’t hide bodies. They don’t use turrets or explosives.
Delsin’s abilities are designed around those principles, and Sucker Punch has to find ways to make players feel like they have a lot of options without violating any of the studio's self-imposed rules.
“Sucker Punch is a studio of action and not words in a lot of ways,” Griesemer told me during a one-on-one interview after our tour. “So instead of sitting around a design conference table for hours and hours debating whether this thing would be fun or not, we create a coding environment where people can just try it. Usually at that part it’s pretty clear whether it’s gonna work or not.”
“It doesn’t matter if you have 15 things that are all fun in too many chunks separated from each other—if they don’t all come together in a single whole, the game isn’t gonna hold up for very long.”
But for Griesemer and his team, superpower design isn’t just about whether individual abilities are satisfying to use; their goal is to make everything work together. Like a Christmas tree.
“One of the things I brought to the design culture was a sense of coherence,” Griesemer said. “It doesn’t matter if you have 15 things that are all fun in too many chunks separated from each other—if they don’t all come together in a single whole, the game isn’t gonna hold up for very long.”
They’ve had to scrap a lot over the past couple of years, Griesemer told me. One example: a defensive ability that would block all attacks from a single direction. It was a cool ability, Griesemer said, but it was only necessary once every ten minutes or so.
“If you have something that’s useful every 10 minutes, you’re not gonna think about it,” Griesemer said. “You’re gonna go with something you’ve been using every eight seconds for the last hour.”
Interesting thought, right? Think back to the last time you played a game with a lot of different options. In a tight spot, did you spend time thinking about all of your abilities, or did you just rely on the one or two you liked most?
“There’s definitely good ideas or concepts,” Griesemer said. “We have an idea for this large power that we just can’t get the effects right or something, so it’d be really fun except it’s gonna look bad. That’s just not acceptable… We throw out way more than we keep for sure.”
It’s been seven years since the PlayStation 3 came out, and many gamers are hungry for the next generation of consoles. Developers like Sucker Punch might be even hungrier.
That was one of the driving themes throughout our tour: “hey, this is next-gen, and we’re psyched about it.” Sucker Punch folks say that the PS4’s hardware upgrades—the graphics card, the memory, the CPU—allow them to create the type of eye candy we haven’t quite seen before. (PCs, of course, have grown more powerful over the past few years, but developers on console or multi-platform games have been stuck optimizing their games for older technology.)
What we've seen of the game so far looks phenomenal. This darting power, for example.
Because there are so many individual particles in an effect like that, it’d be rather difficult for older hardware to render. On the PS4, it’s just par for the course.
But making a next-gen video game doesn’t just mean making a prettier piece of software; the developers at Sucker Punch say these memory advances also let them make a bigger world and fill it with more people. They can bring more ideas to life. They can get more enemies on the screen at once. They can make things happen that they say they couldn’t make happen before.
“The thing that’s great about working on new hardware is that I don’t hear ‘no,’” Griesemer told me. “I’ve worked on many teams where I’ve had to go through—I finally got a combat encounter working just perfectly, and then the engine team comes through and they say, ‘You’ve got 15 AI active at the same time. You can only have five. I hope you can make that encounter work again.’ It’s like, no, I can’t. I’m gonna have to spawn guys behind rocks and do all this horrible stuff.”
They’re excited about the PS4, and the enthusiasm is infectious. The console, like its competitors the Xbox One and Wii U, will live or die based on its software strength, but the people at Sucker Punch are promising that the PS3 to PS4 transition will involve more than just graphical upgrades. They love the controller, and the operating system, and the other day-to-day features that gamers have to spend a whole lot of time with. (Worth noting: Sucker Punch has been owned by Sony since 2011. They’ve got a bit of an agenda here.)
“That’s really what you’re paying for with a console. You’re not paying for pixel shaders; you’re paying for it to work and be awesome.”
“I think everybody expects graphics to be better: ‘Oh yeah, that’s just what I thought would happen,’” Fox told me. “Having a better feeling controller, including some feedback mechanisms like a speaker in your controller—to me that’s not some gimmicky thing. That’s like, I’m absolutely touching this thing every time I game. It being such a big improvement is a subtle thing that I think everyone will be excited about.”
“[The PS4 is] just streamlined—more effortless,” Griesemer said. “That’s really what you’re paying for with a console. You’re not paying for pixel shaders; you’re paying for it to work and be awesome.”
Thanks to the memory bump, even sound design can get more intricate—audio designer Brad Meyer said they can get “way more detail” than they have before. Where he might have used five different sounds to amplify a power in the past, here he uses five different combinations of five sounds each. 25 sounds for a single power.
That’s game design. Lots of tiny little choices coming together to create what will hopefully be an excellent experience. It's a fascinating process to watch.
Faces, for example. During the tour, we heard from some of the tech team, a talented crew full of people who have worked on all sorts of projects in all sorts of mediums. Character technical art lead Spencer Alexander, for example, worked on character movement for movies like Thor and Tron: Legacy. One of his tasks on Second Son is building facial animations for the characters, and he showed us a real-time render of Delsin's face, complete with range of facial animation.
It was creepy. Watching behind Alexander's computer screen, we saw Delsin's face go through a full range of twitches and cues, moving from yawn to grin to smirk to "I have no idea what I'm looking at" within just a few seconds. This, Alexander explained, is part of why there's such a "demand for next-gen."
We saw some impressive lighting effects thanks to rendering/tech guy Jason Connell. Apologies for the blurry photo:
We also got to peek inside the motion-capture studio, where lead animator Jason Stansell showed us how they capture individual body movements that will be reflected in the game. When you watch Delsin moving and jumping through Seattle, his animations don't just come out of nowhere—they've been captured and designed by Stansell and his team.
Check it out:
That’s the before picture; sadly, I didn’t get a shot of Delsin’s body animator getting into position. But from that point, they capture a basic skeleton and output it in their animation software, Maya. The body-to-computer transition is seamless and impressive—every bend and movement is captured and transformed into a grey 3D figure within Maya, and the art team can then add art, clothing, and tweaks to that figure.
Stansell and crew sometimes go to a nearby park and shoot movements there. Sometimes they bring fake guns. "We were stopped by the cops one time," Stansell told us, laughing.
Infamous: Second Son takes place in Seattle, a shift from previous Infamous games, which were set in a fictional send-up of New York. Since Sucker Punch is also based in Seattle, the developers feel a certain responsibility toward getting things right: the environmental team showed off their take on the Space Needle, for example, which looks a whole lot like the real-life version of the iconic observation tower. They’ve also got their own fictional version of Starbucks—Latte Owl—and some landmarks that Seattle residents might recognize, like a giant pink-elephant car wash.
They also added local businesses to the game—marketing guy Ken Schramm says he went around to each of those retailers and asked if they wanted to be included. Most said yes.
Two of Sucker Punch’s environmental artists, Harold Lamb and John Germann, showed us their workstation, complete with monitors and a giant tablet for drawing and design. They're part of the team that crafts the game's world, from big-picture icons to the minutiae of wallpaper and bench placement.
No photos were allowed. But as we watched Delsin walk around downtown Seattle, the artists showed off what they'd done—the murals, the art, the easter eggs. (Look out for Sly Cooper's face every once in a while.)
They also played with some toggles and started making it rain, and we watched the impressive graphical effects in action—the glistening, the splashing, the color reflections on puddles of water. It's fascinating to watch in action.
A little later, we heard from some animators—David Molloy, Mike Haney, and Jance Allen—who are responsible for making the 2D cut-scenes that supplement the story of Second Son. See: 1:18 of this trailer:
In order to create that rotoscoping effect, the team captures a 3D object with their camera rig—a set of cameras all set up around the perimeter of an object—and then projects 2D art on top of that model in order to create what appears like a hybrid of 2D and 3D art. It's a neat effect.
To add those crazy splashing and spilling effects in the background of each animation, they use random objects: soy milk, soap, ink. Again: not the sort of thing you might expect from a video game development studio.
The last stop on our tour was the visual effects department, where lead Matt Vainio showed off just how gorgeous some of the game's special powers can get.
See this GIF?
That's not pre-rendered, as far as I can tell. That's real-time.
We would have watched Vainio edit it live, but his computer kept crashing and we didn't actually get to see that part. Instead, we got to watch him play around with smoke effects in a different scene. (No video available of that scene yet.)
Some have worried that this console generation will bring with it diminishing returns—in other words, next-gen graphical advancements won't be that big a deal. But after getting some up-close time with the visual effects, and the environments, and the animations, I'm skeptical about that claim. This game looks great—significantly better than anything I've seen on this generation—and assuming we're not all falling for some sort of massive schemes, the memory boosts on next-gen consoles really can open up some lovely doors.
Perhaps more impressive than the visuals is the amount of time and detail that goes into even the most trivial aspects of a game like Infamous: Second Son. It’s funny: so many of us spend so much time playing video games, but how often do we really notice the sound design, let alone recognize that the audio for each of a game's superpowers is composed of 25 different sounds?
So the next time you play a game like this, and the next time you hear your character shoot a fire or cast a special ability, do me a favor: think of the charcoal.