[In this extensive interview Nate Fox, game director for Sucker Punch's <I>Infamous 2</i>, discusses the process the team went through in implementing improvements and changes to its superhero open world game -- and why location matters.]
Released back in 2009, the original Infamous followed the story of an everyday man turned superhero, with a huge emphasis on building up your powers and then deciding to either save the world or cause havoc and destruction. With the impending release of sequel Infamous 2, developer Sucker Punch is looking to take the superhero elements just that little bit further this time around.
In this interview, Gamasutra talks to Sucker Punch's Nate Fox about what we can expect of the second title, with discussion regarding Arkham Asylum combat influences and the use of hexes to build the game world quickly in the original game.
Talk also turns to the karma system implemented in the first release, and how Infamous 2 will be taking a much broader view on the effects of good vs evil, giving players the feeling of being a real superhero or villain.
It seems like you're really going a lot further with the superhero thing. With the last game when you were kind of trying to find the fun it was like, "Oh wait, he's kind of like a superhero," and that's what people seem to resonate with. It looks like that's happening a lot more, is that an intentional push?
Nate Fox: Well, actually we're really intense on making sure that Cole MacGrath is an everyman, he's still this messenger guy who got superpowers who lives in the real world. It's just that the real world now has become sort of polluted with superpower things, and people freak out about it -- just like they would in everyday life.
But to make a game that's fun as possible I want to make sure that gamers have a lot of really kick-ass toys to play with and different abilities. And so when we went from Infamous 1 to Infamous 2, we took all the best abilities from the first game and then we added more, so there's just a real wealth of them.
Sort of makes him look more like a superhero, though. I mean he may say everyman things, but now he has more powers than the previous dude ever did.
NF: Who's going to complain about having more powers, right? I mean… it's kind of what you go to games for, right? I mean a lot of games are power fantasies, and so we just keep giving you more and more and more powers, all of which you can own and master.
In the postmortem, you talked about how players kept wanting to use melee so you've improved it here. Is there any Arkham Asylum influence on that?
NF: Oh dude, totally. Arkham Asylum is awesome. They present that kind of like "I'm going to use the knuckles on my fist to shatter your jaw bones," -- they present it in such a way that you feel the impact and makes you feel really strong as you're playing. It's impossible not to look at that game and think, "Oh, they're getting it right; these guys have figured it out."
Our system, of course, has to fit in with all those range powers, so I mean, that's the real difference in my mind -- it's that we wanted to very much streamline it so you can effortlessly go from grinding on a high voltage line, jumping off it, floating through air, blasting a guy in the face, landing next to his buddy and crushing his skull. These things should all happen in the space of like four seconds, and look good.
And one of the things about Arkham was the flow of the combat. It was extremely fluid, and it looked to me like that was what you were trying to do there with moving between targets and things like that.
NF: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that we don't talk about a lot, but I think is really fundamental, is animation improvement. I mean the flow of the sense of, muscularity almost, because things have weight behind them, and impact, and time dilatation. It all adds up to make you feel really strong.
Yeah, animation's a particularly interesting thing. I was talking to the Street Fighter IV dudes, and you've got to weigh the importance between completing a move fluidly, animation-wise, and getting it as quickly as you're pressing a button. There's that kind of push-pull there where you want the player to feel strong, but you don't want the animations to drive the gameplay.
NF: It's totally right. In traditional animation, it's all about anticipation, but in video games it's all about the follow-through. Because you can't have any anticipation because, when you hit the button, that means punch, man, lickety split. So yeah, I feel for them. They must have it times seven, right? Their game moves at the speed of thought! "Blanka must jump now!" and "Swipe face now!" And look awesome while doing it.
Let's talk about karma for a minute because in the previous game I, no offense is meant, felt that the karma was one of the weaker elements. Because in the first scenario where you're presented a choice, it's like, "Do I keep all this food for myself or do I let the other people have it?" That's just a choice of "Do I want to be a dick?", because food doesn't actually exist in the game world as a thing you use. So have you guys addressed that at all?
NF: Well, yeah. A lot of the choices you make in Infamous 2 are of course about moral dilemmas that you can think about in relationship to your own life and your own world, sort of like that food mission.
But they're better in Infamous 2 because really it's about characters trying to pull for your attention. You know, it's your girlfriend saying, "Why don't you come home? It's Valentine's Day!" and your boss saying, "You gotta stay at work, because this is due tomorrow." and you really want to make both people happy.
So in Infamous 2, it's about these 2 characters -- Nix and Kuo -- who are your partners in missions, and by helping one, you piss off the other. And they both have plans, they present them to you, and you have to make choices.
Yeah, context is extremely important if you want to make people care about a moral choice. It's got to be like, "This is relevant to me!" or "I care about what this character's going to do."
NF: Yeah. So I think it's less about, at least to me, through what you're making a choice about and more about the repercussions of the choice and your relationships with these characters. Because you're thinking about, "Well, down the line, do I want her to be my partner? Do I want them to be on my side?"
And in the middle of the game, you're confronted with this choice where you get to swap powers, you get to pick up the powers of one of the ladies and that plays into it, too. Do you do the thing you might think is right, or do you do the thing that gives you a power you think is the coolest that is opposed to your kind of moral guidance?
And that's a pretty interesting choice, because of course as a gamer you think, "Well, I'm going to do the thing that gives me the coolest power." But then you also have that little niggling thing in you that says, "Well, I don't want to be a bad guy…" Maybe the other way around if you're a bad guy and you really want ice powers you say "I'm going to go with Kuo."
That sounds more compelling. Because then it's just less of a like "Do I feel like being a jerk?" choice, and more of a "I have a choice to make, and both of them are interesting" kind of thing.
NF: Oh yeah. We try and definitely make choices that are alluring in either direction. In fact, I forgot to tell you, the coolest thing about karma -- and it's nothing that we probably ever demo because it's small -- all around the world we put in these karmic opportunities. Things that, you can completely ignore them when you play the game. You can finish the game and not do one of them.
They'll be like, somebody just getting mugged on the street -- a really small thing -- and you're playing through the game and you're on a mission and somebody yells out for help. And you can ignore that person getting mugged; you don't have to do it or you can help them and move on. Spider-Man can do it, right? You know, both defuse a bomb and stop the mugging at the same time.
And you almost challenge yourself to be the person you want, and we have a lot of equal opportunities, too. And I find that when I go through the game and I play those, that's where I actually feel the most like a hero. And they're completely 100 percent optional but because you really chose it, the game didn't say, "Here's a choice." It's more important who you are.
Are those like nodes where there's like an icon over the person's head, or is it something that's just happening and you can do it or not kind of thing? Like is it more like a side mission, or more like when you see bandits in Red Dead Redemption chasing somebody?
NF: It's just in the world happening; it's very similar to Red Dead Redemption. And I guess they're really optional, and I will never like tout them as a huge improvement to the game because they're so small. But I tell you when you play the game, I'm positive you'll get the sense that it's actually the most profound karmic aspect of the product because, for whatever reason, they get under your skin.
Some of the people in New Marais have found some glass shards that will give Cole more power, and they're just walking around with them, because they collected them to take home. But if you want to, you can just beat on this person and steal it from him. And if you're a good person you probably wouldn't do that, but if you're bad you would, but it's really tempting just to steal. And it's small, but it really gets under your skin.
In the first Infamous, you kind of chopped and cropped buildings together into a grid, to save resources and build a larger city. Have you gone further with that kind of resource-conscious world-building?
NF: Oh yeah.
I presume because of the user generated content and such.
NF: Well, Infamous 2 features a much wider assortment of places to explore. We've got just gnarly, dark dangerous swamps. We've got New Orleans-inspired French quarter architecture, we've got above ground cemeteries, old plantation houses, dilapidated industrial areas, big civil war forts, and a whole lot of other stuff.
And all of it is completely interactive for the player. So it gives you the sense that you kind of don't know what you're going to walk into next -- at least that's my hope -- and you end up getting around in different ways as well.
For instance when you're in the swamp, there's not a lot of electricity and Cole needs it to fight, so he's in a really different situation -- as well as surrounded by water, which hurts him. However he can toss people into the water and then electrify those people, so you end up adopting different strategies because you're in these areas.
Did you have to create a lot more of those nodes, and figure out how they're going to work together?
NF: Yeah, we've come up with some new ways to make gameplay space; I mean we're always trying to be efficient. But also one thing about making a sequel that's great is you don't have to figure out how to make the game anymore; you can focus on making the game awesome. That make sense?
NF: Like how are we going to make the best swamp possible? So that it's really different and freaks people out. How are we going to make streets fantastic? Like in the demo you saw today, this giant monster's cruising through town and he's knocking down all these verandas and the city's just getting torn apart. We put our time into things like that so that it's all just really real and bigger than life.
Does it feel more iterative to you, making a sequel like this? In terms of trying to perfect ideas you've got, rather than having to like invent something?
NF: We certainly have a chance to perfect things that we haven't had a chance to in the first one. But I've got to tell you, we're always just stupid; we're idiots. We get excited and we're like, "Alright! Now we're really gonna blow the doors off it!" We try something that, frankly, is impossible and then we still keep trying to make it. I think, though, that's part of what makes working on games fun. You don't know your limits; there's more food on the plate than you can eat, and that that's what makes you go farther.
I noticed, as one example, of something that went deeper than the previous game, there seems to be more emphasis on color than there was previously.
NF: [laughs] Yes.
Which is nice. I presume that was intentional.
NF: Absolutely. Going to New Marais was great, because it allowed us to open the doors and make this really vibrant, diverse city that feels real. Because you know, we're drawing from all the best kind of architectural styles and stuff, right? And all of the foliage and decorations of these towns, it's just a more interesting place to be than kind of a dirty, very standard urban place. And I love Infamous 1, I really do. But I love New Marais a lot more.
Not everything has to be brown and grey. Something that has bugged me a lot about the last several years of games is that people feel like everything has to be so gritty and real. That's not exciting to me. I want things to be vibrant and interesting.
NF: Oh, I totally agree. Frankly, the real world is pretty grey, at least if you live in Seattle. So, when you turn on video games, man, you kind of want to go on vacation.
Like I don't know about you, did you play Assassin's Creed II? At one point you get to go to Venice, right? It kind of feels like you're going on vacation in Venice. They made this beautiful recreation of the city and it transports you, and that's exactly what we try and do.
And it's gorgeous.
NF: Oh yeah. Carnevale happens in there, fireworks in the sky. So New Marais is… you know, we don't have Mardi Gras in New Marais -- that's a spoiler --
NF: We should! Everybody's dressed up for it, right? Because who doesn't want to be in a city that's partying?
When you have a lot of powers how do you keep from getting selection of them overcomplicated? Because you want people to be able to use everything, but you don't want to take them out of the action. So what do you do there?
NF: We let you choose how you want to map the controller to your play style. So you have a lot of powers that are similar to one another, and then you can outfit different buttons with different powers. And mentally you know, "This button does this kind of thing" and "this button does this kind of thing," but those kinds of things are different.
So for instance like your basic lightning bolt -- throwing a lightning bolt at somebody -- there are a lot of different varieties of throwing lightning bolts at people, and you can choose what kind you want to be mapped to that button.
And then depending on the situation, you have a quick change menu, so that you remap it very fast. But generally players kind of find out the sort of powers they like. I'm a coward and I hang back a lot. Maybe you're a badass?
No. But for the sake of argument go ahead.
NF: So, between two cowards, there are some powers that are really good at distance combat, and so you and I will probably have a very similar load out of what our controls look like.
But because all of the lightning bolts are on the same button, whenever you hit the button you know you're going to get a very reliable kind of power that is that lightning bolt -- but just with very different parameters.
So in that way it doesn't bake your noodle, it's just about not wanting to overload players with complexity. So people like ourselves will eventually achieve the long distance set, and probably stick there, but you know, there's a universe of players. Some people like to stay really far back, and then close, and then really mix it up. Some people like to move quickly, and that's what they really care about. Some people like to tank. We just want to make the game that makes everybody happy, right? That's the goal: making entertainment.
When it comes to user generated content, a lot of people have talked about how you know, with multiplayer being so important and social gaming, and things, the driven single player narrative is going to go away; that's the kind of fear that people have. I don't think it'll happen, but is this your solution to that kind of thing? Rather than going pure multiplayer, to go deeper into single?
NF: Infamous 2 is by far and away the most cinematic game we've ever gone before. We've got totally integrated mocap cutscenes where we try to harness the nuance of what the actor brought to the moment, where we mic them while they were up there, to try and get these very real performances. So it is in no way a diminished story at all, in fact it's the best we've ever done; I'm really proud of it.
The UGC, to me, what it does, is it leverages what we kind of already do when we make the game. It's an open world environment where we place things like turrets and enemies and script their behaviors, and it actually translates really well into letting people make what they want.
When we got done with Infamous 1, we were looking around at what we could give people so that they would say, "Oh wow, Infamous 2 is really different!" You know, we saw this little game, maybe you've heard of it, called LittleBigPlanet. We thought, "Man that is awesome smart." And a lot of the core concepts in LittleBigPlanet actually work inside of our game; the big difference is that our game is kind of like pre-packaged looking good, right? Like the city's made; you can climb on all of it! And if players want to put things down where they want or write little stories inside of that city, awesome!
You walk into it and you know the production values are actually pretty high. So if it doesn't matter what UGC mission you walk into, it's going to kind of be fun -- because it's infectious fun to whack the guy in the face with your amp weapon; you kind of can't go wrong. So that's why it seemed like a good idea. And on top of that -- and this is the killer -- I'm a very lazy person. I don't know about you.
NF: So we are bonded in both being cowards and lazy.
That's right! [laughs]
NF: We download UGC missions and we put the mission starts in the world so that you get done playing a mainline narrative mission and you see this UGC mission just there. You don't have to go through any database to get it; you don't have to go online, it's just there.
You just walk in and you play it, and if you don't like it you can leave, but you probably will like it because we're going to post the best of the best. And it's effortless. So the cost of investment of going into it is extremely low, so you just have to walk into the mission start. And then you don't even know what you're going to get, it's like unwrapping a present.