Alex Hutchinson started Typhoon Studios to make more lighthearted, hopeful games that were different than the ones he creative directed at Ubisoft, such as Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4.
He didn't get to finish his final project at Ubisoft, a lighthearted sci-fi game codenamed Pioneer after a disagreement with higher-ups at the Montreal branch of the publisher and he subsequently left in 2017. Hutchinson wanted to do something in a similar vein for his Typhoon's first project, Journey to the Savage Planet, an irreverent exploration game inspired by science fiction comics of the 1950s.
"I'm a fan of golden age science fiction," Hutchinson tells me as he sits in a room decorated with comic books. "I was excited by the idea that people had only kept the dystopian angle of science fiction. They had forgotten there was this big arc of hopeful, 'we can go anywhere' sort of fiction. That strangely feels more valuable right now."
Hutchinson's time at Ubisoft greatly influenced his view on and approach to game development. It led to Typhoon Studios applying lessons they learned working on major franchises to their work on Journey to the Savage Planet. They didn't want to crunch and they wanted to build off the skills they developed while working on games like Far Cry 4.
The combination of Hutchinson's fondness for science fiction and the team's eagerness to build on their past experience let them "set a box around what we wanted to make," he said. "Then we just iterated and iterated for a few months. Then we found the team was in love with humor, so those three things came together to create Savage Planet."
Hutchinson had serious burnout from crunch at Ubisoft, working long hours to make sure the massive worlds of both Far Cry and Assassin's Creed were full of things to do. He, and many members of his team that jumped ship from Ubisoft, didn't want to go through that again.
"It's half inspiration and half practical," he said. "It's a new team with new technology so we didn't know what we could achieve. We wanted to be both practical and reasonable and keep it as a focused experience." The team knew their game would be "feature-lite," as Hutchinson put it. It was the first project they were working on as a small studio, so they wanted to refine a single idea rather than spend more development time trying to make a bigger game.
Journey to the Savage Planet is a first-person survival adventure game whose setting is established by purposely corny live-action videos about how megacorporations have endangered humanity. You explore an open area of an alien planet that is gated off metroidvania-style, fight aliens with different weapons, and solve various environmental puzzles. The game incorporates systemic, sandbox gameplay elements along with handcrafted components.
"You can have thousands of hours of gameplay if it's purely systemic," Hutchinson said. "You can do that, but if you want to have any sense of narrative you'll need to do it by hand. If you want that you need to tailor your ambitions."
Far Cry 4, as well as other Far Cry and Assassin's Creed games, is also a mixture of handcrafted narrative and systemic content. Handcrafted missions take much longer to develop than systemic combat scenarios and puzzles that players naturally run into while exploring the worlds of those games. Hutchinson was interested in the idea that Far Cry 4's systemic content took "a tenth of the time to build" than story missions but took up just as much of the player's time.
"People were laughing, we put the cooperative mode in and people were really enjoying [Far Cry 4]," he said. "Their friend was being eaten by a bear on fire, that's the example that always comes up. I thought there was something to mine there. This is an unexplored space, we could take out the narrative and add our own systemic parts."
Journey to the Savage Planet came from Typhoon Studios' urge to expand on those elements of Far Cry. Savage Planet is similar to Far Cry gameplay but only 10-15 hours long. It's narrative light (it was originally going to have even less narrative), letting the player explore the world at their own place while encountering different creatures and puzzles. "We just needed to put the narrative into it to add a framework," he said.
Hutchinson emphasized that this is what he and the rest of his team felt they could do between 2017 and when the game launched earlier this year.
It has light difficulty as Hutchinson wanted players to be able to cruise through it and have fun. They also wanted to create everything themselves, so they knew it would be smaller. "Our level designers and artists were excited to build everything by hand," he said. "Not a tiny part of a game. Not a texture for something but a whole, smaller game." The entire in-game world was built by five artists and Hutchinson wrote the game himself, so a lot of the design process came down to time.
Most of your time in Savage Planet will be spent exploring the planet freely while hunting collectibles, cataloging all alien life, and fighting different enemies as you encounter them. Even with a list of tasks that need doing, most players will still spend far less time in Savage Planet than Far Cry 4.
"We didn't want people to see it as a liability," Hutchinson said of the game’s lighter difficulty and shorter length. Running a studio with fairer labor practices had an impact on the actual game they released. Hutchinson knew that, saying that's why they didn't release it at full price. "We're also asking people to take a risk with a new IP," he said.
Reception for Journey to the Savage Planet was mixed when it launched in January. Some reviews, including Eurogamer and GameSpot, applauded the shorter length, lighter difficulties but still found an issue with the game's reliance on repetitive combat--something that critics have blamed on the studio's history with Far Cry.
"We were satisfied with the results. It felt like the emotion of the reviews were positive," Hutchinson said. "We were not being aggressive with the scope, we knew it wasn't going to be an A+. We made a piece with that idea. We wanted people to be happy. We wanted people to enjoy the process of playing."
Hutchinson and many members of his team are experienced developers, so after a certain point in development, they knew they wouldn't have time to fix certain shortcomings. "The reviewers and players would be surprised how often the teams know where their game is during development, especially closer to the end," Hutchinson said. "You can make big changes at the start but once your two-thirds of the way through you become aware of the problems that will ship with the game. You know what doesn't work and what's great."
Typhoon Studios, which was purchased by Google to be part of its Stadia Games and Entertainment division at the end of 2019 right before Savage Planet launched, is happy with the final version of Journey to the Savage Planet. The team managed to ship the game with no overtime and only one few-month extension that their publisher 505 Games agreed on.
"We're all a bit older now, and many of us have small children, so nobody wanted to do crazy hours. We all wanted to make a great game, stay small and enjoy the experience, which meant still seeing our families," Hutchinson said. "So we just kept making steady progress, trying to scope continually and not changing our minds too much on what we'd decided to achieve. We just wanted to keep it under control to make it polished and tight."