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Supergiant's fourth outing Hades introduces a more mature, organized dev process

Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin sits down to discuss the design and business decisions behind Hades.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

January 17, 2019

14 Min Read

Ever since the release of Bastion of 2011, players and game developers alike have paid close attention to Supergiant's projects, thanks to the studio's unique sense of style and ability to execute on its game concepts.

During The Game Awards in December, Supergiant announced and immediately launched Hades -- a new Early Access roguelike title first available on the new Epic Game Store. 

Right after launch, Hades creative director Greg Kasavin talked to us about the business and design decisions behind Hades over on the GDC Twitch channel.

Below are a few key highlights from the conversation that may help you evaluate both the state of the Epic Game store, and whether making an Early Access game is right for you.

Edited for length and clarity.

Why Supergiant is tackling Early Access for the first time

We’ve been really really happy with how [Early Access] has been going so far. Thankfully, even given the Early Access nature of the game, the initial technical challenges were pretty minimal, so everybody was, for the most part, able to get into the game and start playing.

The response we’ve been getting, we’re really really happy with. I will never ever take for granted having a group of our players actually like the stuff that we work on. I will never take that for granted. So every time we launch a game and our players say "hey this is cool, thank you for making this," I wipe the sweat off my brow and I breathe a sigh of relief. That response has been really encouraging.

As for why Early Access, we conceived of that aspect of this game as part of the whole package right from the start. It was a high priority when thinking about what to make next after our last game, Pyre, came out last year. We were really interested in a game that we could like develop out in the open once it reached a certain point, and make it the best game it could be by gathering feedback along the way by building it in partnership with the community.

For us, it opened up so many possibilities, not just from a game design perspective, but also even from a narrative perspective. From my standpoint as the writer on our games, being able to work on a game whose story could unfold a little bit more serially instead having to put the entire thing in, beginning middle and end, right in that initial launch, [that was a new experience].

So we think of the Early Access launch almost as a sort of pilot episode of a series or something like that, where it’s a lot of setup, you meet a lot of the characters, and you figure out what the conflict is all about. But the resolution of the story is not all in the game yet and we’ll roll out new characters and more events in the story over the course of the Early Access period, along with just improving every other aspect of the game with any luck.

Choosing to go with the Epic Game Store

Yeah so a lot of it does tie back to the Early Access nature of the game, and that being like really key to the whole design from our perspective. So that meant that if we were going to develop this game out in the open for a while, and we expect Early Access to last for more than a year on this game from our initial launch, we need to be able to move on it really quickly. 

So we knew for sure that we weren’t going to launch Early Access on a whole bunch of different platforms at the same time. That would basically make it close to impossible for us to update the game in a timely fashion. Our team size is fewer than 20 people. Maybe there are some teams out there who are really effective at patching games on many different platforms all the same time, but that is not a skillset that we possess as a small team.

We felt that it was vital to be able to focus on a single version of the game until we get the game to a really good state and then during that process we can start to look at other platforms toward an eventual multiplatform launch. So that’s very much our plan. 

So as we were working on Hades we got in touch with the folks at Epic and started to learn about what they were working on with their store, and we became really excited for it. It just seemed like a really good fit given the experiment we were making and the experiment they were making.

One of the factors with Hades is that we want this game to be highly enjoyable to watch as well as to play. It’s a game designed around immediacy and replayability among other factors, and you get in there and hopefully start having fun with it, have a unique experience each time, and have the action be very readable if a friend is next to you or if you’re streaming it or something like that. 

Part of Epic’s focus with the store is to help enable streamers and YouTube content creators to essentially get a piece of the action. You’ve seen the Fortnite support-a-creator program, where creators basically just get compensated for their work. I think streamers and YouTube content creators have had such a significant and overall beneficial influence on games over the years that it’s really only fair that they should be able to benefit more from the incredibly hard work that they do. So on a personal level, that spoke to me, I think it spoke to other folks I work with, just as part of the priority that Epic was interested in. 

But anyway, that’s all stuff they can probably speak to better than I can, but those are just some of the reasons why it made sense for us to go conduct our Early Access experiment off to the side, because folks on other platforms who are familiar with our games are used to our games being 100 percent complete. We’ve said in the past that we really value the completeness of our games, so folks on other platforms one day will get the kind of experience that they are used to from us, and on the same timeline as we’ve delivered our games in the past.

Transistor and Pyre both took us about 3 years to make, we expect that Hades will be done on roughly that same timeline. So we figured if that’s the experience you’re accustomed to and the experience you want to have, nothing has changed. You’ll get to play our completed game hopefully wherever as many places we can support and make sense of once we’re out of Early Access. But for now it made sense to us to run Early Access on the Epic Games store.

The origin of Hades

I’m one of the people who helps formulate the ideas that we then pursue. And one of the things I look for as the highest priority is what is the overlap of preoccupations on the team. What do the most people here want to make the most passionately, and that’s the game we should make. So we started having, very soon after Pyre launched, like within a month, we started having many, many hours of conversations. 

And some themes started to emerge from that. One of the ideas I already spoke to was wanting to develop a concept that we could continue to build on after it was out there, a game idea that was extensible, and not just a one-and-done game similar to our last three games. So that was a high priority for us. And we were very intrigued by a design around replayability, kind of a, for lack of a better term, like a more modern design sensibility than maybe some of our previous games that have a more linear campaign structure. You finish them, hopefully they’ll stick with you forever on an emotional level, but they’re not necessarily games designed to be replayed many many times. We’re really drawn to making a game that felt very immediate, that you could pick up and play in short stretches or play as for long as you wanted and still have a compelling experience around that. 

And then we started thinking about what theme would align well with that. We thought about whether we want to revisit one of the worlds we’ve created in the past, because we love those worlds. While we’ve never returned to one of our past games, it’s not something we’re morally opposed to or anything like that. We just don’t want to do it unless the time and circumstances are right.

Given our other priorities, it felt like, once again, let’s make something new, let's make something that really, really fits this set of design goals. We looked to Greek mythology in this case as a source. In one sense, it's a well-worn theme for video games, but in another sense, something that we felt was both a perfect fit for what we were doing. In some ways it's really unexplored.

As the person doing the writing, I was very drawn to a particular angle on Greek mythology. What I feel is often lost in the shuffle is that the gods are a big dysfunctional family that we can see ourselves in. I think part of the reason these characters have survived for thousands of years is because they relate so strongly to so many people and they relate not because they are gods but because they are human. So we wanted to explore some of that. It felt rich with potential for us, so yeah we started making it. 

So that’s a long answer, but yeah, we wanted to make a roguelike dungeon crawler where you defy the god of death. It felt exciting to us to figure out what that game was going to look like. We love playing roguelikes. We’ve been really inspired by some of the Early Access successes over the years. These games like Darkest Dungeon, Slay the Spire, and Dead Cells. Games that started off really strong, like from the moment you dropped your $20 on them, you knew that was money super well spent and then they only got better and better from there.

So we’re like, "oh man what if we could pull off something like that!" We felt that if we planned for it to be Early Access maybe that improves our chances of handling that kind of process properly.

I just wanna make games that feel fresh also, I really value games that feel like they have a kind of reason for being, that don’t just feel like they’re you know kind of the same as other games that are out there. But I think that what we’ve made has plenty of our dirty signature all over it and has our particular marks on it to make it feel distinct.

Hopefully she’s not watching this, but I think Jen Zee’s one of the greatest artists working in the industry and it’s a huge honor to be working with her. She reinvents her style on every single game we’ve worked on. She’s of course just one member of our team, though she does create the overall sense of style and the look and does all our wonderful character designs and everything. The work of Darren Korb our audio director who does all our music and contributes key voices to this game and all the sound effects, he is a man of many talents and of course his work has really helped our games always stand out over the years, and I think this game is no exception.

It’s always exciting to see what my colleagues will do on each new game, and I think for us that's been part of the fun of kind of choosing a different theme and setting every single time.  

How Supergiant defines depth

Depth in games I think works on many vectors. We aspire to have gameplay depth, and we aspire to have narrative depth, and hopefully the two together create an overall very rich experience. But I think you’re referring more to gameplay depth so let me speak to that. We really, really value in each of our designs for our past games, the sense that you can discover different successful playstyles as you go.

So we really favor designs that let you experiment, that give you the latitude to experiment and encourage you try different things and experiment with different tools within the context of the gameplay. And then just when you find what feels like a perfect combination -- a very effective set of skills and tools and abilities and so on -- maybe you get nudged into a new set of tools and abilities that is even better or maybe just different in an intriguing way. 

If you look to each of our previous games they’ve all done some version of that, but in the case of Hades I think it really synthesizes a lot of our best ideas from our previous games. In Bastion, there was this goal around immediacy, it was a game with very little preamble. You just pick it up and start playing and we wanted you to get right in there with Hades and just immediately figure the gameplay out.

It's about making the most of a situation that you can’t entirely control in some cases. So we find that that kind of structure can make for gameplay that continues to be surprising and interesting over time, and defining enough overlapping systems that can interact with each other to where suddenly richness emerges from the play experience. And in our own playtesting, we find that we’re not having the same experience over and over, and we’re compelled to start new runs. That’s all stuff that we really look for. 

How Early Access changed the game dev process

Our process has changed a lot in anticipation of this. A really key aspect of this whole game for us has been that we’ve just planned it more in general. And part of it is anticipating an Early Access launch. 

I hope this doesn’t sound too obnoxious as an analogy, but it almost felt like training for a marathon or something like that. We’ve basically moved internally to a monthly milestone cadence, so every month we have a milestone where we have certain goals, and the month is divided up into certain phases. At the beginning of a milestone is when we can make more major changes to the code and so on, and then we lock the code down and we can still make data changes, and fine tune things.

From my standpoint I can still be adding new narrative events or changing the voice over and stuff like that because that’s all part of a data-driven system and its not like fundamentally altering the code by me adding or subtracting events.

And then toward the end of the milestone, we’re then testing, bug fixing, polishing, making final changes to get everything ready. At the end of that, we playtest and kind of do it over. We’ve been working this way for a number of months now, knowing that basically once this game is out there we just keep doing that and those major updates become major updates that we’re committing ourselves to. If you quit out to the main menu you’ll see right there on the main menu it says when our next major update is coming. That basically is in line with our internal milestones.

So that really has been the biggest shift in our internal development. Whereas with a three-year project, our milestones at this point in the process would be much longer -- probably spanning two-and-a-half or three months, and be somewhat more nebulous in nature I would say. I think in a word it’s a more disciplined approach that we’re taking, but we’ve always valued planning and production discipline at Supergiant. I think its been key to our success.

You've heard it from many developers, I’m sure, that finishing a project is really hard. It’s really hard to decide that it’s time to wrap it up and make those really tough choices about finishing your game. We've learned a lot about that over nearly 10 years that we’ve been working together as a team, and so this project puts that forward. Of course, it’s a little scary to commit to major updates on a regular basis, but we’ve been practicing at it and we think we can do, obviously.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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