The collision of collaboration, curation in Sunset Overdrive

Insomniac Games' stylish Xbox One shooter Sunset Overdrive changed significantly between conception and realization. Game director Drew Murray explains.
In video game development, when that initial concept for a game is shoved into the creative process, it tends to be squashed, stretched, mangled, and reworked entirely in an often messy but beautiful way, through team collaboration and input. Case in point: The defining characteristic of Insomniac Games' Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive is the ability for players to traverse and move quickly through an environment while engaging in combat. This is not how Sunset Overdrive was conceived. Game director Drew Murray says the game was originally much more conventional, cover-based shooter until someone on the team -- designer Cameron Christian -- suggested allowing players to grind on telephone wires to get from place to place faster, a bit like Tony Hawk, or maybe the graffiti artists from Jet Set Radio. "We initially thought, 'No, that's not what we're trying to do with this game,'" says Murray. Sunset Overdrive was supposed to be more "grounded," both in the sense of the player's relationship to the ground, and in the sense that it was to be a more conventional cover-based shooter. But a Superbrothers article titled "Less Talk, More Rock" helped inspire Murray to let go of design documents, let go of preconceptions and well-laid plans, and instead pursue the purity of the initial idea, and stay true to that. With that in mind, and with Christian's determination, the team was slowly but surely won over during this prototyping phase. "[The telephone wires] were rough, it wasn't awesome. But we started smoothing it out, and thought maybe we should add something else." "The best thing we did was let people try out ideas, and when we saw [good ideas], grab onto them and hold onto them," says Murray.
"The best thing we did was let people try out ideas, and when we saw [good ideas], grab onto them and hold onto them."
As development went on, those ideas began to stray further and further from convention. As a team leader, Murray wasn't immediately enamored with every single new idea proposed internally. It took team members to advocate their own ideas if they really believed in them. Another example: A weapon designer came to him with the idea of a gun that shoots 12-inch vinyl records. Murray gave pause to this idea -- he wanted Sunset Overdrive to convey a "rock 'n' roll" apocalypse…but that was getting a bit too literal. And he wasn't really interested in doing all of the wacky weapon design that Insomniac's other games, such as Ratchet & Clank and Resistance, are known for. "I wanted someone to call out an Insomniac game for anything but crazy weapons," says Murray. But the weapons designer was given a day or two to prototype this record-shooting gun, then the team tried it out, and lo and behold, it was fun. "We were like, 'Yeahhhh it actually fits really good,'" Murray says, feigning reluctance.
Sunset Overdrive's combat traversal in action
Through iteration, the game kept on progressing more and more towards an emphasis on speed and player movement, along with over-the-top combat. It was becoming less of a traditional shooter, and becoming, through the individual wills of team members, something different; a faster game that's more Motorhead than The Eagles. "Finally, I was like, 'Ok, we're going to do crazy weapons again,'" says Murray with a smile. "Honestly, we were sort of abandoning a lot of our initial ideas," he says. "We were abandoning the day/night cycle, giving players a lot more freedom to explore, emphasizing crazier movement." Sunset Overdrive was gaining its uniqueness, through the uniqueness of its individual creators, and through the decisions and empowerment of the creative leads. This internal practice at Insomniac, in which team leaders essentially curate ideas from members of the development team, mirrors the relationship the studio plans to have with players.
"I'll say the 'Insomniac Way' is to go from 'Eh' [shrugs and crinkles to nose] to 'Ah!!' [big smile, thumbs up] in the last couple of months."
Murray says Microsoft is helping with speedier content updates, allowing Insomniac to take input from players, and implement changes in the game based on that input, on a continuing basis. "We have a lot of hooks in the game that makes it easy to add new content," Murray says. The team will be able to twist knobs, add content, and in general continue to create and tweak the game based on player feedback. It's a community-centric process that we've seen explode on PC, particularly with paid alphas and open development, but not as often in the console space. "We haven't fully decided how we're going to roll things out, and what exactly we'll do with input, but we've constructed technology that makes it much easier for us to roll things out, and have Microsoft's agreement [to streamline the update process]," says Murray. But still, Murray wouldn't mind having a little more time before putting it in front of players. "Frankly, I'd be happy if we had two more months to work on the game," he laughs, "as would everyone in game development. I'll say the 'Insomniac Way' is to go from 'Eh' [shrugs and crinkles to nose] to 'Ah!!' [big smile, thumbs up] in the last couple of months. It drives everyone crazy -- it drove Sony crazy, it drove EA crazy, it's driving Microsoft crazy, it drives us crazy, sometimes." "But that's just kind of the way it goes."

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