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Interview: Raven's Vondrak Talks Challenges, Opportunities In Singularity

Raven Software creative director Dan Vondrak talks Singularity's challenges -- creative restraint, getting publishers to understand new IP, innovating on the FPS genre and all those BioShock comparisons.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

July 7, 2010

7 Min Read

[Raven creative director Dan Vondrak talks to Gamasutra on Singularity's challenges -- creative restraint, getting publishers to understand new IP, innovating on the FPS genre and all those BioShock comparisons.] Raven Software's Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC action title Singularity saw a relatively quiet launch last week, but the buzz among many critics and fans held that the title was worth a look for its single-player narrative and first-person time manipulation mechanics. Numerous gamer communities online have even used the phrase "sleeper hit" since the title's June 29th launch. Creative director Dan Vondrak says the distinctive sci-fi feel that many fans are responding to was a longtime interest of the Activision-owned studio's founders, brothers Brian and Steve Raffel, who formed the Hexen and X-Men Legends developer back in 1990. "They grew up watching the old '50's pulp science fiction movies. The idea to go someplace that some disaster happened and it's impossible to tell what happened... that's where this got started," he tells Gamasutra. "They loved the idea to be able to help figure out what happened by turning stuff back in time, and seeing what this place was like when it was new." Combine a nostalgic feel with a slowly unraveling disaster story that the player is left to piece together and one starts to recall first-person insta-classic BioShock -- add the look and feel of Singularity, with its two-handed first person gameplay, and some of the critical reception was skeptical of the resemblance. Not The Same Thing Many developers are passionate about evolving the first-person shooter genre, suggests Vondrak -- but Singularity's prototype (built at first on their Wolfenstein engine, although the game was ultimately done with Unreal Engine 3) was completed well before BioShock's launch. When the team saw how similar the prototype's echo events, aimed at illustrating the environment's past, were to Rapture's audio diary approach, the team knew to foresee the inevitable comparisons: "That's just the reality of the situation; ideas can happen across developers," he says. And being compared to BioShock is no bad thing: "It's understandable where sometimes things are the same; the comparisons so far have been complimentary, and we'd much rather see that." Singularity's key mechanic evolves around combining a time manipulation device in one of the player's hands, with more traditional guns in the other, but the team had first thought of combining weaponry and time manipulation into a single device. In iteration, however, they learned it worked much better separately, and so they went with it even though by that point BioShock had launched to acclaim and the similarity was clear. "We said, 'you know what, is this going to be an issue?' But you have to look around at yourself and go, 'we're okay with that if it means we get what we want. If someone's going to compare it, so be it -- we didn't make that decision because someone said, 'oh, we love that Plasmid hand from BioShock.'" Actualizing A Vision "Getting what we want" was the key goal for the team, who saw Singularity as an opportunity both to actualize a long-held vision and to pioneer a new intellectual property -- something of a challenge inside of publisher Activision, which tends to pursue a strategy of annualizing proven properties with mass appeal. When a developer gets an opportunity like that, says Vondrak, it's tempting to use it as a chance to throw in every creative what-if idea that anyone's nurtured. And that's in fact what Raven did, at first. The development process became in part a "whittling down", distilling concepts and mechanics down to only those that were ideal, and discarding ones that felt extraneous. "It's without a doubt trial and error; that is 100 percent the case," he says of the refinement process. "With pacing, you can kind of plan it on a piece of paper, make a rough start and then focus test. But something like a new mechanic, you can put something on paper and someone will destroy that in seconds after they get a hold of it. There were ideas that stuck in the game for over a year that ultimately we decided to cut because either it was too complicated or too powerful." "Expectations, we always say, are a dangerous thing -- whatever the player expects, you should either be meeting that or exceeding that," Vondrak continues. Offering a player too many possibilities can simply create expectations for further options or ways to explore what's offered, so it's best to stick to fewer more solid and satisfying concepts." "Actually, the awesome thing about time travel [mechanics] is you can get some time conundrums in there and we don't have to... 100 percent explain everything," he suggests. The aim was to "get neat quandaries out there in the story and make people think about stuff, rather than going into the deep hard science of it." The Challenges Of Innovation The first-person shooter genre may be the hardest area in which to innovate on game design; so many collective refinements have surfaced in recent years because they simply work, from camera angles to a few popular health management tactics and beyond. "When it comes to stuff like aiming down the sights, everyone had to follow that route, because how do you not have that in your game?" Agrees Vondrak. So in his view, "the innovation won't come in necessarily the standard shooting; it's going to be if you get a couple of new weapons in there, or you tell a great story or have a new device, enemies, environment... and that's what can continue to really evolve." The way to do it well? "Don't try so hard that you lose the fundamentals," he warns. "That's something Singularity went through for a while; we were trying so hard not to be standard quota that we lost that fun that we loved about FPS. It's important to keep that status quo the same, and try to innovate in other areas." So far, the team is pleased with the audience reaction -- despite the quietude from marketing surrounding the game. Of course, the developer would prefer more people got to see and hear about the title, but it can be challenging to position new IP. "I think for Activision and for ourselves, launching a new IP, there's always a lot of questions about what's the right way to do it," he suggests. "Do you go out there and toot your own horn so much that people are disappointed?" Introduce new IP with a lot of hype, and that's all that gamers have on which to evaluate an unfamiliar property. And this can create an even more complicated proposition for games that are aiming to innovate: "The other element is that Singularity is a different kind of game." Some will "get it", others will find its concept tougher to grasp or to relate to -- "and if that's the person determining the marketing dollars, then ultimately that's kind of what ends up getting scaled back." he says. Sequel Hopes Activision was always alongside the team providing its support, Vondrak adds, but "we didn't get as huge a marketing and PR push, because maybe not everyone quite got what Singularity was." But the team hopes players will get it, and that positive responses from the community continue -- because they've saved all the ideas that didn't make it into the first game, and they still want to use them. "We would love that here at Raven," says Vondrak. "To get a sequel, and see ultimately where it goes, because with the sales numbers, we'll see if that's a viable option from a business standpoint. But we would absolutely love it. There were so many ideas left out on the table because we wanted to make sure we polished the ones we had." "I think overall that making a new IP was more challenging than we originally anticipated," he reflects -- a common sentiment among developers trying to push new ideas in a high-risk, hit-driven industry. "There were times when it seemed really gloomy, because it's so hard to do it when everyone goes, 'what's it like?' And you're trying to say, 'well, I don't know if it's really like anything.' And that was so unfamiliar to us, because we've done licensed games so far." More groundwork would have helped, says Vondrak, advising other developers with licensed game backgrounds to treat new IP the same way they would licenses: licensed properties have an iron-clad world of reference material to work from, and developers should create the same references for new properties. For now, the team dearly hopes to stir a grassroots movement around the game, says Vondrak, using social media to continue to connect audiences with Singularity. "Singularity is very important to Raven and we’d love it if everyone out there knew about it so they could experience it for themselves," he says.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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