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Interview: Why It's What's Inside Fat Princess That Counts

Titan Studios' PSN exclusive Fat Princess is "not a social commentary", say its lead designer and producer, talking to Gamasutra about its light-hearted attempt to fuse simplicity and depth.

April 13, 2009

8 Min Read

Author: by Christian Nutt, Leigh Alexander

When Titan Studios' and Sony's upcoming Fat Princess was announced last year for the PlayStation 3's PlayStation Network, it made quite a splash -- for that kicky title, and for its slightly morbid twist on rescue-the-princess team play. Multiplayer teams of up to 32 can battle royale for a rotund cartoon princess -- and can make things harder on each other by feeding her with sweets to make her heavier. For obvious reasons, both the game's name and its central mechanic were a little bit sensationally controversial at the time Fat Princess was announced, but producer Chris Millar -- whose Seattle-based Darkstar Industries studio was bought by Epic China and renamed late in 2008 -- says there were no such intentions. "It's not a social commentary; some people just took it too far," he says. "I think, while some people saw the negative, it just showed the game to a lot more people and got a lot more people talking about it." "What it comes down to is most people saw that it was just a fun game—it's very light-hearted. There's these cute characters, but also they get blown apart with their legs and arms flying off." In fact, Millar was surprised that response to the game focused primarily on the title and not on the "gallons of blood being spilled all over the place... people are more worried about the title than the fact that all of these people are just dying horrific deaths all over the place." The juxtaposition of gore alongside cartoon visuals is a funny one, and Millar says the superimposition was an intentional appeal to wider audiences. "Some people like the cute and cartoony, and then when you get the satisfaction of a really cool death," he explains. "When you're playing multiplayer, it also brings in some of the hardcore audience that are kind of used to that player feedback online, when you really get a good bomb going off and blowing everyone to bits." Lead designer Craig Leigh says the deliberate art style is also reflective of the game's "cheeky, irreverent nature." "We also wanted an art style that, when you saw a screenshot, you'd say, "Oh, that's Fat Princess," Lee adds. "And when you see a guy going under cute little bridges and flowers and then there's blood everywhere, you know that's Fat Princess." So while Millar concedes to a "satire and irony" in the design and art decisions, he also calls it "credible." "This aesthetic -- I don't think you could really pull it off if you didn't believe in the cute part of it, too," says Millar. "It's funny; we see posts on forums and stuff and people are like, 'I thought this was Animal Crossing with swords, and then I saw blood all up the wall and it's awesome!'" laughs Leigh. "I think everyone else, like us, likes the juxtaposition." The cuteness factor is actually a way to diminish some of the genuine frustration Fat Princess' difficulty level can invoke, according to Millar. "It's funny when you're playing and you're running around -- and then you just get taken out in a really funny way, it just really adds to it and it makes you laugh," he says. "When you get a good death of yourself, it's not a total loss, because you had a good laugh while you were doing it." And Leigh notes one more reason behind the deliberate visual and thematic style: Fat Princess is a class-based, team strategy title with voice chat, and he says its depth is such that the cuteness factor acts as a "disguise and shroud" that lets players be drawn in gradually where otherwise, on mechanics alone they might be intimidated right off. Millar says the design prioritizes customization: "There's a million different customizations with just how you can combine everything and make your character look," he says. "And then, just jump in and just have that simplification of, 'I'm wearing a mage hat; I can run around and throw fireballs'; I grab the warrior helmet: 'OK, now I've got a shield, and I can go out there and hack and slash everybody.'" The different classes and abilities enforce the overall team play focus of the gameplay, Leigh adds. "Everything as a game has been designed so you can do everything on your own. You can chop down trees; you can build upgrades on your own. But when you work as a team, it's magnified; you can build faster and chop down trees quicker." "You can carry the princess on your own, but if the others escort you, you move faster. All the mechanics are there to say, if you work as a team, you'll be more productive and more successful." From a design perspective, then, Fat Princess is about incentivizing group play with efficiency boosts. Agrees Leigh: "As Chris said, if you have a warrior and he's on his own, he can go out and chop the enemy up but he will die eventually; if he's got two priests behind him, healing him, he's now this indestructobot who can kick ten times ass because he's constantly being healed." But, Leigh adds, the game design always allows for ways to get back at your opponent: "Everything you can do, there is a counter-strategy for the enemy," he explains. "They can come and throw a chicken bomb and turn you all into chickens. You get like sixteen guys attacking your door -- one chicken bomb and the whole enemy team are chickens." One challenge in a game like this, then, is balance, especially when the aim is to reach a large console audience who can be very meticulous about balance in their strategy titles. But Leigh and Millar say they're aware of the high standards. "From the beginning, it was designed with balance in mind," says Leigh. "All the classes are designed paper-scissors-stone, the warrior is heavy and a lot of health and slow; you know, the classic balancing criteria." Millar says that Sony's QA departments around the world have been participating in "Fat Tuesday" internal playtest days, too, to make sure every game system gets full experimentation and feedback sessions. Initially, Leigh says, the team built the game based on five starting classes. "I would say, initially, the core design of the balance of the game was done on paper, but then there has been so much iteration since to what feels right," he says. "When we were playing the game, we'd got these five classes, but we wanted people to have more reason to upgrade, so we added the upgraded classes, and that's where the iteration comes in." Early design planned for fewer total players, too, says Millar. "We had a lot more complex interactions that we wanted people working together; we realized that, as soon as people got in line, with the early tests we got everyone just started to kill one another." "We even had our test maps; we started playing in the evenings, and we'd be playing for two-and-a-half hours just giggling because everyone would just blow the whole QA session because we'd start having too much fun killing one another." Adds Millar: "We kind of realized from there that the battle and the cooperation and the kind of classes was really where it was at to make this game really fun, and that's where we started to put a lot more effort into the advanced classes and the balance and just tweaking that, and that's really where the game's evolved and come into its own." And the need for readability is yet another tie-in to the simple, cartoony visual design. "If you look at every hat just from the camera perspective, you've got to see every class," says Millar. "As soon as you pick up that hat and pop it on, you instantly know what your role is... just as soon as you pick up a hat you know what your job is on the battlefield." "Same with the UI, too," says Leigh. "We've kept everything very readable, very simple. You don't want to clutter the UI; you just have health and resources, and there's a mini-map." One advantage to releasing Fat Princess over PlayStation Network is that when launching a downloadable game, the audience that purchases clearly has both the desire and ability to play multiplayer games. "It's now the time where people can focus that as the majority of the fun aspect of the game, because you definitely have a guarantee that your market is already participating," says Millar. Adds Leigh: "I think, as well, with it being PlayStation Network, it allows us to do something a little bit more original and quirky than a traditional box game." "I'm sure if we tried to do something as a retail product for feeding a princess, we'd get a lot of strange looks. But the PlayStation Network allows us to do really original, independent things and bring a lot of fun to the product, doing the crazy things that we're doing here." The final touch is community features: in addition to the voice chat, there's automatic matchmaking and server migration, along with other PSN features like persistent rankings, scoreboards and trophies. "I think people are going to be actually quite shocked at how big and how much content there is in Fat Princess," says Leigh. The core philosophy is that simplicity and depth aren't mutually exclusive. "There's a huge, huge, deep game, so there's a lot to uncover and discover."

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