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In-Depth: God Of War: Ghost Of Sparta & Ready At Dawn's Mythical Recipe

As God of War: Ghost of Sparta launches for PSP, Gamasutra talks to Ready at Dawn's Dana Jan on the essential design elements of action titles, and why the team returned to the storied franchise.
California-based independent developer Ready at Dawn's second God of War title on the PlayStation Portable -- God of War: Ghost of Sparta, out this week -- hopes to recreate the essential elements of the brutal action series on the PSP and present an adventure that stands alongside its console counterparts in terms of presentation and mechanics. After returning its PSP dev kits to Sony when God of War: Chains of Olympus launched, Ready at Dawn chose to take up arms again, returning to the franchise to build upon the precedent set by the first title. Rather than attempt to reimagine the God of War series for the PSP, Ready at Dawn worked to push against the hardware's limitations to once again create a traditional God of War title for the handheld platform. Ghost of Sparta, like Chains of Olympus, emulates the mechanics used in the console titles, and stays true to the franchise's established formula, while hoping to build upon the combat systems by introducing new scenarios and abilities for the player. Gamasutra spoke with Ready at Dawn's Dana Jan, game director of God of War: Ghost of Sparta, to discuss how the series has evolved on the PSP, the essential design elements of action titles, and the considerations the studio made when working with an established franchise. You guys ended up sending your dev kits back to Sony after finishing Chains of Olympus, right? What drove you guys back to the PSP and the God of War franchise? DJ: Yeah, one of the things that happened was that we were looking at what projects we were going to work on next, and when we finished working on Chains of Olympus, we weren't thinking of working on the PSP anymore and we were looking at Xbox [360] and PlayStation [3]. At the time, Sony wasn't pushing for a sequel, because Chains of Olympus was the first one, and while they were hoping it would do well, they weren't sure. It focus tested really well, but they didn't anticipate what sort of reaction they would get on a handheld. Next thing you know, we are in talks again, and Sony is saying, "It's doing really well, people love the game, do you want to make another one?" We talked about it, and all the pieces fell together. We like working with Sony, and we know the PSP hardware probably more than anyone else. Another part of it are those "what ifs." What if we could do it all again, what would we fix? When you get the opportunity to do it again, sometimes you should just go for it. We took it on, thinking, "Who better to come back and do God of War on the PSP than us? I imagine someone else would have done it if we hadn't. Some days I wish I could have seen what this game would have been if someone else had made it. It might be a bit of an ego stroker, but I don't think anyone else could have done it the way we did. What sort of lessons did you take from the first game? DJ: Just learning how to take God of War apart, and figuring out what makes Kratos who he is, was a huge undertaking. After that we said, "We know God of War is a good game" -- because we were working on Chains of Olympus before God of War 2 came out. "It's a good game, but we feel like we can improve on a lot of this stuff." I think we got a bit ahead of ourselves, when thinking about how we were going to change the game and what we were going to do better than what Sony had already done, but we kind of lost sight of the fact that God of War is a really complex game when you look at it from a combat perspective, or even from a character persona. Kratos, at face value, looks very one-dimensional, he just seems like a rage-filled badass, but he has an interesting backstory and has a lot of layers to him. Some horrible things have happened to this guy, but at the same time, we root for him throughout his journey. When working with a character that has a lot of depth, you have to make sure that every bit of your game and storytelling pays off all the hard work that the team did. We realized about seven months into Chains of Olympus that this was going to be a bear of a project. Once we felt like we had figured out what God of War was all about, it made much more sense on Ghost of Sparta. Things like minigames when you kill creatures have a certain logic to them when it comes to the timing, the camera moves, the way you pay off a kill, they are all based on certain principles about Kratos that are under the hood, but you don't really think about. Now we know what to look for and how to build them, and on a second chance, you can really do them justice. How much freedom do you guys get when working on this franchise? Do you communicate frequently with Sony Santa Monica? DJ: That's one of the surprising things. I think most people would think that they just hand you a design document and a story and say, "Go!" But it's a really cool, collaborative process. We have a lot of freedom. I won't say that we can just do whatever we want, because it's not like that. Sony supports us when it comes to making these games. We sat down, and we worked on the story, and Sony was involved, because of course the game has to fit into the overall franchise. We would work on the script, pass it to them, there would be a lot of notes back and forth. Stig Asmussen, the director of God of War III, was involved. The game script is really this big document; it's not just the lines of dialogue, it dictates all the settings, and outlines all the gameplay you are going to have over the course of the game, and it's a couple hundred pages long. From that, everyone on both sides has a good idea of what kind of game you are going to be making. It was funny; we sat down with some of the Sony Santa Monica guys and showed them the script and they were like, "This is really ambitious. You guys are really going to make this game?" That's when it set in, when they told us that they thought it was going to be a challenge to make. But they never said don't do it, or told us we couldn't, so it was on us to prove that we could do it. So we set out to make something that we would be proud of and that our fans would be proud of. It's pretty free; it's really cool working with people that can trust you, and they can see the end when you are just beginning and they trust you to bring it all together in the end. We also have people from Sony Santa Monica play the game. Sony Santa Monica's external design manager works directly with us when we have issues with things, or when we want to kick ideas back and forth, or when they see something that isn't working. We certainly have moments where the two studios meet up to talk about stuff. They are a resource for us, really, and it's helpful to have access to them if we have a tech or design question, or if there's an animation from God of War III we want to have a look at. Since you are developing for a handheld, what sort of things do you guys keep in mind? The game is similar to its console counterparts, but what do you do to make sure the game works well on the PSP, keeping in mind how players play handhelds versus console games? DJ: Your first inclination is to think that the game is similar to its big brothers on consoles, and that's because it is. One of the things we thought about when creating the game was "How do we have to change this game so it becomes viable on a handheld?" As we got into it, we found that we don't have to change it that much. We make sure the camera works better for the small screen, and there is some technological stuff that we do here and there to make texture quality look like it's as good as PS2 and PS3, and there are full-screen effects to help the game look like it is more like a console game. But to answer the question, we really don't change the game at all. We think that's one of its strengths. We don't want it to be a watered-down version of God of War; it is God of War, because we do everything the same way we would have done it if the game were on PS3. Since the game is on handhelds, which people often play during commutes or lunch breaks, do you alter the pacing to accommodate players who only play for short stretches? DJ: We do take some of that into consideration, and we make sure to put save spots all over the game at logical break points, but you can also just put the PSP on sleep mode and stick it right back into your pocket. As far as pacing of the game goes, we don't change it too much, but we do make sure that, for the person that will play the same in short sittings, there will be a lot of story-based reminders to tell players what your current objective is, what you just did, and you need to be doing next. For someone who puts the game down for a while and forgets what they were doing, this game has tons of reminders. I think this is a really good thing because God of War has a really big story, there are a lot of events going on around this character, and it can get confusing. There are a lot of overlapping plot points, so having those snippets bread-crumbing you along to your end goal is a huge benefit regardless of what platform the game is on. We also did a lot more in-game storytelling in this game. In the first game, we used a lot of pre-rendered cinematics that were rendered using the game assets, but this time we have a lot of stuff running in-game. You might be finishing up a battle and the camera will pan over and show you some characters that are talking, or boss intros and things like that. They are all done in real time, they aren't pre-rendered, and they seamlessly segue back and forth in the game. That was a big leap for us, because the PSP doesn't have a lot of memory. Everything you see is fitting within 10MB of memory, and that's not a lot of space. All the art, characters, music, animations, all have to fit within 10MB. To go into a moment where we have characters talking and using custom animations is very expensive, so we had to figure out some tricks to shuffle memory. Did working with the PSP hardware lead to other technical constraints? DJ: Yeah, we tried to do things like specularity to make things look shiny, we have rain effects, and other effects that hardware doesn't inherently support. We feel like the effects you see on consoles are tools that help make games feel current, and we don't want this game to feel like something you might have played years ago. We want people to say, "Wow, this looks like God of War 3." We want it to look new and fresh, and finding ways to do that can be a big headache because it's not something that is supported by the system. In terms of making the game resemble its console versions, did you take any steps to diverge from the precedent set by the console games? You mentioned keeping the essentials of the game intact, but are there any specific changes you had to make? DJ: We tried changing a lot of stuff, actually. There was a period during Chains of Olympus where we tried to change all of Kratos' moves. This is a lesson we learned early on that goes back even to the previous game. It turns out that you can change things for the sake of change, but if they aren't any better, there's no reason to. There are certain moves that Kratos has that you just shouldn't change because they are the best they can be. Everything in God of War is very functional; this game is super mathematic, like games such as Devil May Cry but more accessible. Everything has a frame count and hitbox window that is very specific and in tune with the way the enemy AI acts and stuff like that, so when you make changes, they have sweeping ramifications with the way the game has to be balanced and the way the action feels. When it came to combat, we made sure that everything we added or changed was absolutely better, rather than just different. Outside of combat, we made sure that the camera was able to move around so we can reveal secrets or show players where a platform will lead them, so you need a certain amount of camera space for that. We also have these boss fights with large monsters, so we pull the camera back so you can see the scope. But there are also some characters we get involved with, especially human characters that have wronged the player, that engage in back and forth dialogue, and there's a personal connection. When Kratos gets pissed off, I want to get almost into his point of view and feel that. For a couple parts of the game, we pull the camera way up close, so you can see characters' expressions, with their eyes bugging out and everything. There are a few sections where we brought the action really close and big on the screen so you can really feel it. I don't think many games do that; they don't get personal enough. We made sure to push that in this game, and I think the payoff is amazing. We had to re-model Kratos from the last game, so when we got the camera up close he would hold up, and he has a new facial rig so he can make all these expressions during his animations. It's worth the effort and the tech heartaches to bring that stuff to life. In a general sense, there are a lot of other third person action games out there right now, from the new Castlevania to things like Bayonetta or Dante's Inferno. What do you guys believe are the key elements to make an action game stand out from the crowd? DJ: I think it's a matter of making sure that your action is meaningful, first and foremost. If you're playing a game where you enter the same scenarios over and over again, but you never get any big pay off, you'll get tired of it. It's important to give the action a purpose, as is presentation. A lot of games that do third person action don't know how to make it very satisfying. You should go and do stuff like showcase when you rip something's heart out; make it worthwhile for the player to fight the characters. And another thing is, it's not just a pacing thing, but a balancing act; make sure that all the elements of the game, like storytelling, puzzles, exploration, combat feel compelling, even during downtime between large events. A lot of times that stuff can feel like filler that's just there to make things longer. It's also important to integrate the game's elements. The various elements of the game don't have to be separate. There are parts in the game where you have to navigate an environment or solve a puzzle while fighting, for example. When it comes to combat, specifically, what sort of elements do you think are most important to creating a solid combat system? DJ: Everything is built around Kratos and how he works, so we try to find a deficiency he has. What is something an enemy can do that would put him in a tricky spot? We like to call it "the trick." When we design a character to fight against, we like to give them a trick. For example, the Gorgon's trick is that she can stare at you and freeze you, and you'll die in one hit if you get frozen. We know people like to wail at creatures, but if all of a sudden that creature doesn't take hit reactions because she's doing that big gaze, then you have to switch up your game and start rolling around. We want to figure out ways that will change the player's normal, comfortable way of playing that isn't cheesy or annoying. We want it to be satisfying to figure out a specific character's trick, and then after that you get a really sweet kill moment, where you pull its head off and blood sprays everywhere. When you look at it that way, it just makes sense. Obviously, the trick is that you need a lot of different characters, and the list of characters for this game is pretty big, and all of them need some type of trick that makes them different than the last guy. Keeping them different and varied is important when you populate the world and design your encounters around that. We also mix and match characters a lot; we have a lot of test bed fight areas where we go, "What if I threw in this character with the minotaur? Do they work well together? Does His trick work with the other one?" One of my favorite ones is the fire harpies in this game, that fly off-screen and when they come back down they explode. Sure, it's a bit annoying by itself, but when you throw in a Gorgon that freezes you, you can die if one hits you while you are frozen, creating an elevated level of difficulty. You also have to take the space into consideration. Your fight area has a lot to do with the way your encounter plays out. Yeah, I imagine level design becomes a very big concern, especially because you have an automatic camera that zooms and pans on its own. What sort of challenges does that present when you design the environments? DJ: One thing we do early on is give our camera designer a really quick and dirty version of a level, with the kind of gameplay that will be in it. He'll go in and put in a rudimentary set of cameras, and then we play it, so we can see what the camera shows us when we go into a certain area. We'll then go in and figure out if it's okay to alter the environment; we have to make sure it won't ruin an encounter if a certain wall is moved around -- you don't want an area to be too big or too small. It might seem like having no camera control might be a problem, but it actually helps you focus on what you should be doing. For a game like this, we want to make sure you see what we want you to see, like if you need to go up a ladder, the camera will pan over towards it and it has lighting that draws your eye. We never want you to be lost; we'll show you. This gives us opportunities to show off nice vistas where we can frame the character properly and everything; it's very cinematic. Every once in a while we run into places where it's hard to figure out how to set stuff like this up, but I think those days are the most fun. One things that I've always found interesting with the God of War series is that the games often make sure to include a lot of behind the scenes content on the game disk, which most developers don't do—Valve and other Sony studios are some other exceptions. Do you guys plan to do this with Ghost of Sparta, and what is the motivation for going through the extra effort to include this content? DJ: In our case, it's largely thanks to the marking team. Eric Williams was one of the combat designers on every God of War title, including ours. He worked with us as a contractor and always talked about it. He's friends with Cory [Barlog] and Dave [Jaffe], and wanted to get a sort of designers' panel set up. One day we got a call from marketing and we found out we were going to do it, and I always thought it was just something we joked about, and it became a reality. Yeah, so few companies decide to talk about their development process in a public way, so it's always interesting to get a glimpse at it through commentaries or videos or what have you. DJ: Yeah, I always wonder if it's because people are just protective of the way they do something, because they don't want their secrets to get out. I think it's very unfortunate, because honestly, with the way we, or anyone for that matter, makes games, there's no real secret. All these games are made by people, and they all come from somewhere else; there's no studio that's completely homegrown where no one has ever worked somewhere else. They always bring their stories and experiences and you learn how to incorporate certain things or how not to do stuff. As a gamer, I want companies to make better games. It just seems to make sense; why do we need to keep this so secret? If I show you how to do something, and you use it or one-up it, it's only going to inspire me to do something even better next time. I think there's no sense in hiding anything. It's also nice for the players to have access to, if they happen to be interested in that kind of thing. DJ: Yeah, I think with the advent of DVD, certainly there are a lot of behind the scenes commentaries that get into filmmaking. And if you're a gamer who is interested in getting into development some day, these games that show you what goes into them will give you a better appreciation for games or how to make them. I think it's surprising for those outside the industry to find out what goes into these games. We always hear things like, "Oh, you just play games all day!" But of course, that couldn't be further from the truth. It's not a cakewalk. Going back to the game itself-- there are some alternate weapons in the game, and while they seem to have different properties, the combat often tends toward sweeping area attacks that fill up a large portion of the screen. Why do you design the player's core combat abilities in this way? DJ The weapons certainly have their own properties, like a shield and spear that can send out a flurry of stabs in one direction, or allow you to throw spears as a projectile. But yeah, God of War 3 was one of the ones where all the weapons felt like they were sweeping, chain weapons. We wanted to be different than that. If we were going to have a secondary weapon, it should be fairly different, but it has to have familiarity. You have to be able to do go-- square, square, triangle. People have to know certain things are there so if they get panicked they can rely on some of the knowledge they built up from the other weapons. I imagine you guys probably had to tackle this issue with the first game, but how has the button layout of the PSP affected the way you tackled the game's controls and new abilities? On the PSP you no longer have a second analog stick or the two extra triggers. DJ: It's funny, the thing on PSP that I wish we had was a second analog stick. Definitely the most difficult thing about our control scheme is the L and R plus analog stick to roll. Other than that though, when it came to God of War, I found that having four shoulder buttons, for most average users, is the most confusing. Trying to remember what R1 versus R2 is can be a bit confusing. We asked ourselves, "What can we strip away from some of these buttons?" We moved some actions to the face buttons, because those are the easiest to remember. For example, we changed the action button to circle because when you aren't in combat, it doesn't need to do anything else. We also moved magic activation to the D-pad, so you can quickly hit it, it activates, and then you can go right back to the analog stick; you don't have to worry about some crazy combination of buttons like we did in Chains of Olympus. We also designed new magics that worked with that scheme so it wasn't something difficult. We thought about it, and we decided to make magics that would just go when you hit the button, so you don't have to worry about the complication around it. You design around it, you know? You built a hierarchy and figure out what you need at your fingertips and what can go a layer deeper. One thing that's always stood out to me in previous God of War titles is that Kratos is often a very despicable, cruel character. What is your studio's take on the character and the way he is presented? How do you make the player relate to or sympathize with someone that commits atrocities throughout the game? DJ: Well, you don't want to hate him, right? He's the hero of this story, but he's not squeaky clean. He has a dark past and he's a tainted individual, but you have to root for him though despite the fact that he's ruthless and he'll stop at nothing to get to his goal. What ends up doing some things for the betterment of others, even though at its core it's a very self-centered quest. He's the guy you love to hate. When you do things in this game, we need to make sure there's something personal to it that you can attach to and understand. This story is about his brother ho he thought he lost. If you've ever felt horrible guilt because of something you've done to a family member, and now you have a chance to right that wrong, most people would be like, "I can get behind that. That's an emotion that I can understand." All the hyper-real stuff he's doing outside of that--sure, you and I won't have that experience, but saving a long-lost family member is something that is easier to relate to. I think that makes the action and storytelling a lot more powerful and lets you get inside of a character that is doing things that might be morally questionable. For a handheld title, it's interesting that the game has no real segmentation; you always seem to be making forward progress without stopping the player between levels. DJ: It's funny because it's one of those things where, internally, we think of the design in terms of levels, but once we start putting it together we try to do away with that notion. It helps us keep track of everything obviously. It's a seamless world; there's no loading, and the character moves through a world that is all connected. It helps the player feel connected. They think, "I'm there because I ran there, I flew there, I rode a giant creature there." It makes the journey feel big. If you cover every inch of it on foot, you totally feel like when you get to your destination, it's a big deal. Another cool thing is that when you are in a certain place in the world, we can show you where you are going to go. You might see a storm out on the horizon that ends up being where your journey is going. It's cool that we can use the camera that we have complete control over to show players that really pretty vista. It helps make the world feel real.

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