Dave Cox, a producer at Konami, must have what many would consider to be a dream job. He's currently working with development studio Mercury Steam on a brand-new 3D Castlevania game. What's more, he's reporting directly to game design legend Hideo Kojima. We caught up with him to discuss how Castlevania: Lords of Shadow came to be and just how much involvement the Metal Gear mastermind has on the project.
Q: Why is it a reboot?
Dave Cox: The reason for us doing this was that Castlevania hadn't enjoyed the popularity it had in the past, it used to be one of Konami's big pillar titles, and over the years it's kind of knocked itself into a bit of a corner by just appealing to a real hardcore group of fans. And I think there was a desire in Konami to make the Castlevania franchise popular again and make it more mainstream. So that was our brief and in order to do that we felt that, with 25 years of history and storyline it would be very difficult for new players to jump in and understand what was going on. So that's the reason why we decided to reboot the story and reboot the franchise and make it more modern in its appearance so it would appeal to a wider area. One of the things, when we first proposed this idea to Japan, was that it was going to be a remake of the original 8-bit game, but we realised it had been done before with the story and everything and we thought it would be better to do something new. There are characters and story elements from previous Castlevania games that tie in, little nod and winks and homages and things like that so the fans will see these things, but we didn't want to alienate people who were perhaps playing it for the first time, so in that respect we've created something original.
Q: How did Mercury Steam get the job?
DC: Well I work for Konami's European product development division and we had a brief from senior management to pitch for Castlevania, not just us but America and Japan as well, so we all did pitches and ours was a remake of the original but with a more gritty and adult style and it was approved, essentially, to go ahead. But at that time there was still the caveat that we might make this an original IP. After the Games Convention we presented the prototype to senior management in Japan, and Kojima-san is one of the senior managers in Japan and he saw the project and it was at that point that everyone went "wow this looks cool, this looks great, let's move forward with it". So there was a worry about it, as to whether people would accept it, but eventually we kind of convinced them. It wasn't easy I can tell you.
Q: So how much input does Kojima have?
DC: His role is more of an advisory role, kind of overseeing the project, kind of helping us, mentoring us. The team have sent members to Spain to help us work on certain aspects of it that we've had problems with such as facial animations and some of the motion capture stuff that we did wasn't quite working well. Kojima-san had a direct input into how Gabriel turned out really, making him more human and more of an 'everyman' so he's not just an overblown hero. We started off with a throwback to the 8-bit games with this kind of barbarian type character and as the game progressed Kojima-san said because of the love interest and the way the story pans out we should have somebody that people can identify with. We've tweaked Gabriel and continue to tweak him everyday. I mean every week we're changing him and fussing over him, we changed his eye colour recently to blue just because it fitted the aesthetic of the red and the gold and it gives him a bit more character.
So he's overseeing it from afar, we send him builds every month and he sends his feedback but essentially he says: "Dave you're the producer, it's your call, if you don't agree with something I'm saying that's fine." But if you're getting feedback from Kojima-san then you'd be crazy not to take it seriously. But he's not involved in the day to day running of the project.
Q: The actors doing the voice acting are of a high calibre. Why did you aim so high?
DC: It's been amazing actually. We wanted to have a story that had an emotional impact on players and have something that was going to be memorable and we thought that the only way to do that was to have real high calibre talent. We sent the scripts to Robert Carlyle and Patrick Stewart and all the other actors and they brought a lot to the role that we hadn't foreseen. When we actually did the voiceovers they were changing things on the fly, saying things like "You know I would never say that, it would sound better if I said it like this," and we'd be going, "oh wow, that sounds awesome". We've kind of modified a few things but generally their input has been really cool. We wanted to have it believable so that when things happen in the game people feel the depth of the emotion and feel something, I'm hoping that people will get that side of the game.
Q: Let's talk about the obvious comparisons...
DC: Och, but hopefully you can see that it is different.
Q: Yep it is, but God of War...
DC: We're ripping off Castlevania. We're not ripping off God of War or Uncharted 2. Obviously those games are great games and I think any development studio would be crazy not to look at those kind of games because they are competitive products obviously. We have looked at those games but all along right from the get go it was about recreating Castlevania in 3D. And Castlevania pre-dates God of War by a good 20 years easily. Everything that's in the game is from Castlevania; the whip wielding has been in there since the year dot. Obviously in the 2D games you'd walk along and whip an enemy, walk along and whip an enemy, because it was in the 2D plane. So you've got to think about what it's going to be like having enemies coming from all over and what it's going to be like using your whip in all directions, how can we make the combat interesting? You have to give it depth, you have to give it something that is going to make players enjoy what they're doing. So in terms of combat we've looked at more games like Street Fighter to be honest because it's more about one on one fighting in the game with mid level bosses and special characters. We have the kind of enemies where you have to deal with a lot of enemies at once but I wanted to focus on tactics and really enjoyable combat one on one, so there's a lot of that in the game.
Q: The counter system works very well, we've seen something like that in Bayonetta and for me that's an amazing game. Was there any influence there?
DC: I haven't played it to be honest but I have heard lots of good things about it.
Q: But in God of War III I found the combat slightly dull as it was just about mashing out the combos. So how does it work in Castlevania? Is it light attack, heavy attacks and so on?
DC: Well let me just take you through some fairly normal combat, it would be basically lots of dodging, lots of blocking, using counter attacks and using combos. Certain combos will affect enemies more than others. It depends on whether you're being attacked by lots of enemies - then you'll use a lot of ranged attacks and ranged combos, and we have a lot of air combos so you can juggle enemies in the air so you can fling them up in the air and then whip them in the air. It's much more Street Fightery; it's much more like a fighting game than an action game like God Of War. Using light and dark magic is very tactical. So if your energy is getting very low you need to think about what you're doing so you need to get orbs from the enemy and in order to get orbs you have to avoid getting hit so you have to play well. You need to fill up the focus bar and they will drop orbs, then you use the orbs to fill up your light magic, switch it on and regain your health, switch to dark magic and start dishing out some combos. It's very much like that. So it's very tactical, strategic type of combat and much more in depth than, dare I say it, God of War. It's kind of a hybrid between a Japanese game and a US game. I really like fighting games, I haven't played Bayonetta but I'm a big fan of Devil May Cry and it's got quite a lot of depth in the combat but at the same time this game's got a lot of the spectacle of combat and it feels tight, hopefully you can see the speed at which the characters are moving, it's not slow and sluggish; it's really intuitive an responsive.
Q: So then the Titans, obviously Shadow of The Colossus is going to come up here...
DC: Absolutely. I'm surprised more people haven't accused us of plagiarism of that particular game because I'm a big fan of Shadow of The Colossus and we wanted to have something special where players could use all of the things that are in the game in one place. So combat, platforming and puzzles all in one place and we wanted to have it so it was all in real time; this is one of the big things we said at the beginning of the project, we wanted to have real time combat and we didn't want to have QTEs, as spectacular as they are we wanted to have the player focus on what they're doing, see what they're doing and enjoy what they're doing. So you climb these enemies, you use you combat cross to destroy these enemies, you need to work out which runes to break in which sequence in order to bring the enemies down, so it's everything rolled into one. And they're pretty spectacular and some of them are pretty huge. I mean the ice titan itself is quite a small titan as it's the first titan you meet in the game.
Q: It is interesting that you haven't gone with QTEs I remember writing something about a year ago saying that we haven't seen any yet and hoping that they wouldn't be in there because at this stage they're getting very dull.
DC: I think QTEs are a contentious issue because on one hand it does allow the game to show you some really cool things, but on the other hand it does take you out of the action. And I know a lot of people like that but I don't particularly like that myself and prefer to be more in the action all the time. So that's why we took that decision, that's not to pan QTEs, I mean we do have things where you grip enemies and two rings come together and you have to press the button at the right time and then you can either slam the enemy or throw them or do whatever you want to do with them. In that respect it's kind of a QTE but it's not really something that takes your mind off the game because you can press any button, the rings come together and the camera focuses on you grabbing the enemy and the rings come together on your hand so you don't miss any of the action, it just feels intuitive. And likewise, you ride a horse in the game at certain points and if you get knocked off it you have to complete a ring challenge in that particular bit as well. So we do have them here and there but certainly not with the titan fights and certainly not with the major boss fights.
Q: And then there's the comparison with Dante's Inferno with the whole love interest thing.
DC: That's funny because we didn't know about Dante's until recently but I think they're very different games. I've played Dante's and it's a great game but our game is completely different and our story is completely different. I think the comparisons are a bit unfair really, hopefully you can see the game's pretty different. Our love story is, oh what can I say without knocking their game, I think our story's got a bit more depth to it perhaps. I think the voice acting will pay dividends in the end in terms of what the player gets out of the story with the voice actors and the gravitas and the feeling and the emotion of it all.
Q: Can you talk about the horse?
DC: Yeah the horse appears in the game a few times to help you, it's a character in the game and it appears in several scenes in the game as different animals.
Q: So he's the eagle as well?
Q: When's it out?
DC: We haven't announced a release date yet. We've still got quite a lot of development to go to be fair. It's probably going to be later in the year, we'll have it playable at E3 and we'll reveal a lot more about the game then.
Q: Any ideas for the length of the game?
DC: Well I said 15 hours in the video but actually we've had focus groups looking at it in the last few weeks and they've been taking 20 hours and some of them are pretty experienced players so it's quite a long game; there are 50 stages and they're all very different. You name it we have it, we have sun shine, we have night time, we have fog, we have ice and snow, we have thunderstorms, we have day and night cycles in some parts of the game, so yeah, the whole gamut really.
Castlevania: :Lords of Shadow is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 later this year.