God of War: Ghost of Sparta hits stores this week for PSP. As one of the last big releases for Sony's handheld (a successor is surely on the way given the recent price cuts of the PSP and PSP go), it proves just what the console is capable of. We caught up with Ready at Dawn co-founder and creative director Ru Weerasuriya to talk about the latest entry in the God of War series and developing for the powerful handheld.
Q: Why don't you tell me first just a bit about the game?
Ru Weerasuriya: Well the game came about just when we finished Chains of Olympus, we had returned our PSP dev kits at the time - we had thought we wouldn't do another PSP game - but it took us a few months to really look at where we were and what we had done to realise there was still more we could do for the hardware. That's literally why we took the game on because we knew not only what we could do for the hardware but we knew that through the learning experience of the first game we had learned enough and we could put our own flare onto God of War.
Q: What did you learn exactly?
RW: We learned how to make a God of War game! It's not easy, a lot of guys, a lot of developers out there who are trying to make combat games right now and it's not an easy thing. It's not an easy formula to learn and to do. That's what was hard, the first development was very much a learning curve for us to get comfortable with the IP.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about the game then?
RW: The game takes place between God of War 1 and 2. It's a way for us to show players the motivation and reasons behind the man he is. In this game we introduce one of the most important characters in the whole franchise - Demos, who is Kratos' brother. Who single-handedly, in one event in his young life, defines Kratos as a man and what he becomes. So the story is one of, it's a more human one. It's about sympathising with the crazy guy that he is.
Q: I have to ask, is there going to be sex in it?
RW: I get that question all the time! Yes, it's kind of a staple of the game. It's a small breather that you get almost in the game, but it's not done in such a way that it's in-your-face. When people talk about the sex mini-games in God of War, people who haven't seen it always make it more than what it is. It's actually light hearted and done in a slightly comedic way. It's done because in context with Greek mythology it's relevant and it's actually tame compared to what you would actually read in the original mythology.
Q: Why is there a decision to show more violence than sex in the games do you think?
RW: Well the game is primarily a combat game. Violence in context makes sense in something like God of War. In context this makes sense for Kratos to be running around killing beasts. I don't see that far removed from any of the mythology that you read. But people make it more than what it is because it's interactive. The minute you make something interactive then people are like "oh my god! You guys can't do it!" We do it much tamer than what you see in the movies. Violence is part of the IP because of the time and the place that it takes place in.
Q: Do you think that being more open to aspects of video games that aren't necessarily politically correct is a way of maturing the medium?
RW: Yeah, I think that again, freedom of speech is a huge fight that we're having in the States, especially when it comes to video games. They're not giving games the same status as movies because they don't consider games an art. But yes, I think we need to stop being prude about every single thing that we do and accept the fact that even when you read one of the oldest books written in the world - which I won't name because otherwise I'll get hate mail or whatever - but seriously, if you really read what they say I don't think you would let your children read what's in those books. And it's the truth, I'm not trying to be an ass, if you took more time to understand what games are about you would not treat it like that. It's just that it's a new medium. It's the way books were treated a few hundred years ago, people were like "Oh my god! You can read? Don't let them read!". Photography went through the same exact thing, movie making went through the same exact thing. We'll go through the same exact thing.
Q: And in a similar vein, there have been a lot of complaints about the treatment of women in the games and how they're portrayed. What are your thoughts on that?
RW: I think the ones we depict in a bad light, whether it's Hera or some other women, like Aphrodite in God of War 3. But in our game, like, you get to meet Kratos' mother in this game who is a pretty big part of his life. His daughter is extremely important, she almost signifies purity in his life. Beyond that, Athena, she's not necessarily a bad guy. In some ways she's the puppet master. Athena is the one who plays everyone in the game. I think that the story is about Kratos so people might view that the women he meets are not necessarily the brightest, but I think Athena is by far, beyond Zeus or anyone in the franchise, is the one who takes the reins of the IP. The other one is Gaia. Again if you look at most of the female characters in this one I would say they are the bigger importance and are the smarter ones than any of the men.
Q: How easy is it to lose out on what made the console games great when you're dealing with a handheld platform?
RW: It's easy to miss out, not only dealing with a small handheld. It's easy to miss out if you don't really take the time to understand what [the game] is. I think there's a lot of emulations that went on with games like Conan, games like Dante's Inferno. There's a lot of games that wanted to be a similar combat game and you do miss out unless you truly understand what makes the core of the combat good. And it doesn't matter whether it's on PSP or not, ultimately when you work on a title like God of War it has to be a God of War game regardless of where they're delivered.
Q: So what are they missing out on?
RW: The thing is, what they're missing often times is they see the surface of what the game is, which is what you play. But you have to really understand that everything, from how good the timing of combat is, the timing of animation, the transitions between animations, how literally every single thing has to be so fine tuned to make it right. Sometimes you miss out on that because some people just see the end result and say "Oh! That move was so cool!". Well, that move built up from all that stuff that we built up. A lot of games have a tendency to just see the surface of everything and feel like they can emulate it really fast.
Q: What do you think makes this game suitable for handheld then?
RW: That's a good one. It's never been a worry of ours to make games that are suitable for handheld. I think that maybe that's the reason we make the games we do. For all three games we've made games that are good games. Our first and only thought is why it should be a good God of War game.
Q: So what happened with the plan to move away from PSP?
RW: The plan? The plan! The plan fell apart! We wanted to move away purely because we had other ideas at the time and more than anything we didn't feel like there was more we could do for the platform. I don't think we want to use the platform if we don't feel like we can challenge ourselves and challenge it. After Chains of Olympus we didn't feel like we could challenge ourselves on it. But after a few months we thought otherwise because the mad rush of finishing the game made us forget that we had overlooked some of the things we could have done.
Everything. We had to. Our biggest goal was to tackle gameplay mechanics and maybe some of the graphics stuff, but in the end it ended up with us starting with one system and week after week and month after month really re-vamping every single part of the game. And we didn't want to do that by the way, at the beginning, it wasn't the goal.
Q: Do you see PSP having more of a future as a platform?
RW: It can. It can if you make it more attainable, on the software side, on the ease of use, on the PSN side. Yes you can get there but I think PSP as a platform, as purely a hardware, technologically: it's an awesome platform. It does things that not many people know it can do.
Q: Like what?
RW: Just power-wise, it is something that can rival a lot of games if not the majority of games on PS2 and even some on PS3. It can do some pretty amazing stuff but at the same time, let's say, it's had a bad life. It's had a bad growth. And although it's sold very well in people's minds it doesn't have the feel that it should. They view it and they view it as a DS. And the PSP is not. The DS is for casual experiences and more for short burst gameplay. If the PSP had been sold as 'you know what, this is your home console in your hand' it would have had a great future.
Q: Do you see yourself continuing on with PSP then?
RW: This is it. Although we've said it before, this is definitely it for us. We needed to prove and we needed to feel we could do something else for the platform. And at this time we don't feel that anymore. We don't feel there's more that the platform needs from us. Maybe somebody else can do that but at this point we feel like we've maximised the platform.
Q: What about the God of War franchise?
RW: The God of War franchise? There's always room in a franchise to do more stuff, I just don't know what direction to take with it.
Q: Yeah, the end of God of War 3 Kratos' fate is left pretty ambiguous. Do you think the franchise could survive without him?
RW: I think the franchise is definitely capable of surviving without Kratos. There's enough stuff that happened before and potentially after that Kratos doesn't necessarily have to survive. As much as Kratos makes the franchise today, I think that what's important about it is that it's not Kratos: The Game. It's God of War. It's a bigger IP than just the story of Kratos, although he's the most important character right now. So I don't know, maybe in the future it could be taken somewhere else. It needs him right now, for the short term at least, but maybe not in the future.
Q: Where would you see it going?
RW: We've all thrown out ideas. We could bring Kratos to the modern age, use different myths. Norse mythologies, Eastern mythologies, Persian. There's plenty of room to do stuff but it doesn't mean that's why you should do it. You should only do something if it makes sense in the grand scheme of things and right now I think there is room. But I wouldn't want to see spin offs going off all over the place where it's like "Hey, here's a game about Athena!".
Q: Do you think that tends to happen?
RW: In IPs? Sometimes. You always feel like "Why did they do that? Give it a rest for a few years and then bring it back". I would rather developers and publishers do that, let it be for a few years, give it a rest and you can bring it back bigger and better.
Q: What are you imagining for your own IP? I'm guessing that's what you're interested in now?
RW: Yeah, for sure. I think that's where we're heading as a team. The question is always we have to keep in mind what's important to us and what the team is passionate about. And if the next game is our own IP then you know what, we should go back to Defender of the Kraut. Commodore 64! You know what I mean? You pick something that you love and if you love it then you'll do it well.
Q: Stylistically what would you say you guys would lean toward, if you were imagining your next IP?
RW: I'm still not sure because I know we've even tested internally different styles. We've gone from fantasy to cartoony stuff, we've tried more realistic things. Stylistically we're open to all kinds of things, but gameplay-wise we're definitely leaning toward action-adventure. Story-driven action-adventure.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta is released exclusively on the PSP on November 5.