Last week, during a special behind closed doors presentation, US developer Sucker Punch unveiled to press inFamous 2, the sequel to one of the PS3's most successful new franchises. The open world action game looks the business - a marked improvement over the solid original - but questions remain. Luckily for us - and you inFamous fans - we cornered Sucker Punch co-founder Brian Fleming afterwards to get answers.
Q: Just how destructible will the environment be?
Brian Fleming: It's sort of like the rule for climbing, which is what looks like you should be able to climb on it, you should climb on it. So what looks like should break, we want to break. There's always going to be a line. We can't have you break the ground. We can't have you break the entire church. So there's always going to be a line. The thing that actually limited us more was the technical realities of making everything break, and we've dramatically increased the design of our breakable system such that we could support something like those verandas in high density areas. You're talking about thousands and thousands of individually breakable items. We designed the verandas and we did a demo to the team everyone was like, these are great! And the engineers are all like, oh my fucking God! That's our job, is to make stuff breakable.
Q: To piss the engineers off?
BF: You can get into a situation where you're doing technology for technology's sake. We tend to be the other way, where we want to build something we like, and then re-engineer the technology to support the thing we like. And we like breaking things. It makes the game better, and so that's what we should be working on - stuff like that.
Q: Is it persistent?
BF: It's persistent at some level. It's not down to the rubble's left where you left it. There are some breakables that of course will regenerate, like all the cars on the streets. But there are significant breakable elements that are persistent. One of the real changes in the game is that there are going to be significant story and potentially even morality-related elements that are going to alter the city, like fairly large chunks of the city. It's not just, oh, you've completed these four tasks so the drawbridge will go down, kinda stuff. But how you decided to solve a particular thing might leave remnants of itself behind.
Q: Can you give me an example of that?
BF: No, I can't today.
Q: Is it story-based persistent destruction?
BF: We'll get into that. There's a long time left for us to finish this game. Today was really introducing it and talking about some of the core philosophies.
Q: Is the morality system greyer?
BF: The motto for the game for internal work is 'no stones left unturned'. We have to make every aspect of the game better. No compromises. Morality is one of the big aspects of the game, so we have to make fairly significant investment to make it better. We've heard all the complaints. There's been 'I want it to be greyer' and 'the choices were too stark'. We're not stupid. We've heard all those complaints, so we're going make improvements in the morality system. Will it be the best morality system ever made? I don't know. We're working on it. That's what we're doing every day.
Q: Can you use data from the first game to affect the sequel?
BF: That's a great question. I think what you're making sure I'm answering is, if I played evil in the last game does it affect me when I start this game? We think, but are not sure, that we know the answer to that question. Until we're sure we're not going to answer the question. We think we know, though.
Q: Does that mean yes?
BF: Well, you get the sense. Even the character stuff; the way we work is to make things and try them and see how they feel. It drives the marketing guys a little crazy because they're like, well do you have an answer to this question? I'm like, no. I don't know. We'll know when we ship. So it's a little hard to answer that question. It's an important question.
Q: But obviously you're thinking about it.
BF: We certainly have thought about it a lot. We are aware of those issues and want it to go well.
Q: What kind of open world stuff is going to go on beyond doing missions?
BF: For the city to feel alive there has to be a level of ongoing activity. We're big believers in that. The scale of the ongoing activity was the biggest area of focus for us. We can run situations with crowds of people running through the streets now, which we couldn't do - just scale wise - we couldn't do it. That will contribute a lot to the vitality and the vibrancy of the city. Obviously there's a lot of conflict going on between these creatures that you saw that came out of the swamps, and the militia, there are many other creatures that you haven't seen - there's a lot for that to go on. There's going to be a primary sequence of things you're going to do - potentially having some morality impact - and then a whole host of secondary level stuff, and there's got to be some collection and other things for completionists. It'll have a structure along those lines.
Q: Can you tell me more about the freaks - the mutants?
BF: Not too much. You guys have seen them. We haven't released any video of those. This is the first time we've shown them. What I can tell you is that they're from the swamps. I can't tell you too much more about that other than they represent to us... they're six eight, 250, and we need to have a scale of enemies. You saw a huge one... this is maybe setting out ranges. Maybe there will be a full range of them.
Q: So the story is going to be more complicated this time around?
BF: I don't know if complicated is good. We want to do a really great job telling a simple story. I don't think complexity is good. That said, video games are very different from films because films are experienced typically in one sitting and over about a two hour period. People think of that as, you can't tell a really complicated story even in a movie. Well this is different. This is 40 hours - or however many hours, I don't mean to be giving a number, but video games typically take a long time to play. And it's fragmented. You play two hours tonight, then you go to work the next day. It's a very different story that fits well into that. It is a struggle for us to figure out exactly how to weave a story that doesn't have so much plot that every time you play it you're like, oh, who is she again? And, why am I chasing him? You need a simple but fairly lengthy story as opposed to a complicated and intricate lengthy story.
Q: Will there be more characters?
BF: I haven't done a count. There are certainly more enemies in this game. I don't know about on the friend side. I haven't done the math.
Q: Are you still focused on single-player exclusively?
BF: Today all we're talking about is the straightforward single-player stuff. There will be questions about online. There will be questions about multiplayer. There will be questions about every crazy thing. And all of those I'm ducking for today.
Q: You mentioned during your presentation the influence of modern day superhero movies on the game. Can you give me an example?
BF: The one we talk about - and I don't mean this to be like, oh yeah, we're copying or are inspired by this movie - but the really big thing about this game was deciding it was a second game. You might think of Batman Begins as the first movie and the Dark Knight as the second, where the character is fully formed, in that it's not about how he became Batman - it is about Batman. In that sense, this is about Cole McGrath. He is a fully-formed superhero at the beginning. He goes on a big journey in this. In that sense, that movie in particular we've looked at in terms of the narrative structure and how they did it. Origin stories are super interesting. It's the easiest, in some ways, story to tell. It happens to be first, also. So we have to do a good job looking at that. Also, part of the thing that modern movies do really well though, is that character development and presentation. Part of the decision we did to make motion capture and these really high detailed things, is because we just didn't have the technology or the pipeline to deliver that emotional response. That's something we felt was missing. That's why we went and did it. It's still an ongoing, huge, massive investment for us to build that pipeline. When did people start doing motion capture? Eight years ago. We started in December. We have a lot to learn. We're still bloody from getting this [E310 demo] to run. Let's do cutscenes - okay, good idea. Then let's do a hundred people rally with ten animated characters! And then let's do one on a moving car! Holy shit, you know? What the fuck were we thinking? But it worked.
Q: Have you played Red Dead Redemption, which raised the bar for open world games?
BF: We love Red Dead Redemption. I haven't played a lot. Nate's [Fox, director] played - he's not in Mexico yet. We love it and think it's great. It's somewhat different than what we're trying to do. It's a game that made me want to play a Western. I'm not a huge fan of Westerns, and that game makes me want to play a Western. So kudos to those guys - huge fans of it.
Q: They reached a level of activity that we mentioned earlier, giving life to the environment. Are you looking at life in the city, with animals, for example? I know it's not the same setting...
BF: It's not. The surrounds of the terrain and the brush and the animals, it's existential. It's part of being in the West. For us it's the crowds, it's the pedestrians, that we feel define a city. The thing that makes Paris is the architecture and the people. The thing that makes New York is the architecture and the people. We focus on the architecture and the people. Those are the things we home in on. There are a bazillion people in our studio and outside who are like, we need more birds in the city. Yeah, okay, maybe. But the architecture and the people define the city. You can't do everything. So we focus on the architecture and the people.
Q: I recently interviewed Cliff Bleszinski, who told me Epic seeded a lot of story elements in the original Gears of War that could potentially be used in second and third games without knowing they would get the opportunity to make a second and third game. You mentioned in your presentation that work started on inFamous 2 just after inFamous shipped. Did you always know you were going to make a sequel, or was it a case of wait and see how it did in terms of sales?
BF: We designed inFamous hoping to make a sequel, but by no means was it assured or guaranteed. I think we knew we were going to make a sequel the last couple months of inFamous. We and Sony felt like it was strong and it was going to be successful, so we should begin planning for that. But the truth is, we went on vacation after inFamous. It was a three-and-a-half year project non-stop. We were crispy. I went to Paris. I forget where Nate went. We went away for a while; we were tired. But we knew, I think, that at that point, by two months before we were confident and had had conversations with Sony about that.
Q: You must have felt buoyed by the support Sony had in the game and you before it had even released.
BF: We don't make games out of, like, I want to make a game so I can go home and play it at night. I've played this cutscene a thousand times. I can tell you every nuance in that cutscene. We make them because of customers. The truth is, we were finished the game, then we have to do some emergency and some localisation stuff, and then it comes out, and that's when you really find out if the game's going to do well. Reviews matter. Customer response matters. It would have been really difficult - because we were pretty much committed to making the sequel - if the reviews had been bad and the sales had been bad. Then we would have been like, oh shit. As it was it was a huge lift to kick us off on this journey. So it was nice. But it's in the moment. We didn't know how it was going to be received or reviewed. We had no idea. We knew it was a good game, and you didn't know how the world was going to accept it, or not. It was great. We were really happy.
Q: Is Zeke going to be more important? Is he going to be more involved in missions?
BF: I've got to be very careful how I answer this question. Zeke is certainly important. I wouldn't say he's more important. But I would say... ah, I'm just going to leave it. We're going to leave it. We're going to walk away. Sorry.
Q: We saw from Sony's conference that 3D is a big deal.
BF: Yeah. And I was blown away. I thought it was frickin' awesome.
Q: I was in the audience watching Killzone 3 with the glasses on. Any plans for similar integration?
BF: We... I think I'm going to go with the same route as I do with online and everything else beyond what you saw here today. New tech and controllers and everything I'm just going to say... we're certainly looking at everything. But we're not in a position to commit to anything like that.
Q: Does that apply to support for PlayStation Move?
BF: Yep, same thing. That's why I said controllers.
Q: We didn't see ice in the demo today, but ice is in the E310 trailer.
BF: The trailer does tease that there are some non-electrical powers. But to what extent remains to be talked about.
Q: Was it something you had to do because Cole was already powerful?
BF: We did it because we liked it.
Q: If you have a superhero who is poised to become an ultra powerful superhero, you have to be creative.
BF: Limitations are important and weaknesses are important to everything we do. You can't have things that are uber powerful, but have no weakness. We think about that a lot. The good thing about inFamous, I think, as far as superhero games go, is that it's one of the few that's designed as a video game first. If you're working with Superman - in fact one of our artists worked on a Superman game back at EA, it's an impossible IP to make a good video game. Somebody will crack it some day, but it's impossible. You put a gun up to his eye and shoot him in the eye, it doesn't hurt him. Other than kryptonite, what the fuck do you do? How do you make a good game out of this? I don't know. Weaknesses really matter. They really, really, really matter.
Q: You have a PS3 game under your belt. What lessons did you learn in terms of performance and visuals that you've been able to utilise in inFamous 2?
BF: A gazillion. But the summary of it all is the SPUs kick ass. Move your shit there! The SPUs are just total monsters. You just have to move more and more and more and more and more stuff there. We have post-processing graphics passes going on in the SPUs. We have more particle stuff, more collision and physics stuff going on in there. They're unbelievable.
Q: What about AI simulation? That takes a ton, doesn't it?
BF: It does. The things that move over really well, to get really geeky here for a second, are better done in batch, and that need fairly linear or simple access to memory. So, take for example, processing all the particle systems - Pretty simple, pretty linear. This particle system doesn't depend on that particle system. This particle system doesn't need to access a lot of memory to figure out it's just exploding and moving all these things. At most it might need some simple collision to figure out where the sparks bounce. Compare that to AI, which needs to do a lot of high-level reasoning, potentially access a lot of memory to figure out what spaces are available, to find out proximity to other objects so that I know if I want to step right, I need to know about you and you and I need to know about the environment, it's a lot of memory access. It's very, very bad for the SPUs, because the SPUs tend to be these big pipelines that you just want to cram information through. So post-processing a rendered frame, very, very much suitable for the SPUs. Less so on the AI stuff.
Q: We've heard a lot from Sony about the power of the PS3 and it being future proof. As a developer, speaking frankly, is that just marketing hype?
BF: Compare this to the last game. It's frickin' unbelievable how far we've come. It's crazy how much we've been able to get out of it. It's crazy how much more we're able to do. Is future proof the word I would use? I don't know. The future is always coming and coming and coming. But we're four years in and working on this and we are still getting a lot more out of it; almost five years in on working on the PS3, still getting tons more out of it.
Q: Is there potential for you to continue to get more out of the PS3 throughout the rest of its life cycle, which is perhaps ten years?
BF: I think so. At some point everybody figures out most of the big stuff. But we're still figuring out big stuff. There was a check-in today, okay - I sent a mail about it - that was great. There was a big improvement in the performance of our light renderers - that was another thing we figured out, today. Bill Rockenbeck [programmer] back at the office - kudos to Bill by the way - he made a great check-in today taking advantage of some new stuff that we hadn't figured out before.
Q: Is it about discovering new tricks at this point in the console's life cycle?
BF: Sequels have two advantages. The first is, you're standing on relatively solid ground from the start, instead of you have to fill in and get ground. The second thing is, you have this chance to take all of the things you did so that they would work, and step back and say, how do I make this work really well? It's quite a different problem. One is a design problem, and one is an engineering problem. A lot of things become more engineering focused in the second. As a result, the engineering gets a lot better.
Q: Are you planning downloadable content for after the game comes out?
BF: We are trying desperately to make this game awesome. When it gets to be the point where we're ready to talk about DLC or anything that's post-launch, we'll happily do it. But we're so far away here. We've got half the environment built for the game, maybe. We've got so much to do right now, we can't pick up our head and think about DLC. Focus is everything in video game making. It's not like people wouldn't love us to have a plan. But, what they really would love is for us to make this game kick-ass. Whether we do DLC or not, let's make this great. That's what we do.
Q: Finally, you mentioned work on inFamous 2 began soon after inFamous was finished, and you had support from Sony to do so before it was released. Would it be a similar case for a third game?
BF: I think so. At the point we finish this game we'll probably been working on it for five-and-a-half years - the two games together - so I don't know.
Q: Trilogies seem to be in vogue.
BF: I don't know. It will depend on us having some good ideas. We'll have to have good ideas. We knew what we wanted to do. We knew that we could do this and present it really well. The key is we have to have good ideas. If we have good ideas, then it'll make more sense. Right now, we are trying to cash the cheque. We have a huge amount of work to do to make the game we really feel like we can make.
inFamous 2 is due out exclusively on the PS3 in 2011.