GDC09: An inFamous interview with Sucker Punch's Brian Fleming

Kevin Kelly
K. Kelly|03.25.09

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Kevin Kelly
March 25, 2009 10:46 PM
GDC09: An inFamous interview with Sucker Punch's Brian Fleming

We visited Sony's PlayStation Blogger's Lounge yesterday (scoring ourselves a nifty Trophy t-shirt in the process -- we'll be giving it away on the site soon!) to have a look at the PlayStation 3's anticipated action game, inFamous, and talk to Sucker Punch producer Brian Fleming. We'll have a hands-on with the game soon, but for now, here's a very short summation: it's pretty darn cool.

Head after the break for the full interview with Fleming, and check out the gallery of new images from the game. Well, what are you waiting for? Charge!

Fleming: Is that a microphone?

Joystiq: No, it's a taser.

Awesome. Sweet. Go!

Okay, first, would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I'm Brian Fleming. I'm one of the founders and producer of inFamous at Sucker Punch.

Alright. We played through the demo level, and we're starting to get a better sense of the game.

Ah, The Food Drop level. Our first glimpse, I believe it is called, to people who aren't with Sucker Punch.

And we chose the good karma path at the end.

Yeah, and you saw the animation that's broken -- when nobody did anything... After you do good, the people don't actually take the food, it's just a... it's a mistake. We moved the animation into a different place and somebody didn't hook it up.

Well, we know the game is still pretty early out. We saw the powers menu screen still has a placeholder...

Big black holes in it, yeah, yeah.

So, how long has inFamous been in development?

You know, we've been in development a little over three years. It's a long project for us. It's, you know, we're not the biggest team and when we wanted to do this we kind of knew where the budget was going to fall, and we actually asked Sony if it was okay to do a smaller team, three-year plus thing rather than a "let's try and cram it out in two years and get big."

I think, for us, it was the right choice. We are a really iteration-based studio where, you know, this mission that you're playing isn't the oldest mission in the game, but it's probably worked on more than any other mission. But even then, like the karma, and the powers, and the climbing systems, those are things that, at least for us, really took a lot of integrational polish to start to really interrelate and gel together. We really felt like for a new IP, that was the right strategy for us.

Is there a direct correlation to a big team that has to get a game done in a year versus a small team that has three years?

I mean, you know, if you look at the pie chart of the spend to build a modern video game, the vast majority of it is personnel. There's only so much you can spend on rent and soft drinks. You just can't spend a lot. And so, it's man years. You can decide how you want to divide that up. If you divide by two, you have more man years than that one year.

You mean soft drinks aren't one of the major expenses in game development?

Shockingly small.

So, what is the size of your team?

If you counted everyone from our IT guy, to the front desk person, to our contract QA guys, it's about 60 people.

That's a fair size.

Yeah, no, I'm not saying we're teensy.

That's still fairly small for an AAA title.

I mean, for a big, open environment we didn't outsource the art -- we didn't. We made this game -- our studio.

What were the challenges of developing on PlayStation 3 for the first time?

Well, I think actually the biggest challenge was just our "experience." We had never done a pixel-shader-based game, and so we had to learn a lot. We'd done Sly Cooper, which we're insanely proud of, but it's really different than this -- it was not a realistic universe. This is a grounded, human based, physically real universe. Sly was not normal-mapped, high-detailed things; Sly was a stylized, artistic impression -- and this was very different, so we had a lot to learn.

The other X factor, that goes almost without saying, is that this is an open environment game. Sly was a level-based game, which, from a construction standpoint, is very simple. Whereas, this is immensely complicated; all these interweaving systems: bringing the environment in, streaming, basically a no-load universe. It's a profound difference in the way you have to structure your technology.

We noticed that you're not forced to follow the mission in a linear path. You can branch off and do whatever you want.

Yeah, no, it's open. It is, at some level, and it will be for you guys to decide if we're successful, but it's this weird hybrid of kind of weird story and mission-based game that's more linear like Sly and an open environment game where you have these little miniature missions, which largely are what we would have called the "walk in a dot". Which is "Go over here and throw a rock through a window" and then you go on this long walk and you go over there, and that's the walk. And "mission complete!"

That's not what this game is. You've played the Food Drop, but if you played the Prison or whatever, you know, it's a big set-up and a very custom piece of geometry all fused into this open environment game. So it's kind of this weird hybrid.

Did you guys use any games for inspiration? When we were playing this we were reminded of things from Crackdown.

Yeah, Crackdown, we were already in development when Crackdown was introduced. We were certainly aware of them but they don't predate our work on this project. We saw them, then I think the next one that came out we'd already made a big commitment to climbing. Now our climbing system sucked at the time, but we knew we were going to do this fully open , fully explorable universe and Assassin's Creed was announced.

And you know we have a very different approach than them, and I think if you play this that this accomplishes a lot of similar things. In that you can climb many many places. I think it feels really different. It feels really different than Crackdown and so it's kind of interesting that you know when you think if I want to kinda climb all over a city there are now three really distinct takes on that. With Crackdown and Creed and us. And they all have their strengths and weaknesses. And you know we run our own path though.

The other game this reminds us of that's gonna be coming out later as well is Prototype.

Sure, which of course I know virtually nothing about. I've never played it, never seen it.

You haven't seen the videos or anything?

I've seen some of the videos, they look, you know ,they look cool there's no doubt I mean.

Having an urban environment, a guy with powers jumping around...

Oh there's no question I understand why people draw the conclusion , I just think you're in actually a way better position than me.

You probably have blinders on to something like that at this point.

Well you kinda want to have blinders. I mean you want this game to stand on its own and say hey this is our expression of the kinda game we think would be the superhero game should be. And I'm sure they have their own agenda , what they want to try to accomplish, with where they started with Ultimate Destruction and trying to do that on their own. You know, so. You know we started with Sly, we were in a different place.

Seeing that this is open-ended, is there a size you guys are throwing around? How big is the world?

You know I don't even know how I would answer that question . I feel like that it's a big game. There's a whole main path and off that you know there's like a hundred side missions, there's hundreds of collectibles, there's a lot going on in this game. This is by far the biggest game we've ever made, by any measure of big.

That slides into Sly Cooper. What did you guys learn from a platformer like that, that was applicable to this game?

Well I think the two big things, there's actually a ton of them, you know I could talk kinda "inside baseball" things, but the two big things I think we learned, the first is that we really learned how to approach a set up and sly was all set ups. And so we took that bias into this and so the game I think in many ways is gonna have more set up in kinda pieces than the standard open environment game.

Because we didn't come at it from a we have systems working lets make things from those systems, our first instinct, which right or wrong was to build set ups. So that's kind of an interesting difference. And then I think the second thing is you know we learned a lot of lessons and really have a lot of passion for how the game feels in your hand. And Sly certainly was powerful and able to climb over things, and I think that this is a significant extension beyond that, but it is it's kinda a generational leap above what we were doing there.

And there's lot of little details about process and story and camera and all these, you know, the kinda "sausage making" of video games. The stuff you don't talk about but that is you know, those are hard won battles learning what doesn't work for camera and how to think about the camera in not obvious ways that make the game play better

Are there any little nods to Sly Cooper in the game?

You know if you look at Cole's back there's a Sly Cooper mask logo embroidered onto his back so, you know there's a little of that going on.

We noticed that there are a ton of vehicles in the game, are you ever inside of one?

No, I mean there's some weaknesses of having this sort of you know "I'm an electrical outlet" power. You know one is that I can't pick up weapons of any kind 'cause you'll just detonate the cartridges , the second is that you don't want to be inside anything metal. A car's kind of a coffin. You don't want to go in water, rainy days really fucking suck. You know there's disadvantages to being an electrical guy.

The Karma system which we're just hearing about today for the first time, was that always in the game or did you guys add it?

It's always been there.

It seems similar to the Fable 2 karma system...

Sure, which you know I haven't played yet unfortunately , I mean my life of the last six months has been very complex.

How much does the karma system affect the game, or the outcome?

You know the first question you inevitably get asked, and I understand why we get asked, is how different are the endings. And you know we came at the karma stuff almost backwards from that. We did not think how do we make different endings because you know it's a "choose your own comic book," that's our game. Where one end is you know plastic happy valley and one end is post apocalyptic nightmare. It's not what we came at this as. We came at this as what would happen to you if you had super powers? And I think one of the most profound things is, does it corrupt you. To me that is one of the essential DNA parts of being a superhero.

So we were coming at it from that side, which is what are the things that would be fun but you have to restrain yourself from like frying peds. What are the things that are hard about being good, like well I don't really want to kill all these people, how do I not do it. So what we did is we decided that some of the more interesting directions here are things like your powers themselves and say lets make them reflect your choices.

So if you're being an ass, you're going around just ripping on peds then we're going to give you splash damage on your weapons, you'll get bigger and badder effects.However, what if you're being good?We're going to give you precision modes, and we're gonna give you the abilities like the power that doesn't kill everyone it... restrains everyone, you can go through and pick out the ones you want. We'll levitate them so you can pick them out, you know what I'm saying?

Right. Why did you guys wait so long to show off the Karma system?

Because it was hard to get right. I mean, it was probably the last big thing that we had to get right. So we got climbing right, which took us forever, but we got that right sooner than karma.

Does it compare to other morality systems, in other games?

You know, there's only a couple that have really done it deep. Fable 2's the one that everyone tells me I should go play, and -- partly because you don't want to pollute yourself working on this, because you want to explore the space yourself.


You get so -- and partly because we've been really busy, I haven't played the game, so I don't know. When you play it, you'll have to tell me.

Do you think it adds to replayability, somebody could be like, "I'm going to go back there and do this."

You know, I hope so, I think it's really -- what we've done is neat, I think we had an interesting take on it. It took us a long time to get it kinda sorted. You know, there's a lot of moving parts in the game, a big, systemic, open environment game where you have enemy groups and difficulty and for so many different pieces to mesh together [the something] was for us, the hardest to get right.

Who wrote the story, was it internal or external?

Yeah it was written by us, you know, we're big believers that the story is incredibly important, and I think the Sly series reflects it, but it's not more important than fun. And so writing the story for us is a total pisser for people, because they'll have a story that they love, and we'll find something that's fun, that doesn't fit that story, and we'll be like, "Re-write it around this". So, we're huge believers in story and presentation, but fun is more important than both. And so, uh, we wrote a lot of the story internally, and you know, our lead designer, the game director, Nate, has written all the Sly stories, he wrote most of it in the beginning, and as we got more and more busy we weren't able to do it with just me reviewing Nate's stuff.

So we brought in a guy, Bill Harms, who's actually a published comic author, who we knew from -- he worked at another Seattle game development firm, we uh, brought him in and he worked full time on it for like the last 9 months. And you know, it's more than just story, it's all the prompt dialogue, it's all the ancillary things, and writing for marketing, so you know, he's been a huge savior of the writing.

And he worked on it once you guys had the core story sort of down?

Yeah, but you know, I mean, the back end of the story changed a lot in the last 9 months, again because we found things that worked better, um, we just weren't happy with how they felt,


So we did a lot of rewrites, the first half of the story is pretty much the same as when he got here, although, like, he did a really great -- and part of this happens kind of organically. Like, the character Zeke was a character that way predated Bill and the recording sessions, but during the recording sessions, the actor, Caleb Mooney who did Zeke, he was fricking awesome and he improv'd a whole bunch of stuff, kind of free form that ended up causing us to re-write sections of the game because we really liked what he'd done.

And I think that reflects our -- really, you know I talked about three years, and we're really passionate about following stuff that works. We're not in a rush, you know, the opportunity cost of doing a game is so high, that I think you're better off saying, "Let's take our time and do it well", instead of, "Well, you know we have to have a game right away because in two years we have to have another." I'm sure that is very frustrating at times. I just don't believe that you can go that fast.

The Stunt system. You guys aren't really talking about that yet?

No. Well, we're talking about it a little, you can see it on screen, how it works.

Yeah, zero stunts. Is it integrated yet, we just didn't do any?

It is. You didn't get any.

Ouch. Yeah, I got zero.

The stunts are... some of them are hard. So, the first ones are easy, you know, it's like, can you air-to-air kill. You need to be in the air and so does the enemy, and you need to shoot them. And some of them are easy, you know, just like knock someone off a high building. You know, those are the early stunts.

So they're almost like achievements in a way, except they're related to what you're doing with your powers?

They're below achievements.


They give you XP and we track them for you, and if you get percentages of them there are some achievements. Trophies is the real word, right?

Do you guys have any PSP stuff planned?

You know, we, right now are beyond our ability to talk about -- to think about anything other than finishing this game, so that's just all we're doing.

We were drawing a lot of comparisons between you guys and Naughty Dog. Cause you know they went from Jak & Daxter to Uncharted, do you guys feel like you're in a similar position to what they did?

You know, uh, we're huge fans of their work, they're smarter than us, they're faster than us, we're like the little brothers. So, we love those guys though, we have a great relationship, there's a number of guys in our studio who are ex Naughty Dog guys, there's, uh, we have a great relationship with them, uh you know, we're both bfstreet exclusive guys, we talk to them about art problems a lot, uh, they're, they're, they're great, they're the closet thing we have to big brothers in the industry.

What was the sort of internal genesis idea that said, you know, you have a successful platformer, and then you're like, we're going do this big open 3D sandbox world?

Well, you know about this whole iteration thing, so it's not this big lightning bolt thing, what we set off to do, we knew we wanted to do something different, because we've done six years of Sly, so that's your first thing. Also, okay, we're gonna do new IP, and we decided we wanted to do the PS3, because we hadn't, we knew we were slow, and so, we couldn't afford to wait another couple of years, or we'd be even further behind. So let's do the PS3, this is a good way to change, and we felt like the IP for Sly and particular cartoon stuff, you know, we had some inklings about the price points and the adoption cycle of this platform.

We were like, "What we really need to do is come up with our equivalent, anI am not in any way likening our work to Miyamoto's, but we need our Zelda to the Mario. We need a title that works better earlier in the lifecycle of the game ,of the platform, we need something that is a good compliment, that brings out different skill sets that we have, but is similar enough that the technology you build and things could be brought forward into a Sly game someday.


And we developed a bunch. You know, different pitches, and the idea of doing a superhero comic sort of universe. It kind of felt like a half step away from that, but still played off some of the strengths in terms of art, and presentation and all that, so you know, you start talking about it, and then we had a lot to learn about doing realism and character design, and play control with real people, and it took a long time. It's a journey

And what's the release date?

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