Interview: Sucker Punch's Nate Fox on inFamous and inSpiration

If you've been spending a lot of time enjoying the electro-shockery featured in inFamous, you've got the guy pictured above -- and the other 50-odd members of Sucker Punch Productions -- to thank. His name is Nate Fox, game director for inFamous and a writer/designer who has a decade of tenure with the studio. We had a chance to sit down with Nate at E3 to get a post-mortem look at the high voltage superhero sim, and to finally inquire what lies within protagonist Cole's mysterious backpack.

So, Nate Fox, how long have you been at Sucker Punch?

Nate Fox: I've been at Sucker Punch for over 10 years. When I started, I had a full head of hair. That is not a lie.

Were you there when it was founded? How long has Sucker Punch been around?

Sucker Punch has been around for about 11 years. So I was not there for the first few months. I worked on the first game, Rocket: Robot on Wheels and all of the subsequent games as well, but I wasn't there from day one.

Did you serve as Game Director on any of the games previous to inFAMOUS?

No, I didn't actually, on Rocket I did environmental art and lighting and I did a very small amount of design. Then, because of the success of the design I had done on Rocket, I got promoted for Sly Cooper and did half of the design of the game and started taking over the writing for the game, half-way through it. And then it was a gradient thing. Sucker Punch is very much a meritocracy, so people who can do a job, just end up doing it.

When did you guys decide to jump ship off Sly Cooper and the entire animated kid-friendly genre to something more serious?

We knew towards the end of Sly 3 that we wanted to do something else. Working on cartoon thief game for six years, we got a little tired of sneaking around and wanted variation, change. So, being comic book fans, it made a lot of sense to say, "let's make a super hero game where we get to blow things up", instead of cautiously looking through a bunch of guards' patrol paths which, Sly games had a fair amount of that. We wanted to just be brazen and loud and so, that's where inFAMOUS comes from.

Why did you settle on electricity as the archetype of the superhero that you guys used?

Well, it wasn't really obvious to use electricity, I'll tell you, I wish I could say it was, we auditioned a lot of different powers and thought a lot about powers. When you set out to make a superhero game, that's the first question you ask yourself, right. What can I do? Can I make ice walls? Can I fly? Can I become invisible? Can I change my gender at will? That kind of thing.

Our big goal was that we wanted to make you feel like you were becoming a modern-day superhero and in order to make you internalize it and feel like this thing was really happening, that you were an everyday guy who suddenly got these powers. We wanted to give you powers that worked well in a video game context, and video games are really good for shooting things, ranged combat. So we figured we'd have a lot of that in the game, and electricity was a good marriage to that because shooting a lightning bolt into somebody's face is something that everybody understands.

But what really, really sealed the deal was that... It was a superhero game, it has to take place in a city, and by making electricity, we could actually have him interact with the city's power grid in a very meaningful way so that he had a real relationship with the city. It was his food, it was the source of his power. So the city he was fighting for also nourished him, so that seemed really good.

What comic books did you use as inspiration?

The two that were most influential were Batman: No Man's Land – I don't know if you've ever read that one. It's pretty good. They've got a great concept of how Gotham City is treated as it sort of suffers from a natural disaster. But the book that was even more inspirational for me was a comic called DMZ, which was about a journalist – it's a comic about you, and you're stuck in this New York that has been overrun into this war kind of capacity.

It's people stuck in New York making their lives work despite these incredibly bad circumstances going on around them. It's awesome because you really get a sense of the flavor of what it's like to be stuck inside – to be just a normal person stuck inside extraordinary circumstances. But it doesn't turn you into anything weird in DMZ, it's just humanity reacting.

A lot of commenters on stories that we've written about the game have drawn comparisons between – I don't know if you've ever seen it, but it was a kids' WB show called Static Shock about a superhero...

You know man, I saw like half an episode of Static Shock a long time ago and I'm sorry...there's really no intentional commonality there. I remember he had a sidekick who could make things out of machines and it could fly. But that's all I can remember from the show. Was it a good show?

It was not a very good show, no.

What could Static Shock do; what were his powers?

He had electricity powers and could draw electricity out of things and use it.

Actually, I got to go back and watch it. Did he have a cool costume?

No, not at all. He had a costume, but it was trash.

Whoa, on the record.

What video games inspired you? A lot of reviews compared it to Crackdown or Spider-Man 2. Did you guys look at those games while you were developing it?

Oh man, yeah. I think everybody fired up Grand Theft Auto 3 and thought, "This game is so cool. I wish I were a superhero in this city!" I mean it's kind of obvious, right? So, ta-da! That's the game we started to look at and make.

So you knew as soon as you played GTA 3 that the next game you wanted to make outside of Sly Cooper would be open world?

Well, I knew that was a game that I wanted to make but I had to convince other people to fund it. Spider-Man 2 was also a very influential game to me because it provided a really excellent example of what it felt like to be Spider-Man. The joy of pendulum swinging through the city and hearing somebody shouting for help and just zipping down and helping them out. I loved cruising around the city a lot more than the missions because it felt like a simulator.

That was interesting. So you weren't inspired to include any balloon-catching missions?

[laughs] No. We should have though, as just a shout-out.