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Interview: Adam Puhl, God of War III's combat designer

Kevin Kelly

As lead combat designer of God of War III, Adam Puhl has the enviable position of creating an arsenal of weapons and abilities fit to take down the gods. I recently spoke with Adam about the design process for such a titanic task and the pressures of surpassing the first two God of War games. Additionally, Adam offered his gameplay reactions to Dante's Inferno and Darksiders, two recent action-adventures that owe a lot to the God of War series.

Read on after the break for the full interview.

Gallery: God of War 3 | 21 Photos

So, Adam, you're the lead combat designer of Gold of War III. What games did you work on before this one?

I worked on God of War II. I worked on a game called Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks and an X-Men fighting game on the PS2.

One that shall remain nameless?

[Laughs.] No. It's called, like, X-Men: Next Dimension, but it's so old ...

Isn't it weird how PS2 games feel almost ancient now?


So, how long have you been with Santa Monica Studio? Did you stay on board through God of War II to III?

Uh-huh. Yep.

How did you decide what abilities to keep from God of War II? At the end of the second game, Kratos is so amped up.

Right. And that is how we start this game. He is super-amped up. But after this Poseidon encounter at the beginning of the game, things are going to change for sure, and you're going to have to build yourself back up again to take on Zeus.

It's an incredible challenge trying to figure out what do we take out; what do we add; what do we change? There are a lot of arguments and discussions. People have favorite moves and favorite abilities.

You're going to have to build yourself back up again to take on Zeus.

But I think once we get something new -- something that people like -- then all that goes away. Like, "Oh, this is awesome. I want this now." So it's through experimentation, through iteration that we figure out what people will enjoy.

Are there weapons and abilities from previous games that Kratos is going to lose in God of War III and never get back?

He loses a lot of stuff, and we introduce a lot of new weapons. Because he loses that stuff, it gives us the flexibility to add things. Otherwise, you would run out of buttons on the controller.

The E3 demo has been available since last fall through several consumer avenues [editor's note: the demo is now public]. Obviously, the game changed a lot from E3 to when the demo was made available to consumers, but have you used any player feedback to make additional tweaks?

Oh, yeah. A lot of things have changed since the demo. The obvious things from graphics and optimizations, things like that. We have got motion blur in, which changed the way the game looks a lot. Yeah, I think we were analyzing the hell out of a lot of the reviews or previews and watching people play the game over and over and over, and learning, from what people like, what is done right and what could be done better.

And the item system has definitely changed and is a lot different. Yeah, if you played through that section of the game, when you get to that section of the game, you see a lot of what has changed. You will definitely be able to feel a difference.

And how far into the game is that section used for the demo?

Four hours -- something like that, maybe? Maybe less.

So, what has been the biggest change to the combat? What does God of War III do differently than the previous games?

Well, there are a lot of evolutionary steps. I think the way that the weapons work and having access to all the weapons; switching between them often, because the game encourages it with the way that the AI works. Some AI are weaker than some of the weapons. Some AI you have to use a specific weapon to defeat them with. And I think the Titans threw the entire team for a loop. How do we develop on these things?

We would have to start over on a lot of things: from the animation system, to the camera, to the audio. Everything has to be rewritten to work on something that is moving this much. And they are bigger than anything else I have seen in the game that you are playing on.

The Poseidon battle -- the opening scene that I played -- is very epic in scale. Where does Gold of War III go from there? Like, am I going to be emptying my bladder into my pants by the end of this game?

I hope so. I guess ... no, wait. I don't hope for that. No, it was awesome. When we put the trailer out, there were a lot of comments about people shittin' their pants and everything else. It is funny how many times you read that. It's just like, "Really? That many people lost control of their bowels?"

No, it is great to hear that stuff. I think there are definitely some moments later in the game that are going to really, really surprise you. I think we are wrapping up a lot of things, and I really hope that people enjoy the way the story is concluded, and how we did it.

There are moments later in the game that are going to really, really surprise you.

And what we've always been known for with the sheer variety in our gameplay, I'm really proud of the variety of the bosses that we have in our game. We have this epic boss battle on a Titan, but we also have human bosses, and you have everything in between.

Human bosses? Or did you mean human-sized bosses?

Human size. Maybe a little bit bigger than human. Kratos himself is much bigger than any human. But yeah, more like one-on-one, mano-y-mano kind of fights. And then we have a big set piece boss, and then we have creatures and things like that. I think there is a nice variety in this game.

How do you approach the challenge of trying to top each level with the next one? How do you keep up the variety?

I don't necessarily think that everything is like, "Oh, we have this one -- we have the top whatever." We don't pair everything against itself. We kind of look at it like ... the opening of the game, we are comparing it to God of War II. How are we going to make sure that that meets the standards?

But the rest of the boss battles, like, the next one doesn't top the next one. They kind of go in a very different direction; enough to the point where you are not really comparing the boss battles, because it is such a diverse experience.

And I think that is what we work at, making sure that we don't have overlap. Even down to the thing of like, "Oh, this boss does this type of move; like something you had to jump over constantly. Okay, we're not going to put that in this other boss" -- just to make sure that that variety exists. And yeah, I think a combination of all those together, I think that makes a complete package. It really makes the game flow.

In the opening scene of God of War III, who are the four characters that are staring down at Kratos from Mount Olympus?

Yeah, there is Zeus and Poseidon, Helios, Hermes, and then Hades sticks out of the crew a little bit. And then there is maybe one more you might have missed.

I missed somebody?

I can't say.

Did you play Dante's Inferno?

Yeah, of course.

Did it feel familiar?

Yeah, we know what to expect. I mean, I try to play anything that is an action-adventure genre. I just enjoy it anyways. I know the lead level designer and lead combat guy that worked on that game.

I mean, there are some cool things about it. I just really hoped that they -- similar to what they did with Dead Space, I wish they would do with Dante's Inferno: take a game like Resident Evil or God of War, put their own spin on it, and really take it in its own direction. And I don't think they did that with Dante's as much as with Dead Space.

What about Darksiders? Have you played that too?

I'm at the final boss in Darksiders right now. I played him once, and then I died because I was like in Stage 2, and I was like, "Ah, I gotta play through Stage 1 again. I'll finish this in a little bit."

I really actually liked Darksiders. I mean ... this is not an offensive thing, but it is literally kind of like a fanboy's dream of, "Oh, I like World of Warcraft; I like Portal; I like God of War." Just throw them all into a bucket and make a game out of it. And I think they did a good job.

Darksiders is kind of like a fanboy's dream.

I think they made a pretty good game out of it.

It does start off slow. I think that is the biggest problem with it, because it feels like a different game in the beginning than it does in the middle. I think if they would have started off stronger ... you know, with God of War, we had a lot of stuff we wanted to get into the game and things that we cut or had to reduce because we wanted to polish the content. It feels like they didn't cut anything. It feels like they literally put everything they wanted to get in into that game. Maybe if they would have cut some stuff, they could have tightened it up. The beginning could have been a little bit more polished. I mean I think it is a good take. People waiting for a Zelda game --- it was a good spinoff.

As a combat designer, when you are playing other games, are you able to sit back and enjoy them, or are you constantly critiquing, like, "Oh, this is broken, or this looks great, or we should have done this, or they borrowed this from us"?

That doesn't happen that often. I mean, it's always in the back of the head going on. There's an example: in Dante's Inferno, there is a small thing in a boss battle where the boss throws his sword, it gets stuck in the ground. You can R1 and pick it up. It's like, "Well, hey, that's cool." There was an enemy, we cut part of the content in the game because we didn't have a workaround for it. But I was like, "Oh, that would have been a perfect solution for it." So, there are a couple nuggets here and there that you can find like that.

But no, I mean, I usually try and just enjoy the experience. The only times it turns on is when people are screwing shit up, like, I'm stuck in a reaction -- I'm getting juggled like crazy all day long. It just doesn't feel powerful. It's just kind of like, "man ..." -- I feel their pain. I almost feel like, "If they only would have done this and this, it could have been that much better," more than anything else. There is rarely any time ... I can't think of any game right now, but there are rarely any times where I get to a point in the game where it is just like, "They're just screwing stuff up too much. I have to stop." I always look for the gems, I guess. The little things that they do right.

Well, on the topic of combat, was building a multiplayer experience for Gold of War III ever on the table?

I don't know if I can talk about it, but, you know, it was definitely on the table. There were definitely discussions about multiplayer. But it doesn't make sense for God of War. Clearly, Kratos is a lone fighter. He has his own agenda and his own goal. There is nobody that could be along his side. Gaia ... He works with Gaia a little bit, but it's not really much of a friendly situation. It's like a means to an end: "This is how I can kill Zeus."

Yeah, it was taken out pretty quick. Those discussions stopped pretty quick just because we are telling Kratos' story here.

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