Kratos has returned to the PlayStation 3, and lo it was good. Thereís nothing quite like a bit of gory Spartan rage to take out some frustration - especially this time of year, when things arenít yet sunny enough to encourage a happy disposition.
Jason McDonald (L) and Mark Simon (R)
But think of the God of War - heís had to put up with a lot more than just rising energy bills. In Ascension
, you get to find out exactly what turned the angry demi-god into the rampaging hack-and-slasher that we know today.
I spoke with Sony Santa Monicaís lead game designer Mark Simon and lead combat designer Jason McDonald to get a deeper insight into the gameís development process. How the studio continues to create stories for Kratos, its experience working multiplayer for the first time, and more below...
SPOnG: What did you guys learn from your time with the multiplayer Beta?
We learned a ton from it. We had to do the beta because were new to the multiplayer side of things, obviously. But we also wanted to talk to our fans, perhaps more so than any other game before, and get their thoughts on how to shape the game. We took a lot of player telemetry - how they scored, how long matches lasted, how long people sat in lobbies... that sort of thing. We also wanted to see how and why people quit matches, and how often they died.
We took all that information, and we used it to help better tune our experience. We also just flat out listened to fans - talked on forums, that sort of stuff - about things that were overpowered or things they had complaints about. Things they didnít like, or that they wanted more or less of.
Like the kill-stealing. We had a lot of people complain about the fact that they would be wearing down an opponent, only for another player to jump in at the last second and get the killing blow and steal the points. Little things like that, as well as party systems, voice chat... We looked at all that stuff and weíre going to be providing it at launch. Weíre still going to continue to be listening to as the game is out. Weíre not going to just go home once itís released [laughs].
The reason it was important to have an open beta is because... had we just released the game without doing that, weíd be launching with essentially an open beta anyway. Particularly in terms of polish and quality. Now we have something based on peopleís feedback that we can release with. So itíll be a much better product, I think.
SPOnG: Of course, you only gave players a small taste of whatís included in the final Ascension multiplayer mode, right?
Right. The open beta represented a tiny segment of what weíre going to release. The beta had two maps, and we have six other maps besides those. Each one of those maps will have an epic Ďwowí moment - a set piece. Like the Titan in the desert, or Hercules in his arena. I think the fans will be able to look forward to a lot more content besides those maps. Theyíll have an entirely different wide swathe of weapons.
Lot more styles of play too. We had two allegiances for open beta, Zeus and Ares. Both are representative of opposite ends of the spectrum - Zeus focuses more on magical power while Ares leans towards physical power. The other two allegiances are different as well. Some are a bit more resilient, might support abilities, stealth and other things. Weíre really excited to see how players react to all of that.
SPOnG: What led you to include multiplayer in the first place? A lot of developers are adding such modes to franchises that have traditionally been known for single-player action, and to some it might seem like a tacked on feature.
No, it wasnít like that at all. Thatís whatís so funny about it. I understand that people might think a multiplayer is tacked on, once a studio thatís primarily single-player focused starts to explore that side of things. Itís easy to think that it was some executive decision or something.
But for us, God of War: Ascensionís
multiplayer actually came from an early design that we played around with. We toyed with such an idea right after finishing God of War 3
- we quickly built a rough demo that had two Kratosí fighting on a single screen. What we saw was that there was some genuine fun to be had there. And not only was it fun, it was different too.
We got together started talking about the concept in more detail, and realised that if we were going to do it we would have to put our own God of War
spin on it. We had to make sure that the brutality, scale and all the things that you expect from God of Warís
single-player would appear in the multiplayer.
Whatís exciting about it too is just the lore of Greek mythology. God of War
fits well in the multiplayer realm when you consider that. You have these gods interfering and watching over people in an arena... people can create their own champions... itís almost like days of Ancient Rome, when gladiators fought in colosseums. You get that feeling just with the fantasy of the gods of the God of War
universe. So I think it worked out pretty well.
SPOnG: Ascensionís single-player campaign also has some new, revamped combat mechanics. Things like prompt-less mini-games. Can you explain those in more detail, and how youíve looked to jazz up the God of War experience?
For mini-games in particular, God of War
is known for its quick-time button prompts. They look great, theyíre very cinematic, and theyíre still in God of War: Ascension
. But we wanted to offer a different spin on that mini-game, and thatís where the idea of the prompt-less mini-game came from.
A couple of us made this sequence, which ended up looking a lot like Punch-Out
. The camera was right behind Kratos and he was punching and evading the other guyís attacks. It was still very cinematic, but it didnít require button prompts because the commands you used were the standard attack controls. So we used that as a basis to try and get the same cinematic flavour that you find in mini-games, but without the buttons everywhere. Thatís what drove that decision.
SPOnG: QTEís of course, are a bit hit and miss with players. Is there a balance you guys feel you need to strike between implementing a cinematic effect and having too much of it that annoys gamers?
The purpose of those quick-time events is definitely to allow the player to feel involved when Kratos brutally kills somebody. We donít want them to just watch a movie of Kratos doing something and have them not get involved. So the button prompts make you feel that youíre a part of it. But with every game we make, we try to figure out how to mix it up with this system.
We want players to feel that cinematic tension and be involved, but we donít always want to require a button to do it. So yes, that definitely drove us to think of new things.
SPOnG: With the single-player campaign in particular... is it difficult to make the gameplay feel both fresh and familiar at the same time for the core fans?
The single-player for God of War
is always fun to do. Itís a challenge for sure, but itís never too hard to find new and cool things to do at all. Matter of fact... Iíd be more scared if we were able to do everything that we originally plan out. We think of epic set-pieces all the time, itís just a matter of how you put them together.
We wanted to offer a different feeling with Ascension
. In God of War 2
, we had this long journey... the goal was always at the end of this Ďlineí. In God of War 3
, offered a journey that was more on a vertical scale. For this, we wanted to bring more of an odyssey feel to things.
Youíre going to the top of the world, then the edge of the world, then the bottom of the sea. Youíre going to vastly different locations. And weíre telling this in a way thatís different to any God of War
story thatís been told before. Itís a lot like Slumdog Millionnaire
, where you see Kratos at a point in time, then you experience his flashbacks before returning to that point.
SPOnG: God of War is known for its epic boss battles. How have you approached that for Ascension? Was there a point where you wondered how you could possible top the gods of past games?
Yeah, weíre always trying to top our previous creations, no matter if itís a level, puzzle, navigation challenge or boss fight. Even with the Titans that we had in God of War 3
... we had Kratos running around on Chronosí arms, but everything was very surface level.
When we started working on this game, we wanted to make a Titan that had an entire world built on him, or within him. So the entire opening sequence of the game is built on that model. When you go and fight the Titan, you start off on the hand, then move to the forearm, the torso... get caught with his other hand and sent back to the start [laughs].
We try and keep these battles satisfying. You have to keep it fresh in terms of how you pace it. So with that Titan as an example... thatís not only a fight, itís a navigation challenge, itís a mini-puzzle... then you get brought back into this heart-racing fight, which then takes you back into another puzzle. And thatís all tutorial as well! That entire thing we do at the beginning of the game is teaching you how to play the game.
SPOnG: Kratosí story is said to end with God of War 3. Ascensionís a prequel - where do you see yourselves being able to take Kratos next?
I donít think thereís really any good answer to that one. Weíll finish this game, work on the PS3, and really support the gameís multiplayer as we continue to move it forward. Weíll also release new content for the multiplayer, continue to tune it up. Thatís where our focus will be for the time being.
There will come a time when we can look at what we can do next, and at that point the entire team will come together to decide what happens to Kratos, what will be our mythos - weíll go back into that creative process again.
It can be a challenge sometimes. Especially when you think about the combat side of things, you often wonder Ďhowís he gonna kill stuff this time?í But I think whatís cool about Kratos as a character is that, at his root heís a Spartan warrior. Heís formidable with any weapon he uses. He doesnít back down from anything, which means we can literally throw anything we want at him and heíll be able to take them down somehow.
Itís fun to come up with some unique new ideas for how to do that, and the Greek mythology itself is awesome to work in. Thereís tonnes of characters, and stories of deceit that we can use. If you read Greek myths, thereís all sorts of stuff happening - people betraying one another, all sorts. We can pull a lot more from that, and use these interesting stories to help create stories for Kratos.
SPOnG: Thanks for your time!