Interview: The Shape of God of War III

By Kris Graft

God of War III is one of the biggest releases for Sony's PlayStation 3 so far. The console is in plenty of hands, it's been three years since the most recent game in the series, and anticipation is at extreme levels.

Of course, the development process has been anything but simple -- but here, Sony Santa Monica senior producer Steve Caterson discusses just how the development team tackled the development process, particularly from tools, engine, and workflow perspectives.

He also addresses the content concerns the game has been facing ever since the demo at last year's E3 show -- which featured the disquieting task of forcing the player, in the role of the bloodthirsty Kratos, into ripping the head off of the god Helios with his bare hands.

What goes into making a great game? Is it creative passion or technical polish that drives the Sony Santa Monica team? Caterson discusses these topics and more, in this interview conducted in the immediate run-up to the game's release (which was yesterday in North America.)

How long have you been working on the game, and how does it feel to complete the trilogy?

Steve Caterson: God of War III was roughly a three-year experience for many of the people on the team, but we've been working on the God of War franchise for seven years.

So for a lot of us, beyond the three-year completion of God of War III, it's been a huge, huge release -- a sense of fulfillment and gratification to see a three-part trilogy done from start to finish, and to say pretty confidently that we've done everything that we could in each and every project. We pretty successfully made every project better than the last.

As we speak, the game has not yet been released. Are you anticipating how gamers and press will receive the game?

SC: There's definitely a lot of anticipation. Three years of anyone's life on anything, you definitely have butterflies, you know? "How is it going to be received?" You can't help but take some of it a little personally, because it's been three years of your life. But I think we're also very excited.

I think there's been very few regrets. We did everything possible. We gave everything we could, and we certainly tried everything we could. We didn't leave anything on the table. There weren't any, "Argh, I wish we could'ves". We were adding things up until the very last minute. We could not have found any more time or added any more stuff to it. We did absolutely everything we could.

The engine behind the game was from the first God of War titles for PS2, and you guys just kept on iterating it for the sequels. Can you tell me about the transition to new hardware? The transition from the PlayStation 2 to the studio's first PlayStation 3 game -- was it overwhelming at first?

SC: It could've been overwhelming. A couple of things were working to prevent us from getting overwhelmed. The first and major thing was that we weren't given a lot of time to think about it. By that, I mean that there wasn't a lot of time to go, "Oh wow, what are we going to do?" because we were able to hit the ground running.

The tech part of our studio has always been really great with the tools and the technology they've provided the team to make the games. And every game we've made at the studio has always been built on the engine before it. That's even the case when we went from PlayStation 2 to PlayStation 3.

The very first thing the tech guys did was they ported the God of War II engine to the PlayStation 3. Very quickly, we were able to play the PlayStation 2 game on the PlayStation 3. It meant that Kratos could move around, he could jump, he could run, slice his blades, do all of his combos and animations, and he could fly. All of the things that he could do in God of War II he could do on the PlayStation 3. That meant that we could immediately start designing stuff and immediately get in and start working on things.

That didn't leave us a lot of time to think about the overwhelming task we had in front of us. We basically just said, "Hey, it's time to start making the game. Let's start making it." What we did along the way was we started replacing those parts on the PlayStation 2. We worked in-depth with our code department and basically, as we developed the game, they would swap out PlayStation 2 stuff with PlayStation 3 stuff.

We figured we needed the renderer first, so that was the first thing to get replaced. Then the particle system, and then the collision system. It was kind of a dual development process -- there was the main track that the engine team was working with, and in parallel, the replacement parts for the engine were being developed. As they came online and were being tested, they were able to be swapped out with as little interference or interruption as possible, so that the whole team itself was not left high and dry while it was developing.


What's interesting about that is that when you guys moved on from God of War II and announced III, you were basically, since you had the engine built, playing the game right at the beginning of development and playtesting for fun right at that point.

SC: Yes. We had an evolutionary process, too. We had the good fortune of working on the same game product three times in a row, and we were immediately optimizing the process and pipelines each time we would undertake a process. That held true for all of the processes in the game, including testing. God of War was a very heavily tested game. God of War II was even more so. And I think we had even more playtesters with God of War III than we did with the previous games.

The process really evolved, and it's an important part of the process. We raised it a little bit on God of War III by having sooner, more informal playtests. By that, I mean our designers would work together to create a level or puzzle or challenge within the game, and they would be playing it. It wouldn't be on paper.

It would start on paper, from a communications standpoint. You need to get people in a room and they need to understand what's being discussed, and paper designs and documents and whiteboards are very important in that very early stage of communication. But then, very quickly after that point, we get it built in Maya.

We call it a designer's sheet. We have blue box, gray box... it's basically very rudimentary geometry that's rigged up and scripted up to behave like it would in the game, and it's playtested.

The designers would get it to the point where they feel it plays good, and they get the lead designer and director to play it and say, "Yeah, we think this is good." Then we'll grab someone internally who might not be familiar with the area and might not necessarily be a hardcore or great game player, and we'll have them come down and play it at the designer's desk.

We'll have little questionnaires for them asking, "What did you find frustrating? What would you change? If you had to read it, what would you read it as?" There was feedback, right then and there. If it makes them flustered at that point, then it continues in the process and gets refined. If we're fortunate, we can get art laid on it, and then it goes into a public playtest where people from outside the studio and company come in and play it.

We don't afford the opportunity of sitting over their shoulders and saying, "No, no! Go left! No, that's supposed to be this!" We just put them in a room and we watch what they do. The important part for us in developing this game is the iteration and the evolution. It's very important for our group, and it's something we strive for all the time. It's a hands-on process. We get nervous when things languish as ideas. It's like, "Hey, have we started that yet?" It's very important for us to start everything and get it functional and working.

Tell me a little bit more about the team's perspective on documents. Is that something you just do at the beginning stages, and then you move on to a more hands-on type of game design?

SC: Our philosophy is that documentation is a key tool in the communication of what the ideas are and what the objectives are, but it's not the end-all. The end-all for us is the physical playing of the game. One of our most critical milestones in the development of a God of War product is being able to play the game from start to finish, uninterrupted. It's not the finished game, but you're able to get from the beginning to the end and experience it.

For us, it's the hands-on. Documentation is an early part of the process for us, but it's a communication process. It's also a memory tool. By that I mean that we don't do a lot of design documents in Microsoft Word or those kinds of things. We have an internal wiki, and all information gets put up on a wiki. Not so much for the idea that we have this massive design document, but more for the idea, "What did we talk about last week?" We have a place where we can go and say, "Oh yeah, we did want it blue, and this is why we wanted it blue."


You've said that the game's programmers are highly tools-oriented, and they empower the designers. Could you talk about that?

SC: Our tech group has been very staunch -- and rightfully so -- in their approach to game development. Their approach has been very tools-oriented.

In previous games I've worked on, I've had instances where a designer would be wanting to work on the main character and fine-tune the way the character moves.

So he would go to a programmer and say, "Could I see what it would be like if the main character moved three meters a second?" And the programmer would write in the appropriate numbers and appropriate lines of code, and compile it and get it to run.

And the designer would play it and be like, "Hmm. Can I see what it would be like if he moved at two-and-a-half meters a second?" And it would be rinse and repeat. The programmer would input the proper numbers, and that process could go on until the designer was satisfied.

Here in Santa Monica, the programming team has a little bit of a different take on it. Instead of them being the keepers of that information, they basically provide our art group, our design group, and our camera group -- pretty much all of the other departments -- with tools to do those jobs.

Instead of sitting with a programmer, a designer will come to the programmer and be like, "Hey, I need to be able to adjust how fast the main character moves." And the programmer will go, "Okay, I'll write you a tool. Here's the tool. Here's where you can input the appropriate numbers. Go back to your desk and have at it."

The designer goes back to his desk and is inputting the numbers, and they're tuning it. They're tweaking it to their heart's content, and it doesn't tie anyone up from code to be constantly adjusting things to the designer's fancy or direction. Obviously they'll debug it if it doesn't work the way they expected, but beyond that, it's done, and they'll move on to the next tool.

They really do a fabulous job, and they're very responsive to the idea of empowering the people to do the things they need to do in order to do their jobs. They empower the designers and artists to be the best they can be, and not be the gatekeepers.

When you're working in that simple environment in my earlier example, the designer might ask him to change it three or four times and then think, "You know, I'm not going to ask him to change it again." And the game would suffer because of it, because it might need to be changed 120 times before it's absolutely just right. By providing a designer with a tool, the designer can do everything he wants to do until he's satisfied with it.

What about inter-studio knowledge sharing? There are a lot of really talented studios within Sony. How often do you guys exchange ideas and help each other out?

SC: We do have incredible amounts of talent within the Sony studio structure. We try to take advantage of that all the time. I think the only thing that stands in our way would be each studio's individual development cycles.

But that aside, everybody is hugely open. We had a number of meetings with our Naughty Dog studio, which is down the street from us, and then we had a number of meetings with our Insomniac teams over in Burbank. [Ed. note: Insomniac is not Sony-owned.]

Early on, we had larger group meetings with them, like, "Hey, this is our first time on PlayStation 3. What are the pitfalls? What do we need to look out for?" Then we break that down into smaller group meetings. The character group would go off and start asking direct character questions like, "What's the best pipeline to go with on the PlayStation 3?" and vice-versa.

They come to us. I know the Naughty Dog design team has talked to our design team at length early on in development about how we go about designing levels, and how they go about designing levels. There's definitely a very free and open exchange of ideas and philosophies and approaches.

I think the only thing that gets in our way is when they're ready to wrap up a project and it's not a good time to entertain people. When we're wrapping up a project, we're the same. We want to, but we really just don't have the time. When time permits, it's a very open form of communication.


One of the big subjects about this game that has come up is the violence. The series is violent, but now that we have the PlayStation 3, you can really crank up the graphics. For instance, in the demo, you have the neck skin ripping as you tear off of Helios's head. How did you guys approach that depiction of violence now that you have such processing power to make it hi-fi?

SC: That was definitely a challenge for us. The violence question is something we always take very seriously, and we recognize the controversy involved in those works and decisions. I think we tried very hard to follow one of our key guidelines that was set out when we were making God of War, and that was, "Don't do anything that doesn't fit the character."

Don't do anything that wouldn't be appropriate for the character given these circumstances. Anything that relates to the character, as the situation evolves the character and pushes the character forward -- those kinds of things you need to do and should not be shied away from.

Don't do anything just to be sensationalist. Don't do anything just to be controversial. There should be a purpose and a reason for the actions and the depictions shown on-screen.

That was the guideline that we set for ourselves and one that we tried very hard -- and I think successfully -- to follow in the first two products. The same thing applied for God of War III.

The fidelity of the graphics we were able to do...we kind of surprised ourselves. "Hey, look! We can split a centaur from stem to stern and still have insides falling out!" And it was like, "Whoa, we can actually do that?" And then the question was, obviously, "Should we do that?"

It definitely heightens the level of brutality, but after careful consideration and viewing it and experiencing it, it became obvious that Kratos is a very brutal guy, and what he does is very brutal. We want that to be a part of the experience.

Anything that goes in, that we look at and say, "That's too brutal," or is worse than the definition of "This is what Kratos would do given the situation," it goes in and we keep it. Anything that we do and look at afterward and say, "Hey, this just doesn't fit. It's too over the top," we pull back. And there are a few things we actually pulled back on.

Like?

SC: Ah, after you play it, I'll tell you. (laughs) I won't tell you until you play it. After you play it, give me a call, and I'll say, "Okay, what do you think we pulled back on?" I'll happily tell you once you play, because I don't want to spoil it for you.

Were there any company-wide concerns about the game's violence?

Honestly, there were. There were conversations held at a variety of levels. The Helios scene in particular was like, "This is pretty crazy. I don't know if this is appropriate." Our take on it was, "It fit the character, and it fit the circumstances." We felt it was okay to do. But we were thought, "We're going to E3. Let's put it in at E3 and see what the reaction is." We put it on the show floor, and the reaction was over the top. There were definitely a few cries of, "This is too crazy. This is too over-the-top." But for the most part, the reaction was good.

It confirmed for us that we were on the right track and we were doing what was right for the franchise and was right for the character. It also confirmed for many of the doubters internally that, "You know, they've got a handle on this. They're pushing the limit, and they are going to the edge, but the games have always done that." We've always tried to take it as far to the edge as we could.

But what if people mainly said, "Oh wow, that's too much," once the demo was out there? Do you think you would have scaled back some of the violence in the actual game?

SC: If we found the reaction was that it was too crazy...I don't know. That's a very good question. I don't know. But we would have for sure listened to it, and would have considered it. I don't know if it would have necessarily changed our decision, but I can tell you for absolutely sure that we would have listened. And we were listening to what was being said.

Talking about the future of the God of War franchise, you're wrapping this one up -- the Kratos storyline -- but this is a big franchise, and you're going to want to take it forward. What's Sony Santa Monica's role going to be?

SC: That's a good question. I think from our standpoint, God of War III is the end of a three-part trilogy where the franchise is obviously successful, but it's also a very rich franchise. There's a lot of opportunity, and there's a lot of options, and a lot more creativity that can be applied to this universe and these characters. I'm sure it's not the end of the franchise by any stretch.

Now, when the next installment's going to be, it's anyone's guess. From a personal level, I'm very much looking forward to trying some other things. By that, I mean with our background that we have, I'm a firm believer that your art is only as good as the life you have the opportunity to experience, and the more things you can experience, the better your art is because of it.

I think the same is true of making games. The more things you can experience and try, the more things you can develop, and the more successes and failures you have only make the things you're going to do next better.

Having said that, I'm looking forward to whatever we do next, further down the line, if I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to come back to this franchise. I'm lookin forward to what I'll be able to bring to it, and what we'll be able to bring to it, having had an opportunity to potentially step away for a bit. I can only imagine that anything we bring will refresh it, reenergize it, and make it that much better.

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