What Went Right
1. Initial Concept. As I have discussed, the initial concept of our game changed relatively little over the course of development. Something about "an action horror game set in a prison" was uniquely compelling to our publisher, the press, and gamers alike. Despite containing highly stylized supernatural creatures, the game's very real-world setting was essential to making the game relevant and hooking people. The game's prison setting proved particularly intriguing to gamers and was a rich space for us to explore that had been under-utilized previously.
Shortly after development started, I wrote a fairly detailed back-story for both the game world (Carnate Island) and Torque, and these elements also changed relatively little over the course of development. Though we did not plan on communicating all of this back-story to the player directly, it gave the game tremendous consistency as we built it. As we were given more time to iterate on the project, the back-story documents gave us a strong foundation on which to expand the game without seeming forced.
2. Focus. Having established our high-level design goals from the start, we were then extremely frugal about adding features. We knew that in order to properly implement the features the game did need, we would have to omit mechanics that were non-essential. For example, beyond his weapons, health, and flashlight batteries, Torque cannot carry any inventory items, including keys. To some, it was odd that we were making a prison game that didn't include using keys to unlock cells and gates. But in the end we realized that including keys didn't really add much if anything to the core gameplay experience and would have been wasted development time.
Evolution of the Slayer.
At the same time, we worked hard to keep the features that enhanced our core gameplay. Our fully playable first person mode evolved out of a more traditional "look around" mode. Over the course of development numerous problems arose and cutting it was suggested numerous times. This feature, however, was a major enhancement to our core gameplay experience, since shooting from the first person perspective is extremely intuitive to players. Indeed, from our gameplay testing we knew this was a very popular feature. Thus we knew that whatever extra time was required to make a fully functional first person mode would be well worth it.
Though we may have been too conservative in a few cases (for example, the game's shooter mechanics would be better off had we included the ability for Torque to crouch), overall our strict policy paid off nicely and allowed us to refine our core features while staying on schedule.
3. Changing the Control Scheme. Though I said earlier that we stayed remarkably close to our original concept, there is something that changed significantly from our earliest one-liner: the game stopped being similar to Devil May Cry (DMC). Indeed, from the very beginning I wasn't much of a fan of the gameplay in DMC and preferred shooters that, at that time, were traditionally more popular on the PC. Indeed, Half-Life was also mentioned in our concept for exactly that reason. Truth be told, DMC was mentioned in the pitch because a number of the publishers we were talking with about The Suffering had expressed interest in appealing to the fans of DMC.
As a result, from the start our game and level design work had much more in common with Half-Life than with DMC, except for our controls. When designing control schemes, I feel that you want to give the user something they are familiar with from other games. In general I find relying on other games for inspiration to be problematic, but in the case of controls I think it is crucial. What we had originally implemented was a target-lock system inspired by Syphon Filter, the most popular third-person shooter on the PlayStation, and DMC, at the time the most popular third-person shooter on the PlayStation 2. With our controls for a console-style shooter but our gameplay from a PC-style shooter, about a year into development we realized we had a dangerous disconnect in our design that made our game tedious instead of fun.
However, by this point Max Payne, Halo, Medal of Honor: Frontline, and SOCOM had all been released on the consoles and sold in excess of a million copies each. All were shooting based games in the PC tradition: they eschewed target-lock in favor of double-stick control schemes that simulated the mouse/keyboard experience from the PC. This system had the advantage of forcing players to actually aim at their target while having the disadvantage of being challenging for novice players to pick up. But looking at the sales for these titles, we concluded the installed base of players who were familiar with these controls was now large enough that we could take the risk of turning off a few newbies.
The change was a huge success for the game: it fixed the disconnect in our gameplay and added depth that had been completely missing. There was now very little similarity to DMC to be found. Looking at the forums today, I find that some players still have trouble adjusting to the two-stick system, and I believe we have lost some potential players for this reason. However, our significantly deeper game experience has brought in so many players that I know we made the right decision.
Two 2D level maps created by the design team prior to level construction. The one on the left was created using Smart Draw, while the one on the bottom was made using Photoshop.
4. Storytelling Techniques. The Suffering had a deep story to convey, but we didn't want storytelling to get in the way of our core game experience. With immersion being one of our design goals, we didn't want to rely on too many cut-scenes. We had a rule of thumb that cut-scenes were to be used exclusively for pivotal story points or for intensely scary scenes. Furthermore, we wanted to keep Torque's actions fairly neutral during these scenes to avoid negating the player's feeling that they were fully in control of Torque at all times. Thus we needed to use different storytelling techniques.
A lot of story was communicated during gameplay through the various NPCs who function as Torque's guides through the world of Carnate Island. Though the player could kill any human character at any time (thus missing out on the story points they had to convey) being in a horror space allowed us to use supernatural characters who Torque was unable to kill. The player could also hear dialog over radios, PA systems, and telephones, all real-time during gameplay. The player was also able to collect various notes throughout the game in addition to unlocking pages in an archive, both of which revealed more of the back-story to players who were interested. Finally, we used a slow-motion blur effect to convey events from Torque's past and the history of the island. Inspired by some of the imagery from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, this technique was our most innovative and also proved to be fairly frightening.
All of these techniques combined to allow us to tell a story with a minimum of play interruption. Players who wanted to experience the story were able to, while those who would rather stick to playing the game could ignore it. Even with these techniques, the story is kept mysterious enough that players will still be left with numerous unanswered questions. My hope is that players will fill in the blanks with their own imagination, following the tradition of great horror films such as The Birds, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, and The Ring. In horror, the player's imagination is far more disturbing than anything a writer could possibly come up with.
5. Iteration and Gameplay Testing. From a design standpoint, one of the most fortunate events of The Suffering's development was getting time to iterate on the game. Midway was quite happy with the game's progress and had seen a strong reaction to it from the press and public alike. Thus they gave us a generous time extension, not because we were behind schedule but because they wanted to make the game as strong as possible. Thus, with our levels all fully built and functional many months before shipping, we were able to do a number of passes on the game. We did a pass on horror elements to make the game more frightening, including adding our real-time environmental flashes that are so key to the final experience. We also did a story pass, not to change the story but to expand on how it was presented to the player. We performed an AI pass to make the creatures much more dynamic and varied in their behaviors. Finally we did a puzzle pass to fix the most egregious problems with the puzzles. The impact of these passes cannot be underestimated. For example, the game's design did not originally plan for the real-time scenes involving Torque's wife and children to be in the game, since we did not have time to build them from an art standpoint. Anyone who has played The Suffering knows how crucial those scenes are to the game experience.
To help us figure out what needed fixing, at numerous
points in development we put the game in front of
a group of gamers and watched them play and then listened
to their feedback. This gameplay testing is distinct
from focus testing since these sessions were for development
feedback alone, not for marketing use at all. We did
this as early as seven months into development, and
we were able to fix a lot of major problems early
on, including our disjointed control scheme. If anything,
the game could have benefited from more gameplay testing,
but what we did have time for impacted the game tremendously.