Q&A: Breaking down the Chains of Olympus
POSTMORTEM: Two months after he helped bring God of War to the PSP, Ready at Dawn's Ru Weerasuriya looks back on the literally epic game's reception and development.
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On March 24, the PlayStation Portable turned three years old. Three weeks prior, one of the most anticipated games ever released for the system, God of War: Chains of Olympus, hit stores.
A prequel to the popular PlayStation 2 fantasy action series, the game was billed as a system seller for the PSP, which has lagged behind the Nintendo DS despite boasting higher-powered hardware and a more robust set of multimedia features. Sony was so confident that the game would be a smash, it announced that a special blood-red edition of the portable would be packed in with the game and a UMD copy of the teen comedy Superbad in a bundle that will go on sale in June.
However, when the NPD Group released its US March sales numbers, Chains of Olympus success was solid--but not overwhelming. The game sold over 340,500 units at retail and cracked the top 10 best-seller list, becoming the first PSP game to do so since Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories in 2005. However, Chains provided only a modest boost to sales of the PSP hardware, which climbed 54,000 units to sell 297,000 systems during the month.
Although Chains of Olympus wasn't a savior for the PSP, its developer Ready at Dawn likely held a bacchanal when reviews of the mythologically themed adventure descended from the heavens. The game currently enjoys an average 91 score on Metacritic, the highest of any PSP game yet released. Coupled with the success of Daxter and the Wii port of Okami, Chains of Olympus helped solidify Ready at Dawn's reputation as one of today's fastest-rising independent studios.
Now, two months after Chains of Olympus' debut, GameSpot caught up with Ru Weerasuriya, Ready At Dawn's cofounder and creative director, to reflect on Kratos' first handheld rampage, developing for the PSP, and what the future holds for the studio. A new IP, perhaps?
GameSpot: So Chains of Olympus sold 340,000 units in March--making it the fifth most popular game of the month, and the first PSP game to crack the top 10 since Liberty City Stories. Were you pleased with the results?
Ru Weerasuriya: Definitely. It's not easy selling on the PSP, as seen from the past, so getting in that top 10 is great recognition for the work done on the game. With Daxter having gone well over 2 million since its release, we wanted to follow up in the same way with Chains of Olympus and hopefully overtake it in time. I would say it's off to a good start.
GS: Were sales higher or lower than you expected?
RW: Honestly, we didn't know what to expect. All we were looking for was to surpass our last game's early numbers, which it did. So, mission accomplished on that front. Now that we've had a little time to sit back and contemplate on the last couple years, we feel really good about how the game is being received. We make games to entertain people, and knowing that's it's selling well and that people are enjoying it is pretty gratifying.
GS: So Chains of Olympus received a sparkling 91 average on Metacritic, which many publishers use as a metric for doling out bonuses to developers. Did you reap any rewards for delivering a game that was so highly rated across the board?
RW: It's a huge boost to our collective egos! But seriously, the highest reward we get from the scores is for our reputation as a team. There's a saying that I think will always hold true and that the team never forgets: You're only as good as your last game. Having those high ratings definitely reflect on how we are perceived as a developer. As many out there know, it's not easy being independent in today's industry, and with God of War, we wanted to make sure that we improved on who we already were as a team after Daxter.
GS: What is your opinion of the practice of tying payments to developers to Metacritic scores?
RW: There's definitely a lot of merit to it. As a developer, the only sure control you have is on game content and how it will be delivered--although that control sometimes can go out the door depending on the partner you work with. Some measure that success from sales, which is also important and should definitely influence rewards as well. However, sales are sometimes not a true measure of quality, as there are many factors that affect game sales that are beyond the developer's control. And as it's been the case many times before, high ratings don't always correlate with high sales.
So, if a game's ratings are the measure of a team's value, then it should [be] more than fair that that team is rewarded to reflect the quality of their work. The problem today is that developers are generally still not the ones reaping the rewards of a successful game. For example, I don't know how common and widespread the practice of bonuses tied to ratings really is, as it's not something I've seen in many of the studios I know. It's strange to think that still today, with the amount of creative effort and dedication it takes to make a game, the talent is still struggling to get recognized and compensated. Especially when you think that there would be no games industry without the software--a console would just be another piece of hardware sitting on your shelf.
GS: Which aspects of the God of War franchise did you think it was most important to faithfully reproduce in the PSP version?
RW: That's an easy one: the combat. Without that, the game would not stand a chance of holding true to the franchise. We made sure to address the core of God of War in tiers and nail those down in order so that we ended up with a coherent game; number one was combat, and that includes Kratos' combat and magic system, the enemies and bosses. Then story. This is, after all, another chapter in an already epic franchise. Of course, puzzles were a must to pace the game correctly. Music is also one of those pillars that not only completes the experience but more often than not enhances it.
[Editor's Note: SPOILER ALERT]
GS: When Kratos chooses to fight Persephone instead of stay with his daughter, he pushes her away in one of the series' familiar button-tapping sequences. Some players we've talked to either found that incredibly touching, or on the other end of the spectrum, just plain hilarious. Why did you choose to put that interactivity in there? Had you intended it to get that sort of split reaction?
RW: That's the risk we had to take. I knew that it wouldn't gel with everyone, but that moment was needed. As for interactivity, I hate the idea of not allowing the player to truly experience those kinds of moments.
In games, we often take the stance to relay story and emotion in noninteractive sequences because that's often the easier path to take. I knew that people would be split over how that moment would play out, but that's a risk worth taking in order to get the player to get emotionally involved in the story and characters. If it was up to me, I would make sure that each and every moment of a game remains an immersive experience that the player never detaches from.
Ultimately, that's where we need to head towards in interactive storytelling. We have the unique opportunity to give players more than what they would get by watching a movie or reading a book. We can make them care and feel for everything that a protagonist goes through by making them play out the story and experience the consequences of their actions firsthand. It's definitely not an easy task but it's a worthy endeavor.
[END SPOILER ALERT]
GS: Which parts of the formula were you the most comfortable tinkering with?
RW: The most comfortable area to tinker with was the story. I was looking for that freedom, and luckily that was something that David and Cory were open to. We had seen two epic God of War games, with Kratos taking on the Olympians head-on, kind of brute force. I thought it would be interesting to touch on themes that David did with the first game, which is ultimately what makes Kratos the man he is. He really has to be pissed off to do what he does by the end of the second game. Creating that foundation behind his anger and hatred was definitely interesting and challenging.
GS: The least comfortable?
RW: The least comfortable area to tinker with is the combat, as the God of War 2 team had really perfected an awesome fighting system. Early on, we tried to take a different direction with it, but ultimately, it came back to what the Sony guys had already done. However, we did keep one big part of what we developed, and that was the gauntlet. From the looks of it, people have really enjoyed the different gameplay it brought.
GS: The two PlayStation 2 God of War games were credited with pushing the limits of the platform. Did you feel the PSP restricted your ability to create the same sort of in-game areas as the console edition? Or did you feel its technology was such that very few compromises had to be made?
RW: Well, different platforms, different problems. There were things we could not do on the PSP to match the sheer content found on the PS2 games, but what mattered most to us was the overall package. It's all about how immersive the game experience is. So we didn't set out to just match what had been done before, but create our own take on it. Even then, we were sometimes able to pack more stuff in this game than any other PSP games had ever done.
We knew, however, going into this that we wouldn't necessarily be compared to other PSP titles, but held against the last two God of War games, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
GS: What was your favorite aspect about developing for the PSP?
RW: The challenge. We felt the system was still untapped, and pushing the platform was an interesting process to say the least. We didn't have a template to go by and wanted to see how far we could push without going insane. There were times when we set out to do things that we first thought not possible, only to tackle them later and find ways of making them work. It's kind of like solving a big puzzle, although I'm not sure the programmers would agree with me on that.
GS: Your least favorite?
RW: The challenge! [Laughs.]
GS: Did you find the lack of a second thumbstick limiting in any way?
RW: Not really. I think we succeeded in addressing the concern everyone had with the second analog. Of course, it's always nice to have that extra analog, but I don't think the gameplay experience suffers from its absence. Of course, during development, we did have to spend some time thinking about how to map all the required controls on the PSP. The dodge/evade was probably the only point of contention we had at one time, but in the end, that got solved as well.
GS: Do you think you will ever develop for the PSP again? If not, why not?
RW: As of now, the answer is "no." We did what we wanted to do on the platform. We saw the opportunity to bring Sony and the PSP two great games and system sellers with Daxter and God of War, which is what I think we've accomplished.
Something that a lot of people don't know is that we proposed both those games to Sony because the team wanted to make those games and we felt that we could push a platform we felt was still untapped. It was never asked or imposed on us. I'm sure we could have gone on to do more on the platform. In the current market, you need to stand out of the noise in everything you do, and the team's interest and goals had shifted to other things, namely tackling the PS3 and 360. If in the future we feel that we have something to bring to a certain platform, whichever it is, then we'll propose something, and that might include the PSP.
GS: What feature would you most like to see in the next PSP?
RW: A dual screen! But seriously, I think the PSP is already pretty awesome as a system, something that I think is lost on many.
GS: What do you think Sony can do to expand the PSP as a platform?
RW: I think that Sony, and other publishers for that matter, should take some chances on the system and allow for some big productions on the platform. More often than not, the PSP is seen as a secondary console with only a few great games developed exclusively for it. And even if some of the games are exclusive, the execution is not all there, and in the end, the player is the one who has to suffer for it.
Ultimately, you reap what you sow, and if publishers are not willing to bank big on a platform, then the market is not going to see any expansion. The PSP has the capacity to be a great platform to develop and be successful on for many teams out there, so publishers also need to make some gambles on the types of projects they pick.
Again, whether the PSP, PS3, 360, Wii, or DS, the systems will only be as successful as the games that are made for them, and right now not enough good stuff is available out there for some of the platforms.
GS: How difficult is the PSP to develop for? What was the size of your development team?
RW: The console has its quirks. The fact that there is only a single bus to squeeze everything through is one of the major roadblocks. But there are ways to work around that. The color reproduction on the screen was another; everything tends to tint slightly bluish, so it's not easy getting clean warms sometimes. I think the difficulties are there regardless of the platform, as we're seeing from the current work we are doing on PS3 and 360.
As for our headcount, I think the dev team was 35 at the height of production. We started off with about 20-25 people and remained that size for most of the first 12 months, and then ramped up.
GS: What aspects of PSP and PS3 connectivity do you find most appealing? What PS3/PSP connectivity feature would you like to see introduced?
RW: I'm waiting to get some time to go download and play echochrome, so I'd have to say the download feature is pretty nifty, but that's kind of the basics.
GS: Would you work with Sony as the publisher on a PS3 product?
RW: Only the future will tell. With the work we've done, we've been fortunate to be in a position to choose a partner that would fit our vision and style of development. So if Sony fits in our vision in the future, then it's definitely a possibility.