Swery's 20/20 hindsight on Deadly Premonition

GDC 2011: Director of last year's surreal survival horror game condenses his design philosophy into seven key points.

Who was there: AccessGames designer Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro was on hand to discuss his approach to making games and how it resulted in last year's Xbox 360 survival horror game Deadly Premonition. Tad Horie, president of Katalyst Lab and translator for Deadly Premonition, was also present to help with translation and hosting.

What they talked about: Swery opened the presentation with a rundown of his seven major points of game design:

York's smoking habit may seem like a small detail, but Swery said it made a big difference.

Point 1: Make gamers think about your game when they aren't playing it.
Point 2: Make gamers actively "want" to play through your meticulously scripted story.
Point 3: Create a storyline for a free-roaming open-world game.
Point 4. Prevent players from quitting the game at the result screen.
Point 5. Make appealing characters.
Point 6: Characters should talk in a memorable way.
Point 7: Use all of your ideas while you can use them.

On the first point, Swery said games that players don't remember when they're not actively playing them are effectively dead. What game designers want to do is to make the barrier between the game and the player's own life fade away as much as they can. For instance, smokers who played Deadly Premonition frequently told Swery that when they saw York light up a cigarette in the game, they got a craving as well. Lots of little actions in the game, like eating, drinking, and shaving, may be superfluous to the story, but they link the players' daily routine to the game, causing them to be reminded of it as they go about their lives.

Beyond physiological needs, Swery put in references to movies like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and scenes like York looking in his coffee for signs and portents. These things linger in players' minds, he said, so they might rent the movie later on or stare deeply into their next cup of coffee.

The second point was about how to make gamers want to play through a linear storyline. There are two common methods for giving players a sense of freedom within story-focused games, Swery said. Side quests allow players a certain measure of freedom, as does the use of multiple endings. For Deadly Premonition, Swery used a third method: Freedom of Timing. That basically means allowing for a change of heart, which creates the illusion of freedom.

He showed a flow chart for normal quests, which present players with a challenge and shuttle them back to the beginning or push them along depending on whether they succeeded or failed. In Deadly Premonition, Swery said he gave players the choice to change their mind mid-quest. The developers wanted players to feel comfortable leaving the quest to do something else in the game that they might find enjoyable. When they came back to the quest, Swery said they would be more willing to accept the story on its own terms.

Additionally, Swery stressed that speed is not important so much as timing. He had characters explicitly tell the players that they didn't need to rush. By letting players take their time and approving of their doing so, Deadly Premonition makes the players feel empowered. The result is that players wind up relaxed, hitting the story when they're in a receptive state so they can be immersed deeper into the game.

For the third point, Swery broke down the normal storyline path of a linear game compared to that of Deadly Premonition. Typically, single-path storylines build from the synopsis, plot, characters, and script, with the map and character details being fleshed out at the end. For Deadly Premonition, Swery started with the synopsis and then figured out the map and character details, including where the characters would be on the map at any given point in a 24-hour period. Only after he had that world and those characters did he go to work on the plot and script.

The character and universe are just as important as the storyline, he explained. In hindsight, he described it as being created more like a TV series than a movie.

On the fourth point, Swery said developers need to get their players to want to see the end of the story. Normally with challenges in games, players accomplish a task and get a results screen, which is a cue to the player that it's a good time to step away from the game. To remedy this, Swery inserted hints of the next challenge into the previous obstacles--the equivalent of a cliff-hanger to keep the players going.

Swery's fifth point stressed the importance of characters.

"If you can't remember any of the characters' names, then that game is garbage," Swery said.

Swery created "resumes" for every character in the game. More than just their jobs, the resumes included all kinds of background information on the characters, like their first loves, favorite books as a child, habits, signature phrases, and so on. It's important that characters can be copied, Swery said, noting that fans of Deadly Premonition have cribbed the mannerisms and slogans of characters from the game for their own discussions or fan art. Having mimickable actions in a game makes characters more relatable and endearing, he explained.

Characters should be fully fleshed out even before the plot.

Characters also have to be multidimensional, Swery said. He intentionally inserted a negative side to every character. York is a slick agent, but he's also an inconsiderate otaku. Emily is a beautiful heroine, but she has her own personal problems and is a terrible cook. Forrest Kaysan was a nice guy and good with kids, but he had trouble keeping his pants on, Swery said. Everyone has a bad side in real life, Swery noted, but people still like them.

Voice acting is also key, which led to Swery's sixth point. While he can't speak English fluently, Swery still had to give directions to voice actors. Instead of focusing on what was being said, he focused on how the lines were delivered and how they fit the scene. In Swery's mind, York was meant to have a British Invasion sound, while the character of George had a destructive edge along the lines of '80s hard rock. Meanwhile, Emily needed to be nostalgic but fresh sounding, like oldies pop music. It's the emotion that's really important, Swery said, and that was what he tried to capture in the voice acting.

Swery saved the most important point for last, saying everything is about the designer's ideas, and they should use all of them while they can. They shouldn't be held onto for another day or project. For example, the map of Greenvale in Deadly Premonition is laid out like a dog raising a paw for a shake. There was no rhyme or reason for that, but Swery had the idea to put it in, so in it went.

In the audience question portion of the game, one attendee asked Swery how he chose the Pacific Northwest US as the setting for Deadly Premonition. He explained that Canada was originally a possibility because one of his relatives lived there, but it was changed because the team reasoned that US gamers would be more interested in a game set in their own country.

When asked about a sequel, Swery said people want to see more of York, even though the game wraps up his character arc. Despite that, Swery said they could always just ignore the events of Deadly Premonition if they wanted to. As for what he might have liked to add to the game if given more time and resources for the project, Swery said he wanted York to be able to ride a bicycle and wear cologne, ideas that drew applause from the crowd.

Another member of the audience asked Swery about his feelings on using guns in games as a means of conflict resolution. Swery explained that he originally didn't have any combat in Deadly Premonition; York was just intended to run away from shadows. However, the publisher told him it wouldn't sell in the US if he did that, so they added the gunplay in.

Quote: "They say every rose has its thorn, just like every old cowboy has watched the TV show The Facts of Life."--Swery, on the importance of good characters having a bad side.

"I love you all!"--Swery's farewell to the crowd.

Takeaway: Deadly Premonition may seem like the product of a fevered and frenzied mind, but there was a clearly defined method to Swery's madness.

For more on the creator and his philosophy, check back Monday for a spoiler-filled episode of GameSpot presents the HotSpot with Swery as an in-studio guest.

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Discussion

57 comments
Kravyn81
Kravyn81

Well E3 has come and gone, and I haven't heard anything about the PS3 edition of DP. Please tell me it's still coming.

CatPuncher
CatPuncher

The game would have been a lot more interesting and atmospheric if there had been no gun-fighting sections; the whole gun collection/dollar 'score' element significantly diluted the impact of the story for me. It would have also felt more rewarding if the side-quests provided clues or leads that padded out the background - this could have brought the various areas in the town to life and rendered them far more memorable than they were. (Minor spoilers hereafter:) My main issue with this game was that you were unable to affect the flow of the plot with your actions - having this ability would have encouraged me to play through the game at least a full second time, especially if following a particular course of action came at the expense of another. On the whole though, I was impressed by the game's ability to draw me into the story - I did ponder over it outside of play-time - and the general illustration of the environment. I will be anticipating future games from this production team - let them prove themselves with a larger budget and feedback.

360hammer
360hammer

Such an awesome game, too bad all these A.D.D. kiddies don't have a clue. The most memorable image near the end in ANY video game I've ever played and I've played allot. Will never forget that plant image NEVER!

LadyS0rcha
LadyS0rcha

Swery's second point made me chuckle. I don't even remember how many times I put the main mission aside to wander around and do random side quests. I actually got a lot more out of the overall story by doing this. The player gets a better sense of how much work went into the narrative of and characterization in this game.

davedogg2k5
davedogg2k5

i took 3 things away from this game 1 how bad it the bad guys were 2 how bad the script was 3 how bad the controls were

Polybren
Polybren

We just put up a Deadly Premonition spoilercast with director Swery in the studio to answer all our questions! Go listen!

DarthChristian
DarthChristian

@dj_pulserfan; your profile pic is bananas. wtf is going on in it lls

DarthChristian
DarthChristian

that whistle song stayed in my head for months......f@!$ you swery, f$#% you very much

Crazy_Legs87
Crazy_Legs87

Release the PS3 version in the U.S, Swery!

dj_pulserfan
dj_pulserfan

@Shtinky Not so much "putting it out there" as much as we didn't already know about it. The director has already stated many times that the show is where he got the idea from. Besides, any game with a scene involving a "Sinners Sandwhich" with a rhyming lackey deserves a mention in my book. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-41YUSZ9VAg

rludeman44
rludeman44

This is still the worst video game I have ever played. Step 8 should read: Don't make the game look like a terrible joke. "I don't want to die" that game was so bad and the salesman at gamestop told me, "I'm sure i'll be seeing you soon and I'll be buying that game back from you." He was right.

jhpeter
jhpeter

This games sucks you in. Already finish it with 22 hours. Original history and a very weird humor. For resident evil fans.

Darkeus
Darkeus

Ah, the game that told the world that budget games can be really awesome too! I really need to sit down and play this game over again when I get the chance. It has bad controls and dated graphics but Deadly Premonition is made of pure win!!

pokecharm
pokecharm

This was a much more well-rounded question-and-answer session - I feel like Swery really tells gamers things that would seem obvious to making/writing a great game, but having specific points to hit is much more instructive than just saying to 'make anything' as I read in another interview here.

Legolas_Katarn
Legolas_Katarn

Great characters and a memorable well done story that doesn't take itself seriously and knows it. David Cage can learn a lot from them.

SatampraZeiros
SatampraZeiros

Please make a DP2 I will pay 100 bucks per game if I have to, this game was freakin awesome, please pretty purty please.

ziproy
ziproy

I like building the characters before the story. That way you dont just build a cookie cutter characters and hope for the best like what most games do now a days

noway78
noway78

the driving was horrible, the shooting was a joke, the map is completly broken. having said thata love the game, love the music, i want more york

TheRealLisaAnn
TheRealLisaAnn

'Make gamers think about your game when they aren't playing it.' Hmmmm. Wow? Yep. World of Warcraft.

troy1108
troy1108

or is it rainy woods? :))

troy1108
troy1108

when it will come for ps3 in any other country beside japan?that's the real question!twin peaks ftw!!!my bad,deadly premonition! :P

HailToTheGun
HailToTheGun

@blueboykc Guess you're too young to know about the TV show "Twin Peaks."

001011000101101
001011000101101

@blueboykc Dude, what are you talking about? The game was never intended as a parody.

blueboykc
blueboykc

guess some of you didnt realize it was a parody of survival horror games...oh wells..

plaintomato
plaintomato

@santinegrete Seriously, someone thumbs-downed your comment. What kind of dork would thumbs down multi-platform? Must've been Bill Gates. @blueboykc Seriously? They made a "play" on bad control schemes by having a bad control scheme? Next you are going to say the graphics were a "play" on PS1 games, right? Anyway, the graphics didn't bother me, if that's what you get for a budget price to kick start a quality new IP, I'll take it. But the controls...bad design decision.

DBZKING1234
DBZKING1234

You shouldn't edit your game so much just because you don't think it will sell in the US. I feel guilty. Running from the enemies would at least be an interesting change over usually game play.

Timmy_Gwar
Timmy_Gwar

@VelcroJonze I agree. I find a lot of horror games have bad controls to add to the suspense but it just stacks up frustration much quicker. If you are making a game with characters that you want players to relate to, then the player is going to have to feel more connected to the characters through use of fluid controls.

VelcroJonze
VelcroJonze

I have this game. I want to finish it because the story is good, and while the aesthetics look like a bad ps2 game, the environments have a nice creepy quality to them. However, I have to say that it is insane for the developer to intentionally implement bad controls for a game even if it's a play on the awful controls of Resident Evil and Silent Hill? That is just a bad business decision in my opinion. Those games were horrendous to play trying move through an environment like a tank.

CCGR_Pheonix
CCGR_Pheonix

Sounds like they wanted to be Tales of Vesperia.

Freak_Ache
Freak_Ache

This is a pretty insightful Gamespot article. Wouldn't you agree Zach?

blueboykc
blueboykc

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

mkdoomfan2
mkdoomfan2

I think one of the things that shocked me the most was how diverse it could really be, the characters were fleshed out as much as they could be in a game of this genre, the story may have become predictable have way through, but that did not stop me from playing it, it was the overall charm. something games dont have these days. Plus $20.00 for a 10-15 hour game is great, other than a $60.00 game that only has a 4-6 hours of gameplay. I now wait patiently for a sequel :)

TechnologoDoom
TechnologoDoom

such a surprisingly good game! i'm just hoping the next time around the graphics look 3 years old instead of 10. regardless, they deserve a round of applause for staying true to a vision. And i'd be more than happy to play any other David Lynch-ian story!!!

_Silent_Jay_
_Silent_Jay_

@Santinegrete - It was multiplatform. The US distributor only released the 360 version.

TTDog
TTDog

So the awful control system was intentional? I can imagine the thought process, "Hmmm, it looks like a second rate PS2 game, why not include a control system of a similar vain, make it almost impossible to go where you want to, when you want without running into the scenery" Don't talk balls!

blueboykc
blueboykc

it kills me that some ppl who played the game still dont understand that that things like the control scheme and the blatantly obvious twin peaks vibe were intentional parts of the game design whether you agree with them or not it was on purpose..

plaintomato
plaintomato

How come nobody asked him why he decided on such a miserable control scheme? A few minor changes to the control schemes - both on foot and in vehicle, and I would have actually finished the game. The control scheme and the way they handled so much of the dialog with the no-voice-over-so-slow-loud-beeping-letter-at-at-time scheme - those are the two things that killed the game for me. I wanted to follow the story - but I can't endure bad game-play for it. If I want a story w/out game-play I'll read a book, and I'll read it at a better clip than one letter at a time.

im-a-roustabout
im-a-roustabout

This is the one reason why I am sad I no longer have my 360. Eh, maybe Gears 3. But this game continues to intrigue me. I'm about to buy it and just find a buddy with a 360 I can shack up with for a night or two and just pull a couple all nighters to play this.

macca366
macca366

Wish someone asked about the glaringly obvious Twin Peaks influence. I don't mind inspiration being taken from great things at all, but it bothers me that he didn't mention it as its a big part of the essence of the game

001011000101101
001011000101101

Swery's so awesome! Deadly Premonition was definitely my game of the year of 2010.

singhellotaku
singhellotaku

This is the best worst game I've ever played, the dialogue was terrible but somehow very effective.

method115
method115

I need to get this game a lot of talk about it. My favorite part of the interview is when he says: "If you can't remember any of the characters' names, then that game is garbage," Swery said. That is so true.

Levi221
Levi221

Great read that's for sure I hope to get a Prequel to the game one day.

Tsuchikage
Tsuchikage

Deadly Premonition surely is a memorable game. Bizarre, and it has a lot of gameplay problems, but it was intriguing nonetheless.

zaiwen
zaiwen

Gimme deadly premonition 2 that takes advantage of kinect NOW!!!

jethrovegas
jethrovegas

Deadly Premonition can wear pants anyday, that's how love it so!

ErrolJames
ErrolJames

Must finish this game. Turning on the 360 now