David Cage opens up about Heavy Rain
GDC Europe 2010: Quantic Dream CEO talks about the challenges of developing an original game in today's market; PS3 thriller sells 1.5 million.
Who was there: This was a one-man panel consisting entirely of David Cage, CEO of Quantic Dream. He's the self-proclaimed "vision holder" behind Heavy Rain, and his credits on the title include both writer and director.
What they talked about: Cage's presentation was titled "Heavy Rain: How Far Are You Prepared to Go to Develop an Original Project?" He divided the discussion into three parts, or "three acts," as Cage joked in a self-mocking fashion that would prove to be something of a theme during the talk.
The first part was Cage explaining the reasons behind developing Heavy Rain. He did so by echoing a number of points he brought up during his GDC Europe 2009 panel on taking risks in game development. Cage feels that more games should be designed for an adult audience, that the medium is stuck in a 25-year rut, and that game design is too focused on patterns and repetition. "Very few games try to explore the wide range of emotions that are available out there," he said.
After this prologue about the state of the industry that spurred Cage into coming up with the idea behind Heavy Rain, he then went on to detail how he and the development team at Quantic Dream translated that vision to Blu-ray disc. Cage admitted that this was a daunting task, due in no small part to their pessimistic expectations of how the public would receive the game.
"Heavy Rain is a commercial success," said Cage. "Which is something that no one including Sony and Quantic Dream expected, to be honest with you." He later went on to state that Heavy Rain has sold 1.5 million copies thus far, and he expects that figure to reach 2 million before the game has been out for a year.
Among the major challenges Cage and Quantic Dream faced with this project were issues of both gameplay and narrative. Cage knew he didn't want to create a game with the standard difficulty level, arguing that people don't always need to feel a sense of challenge to derive pleasure from an experience. He wanted the focus to fall more on the journey itself, rather than the actions required to move through it.
He also wanted to get rid of the concept of repeated gameplay mechanics and mapping a few standard actions to the controller, because, as Cage asked, could you imagine telling a story where the main character is limited to the same number of actions as there are buttons on a controller? The solution for this was Heavy Rain's contextual control scheme, in which three-dimensional input prompts hover over the characters and scenes to give players directions on how to interact with the environments around them in ways that could be different for each part of the game.
Turning to narrative challenges, Cage reiterated the earlier notion of Heavy Rain's imposing ambition. "Writing Heavy Rain was like writing a script on a Rubik's Cube," he said, in reference to the various ways players could affect the way the story unfolded. One of the more interesting challenges the team faced was reinforcing the idea that it's OK for the player to fail and that the story wouldn't stop if someone messed up--there would just be new narrative consequences to deal with.
Cage felt they did a good job on that last point and provided an anecdote to back up the claim. One of the gameplay testers for Heavy Rain failed spectacularly at all of the action scenes he was tasked with playing. When later asked how he thought he did, the tester said the game was a piece of cake. Cage posited that because Heavy Rain doesn't stop when a player fails--because the game lacks the game-over screens and finite health bars of something more traditional--people like the tester could easily fool themselves into thinking they were doing brilliantly.
Turning the original idea of the story--a 2,000-page document--into an in-game narrative was not an easy process for Cage. "If you asked me how I did it, I have no clue." The only tools Cage had to come up with the story were Microsoft Word and some free charting software he found online, and that was still more than he had for implementing the story into the game itself. While there is no shortage of game development middleware to ease the creation process, there are no tools for designing a narrative like Heavy Rain's, he said.
Continuing the theme of overcoming hurdles, Cage brought up a few of the technical challenges that went into making Heavy Rain. From motion-capturing eyeball movement to syncing a sound loaded from the PlayStation 3 hard drive with an animation loaded from the game disc, Heavy Rain proved a difficult game for Quantic Dream's artists and programmers to build. Fortunately, challenges both narrative and technical rarely led to internal disputes at Quantic Dream. Cage joked about his multiple roles within the company leading to harmony, saying that it helps that the CEO was also the game designer.
However, Cage got serious when talking about his role as the "vision holder" behind Heavy Rain. He likened his position as director on Heavy Rain to that of an "enlightened dictatorship." Rather than going with a true democracy where every member of the staff had an equal say, Cage stressed that Heavy Rain benefited from having a single voice controlling the direction of the project. This, he said, led to more consistency by making sure the same person had "the final cut" on every major decision. Cage kept plenty of counter-powers around him and often changed his mind about something when someone else suggested an idea (like the benefit of QA testers, which he was originally skeptical of), but he feels that a game can really benefit from one clear guiding vision driving development.
The presentation later turned toward the subject of marketing such a risky game. According to Cage, Sony's initial sales forecasts for Heavy Rain were a quarter of what the game has so far sold. However, the marketing budget for the title remained in line with that initial sales forecast throughout the entire development of the game, even as it gained buzz and showed more signs of commercial promise. Hardly using a disparaging tone toward Sony, Cage seemed to offer that point as yet another reason that Heavy Rain was a risky endeavor to be involved with.
Looking toward potential marketing issues in the future, Cage admitted that he made an effort during Heavy Rain interviews and press tours to build up his name as its own sort of brand. He hypothesized that he might someday have to deal with a publisher who wanted Heavy Rain 2 because the game had become a known brand, so Cage did his best to get his own name out in the public eye in order to show that it's the people who make the game and not a franchise that matters. To Cage, this will hopefully help Quantic Dream maintain the creative leeway to work on new, interesting projects.
Quote: "Yes, there is a market for innovative games. I can tell you this."
Takeaway: Like he argued last year, Cage feels passionately about the medium of video games and their capacity for storytelling. He wants developers to take more risks, and he feels that Heavy Rain offers a good example of how risks can often pay off.
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