GDC 06: Jaffe speaks of his God

God of War designer avoided development obstacles through tenacity, fearlessness, and advice from Christina Aguilera.

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God of War (2005)
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SAN JOSE, Calif.--One of the top names frequently mentioned on the game-designing scene these days is Sony's David Jaffe. His most recent creation, God of War for the PlayStation 2, has won several year-end awards and was considered one of the top games for 2005. He is currently one of the creative directors at Sony's Santa Monica studios, and previously worked on the Twisted Metal franchise.

Jaffe spoke with Oddworld Inhabitants founder Lorne Lanning about the rigors of game development, the chasm between the creatives and programmers, and how he was prepared to get fired for his vision.

Though the initial format was supposed to be Lanning getting Jaffe's perspective on game development, the talk quickly took the form of two of the industry's stubbornly creative figures having a friendly chat. Lorne opened up the talk by asking Jaffe what the "juice" was that sparked the idea for God of War.

After scouring the audience for reps from his company to see how loose his reins could be, the outspoken Jaffe noticed one of his bosses, vice president of product development Shuhei Yoshida. After uttering an expletive, he decided to choose his words a bit carefully.

"I've always felt like an outsider among designers, because I don't like games designers... Adventure 2600, that's my Seven Cities of Gold," said Jaffe. "I think when you talk about inspirations for God of War, it comes from a real desire to work on what I felt would be my ultimate action adventure game." He then mentioned how Clash of the Titans and Raiders of the Lost Ark were obvious influences.

Like Raiders, God of War dipped back into an almost long-lost genre and sought to bring back what made its influences great and improve on them.

Lanning summed up his feelings on the game. "I felt that God of War was taking something that people didn't necessarily think was going to be dead on target for the market for this period in time, [God of War] was a little bit retro," said Lanning. "From the outside it seems like you said, 'Wait a minute, we haven't yet fully exploited [the action adventure genre].' That's what we looked at with the side-scroller [and Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee]."

Jaffe explained that he has issues with the industry, but that Sony has a genuine interest in pushing the envelope, and that's why he's been with the company for 13 years. He then pointed out Sony's EyeToy and Shadow of the Colossus as examples of Sony's innovation, the latter having been the big winner at the GDC awards show the night before, while God of War won none. The talk then drifted into an entertaining discussion about the importance of awards.

"We lost everything last night," Jaffe reflected.

"I've never won one of these damn awards," Lanning jokingly griped, which was followed by uproarious laughter from those in attendance.

"It sucks to lose every...single...award you're up for," Jaffe said. "It hurts!"

"When you hear people say that it's great just to be nominated, do you believe it?" asked Lanning.

Jaffe then got more serious and claimed he wouldn't have changed anything about God of War, even if it meant that his mantle would be full with shiny statuettes.

"I could have won the GDC award if I had just done this, that, or the other, but that's not why I did it. [Winning] would have been cool, but..."

"...It still sucks," Lanning said, which was met with more chuckles with the crowd.

"It still sucks," Jaffe laughed.

Even though God of War was shut out at the GDC awards, it cleaned up at the AIS awards in Vegas earlier this year. However, putting such a successful game into the hands of gamers wasn't easy.

Jaffe told the story almost all frustrated developers wanted to hear. God of War was almost shot down before it got started. Jaffe proposed the game to Yoshida, who simply said, "There's nothing innovative here." After pleading with him to the game a chance, Yoshida bent, and the project continued.

He then talked about how the game was almost canceled countless times, with a buggy build of God of War being presented alongside well-polished versions of Naughty Dog's Jak & Daxter and Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank.

"We would show our little game [at marketing meetings], and it would crash, it would look like crap, and [the game's hero] Kratos was this very Rasta-looking guy with dreadlocks, and it looked just terrible. I was expecting my boss to tell me, 'You know, it's time for a new Twisted Metal.' But they kept it going," he recalled.

He then passed on his lesson learned to the aspiring developers in the audience. "Just because it's not working now doesn't mean that it won't eventually work. There's a real magical art to knowing when to pull the plug and when to keep it on life support."

Lorne turned the spotlight to Yoshida, and asked why he kept the project going when he was unsure of its success.

"When the concept was first presented, I was skeptical," said Yoshida, from his seat in the third row. "Then I saw the camera control, and I thought this team might have something." He forgot about the game for a few months, and the next time he saw it, the combo system was in place and the character control was tweaked. It was then that he felt comfortable.

Jaffe later discussed how his creative process can sometimes cause turmoil on the team, specifically with the programmers. He admitted that he wasn't the most well-liked person at Sony, and that the more regimented team members thought he didn't know what he was doing.

"The reality is that I don't know what I'm doing, I'm going through the creative process. Don't be afraid of the chaos, it's your friend... You have to let it go nuts a little bit."

With all the dissention and potential mutinies that went on in the production of GOW, Lanning asked Jaffe what helped him get through it emotionally, and the answer was surprising.

"I would be [spin-cycling] and there's this song that Christina Aguilera sings, and I would be thinking of [lead programmer] Tim [Moss] the whole time, because it's like a '[expletive] you' song," Jaffe admitted without shame. After quickly discussing the rivalry between Aguilera and Britney Spears, he continued, "So I would sit in spin class and I got Tim on my mind and would think, '[expletive] you, man, I'm going to make this work.'"

Fortunately, the tension was limited just to the job. "Outside of the office, Tim and I got along really well," Jaffe said, and later remarked that Moss is the best in the business at what he does. The two game designers later noted that it seems that the games mired in turmoil are the ones that are always the most successful.

When asked whether he ever thought of giving up altogether, Jaffe firmly said, "Always. This game has taught me more about tenacity and sticking to it than anything in my life. I never want to do it again, but I never realized the power that existed in tenacity until I did this game."

Jaffe admitted that he wasn't scared of getting fired for sticking to his core vision. "As a creative, you need to be willing to walk away. I got to that point."

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