Feature Article

God of War Creator David Jaffe Talks New Arena Shooter Drawn to Death

Outside the lines.

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Much like the teenager idly doodling the game into existence, Sony-exclusive arena shooter Drawn to Death is violent, crude, and, most importantly, misunderstood. It appears on its surface to be a relatively mindless run-and-gun shooter with sloppy visuals and more than a few crass jokes. But beneath this deliberately rough exterior, Drawn to Death runs surprisingly deep, as I discovered during my recent hands-on time.

Nearly every weapon, for example, is a distinct and sophisticated puzzle. You can always just pull the trigger and fire off a few rounds, but if you pay attention to subtle cues and experiment with a weapon's various options, you might unlock some hidden potential: a devastating rocket that only fires if you hit the trigger a second time at precisely the right moment, a bayonet of spinning axe blades that only engages after two successful kills, random incendiary rounds that you know to save because the indicator on the gunstock is glowing red. Some games have you exploring environments; Drawn to Death has you exploring an arsenal.

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The characters, too, are immensely intricate. The roster is currently six strong, and there are no repeated abilities among them. Each combatant possesses multiple unique traversal options--from flying to rushing to wall running--as well as two special attacks that inevitably move beyond standard "aim and shoot" gameplay. With this density of mechanics, the intimacy of the four-on-four matches, and the relatively long duration of most enemy encounters, Drawn to Death ends up playing almost like a fighting game in that you must constantly consider individual match-ups and execute a complex, calculated series of actions, pulling from a deep well of options.

With so much to learn and consider, I often found it difficult to understand what the hell was happening, much less keep up with the action. Still, I admire the courage it takes to sacrifice accessibility for depth, so in an effort to better understand Drawn to Death's ambitions, I sat down with creator David Jaffe to dissect the game and contextualize its place within the world of modern shooters.

GameSpot: I noticed there's no leveling in a Call of Duty sense, which is actually pretty rare these days. Everyone's pretty much on a level playing field regardless of how long they've been playing.

David Jaffe: Yeah, other than experience. I think in a competitive game, that should trump--if you're good, or if you've got experience. But no, you don't upgrade anything in the game. You unlock cool things. You unlock levels, new characters, new skins, and there's always hopefully something new to see. I love actual competitive games, and perks and upgrades and things like that have been really successful and I think those games deserve all the success they have, but they're not for me because I can never tell if I lost or if I won because of my skills or because someone simply had something I didn't have--whether they paid for it with real money, whether they paid for it by playing longer. This game is definitely our attempt to make a competitive shooter that doesn't really drink from that well. It drinks from more of a well of a purist game design philosophy.

This game is definitely our attempt to make a competitive shooter that doesn't really drink from that well. It drinks from more of a well of a purist game design philosophy.

What games did you look to when approaching that style of play? To me it sort of speaks to Quake or Unreal or other arena shooters of the past.

It does. We've been saying it's built on the bones of Unreal and Quake and Smash Brothers and Mortal Kombat and even Mario Kart's battle mode. It's built on the foundation of just skill-based, competitive gaming, where you win based on how good you are, not based on an upgrade you may happen to have. That's games, right? You see that in anything. Another thing I'm fond of saying when talking about this game is, you wouldn't play chess with someone and give the Queen a laser gun or sniper rifle. You could, but it wouldn't be chess anymore. It wouldn't be a game that's really between two people and their skill only.

So much of the advances in shooters have come from the meta over the last X years, right? It's so much about upgrades, and it's so much about putting perks in gear and attachments to your character. But the actual moment-to-moment engagement on the battlefield, I don't feel it's made that big of a difference for me. If I engage an enemy in Battlefront or if I engage an enemy in the very first Modern Warfare, my moment-to-moment engagement is still relatively similar. I don't have a sense of, oh, I need to look how this guy moves, or I have to look at what his attacks are. I'm just like, I'm going to shoot that guy in the head just like I'm going to shoot this guy in the head, right? For us it was about, could we take the moment-to-moment minutiae of the actual engagement of a shooter and could we add some meat and innovation to that?

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How did you find the right level of mechanical complexity?

It's not so much we expect every player to walk away and know all of this. It's the fact that it's kind of like, this is available to you, and if you really like the game, hopefully it's rich enough and deep enough that over time you can build new strategies and discover new tactics. We don't have a checklist of, we can only have four mechanics per character, and all that. It's just kind of a gut feel at the moment. We've had people play the game and really love it, and we've had people embrace and enjoy what we're trying to do with it in terms of that much of a nutrient rich game mechanics system. We had other players pick up a shotgun, and they don't do any of the other stuff. For them they walk away like, what's the big fucking deal? That's fine. It's not their kind of game. If you come to it and you're just picking up the gun and expecting to shoot people [who] die in two or three hits, it's probably not the game for you. It's probably better to stick with much more successful shooters and more traditional shooters.

In a way, do you feel like you're almost fighting an uphill battle against what players have been trained to expect from shooters?

I feel it is an accurate statement to say that players have willingly and happily been trained to expect certain things in a shooter, and I don't think that's bad. I think that's what they like, and good for them. I am hopeful that there are enough players who like what we like that we can continue to make characters and levels and content because this is the kind of game I like to play when it comes to competitive mechanics games. We knew that it wasn't going to be super, super mainstream, but we don't think it's so niche that it's not going to find enough of an audience. Who knows? I gave up knowing. I remember when we did the first Twisted Metal, we did a focus group with hardcore gamers, and they fucking hated it. They hated it. And I remember calling my wife at the time like, "Dude, I'm done. This is my first game or second game. There's no way I can continue in this business. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing." Suddenly, it went on, and it did great. From that moment on, games I've released, I'm just like, I don't know. I like it. The team likes it. We did the best we could. Let's hope we find people who like it too.

We knew that it wasn't going to be super, super mainstream, but we don't think it's so niche that it's not going to find enough of an audience. Who knows? I gave up knowing.

Is this mentality part of what convinced you to make this a free-to-play experience? I believe this is your first free-to-play game.

It is. My thing on that is, I love theme parks. I'm a huge Disneyland fan, and I love the idea of a video game that sort of felt like it was perpetual. We could reward customers for coming back often, and we could build a moving thing, and I love the idea of working on that and nurturing that and creating that sort of virtual world. The free-to-play part came from going, "[What] if we can do free-to-play in such a way that is not the aspects of what we hate about free-to-play?" Because all of us hate traditional free-to-play. It's awful. It's worse than the upgrade stuff we talked about. It is bad for game design, it is bad for game players, and we want no part of it. For us it was really finding a company like Sony and saying, "We want to be free-to-play too, but we're curious: can we do it gamer-centric? Can we do it in a way that takes the best of free-to-play--which is, people try things out?" We'll see, but that was why we wanted to do it.

This brings up two concepts you mentioned earlier during the presentation: the in-game "Black Market" and the rent-to-own item system. I was hoping you could explain those a bit.

[Players] are rightly suspicious of service games and free-to-play games because of what they've experienced, mostly in mobile. I wanted to do everything we could to make it clear--like, look, we want to succeed, but we don't want to do it at the expense of your good time. Hopefully, we do it because you're having a good time. And so, even though usually free-to-play rentals don't do that well, when Nick [Kononelos]--who co-owns the company with me and is producer of the game--was like, "What if we let them reduce the purchase price when they rent?" Then it's like, "I've never seen that before. I really like the spirit of that." Because it was like, we're not going to make you rent something and then you have nothing to show for it.

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That's where that came from, and the Black Market honestly came from looking at Arena in Hearthstone, which is one of my favorite games of all time. That sort of led to the idea of, "Hey, what if we built in this thing that let players actually pay less for items if they can do really well?" Which is what you can do in the black market. You can actually get things tremendously cheap compared to the normal store if you get a lot of black skulls, which you can do if you come in first or second place. That's the motivation for those things.

You also mentioned your approach to selling new levels...

We do want to monetize. Not all the levels, but we do every now and then want to sell a level because they cost a lot to make, and they're compelling things to get, but we didn't want to split the user base, which tends to happen. We said, you know we could actually sell levels and let you vote on levels that you don't even own so you'll get to play levels you don't own. It doesn't split the user base, but it does allow us to sell levels and rent levels and make money off of those things. Which are really one of the key things that I think people are going to want to buy in a shooter, new places to play.

All of us hate traditional free-to-play. It's awful. It's worse than the upgrade stuff we talked about. It is bad for game design, it is bad for game players, and we want no part of it.

The game does not contain a single-player campaign, but there does seem to be some kind of narrative framing the action. Can you tell us about the game's story elements?

There's no campaign mode right now. We would love to have enough success one day to maybe tell a playable story in the space, but it's a competitive shooter first and foremost. It is absolutely taking place in a world where, if you're invested in the world, there is a lot of story meat even in what we're shipping with an arena shooter. It really was inspired by watching my kids engage with fiction that wasn't even there in Minecraft with a character called Herobrine, which apparently is this sort of Bigfoot-like character that wandered the wilds of Minecraft that people were saying they saw. If you talk to [Minecraft developer] Mojang, it's never been in there, but I love the idea of, what if we did put it in there? Most people won't even notice it. We're hoping the people who do notice really dig it and let people know about it, but we will see.

I was also hoping you could tell us a little about the visual style. There almost seems to be a disconnect between the richness of the mechanics and the crudeness of the art style. Are you trying to surprise players with an experience that's way richer than the surface may have indicated?

What you have just described is the dream scenario. A more likely scenario for a meaningful number of gamers is they will look at it and say, "This game is ugly." I don't think it's ugly. I think it's quite beautiful. It's not trying to be Horizon. It's not trying to be Metal Gear V. It's trying to look like a kid's notebook come to life. What I said in the original pitch, I said I would love people to think of this game as a garage band surface. It's vulgar. It's extremely rough around the edges. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes just because we're a small team.

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I'm guessing that approach informed the humor as well.

Well, the minute you're talking about a world that exists in a high school kid's notebook who clearly is very creative and very imaginative and not paying attention in class, clearly he's going to have a unique way of looking at things, and he's probably going to be a little sarcastic. That made sense for what the story was and what the universe was.

So far we've gotten really good feedback on that level of snarky vulgarity. I think people really dug it, but I'm sure there were will be those who don't. Those who tend to write articles about "Where's our Citizen Kane?" I love That Dragon, Cancer and stuff. Gone Home? I love games like that. I love the potential of the medium, but God, there are such pretentious assholes who write about games sometimes who drive me up the fucking wall. They'll just come back at me and say, "Look at this juvenile stuff." I'm like, you know what, fucker? It's intentionally juvenile because I think that's fun.

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Yes, his mother is Mrs. Butterworth.

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