Q&A: Bruce Oberg on Infamous
We chat with Sucker Punch cofounder and programming lead Bruce Oberg about inFamous karma, creating fun superhero games, and living in the game's environment.
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Sony's PlayStation 3-exclusive game Infamous has some lofty aspirations. In addition to offering a huge degree of interaction between your character and the world, the team at Sucker Punch has included an elaborate morality system. It won't lock you in to any one play style, but it will make you think about the repercussions of your actions as you move through the environment. We asked studio cofounder and programming lead Bruce Oberg about creating superhero games, striking a balance between abilities and fun, and karma in Empire City. Check out our thoughts on the game's morality system here.
GameSpot AU: There seems to be a big focus on shipping games from proven franchises rather than launching new IP in the current economic climate. Why will Infamous as a new IP do well?
Bruce Oberg We have been very lucky to be able to create Infamous from the ground up as a video game. Using existing IP can help introduce you to a larger audience, but it often comes with many built-in decisions that don't necessarily make for a fun game. We created Empire City and our hero (Cole McGrath) with nothing but fun gameplay in mind. To our mind, having an original IP is the best way to make an amazing gaming experience.
GS AU: The open-world superhero genre is well established. What differentiates Infamous from experiences like Prototype, Hulk, City of Heroes, or Crackdown?
BO: From the very start, we wanted to give players the experience of what it would be like to get superpowers and become a hero (or antihero). To do this, we needed to provide both realistic choices and a world that reacted to what the player does. Empire City and its citizens react to Cole and they remember his actions. So the way you play the game has far-reaching effects on how the story and your powers unfold. The ebb and flow of your karmic state literally colours how the game progresses, and this adds a ton of variety to the missions and challenges throughout the game.
GS AU: Plenty of developers are trying to deliver the living-city concept. Tell us about the effects your actions will have as you interact with both citizens and the city itself, and the feedback you'll give players on their actions.
BO: Cole has a karma meter that can swing from good to evil and back again. People in the street react to his current state appropriately (for example, running away screaming if Cole is very evil). If you destroy a guy's car in a fire fight, that guy will remember it and perhaps he won't help you later in the game. In addition, Cole's powers grow in different ways based on his karma. "Good" upgrades to his powers are more precise and controllable, whereas "evil" upgrades are more chaotic and crazy. Also, many of the things you do in Empire City are permanent. If you decide to blow up a police station, it won't be around later when you need help from the cops. Our goal here was to make the player's choices and play style mean something beyond a high score.
GS AU: Morality also seems to play a major role in Infamous. Tell us about the various approaches players will be able to use to gameplay situations and how they will affect your character and skill progression.
BO: Cole's karma colours everything in Infamous. In almost every mission, the player can use both lethal and nonlethal powers for defeating enemies. The player can try to limit collateral damage or blow the crap out of everything. Sometimes, Cole will be given a specific karmic situation (for example, take a bunch of food for himself or share it with strangers). As Cole's karma changes, so does his physical appearance. The parts of the city that Cole controls also reflect his current karma.
GS AU: Since morality appears to ultimately play out as either supergood or superevil, will the game feature multiple endings? What do you hope to ask of players by offering the choice of superhero versus supervillain?
BO: Infamous is not a "Choose your own adventure" game, so the basic story arc is the same regardless of Cole's karma. That said, as the player progresses, different parts of the story are revealed depending on karma. So you may need to play the game twice in order to learn everything that happened to Cole!
GS AU: What can you tell us about some of the villains in the game? Who will Cole come up against?
BO: At the beginning of Infamous, a blast rips through Empire City. Cole unwittingly delivered the bomb, somehow survived the explosion, and emerged with his electrical powers. But Cole wasn't the only one affected. Others got powers as well, and Cole will have to battle them for control of the city. As Cole gains more power and conquers his challengers, he will eventually have to figure out who set off the original bomb and why.
GS AU: What superpowers does Cole have at his disposal?
BO: Cole is a conduit for electricity, so all his powers are electromagnetic. He starts of with a basic lightning bolt that he can shoot through his fingers. He soon acquires a thunder drop that he can use from high jumps, and a shockwave that can deliver a huge kinetic blast to nearby targets. Cole gets more powers as he explores more of Empire City.
GS AU: From the various demos we've seen, there seems to be a save-versus-spend choice to weigh-up with your abilities and the energy required for each. Tell us about power regeneration and how players will recharge.
BO: While Cole can control electricity, he's not all-powerful. He needs to recharge when his energy orbs are used up, but luckily Empire City is full of juice. Cole can pull power from almost anything in the environment, from power lines to cars to the third rail on the subway tracks. Parts of the city may also be blacked out...these are obviously very dangerous for Cole.
GS AU: What (if any) lessons have you learned and directly translated from the Sly Cooper series to Infamous?
BO: Both Infamous and the Sly Cooper series were built from the same principle: Keep the fun stuff. We do a ton of experimentation and iteration when making our games, and the bottom-line rule is that the fun stuff stays and the un-fun stuff gets cut. It's hard, because you can spend a lot of time and effort on something that you think will be cool and awesome. But if it ends up not being fun to play, you have to toss it out and start again.
GS AU: Giving players a virtual open-world playground and over-the-top powers is fun, but what are some of the associated balance issues of creating a superhero game, and when do you need to reign in the controls?
BO: Balance is one of the crucial hooks for any game. We spent hundreds of man hours watching people play Infamous while recording their every move. From that mountain of data, we adjusted and readjusted thousands of difficulty settings in every part of the game. There's no silver bullet here--you need to ensure that players are always challenged and rarely frustrated.
We knew very early that Cole's powers were electrical. But we didn't want his powers to be unlimited. So we created the charging system throughout Empire City and made the use and management of power a key part of the gameplay. Needing to charge up adds a lot of tension to many scenarios in the game, and being able to unleash huge moves on your enemies then becomes supersatisfying.
GS AU: Bruce Oberg, thanks for your time.