The many iterations of Infamous
PAX 2010: Sucker Punch Productions talks about the changes made to its superhero action game over a tumultuous three-and-a-half-year development cycle.
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Who was there: A trio of Sucker Punch staffers were onstage: game designer Darren Bridges, development director Chris Zimmerman, and artist Edward Pun. The panel was moderated by GameSpot's own editor-in-chief, Ricardo Torres.
What they talked about: The theme of this panel was just how much one game can change over the course of its development, with the original Infamous being the case study. As the single-most-jarring piece of evidence, Sucker Punch showed the game's original pitch reel. This was the video that the Bellevue-based developer used to convince Sony to fund a new superhero game after previously spending years working on the Sly Cooper series. Compared to the version of Infamous that shipped in May of last year, the pitch video was unrecognizable: a city populated by cartoon characters, a superhero in tights and a cape, and the work-in-progress title "True Hero."
The game played remarkably differently in those early days, as well. "It was like Animal Crossing meets Spider-Man," joked Zimmerman. Far from the gritty antihero he would later become, the game's original protagonist--still not yet named--was something of a ladies' man. There was a romance system being toyed with early on that allowed the player to win over pedestrians with acts of heroism and, if all went well, reap the benefits with a giant kiss from random passers-by. A clip of this wooing mechanic revealed that the player could simply run up to a couple, do a few backflips, and instantly break them up by making the girl fall in love with the player.
Another clip from early in development showed that the hero of the game wasn't always going to use the powers of electricity as his preferred method of moving about and dispensing with criminals. One clip showed the player zipping through the city on a dirt bike, riding on the ledges of a pedestrian bridge like in an extreme sports game. In terms of weapons, early versions of the hero were shown using grenade launchers, handguns, and even sharpened bike gear projectiles. With every clip shown--about a dozen in total--the hero would use more and more electrical powers until the traditional weaponry was done away with altogether.
Though the early combat videos seemed to show a steadily increasing number of electrical powers as a sign that Sucker Punch at least knew in the back of its mind where it wanted to take the game, the look of the hero didn't follow any sort of recognizable progression. Early versions of the hero ran around in shorts and sunglasses, while later versions were shown wearing a bandanna mask, one with dreadlocks, and a few with glow-in-the-dark shoes and gloves. The chronology of the videos revealed that Sucker Punch wasn't shy about abandoning a new design in order to go back to an old one, as well. The team ultimately settled on the bike messenger version of Cole fans know today, but not without a few iterations showing him with varying lengths of hair before going with the buzz cut seen in the final game.
However, if you believed the Sucker Punch crew's self-deprecating laughs, none of those design growing pains caused as much of a headache as actually naming the character. Joked Zimmerman once more, "I have two children, and naming a video game character was like eight million times harder." Early versions of the hero were code-named everything from "Gear Wolf" to "Chance." Eventually they arrived at the name Cole MacGrath. They happened upon this surname after browsing entire books' worth of Scottish clan names, studying the names for meanings to see which had the best fit for the image of the lightning-powered hero. In the end, the MacGrath clan's association with the word "persistence" won over Zimmerman and his team.
Even with a clearly defined hero, there was still plenty of work left to be done. Once the team decided that Cole would eschew traditional weapons in favor of electrical powers, they spent a good deal of time coming up with ways for Cole to exert those powers. A few of the abilities that were shown but never made it into the game were a stasis field that caught bullets and sent them flying back at enemies; the ability to turn pedestrians into electrically controlled zombies doing your bidding; and the ability to take a cowering citizen and turn him into a giant that would then go off crushing enemies under his feet. A lot of ideas were thrown against the wall, and subsequently a lot of ideas were cut from the final game.
This led into a brief demo of Infamous 2. Even though the team now has a better-defined vision for the series after the rough start it experienced with the first game, this sequel has still had its fair share of cut features. A clip was shown displaying some of the ideas that were toyed with for Cole's new powers in Infamous 2, including giant spiky balls of electricity and the ability to shrink enemies into miniature street thugs.
Quote: On the subject of making necessary changes, Bridges said, "We try not to be precious with any of our work. We try to be divorced from it. If it's good, it stays, and if it's not, we throw it away and try it again."
The takeaway: Even though it went on to receive critical praise, Infamous endured a long development cycle filled with change and uncertainty. Sucker Punch overcame this and ultimately shipped a successful title, but it was a game that bore few resemblances to the original goal.
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