Infamous' game director on what makes superhero games work and exactly what a "crime ecosystem" is. New screens!
By Thierry Nguyen 12/02/2008
Check out our Games of 2009 hub page for exclusive previews every weekday in December.
I don't blame you for not knowing the name "Sucker Punch Productions" right off the bat. Its games aren't as grandiose or as visceral as something like Killzone 2 or Gears of War 2. The phrase "great platformer in a kiddie wrapper" accurately describes the studio's output to date (three Sly Cooper games, plus some N64 game about a one-wheeled robot, Rocket: Robot on Wheels). But hey, if director Alfonso Cuarón can go from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban right to Children of Men, so can Sucker Punch go from Sly Cooper to the dark, open-world superhuman action game that is Infamous. We got to talk a bit with game director Nate Fox of Sucker Punch about the development of Infamous, and while we didn't straight out ask what's it like to go from a furry platformer to a real game, we did learn some interesting details, like what influence a real-world riot has over a superhero game and just where the heck did the idea for mind-reading electricity come from.
Click the image above to check out all Infamous screens.
1UP: General question: What do you feel's required to make a superhero game work and succeed? As a follow-up, what do you guys think modern -- or future -- superhero games need to move the genre forward, and how will Infamous address those points?
Nate Fox: I believe the most important thing to making a good superhero game is marrying the hero's powers into the game world. Sometimes that's really tough. For instance, if my hero has razor-sharp claws, yet the game won't let me cut down a wooden fence, then it sort of breaks the suspension of disbelief.
Our hero, Cole, has powers that are designed from the ground up to work well in the context of a videogame. For instance, he can shoot lighting bolts out of his hands -- why? Because shooting in videogames works really freaking well. Same with being able to climb everywhere in the world and jump between buildings -- it's fun to do! This is our core strategy in crafting our superhero -- we're building the world around his powers and his powers around what's fun to do in the world.
1UP: Quick refresher: What's the basic structure of Infamous? Is it a series of missions set against an open-world backdrop, or do players go out into the world to find things to do? Does Cole have a safe house, like Sly did?
NF: Infamous is an open-world game filled with stuff to discover as you poke around Empire City. People are getting mugged and attacked all around you -- whether you decide to do anything about it or not. We call this "the crime ecosystem." However, story missions are tailored to deliver a cinematic superhero experience. And yeah, Cole has a bit of a safe house, but not like Sly, nope, there's no place safe for Cole in Empire City.
1UP: You've shown some Reapers (the main gang that Cole goes up against); some with traditional weapons and others with superpowers of their own. Tell us about what goes into the enemy design? How do you decide what superpowers the enemies have or deal with balancing enemies who just use guns against a player who can call down lightning from the sky?
NF: Creating enemies for Cole has been one of the real joys in making Infamous. Since it's a realistic game, we started by creating bad guys with a full suite of conventional weapons (guns, grenades, etc). Once that groundwork was done, we moved up to enemies with superpowers, which as you might imagine is fantastically fun to design. Enemy powers let us create some new experiences in the third-person shooter genre. For instance, the Fire Reaper we've demoed is designed to force dynamic rolls and pressures the player to seek higher ground in the heat of combat.
Click the image above to check out all Infamous screens.
1UP: Are there any specific influences on the feel and design of Infamous? We'd like our readers to get a sense of which superhero stories share DNA with Infamous or where ideas like the postcognition ability came from.
NF: As you might imagine, we're all big superhero fans here at Sucker Punch. The film Batman Begins and the graphic novel series DMZ are two of [Infamous'] many influences that did it right. I also got a lot out of participating in the Seattle WTO riots. Spending time in a lawless place is interesting, particularly as a superhero with the power to do great good and evil.
As for postcognition, it was born out of our constant desire to create cool gameplay. One of the big problems in an open-world game is creating interesting setups for combat. But what if a superhero had the ability to track the psychic echo of a killer through a crowded urban environment? Well, that's a pretty cool superpower because it creates fun gameplay scenarios. Not all of Cole's powers are about blasting people's faces in, just most of them.
1UP: What's been the biggest development challenge in producing Infamous?
NF: The biggest challenge was getting Cole's climb ability to work just right. We'd promised ourselves that the whole city was going to be scalable. This is, as you might imagine, a hard promise to live up to, but now that it all works, it was clearly worth all the effort. Being able to smoothly skulk along the rooftops and then jump down onto the heads of a bunch of bad guys is great. You really feel like a superhero.
1UP: Describe the coolest event you've most recently seen -- a particular battle, a sequence in a mission, whatever -- you've seen in Infamous.
NF: As you might imagine, given that Infamous is an open-world game with a lot of systemic interactions, you'll see unexpected stuff all over the place. Just this afternoon while playing the game, I pissed off a bunch of people, and they banded together into a mob and tried to stone me to death. Ultimately it didn't end well for them, but I admired their courage. Did I mention you can play as a good or evil character?
We get our first crack at playing the PS3-exclusive electrified superhero game.
By Garnett Lee 02/11/2009
Valuable as established comic book superhero licenses can be, developers have recently jumped out of more mainstream series to create their own take on what a hero can be; Sony's upcoming PS3-exclusive inFAMOUS falls into this category. Its hero, Cole, finds himself suddenly infused with the power to harness electricity in all sorts of ways. I had a chance to play three work-in-progress levels to try out Cole's powers for myself. A short graphic novel-style intro set up the world I'd be entering. A mysterious violent blast has destroyed much of downtown Empire City, and the plague that followed caused the government to seal the whole city off under quarantine. As you might predict, society quickly fell apart, leaving an anarchic world ruled by gangs with the rest of the population starving and hiding out in fear for their lives. The whole atmosphere definitely channels the movie Escape from New York.
Click the image above to check out all the inFamous screens.
I eased into Cole's unstable world with an early mission in which he was still coming to terms with his newfound abilities. Developer Sucker Punch plans to use Cole's increasing familiarity with what he can do as the vehicle for introducing new powers and abilities over the course of the game. One thing he won't use. though, are guns. Why? Well the one time Cole tries to pick up a gun his electrical charge causes all the bullets to cook off at once in an explosion.
After being guided through the basics of blasting lightning and reenergizing dead circuits, I hit the streets. An airdrop of food provided my first confrontation with a gang called the Reapers to see who would claim the precious cargo. From the moment combat began it was clear that fighting relies primarily on ranged electrical powers. Sure, you can get in close with kicks and punches, but they're not as rewarding compared to frying guys with lightning, nor nearly as effective.
Cole has a two-tiered system of powers to play with. His basic lightning blast comes with an unlimited supply of energy; while not strong enough to kill an emeny in one shot, you can rattle off an almost constant barrage of bolts making it plenty useful for taking down individual enemies. It works so well that it's easy to fall into a rut of just running around spamming lightning at everything. Your other powers are stronger and open up a number of build-your-own-combo opportunities. One of the basic ones that works well for dealing with groups is the Shockwave, which sends out a shock wave throwing everything in its path up in the air, leaving the flailing, helpless enemies vulnerable to easy lightning attacks.
Click the image above to check out all inFAMOUS screens.
These powers, unlike the basic lighting attack, require your charge meter to be full, which luckily you can do by sucking power out of pretty much anything electrical you find -- streetlights, phone booths, car batteries, etc. Recharging also recovers some health, so as the battles heat up, you're forced to stay alert since you're always looking for the next place to grab a boost. It also opens up some potentially interesting situations down the road where you might have to battle enemies in an area of the city without readily available power or charging spots.
Defeating the Reapers exposes one of the moral dilemmas that runs beneath the action surface of the game. With the food secure, you get the option to either share it with the citizenry, or to run off the commoners and horde it all for you and your girlfriend. Depending on which way you go, you receive either good or bad karma. The developers hesitated to say much more about the karma system, but it definitely plays into how the population of Emerald City responds to you over the course of the game. But I learned that the condition of the city reflects your choices: Clean up efforts get underway if you restore order, but deterioration prevails if you only serve your personal interests. This selfish vs. selfless decision could make a nice evolution over the typical black-and-white good vs. evil setup. The shades of gray give you a lot more interactivity with the story, while also relieving you from the game straining situation of playing as a morally bereft character, but still earning the same happy ending.
Click the image above to check out all the inFamous screens.
The side missions and dealing with what Sucker Punch calls the "crime ecology of the city" will also shape Cole's in-game morality. While the side missions seem pretty standard, the crime ecology presents another interesting way to tie back into the consequences of how you play your character. Street crime may increase or decrease in response to whether you bother trying to stop it, and how much order has been restored to the city as a whole.
The other two levels I played -- one in which I stopped some Reapers from polluting the water source, and another that involved powering a commuter train so it could get to a safe station -- offered a little more insight the game's story. Though it wasn't fully explained, I learned that Cole was at the epicenter of the blast that set everything off. He also communicates with a mysterious FBI agent named Moya who appears to be working through him to fight some sort of conspiracy underlying the events. And, cryptically, he hears some sort of mysterious voice in his head that claims to love him more than his girlfriend ever has. While these amount to little more than a tease at this point, everything inFAMOUS does to create depth and substance beyond just running around the city as a powered-up character goes a long way toward differentiating it from the competition.