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Interview: Human Head's Jim Sumwalt talks Prey 2

1:00 PM on 04.19.2011 // Nick Chester

For better or for worse, Human Head's sequel to its 2006 first-person shooter Prey is a very, very different game. Yes, the original title is a first-person shooter, and Prey 2 maintains that perspective. But from the setting to the gameplay to the game's lead, Prey 2 may not be the follow-up fans had expected. 

"I think the common thing is that we want to show and have the player experience something new from the first-person perspective," Human Head co-founder Jim Sumwalt explained to me last week. "That was true in Prey 1, and that's gonna be true in Prey 2." 

After seeing Prey 2 in action, I'm convinced it will be a worthy -- if not completely unfamiliar -- sequel. But not everyone is so sure. I caught up with Sumwalt last week at Bethesda's event in Park City, Utah to chat about gamer skepticism, and the future of the Prey universe.

What is your role with Human Head?

Jim Sumwalt, Chief Creative Officer and co-founder of Human Head: I'm Chief Creative Officer at Human Head Studios and co-founder of Human Head.

So you've been there since the beginning.

Since the beginning!

So you worked on the first Prey?


During the presentation, it was said that you hooked up with Bethesda in 2009. But it was 2008 when the Radar Group announced the sequel. I get the impression that maybe that was quite a different game. Can you give a little insight on how the game has changed, the original vision of Prey 2 versus what we're looking at now?

I can't speak to too much of it, for semi-obvious reasons. Some of the mechanics did change, there was a little bit of a stress on some mechanics that we're not going to see as much of in Prey 2 as of now. But I can't go into any sort of specifics.

I'll keep asking, until you tell me to shut up.


So it seems like, and we didn't really know much, but that [Prey's original protagonist] Tommy was front and center. Why did you decide to go in a different direction with this new character?

That I can speak to! So Tommy, we kind of had an opportunity with Prey 2 in terms of how the end of Prey 1 wrapped up. [Tommy] basically flew our world, our game environment, into the sun and destroyed it. So we were kind of left open to you know, 'What is going to be our new backdrop? Is it going to be Earth? Is it going to be another sphere? Is it going to be someplace else?"

At the same time we also wanted to expand the franchise and have a backdrop that allowed for more stories, and kind of come at it from the universe of Prey is not solely Tommy's universe. So that's where we decided to take it.

It's interesting, we were talking last night about the direction you've taken. In most games, the sequel is generally the same characters, set in the same world, doing mostly the same things. It's a direct continuation. But in films, it's not always like that. Someone mentioned Predator one versus its sequel, which was the story of Danny Glover in New York City as a completely new character. It's kind of interesting that when it happens in games, everyone kind of gets up in arms about it, like "Where the hell is Tommy!?"

Obviously, you mentioned that you're looking to expand the universe and make this a franchise. Can we expect to see a different character each time going forward? Is that kind of the vision? Because if Prey 3 comes out and Killian's not the main character, I'm gonna be pissed!

[laughs] It's always an option, as evident with this title, it's one that we're not gonna shy away from. But I think you know, we're conscious of you know "How does Tommy's story and how does Killian's story, and how do they intertwine, and what does that mean for Prey 3?" I can't speak…

Obviously it's early.

Right, it's early. And you make a great point, and one that I'm probably going to use in the future -- that Predator and Predator 2 analogy -- both had a premise that stayed true through both films, but had vastly different settings and different characters.

And it definitely worked. When the game was first revealed, I think most of the Internet saw a single magazine cover. It didn't say much about the game, but we saw this character, and it was just not what anyone had expected. There was a bit of an uproar. People were thinking "What are they doing to Prey? What is this Prey: Black Ops now?" What was the internal reaction to those reactions? You guys must have been sitting somewhere gritting your teeth.

Well, you know, our reaction was exactly that. I wished we could speak to each one of you. I mean, Killian's a bounty hunter, and that's the genesis of how his look came together. He needs the tools of the trade, he uses high technology to track down his targets. As you saw in the demo, he's all about action and he's super agile. So he had to be lightweight, he couldn't be in a heavy suit kind of thing. And we were conscious that he's a lone wolf on Exodus, for the most part, and so we kind of wanted to make that statement visually. So you do get to see him and his humanity, more so than if he was covered up [and you'd be thinking] "Is he an alien?" That kind of thing.

Did you sort of expect -- "backlash" is the wrong word, maybe -- but did you expect people to raise eyebrows? It's a pretty big departure.

Definitely, definitely. Yeah, and I mean and I think it's growing pains, in some ways. Yeah. I think the common thing is that we want to show and have the player experience something new from the first-person perspective. That was true in Prey 1, and that's gonna be true in Prey 2.

Yeah, definitely. So yesterday when we were doing the demo, and I think you were there, someone kept bringing up the fact that Tommy was Native American. They said something to the effect of, "What made Prey so great was that Tommy was a Native American." I think that's a bit of a stretch. But people did kind of pick up on that, that he wasn't the traditional game character, which is Caucasian, like Prey 2's new hero. When you were designing Prey 1, was it a conscious decision to make that character not fall into a traditional game stereotype? Did you know you were, in some ways, making a statement?

No. I think that we weren't making a statement for or against, you know, that type of story. Tommy's story was that kind of self-realization and identity with his spiritual beliefs, which gave him those abilities which were awesome and cool. The abduction fantasy and mythology, is the thing that ties the two together. And we wanted to do some things with the gameplay that led to [Killian] being a bounty hunter. In terms of spirituality and what race he is, it didn't really fall into a strong place into the story or the narrative, it wasn't the main point of it. With Tommy it was an important part of his story.

Yesterday, you were asked about multiplayer and it was completely shot down. Is that completely off the table? Because you look at a lot of games now, especially first-person shooters, and you'll hear people who think a game looks great say "Pass!" as soon as they find out the game lacks an online component. Do you feel any pressure to get that multiplayer component in there?

No. Thankfully our publisher is a master at single-player immersion. So we're not getting any pressure from that standpoint. My personal opinion is I think people want high execution, no matter what the delivery or what style of gameplay, whether it's single-player or whether it's multiplayer. And, you have to execute high on both. And we planned to execute high on the single player.

Now we have talked [internally] about an online component, and that's not off the table.  I can't go into too many details…

Well, it's more than a year from release, so anything can happen.


So the world of Exodus, we saw a little section of it. And there's a portion of this world that doesn't face the sun. How completely different in that from what we've seen? I know you probably don't want to give too much away…

They are very different from one another.

Are they cold over there?

Ahh, yep. There is a glacier field that is the size of Canada, just a giant glacier. Yeah, extreme cold temperatures and extreme hot temperatures on the opposite side, of course.

I will say that most of the stuff has heavy population though. So it's not so much that I'm out in the sticks hunting down a target, while a bunch of aliens baddies are nipping at my ankles. It is more intelligent AI, and populated type city environments.

Will that different weather affect the gameplay?

Good question… not so much to the point where it will create environmental hazards. We did mess around with that, of course you know "Oh cool, we can create these [things!]" And visually we can make those statements, but we notice that when it actually became something that got in the way of gameplay, it did just that -- it got in the way. You know, as you saw you have gadgets you can use simultaneously with your weapon while you're climbing and traversing, and using cover, and being promoted by the game to jump over boxes and shoot while moving, and all [of that] great action stuff.

Then to also have to say "Watch your step!" didn't feel right.

I was picturing Killian not being able to hold on to things and slipping.


Like you can't grab on to this thing because there's ice on it.

Right, so it would create these [new] routes. Yeah, but we really focused on freedom with this. Pushing the boundaries here was how far can we push the freedom and allow the player to go where they want to go.

So the whole verticality and the platforming and stuff like that, is not unique to first-person shooters in that Mirror's Edge did a similar kind of thing. But it is unique to an action game, this style of game. Did you look at Mirror's Edge at all and think "Oh, that's a great idea! We've got to do that, but we need to put more guns in and aliens."

Most definitely, I think we looked at it quite a bit. We like to say that other games have run away from combat using the kind of free-running things, and we want to run toward combat with free running.

Will there be platform-y opportunities, almost where you have to time your jumps and things like that, or are you just focused on making sure it's fluid and it feels good versus that sort of timing.

There is some timing stuff. You saw in the demo where Chris [Rhinehart, Human Head co-founder] jumped over passing trains to chase the target. So there will be some stuff like that. Again, we don't want to try to slap the player too hard though, if they miss a timing thing. It's not "Ahhh! [makes a splat noise] Do over!" Because there's a lot more going on than just traversing those trains, you know, you're chasing after a bounty who's got henchmen attacking you and he's attacking you…

The game has a lot of concepts in it. Somebody said to me it's "like a triple-A orgy"…


…you're grabbing bits from a lot of high-profile games. They've never really been put together like this though. Anything you'd like to namecheck in particular?

Well, we don't really want to bring up other games as examples, just because people can play into what that means when you mention a game, good or bad. So…

Yeah, I guess that's a tough question to answer. At the end of the demo, there was this big boss creature. Will there be a lot of boss encounters like that?

There are a few. They're kind of more like mini-bosses than a full on dedicated level that's all, "I've got to knock a thing down over here and that's a timing thing, so I've got lure him over to this thing and topple a thing and crush him." There are some big bruisers you have to come up with tactical solutions for, [using] mostly gadgets and weaponry. Also how you use the world and find their weaknesses. Not to the degree of -- I'm gonna mention a game now! --


[Laughs] No, that's okay…. of say, a Doom 3 or something like that.

So Tommy's in the game somewhere. Doing something. He will not be playable?

Uh… can't speak to that. [Laughs]

I know there's a lot of stuff you guys can't talk about right now. When are we going to get a chance to play it? Is this at E3 I'll get that chance?

Uh, I can't talk about the E3 plans either. You'll see a lot more at E3. But that's kind of Bethesda's call.

There's a lot of stuff you haven't shown us yet.

There's a parallel going on that we have a demo that is kind of branched off as demos will, so you can guarantee or minimize bugs and guarantee replayability, that kind of thing. But the main game is still charging ahead so we're often looking at the demo going "Man… it's starting to fall behind some of the things that we continue to push forward." So E3 will be a nice time when we can start bringing some of that newer stuff in there.

Speaking of demos, I know that it's sometimes difficult to make open world titles into consumer demos. You know, do you give people this tiny taste and kind of box them off, or what? I know it's early, but do you have any plans for that?

That's still TBD, for the exact reasons you mentioned.

Is that your call or the publishers?

Well most things are collaborative with the publisher, but ultimately it's their call for sure.

So how has it been working with Bethesda?

Fantastic. Excellent experience. They've always asked us what kind of game [we] want to make, and where do you want to take it, and [they will] support that. You know, with what we wanted to do with the title, it was the perfect fit right from the get-go, and they're a super creative, talented group of people, and it's great working with them.

So how did that relationship come about, did you approach them or was it the other way around?

We approached them.

Were you out just sort of looking for a place to put Prey 2?

We were. Yup, yup. And then, you know, Bethesda began negotiations with [former Prey IP owner] 3D Realms for purchasing the IP.

Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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