Supergiant talks letting players take the wheel, strategy design, and some of their favorite games
Make sure to read Part I in this series. It deals with development crunch time, getting a game ready to launch, and the genesis of Transistor post Bastion. Now we're continuing the abrupt, jerky carnival ride through time and getting to the middle bits, to Transistor's design philosophy as it came together and the games that the people who made it love.
Come sit with us on Amir's dad's old, burgundy couch and learn about furniture utility with Supergiant's Amir Rao (co-founder), Greg Kasavin (writer), and Darren Korb (composer).
With its isometric view and sumptuous art, Transistor may not feel like the most radical departure from Bastion, but its free mix of real-time combat and time-frozen strategy complicates design.
"A lot of what Bastion had to teach you is this simple stuff: what button should I be pressing, what should I be thinking about when I'm playing. On top of that for this game we have the strategic layer and the hardest thing to do for me as a game developer -- and I think it's hard for every developer -- is to simulate the lack of knowledge of a first-time player," Rao said.
The shared gaming literacy of Bastion's action-oriented combat let you make certain assumptions. "In Bastion, everyone rolls. Everyone knows like roll out of the way of damage. That's innate to you and how you play and how you think," Rao said. "Whereas in a tactical game, players have a wider set of potential options or things that they're thinking about at the time. That's a more challenging space.
"In a game that has some strategic or tactical pleasures, that gap in knowledge is part of the pleasure. Figuring out the tactics and strategies that start to work for you and appeal to you. It's a constant combination of trying to encourage certain player behaviors. For example, in what we showed at PAX, attacking enemies from behind does more damage. We want to teach you that without forcing you to use that as a tactic.
"Just because you force a player to mime something doesn't mean they learn anything. They've just gone through the thing you forced them to do. In a game with more tactical pleasures, you have to be open to the idea that the player may not learn something the first time and it's okay as long as they can get through it. They may learn it a second or third or fourth or fifth time they have an opportunity to engage with the systems."
"The joke I have is that we don’t ship with the game. So if we have to stand there and explain how to play...if we have to explain it now, when are we going to make it explain itself later?" Kasavin said.
"You have to be introspective when you're watching people play," Rao said. "And all those moments when you want to grab the controller from the player are actually a failure on your part to design something that encourages the kind of behavior that you're looking for. So at PAX, it's a lot of what we observe [that serves as useful feedback]. Sometimes more than what people say about the game."
"We really like it when we can just observe and we don't have to intervene. We see intervention as a failure," Kasavin said.
"We don't intervene," Rao said. "You need to see if it will resolve itself otherwise you ruin your experiment."
"We have these moments where we’re like cringing, 'oh god, this person...' We blame ourselves. But, oh god, this guy, you know, this person just is not seeing this thing that we thought was noticeable but it's not. They don't know where they're going. Then they have their epiphany and it's like, oh thank goodness," Kasavin said. "If we can see this many people get through it and learn the system successfully, then we can go back home with the confidence that we can move forward from that foundation."
"We often talked about how if we were just making a straight-up turn-based game...like if we made things more difficult for ourselves by trying to do both, but we felt, for us, it was really key to do both," Kasavin said. "So much of it is letting players discover these options for themselves instead of 'you have to use this' in certain situations.
"That means making the real-time mode very viable and even better in certain situations. For us, that's exciting during development, even in high-level play, stuff that we haven't talked about. New game plus, like super late game there are situations where resolving a fight can be preferable in real time with certain power combinations. ... Then you have people who are much more straight ahead in a strategy game. Every time they can go into planning mode, they use it. Every time the cool down is up. They play it more like turn-based game.
"Everyone can enjoy strategic thought even if they don't consider themselves into strategy games. When they're watching a baseball game, everyone's the armchair coach. They know exactly what everyone should be doing. People have an intuitive sense of strategy. And also just the drama, the anticipation, of 'okay, here's what's going to happen when I hit go,' and then watching the resolution of that. And nine out of ten times it goes how you want and one out of ten times it kind of blows up in your face and you have to deal with it.
"Having to deal with the consequences of your decision making on the fly seems fun as an idea. It's fun to look back, those are the kinds of things we were talking about when we had no idea what this game was going to be. It's interesting to look back and see that stuff in there after all this time."
The strategy element seems to make sense. Supergiant's founders did come from EA, from Command and Conquer, but Kasavin said, "it didn't even come from that directly, or at least not consciously. I think a lot of us just really have a lot of fond memories of playing games with some sort of strategic or tactical component. Like we talked a lot about the 2D, isometric Fallout and stuff like Shining Force, Final Fantasy: Tactics. We knew we didn’t want to make a straight up turn-based game because we like the immediacy of action RPGs...but we wanted to see if we could take some of those pleasures, to use a word Amir used, and just kind of combine some of how we felt about those games with the immediacy of an action RPG."
The result, in my early hours with Transistor, is a game that can wreck you quickly, wherein you need a time-stopping reprieve, though once you get confident and skilled enough, you can real time your way through certain situations. It reminded me of Final Fantasy XII, which I played as a typical, turn-based RPG, except when walking past weak enemies and letting the AI thwack them a few times.
"Yeah, when the guys were weak, it was the equivalent of, in the older Final Fantasy games, holding down the button so everyone attacks and wipes out whoever you're fighting. Yeah that game got super crazy strategic for some of the fights," Kasavin said. I take someone not wincing at my mention of XII as my series favorite as a win. But Transistor wasn't developed in a game-less vacuum, and it's developed by people who love playing games.
"I think it's not even, 'oh, we need to stay in touch,'" Rao said. "We play games for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with making them."
"I'd be playing Transistor over and over and over again all week," Korb said. "And for half a day I'd be like, I'm going to relax and play some other videogame. Play South Park, whatever."
"I've been playing tons of [Dota 2]," Rao said. "I was a DOTA 1 fiend and I transitioned to Dota 2 as soon as I could. And so I've been playing Dota 2 basically nonstop throughout the development of Transistor."
"I was roommates with Amir for a time when we were working in LA," Kasavin said. "I'd watch Amir playing Warcraft-era DOTA, but I never played it. So when it came time to do this game," with the strategic focus, "Dota 2 became one of the many references. I started dabbling with it as well and just I got crazy..."
"Sucked in," Amir said.
"Yeah," Kasavin laughed. "That is by far the game I've played the most [through Transistor's development]."
"Greg and I are in deep," Rao said. "We went to the Intentional to watch professional Dota for several days together just for fun in the summer. It was amazing."
"It seems like people skew one way or the other but I've always really liked competitive games and RPGs and stuff like that in parallel," Kasavin said. "I thought I was past the point where I could get really into a competitive game and then I got really into Dota."
On the narrative side, Telltale's games got some love (Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us). "I'm just now cutting through my backlog," Kasavin said, "starting with Dark Souls II and the stuff Blizzard has released." Diablo and its recent expansion, along with Hearthstone.
"Diablo II is one of my favorite games of all time," Rao said. "Anything Diablo, I will just do for hundreds of hours without worrying, so that's good."
"I play a lot of portable games," Kasavin said. "The Vita and 3DS just have a lot of these really cool, interesting niches of games, like Phoenix Wright and Bravely Default. I play all that kind of stuff. For me, that stuff is closer to the nineties Super Nintendo golden era of games that, on big consoles, you don't see that stuff. But it lives on. I love me some Fire Emblem. Like, a lot."
XCOM "cut across everyone," the one title early in development that spanned tastes, from the Dota fiends to the Papers, Please admirers.
"I bought a PS3 so I could play The Last of Us," Korb added. "Kind of late to that party. And GTA V. Just the scope of that game blew my mind. I could tell a story about playing that game for 15 minutes that was crazy. I climbed to the top of a mountain and went in a helicopter and went sky diving and landed on a mountain bike and rode down and shot a guy and went scuba diving, and that's five minutes of the game."
Grand Theft Auto V sits in a weird spot in gaming consciousness. With its success, you know millions of regular people are playing it, but even a few months later you hear less and less about it -- especially in the industry -- as attention turns to new consoles and new games.
"You have people who devote time and money to one game and you have the other people who are just trying to keep up with everything."
"Yeah, keeping up is hard," Rao said, "It's an incredible time to be someone who plays lots of things. It's a very hard time to be someone who plays deeply a few things [because of how many good things pass you by]. That's mostly how I like to play games. I like to spend the maximum amount of time with something. I think that's how most people played games when they could only get a couple of games a year. You have to draw all the juice from it."
"Stuff like Dota or Diablo becomes like a comfort food," Kasavin said. "Its reputation is that it's this extremely harsh, almost bitter game. People are just going to tear you apart if you're not on point 100 percent of the time. You still get to the point where there's something really comfortable and familiar around playing it even when people are calling you horrible, horrible, things. Even that part of the experience is strangely familiar."
"It's good to leave an environment where you love everyone you work with and respect them and go to Dota," Rao said. "It's a nice contrast."
Indeed. Still a few more parts to look forward to in this series, including a discussion on naming the game, Korb talking tunes, and Jen Zee on her lovely art (plus some early concept art) and how both Red and the Transistor came to be.