God of War: Ascension has a long legacy to live up to. Jack Arnott speaks with Sony Santa Monica about raising standards and why toning down the violence simply isn't an option.
You know what you're getting with a new God of War game before you've seen the first teaser trailer or batch of leaked concept art. Blood, violence, muscle, scope and the sound of blades scraping on bone are so ingrained in the series' DNA that to go back on that now would be a stupid move.
Then again, franchises can't rest on their laurels, peddling out the same formula every other year. People need a reason to return, and this is exactly why Sony Santa Monica has grown bigger, better and braver than before.
I spoke with lead combat designer Jason McDonald and lead game designer Mark Simon to find out what it takes to go one better in a series that has already hit astonishing peaks.
"The team really pushes itself," said Simon. "It’s funny because the fans worry,“Oh are they gonna pack it in this time on single player?” No way. Not the team that we have. The team that we have is going to make the render better, they’re going to make the lighting system better, they’re going to add animation blending, they’re going to add multi player, they’re going to rewrite the game code so it works on PSN.
"We’re going to try to do something we couldn’t get to work on God of War 3, we’re going to make it actually happen in God of War: Ascension. We won’t stop working on it until they basically tear the game away from us kicking and screaming."
The team has been steeped in the God of War franchise since it debuted under the supervision of David Jaffe, and along the way a lot of content has been left on the cutting room floor to ensure that every second of what you experience meets the high quality the series strives for.
McDonald added, "We always benefit as from every God of War there’s lots of ideas on the table. Some of them go into the game, some of them don’t. But they always remain somewhere so if we do another God of War, if we broach the subject material again, we look to these ideas and say “Well we can start with these”.
Simon continued, "We actually have millions of ideas that made it to prototype, through to production but ended up being cut – it's only the cream of the crop you send up seeing in the game. Our creative process is very organic.
"It starts with the type of director you have. Todd Papy is a designer at heart so one of the things he wanted to work on in this game were design mechanics - he really wanted to make them better.
"When we were brainstorming the first creature in the game, Hecatom, for example, it was just one of those things where the idea comes up, an everybody liked it as a whole. A hundred armed titan - f**king awesome - right let’s do it, let's make it work."
The process is always daunting however, but the process demands that the team sit down and brainstorm until something - anything - rises to the surface. "That’s just a programmer's life", Simon explained.
"The way we'll develop an idea like Hecatom is that we'll all get together in a room, see what people get excited about, and then other people will add their own ideas and start drawing it, modelling it, rigging it – it goes through this crazy evolution. It never ends up where you expect it to – usually for the better."
Sony Santa Monica is no stranger to cross-generational leaps either, as it worked on the first two God of War games for PS2, followed by the third on PS3. Ascension comes near the end of the console's life-span, but the team is already confident that whatever it does for PS4 will continue to push the bar higher.
"I remember the transition from PS2 to PS3," McDonald recalled, "and I thought, my God, how are we going to set the bar even higher? But the truth is we have great people working for us – artists that won't quit, engineers that just want to squeeze the most out of everything - I think you can always expect great things for any hardware from this team."
Simon cut in to add that the PS4's social aspects have him and his team very interested indeed, "The social thing was super cool. We've been asked if we'd planned on introducing multiplayer with the new system in mind but its just good fortune – the social aspect is going to become a really important aspect for us."
Speaking of which, God of War: Ascension's multiplayer also has a big part to play in the game's overall package. It's no mere add-on, but at the same time it had a lot of gamers worried when it was first announced. As always, the team had to be assured of its quality before setting online play in motion.
"Basically, we just found that it was fun to fight each other" explained McDonald. "We tried something early on after God of War 3 just fighting each other in a little arena, it was already kinda fun. So the goal with multiplayer was to provide that type of fun with the God of War scale and the God of War feel to it.
"So that meant brutal kills, that grand scale, like the desert level with the giant cyclops that we showed in open beta. And it was also we wanted it to be accessible. We wanted a lot of people to be able to play it, so that if you’re not an expert at combat, or at fighting, what else can you do?
"So we wanted to provide other goals and other things that you could do to help the team. And because we didn’t want people just bundled together fighting, we didn’t want eight people right next to each other just swinging weapons, because that would get old very quickly."
To ensure that those less-capable at fighting could still enjoy Ascension's multiplayer, the team had to come up with other duties for players, such as playing defence, or choosing specific God Allegiances to fit with their play style. The decision came from a desire to find new ways to make the game enjoyable and relevant in today's market.
"Everyone in the studio plays games," said McDonald, "and we're always just trying to find something new and fun and in God of War: Ascension this is what we tried. It was also something we hadn’t touched on before.
"With PS3 we always upped the scale, it looked awesome, but we didn’t touch the PlayStation Network at all, and so right away we were like ‘what can we do with this? There’s a lot of possibilities’ and one of them was: ‘What if we just played together, played against each other?’ And it worked out."
It certainly did, and you can get to grips with God of War: Ascension yourself when it drops on PS3 from March 12th.