I recently had the opportunity to e-mail the creators of Xbox 360 action role-playing game "Too Human" a few questions about the game they just spent the last four years making. I asked not to talk to the game's lead creator, the widely-quoted Denis Dyack, because I thought it would be interesting to hear from other people on the team at development studio Silicon Knights.
We talked about:
- How the game's rocky journey in the public eye -- from its maligned E3 2006 debut to recent controversies -- affected the development team.
- Which aspects of "Too Human" they are most proud of.
- Why the game's creators made an action game that maps combat to an analog stick rather than to buttons.
- How they settled on the number of levels and enemies in the game -- and what they say to people who think there are too few.
- And more
And they said stuff like:
The public perception of what "Too Human" was I don’t think scratched the surface of what was really going on here internally.
Check it out…
(To make this work for you readers, I've bolded my questions and notes about the answers.)
I started easy, asking each developer what they were most proud of …
Henry Sterchi, Director of design on "Too Human": "I’d say I am most proud of how the RPG and action blend turned out in the game. I feel the combat is incredibly exciting and intense, while the RPG side is quite deep and ultimately satisfying, which is a tough combination to achieve in one game."
Carman Dix, Art director of "Too Human": "As to what I am most proud of, it would be what happened behind the scenes during the production of 'Too Human.' I celebrate the many departmental walls that were torn down and individual egos that got put aside to create a family of exceptionally talented people that even now continue to learn and help one another. It may sound hokey, but it really is something rare and is something to be proud of."
I asked about the game's unusual right-stick-driven control scheme, pressing them to explain why "Too Human" would use such an unusual input method.
Sterchi explained: "One of the main reasons it was used in 'Too Human' was because it was the best way to fight 360 degrees of enemies in mass amounts...
"Instead of requiring a player to orientate a direction and then execute an attack, you could now do that in one quick, seamless, and fluid motion/action."
"The Right Stick combat is so core to the game play style; we really felt nothing else could retain 'Too Human's' feel and core. In 'Too Human,' you are battling thousands and thousands of enemies in a style more akin to something like 'Diablo.' 'Diablo' had a point-and-click interface on the PC, which was simple to understand and use. We felt we could capture that initial simplicity by using the right stick while keeping user strain down by not having to press an attack button or buttons zillions of times. But ultimately, what was immediately apparent, was that it lent itself to a whole new and exciting style of play.
"Instead of mainly focusing on just 1-on-1 combat, we could allow players to attack a multitude of enemies in varying directions rapidly. Instead of requiring a player to orientate a direction and then execute an attack, you could now do that in one quick, seamless, and fluid motion/action. This allowed us to barrage players with enemies in a full 360 degrees, while completely empowering them to quickly wipe them out. We harnessed this and utilized that core concept throughout the game.
"As you can see with the combo system, it’s more about using advanced stick combinations (juggles, finishers, etc.) and chaining a series of enemies together than it is using a typical (button) combo string on a singular enemy. This results in not only a unique experience, but the ability to devastate massive quantities of enemies in the blink of an eye, which is just plain exciting and fun."
Casual users of the Xbox 360 may think "Too Human' is just the latest action game to check out, but gamers who follow the news know the game had a rocky showing at E3 2006 and, more recently, has been the subject of some contentious podcasts and message board arguments often featuring the game's lead creator, Denis Dyack. So if you're one of Silicon Knights creators witnessing all this, what's it like? I wanted the guys to share with me how it affected them, if at all.
"I never understood the idea of presenting an unfinished product to build marketing and press momentum."
Sterchi: The team just stayed focused on finishing the best game we could. We saw the day-to- day progress, and saw how fun the game really was. In the end, we wanted to get the game out there and allow as many people as possible to give it a try for themselves.
Dix: "As an artist with an M.B.A., I never understood the idea of presenting an unfinished product to build marketing and press momentum -- especially when that product doesn’t fit within the norms of a typical game reference."
Steve Henifin , Audio director on "Too Human": "People say a lot of things, so really whatever speculations were out there at the time did not affect my work in any way. The public perception of what 'Too Human' was I don’t think scratched the surface of what was really going on here internally. We were just focused on making the music sound good, and making the overall audio experience be as good as it could be."
I needed to ask each of these guys about some specific parts of the game. When I sent them my questions I had yet to dive that deep in the finished game. Since then, I've beaten it and I probably would have asked them about the lengthy re-spawn animation I had to watch over 90 times during my 15 hours of time with the game. I had heard some comments, pro and con, about some other aspects of the game and ran these by the developers.
One thing I'd seen discussed was the quantity of stuff in the game. Here's how I phrased my question: "I think Too Human has fewer enemy types than people expected, fewer levels to play in, but more loot to collect and more character levels to progress through. How did the team determine that right amount of all that -- for lack of a better way of describing it -- stuff?"
Sterchi: "The team focused on enemies that interacted well with each other in different combinations so that players could experience the widest depth of encounters and tactics. There’s over a dozen enemy types with different behaviors, but there are also RPG variations within those called polarities, making for dozens and dozens of enemy variations. These polarities play back into the core combination sets and alter the way the player can approach each encounter.
"If you haven’t played through to level 50, you have most likely not seen all of the game’s enemy variations."
"As the player progresses through the game, from not just area to area but all the way from levels 1-50, all these enemy variations get introduced to constantly make the player come up with new tactics. Ultimately, there’s a ton of variations that do alter the game play and it has really never been a concern that came up anywhere, including focus tests. If you haven’t played through to level 50, you have most likely not seen all of the game’s enemy variations."
The art direction for "Too Human" appears to have changes since an earlier version of the game was shown at E3 in 1999. I asked Dix, the art director, how much things changed and if the changes in the look were the result of a natural evolution, or because the current level of hardware allowed for a look not always possible?
Dix: "I suspect every developer fights an internal battle between the best art possible and the code and compression limits available at the time. Art fights for the highest art fidelity, and code fights for speed and memory allocation of that fidelity. My office walls are covered from floor to ceiling in concepts, direction overviews, and in-game production renders. People are genuinely surprised at the level of planning and accuracy of the translation from concept to 3D model. As for the visual style of 'Too Human,' the characters we first made concepts of in 2004 are the model translations you see in the game today. The Art direction that was laid out for the Xbox 360 has remained true to that vision."
I had heard enough of "Too Human"'s music that I was curious how it worked. To my ears it sounded like it was dynamic, woven into the flow of what the player was doing. The game's audio director clarified:
Henifin: "When we first started out it was an adaptive system that mixed music elements in and out of the existing mix. This was very similar to the way I produced the music for 'Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.' Everything was in multi-track layers. As things progressed in 'Too Human,' we opted for a map-driven system that is connected to what the player does on screen. It uses less layers. I'm very involved in adaptive and procedural music, but it just didn’t have a decisive advantage in the overall design of the dungeon crawling, loot hording, robot-smashing mayhem that is 'Too Human.'"
He threw this in too, the kind of subtle detail I'd never notice on my own: " The explosion system uses complex matrices of samples, so that every explosion is unique, and relative to camera utilizes the LFE channel in different ways. If you have a home theater, your sub will be very busy in a firefight with goblin missiles and such."
There wasn't really a wrap-up question. I did ask if they were "For" or "Against" "Too Human," but none of them answered that one. I'm guessing they're "For."