Ready At Dawn: The PSP Specialists

Late last week we got the chance to catch up with Nathan Phail-Liff, Art Director on the upcoming PSP sequel God of War: Ghost of Sparta.

We ran the gamut, talking about the game itself, the state of the PSP as a platform, and the secret of PSP development (apparently trying to forget you’re working on a PSP game altogether is the best course of action)!

The PSP has a lot of great games, but it seems to have dried up a little recently - why do you think that is? I don’t know! It really works to our benefit because we’re in the business of making really great PSP games. Both Daxter and Chains of Olympus have been really well received, critically and commercially. So the PSP is totally viable. You just need to make a good game and people will buy it.

I don’t understand it personally, because I love the PSP. There are 60 million PSPs out there – more units than the PS3. Do you have any ideas why people haven’t been taking advantage of that install base? None! None at all! I guess it hasn’t been a priority of third party developers. But you still see a lot of great games. I mean the Final Fantasy games and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker are some of the best games on the platform, and we’re glad to be part of that group.

What was the reception like towards Chains of Olympus? I believe it’s still the highest reviewed PSP game on Metacritic. Critically it did well, and it’s done pretty well in terms of sales. That being said, we still took note of some of the feedback we got on the game, so we could really deliver a better game in Ghost of Sparta. People, for example, really wanted a longer game, they wanted bigger boss fights, and more of them. They wanted more diverse gameplay.

Chains of Olympus, compared to God of War 1 and 2, was a bit more combat heavy. There weren’t as many platforming and puzzle mechanics – so that was something else we wanted to build upon. And finally - probably the biggest thing - was story. There were a number of things we had to hold back on with Chains of Olympus, due to the development challenges we had, and with Ghost of Sparta we wanted a much stronger use of story. We wanted it to tie in more directly with the GoW trilogy. You talked about developmental challenges with Chains of Olympus - what were those challenges, and what made development on the sequel different? Well, we had just come off Daxter, which is a very different type of game - the camera was different, the combat was more simplistic, the AI was more simplistic. So, when we had the task of doing a game as daunting as God of War - a game that really pushed the PS2 to its limits - it took a lot of ground work to build systems on the PSP that would match that quality.

But with Ghost of Sparta, being given the same amount of time, with all the systems already in place before development, all that extra effort has gone in to making the game grander in scale, and creating story moments that engross the player more.

You mentioned the size of the God of War franchise, and how it’s constantly associated with being epic – what’s the secret of bringing this giant world, with this huge sense of scale, and shrinking it down to PSP size? Working as an Art Director, I’m really careful to try and make sure our games have a sense of place – creating the idea of the player being in a world that’s larger around them. The rule of thumb that I have is, when you’re playing through the game, the player should have a strong sense of where they came from, where they are, and where they’re going.

So you have these points where the player can look back and see in the distance where they came from. It gives you a strong sense of what you’ve just done. I think that’s something that makes you feel like you didn’t just play through a bunch of sequential levels. You feel like there’s something bigger and more expansive around you. You said that Chains of Olympus was really combat heavy – was that deliberate? Were you guys trying to play to the PSPs strengths by creating something more suitable to shorter bursts of play? I think it really just came down to development time [laughs] . We didn’t really have time to add all the grapple mechanics and the wall mechanics. We found that a huge benefit of the PSP was the sleep function - it means that we don’t really have to cater the pacing of our game to people playing in short snippets because you don’t have to get to the next save point. You just play, and then two days later you can turn your PSP on and you’re straight back to where you were before.

So in many ways we don’t even tell ourselves we’re working on a PSP game, we’re just making a God of War experience that happens to be on a handheld.

So you guys don’t tweak any design decisions based on the fact you’re working on a PSP game? There are a few subtle things. The screen size is smaller, so often we’ll exaggerate the detail on certain objects so it becomes more obvious to the player. That really comes into play with character design - we want the characters to read really well. So maybe compared to a regular console game there’ll be aspects of the character we exaggerate.

Another thing is the controls, there are a lot of things we’ve adjusted for the PSP controls, and we feel we were really successful with that on Chains of Olympus. We’ve actually had a number of comments from reviewers claiming that they actually prefer having the evade controls on the shoulder buttons.

You guys are the PSP specialists, what’s the secret? Why aren’t there more developers doing what you do? I don’t know! I guess the founders of this studio came from Blizzard and Naughty Dog, so we have a culture that focuses on quality and polish. We’re really proud of any game we put our name on and we’re not going to release anything we’re not proud of. So there’s that drive and expectation spread across the company as a whole. When we approach PSP development, we never tell ourselves we’re working on a PSP game! We’re not doing a port, we’re not doing a watered down version of the game! That may be a little foolhardy, but we delude ourselves into thinking we can pull it off and often we pull through!

Is that the secret? Just forget you’re making a PSP game? Yep! You just basically trick yourself into doing something really, really stupid!


    "There are 60 million PSPs out there"

    I'm not going to say piracy is behind it, because the DS is hit by that same problem just as much.

    Yes, the DS platform is far more popular, but I agree in thinking that people forget how successful the PSP actually has been!

    Nintendo has dominated the handheld market since the original Gameboy (even Game & Watch before that), Sony on the back of the PS2 enter the handheld market, and their first attempt crack 60 million units, outside of Nintendo no one has been anywhere near this successful

    The system is getting old, but it's sad there isn't alot of support for it.

      I wouldn't be surprised if the problem is the difference in capabilities between the PSP and DS.

      On the console side, many developers hedge their bets by going cross platform and releasing on both PS3, Xbox 360 and maybe PC.

      Doing the same in the hand held space is more difficult: releasing the same game on both platforms is not that feasible and likely to disappoint one or both of the markets.

        Agreed, there are many games thats come out on both systems that are completely different, Ridge Racer is a simple example of that.

        Always felt as though there was alot of potential that was unused. I've felt as though the PSP should be considered a baby version to both the PS3/360 hardware.

        One of the best features of the PSP is it's connectivity to the PS3, I love the games that link between the 2 devices

        Resistance 2 / Retribution
        Assassin's Creed 2 / Bloodlines

        You pick up one of them, there is a better chance of picking up the other. I'm still very interested in the day they start bundling those kind of companion games (PS3/PSP) together and make it enticing to buy (cheaper in a bundle, than standalone). Though again, perhaps this is something that will we'll see more of with the PSP2.

        That being said, I have about 40 PSP games, so it's not like it doesn't have a great library of games, just disappointed that some developers/publishers chose to ignore it.

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