Want to feel old? Follow these strict instructions.
Invent an innovative, cool new game concept. Get hyped. Take that hype and its core concept to a development team full of young men barely in their 20s. Expect ‘synergy’.
Pitch it to them: it’s a video game, it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of the world. But…
It’s a funky fresh new spin on the ‘end of the world’, a new take on a stagnant genre. The world has become overrun by hordes of mutants and you must survive in this wasteland.
But guys, instead of playing as a po-faced, gritty survivor ala Joel from The Last of Us or Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, you play as a wacky Rock Star who’s breaking all the rules.
Right guys? <emRight?
[A handful of nods in the room, polite smiles]
You’ll be like Iggy Pop. You’ll be the Iggy Pop of the post-apocalypse. When you guys are in the trenches, making the bones that will become this game I want you to be asking yourselves one single, all important question:
“What would Iggy Pop Do?”
[Awkward silence, rustling of chairs, a single hand raised in the back of the room.]
“Sorry, Iggy who?”
According to Creative Director Marcus Smith, that’s pretty much how development on Sunset Overdrive began.
But let’s go backwards for a second.
Midway through development of Insomniac’s last major release, Resistance 3, Marcus Smith and Drew Murray discussed a common game development hypothetical. Imagine ‘Big Publisher X’ gave us money to make any game we wanted to make — anything — what would that game be?
How about a zombie game, they both said — a post-apocalyptic zombie game? That was the first suggestion. Almost instantly, the pair gave it the kibosh.
“We were like, the world doesn’t need this game,” says Marcus. “What can we do differently?”
What could they do differently? As soon as Marcus and Drew asked themselves this question, the pieces began to fall into place.
“Why not incorporate punk rock?”
Both Marcus and Drew grew up listening to (and being influenced by) punk rock. That works.
“Why not make it fun in the end times?”
Why not indeed. Then the final question, perhaps the most important question of all:
“What if Iggy Pop were the last man alive?”
That was it. That was the core of it. That was why, in its earliest stages of development, Sunset Overdrive was code-named ‘Iggy’.
“We asked ourselves: what if Iggy Pop were Charlton Heston in Omega Man? We had no idea what that would mean, but we figured he would probably die in a spectacular, horrific event.
“Whenever you see Iggy on stage he’s like a Mick Jagger who might actually be good in a fist fight,” explains Marcus. “He’s got gravitas and he’s got balls. It just seemed perfect for this game, he kind of epitomised what we were going for.”
Simple. What would Iggy Pop do? High concept done. Now all Marcus had to do was inform the younglings. Namely, the rest of the Insomniac’s development team.
“It was blank stares. It was like me talking to this wall,” admits Marcus. “Come on wall! Just get it!”
Marcus will be the first person to admit: communicating the idea of Iggy Pop as a main character in a video game set in the post-apocalypse was difficult at first.
“A group of young game developers don’t necessarily know who Iggy Pop is. Or don’t even know who Iggy Pop was. It didn’t translate very well!”
Marcus had another wise idea: movie nights.
The idea was to give Sunset Overdrive’s young developers an idea of what they were shooting for by showing them movies: movies featuring anti-heroes with the kind of swagger and sense of anarchic humour that was — largely — missing from video games. Repo Man, a 1984 slacker movie starring Emelio Estevez was an early success, but others didn’t go down so well.
“There was just this gulf,” laughs Marcus.
“I remember at one point we showed our designers The Young Ones, and one of our designers came up to us afterwards and said, “why did you make us watch that?”
There were other issues. Even if some of Sunset Overdrive’s young team did develop a vague grasp on Iggy Pop and what the idea of Iggy Pop might represent, very few — in the beginning at least — really understood the fundamentals of what it meant to be ‘punk’. The word ‘punk rock’ doesn’t necessarily mean what it once meant in, say, 1977.
“To a 20 year old you say Punk Rock and they think like a cartoon version of what Punk Rock is.
“‘Oh you mean like Blink 182?’
“I’m like ‘fuck you!’”
“To them Green Day is Punk Rock. I’m like, ‘Green Day is on Broadway!’ You know what I mean? Let’s take you back, let’s try and educate you a little bit! Those guys would go to a GBH show and get beaten to death!”
But, in a sense, that confusion helped the game’s development. Punk Rock bands, especially British groups like The Clash or The Sex Pistols, tended to take themselves quite seriously, but for Marcus harnessing that anarchic sense of fun was paramount. He wanted to tap into some of the great satire Californian punk rock was responsible for.
“For me the only good punk is a smart punk,” says Marcus. “Like the Dead Kennedy’s — they’re great satirists. That’s what I grew up with.”
In the end it was an image that helped make the breakthrough.
Well, more than one image, but images just like this one: Iggy Pop, shoulders back, chest out — shirtless of course — mic in hand, being carried by the crowd, not giving a single solitary fuck. Being cool, essentially. Images like those helped the team infuse the spirit of Iggy into Sunset Overdrive.
“There are so many images of Iggy looking like that,” says Marcus. “When you’re moving around in this world we don’t want you hunched over or scared, we want you posing, hitting these rock star poses. The animators could get that energy.”
Ironically, it was ‘the man’ — read: publishers, higher ups — who, being a little older and weathered, tended to more easily grasp Sunset Overdrive’s high concept. Mainly because they grew up during punk and, crucially, actually knew who Iggy Pop was. Randomly, the thing that crossed that generation gap and unified the team was a movie about as far removed from punk as you could possibly imagine: Scott Pilgrim vs The World.
“Scott Pilgrim is a movie based on a comic that was based on video games. Now we’re a video game based on that movie! Feels like we’re going round robin here, but that movie — the pacing, the humour and the effects with breaking the fourth wall — that became an influence that everyone across the board could kind of get.”
That, in the end, was key.
I ask Marcus to imagine a future, a dystopian future if you will. 20 years from now he pitches a brand new game, to a brand new group of young developers. Once upon a time, years in the past, he had asked a group of developers a single question: “what would Iggy Pop do?” Now he is asking a similar, but paradoxically different question:
“What would Iggy Azalea do?” What would that game look like?
“Sorry,” asks Marcus, he’s confused. I repeat the question.