Last week, a poster on the message board NeoGAF asked why South Park: The Fractured But Whole was taking so long to develop. After all, isn't 2D easy to draw? "First and foremost," the poster wrote, "the game uses the same graphical style as the show. Which is probably the easiest to make." Well, my dear Mousnis, making a crummy-looking 2D game can be complicated.
The new South Park game, which comes out in October, has been in development for nearly three years. The developers at Ubisoft San Francisco have already delayed it at least once (from last December) and while the process has been smoother than the last game, Obsidian's Stick of Truth, it's still enormously complicated.
While speaking to Jason Schroeder (no relation) last week at E3 for our podcast, Kotaku Splitscreen, I asked why it'd take so long to make a game that looks so stylishly crappy. You can listen to the show here, or scroll down for a partial transcript.
Jason Schreier: I actually saw someone on the internet today — and you know people on the Internet are very nice —
Jason Schroeder: They are. They're actually very well-informed.
Schreier: I saw someone saying, 'Why is this South Park game taking so long? It's just a bunch of 2D animation.' If someone came up to you on the street and said, 'Hey, your game should be easy to make, it's just 2D animation,' what would you say to them?
Schroeder: It should be. (laughs) You're right.
Schreier: Seriously, though, what're the challenges your average gamer wouldn't know about?
Schroeder: I think when you're animating to a very specific look and style, there's not really compromising. There's no shortcuts. And it's funny that with something that's more like a traditional 3D model-type rig, there's actually a lot of ways that Maya and other programs help. They smooth things out. They give you some of the in-between positions, and you set targets for where those limbs will go. Not so with South Park. You have to move those frames. So you're stepping animation all over the place, and if you want to have a unique facial expressions — and so much of the action of the show actually takes place on those big eyes and little mouth shapes — if you want it to be really expressive, you've gotta animate that too. You've gotta show pain, show effort, show all this stuff.
And I think even the guys at South Park will go, 'Well to make our crappy little animation' and they mean crappy in terms of style, not how much work it takes to make it true authentic South Park.
Schreier: Although somehow they manage to do it in six days every single week.
Schroeder: Yeah, they have the best guys in the business. There are people who have been working for over a decade. Our animation team has been working on it for a few years. They have gotten very, very good — respectable in terms of speed — but we have tens of thousands of animations in the game that are all hand-done. There's no procedural generation of animation that's saving our butts here. So it's been intense.
BONUS: Why this game is easier than the last one:
Schreier: The thing I kept hearing about [Stick of Truth] is that because they didn't have a lot of experience making games, they wanted to rewrite a lot of stuff and they didn't realise how much production time that would cost. Have they gotten better?
Schroeder: We made the process different. That's why we went to [the engine] Snowdrop. We started from scratch with Snowdrop, but that was with the idea that their show is built in Maya, and Snowdrop imports Maya files clean. We built a pipeline that basically, we run export tools, clean up some files, and then all of a sudden their content plays in game. It's a crazy, crazy pipeline, but it actually works to create something that looks so authentically like the show.
Schreier: And so if they want to rewrite something, they can just pop it right in?
Schroeder: Yeah. I mean within reason. It's hard to totally rip out a whole level — not that we haven't done it. (laughs)
Schreier: Well you guys were originally planned for December of last year, and now it's October, so I imagine there were some hurdles.
Schroeder: Good comedy takes iteration.
Schreier: Good video games take iteration!