The problem with developing a video game is that sometimes you need to stop. Even when you aren’t totally happy with your final act. This week on Kotaku Splitscreen, we discuss all that and more.
First, Kirk and I talk about the appeal of Dead Cells, the problems with video game grind, and Diablo 3 coming to the Switch. Then, Arkane co-founder Raphael Colantonio joins me for a fascinating chat about the video game industry, crunch, and Prey’s strengths and flaws.
Colantonio, you may remember, wrote the now-infamous email calling me and other reporters “press sneak fucks” back in 2013. With him departing Arkane last year — and therefore being free of Bethesda’s PR, who have blacklisted Kotaku for nearly five years — he and I were able to get on the phone and mend fences earlier this year. So I’m thrilled to have him on our podcast this week.
Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt:
Jason: I absolutely loved Prey. Well, I should correct that — I absolutely loved Prey for three-quarters of the game, then the final act came and the security bots started attacking me and I was like, "This isn’t the game I signed up for." I’m curious to hear your perspective... What made you guys decide to approach it that way?
Colantonio: It comes back to the thing we were talking about a little bit earlier: Crunch versus triple-A or reacting to changes toward the end of the production. Budget, shipping on time, et cetera.
I think we did our best as far as planning — we thought on paper it’d be a nice change of pace toward the end, so it feels more intense and more like an acceleration as opposed to "Here is more story." So on paper it seemed right.
The problem is when you implement those things, even the designers can only see so much of it, because they don’t see the rest of the game, they only see their part. And it’s only, believe it or not, it’s only around alpha, like three months before the game ships basically that you can see the entirety of the game in a state where you can fully comprehend it. It doesn’t crash too often, there’s not too many showstoppers.
Jason: All the assets are in instead of grey boxes.
Colantonio: Exactly, everything is in, and it’s in a good state enough that you can truly appreciate the level of what you’re trying to achieve.
In this case, yeah there was definitely too much at the end, it was too intense, not only the security bots but there was some other stuff. In general, I think it was too intense, we were trying to ask the players to backtrack, and do some stuff. It was just too much. We should have cut it short. But we could not know.
Sometimes you hope, you shoot in a direction and hope you hit the target, then in the last months you try to adjust, correct, et cetera. We probably were running out of time, and people did work, they did their jobs, and... We could have done with another few months of polishing for sure.
Jason: I think every developer says that.
Colantonio: There are some economic realities behind it. We had been developing the game for a while. There’s a moment where you book the shelves, because that’s also part of the ecosystem of our activity is that you have to book shelves at the retail stores. So once it’s there, you cannot tell them at the last minute, "Oh by the way we’re going to delay the game." There’s an entire chain, an entire organisation.
So it’s not just money, it’s a full thing, at some point when you’re committed, you’re committed... We have so much momentum, so much inertia when we do things, that there’s a moment at the end when you just have to wrap it up.
Jason: Did you try to delay Prey?
Colantonio: We did delay Prey a little bit compared to the very initial date we agreed on. There’s a moment when you can, because there are staged gates when you develop a game... There’s the prototype, vertical slice, alpha, beta, et cetera.
Mid-game, there’s still time to delay the game if you have to, and Zenimax was really good with that. They were good with evaluating the game together with the developer and making the decision that makes sense for the game.
Jason: So when you guys got to those last three months, was that something you specifically brought up, that final act being too much action, too intense? Was it something you discussed but realised you couldn’t change?
Colantonio: Yeah absolutely, it was a recurring theme, the feedback was very clear. We have to accelerate the end just because it’s too intense, not that fun. If you had played the version we had a month before that, you would have thought it was even worse.
Jason: Maybe you should’ve put that out, then released the new one, so people could be like, "Wow by comparison this is amazing."
Colantonio: Yeah, again, I think creators are never fully happy with what we do, and there’s tons of things that we wish we had done a little differently, but it worked out. Given how hard it is to make games. Prey was a very rich game, there was tons of things in there, tons of things that layer on top of each other, so I think it worked out in the end.