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AusGamers PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale Developer Interview with Omar Kendal
Post by Eorl @ 01:20pm 22/10/12 | Comments
AusGamers caught up with SuperBot's Omar Kendall, who serves as game-director on PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Hi Omar, thanks for your time with us today. Let’s start by you telling us what your role at SuperBot is about, and what brought you to Australia?

Omar Kendall: Sure, I’ll start at the beginning. My name is Omar Kendal, and I’m the Game Director on PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. A Game Director -- or at least, what I do -- is sort of... when I close my eyes, I have to have an idea of what the game is like, for the end-user experience; what it looks like, what are the sort of tactile feedbacks like; the compulsion lock (what keeps you playing?), and the things that compel you to know more about the game.

I sort of have to have all of that in my head, and I work with all the individual departments --both creative and production-- and steer the team in that direction. It’s working with designers, and artists, and programmers, to make sure that they’re all on the same page, moving toward the same plan.

And that plan currently, is PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. You’ve got these two halves of it: it’s a celebration of all of these PlayStation characters, and these Universes, over all of the console iterations, and all of the great games that have contributed to that legacy, and it’s also a fun fighting game brawler, that you can get together with three buddies and play together on your couch.

I think there’s a great tradition of that sort of sitting together, and playing a game together, that sort of comes and goes, but it’s a game type that we really enjoy. Even before PlayStation All-Stars was a fighting game, that idea of four people getting together in the same room, and playing the game together was one of the foundational pillars of what the game would eventually be.

AusGamers: That was going to be my next question, which is ultimately, you mentioned the words celebration, and obviously you landed on a Battle Royale brawler type of game. What other iterations had it gone through before you reached that point?

Omar: When I came on to the company, it was right as they had decided they were going to make something with combat, with head-to-head as the central focus. I was definitely brought on for my expertise in that area. But before --and even the day I had set foot in the SuperBot (at that time Broodworks) office-- it was like this team-based, four vs four, capture the flag style game, where each of the characters was an archetype.

It was almost like you were making a new sport, where you had: if you imagine a football team, you have strikers, and you’ve got defenders. They had a similar approach to the character design, where there were certain characters that were really well suited to going after the flag, and there were certain characters that were well-suited toward defending the flag, and in between. It was actually a really interesting concept, and I would love to explore it again, and develop something like that. Because i think they were really onto something interesting.

There were all sorts of different gameplay styles. There was one sidescrolling adventure, where you were kind of stringing along narrative together, where different enemies would --and this is sort of where the foundation of the mash-up element of the game came from-- where you could take individual enemies from different PlayStation games, and combine them with different levels from different PlayStation games to create these all-new experience as a hero who goes through a mashed up level with mashed up characters in it, and based on who you’d chose to bring along on your adventure, it would play out in different ways in real time.

There were all sorts of different game ideas that were floated around, because really again, the foundation ideas were: let’s take all these cool PlayStation characters, and bring them together in one experience that you can play together.

AusGamers: Now you guys obviously aren’t the first to do a Battle Royale mash-up, and it’s not strictly a Nintendo concept persay, but they kind of did do it best. Are you allowed to mention that as inspiration?

Omar: Yeah. I think when we first knew we were going to start talking about the game, I think there was maybe some “oh, well find a way to act like, while that game exists --Smash Bros.-- never mention it by name”, and that just proved impractical, because it’s an unavoidable thing that we’re always going to want to talk about, and people are always going to want to draw comparisons.

From the SuperBot perspective, we’re just fans of these kinds of games. I think the reason why a four-player, 2D-style brawler sounded like a good idea to us, was because we’ve had such great experiences in games like Smash Bros. Even the idea to make a fighting game is because we like fighting games.

AusGamers: So “Newsflash: Sony plays Nintendo videogames” [laughs].

Omar: Exclusive: Confirmed! [laughs]

AusGamers: I guess a really good jumping off point for that is what did you guys learn from the experience that Nintendo had with that game? And what have you guys expanded upon, or left alone? What’s the differentiator?

Omar: Well, I think what we learned from Smash... and what I’ll say is what we really learned from fighting and brawling as a genre --it is something that I know, because this is my core genre; I love fighting games-- is that this head-to-head, mind-games, battling it out against your friends and enemies, is really fun. There’s something inherently fun --and this is something that existed long before videogames-- with testing your wits against other people, like chess, or any sort of head-to-head game where “I’m going to use my strategies, and techniques, and things that feel right to me, to employ my tools to victory”, and matching that against a rival, and seeing how that shakes out, is just inherently really fun.

And the more people you add, I think the more fun it gets. I think that’s the one thing that Smash got really right, is that: in a traditional one-on-one fighting game, it’s like a zero sum game; there’s always one winner, and there’s always one loser, and if you’re the guy losing all the time, maybe you’re not having so much fun.

But with more players, it’s not always just coming in first, sometimes it’s just not coming in last, sometimes it’s just getting that one really cool moment, where you got the upper-hand on your opponent, and I think that, for us, that’s what we tried to introduce with the Super system, and that’s really a big differentiating mechanic. Instead of the traditional health-bars --when you think about the Smash percentages, it is essentially a health-bar. We do away with health-bars, and instead, you’re fighting to accumulate this energy, this AP All-Star power, and this energy fuels your super attacks.

So it’s kind of like... again, you can see our sort of sports roots in it. You fight to get into a scoring opportunity. You fight to accumulate this energy to get to your supers, and then what once you have a super, you have to figure out a way to land it, in a way that’s successfully going to kill opponents and score points.

So there’s these rising and falling actions, based on which character is getting energy, or getting close to a super, and where he is on the screen, and whether he’s about to perform his super, and where I need to be mindful of my opponent in that situation so that I don’t get killed, and I can finish the match with the most points, or most kills.

It’s kind of what PlayStation All-Stars is really all about. And that central gameplay loop of getting the energy and performing the supers is really different. I think it’s not something that I think fighting games have... while I think supers, and meter management, and all that stuff has existed in fighting games, it hasn’t quite been packaged this way before.

AusGamers: How did creating the roster work? How many characters did you begin with, and how did you work through culling? Or did you actually just land on what you ended up with?

Omar: I think most of the characters in the original roster were actually Sony Santa Monica properties. I think the first characters that we made were Kratos, Sweet Tooth, Fat Princess, and Parappa. So three of those four come out of Sony Santa Monica. We started out with Parappa early, because for us, he was sort of a very quintessential PlayStation character, and dear to a lot of people’s hearts, so even in the early prototypes that we did, it was those four characters in pretty much every iteration of the game that we made.

Then once we got rolling, we did a gameplay prototype and got approval of full production of the videogame, it then became a matter of going after the characters that the fans were sort of asking for. Because it’s not like rocket science to come up with the concept of bringing all of these really cool characters together in a single videogame, and creating a fun experience --people have been asking for it for a long time, and they asked for it very specifically, like “Oh, who would win in a match-up between Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter?”, so let’s go get Ratchet and Clank, and Jak and Daxter, and put them in the same game, and let’s find out.

So a lot of it’s listening to what the fans want to see. Obviously there was a bunch of PlayStation fans... we work within a development community that has... a lot of Sony games are made in Southern California, so we’ve got from Ratchet and Clank, guys from Naughty Dog, who work on our team, and they’ve obviously got their PlayStation favourites, so we incorporate those characters as well.

AusGamers: How do you go about balancing a game like that then? If you have so many varying characters of varying degrees of power and ability?

Omar: What we wanted to do first: we knew that when you’re making the game like this, the characters themselves, they have an inherent appeal to them. I might only be interested in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale because i really like Sly Cooper. So if you’re coming with a huge expectation of this game accurately representing that single character, that’s a huge burden on our side to make sure that we deliver on that expectation.

So what we pay attention to before anything else, is making sure that we capture the essence of the character. So we want Sly Cooper to come off as the Sly Cooper from his games, in PlayStation All-Stars, and we apply that thinking to every character. So that really dictates, and drives move-selection, character design, the kinds of supers that we use, and the different elements that we incorporate.

For instance, with Sly Cooper, following the analogy, we make heavy use of Murray, and Bentley, and the Sly Cooper gang, and that they’re chasing the devious racoon, and we make sure to incorporate all of that into Sly in PlayStation All-Stars. Then we figure out the balance of the punching, and the kicking, and the supers, and the energy, and the meter management, after that. Because we know that if we don’t get the characters right, it’s not really worth even making a game at all.

So while balance is important --and we do a lot of work to make sure that everyone has an even playing field-- the characters, and making sure they come off right, definitely comes first.

AusGamers: You mentioned fans before. I would say it’s arguable now that Sony probably has a stronger and more vocal fan-base now than Nintendo had back in the day, especially really hardcore driven core gamers. How important was it for you guys to be transparent and open about the concept of the game, and getting that feedback that you mentioned, as early as possible?

Omar: Super important .And it ended up causing problems for us, because we started doing focus tests and things like that really early, because again, if you’re not pleasing the fans, it’s not worth making this game. So we sent out a lot of early questionnaires about different characters that people would like to see, we started showing the code way... around this time last year I think, which was a good six to eight months out from our announce. And just based on people being really excited about this game, they started talking about it before we were ready, so we had a lot of leaks and things like that, that arose just from the fact that we really did want to hear back from the fans, and wanted their feedback early in the process.

It’s super important, I think it’s the thing that guides us every day, that we listen to the fans. I think every game developer is on The Internet, and reading on messageboards, because there is such great accessibility, and you’re able to see what they’re thinking or feeling. But I feel like, in this game in particular, maybe what the fans are saying is maybe the most important thing that guides us through our day-to-day decision making.

AusGamers: Was there any one particular element that you could apply to the whole kind of construct of the game, that the fans gave you in their feedback?

Omar: That might be a little difficult to answer. We started showing the game in April of this year, and we were still in production. So really, there’s a point in game development that’s called alpha, where you’ve put all of the assets in the game, so everything is represented, but maybe it’s not polished yet, and you’ll still work to refine things throughout completion. We actually started showing the game before alpha, so we started showing the game before we had all of the characters in the game, or all of the moves in the game, or even the HUD, character announcer, or things like that working.

So people got to see the game at a really early stage, and they’d point out things that they liked or didn’t like. They’d say they didn’t like the way the HUD looks, or they don’t feel like supers are as visually impactful as they could be, or we don’t feel like the characters voices are heard strongly enough. And we were able to --because we were still in the middle of development-- hear all of these complaints, and these concerns that players were raising, and go back and try to improve those things, and meet that fan expectation in the game.

I remember at the time, feeling like it was too soon, and really being reluctant to show the game, but that we did do that, did allow fans to respond and tell us what they were into, or weren’t into, and for us to be able to make course corrections based on that. So it helps.

AusGamers: Obviously the other big component to a game like this, is unlockables .Obviously there’s got to be a few big surprises packed in there that people aren’t aware of yet. What sort of level of fandom can fans expect from what’s going to be hidden within the game?

Omar: I think there’s a surprising amount. We have our basic roster of characters, and we have our levels, and those have a certain voice in terms of the celebration that I mentioned, and referencing different IP. Then we have our unlockables. We have what we call a progression system, where anything that you do in the game, has a reward mechanism associated to it, almost like an RPG where you’re levelling up, and as you level up, you get different rewards.

It’s in those rewards where we’re able to do really deep dives into various IP, and even focus on different worlds and Universes that may not be represented with a character or a level. It really helps us to reinforce that concept that concept of being a real celebration of the vast PlayStation history --not just saying “we’re going to stop at these twenty characters”, we’re actually going to go as far as we can, and do as thorough a deep dive as possible, into the entire PlayStation history.

AusGamers: Now correct me if I’m wrong. There’s online play?

Omar: Yeah. There is online play.

AusGamers: So latency is obviously a really big issue with a game like this --especially brawlers perhaps even more so than fighting games, because they’re so twitchy. What’s the implementation for you there, in terms of the back-end? And as an Australian, a question that we always ask is: In a game like this, it’s not necessarily a done thing to have dedicated servers or anything like that, but at least to have the option to search for local matchmaking and things like that. Anything there?

Omar: Absolutely. This is good, I’m glad you asked me this, as it’s something we don’t get to talk about a lot, but I’m actually really happy with the way that this went down. Traditional fighting games employ a particular technique for the way that they handle their netcode, and this is true of any Internet communication: you have to send packets, and you have to receive packets. So what fighting games traditionally do is, they send packets, and receive packets synchronously. There needs to be an “I did this thing, and I need you to get the packet that said I did that thing, and then I need to get a verified packet from you that says that you received that I did that thing”, and that’s very slow.

It’s called lockstep, basically, it’s: we move forward together; every step that we take is synchronized. And when there’s a bad connection, fighting games have to get slower, and slower, and slower, and slow down the action to make sure that everything is happening at the same time, and they can verify that packets are being sent simultaneously, and being received on both ends simultaneously. Almost every single fighting game ever made, even the good ones that have great netcode, have that sort of lock-step style.

We have some really innovative guys on our network side who said “Maybe we don’t have to do this”. We’ve got four players who are going to be playing at the same time. The Likelihood that one of the guys in that match is going to have a bad connection, and ruin that experience for everyone, is pretty high. So choosing to go down the lock-step path, would mean that we’re really increasing the odds that the experience you’re going to have could be slow and laggy, and just not feel like you’re offline experience, and we really didn’t want that.

So we actually chose a path that’s not unlike what a lot of first person shooters, or even racing games do, which is this sort of asynchronous gameplay, where we really assume that most of the time, everything is happening as it should be, and we send the most minimum amounts of data that we possibly can, so that everything moves super-fast

And we use something called attacker-authority for those really, really important things, so if I perform a super, and on my screen, it looks as though I killed you, I killed you. So there are a couple of parts of the game where we do want to verify that the really, really important things are happening in the same way on everyone’s screen, but then there’s a bunch of other stuff that we can just let each individual client simulate on their own machine, and that information doesn’t have to get sent over.

It worked out super-well. It really created.. we’re running our beta now, and we see that people have recognised that what we’ve done really does create a different feel to what they’re used to seeing in fighting games. It runs super-fast, it’s very, very similar to your offline experience in almost every single case, with rare exceptions. Sometimes we’ll have an event that where “Alright, we got that wrong. We simulated it locally, but you know what? It actually didn’t play out that way, so we’re going to have to move this guy from here to here”, but it’s really rare, and infrequent.

We do a little bit of local matchmaking biasing, so you mentioned that maybe you’re over here in Australia, and being match-made against other people who are closer to you, to ensure a better connection. We do do that for you, under the hood, we try to keep it local first, because we think that’s going to ensure the best experience, and only as a last resort will we start expanding out.

So yeah, we’re actually really excited to get people to try out what we’ve done with our online experience, because we think it’s really going to surprise people.

AusGamers: Do you think that solution you came up with is actually something that could be applied to just a two player fighting game?

Omar: I’m curious. I can understand why it couldn’t, because there’s a sort of exactness, and specificity that a lot of these traditional one-on-one fighting games rely on, that maybe they couldn’t get away with just shoehorning a system like this in. I think you really have to design a game from the ground up to incorporate something like this. Whereas, the unfortunate fact is a lot of fighting games are having to shoehorn in online multiplayer with latency after-the-fact; after they’ve already designed their games. So it’s really, really tough.

You’ve already heard guys like Harada, who’s the director on Tekken, has talked about if he had to do it all over again, he would try a different approach with his multiplayer, but it would require him to design the game with online mutliplayer in mind.

AusGamers: Ok. Well I’ll wrap it up with one more, and that is: of the roster, who is your favourite character?

Omar: I’m having fun with Nariko --she was one of our most recent reveals-- that doesn’t mean she’s the strongest character in the game. I tend to think she has a style that’s called high-risk/high-reward. You gamble a lot, but when it pays off, it makes you feel really smart, and you get a cool reward out of it, but sometimes when you guess wrong, you get punished for that. But that sort of fits my play-style, I love the kind of impressive play-style when it comes to fighting games, and she’s definitely playing like that, so I like her a lot.

AusGamers: Alright, well that was a great interview, so thanks so much.

Omar: Thank you sir!

AusGamers: No worries.
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