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South Park: The Fractured But Whole - Interview with Lead Game Designer Kenneth Strickland
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:05am 19/06/16 | Comments
At E3 2016 we had a chance to sit down with lead game designer Kenneth Strickland to chat about his current project: South Park: The Fractured But Whole. Read on for what he had to say about the project...

AusGamers: Let’s start with the quality of the South Park brand -- and this was true of The Stick of Truth as well -- and that’s that it comes with such a level of polish, and already even in The Fractured But Whole you can see it. It’s clear that Matt and Trey have such a handle on what they do, but in videogame development you iterate so often, so can you talk to how that process works for you guys, because those guys are notorious for changing stuff at the last minute which means new assets, dialogue, VO etc need to be added while you’re iterating… the whole thing seems insane to me!

Kenneth Strickland: (Laughs.) It’s been interesting. But we have the first game’s experiences to go by, right? So the first thing we did is make sure our engine -- the Snowdrop Engine -- takes their show assets directly. So when they do decide they want a rewrite or to re-animate, or to tweak a scene, we can just port that in, like, 30 seconds, plus some build time in the night.

AusGamers: So how they kind of do the show?

Kenneth: Yeah exactly, that’s what we’ve tried to emulate, and they do it at such an incredibly fast speed -- have you ever seen Seven Days to Air? They still do it like that, and so we just try to emulate that with that speed so anytime, you know, they hand us say a cinematic, we can hit that speed with them. It’s when we start to get to more interactive segments that we have processes where we kind of fly down and every two weeks we’re talking about the interactive parts of the game -- the things you have to nail down a little bit earlier.

AusGamers: So Stick of Truth built itself around the season at the season at the time, but the season isn’t even out yet -- will there still be those tie-ins to the next season between the game and show?

Kenneth: We didn’t pick a moment to freeze and say ‘that’s the South Park we’re capturing’. We’ve already incorporated a bunch of stuff from Season 19 and again, because of the speed of our engine integration, I expect to be able to do the same thing with parts of their upcoming season. And, you know, the show lives by being current and if we’re a two-years out version of South Park then that’s not relevant anymore.

AusGamers: How much say do you have in the ebb and flow of gameplay over Matt and Trey?

Kenneth: Well they own the narrative, but what we try to bring to the table is our sense of good gameplay structure. So they have an intimate understanding of what a good pace for a half-hour show is, we have an understanding of what 20 to 30-hours of gameplay is. So, being able to talk to them about how to pace things out in that larger timeframe has been an interesting challenge, but they’re gamers themselves -- they get it.

AusGamers: Now if I can leverage one thing that irked me in the last game was that the dual analogue fart mechanic just wasn’t intuitive, and therefore less enjoyable than the other mechanics of the game. What have you learnt from experiences like that in the first game, and what have addressed and changed?

Kenneth: We wanted to make sure that the humour was embedded into the combat system, as opposed to just sitting at bookends of it. Other things we learnt from the first game’s experience was what people value, and to a surprising degree, it’s just being alive; a living part of that town. So we made sure that as the plot of this game progresses the town is reacting to it and evolving with it, and you witness that as your superhero story as [having] taken place alongside.

AusGamers: The ‘tongue-in-cheek’ humour isn’t even that, it’s worn loudly on the South Park sleeve, and [Matt and Trey] live on a razor sharp precipice as far as their humour and satire is concerned, so were there any issues going into this making such open fun of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes?

Kenneth: It’s funny because we’re all giant nerds across many disciplines, right? So even if you love that stuff -- and I’m a big comic book collector myself -- it’s just so ripe for lampooning. And to even get at the stuff you love there’s so much baggage to it, and given how ascendent it is in popular culture now, it’s absolutely worth lampooning right now, like, right now.

AusGamers: Have you guys found that the games, and even the continued development of this game, have impacted Matt and Trey in a unique way that maybe their other projects never could?

Kenneth: I think each time they get into the gaming media, like this did with the first one and then here with this one, it does open their brains up a bit in terms of how systems can go about making their humour either resonate or not. Again, it’s just a completely different set of timings and strengths. One of the things we kind of established early is that a good RPG system repeats itself -- they’re all microcosms of each other; a series of escalations, whereas a joke lives and dies once, if you repeat it twice, you’ve failed. So I think that was the most fruitful end of the collaboration, and you saw it in the combat stuff -- we have all these great systems for delivering jokes at the exact right times, but based on what a player does [we have to sometimes] cull them, like leaving them and not getting into something that just repeats itself.

AusGamers: In terms of reverence, the series has been running for so long and if you go back and watch Seasons One, Two, Three or Four they were just examples of Matt and Trey going out of their way to make people feel as uncomfortable as they could. But at some point they realised that with the process in which they make the sure, they could become ridiculously concurrent, but obviously certain jokes based on that don’t necessarily evolve… how hard is that to make sure you have both a history of the show that is relevant to that, but also remain current and somewhat timeless?

Kenneth: You know, Ubisoft can make suggestions, but at the end of the day Matt and Trey are the ones who have to decide what part of their legacy they want to remain relevant and which parts they want to leave behind. All I can tell you is they do put a lot of thought into which parts they want players to be reminded of, and which ones they’re happy to leave in the past. At the end of the day it’s 20 years of history and they’ve evolved themselves alongside the show.

AusGamers: Awesome Kenneth, thanks so much for your time.

Kenneth: Awesome.
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