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Sly Devils: The History of Sucker Punch Productions

by Ben Reeves on Jun 09, 2010 at 01:45 PM

They left profitable jobs working for the largest software developer in the world in order to start their own company. Most of them had little-to-no game development experience, and they were entering one of the most competitive fields of the entertainment industry with no idea of how to publish their product. There was little guarantee they would succeed. More than a decade later, with nearly half a dozen successful titles under its belt, Sucker Punch Productions is set to release Infamous 2, a sequel to last year’s critically acclaimed superhero game. How did this group of inexperienced unknowns become one of the most respected independent PlayStation developers? It wasn’t easy.

A Sucker Punch team photo taken as the team was finishing up work on Rocket: Robot on Wheels

The founders of Sucker Punch had plenty of programming experience; it just wasn’t game-related. In fact, only one person on staff had worked on a retail release before – current producer Brian Fleming spent a summer helping program the old Apple II sports title California Games. “Brian and I had been working at Microsoft doing non-game related stuff for eight or nine years,” recalls co-founder and development director Chris Zimmerman, “and we were tired of it. We were tired of working at a big company.”

The group of friends who would form Sucker Punch was ready for a challenge, so they left the Redmond-based software giant and struck out on their own. “It was raw. The difference between your project failing at Microsoft and your entire company failing is a profound and spiritual difference,” says Fleming. “We’re driven by fear of failure,” adds Zimmerman. “We’re not pulled forward by the sweet smell of success. It’s the stench of failure at our heels.”

One of the most important tasks a young company performs is choosing a name that is both memorable and endearing. However, since Sucker Punch was formed during the middle of the dot-com bubble, the team was also concerned with picking a name they could secure the web right for. “We had some names that were really weak,” recalls Zimmerman. “We had a list of about ten prospective names, and I let my wife take a look at it, and she said, ‘I don’t really mind what you call the company, as long as it’s not Sucker Punch.’ So we decided that whatever a woman who was in her mid-thirties hated, would be the name that a 15-year-old boy would like the most. I think she’s forgiven me now.” But picking a name was just the beginning of Sucker Punch’s unique approach to entering the industry, and the team was about to learn that they were in over their heads.

Rocketing Toward Success
Since the Sucker Punch team had so little experience in the industry, it’s not surprising that they took the wrong approach to releasing a game. The young developer believed that publishers wouldn’t be interested in buying a game from such a green staff, so Sucker Punch used its own money to fund its first project, Rocket: Robot on Wheels. The team spent nearly two years on the game, and had built roughly 70 percent of the program on its own dime before showing the project to anyone. Sucker Punch believed that having a near-complete product would make its game look less risky and entice prospective publishers to jump on board. Oddly enough, they were completely wrong.

Most video game publishers have long and elaborate product acquisition cycles. Therefore, even with six months of advanced notice, it can be hard for a publisher to prep a marketing strategy for a new title; most publishers start planning for a game’s release as soon as it’s greenlit. “A year in we started going to publishers, and they were like, ‘You did this all yourself?’” says Fleming. “We were like space aliens coming to them with a game. We got lucky that we didn’t die, but we lost money hand over fist on that game.”

Sucker Punch eventually partnered with Ubisoft to release Rocket in November of 1999. It didn’t sell extraordinarily well, but it was well received by critics: the game holds an 81 percent on the review aggregate site Gamerankings and even managed to win a game of the year nod from gaming site Gamesradar. It was enough to convince Sucker Punch that it was in the right industry; they just needed to come up with a game idea that had public appeal and would help them pay the bills.

Early concept art for Sly Cooper. The trilogy proved so popular that Sucker Punch still gets more fan mail about the Sly franchise than its does for Infamous

Sly Days
The bad guy in Rocket was a raccoon, so Sucker Punch thought that there would be a kind of circular magic to the idea of making a raccoon the main character of its next title. But this character wouldn’t be a boring everyday hero; he’d be a thief. “The sight gag of a raccoon putting on a mask somehow seemed super funny to us,” recalls Fleming. “That was it; that was the decision to make Sly Cooper right there.”

While jumping into the industry with no experience resulted in an awkward start for Sucker Punch, it paid off when the developer went to work on its second title. The developer knew how the industry worked now, and how important it was to get a publisher on its side from the start.

Sucker Punch had a good relationship with Ubisoft, but the developer decided to shop Sly Cooper around for a while before settling on a publisher. “At that time we felt that if you looked at the successful platformers,” says Fleming, “the ones that really broke out and became iconic – 100 percent of them were published by a console stakeholder. The console owner was the publisher.” This line of thinking led Sucker Punch to favor Sony’s interest in Sly Cooper.

One of the perks in partnering with Sony was that the developer didn’t have to worry about programming for multiple gaming systems. There was no need to duplicate work by porting code over to another machine or design control schemes for multiple controllers, all tasks that would have required extra manpower and resources the tiny developer didn’t have. “When we were in the middle of production on Sly our goals were to sell half a million copies, and to do a sequel,” says Fleming. Sly Cooper ended up selling close to a million units, proving successful enough for two sequels.

Something else happened after Sly Cooper came out. Sucker Punch started being compared to a few of Sony’s other heavy hitters such as Naughty Dog and Insomniac. Sucker Punch was suddenly being lauded as one of Sony’s best developers. “It was a flattering comparison, because those guys make great games,” says Zimmerman. “But at that point we felt a little like the junior partner in a law firm. By the end of the Sly trilogy we felt like we were pulling our weight a little more.” However, Sucker Punch knew that they couldn’t make games about cartoon raccoons forever. The gaming market was evolving, and if Sucker Punch wanted to stay relevant in its field it felt like it needed to change with the times. Sucker Punch didn’t know it, but the developer was about to start work on its most ambitious title to date.

Infamous was called True Hero until just before its debut at E3 in 2007

Superheros And What Lies Beyond
As happy as Sucker Punch was working on the Sly Cooper series, it felt that it was time for a change. “It’s a different world now than it was when we first started,” says Zimmerman. “The games people buy now are different than they were ten years ago. You have to adapt to that. Infamous was a big change for us in terms of tone, and character, and story. We changed nearly everything about the studio.”

The company hadn’t worked on a new IP in close to a decade, and building up a world from scratch proved to be a greater challenge than the team expected. “The original pitch we did for Infamous was ‘It’s Animal Crossing, but you’re a superhero.’ That’s where it started,” says Zimmerman. It was an evolving process, but within the first six months of development, Sucker Punch’s loose ideas began a metamorphosis. The city and the story began to take shape as Sucker Punch took all the elements of a superhero title that featured moral choices in an open world and shaped them into what Infamous would become.

However, the most impressive feat of Infamous’ development is that Sucker Punch produced a game that can proudly sit on store shelves next to titles like Uncharted 2 and Assassin’s Creed II while keeping its development team relatively small. Less than 80 people currently work at the Seattle-based developer. To put this in perspective, BioWare has several hundred people on its Mass Effect team, and Ubisoft reportedly paid over 400 people to work on Assassin’s Creed II. “We’re not driven by trying to be the top selling game,” says Fleming. “We don’t worry about what we think the market is going to do, or try to be the number one selling game by figuring out that the next big thing will be pet games or whatever. It’s much more about working on what we want to do that can find a market.”

Infamous found its market. It quickly garnered a faithful fanbase after its May 2009 release. The game also sold well, but it was far from the best selling title of the year. Still, game sales aren’t the only things Sucker Punch cares about. “Something I think about is the 80-year-old man test,” says Fleming. “When we’re all old and retired and someone is making these newfangled video games, will we look back fondly on what we did? It’s not going to be about 'Did we sell the most units that year?' It will be about 'Did we think those games were great?' The most important thing to me is that our games are really good.” If critical response is anything to judge success by, than Fleming has nothing to worry about. Sucker Punch still hasn’t released a game that hasn’t been praised for its inventiveness by at least a few outlets.

As its name suggests, Sucker Punch always seems ready to deliver a surprise or two from out of nowhere. The team is happy with its small size; it’s happy working on the game’s it makes, but it’s constantly trying to shift its focus and deliver that shocking blow from out of nowhere. Maybe someday the industry will see it coming. Until then Sucker Punch is just doing what it loves.

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