We had an opportunity to pick the brain of David Jaffe, director of Twisted Metal and founder of developer Eat, Sleep, Play, at Sony's press event in Hollywood, California. The outspoken developer explains how balancing Twisted Metal is akin to tweaking fighting games, touches on the creepiness of the game's story, and offers a glimpse into how the game's experience-based progression will work.
In the past you’ve compared balancing the combat in Twisted Metal to the fine tuning that occurs in fighting games. Can you expand on this?
I think there’re two things – when I say fighting game – that we’re talking about. The first one is the amount of layers that we feel the weapons and the player abilities have. So if you take a fighting game, you’ve got a punch. Everybody can do a punch. Then you’ve got a special move. Then you’ve got a counter or block. Then you get into a lot of these that are way too hard for me like “super-combo-**** that,” I don’t do it that way. But it’s really similar in that what we want out of this game is two things in that regard. One is for the player to feel that they can jump right in and have an experience that is instantly satisfying, very surface, very shallow, a lot of destruction, a lot of fantastical characters and weapons. That’s our punch. But we also want – we talked a little bit tonight about the Meat Wagon, the ambulance – take that for example. If you launch that guy [strapped with explosives, on a gurney] out of the back he’s just a missile – that’s a punch. If you launch him and you do a remote-controlled attack, you can basically detonate him at any time and do a splash damage radius effect. That’s great for two reasons. One, if you’re like “you know what I just want to get a bunch of guys at once, I’m going to have to steer and risk a little bit to get in there, but I don’t have to be so close and so accurate, but I have to work a little than just launching him like a missile.” Or I can also use that specifically if I say “I want to go after this group of guys because that particular blast radius knocks guys back and we’re fighting on a rooftop, I want to use it that way.” Or you can say “I’m going to risk a lot. I’m going to risk the fact that when this guy is out in the level on the gurny, he can get shot and taken out and I can lose my special.” We also haven’t decided if you’ll be vulnerable while you’re controlling this guy. We’re shielding you for now, but we’re not sure if we want to make you vulnerable while you’re attacking with the remote controlled gurney. If you can get a direct hit, imagine chasing the guy through traffic, weaving in and out of traffic because anything you hit blows you up. If you get a direct hit without detonating it, it’s devastatingly more powerful. That’s one of the things I mean when I say fighting game. Which is a punch or a button in a fighting game can become that single punch or throw. I love the idea of giving players places to go with the basic mechanics over the months or years or whatever – however successful this game ends up being – there’s more to learn. When you throw that into online with the team play, where I can learn some stuff and you can learn some stuff and we’re doing that together, that’s pretty cool.
The other fighting game thing I mean is that so many online shooters are very quick when you die. You take a few steps, you get shot, you’re dead. I hate that cadence. And I love fighting game cadence where we can get into a battle and it is a ****ing slugfest sometimes where we form that relationship. I come back from a weakness and I get you or we trade pixels back and forth, and it feels like we’ve had a relationship. In Twisted Metal we’re doing the same thing. Given, we’re dealing with 15 other cars, we can’t let you survive that long, but it’s substantially longer than most shooters. I can have you down to almost nothing then you drive into the health semi or learn that part of the map really well and suddenly you go get that health and I’m like “**** don’t get the health, don’t get the health!” and I’m hoping that my energy recharges fast enough that I can launch an EMP at you to stop you from getting the health before you get it. That’s also what I mean by fighting game, where we want to build those kind of moments in the moment-to-moment battles which we don’t see a lot of in online shooters.
What is it like dedicating time to developing well known characters like Sweet Tooth and Mr. Grimm while driving forward the new features of the gameplay?
It’s been a really fun challenge for a lot of reasons. Our single-player, our campaign – which you can also play co-op online or splitscreen locally – is deeper and more varied than any we’ve done. And the bosses are awesome. We love the bosses. The fiction, if you like Sweet Tooth, you get to learn more about his history, his origin. A lot of **** happens in his world that really pays off in growing him as a character. Preacher, Dollface, Calypso. Definitely for people who like Twisted Metal for the single-player and the stories, these will be the best stories. I keep saying I can’t wait to get back to my hotel because I want to see what the press thinks about some of these live-action shots we’ve started showing over the last couple of weeks, because we were always afraid that people would think our stories were cheesy. We’re not moviemakers, we don’t have that skill set that a lot of people are used to. But I look at these and I love the stories and I love the visuals of how we’re telling these stories. That’s a big part of this game, but it’s very important that people understand that if you’re looking specifically for some great single-player adventure that can compete with Uncharted 3 or Dead Space 2, that’s not what this is about. We have a great IP, great fiction, we’re going to have a great single-player campaign and multiplayer campaign, but at the end of the day this is a game you buy because either you love local splitscreen gaming with lots of different modes for 2-4 players, or you love going online. If you’re looking for a great single-player game and that’s all you’re looking for, this is probably not the game for you.
One disturbing live action shot in the new trailer shows Sweet Tooth attacking a girl. This segment attracted some criticism suggesting that it might imply something more sinister than a simple slasher-style kill. How exemplary is that moment of the vibe we can expect in Twisted Metal’s story sequences?
These were written to be creepy, effective, good stories. They were not written with the shock value of Black in mind. I was honestly surprised by that shot. Some people saw it as more than it really is. If you were to see it in context you very quickly realize that it’s part of a cool story that no one would find offensive unless they find Freddy, and Jason, and Michael Myers offensive. What I will say is that we’ve been doing these movies with animatics, and green screen, and rudimentary 3D for almost a year. Now we’re starting to get the visuals in and it is amazing. The story hasn’t even changed. You’ll never see a blood or a knife hitting anyone. It’s amazing how just the visual treatment of a couple of seconds can send a message that has nothing to do with the story that’s being told. I will tell you that the visual style and the stories we’re telling are going to be very reflective of these things you’re seeing [in the trailer] today. A lot of things – I won’t go into them, I’m sure you know and your readers can find out – certain things people have said about these images they’ve seen are way off the mark and certainly not what our stories are about.
Perhaps you can chalk it up to people being interested in learning more about the game.
I hope so, because we bend over backwards to make good stories that are horror stories, and fun, and good, but they’re not meant to be shock value for the sake of shock value. Some of the stuff people are talking about – it’s like “no, we’re not putting that in Twisted Metal.” Does that have a place in a video game? Yes, as a serious video game, just like a serious film. Not in a game like Twisted Metal.
You’ve previously mentioned that most of the levels in Twisted Metal will be sort of Anytown, USA type locations that you could imagine driving in. Blackrock Stadium’s electric tracks and lava pits is something more fantastical. How many of these types of these more far-fetched levels can we expect?
Well, we like to think that they’re all grounded in reality. I look at Blackrock Stadium and say “well, it’s not set on a pirate ship going through outer space.” But it is in the fiction a stadium built specifically for the Twisted Metal contest. I’d buy that in the world of Twisted Metal. I would say Blackrock is – if you call it fantastical – the most fantastical that it gets. I think we are doing a lot with this that we learned from Twisted Metal: Black. We’re doing a lot of varied color palettes. We don’t want to just be grunge. We don’t want to be in the world of Twisted Metal: Black. We’re also allowing gameplay to rule, not visual style. In the last one there was a lot of imaginative game design that would have benefited that title but it didn’t fit the vibe. We’re not going to put magical weapons in the game and ****, but we’re going to make sure that if we’ve got a great gameplay idea that’s going to make the game better, then we’re going to find a way to couch it in reality as best as possible. But end of the day gameplay rules, whereas in Black we were a little bit too slavish to the vibe and the style, and that did come at the expense of the gameplay, I think.
You stated earlier how hopeful you are that Twisted Metal fans grasp onto the new Nuke mode. Are there any other surprising modes coming down the pipe?
Yeah, there are variations on the modes that you’ve already learned about. Certain wrinkles based on the level design. For example one particular mode – Nuke is a great example of a mode that when you learn of this new level in a couple of months you’ll go “wow, to play Nuke in that level is even a cooler twist.” There are some new modes that we haven’t announced yet. Then there’s also in some of the unranked modes - and maybe in some of the ranked modes - lots of host settings that change up how you play them. There’s a lot of variety and there are tons of levels in this game. I look at this and I’m so proud of the value that players are going to get for their money in terms of if you like Twisted Metal – and I hope a lot of players do – there’s a lot on that disc to keep you entertained for a long time.
Twisted Metal is a resurrection of the car combat genre on consoles, and the Mortal Kombat reboot is returning that series to its roots in a familiar fashion. Why do you think now is the right time for previously deceased genres and franchises to receive makeovers?
There are so many ways to answer that question. There’s the cynical way, which is games are getting more and more expensive and you basically are dealing with “well we know this works…” and that’s not why we did it. I don’t think that’s why Ed [Boon] did it. But there’s more of the positive way to look at it, which is with today’s technology we can go back to the essence of these games that I think are still relevant, and give them not just and HD update but sort of a total fresh coat of gameplay paint, and still keep that heartbeat really beating strong that it’s still relevant. I think you’re also looking at a window of time like the 90s when a lot of people – it wasn’t a conscious effort – but we look at the internet and market research response and the nostalgia people have for this brand has been really surprising. Because for us it never felt like it went away. We were just busy making other games and living our lives. We were like “maybe one day we’ll go back to Twisted Metal,” but it hits at such a sweet spot that we got a lot of people who say “man I loved that game.” That’s even harder, because you don’t want to let those people down. I grew up loving Indiana Jones, he was my childhood hero, and I thought Crystal Skull was a piece of **** because I had such high expectations that never could have lived up to even if that movie had been half good, which it wasn’t. So that’s sort of a dangerous place to be, but that’s part of it as well. Honestly for us specifically, we came together as a team and said “you know what, we miss this world.” It’s like coming home to our old friends, these characters, and we have a lot of cool ideas that we think are fresh and new. We’re taking the fantasy that we had about Twisted Metal originally in 94 and getting closer to giving players what we were seeing in our heads that we could never actually execute on PlayStation one. For us that’s why we’re doing it, but there are a lot of zeitgeist-y things that affect the logic and reason and I think you could spend a long time dissecting “why” when it comes to Mortal Kombat, or our game, or any decision.
Can you reveal any more about what experience points do in the game?
All I can tell you is that you don’t make an online multiplayer game without XP these days. It’s a very important part of the meta-game. Players expect, as they should, to have that. Our game supports that. It supports persistence. It supports unlocks that players, I think, will appreciate. However, let me make this very clear – this is not a game about getting better because you’ve got more XP. Everything we give you does not **** up the balance of this game. We’re not giving you thousands of things, by the way. It isn’t like you get this list of a thousand things. But what we give you is relevant, it matters, and it is built around maintaining the fighting game philosophy that every single character – no matter what they’ve unlocked – should be able to compete one to one with every other character. So specifics are coming, but we can’t go into the details yet.