We continue our coverage of the recent Activision media event (see more here, here, and here) by going back to the alien-filled action adventure that seeks to make Spidey swing high once again, Spider-man: Web of Shadows. Looking for more information on the gameplay and design elements, we had a chat with Lead Developer Tim O’Neil.
Newsarama: Were there ever any plans to make the guest stars unlockable playable characters, as has been done with some villains in the past games?
Tim O’Neil: You know, honestly? It never came up. We were so focused on making a good Spider-man game, I don’t know that the conversation ever happened about making them playable characters. That’s a good idea though!
NRAMA: (laughs) Just patch it!
TO: (laughs) Yeah, exactly, DLC.
NRAMA: How were the guest stars chosen?
TO: The roster was a totally unscientific, argumentative process. It was “how can we use this guy” or “can we make this person fit?” Most of the roster we actually picked very early on in the concept phase. We had a huge list of like 70 characters, everyone on the teams’ ideas, then we just prioritized and itemized over a couple of weeks. The concept artist would say, “Oh, I can do a really cool version of that character.” Basically, it was really unorganized and unscientific.
NRAMA: Now you said you really wanted to concentrate on making a good Spider-man game. Are you personally a big fan of the character?
TO: Oh, absolutely. I came to it later in life than some of the “true believers,” but around the time of the first movie, I started paying a lot more attention to the character. As a developer, mechanically, the character lines up really well for a video game! One of the first video-game concepts I had when I was starting out was for this gravity-whip thing, then I worked on a wakeboarding game where you have this tether line controlling your movements, and that stuff, with the quick, fast, aerial moves makes a character that’s fundamentally good for video games.
NRAMA: From the developer standpoint, is working without a movie license easier or harder?
TO: Oh, it was definitely easier. Well, I guess one thing was harder, in that we had to answer questions ourselves; what really defines the character, which version should we use? In that way, the constraints can sometimes be helpful, so you can focus just on what you can do. On the other hand, when you can sit down and have that list of all the things you want to do, it allows you to be more creative, and be more invested in what you’re creating. Because you have to answer those questions yourself, you feel like you own those answers. From the logistics of “we want to have Black Cat” we don’t have to make sure the movie guys are cool with us doing that. We don’t have those extra external constraints that do tie your hands.
NRAMA: You said you have a long list of characters, did you also have a long list of game concepts and moves that you whittled down from there?
TO: I don’t know if we were ever quite so formal about the actual character mechanics. The over riding goal that we set up front was having the wall combat, the air combat, and making the web-slinging movement central to the gameplay; put you in Spider-man’s shoes and let you see the world from his perspective. It was really more that over riding goal that the mechanics came out of. You have to be able to move relatively freely while on a wall; you have to be able to attach, jump off, go to the air, fight guys in the air.
NRAMA: Yeah, the wall-fighting was interesting, how it moves into the horizontal perspective.
TO: Yeah, and that was one of the things we really wanted to get right from early on. You can see it drawn, and he’s attached to a wall, and there’s this weird perspective. So we wanted you to see it how he sees the world, which may be a little vertigo-y at first, but hopefully it’ll help you feel, “Hey, this is what it’s like to be Spider-man.”
NRAMA: Now, the movement unlock system is in the tree style. That can be freeing and restraining at the same time. What made you decide to do that versus just a “pick a move” upgrade system?
TO: You know, one of the reasons we have the separate move lists for the red suit and the black suit is we really wanted you to have the feeling like you were personally customizing the character. We had a bunch of different scenarios, and the branch system lets you take what kinds of moves you like and improve on those specifically, where as a just pick from a list style just doesn’t seem to build upon itself or let the character grow naturally. We want you to have some feeling of progression as you refine certain aspects of your Spider-man.
NRAMA: With the “choice” emphasis to the gameplay, how many different ways can you play this game? Is there a point where the game will strictly take you down one path or the other?
TO: It’s pretty flexible. There are definitely a few points where the story really branches one way or the other, but there are more choices that will change the “flavor” of the game a bit without being a sharp change.
NRAMA: So if you started off by allying yourself with the “villain” track of Black Cat and Kingpin, would you be able to double back and go down the hero side with Moon Knight and Wolverine?
TO: Yes, you would. There’s only so much story you can fit in there, so you can’t 100% double back completely, but you can definitely change your mind up to a point and get those guys back on your side again.
NRAMA: About how many story missions are in this?
TO: I actually don’t know off the top of my head. Bunches? (laughs) Is that a number?
NRAMA: OK, we’ll let that slide. Was there anything that you specifically had to have in the game? A must for you?
TO: The new target system. That was something that we had to have from very early on. Instead of being able to just pick one guy and focus your attacks on him, you’re able to see things a little more the way Spidey would see them. It especially helps on chase missions, where you can lock on and easily follow someone. Even in GTA, the chase missions, sometimes you look away just a little bit, and you completely lose someone. It drives me insane!
NRAMA: Chase missions drive you insane; you’re lead developer; why are there chase missions in this game?
TO: Because, when you actually have the targeting camera that we use it actually makes it a lot more interesting. We are able to get some cinematic views from lots of different angles as Spider-man swings through the city without you losing your target. It does a lot to solidify your frame of reference; Spider-man is so dynamic, and can change directions on a dime: go up, go down, go left, go right.
NRAMA: The other thing we talked to Burke Dane about before was the emphasis on web combat. How do you keep the player on this combo system and prevent it from becoming just a button masher?
TO: It’s difficult. It’s an action game, and you’ve got a really broad audience, and we want to keep it accessible. A lot of people don’t inherently go, “How do I use timing and different combinations to get something more effective?” I mean, my mom plays games, and she’ll just say “what’s the attack button?” On the other hand, we don’t want it to be a button masher. Early on in the game, the enemies you fight are probably not very challenging, especially individually. You can just go in, do some damage, and get out. As the story progresses and the more powerful enemies, the powered-up tech guys and eventually the symbiotes, you absolutely CANNOT just mash the button and have any kind of chance of living more than a couple minutes. It takes a while to get used to the different combos, and we made the difficulty gradual so players can do that. One thing we really tried to stay clear from, too, is the “X,X,Y,Y,B” kind of combos. If you’re playing Street Fighter for a year, you’re able to memorize those kinds of moves and do them by reflex, but we didn’t want players to have to play a year before getting to the good fighting. What we really wanted to have was a relatively small number of very tactically different attacks, and have players be able to recognize when to make those tactical choices and how to pull off the appropriate attack.
NRAMA: You’ve played the game for hundreds, probably close to thousands of hours…
TO: (laughs) Yes!
NRAMA: So when you sit down to play just for fun, what section do you go to?
TO: I usually will warp to the last act of the game, when the city is totally taken over, and you’ve got every kind of enemy out there. There’s a point where it’s just complete chaos, everything has gone wrong, and the city is just filled with bad guys, the streets, and the whole volume of the city.
NRAMA: Very quickly approaching gold status here, was there anything you hoped to put in last minute that you just couldn’t?
TO: You know, we had a really awesome system where you could basically grab any prop and throw it at guys, not that different from Force Unleashed. We just never quite could get it “done” done. That was probably our last biggest cut that we would’ve loved to have in, but hit the cutting room floor.
NRAMA: Was multiplayer ever a consideration for this kind of game?
TO: You know, I think there could be a really awesome multiplayer Spider-man, but that just wasn’t the game we were making. It just wasn’t our focus here.