Q&A: Emotional game design with D4 developer SWERY

When Microsoft quietly released Access Games' episodic Xbox One adventure game D4 at the tail end of September, it sparked strong emotional reactions from fans of director Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro's previous work -- the cult classic Deadly Premonition.
"The really hardcore DP fans, for whom DP is their life, have gotten kind of mad at me because [D4] is so different from DP," says Suehiro.
Dealing with emotional fans isn't exactly a new challenge for the idiosyncratic developer, but designing D4 to evoke a broader spectrum of emotions from its player -- for better or worse -- proved tricky enough to prompt Suehiro into pitching a GDC 2015 talk about D4 and the topic of emotional game design.

In March, Suehiro will recount D4's development process, but it's not your typical postmortem; instead, the designer aims to share what he learned about "sensory replication" in games and inspiring player empathy.
Gamasutra recently spoke with Suehiro to learn more about what he learned while developing D4, and why he felt strongly enough about empathy in games to pitched a talk on the topic for GDC 2015. What follows is our conversation, conducted via translator and edited for clarity.
Tell me a bit about your GDC talk. This isn't exactly a straightforward postmortem; what inspired you to pitch it?
Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro: I believe that game design is something that's always changing, and there are some things that should be changed and some that shouldn't be.
I have my own thoughts on what those things are and how they should be approached, and I hope that by giving those thoughts to other developers it will help them confirm things they've been thinking about, or maybe give them a new approach, a new perspective on how to think about things. In that regard, that's why I think it's important to speak at GDC.
Like what? What did you learn while working on D4?
One thing that I really focused on while making D4 was empathy. I think that empathy is necessary in making games, in order to give players the sort of memories they won't forget, even when they stop playing. I want to make games that are, if not as significant as life memories, as close to that as I can possibly make.
There are many methods to create empathy inside games of course, but this time the method I came across was sensory replication -- recreating senses for the player. By doing that, it allows the player not just to empathize with the characters, but to dive in and empathize with the world itself. That's the sort of thing that I really studied and learned about, that I'd like to share with fellow developers.
Of course when I say sensory replication, a lot of people tend to tie that into the motion controls. But for me, the motion controls are just one part of the design -- they aren't what the game was built around.
For me, the game is a really tiny sort of sandbox game; it's about this world that we created, and the character is just one little piece of that world. The motion controls are just another small part of that world. I don't want the discussion of D4 to just end with the motion controller; there's much more to the game's design that I was thinking about while making it.
What you're talking about reminds me of the psychological concept of mirroring. What do you think about the potential for other new types of tech, like VR, to help players empathize with characters?
I think that VR will definitely allow for a greater level of immersion in games. For me, the idea behind D4 was to create a game that could really generate a lot of empathy among players. It wasn't because of Kinect that I made D4; Kinect is just a device I used with it.
My stance on VR is, if you have the headset, give it a try! But it's not required to make something great. I have the same stance towards Kinect: If you have it, give it a try! But I don't expect anyone to go out and buy Kinect to play D4.
I do think developers need to challenge themselves more in terms of input devices. There's a sort of idea that goes around that says "well you know, this input device isn't very popular and not a lot of people have it, so we shouldn't use it."
I think that's kind of stupid, because if people keep thinking that way then we'll be stuck with the same kinds of controllers for decades to come. I think we should be more creative about the ways we allow players to interact with and control their games.
What sort of problems did you run into during D4's development, and how would you recommend other developers avoid them?
So a really easy example is the motion controls, and getting over the obstacle of developing for them. When people look at the motion controller, one of the first things that comes to their minds is having people do poses to match the character in the game. But when you do it that way, gradually the player gets more confident in their ability to use gestures as controls and their expectations outgrow what the game can handle. That creates a sort of imbalance; there's so many different poses the player is capable of doing, it just becomes too large to support and they get frustrated when the game doesn't interpret their gestures exactly right.
[This is in line with Suehiro's GDC Next 2013 talk, in which he noted that designing a Kinect game to recognize realistic movements led to player frustration when they instinctively began expecting the sensor to recognize their own unique movement patterns.]
If instead you make the player's motion controls into a sort of symbolic thing by simplifying it, that allows the effect to stay significant, because the motions and the player's input remains so simple.
Another example is the difference between cinematic cutscenes and cutscenes designed to have the player input something. D4 is a very dramatic game with a lot of different dramatic cutscenes, but there's a huge difference between a cinematic cutscene that's made through traditional cinematic techniques and one that's made specifically for games -- that's made to lead the player into making some sort of input into the game.
When I was designing the game, we would have an outside company do a cutscene. And if they were a cinematography company it would come back very cinematic, but if we sent it to some game company it would come back and we wouldn't be able to use it at all because it wasn't what we were looking for. That was another big obstacle we had to overcome.
I wound up entrusting it all to one company we worked very closely with, where I could give them pointers on exactly what we wanted.
Why did you feel the need to use cutscenes at all? Why not convey drama through gameplay?
I don't think it's interesting to do the same thing over and over again. With D4, I wanted to pull in aspects from many different styles and different types of games. I didn't just want it to be a motion control game where all you do is make gestures and push buttons the entire time; I wanted to have a mixture of different types of games and different types of experiences.
Another obstacle to the development of D4 that I had a lot of trouble overcoming was that...well, you know, years ago I put out Deadly Premonition, and there exists a number of people who think that game was not good.
So with this game, I wanted to take opinions from both camps -- those who liked DP and those who didn't like DP -- mix them, and make sure this game was something completely different, something that overcame DP in terms of both characters and story. The world had to be something completely different, the character had to be something completely different, so it wouldn't be stuck in the shadow of Deadly Premonition. So it could stand on its own.
But I got some feedback from the company saying we had to put some things in this game that would become internet memes, like with DP. What would you do in that situation?
Honestly? I guess I wouldn't; I'd hate to try and intentionally make something 'go viral.'
Yes, I feel the same way. However, stuff like that would come as orders from the company. So, that was a huge obstacle during D4's development.
How did you deal with that?
Development-wise, I overcame it by rewriting the script seven times. To overcome it personally, I just kept drinking tequila and believed that what I was doing was right.
The launch of D4 seemed like a surprise to everyone at the time. Has the response been satisfying for you and your team?
I think that...from the players who just honestly go into D4 with a clear mind, I think the response has been very good.
The feedback from the marketing people has been that, regardless of what they think about the game, people who have played D4 tend to speak passionately about it in some way. But the really hardcore DP fans, for whom DP is their life, have gotten kind of mad at me because it's so different from DP.
Some of my favorite conversations about game development don't involve games at all. I'm curious: what book, film or piece of music would you recommend to fellow game makers?
Oh, I'd recommend Royal Tenenbaums. For me, the story isn't really the focus though. The main character, Gene Hackman...he's sort of a bad guy, you know? He's not a good guy. But he has this sort of charm that reels people in.
And when you're making games, if you can make a game like Gene Hackman's character -- one that has a sort of charm, regardless of its ethical worth or anything like that -- if it has that charm, it's very good.
Gamasutra and GDC are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

 

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