Interview: Steve Caterson, Sr Producer of God of War 3

Last Wednesday Sony invited me to attend a God of War 3 event down in LA where I was given the opportunity to interview Senior Producer Steve Caterson and then sit down with the game.

To be clear, I plan on writing up my impressions of the game very soon, but in essence—it looks phenomenal! It’s safe to say that it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before in the genre. I did compare notes with some of the others attending the event and there was much discussion on whether it rivals the visuals of Uncharted 2 and to be honest--it's a completely subjective call. Do you prefer a greek mythological or Indiana Jones-type theme? Personally, I lean a little more towards the greek theatre and prefer the visuals of God of War 3--but more on that later.

In this interview I ask Steve: How many endings does the game have? Does it run at 720P or 1080P? What comprises most of the 35GB on the Blu-Ray disk? Will the God of Wat 3 engine be licensed out? When will we see DLC? Has work begun on the next God of War trilogy? Enjoy!

Note: All pictures were masterfully taken by my zombie-killing friend Kate.

Can you tell us what role you played in the development of God of War 3?
I’m the senior producer, so I’m the guy who is responsible for the entire production of the game. It’s a 120 member team so I kind of oversee them with a lot of help from a lot of talented people. At the end of the day it’s ultimately my responsibility to make sure the game is made and is as good as can be.

Are you rested?
NO! I won’t be that for a while.

What was the day like at Santa Monica Studios when the game went gold?
It went gold Thursday night of last week (02/18/10) and it was a good day! I found out about it Thursday night via email and then the team found out about it Friday afternoon. Unfortunately I was not able to be there because my wife and child were both sick so I was at home, which is fine because they both sacrificed an incredible amount just for me to be there. Everyone was just kind of dazed.

I spoke with Todd Papy (Combat Director) in regards to the God of War 3 tech and he said that the development of it began along side God of War 2. How early did this happen?
It began sort of in the middle.

Tonight Stig Assmussen (Project Lead) said the game had been in development for 3 years, but it sort of seems that it might actually be longer than that. Is that correct?
When we say the tech has been in development since a certain time it really kind of varies. What I mean by varies is that the tech was being developed by one or two guys tootling around with stuff. Towards the end of GoW2 we had, maybe, four or five people total (including an artist) saying ‘ok, we need to get shaders , normal maps and lighting figured out” and those kinds of things. So they basically had a baseline of those kinds of things taken care of before GoW2 was done so that we had a kind of template level to see what it was going to look like. It was essentially like a prototype and then we went from there.

All the tech for all the GoW products have been built upon each other. GoW2 was built on the GoW1 engine, and now GoW3 has been built on the GoW2 engine. See what happened is our tech guys ported the GoW2 engine over to the Playstation 3 right off the bat…

Ah! This is how the God of War Collection happened?

Sort of, yes! But they did that so we had a working engine and then the level designers were able to get right to work. We had Kratos running and jumping at speed, doing all the things he was doing in GoW2, so we were able to say ‘alright, this is a good baseline, let’s get to work’. Our programmers worked hand-in-hand with us and said ‘Ok in 6 months we’ll pull out the PS2 particle system and replace it with the PS3 particle system,and then a few months later we’ll pull out the PS2 collision system and replace it with the PS3 collision system.’

So it was modular in its design so they could pull out parts of the engine?
Yea--well, as much as we hoped! It was the only way to go for us. Due to the scale of the game we had to hit the ground running. We needed all the time possible to make the game, and it was the first PS3 game that our studio was doing. We weren’t given the luxury of doing it in 10 years.

What was the greatest challenge in the development of God of War 3?
Oh man there were so many! The colorful answer is titan gameplay. From a technical, artistic and design standpoint getting all 3 of those to come together to make sure they were all hitting on all cylinders was tough. From a production standpoint is would have to be communication. We went from 50 people working on GoW1, to 80 on GoW2 and then to 120 plus working on GoW3. The communication got exponentially harder.

Where would you say—as you picked up 40 people—most of the people landed? Were the majority of them going to the art depts or were they sprinkled throughout the studio?
You know, they were sort of sprinkled throughout. I would say that the Art department grew the most. We no longer had a model with a texture, but now a model with a texture with a normal map and a shader and lighting. It was more like eight things on a model instead of just one. Our code department also grew some along with animation, cinematics and design but Art grew the most.

Is the game running at 60 frames per second?
The game is running at a variable framerate. It rarely goes below 30 and it tops out at 60.

Is V-sync enabled?

Is it 720P or 1080P?
720P native that can scale up to 1080i.

Tearing has become a hot topic in this generation of consoles. Did this affect your approach in the design of the game?
It’s interesting; God of War 2 had some tearing going on with it, but with GoW3 there shouldn’t be any tearing at all and the variable frame rate helps us out with that. We’ve also got some good code in place--that you can’t tell is working--which helps to make sure frame rate drops are gracefully executed. By graceful I mean that you won’t see any tearing.

In some respects—and I know I’m going to get shredded on the boards for saying this—we intentionally slow things down. We want to show you what’s going on in some scenes. A good example is this one huge creature who grabs Kratos and, if we showed that at speed, you would just never even see him. So we say, ‘ok slow the camera down, zoom in—there he is! Doesn’t he look cool?!’ and then we ramp the speed back up and put you back into the action. It’s a pacing thing.

Also, there are some small pauses in the combat that some people thought were slowdown because there were so many guys on screen but it’s intentionally there because it makes the hits feel more impactful.

What’s zipper-tech and what does it do?
It involves a high number of joints and the ability to have them and the vertices remain in sync over all kinds of animations and then to separate accordingly.

For instance, technically, the belly of the centaur is actually split open all the time, but you just can’t tell because everything is nicely tied together and moving along until the animation hits and tells the joints to split.

The God of War 3 Blu-Ray disk is 35GB in size. What’s asset comprises the most space?
Oh gosh that’s a tough one! I think the accurate answer would be the textures. I mean, realistically the documentary is on there and that’s about 2 hours of HD video, but as far as game assets go it’s the textures and then the audio.

Are there any pre-rendered cutscenes in the game?
There are pre-rendered cutscenes but in saying that--they’re made in the game engine.

I would like to make sure people understand the difference here: So there’s real-time where I have control of Kratos and there’s all this stuff happening around me--that’s how we define real-time. We define pre-rendered in that we take the game engine with game assets and put them in a scene. We then shoot the animation through the render (like the trailer we’ve all seen) and then the game spits out frames that we then put together as an mpeg. We don’t have the hi-res CGI videos like the first two games.

Is the God of War 3 engine going to be licensed out or used in other areas by Sony?
It will probably be used internally by Santa Monica Studio, but it comes down to support. If you license the engine out to someone else then it takes the whole team to provide that support--that takes up some serious bandwidth! The only way we would do it is if it was a fire-and-forget (no support) situation.

Also, in my experience in games, people don’t like using other peoples stuff.

Why is that?

I don’t know. It’s very frustrating. I don’t know if it’s a pride thing or people just not being familiar with it. I have an art background and did some level work in the past and after working on something I would hand it off to someone to finish and 3 weeks later I’d come back and would find that they rebuilt the whole thing! I’d ask ‘why’ and they would say something along the lines of “because it’s a piece of crap!” It happens 100% of the time. It’s strange, but it’s rampant.

In regards to the development of GoW3, how did the team come up with the overall vision?
Three years! I think one of the things our studio strives for is to bite off more than we can chew. That’s all everyone did in every department during the first year of development, saying ‘what can I work on tomorrow that’s crazier than what I did today?’ and from a production standpoint its scary as shit! After that year and a half of production it just kind of came down to finishing the project.

What about the moving levels? Was this something that the studio wanted to do earlier in the series but was limited by the technology of the PS2?
A little bit. On God of War 2 we touched on it, but then we ended it saying ‘well, we’re really going to have to do it now’. So when we got to the PS3 we were excited! Right out of the gate we started on the design work. We actually had a prototype called “The Blockman” who literally had blocks for arms and legs and Kratos was running on them.

Each GoW game has had a different director and each one has brought a different vision. What kind of affects has this had on the game?
Oh it’s awesome! I think it’s one of the best ways we could have done it. I don’t want to draw direct comparisons to this, but one of my favorite series of all times was Band of Brothers. I love that series! Each episode is set in the same period with the same characters in the same events, but there were different directors for each episode. When you watch the whole thing and reflect back its like ‘wow, ok so it is a little different’. It’s the same with the GoW series—each guy provided a different perspective.

Does this mean you’re going to become the next director on the series? No Way!

What can we expect in regards to DLC?
We’re working that out now. There are no definitive plans but we’re still experimenting. We’ve got some bandwidth and if Sony tells us to go ahead with it then we will. We’ve got some ideas bouncing around.

Can we expect anything for free? Like arenas?
I hope so! We’ve got some fun ideas that we’re kicking around.

Has work begun on the next God of War trilogy?
Hrm. No. Weeeeeell—hrm, no. We’ve just come off of a huge run and the guys are just happy that I’m not calling them.

It’s been almost 3 years since God of War 2 was released and the genre hasn’t move forward much in terms of gameplay? What is God of War 3 going to do to push things forward?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know if our goal was to necessarily push the genre forward really.

What about Titan gameplay? Is that a push forward?
Yes but I could just take the counter point and say Shadow of Colossus did it too, right? I think our goal was just to do things better than what we had ever done before in the past. That’s really what our goal was. We wanted to top the other two entries in the series and end it on a big note. We wanted the trilogy to wrap up this kind of grand story arc and all the challenges up against it. In the end we just wanted to create a fun product.

I’m honestly not trying to dance around the question, but I don’t recall there ever being discussions about it.

Were there any games you played during the development that helped influence any particular parts of GoW3?
You know you can probably see that there are a lot once you play the game, just like when you played the first one. I think one of the things we did try to do is end the trilogy and harkens back to the first one and its style.

What exactly does that mean?
Well in the first one we got into Krato’s head and saw his past and his torment, but the second one wasn’t so much about Kratos as it was about his environment and how he was just fucking it up. It was just more about the things happening around Kratos.

On GoW3 we tried to go back to the roots of the first one and make it more about Kratos—to get more into his head, more into his motivations and just finish his story.

Is there one ending to the game?
Yes, there is one ending.

Thanks for your time and congratulations!
Thank you very much!