Chris Busse, the Studio Head of the company that gave us The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, discussed the development of the game.
Hello, my name is Chris Busse, I’m the Studio Head at Skydance Interactive. I’ve been in games for 25 years. I was the first employee at Treyarch back in the day and had a good run there starting on Die by the Sword and my last title as Creative Director was on Ultimate Spider-Man. I did a stint at EA on Medal of Honor: Airborne, and then started The Workshop, which merged with Skydance 5 years ago to become Skydance Interactive.
The team that made The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners is a large and diverse group of brilliantly creative people. Some have worked together going back to Treyarch’s early days, many started their careers here at SDI, as well as many other industry veterans. Attempting to summarize the breadth of experience and talent of the entire team would be an interview in and of itself.
Developing Saints & Sinners
Fundamentally, game development is about overcoming challenges through planning and then iteration. VR brings new and different challenges but tackling those requires many of the same tools that game development has always required. We had learned a lot about VR from our work on Archangel and Archangel: Hellfire; and found that The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, in particular, brought along its own challenges to overcome.
VR is a new medium, it has its own nuances, its own strengths, and weaknesses. I believe we’re seeing developers start to really understand and grapple with all of that now. There are intensity and intimacy that VR can deliver which allows new emotional experiences for games; learning what was not enough or too much has been a lot of iteration and exploration.
Saints & Sinners went through multiple iterations, starting originally as a “walking simulator” (you can see remnants of this in the radio conversations with Casey), but eventually finding its legs as a survival game set in a horrific world. We quickly fell on New Orleans as where we wanted to tell our story. It has a rich history and a unique mix of culture and geography lend for many interesting plotlines and stories to tell.
The entire game was built around a VR aesthetic, from the size of the levels (landed upon by the comfortable speed of walking) to the vertical nature of several of the levels. The power and ability of the hardware drive a lot of the layout as well. I wouldn’t say there were tricks, so much as lots of testing and iteration. We begin everything with test gyms to try out every aspect of the game and iterate from our assumptions until we find a good mix. We supplement this with lots of playtesting along the way from people from inside and outside the studio further cement that we’ve landed on the right balance. The secret ingredient is hard work.
Weapons spent a long time in test gyms, from action to interaction, each weapon needed a lot of time and attention to make them feel genuine. How you load and ready a revolver differs from a semi-automatic pistol or a shotgun. We knew pretty early on that our melee weapons were going to be what really set us apart. We even leaned into making different knives feel separate from one another. This is an area where VR really shines, it allows for personal interaction with items in a way that more traditional controls can’t achieve. The weight and balance of an object can really be felt with the system we used for the physics of objects in your hands.
As for animation with VR, there basically isn’t any. The animation comes from the player. The only part that is animated is the fingers for most things you’re seeing (portions of the reloads are animated as well). Most of what you’re seeing is being simulated and animated in real-time from the player’s movements.
Making a Believable World
We used The Walking Dead comics as our springboard and wanted to make sure our game was an homage to the style that Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard developed for the comics. The team still wanted it to feel “real” when you were in, so we have a blended look for the world and characters that work together to let you really live in The Walking Dead. Finding that blend took a lot of iterations until everyone was pleased with where we landed, neither too illustrated nor too real world. Huge credit to the work that the whole art team did in realizing this vision.
Once we started to get the weaponry online, we knew we had to fulfill the physical interactions that they were promising. We started with the assumption that a physical inventory was not only possible but preferable. We’d experimented with the physicality of objects as far back as Sorcery with the Sony Move Controllers, and wanted to lean into it in a big way here. We love how much this system delivers in seating you into the game; you pretty quickly don’t think about reaching here or there, you just know where your items are and you grab them as much as you would in real life.
A follow up on our process, the quick pitching of items into your pack over your shoulder was one of those we found from direct observation of watching players test early versions of the game; that was a pretty late addition, but one that works seamlessly with the rest of the system.
Nothing illustrates the iterative process of game-making more than optimization. This is quite simply a grind. You measure the game (via playthroughs with various measuring tools) and find things that are going wrong and prioritize and fix the worst culprits. Repeat this process until you are hitting your metrics or time runs out.
We have many different tools to look at the game in many different ways, from pure textual tools that dump numbers into spreadsheets, to graphs of frame rates and heatmaps of polygons or extra rendering performance issues.
Optimization is at the heart of the daily work that is game development. It’s the unpleasant work that is crucial to a smooth and enjoyable game for everyone who plays.
Making a Successful VR Game
Lean into what VR does well. Some call it presence, but I think it goes beyond that; I like to say that you get to inhabit things in VR that you can’t in any other medium. Certainly space and worlds, but also characters. Nothing lets you feel more like you are the protagonist than VR, that’s an advantage to really key in on. You can see it in nearly every choice we made with Saints & Sinners, from inventory, to object interaction and player freedom. I think our launch trailer really keyed in and gave a voice to our working philosophy: Who are You?