Game Director Cory Barlog describes working on the gaming world's hottest follow-up
So what was the biggest challenge in creating a follow up to a huge hit like God of War?
Cory Barlog: I would say the level of expectation from everyone. You're coming in as a new director on a franchise that kind of came out of nowhere and a lot of people were surprised like, "God of War, what's this?" and they play and they're like, "Oh, it's good." Now everybody expects it to live up to a specific level of quality. Part of it may be the surprise factor as well, since it came out of nowhere they're expecting the second one to surprise them as well. So there are a lot of challenges to deal with when you have such a surprising hit on your hands and you've also never directed a game before. So all of those things were massive challenges in the beginning.
I didn't fully understand the pressure at first, so it was cool. I was totally ignorant of it! Then about halfway through the project it really set in like, "Oh... my... God! If I screw this up, I'm working at Burger King!" The fortunate thing is it's the original team. Everybody who is working at this game worked on the first one. We were the ones who made this game what it was, so I had no doubts in my mind we were going to come through with it. The main thing was, "Are people going to grab on to this idea, are they going to roll with us?" Because a lot of people were resistant in the beginning saying, "Why not PS3?" but I think it was a smart choice for us; it was where we wanted to go.
A lot of people would have loved to have seen GoW II on PS3 and Sony sure could have used another 'killer app' for PS3. Can you outline the advantages and disadvantages of making this game for PS2?
CB: I think the big advantages of it is the over 100 million install base. All the people who bought the first game were PS2 owners, so we wanted to stay with that especially because... I want to make the PS3 version of this game, absolutely, but I don't want to make it quickly. I don't want to quickly rush it out the door and be like, "Oh my gosh, we need to get this out!" because we probably would have pushed ourselves to make it around the launch window and I think we would have sacrificed something by trying to take what we had and shoving it in there as quickly as possible. So it was the first thing, and it was the only thing that made sense to us, that the PS2 was still sensible; because this system at first, when we finished God of War I, we thought, "We've totally pushed this system to the limit" and then we started to really look at it and we were like, "Oh wait... we really haven't, there's still a lot of stuff we can do." It's evident in stuff like the screenshots. If you look at the screenshots of God of War I versus God of War II it's like, "Holy cow!" It's really a huge leap forward, just visually. Look at what we're able to push on screen... more characters, higher quality models. So the disadvantages would just be that a lot of people continue to question "Why didn't you do PS3?" The answer to that is if people like II, and a lot of people buy it and it gets responses from the fans that say, "We really like this," then we're totally going to do a third one. It's entirely up to people buying this game and being fans of this game. With the first one, it was the same thing: people liked it, we made a second one.
Will there be any advantages to playing the game on PS3 instead of PS2? Motion sensing perhaps?
CB: No, there were initial plans to do some stuff for that, but it started to distract away from making the main game. The last thing we wanted to do was have anything in the game sacrificed by a nice little extra feature. So there aren't any advantages right now.
How much input did David Jaffe have into GoW II? How often did he come around to give guidance on what's working, what's not, etc?
CB: David who? [laughs] In the beginning, he was like, "Alright, go do what you're going to do" because he was finishing God of War I while I was writing the story for II. I went through, probably, 10 revisions of the story. I just rewrote, rewrote, and rewrote, and kept going, "What about this? Let's try this." We worked together a little bit after about 6 months refining the story and figuring out where we were going to go. Then it was really just a matter of sounding ideas off of each other... Near the end of the project, like the last 7 or 8 months, it was pretty much all us—the team working independently and charging forward. He had his own games he had to be working on, so it was really our own independent thing by the end of that game.
This is probably not the greatest comparison, but do you feel a bit like Eiji Aonuma when Shigeru Miyamoto put him in charge of Zelda?
CB: Hmm. [pauses] That would mean that David Jaffe is Miyamoto. [laughs] I'm just trying to picture him with that big smile and waving, because that's so not him... or I'm getting a picture of Miyamoto swearing, which is also very funny. [laughs] I think there's a valid comparison there. He created this franchise and it feels like he's just handing it over to me and it's a massive responsibility. I try not to think about it too much, otherwise it would stress me out. I think it's a really good thing for me and I'm really excited about it and I love this franchise, story and character, so I'm all about it, but it's definitely a daunting task. It's not as established as Zelda, so I have a little more say in the establishment of the character; he's still not fully fleshed out. That's what's exciting is I'm really helping mold what Kratos really is, what he eventually will fully become. So that's very cool.
So are you generally a fan of Greek mythology? Did you end up studying a lot of it while working on this project?
CB: Prior to working on the first one, I didn't really know anything. I saw Clash of the Titans and I love that movie, and that was really it. Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and then... anything with [Ray] Harryhausen, like 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I was a huge fan of all that stuff, but I didn't really know that much. I mean, I read the Odyssey and the Iliad in high school, but I didn't know anything. Then when I was on the first game, I did a little bit more research, like in the first two weeks I played Rygar and I was like, "Oh, that's interesting." My connection to mythology at that point was "Cerberus!" and he did all those crazy, silly things that game did and I was, "Alright that can't be what mythology is all about"—the crazy, wacky Japanese designed stuff. So I decided I was going to check more of this stuff out, so I started reading a lot more. I do research a lot more; the main thing is I try to take the key elements of it, like there were some points in God of War II where I was trying to be too strict to the mythology. I wasn't really taking the essence of it, the pop culture aspect, and really presenting it. I was going way deep into these wild stories that I thought were fascinating when I was reading them, but really nobody wants to try and remember the 45 different things involved in that. So it's a great baseline for a lot of stuff, there's really cool elements of it, but I didn't know anything about it until I started working on this.
What inspires you as a game designer? Are there other games that have influenced you or perhaps certain books or movies?
CB: It's really everything. I'm like a media vacuum. I watch a ton of movies. I like long format storytelling, so I like a lot of television shows. I like the fact that they're on DVD because I like thirty hours of something, of seeing a character develop; I like 10 seasons of all of that. That to me is awesome to see a character develop over a long period of time. So those kinds of things really inspire me, things like J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon. The stuff that they do is frickin' phenomenal. It's ironic that a big point of inspiration for me, somebody who is working on this violent, bloody mythological game, was when I saw the Season 6 episode of Buffy, the musical episode that Joss did... it was so fascinating to watch it behind the scenes and to see how much he struggled to do this. He works his ass off. He had a tight production schedule and he had to shoot this entire thing and all the behind the scenes stuff is just showing him more and more tired, not sleeping for days, going from the set into the studio to record the music, and he just has his hands in everything. Literally, he wrote the music, wrote the scripts, directed everything, recorded everything with some of these guys actually singing some of the music, playing some of the music. That inspired me to go, "I'm not working hard enough." I'm not going to bitch about losing some sleep; this guy is a frickin' dynamo. So that really inspires me to get off my ass and work.
Are there any games that really inspired you? CliffyB mentioned how Resident Evil 4 was a huge inspiration for Gears of War, so is there a game or a set of games that really inspired you?
CB: I definitely dug RE4. I would say that stuff that Ueda did with Shadow of the Colossus. The first colossus that I found when I started playing that game—and I had no clue what to do, I didn't read the manual—I was just riding around and what the f**k is this sword doing shooting light around, and I didn't get it. I'm riding around and I'm like, "Alright this is cool, it's a really beautiful environment but what's the point?" So I get off the horse and just found the first one, not knowing the direction I'm supposed to go, and that first time I saw it, the little hairs on my arms stood up and I was like, "Holy cow!" and it felt like a movie, but then it went immediately back into the gameplay and I was able to run over to it and I was amazed you could run and jump on this thing. That's awesome; that sense of wonder was second to only when I first played Future Wars or Beneath a Steel Sky. These adventure games went from being just text based adventures to seeing this world depicted, which was amazing, and I enjoyed following the path of those characters. So I'm really inspired by adventure games, really good story based games, but I've played everything. Anything I can get my hands on, I play it.
Shouldn't a game that's as hugely anticipated as GoW II have been released in time for the holiday period? Or do you think the industry is too focused on releasing all its big guns during Q4 anyway?
CB: Yeah, I don't get the holiday thing at all because it's so frickin' crowded. In November, everybody's releasing their big games. One year it was GTA, Halo 2... this behemoth of games, all of these games coming out within a month, and when you actually talk to people who play games, most of them don't buy ten games at once. Most of them don't buy two games at once! They go, "I've saved up for a while and I can afford one game." I understand it's the Christmas holiday, it's very important, but to me, I don't get it. I want to be in an open month, when there's just not a lot going on. We're pretty fortunate that the release month we have is pretty clear and [the movie] 300 is coming out right around the same time. How serendipitous is that? This Spartan movie, by a guy I'm really a big fan of because that Dawn of the Dead remake he did was brilliant, is coming out. So I wouldn't, if I had my choice, release by Christmas at all, but it was not my choice at all; it was how everything worked out schedule wise.
Capcom recently revealed that it spent $20 million on marketing for Lost Planet, which is how much it cost to develop the game as well. I find that pretty remarkable...
CB: But they didn't spend that much money on localization of their story to make it more sensible.
...can you reveal how much production and marketing cost for GoW II?
CB: Wow... I don't even know.
PR Rep: Yeah, we can't comment on that but, as far as the overall investment, it's top 3 first party. In marketing, we're doing action figures. We're trying to make a big push to license this out and really make an iconic image with the franchise. We have some other things down the pipe, but the overall production of this we really raised the bar, what Cory and his team did, but then also working closely with other similar processes of the motion picture industry. So we were over in Prague and we were working with their philharmonic to do the original score. We went over to Abbey Road Studios in London and recorded the brass ensemble and choir. We went over the Warner Bros. and did sound effects with the guy that's worked on Star Wars. We also got some celebrity voiceovers.
CB:: The music in this game is great. The composers from the first game are working on the second game, and they did this amazing soundtrack for the first game. It was just unbelievable. I didn't have as much connection working with those guys for the first game, but in this one, to be able to work with them from the beginning and be able to explain to them the emotional tone that I want throughout the entire game and visually give them ideas and explain "at this point, this is what needs to be happening" and to see all that stuff come alive is unbelievable. Some of the cinematics had no sound and just voiceover for seven or eight months, where were looking at animatics and then final renders with just voice, and then finally when we get the score in the last few months, and you see all this stuff, which was starting to feel stale and, "Bam," the music comes in and it's just un-frickin'-believable. These guys are geniuses, to use the word liberally, because they're frickin' amazing.
Do you know what's going on with God of War the movie? Didn't Universal get the rights to do a movie back in 2005?
CB: They're still in development. I think they're still looking for a script, trying to get it finalized. It's the same thing with anything when they get a property. It seems to be the only person who can guarantee they're going to get a movie made out of a game property is Uwe Boll. [laughs] Everybody else, things are falling through. Who knows where it's going to go?
PR Rep: Its a big collaboration though. That's one thing that Cory and Dave got to make sure it stays true to the roots so that its not just another videogame film.
Right, you guys have got to worry about the sort of image it creates for the brand. If it turns out to be a bad movie, it could tarnish the God of War name.
CB: As lofty as this sounds, I would like for it to be this generation's Conan, the first one not Destroyer, of course. But I think that it has the potential. It has a pretty strong story and it really is up to them, where they want to go with it, what they're going to do with the casting and who are they going to get to direct it. Those are important factors to ensure its quality... I mean, we know that Uwe's not going to be directing or anything like that. [laughs]
Will the GoW franchise make an appearance on the PSP at some point?
CB: That would be awesome. I mean, I've been a big proponent of that concept for quite a while. I want it on every possible system you could put it on. I think it's definitely a possibility. It's not something we haven't discussed but it's not something we're actively discussing right now.
Work's begun on GoW 3 for PS3 right? I believe Jaffe had said in a recent interview that production had started a little while ago...
CB: It was awesome, because I think he said that, and then all these Internet rumors about his HL PSP game was all a ruse! He was always working on God of War PS3! [laughs] He started doing some pre-work on the that, just jotting down notes and ideas and I have a giant war board of index cards covering the entire wall of my office—hundreds of index cards that I'm moving around... ideas and plot points while we're figuring out a structure. But it's really early; it's not like, "Yes, we're going forward." It's more like, "If this goes well on the second one, what would we do on the third one?" It will really be dependent on sales and fan response to GoW II.
Have you as a developer have had much exposure to PS3 yet?
CB: My exposure to it has been tracking games that are out as a player that wants to play but also as a developer. Seeing that Mass Effect was delayed, Assassin's Creed is delayed, Too Human is delayed... all these next gen games that I want to play but also keeping an eye on how long they've been in development, seeing who's experiencing what growing pains with each of these things... hardware independent, just the concept of making a big next-gen game, two or three times the quality of art we did on PS2 or Xbox. You're having to enhance all that, and how long is it taking everybody? That's huge; I'm looking forward to GDC to start chatting with some people, seeing what their experiences have been.
Some people have said the PS3 is difficult to develop for. What are your thoughts on the machine from a designer's perspective and a gamer's viewpoint?
CB: Every system is difficult to develop for when you first get it. Throughout the history of launches, like PS2 comes out and people are like, "Hey, that's really tough. We could have done so much better if we had known this—blah, blah, blah." Until you get familiar with it, you're going to have the things you don't like about it as a developer because we're picky. We're like, "Look, I want it to be like this" or "I wanted this much RAM." You want it all your way like Burger King: "My way, right away!" [The economics of game development have apparently changed—Ed.] But, in the end when you start figuring out the tricks and start going to places like GDC and talking to some people and they're like, "We did this, check this out" ... I wish there was more sharing than there is; everybody's really secretive, but there are some really cool people in this industry that are like, "Look what we did, this is neat," and you learn from them, get pushed and motivated and I think everybody benefits. We can see beyond the fact that they're competition and realize that gamers benefit because it's not as if we're going to do exactly what they're doing. We're inspired by that, and we're going to try and take the next step and integrate that into what we're doing. And it doesn't happen in the first year of the hardware; you weren't seeing really good stuff, like if you look back at PS2 launch titles, or DreamCast launch titles... although, granted, they pretty much had launch titles and then [*makes trumpet noises for Taps*]. It was the same thing with Xbox, with Bloodwake or something like that and people we're like, "The graphics are amazing!" It was all about the f***ing water... it's not like a game even; it's more like a water simulator. So, it's a challenge like everything else but I don't honestly care because in my mind I want to make a cool game; I don't care what the hardware is.
If you weren't currently employed by Sony would you want to design games for other systems? Does the Wii intrigue you from a development standpoint?
CB: It's funny, because a lot of developers are like, "I'd love to develop for the Wii." I don't know, maybe it's me, but I don't like the kiddie games, the cartoony type games... I could care less. I didn't even want a Wii until Trauma Center was announced and I was like, "That's a cool game." Zelda, alright, but I don't want to play a 40-hour game swinging my f***ing hands around. I would totally want to develop something from a developer's standpoint for the 360, but I don't see it as being that dramatically different. Like, the Wii is definitely a different syst