Interview: Sucker Punch's Billy Harper On 'inFamous: Second Son

inFamous: Second Son is undeniably a hit. It doubled PS4 sales in the UK, according to reports, and is generally seen as one of the first must-haves this console generation. We got a moment with Sucker Punch’s animation director, Billy Harper, to chat a bit about the game and offer some insight into what changed, and why.

Gamma Squad: inFamous: Second Son changes up the franchise in many respects: There’s a new lead, a new city, and a new platform. What led to making so many changes for the third game?

Billy Harper: Two main things, the enticing power of the PS4 and our desire to honor the decisions that 72% of the players made in inFamous 2’s good ending. Regarding the new platform, we started pre-production on Second Son knowing we were going to build the engine from scratch for the PS4. As we learned all the great things we’d be able to do, it just made sense for us to explore the inFamous universe in a unique, new way from top to bottom.

Therefore, we decided early on that we were going to go with a new protagonist, Delsin Rowe. Delsin is a free spirit that revels in his powers, unlike in the past where Cole was a reluctant hero who would be brooding and conflicted during most of the stories we’ve told.

Gamma Squad: This is the first time an inFamous game has taken place in a real city. What opportunities and challenges did that represent?

Harper: The big opportunity was Seattle itself. It’s a very dense, rich, and diverse city that Sucker Punch–being a Seattle based developer–truly understands. Therefore, we were able to capture the essence of our city…from the Post Alley Gum Wall to the Space Needle, Sonic Boom Records to the Monorail. We understand the people who live here and why they love our city. People like Sir Mix-a-lot who actually has musical footprints in the city throughout our game. We also had the advantage of being able to just walk out our front door and gather digital reference along with a tactile understanding of that reference that few other studios would have the ability to do.

The challenge was how “exact” to make our Seattle and the risk of letting our city down. If you become a slave to the brick by brick duplication of the city, you give the design team less liberties to take when trying to layout fun game play and missions. Therefore, we do a “caricaturist’s view” of the city. We decided to think of the major districts, like Pioneer, and layout what represented the flavor and texture of that area.

Gamma Squad: The power sets we’ve seen are interesting; neon and smoke are a long way from ice and fire. Why’d you choose those particular “elements?”

Harper: We wanted to allow The Player to interact with our urban landscape in a unique, tactile fashion. I personally love the fact that if I’m running around with Neon powers and really want to switch to Smoke for some sweet elusive combat in tight quarters, I have the ability to blow up a car and drain from the smoke to switch my power set. We’ve created this symbiotic relationship between The Player and Seattle.

We also chose our powers based off of what would leverage the power of our FX engine. Free running/parkour is another inFamous staple so we chose elements that we thought would offer ways to traverse and fight in a smooth fashion. Finally, we wanted to have powers that break away from the more common powers that people have seen in the past in comic books, TV, and film. The end result is moment to moment game play that allows The Player to truly enjoy their powers.

Gamma Squad: What are some of the difficulties in building a free-roaming game that you may not run into with a more rigidly controlled game?

Harper: Missions are hands down the most difficult thing. Our mission designers can’t take anything for granted because our players could be solving problems and moving towards objectives in wildly different ways. Therefore, they can’t make many assumptions…if any at all. The same goes for our story. We have to develop a story that’s simple enough to follow for a player who has decided to go off on a 2 hour side mission tangent. While also offering a deep enough story that a person playing straight through the story based missions will feel engaged. There’s also the density of Seattle versus the quality of the art. This is actually more of a difficulty of the past, though. Anyone who has played Second Son can attest that we didn’t slouch on the quality side of things.

Traversal is another issue we had to deal with. We have to make sure that a player can freely move through the world quickly in order to feel super human, but not look silly. This time around, we were able to introduce some very fun power-based traversal maneuvers, like Neon dash, that allow you to not only feel powerful…but bad ass while running freely through the city. Side missions and collectibles are also things that need to exist in an open world game. The difficulties with these are making them engaging enough while also not breaking the fiction of the universe you are inhabiting.