SSX Producer Talks Ridernet, Wagers, Need For Speed, DLC & PS Vita
SSX is finally gearing up for release, so we catch up with the producer of EA’s latest iteration of the popular snowboarding game. Todd Batty lets us know all about SSX, its relation to Burnout and Need For Speed and all those multiplayer features…
You referred to SSX as ‘Burnout on snow’ and talked about playing a lot of Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit in your presentation. We’re guessing you’re a Criterion fan?
Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of their games. I think they’re super-talented guys. I follow everything that they do and play the hell out of their games.
Did the idea for the Ridernet in SSX exist before Need For Speed’s Autolog?
This happens a lot. I’m sure Criterion and us weren’t the only people thinking about… social media is a huge influence now and looking at what’s going on with social games, Facebook games and mobile games and figuring out a way to bring friends to the forefront – probably a lot of people share that idea.
We had a bunch of ideas before we even saw what Criterion had done and then they came out with Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit and we were like ‘OK, this is the way it should be done, this is amazing’ and so we played the hell out of it, figured out everything we liked and things we thought we could build on.
I’m in contact and friends with a few of those guys on the team, and I’ve already put them on the credits of SSX as a thanks, because there’s been a few times when I’ve sent them an email at three in the morning saying ‘how did you guys handle this?!’ and they’ve been super-helpful.
And [Criterion producer] Matt Webster’s come up to the studio at EA Canada a couple of times and kind of consulted with us on the game and gave us guidance. They’ve been a big part of helping us make this game.
Is that indicative of working at a big, multi-studio publisher like EA?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve been at EA for a long time now – 11 years – it’s something I’ve noticed, particularly on SSX, but also in the last three or four years, there’s been a concerted push within EA to share knowledge.
We’re a big company and we have access to a lot of really smart people… I had the doctors from BioWare come up and give a talk to the game design community at EA Canada – they talked about building games and gave a great presentation.
Having them come in from Edmonton… BioWare makes some pretty good games too [laughs]… and teach us a little bit about what they know and their expertise [is] on.
EA Canada where we’re at has one of if not the foremost animation technology engine in the world which drives all of our sports games. And that knowledge gets spread all over the company.
Our experts with that tech are constantly touring around trying to get other people to embrace it. And now we’ve got DICE and the guys upstairs [EA Black Box] using Frostbite 2.0 to build Need For Speed: The Run. We’re getting much better at that, and as the world changes it becomes easier to communicate with people all around the world.
The reaction to recent SSX gameplay footage has been really positive – was it frustrating when some quarters were judging the game before seeing it in action?
The bumpy start we got caught a few people by surprise. Race it, Trick it, Survive it was really what we were going to do with the game from day one – I remember giving presentations two and a half years ago, and called it the rule of thirds – one third the same, one third improved and one third new is a great way to take a game.
We had that idea from day one and we had the idea to launch forward with Survive it in the forefront – I think the mistake there was that there were no elements of Race it or Trick it, so only leading with one of your pillars… and then a bunch of people got really worried.
It’s funny – if you look at the game now and play one of our deadly descents it looks very much like that launch trailer and we have wing-suits in our game and they’re awesome – but that’s a small slice of the game not the entire game.
The huge reaction to that – positive or negative – was a huge motivator for us. It gave us a ton of internal momentum because it showed the company that people still care about this game. People want this game back – there’s still a passionate, loud fan-base and we use that as nothing but motivation moving forward.
There’s a number of peaks and routes to dominate.
All the passionate feedback now seems to be positive…
I credit our fans for that. It might sound corny… I spend an inordinate amount of time going on our fan sites and our Facebook page and every time a video goes out I read every single comment – looking at what people say, looking at what people want and listening to them.
At the end of the day, I’m not making this game for me, I’m making it for them. I credit the fact that we have a positive community right now to the fact that the only thing we did was listen. They told us exactly what they wanted, we just listened and tried to do that. So they’re a big part of making this game.
How crucial it is to filter that fan feedback constructively?
In all the years I’ve been making games I do a ton of focus testing. Listening to community and reading comments on things is no different than focus tests; people tell you what they don’t like, and that’s wonderful.
And then they tell you how they think it should be – and that’s not always right [laughs]. More, just because they don’t have the same level of knowledge that trickle down the implications of [changes].
‘Well if I did exactly what you asked me for it’s going to break this, break that and then create a bunch of other things you’re also not going to like. But I hear you on the thing you don’t like.’
That’s never wrong. If somebody doesn’t like something, is frustrated at something, you can make as many excuses to justify something as much as you want – frustration and disappointment are real.
I try and listen to and filter those things and say ‘OK, I know what I could do that would take that frustration away.’ And it’s not what they’re suggesting – sometimes it is, but often it’s not what they’re suggesting – but I think I can do this and they’ll react better.
That reminds us of The Simpsons episode when Homer designed a car. What can you tell us about the frame rate in SSX? How important is it to the game?
We do our sim-thread at 60fps and our render thread at 30fps with motion-blur. We wanted to do 60/60 in the super-early days – we were passionate about doing 60/60 and then our render engineers were like ‘If you want to have worlds this big and we want to be able to stream and all the special effects and everything else you want, we think we can do 30fps with motion blur and it’ll feel and look liquidy-smooth.’
We actually did side-by-side tests and I actually couldn’t tell the difference so I was fine with it. I insisted we stay at 60fps for sim so that your inputs are never delayed even one frame.
I’ve made my career as a gameplay designer, and I’m very passionate about input responsiveness so I think we have a nice balance. The game feels pretty silky smooth.
You were desperate to do split screen, but it wasn’t to be. Is that the cost of launching such a high fidelity game at this stage of the current console cycle?
Yeah… Don’t get me wrong, we could do split screen on the last generation of consoles. But it’s not free. It’s not even a cheap feature – It’s a big technical investment.
You basically have to render everything on the screen twice, which if you’re at 60 [fps] render you can do 30/30, just drop it. Sometimes you have to down-res a little bit.
But at the end of the day it was a big technical investment. We made the call in the early days we were making this game for the connected generation, bringing SSX into the future… and i know some people get upset when something in a game gets dropped, but we looked at racing games – not that this is an excuse – and pure racing games don’t even support split screen today. And racing is only a third of our game.
You certainly don’t need split screen for tricking or survive it. So that’s part of my job, I’ve got to weigh up the amount of effort… its something I’d like to add back into the game in future, because I still think it’d be a really fun experience.
It was one of the ones we never actually got up and running but we had it on our capacity planner for a really long time, holding onto it, like ‘we’ll find time to get that done!’. The day we had to cut it was a sad day. It happens.
Lack of split-screen wasn’t an issue in Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit…
That made me feel better! [Laughs] Actually at one point when we were having those discussions I was like ‘Let me think about it’ and I went home and popped in Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, and you know what? They didn’t have split screen either. And people love that game. I know it’s a disappointment, and I try not to make it sound like excuses, but you can’t have everything.
Different types of terrain require different ways to ride.
In terms of adding split screen to SSX in future – do you mean via DLC or via a sequel?
Yep, either/or, for sure. I’ve got a whole list of things we’ve been talking about doing if we get a chance to do a sequel game or extend downloadable content into the unforeseeable future, and that’s certainly one of the things on the list.
Could split screen feasibly be added via DLC?
Potentially as an update, yeah.
SSX’s multiplayer will include wager matches – were you inspired by Call of Duty: Black Ops?
We had it in long before that actually. When I saw that Black Ops did that, and that people really liked it, I was like ‘yes! I knew we were on to something!’ That actually came from me. I used to gamble a lot! [laughs]
I used to play a lot of online poker, and I was thinking about how online poker sites work, and the fact that you can just jump into a table, win a few hands, jump out to another one, go to one here, there’s high stakes, low stakes, free ones… what would that analogy look like in a snowboarding game?
We started about having a whole bunch of different drops with different tournaments running, and some that were free so if you’re not into that sort of thing, there should be lots of those that you can play, but other ones where you can put 20,000 or 30,000 of your credits into a pot and if you place quite highly you can make some credits doing that.
We even have a place where you can put a million credits in, for people that have been playing the game for months and have huge bankrolls of credits; [we] give them a means to do that and have some fun. At the end of the day it’s just a neat add-on to Global Events.
We like the idea that we earn credits when we’re offline if our friends fail to beat our ghost’s times…
That’s a big one – that’s part of the persistent world. That was one of the things we really wanted to do is make it feel like the world of SSX is always connected, always online and its persistent.
Whether you’re playing online or not, your ghosts are competing for you and the same thing with geotags – you can places these collectables in the world and you try to hide them from your friends. As soon as you place them in the world it starts to earn you credits – if it lasts 24 hours you’ll get the maximum, and by buying one you can double, triple, quadruple your money.
You’ve got to place them well otherwise your friends are going to snag them and it becomes this great hide-and-seek game, but they live permanently in the world and anybody who’s playing online could see your geotags and collect it – it’s just another thing that keeps the world alive.
Finally, PS Vita is set to launch just ahead of SSX – what are your thoughts on it as a developer?
I saw it at Gamescom. I got a chance to try a couple of games, and it was pretty sexy, and pretty cool machine. With SSX, we’re hoping this is the start of a franchise, and if the first couple of games are successful, one of the things we’d be looking to do is expand onto multiple platforms.
We would definitely consider something like the Vita. It looks really cool. I’ve been trying to get one – someone else asked me about it and I was like ‘I don’t have one yet!’ I’m passionate about handheld games, I play a lot of games on my phone – constantly – so I’m very curious to see how it does.
Would SSX be a good fit?
I think the key anytime you’re designing for a new platform is to truly spend the extra effort to design the game for that platform – I’m not a fan of porting something that plays the exact same way.
Swipe controls, added stuff – if it means you need to change a trick or an animation system works in order to support the platform the way it’s supposed to be used I would hope that if we got an opportunity to do something like that in the future then we would be smart about how we did it.