Dave Cox is tired. He's spent the last two and a half years flying back and forth from Spain to the US to Japan making Castlevania: Lords of Shadow the best game it could possibly be. Now, with the game out, a top ten UK all-formats chart entry under its belt, and positive reviews to savour, it all seems worthwhile.
Here, in an interview with Eurogamer, the UK-born producer reveals the trials and tribulations of a project that Konami cancelled, approved, then cancelled again.
Eurogamer: Are you satisfied with the end result?
Dave Cox: I'm very satisfied. I'm very proud of the game. It's my first really big game. I've worked on New International Track & Field and GTI Club, but this is the first game where I was responsible. I had freedom to do what I wanted with Enrique [Ventura, senior game designer at Mercury Steam] and the Kojima guys.
A lot of developers have the management overseeing everything. We didn't have that at all. Because Kojima was on board, it was like, well just get on with it. So we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted to do. That was nice. It was liberating.
Eurogamer: It's great that Kojima was associated with the game, but was it terrifying?
Dave Cox: There was pressure. It was quite tense. But it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. We thought, oh, we're going to have to submit everything and he's going to have a say on everything. He was clear right from the beginning: this is your baby. You need to run with this. I'm just going to help you. I'll give you my advice, my experience, mentor you if you like, but it's your baby.
A few times we submitted things to them and they said, 'Well, maybe if you do this, do that.' Nine times out of 10 we'd try to accommodate what they wanted. But occasionally we couldn't. If there were technical reasons we'd say we can't actually do this. I'm really sorry. And they'd go, 'That's fine.'
But it's been great. I knew Kojima from Metal Gear Solid. When Metal Gear Solid was being developed I was a product manager for that. I went out to Japan and I met him and we got to know each other. We had the same interest in films and we got on well.
Having him on board was a bit nerve-racking but it was like having my friend to lean on, to say, 'We've got this problem, how would you guys solve this?' They would come back with solutions and it would be fantastic. If you're on your own you're on your own, you know what I mean? We had Kojima's team to give us feedback. They said, 'When we did MGS4 we did it this way.'
Eurogamer: Is there an example?
Dave Cox: We had big problems with lip-synch and facial animations. We did mocap but we didn't capture facials. When it came to doing all the lip-synching we were having a nightmare. The Kojima guys came to Spain – they said, 'We can't explain this on the phone. We're going to have to show you.' So they brought all the rigs of Snake. Then they showed us how they did it, how they rigged it. They helped us set it up.
A tip they gave us is, they shaded the teeth. When you've got teeth, it's all laid out flat. They shaded all the teeth and the tongue they made black, so that it looked like it was in a mouth. In some games you have really glowing teeth. It doesn't look right. They said, well if you shade the teeth – it's a simple thing when you think about it, you think, well, it's obvious, but so many games don't do it. We were like, this is amazing. We did it and it came out really well. The lip-synch and the facials with Gabriel are amazing.
Eurogamer: It's great you had that relationship, because I imagine some Japanese publishers would be more controlling with their beloved intellectual property.
Dave Cox: It's a trust issue. It's about respect. At the beginning there was scepticism and worry and mistrust. It took us a long time to get this project off the ground – well over a year of convincing people, bringing presentations and showing them the work we were doing.
People weren't convinced. At the beginning it was very frustrating. I remember coming back from the States after a presentation thinking, this isn't going to happen. But slowly and surely we carried on.
We did a playable level prototype – one of the levels in the middle of the game, actually. We brought it to Japan to a line-up meeting. Konami has line-up meets twice a year where all the development studios show what they've been working on. At that meeting everything changed. I'll never forget it. I came out of the meeting, Kojima-san was shaking my hand and talking to me about helping. And then it was, yeah, you guys have got the green light. This is go. Do it. It was a fantastic feeling. After so much hard work and tears and everything else it was brilliant.
Since that day it was relatively easy. Before that getting the project off the ground wasn't easy.
Eurogamer: Was it a cultural issue?
Dave Cox: It was a trust issue. It's Castlevania. It's a brand that's always been associated with Konami, especially in the old days when it was a very big title for Konami. There was worry about... One was the concept, because we wanted to take it in a more Western, darker, mature, gritty look and feel, bring it up to date with modern 3D. There was trepidation about it right from the get-go.
And also because it was a Spanish development studio. Japan wouldn't be in charge. To a certain extent, perhaps that's why Mr Kojima put his name to it, because it reassured everybody in Japan. Oh, if Kojima thinks it's great then fine.
Up to that point there was a lot of mistrust. Is it Castlevania? Isn't it Castlevania? Is this going to be homage to Castlevania? What's it going to be? We just carried on developing. We said, we're going to make the game, and if we have to change things here and there then fine, we'll do it. But we just wanted to get the game off the ground. It all fell into place.
Eurogamer: Was there a real danger that it might not have been released?
Dave Cox: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Many times. Many, many times. In fact, there were a couple of times when it got stopped.
Eurogamer: Before that fabled meeting?
Dave Cox: Before. We were told we couldn't go ahead with it. I said, well, we've already prepared something. Can I at least come and show you this? And if you don't like it, fine.
We had Simon Belmont coming out of a castle, and a vampire. I don't know if we'll make it available later – maybe we will. It looks a bit crude now. But at the time it was fantastic. I flew to America and I showed this and then, thankfully, we got a stay of execution. They said go to prototype. It was a struggle.
Eurogamer: Was it marketing's job to build up hype for the game before release? Did you, as a developer, care about that kind of thing?
Dave Cox: We didn't intend to create a blockbuster. That wasn't the plan. The plan was to reintroduce Castlevania. We didn't have a multimillion-dollar budget. We didn't have 300 people working on the project. We're a pretty small team. Not a huge budget – middle-size budget if you like. Nothing like the kind of titles we're compared to.
We thought, let's just make a solid entry and reintroduce Castlevania and then take it step by step – see what happens after that. We never looked past this project at all. We just thought, we just want to do it and if this is the last thing we ever do, that's fine.
The hype and build-up was amazing but a little bit scary. You don't expect that. I never expected people to cheer and clap at E3. When I got up on stage I was surprised when everyone went crazy. You just don't expect that – well I certainly didn't.
All the hype and goodwill for the game, you always hope in your mind people will like what you're doing, of course. But you don't expect it. When good things happen, it's great. I'm pleased people like the game. I'm proud of the game on a personal level. If it's the last thing I ever do, I'll be totally happy with that. I'm proud to have my name associated with this game. All the people I worked with on this game sweat blood and tears. We cried together. It's got soul.
I've played it hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times – I still get chills at certain points in the game. That's a good sign. We have a bit of a joke about it at Mercury Steam. I've got quite hairy arms, so if the hairs on my arms go goink, everyone's like, that's a good barometer that it's working.
Eurogamer: Castlevania is compared to a lot of games. What games is it fairly compared to, and what games is it unfairly compared to?
Dave Cox: I can understand the comparisons because a lot of people playing games are not aware of the history of Castlevania, and are not as old as I am. So I can understand why people say this game's like God of War, this game's like Uncharted. A lot of this goes on in the games industry anyway, where everything's compared to every other game.
I don't buy the comparisons to God of War. I've never been comfortable with it because we never set out to make a game like God of War. That wasn't the intention, at all.
Eurogamer: But do you understand that comparison?
Dave Cox: I do understand. When I look at it now I do understand. But when you've played enough of it you know it's not like God of War. It's got its little moments, but generally it's not like God of War.
Eurogamer: Gamers, though, have to form opinions based on previews, videos and trailers before release.
Dave Cox: Yeah. The demo we released at E3 was a bit worrying. Players got five minutes to pick the game up, play it, and then walk away. They need to be able to do things straight away. So we gave them the tutorial level, which is very combat-orientated because you're teaching the players combos. We were worried people were going to think it's just like this all the way through. That was a bit of a concern.
But I figured if people have fun with it, then they could read previews and reviews and understand the game is not just about combat in enclosed arenas.
Eurogamer: It's not just like God of War?
Dave Cox: Exactly. So it was a bit of a risk. But at the same time, I didn't want to drop them into a stage, die five times and go f*** that. I don't like it. It was a judgement call.
The game is more akin to the original classic Castlevanias. When we sat down, that was what we wanted to do. We wanted to go back to the classic Vanias, platforming, killing enemies as a guy on his way to the castle with a whip.
And we wanted a journey, like the older games. But a lot of games have taken influence from other games. In God of War, there are a lot of Castlevania influences there. If David Jaffe was here I'd chat with him and say, I'm sure there are some Castlevania things in there, and he'd probably say yeah, of course there are.
So I understand the comparisons, but I hope people see there's more to it than that.
Eurogamer: What about comparisons with Uncharted?
Dave Cox: I love Uncharted 2. I got reported as saying I hated it or something. That's absolutely not true. Uncharted 2, that and Batman [Arkham Asylum] were last year's best games. It's wonderful to be compared to a game like Uncharted.