Californian developer Ready at Dawn formed six years ago with the offer to go big with its own IP on PS3, but it has made its name on the PSP with the God of War series. Now, with the release of God of War: Ghost of Sparta, which managed a 7/10 in Eurogamer's review, the studio waves goodbye to Sony's handheld wonder.
Here, co-founder and creative director Ru Weerasuriya tells Eurogamer why Ghost of Sparta is the best-looking game on the system, defends the series from its critics, and reveals what's next for the ambitious studio.
Eurogamer: Ghost of Sparta employs mechanics familiar to the series. You can't deviate too far from them...
Ru Weerasuriya: Not too far, but at the same time you can take a few liberties. More than anything it's the gameplay mechanics that follow Kratos. That's the important part. That's the stuff you don't want to change, because you know how he fights, you know how he moves, you know what kind of person he is, and you don't want to deviate from that because otherwise you're bastardising the character – he's such a defined character.
Outside of that, we have a lot of freedom. If you look at all the five games now, every single game has taken a different freedom into doing what they wanted to do. In ours, we did that not only on the story side on both games, but also on the mechanics where we put mechanics in that are not in the other games. For example, navigation mechanics, underwater, and combat mechanics like the Hyperion Charge, which is brand new to the series.
Eurogamer: How do you marry the need to recreate the relentless PS3 GOW gameplay on PSP with the desire to do the different things you mention?
Ru Weerasuriya: You start with that formula. Like you said, you have this epic feel, with huge scenery, massive combat - you start with that formula and you know you have to translate that into whatever game you do.
Regardless of whether it's PSP, PS2 or PS3, if we were to run them let's say side by side on the PC, for example, they would need to feel the same. That we know. That's the reason why when we make the game we don't make it for PSP. We just make a great God of War game.
We end up translating it down to PSP and cramming it on that system. But we never should lose the feel the players expect. It is a hard thing to do because you know they want this expansive world, but you also know you don't want to have Kratos be this small [makes a pinch with fingers] on screen because the screen is so small.
You do find compromises. We work the camera system slightly differently than theirs [Sony Santa Monica]. We choose different perspectives to play the game in. We added new ways of playing Kratos, where you can, in one spot in Sparta, walk with Kratos. It's the first time you walk around with Kratos in a city. It's cool. You can deviate. Just like a movie, it's using different vehicles to deliver the same experience in the end.
Eurogamer: Fans love God of War and how it feels. Are those who say God of War, after five games of similar style, is getting predictable missing the point?
Ru Weerasuriya: They have a point. You can't just dismiss everybody's opinion and say, well, they don't get it. They do get part of it. They do understand also you need to refresh the things you do. You can't stick always to the same guns.
You can't deviate from that formula, the core, but you need to satisfy certain needs people have. I know from one game to the other, I also have certain things I would want to see in every single game, and it's not necessarily always the same experience, but it's always an addition to the experience.
One of the things people are talking about is it's so combat-centric and the story is not very much integrated into the combat. God of War III was fight after fight after fight after fight, which was entertaining. For me that's the experience I wanted.
We took an approach of, give them more of a movie-like experience, a more cinematic feel of how the game plays out. Story-wise we did that. We solved some of the issues. We heard people go, well I want to be more involved in the story.
Eurogamer: This is what you've learned from feedback to the series as a whole?
Ru Weerasuriya: Yeah, and also from the first game. We did for both games something different than they did. They have a trilogy: Kratos killing the gods. It's very much Kratos the god more than anything. When we approach our games it's more Kratos the man.
That's why in the first game I wanted to introduce the daughter and have that storyline between Kratos and the daughter – see the human side of who he is. We play off more of the motivations behind who Kratos is. Santa Monica plays on the results of his motivation.
Both our stories are way more personal than theirs. They admit that. They say that, too. The first one with the daughter and the second one with the brother - they are the two big motivations behind why Kratos does what he does, why he kills people and why he's become the man he is.
Eurogamer: Does your storytelling help negate accusations of repetitiveness God of War has suffered?
Ru Weerasuriya: Yeah, I think it does. And also, one of the cool things with having five directors having directed five games is every single game, one way or the other, is different. You can't help but notice it. If you do play the game, yes the core experience is the same, but you do start realising that Dave [Jaffe] did something different than Corey [Barlog] did than I did than Stig [Asmussen] did than Dana [Jan] did.
We all have something we wanted to inject into that franchise. The reason why, as a game that has already had five iterations, the reason it still works compared to a lot of games out there that have a tendency to fluctuate and sometimes drop, is because we've had different people heading up the projects.
Eurogamer: Ghost of Sparta follows the release of God of War III, which was a spectacle on PS3. Will some consider your game a stripped down experience simply because you're on PSP?
Ru Weerasuriya: You get to a saturation point technologically. The average gamer today, although they do appreciate graphics the same way everybody does, at some point I don't think they discern the difference that much between a few games that are out there.
They see it on PS3 and then they want a great game. After the first 30 minutes of gameplay, that whole novel feeling of it goes away. If you don't get a great experience, it doesn't matter how cool your game looks.
Doing God of War, we did exactly that. We were worried about how graphically we could change the game. We did. I can run you the intro of God of War with full PSP assets running at 1080p – just a quick capture – because our engine is able to output through PSP. We can output exactly the same assets with no touching up of anything.
Eurogamer: This is the Ready at Dawn Engine?
Ru Weerasuriya: Yeah. Basically, everything that's running in game in real time we're able to output in 1080p. Our engine is cross-platform, so it's always been able to do that. So finally you'll see how it looks on a big screen, which is the way we develop it. We develop this game not on PSP. We develop it on PC.
We don't just make PSP games. We make games. We make a game first and foremost, right? And then you try to translate to PSP.
We had to cram a lot of things in there. At this point we truly feel we've leveraged the full power of the PSP. To tell you the truth, the model we're using on Kratos right now is as high-resolution as the model God of War II used on PS2.
If you look at the way the game works you will definitely see it holds up really well, even at 1080p on a big screen. It holds up better than most PS3 games.
I'm not saying it's God of War III. I'm definitely not going there. But you'd be hard pressed to think this is a PSP game if I was to show it to you in 1080p on a big screen.
Eurogamer: Will Ghost of Sparta be released as a downloadable PS3 game on PSN?
Ru Weerasuriya: I have no idea. That's not something we've talked about. To tell you the truth we haven't had time to even think of all of these things after the fact because we've just finished the game and it's been exhausting.
Eurogamer: What's next for Ready at Dawn? You mentioned a few years ago that you were done with the PSP, but obviously you weren't. Are you done with the PSP now?
Ru Weerasuriya: Yeah, we are. We were a little rushed to think that way in the past. We were so eager to do some other things we had in our head that we lost track of the reason why we were doing the games we did. We wanted to push this hardware, and truly close the chapter for us at least, and know we did everything we could on the platform. At the time we had doubts about whether or not we did everything. Maybe it was a little presumptuous for us to say we're done.
This game, actually, was our chance to not be affected by learning new things and new mechanics. This game was the chance for us to say, we know God of War, now, what can we do with this hardware to give the players the same experience they expect from home consoles?
We know now, yeah, this is our last PSP game.
Eurogamer: So what's next?
Ru Weerasuriya: There are a few things in the works right now. We have some ideas. We have been developing stuff ourselves for a while. I can't tell you what they are but there are things that are in motion right now that people will hear about soon, hopefully.
Eurogamer: Can you tell me what platforms you're working on?
Ru Weerasuriya: No I can't.
Eurogamer: Is that because one of them is the PSP2?
Ru Weerasuriya: Actually no, not because of that. It's just because right now we're not talking about the next projects. I can tell you it's going to be whatever platform our engine runs on. Right now our engine runs on pretty much anything that's available out there.
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Eurogamer: That doesn't narrow it down.
Ru Weerasuriya: Exactly. We made a cross-platform engine. It gives us the choice to move where we need to move for the games we want to do. The most important thing is not the platform. It's the game. We know what type of game we want to make. It's what we've built our skills around: character driven, story-driven action-adventure games.
Eurogamer: So you're making a story-driven action-adventure?
Ru Weerasuriya: Yes. We haven't narrowed down mechanics. I love combat games. I love shooters. But I love playing story-driven games. I love movies. I love things that involve me from start to end and give me a complete experience, like I feel entertained from start to end. That's where our heads are. It's definitely that kind of game we're going to make. We're not going to go off and make an open-world, or an MMO, like everybody expects ex-Blizzard people to do.
That's a question I get asked all the time: so your next game's going to be an MMO right? I'm like, why? Because you're from Blizzard, right? Yeah. So? We know what we'd like and we know what we're good at.
Eurogamer: Your own IP?
Ru Weerasuriya: Yeah, most likely an original idea. We're always open to other things. We had the chance to work on our own IPs in the past. We started the company with offers for us to go big on PS3 and do our own thing.
The point of what we've done in the past six years was to learn our craft before we shoot ourselves in the foot. We could have done that and probably failed at the very beginning. But we decided, you know what, let's be healthy, let's do this.
So, our own IP, but we've never shied away from working on an existing IP as long as the team is passionate about it.
Eurogamer: How many games are you working on right now?
Ru Weerasuriya: We work on one game at a time. It's just the way the studio is built. We work on one game, we finish one game. We like that thinking and culture. We're small and that's where we want to be.