Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn was somewhat of a sleeper hit. At launch, it garnered favorable reviews and built buzz as an interesting horror experience that offered a great deal of player choice and presented a story heavily inspired by slasher flicks. However, what really propelled its popularity and success was its uptake among the streaming community, who introduced an element of social play to a game that, in terms of its fundamental design, wasn’t made to accommodate it. Interacting with chat or even inviting friends and family to gather around and contribute to the decision-making processes driving its story gave Until Dawn new life, and it’s something that Supermassive Games paid close attention to for its follow-up title, Hidden Agenda, and now The Dark Pictures Anthology.
Man of Medan, the first chapter in the studio’s Dark Pictures anthology, is a product of the social play that emerged around Until Dawn. This time, multiplayer is at the core of the experience, and while going through its story in single-player is viable, connecting with another player and experiencing it together offers a new and interesting way to play. You can read our Man of Medan impressions to see we thought of the game after playing it at a recent preview event.
Having had the opportunity to play a section of the game (read our Man of Medan preview impressions here), we spoke to Pete Samuels, Gareth Betts, and Tom Heaton, who are CEO of Supermassive Games, publishing producer at Bandai Namco, and game director of Man of Medan, respectively. The trio discuss how and why Supermassive Games decided to introduce multiplayer, the challenges it presents, and what it brings to the overall experience.
What led you to focus on multiplayer for Man of Medan? After Until Dawn, a lot of people would probably expect more of the same.
Pete Samuels: It was one of the very first things that we built. Genuinely. Four years ago, we finished Until Dawn. We were deciding what to do next. We wanted to move forward, we didn’t want to just make something like it. And we did a few experiments in software. We had some theories about conversation trees, conversations between two playable characters and how much control could we give to the player. We can’t give them total control, but how much control? How many choices do we need to give them so that they feel like they are driving a conversation?
And those early prototypes were sometimes … you just get lucky with your very first prototypes because they worked so well. And we were sold on it at that point. Well, the interesting thing was then we were looking for a partner to work with and we spoke to other publishers and explained how building this thing was, how great it was going to be. It took us about a year to realize that we were just using the wrong words and we couldn’t find the right words so then we went and spent six months building a demo. We built a 20-minute free-play demo. And we showed it to a bunch of people and only then did people really understand what we were coming from.
Tom Heaton: To a large extent we have done exactly what you suggested. [The game is] fully playable in solo mode and has been designed as a solo single-player game right from the start. And we hope you’ll have a great time playing [that way]. Until Dawn happened to launch about the same time streaming took off and people watching games on YouTube. We kind of caught the wave on that and it was really good for us. That was a major way that people found out about the game. One of the things we saw was people invented their own rules for how they’re gonna play. And they got people around to play on a sofa and they played it together and made a party of it and they would shout out what people should do for the various choices. And they would pass the controller around.
So that was the inspiration for Movie Night. We take that and just give them the tools to make that slightly better, so you can input any player’s name and assign the characters yourself, and we’ll prompt you and say, “Greg, it’s your turn,” and pass the control to you. So we think that was a way that people were already playing and we were just enabling a little bit more. It just came about because we were just saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if I had a friend and they were in the story with me and they could control one of the other characters?”
We got a small team to work on a very small demo. All it was, really, was walking around an area and have a conversation. We played it and well I just thought, “That’s great, that’s just got some really good fun in it.” So that was the inspiration really and we thought, “Can we build a whole game around this and still be a really good single player?” And that’s what we’re trying to do.
Was it difficult to get a deal locked down? Or did the success of Until Dawn help?
Samuels: So, we were working for Sony, we worked with them for a long, long time, and on multiple things for them. And we built a relationship there. We were very keen to have our games played by a wider audience. And so that’s why we went out to talk to independent publishers. And we were delighted when Bandai Namco demonstrated that they were as enthusiastic about our dream for The Dark Pictures as we were.
Gareth Betts: Right. We were spoiled. We were offered something that was very unique and well-crafted. It far exceeds the branching that was previously displayed in Until Dawn. So, [we were] captivated by the immensity of it. Honestly. Great cast, great performances, some of the early performances we had the pleasure of listening to were just so well-crafted, so well-delivered, so believable that it just brings the experience to the fore. Added with that, we’ve got the multi-platform approach. Yeah, it’s been a pleasure, I mean it really has been a pleasure working with Supermassive.
How do you break down what you’re actually doing here? Because for someone who may not have the insight you have, it looks like you’ve taken something like Until Dawn and just kind of added the option to choose a thing on the [second player] side, but there’s clearly way more involved.
Betts: It is tough. I genuinely think only experiencing the software of the game itself can properly communicate it. We have always had trouble with that, other than getting people to get hands-on. If I was to try, I’d say yes, there’s much more to it than just putting the AI under second-player control. Because every choice needs to matter. Every choice needs to have an impact in some way. And quite often, what we do is, that one single choice can edge a character’s personality a certain way and then another choice that you make will either start to correct that or take the traits in a different way. Which means that they will then have potentially different choices, different options that make more sense to the way that the player has driven that character.
Because when you’ve got that happening simultaneously between two different characters, the branching can be immense. We have to find smart ways not to let it get completely out of hand. At the end of the day, we want to deliver a great experience that people can play one day. So, there has to be some containment of some kind. And that’s been the challenge of designing for two players.
And also, that both players have a great story and a story that makes sense. A story that drives that … they can get immensely connected to even though they’re seeing different things. That’s the huge challenge, but again [we’re] very, very delighted with the results and also with what we’ve learned in the process. We learned a huge amount in developing Until Dawn and some subsequent games and then we’ve moved onto multiplayer, which is a different mix altogether in the development of Man of Medan. We have learned so many things that we can put to use in the rest of the series.
We’re already producing a second game, which is well into development now. And I have a design of a third, a third and fourth, which are underway. So, yeah, very excited about the future and I hope we can just get better and better at it. That’s the aim, it’s not to make something and then just repeat it. It’s to get better every time.
How long do you expect the game is going to be in a single-player run?
Betts: Four to five hours, in a single-player run.
We played about an hour of it. How long does it take before it really leans into the supernatural stuff? Because like the hour and a half I played, it was like you get kind of a teaser of it.
Samuel: I’m not going to comment on any content you haven’t seen, but you ended with the big encounter with the ship in the middle of the ocean. And I tell you what, they’re going to go in the ship and it’s going to ramp up pretty quickly.
How do you experience the branches in single-player?
Betts: So some of it you’d see in the single-player and some of it you wouldn’t. Where we can, we stagger them on the timeline so that you can play both. There are parts that you don’t play, that you only see either in the two-player game or in the Curators Club, which is the pre-ordered bonus which we will be releasing to everybody at one point. So yeah, you can’t possibly [see it all], so you see [some] of the content in single-player mode.
When you’ve got two people playing Until Dawn, you play it multiple times, you see different branches of pathways. Whereas if you’ve got two people playing Man of Medan and relaying the information back and forth, does that mean that a lot of the ground’s being covered and there’s not as much reason to replay?
Heaton: We know there’s plenty of replayability. It’s a very, very branching game. Once you’ve played all the way through in terms of story with your friends, then you can go back and dip into chapters and keep playing and explore some of the other branches, try and keep people alive, try and kill everyone, whatever you want to do with it. There are 69 deaths so you’d have to play the game seven or eight times to see who dies anyway.
How do you maintain the atmosphere and tension with two players? Traditional thinking is with a second person nearby, you kind of diminish those elements somewhat.
Samuels: Well, there’s kind of three different ways that could work. So one is the two players are in the same space and they’re in the same sort of interaction, so in the drama–and it might be a conversation–they’re working on what to do and it can be quite intense. They’re making decisions. Another is that you’re in a space, but, you know, you don’t necessarily do the same thing, you’re exploring around, you can go to different places in that world. And then we’ve completely separated the events of the story, separate those kinds of moments.
Does it affect how the scares work? To some extent, yes. But the groundwork is the same. We can’t just do scares, we have to build tension, we have to get the players to a certain level of anxiety and raised emotional state. That’s still true in one or two players. Yes, it might feel safer if you feel you’ve got another person around–but not always.
One of the things that I found was really interesting, and only realized once I discussed it with my partner, was right at the start where you’re walking through the ship and the kid runs by. I mentioned that and my partner had no clue about it. He didn’t see the kid. How much do you play with that?
Samuels: Well, we play a lot with that. In general your overall task is to get everyone out alive, because every character can live and every character can die and there’s a shared thing that you have to do. But sometimes we kind of pit you against each other. We give you slightly different agendas or maybe you want to look out for your character and the other character is slightly in the way of that. What we have always done is give the player difficult choices and sometimes those choices are between your two characters. So it’s not always simple. Sometimes it’s, “No, no, don’t do that. I don’t want you to do that at all!”
How do you approach synchronizing the pacing? If you’re talking to your friend and your friend is having this amazing action sequence, but you’ve been separated and you’re in another area just reading text, you’ll get FOMO, right?
Samuels: It is very difficult and we’ve developed some solutions that I don’t really want to talk about in detail. It’s a thing we have to be constantly aware of and we have to be very careful with and we’ve got it to work.
So it won’t be a situation where one person feels that they’ve got the short end of the stick?
Samuels: It’s a difficult problem. It’s actually probably the biggest. There are some technical problems in there too, and in design terms, it is one of the hardest problems for two players. We want each player just to have a great experience and there’s quite a lot of work we have to do to make that happen.
What we don’t know is how often people talk to each other on the headsets. We don’t know if people will be communicating all the time and saying, “I’m doing this” or “I’m doing that.” We have a suspicion that people will probably be quiet on the first time through. [And when they play again] they might talk to each other like, “Oh, last time I did this, why don’t we try that.”
If you’re given control of the character, are you always the person that will control that character from then on?
Samuels: No. You don’t own that character. You shift between different characters.
That’s some low-key troublemaking. If I’ve defined a character one way and then pass it on that person could take the character in another direction…
Samuels: It’s important that you know if you’re gonna control the character, it’s important that you know what they know. We have to make sure you understand and have little scenes with the essential information. We do a lot of testing, and some people have got a little bit possessive about characters. I think, especially in the first time you’re playing, the aim is that you’re caught up in the story and we always leave you in a cliffhanger and give you control of another character, and then you get back to this character again later and it kind of works. The story always flows forward, so we think it’ll be okay.
Does the game track the way one player is defining a character and shift the response options to lean towards that?
Samuels: Sometimes, yeah. Usually, we want to get the choice of the player. So we have this whole trait system where every choice you make kinda defines a bit of your character and your traits. And the game uses that when it has to, when it’s not a player controlled-character, to make decisions for that character. So you’re still kind of influencing how that character steers through the game.
I guess my thought was if the end result is both players were playing a character on opposite ends of the spectrum, the final impression they’d have of the character is this wacky person who’s one way one minute and completely different a few scenes later.
Samuels: He would always be Alex and true to his character. And what you’re doing as a player is you’re looking at the bits of his character that are not fully formed. Is he going to be the Alpha male, or is he not quite that? Is he a bit more sensitive to what other people think? You can’t completely change him into someone else. He’s always Alex.
How can we expect the games to evolve as you move on to newer stories in the Dark Pictures anthology? Is this multiplayer aspect of the game going to be the core that defines the gameplay of the entire series, or are you going to come up with another mechanic or another way to approach the experience?
Samuels: That’s a very good question and we talk about it a lot. The core of the experience is a great story with great characters. Ways to play will be a solo story because a lot of people would really want to do that and enjoy it by themselves on their own, and they will be able to for everything we’ve got planned at the moment. They will [also] all have two player co-op. They’ll all have Movie Night as a mode.
We are looking at the timing of when we shift to introduce something fundamentally new. We’re talking now what that might be for the fifth game–what are we going to add to that.
The fifth game in this anthology series?
How many games are there in the series, do you know? Is there more than five?
Betts: We’re just going to keep going until somebody tells us to stop. We’ve got five at some point in development right now. One very early, because releasing two a year, they take more than six months to make. They each take a good couple of years from concept through to completion so we have to overlap. [We have to] get a different game director on each one and a different design team, so yeah, we will, at some point, mix it up with some new stuff, but part of what that will be based on what the community tells us. We’ll build a community around it and people will tell us what they want different and we’ll listen to that.
In terms of release, it sounds like [it’s] episodic. Can we expect pricing to follow the traditional model of episodic games too?
Pete Samuels: All that is in discussion with Bandai Namco. They’ll figure out how to best deliver it physically and digitally. But the stories aren’t connected as such, so you don’t need to have played the first one in order to fully understand what’s happening.