I once again had the pleasure of chatting with a member of SUZAKU, the studio behind the successful the upcoming title Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story. This time around, Benjamin Widdowson gives me his views on life after Kickstarter and the state of the industry as a whole. Enjoy!
Console Monster: Let’s start off with some of the basics; Who are you and what do you do?
Benjamin Widdowson: My name is Benjamin Widdowson, and I am the co-founder of SUZAKU. I am a concept artist and writer by trade with 18 credited released titles, but making characters and world building is my passion.
CM: Your game is called “Project Sense” right? Could you tell us a bit about it?
BW: The title is actually “Sense: 不祥的预感 a Cyberpunk Ghost Story”, Project Sense was our early dev codename, but it kinda stuck as a shorthand for most of our fans. The game is a Clock Tower and Fatal Frame inspired horror game that takes place in a cyberpunk version of 2083 Neo Hong Kong and mixes traditional Cantonese horror and ghost stories with a neon-lit cyberpunk aesthetic.
CM: If you had to sell your game in one sentence, what would that sentence be?
BW: “Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story” is a Clock Tower like game telling a traditional Hong Kong ghost story set in a cyberpunk city, all wrapped in a 80’s and 90’s anime inspired art style.
CM: Last time we spoke the Kickstarter campaign had just ended. Have things calmed down or is it still a mad dash to the finish?
BW: Unfortunately, I’d say it’s even worse now, haha. We are in the last 5 or so months of development, and trying our absolute best to meet our deadlines (doing great so far!). Aside from the handful of 3D assets, the sounds and OST, and toolkit/ and coding I am more or less the sole developer. I’m doing all the art, animations, and gameplay implementation. That means there is an incredible amount of work solely on my plate, and while that feels daunting at times I must admit I am a bit of a workaholic. Basically, my entire life is in crunch time.
CM: This if your first game correct? What’s been the most challenging part of development?
BW: Well, it isn’t MY first game, but it is the first game I’ve done this much on, and the first game for SUZAKU. Like above, the most challenging part has been the amount of hats I personally have to wear and juggle. I have to “cut corners” in some places to make others work , which is a learning experience. It feels a lot like I am living the documentaries and articles about the early days of 3d game development from the PS1 era. Small budget, little dev time, and mountains of trial and error work. The best example is the amount of feedback (and picking on) I get about Mei’s run cycle. I am no animator, and have been really up front about that since day 1. Animation is just an area that my brain isn’t grasping easily, despite pouring hours of time and effort into it. I feel like I’ve nailed down that run cycle a dozen times, but there will always be someone still saying “fix it”. They aren’t always wrong either, haha. It’s small things like that which are easy to get stuck on – but I promise I will keep trying.
CM: What is one feature you’re really excited about?
BW: Unlockable costumes! It’s the thing I miss most from the previous console eras. Current year devs really have no excuse but lack of creativity and an excuse to sell DLC. The new Spiderman game proved that out right. I hope that Sense can stand with Spidey on this issue and force bigger devs to get back to basics and give us back unlockable content via gameplay instead of just slapping everything into DLC.
CM: Have you had to cut any ideas/content? If so, what and why?
BW: So, so, so many ideas have been cut and dropped, just like in any other big project or creative venture. Many have been pared back as well. From gameplay elements to story concepts, a lot of stuff will never see the light of day. This isn’t actually abnormal or related to anything nuts or controversial. It’s just that some of my ideas didn’t work out, or were more trouble than their potential benefit. Some story elements just didn’t feel right even if I really liked them, while other points that I completely hated ended up working better. Some of this really is down to necessary man hours vs hands available as well. Our two bonus chapters had to be shortened a bit due to both time and development realities, for example, but I also ended up working them into the core game instead of being selectable or separated.
Another thing I took out was one of the traditional survival horror gameplay elements, ammunition based “fighting”. Originally I wanted the player to be able to use certain items to keep the ghosts away from you while you explored. What I found was that having this in the game made some of the horror and tension ease, because you can potentially always have enough of the items to explore freely. We switched to straight up Clock Tower style interaction based events. Some of the ghosts still pursue you, but using a stackable item to keep them away is gone, now you have to complete a series of actions for each ghost to get rid of them or evade them.
CM: I love the character art for the game! While I support every form of artistic vision, even those I dislike, I know not all people are as open-minded. Have you had deal with anyone opposed to your vision? What would you say to those that would like your art modified?
BW: Of course, those people usually pop up, or will always find ways to pop up eventually. Luckily, aside from some drama we’ve run into in the past we haven’t really had any mass outcry or anything. A wise man recently said “When I think of who my audience is, I picture a globe”. I want everyone and anyone to play Sense and love it, but that isn’t always possible. Not every game, book, movie or what have you is for everyone. I have no personal interest in Game of Thrones, but millions of people loved that show regardless of the books. I don’t think it was HBO or George’s job to change anything in GoT to fit my interests. Would Game of Thrones be better as a futuristic harem anime? Maybe yes, but someone else can make that and I will watch it.
To that effect, to some weird person Sense might be better if it were about something else entirely, or without my character designs, or whatever. Someone else can make that game, and that weird person can enjoy it. I hope they give me the opportunity to show them why Sense, as I have made it, is a great game. That IS my job, but changing Sense into something else isn’t.
CM: What’s been the hardest part of the creative process after the Kickstarter funding?
BW: The never-ending dread and fear of not living up to the promises I’ve made to my backers, haha. I am very hard on myself as an artist and creator, I want to hit this thing out of the park. While I know I have limitations, like animation and budget, I also know that I have to pour everything I’ve got into this game in order to prove myself and set a new promise – that SUZAKU is going to continue to bring you bigger and better games. I want to EARN the trust of my customers, fans, and gamers.
CM: Let’s close with a zinger! What is your stance on the whole loot box/micro-transaction issue?
BW: My opinion may be controversial here. I’ve been to Japan twice. First in 2012, then in 2016, and will be going again with my wife for our very delayed honeymoon when Sense is complete and in your hands (some of us wait until after we deliver our completed games before going to luxury hot springs). One of my favorite “modern” things in japan is the Gacha Gacha machines. I love the idea of putting in a few hundred yen and getting a cool little figure or keychain, so much so that I actually collect gashapon figures. The thing that makes them so fun is the surprise, but also that no matter which of the figures you get they are usually all pretty cool. You may have one that you want most, but you always get something, and never feel ripped off. Loot boxes and gacha systems are supposed to be the same thing, and in theory they are. I personally have no real problem with the system existing and being used in games, even freemium ones. I like Fate Grand Order, and have put more hours than I should have into Phantasy Star IDOLA.
What these massive AAA publishers and devs are doing with the gacha/lootbox systems is utterly disgusting and despicable. They took a very fun concept and completely ruined it. It’d be one thing if it was “In our free to play game, every hour of gameplay is 10 coins, but completing daily challenges gives you 50 coins. 100 coins gets you a loot box, which is guaranteed to give you some cool extra cosmetic/skin/hat, there are 20 items available right now, you can trade in duplicate drops for X coins each, alternatively you can spend $1 per box”. That’d be fine, maybe except to certain absolutists. You can’t please everyone, again. Instead we have “pay for $30 for the season pass and $80 for the ultimate edition of the base game so you can spend $10 per month for your pro license, all for 1 coin every 5 games. 100 coins gets you 1 loot box containing 3 random items necessary for progression in the main game, the actual good items you want have a 1 in 100000000 chance of popping. Alternatively you can buy a minimum $20 for 500 coins for one guaranteed 5 star item. There are 700 five star items in the lottery right now that will all be gone until this time next year because you are a pay pig and have no self res- – -“
Now admittedly, part of this is our fault as consumers. We kept giving EA, Activision, etc money and the benefit of the doubt. We just had to play the new Assassin’s Creed, CoD, or Fallout, thinking they’d listen to us or things would get better. Despite every complaint and every Twitter outrage mob at greedy devs and publishers taking advantage of their customers, we still bought games from them. We didn’t just allow the behavior, we encouraged it with our wallets while decrying it with our mouths. I’m guilty of that too, so please don’t take this as finger wagging. Only in the last 2-3 years have I chosen to not give these sorts of publishers my money at all, no matter how bad I want to play the new releases. I can put my money to better use supporting Japanese devs, and smaller niche publishers/developers world wide who actually care about making a good product and valuing their customers.
CM: Thanks for taking to time to answer some questions. Again, I can’t wait to play the game. Looks stunning!
BW: Thanks for giving me the opportunity again! I appreciate every eye we can get on us and hope that Sense blows your mind early next year!
You can check out more on Sense over on their official site. We can’t wait to give the game a go early next year.