We had a lovely chat with Australia’s own Rob Davis, Senior Level Developer at Santa Monica Studios, ahead of the release of God of War on PS4.
How did you start off in the gaming industry?
I trained as an artist/animator. I did an animation and art program, and that kind of gave me all the skills I needed. Then, I was actually a level designer at Krome Studios; you might remember them, they’re up in Brisbane. We worked on a game called Ty The Tasmanian Tiger. I worked on the third one of that. It was actually really fun and a cool experience. A lot of people in gaming, you know, especially level designers, get their start on kids games in some way or another, ‘cause usually you get to work on a lot of different kinds of stuff and you usually get your hands pretty dirty. I worked on a few other kids games, like Destroy All Humans 2. I did the moon based level on that one. It’s a game with a jet pack and it’s a pretty good setup for that. At the time a lot of people were moving to the States, and so a couple of years later I did that. Cut to five years later, and I’d met Cory [Barlog, game director] around Australia when he was travelling through here, and I thought ‘this guy is a really cool creative director, he really knows what he wants to do, and really understands combat and storytelling and levels and stuff like that’, so yeah it was kind of a no-brainer really to work with Corey on the new God of War.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what your role involves?
Sure. Especially for this game, on any given day, there’s quite a lot of people on the level design team. Most level designers do a mix of building geometry and layouts between scripting events and setups in the levels. So, if you think of God of War, it’s got a lot of exteriors, a lot of forest and exploring areas, it’s got a lot of architectural interiors, it’s got a lot of little puzzles and a lot of little moments in the levels. And, the level designers do a lot of setting up the layout and then also scripting the different things that occur. To be a lead level designer, you do a lot of that with a lot of different people and you help also review it and align it with all the sort of creative and emotional goals that Cory’s trying to achieve. Once you’ve done it for a game of this size, what we actually found is that we needed one lead level designer for the critical path stories, another lead level designer just for the different exploration areas of the game, and then there was a third lead level designer towards the end of the project, who is also Australian, Andrew, and he took over all the encounters and all the fight tuning for the game from start to finish, including all the side areas and exploration areas.
“it was just one of the most fun game mechanics I think I’d ever seen in prototype form”
Sounds like you Aussies are almost running Santa Monica Studios.
Yeah, we actually have a lot of Aussies on the God of War team. Our technical director is Aussie as well. He worked on deBlob and a few other Australian games. Our encounter lead designer, he – as I mentioned – worked over there, but he comes from THQ Australia. So there’s a bit of an Australian alumni really. Our head of design management, David Hewitt, he actually goes way back in the Australian games industry and worked at Tantalus for ten years as the creative director.
What did the introduction of the Leviathan Axe mean for God of War?
The axe is so cool because it’s made by the same blacksmiths who created Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. You can throw it and then you can recall it anytime you want. As soon as everyone saw that, it was just one of the most fun game mechanics I think I’d ever seen in prototype form. The cool thing was, all the level designers had just so many ideas right off the bat [Axe? Sorry]. When you have a mechanic like that, you’re really trying to come up with a great deal of ways to have the player use it for combat, puzzles, exploration, and in that way create a varied experience. If you can come up with a game mechanic that does combat, exploration, and puzzles, then you’re going to have something that the player feels really familiar with, but also something that gives them a lot of different variety. There’s examples in other games, but you know just in Resident Evil 4, you can use the pistol to shoot enemies, but you can also use the pistol to shoot down gems and pendants in the world. So, the pistol in Resident Evil 4 was used in multiple ways. In a way, the axe ends up being this really cool level design multi-tool. We look at it through that lens for so many different types of setups where – how can I describe it… If it’s fun to the tester, it will be fun in the game. In this game there was hundreds of different ideas, more than we could even do in this game, in the test bed that were really fun, and what we tried to do was come up with different uses for the axe that got more and more complex through the course of the game, not only in terms of the puzzles but also in terms of the hidden chests or the special chests that you’ll find in this game, not to mention also in terms of the combat. I hope that answers your question. Long story short – action adventure games are all about variety, and the axe gives you a lot of variety. We try to use it for a mix of combat, exploration, and puzzles – there’s the short version.
“action adventure games are all about variety, and the axe gives you a lot of variety”
What are the team at Santa Monica doing now?
I think we’re just all taking it in right now. We’re happy with the response. I think everyone’s a little bit surprised. We knew we had a really cool game and we’ve been playing it for a long time, you know, amongst ourselves, we’ve been watching play testers for a long time as well. The reception’s definitely been really welcomed. It might be time for a break and time to come up with some new fresh ideas and see what players think. A big thing right now is that we haven’t even watched anyone stream the game yet, and we have so many cool streamers out there who are going to offer us a new perspective that will allow us to watch the game being played live for pretty much the first time in God of War’s history. Watching the streams this time is going to be a brand new experience for us. Since we have Give Me God of War mode, that’s our most difficult mode, and it does play very differently from the main game, because the AI don’t just have more health and do more damage, they also have different attack patterns and different speeds and all this little tuning things that the combat lead, Jason McDonald, put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into. So, now I’m very excited to watch players online and streamers experience that mode because it’s genuinely difficult and genuinely strategic. I was kind of joking that the first person who beats it we should send a cookie basket to.