The Internet, unsurprisingly, has a lot of very strong feelings about Japanese-born games being handed over to Western studios (see: DmC, Ninja Theory, Donte). Few people, unfortunately, bother trying to understand what this arrangement is even like. To remedy this, we reached out to three of Lost Planet 3‘s leads to chat about their experience bridging that Pacific divide.
EGM: Could you tell us about how Capcom approached you and if they brought any guidelines with them when handing Lost Planet over to you?
Matt Sophos, game director: When Capcom contacted us to basically check out the studio—I guess they were shopping Lost Planet 3 to see if they could find a developer to do it with their Western initiative—they actually came in and saw a vertical slice of a different game we were working on for a different publisher that eventually didn’t get picked up for various reasons. That prototype is what kind of sold them on us as being a studio capable of taking what they want out of the franchise as far as reaching Western [audiences], telling Western stories, that kind of thing—you know, our strengths—and running with it. That’s how they initially came to us.
They came in, had a bunch of meetings with us—I think there were only four of us in the studio at the time, on the creative side: me, the art director, the lead artist, and the lead engineer—and we just did meetings with [then-Capcom global head of production Keiji] Inafune, [series creator Kenji] Oguro, Andrew [Szymanski], the producer over there with Capcom Japan (who was on the title). I just told them what I thought the strengths of the franchise were that we liked and wanted to preserve, and the things we didn’t like so much.
I think that was part and parcel to why they chose us—because we weren’t blowing smoke, you know? We didn’t sugarcoat the things we didn’t like. We didn’t just go, “Oh, the game is great. Everything about Lost Planet is fantastic!” All the stuff you do when you’re desperate to get a new gig. So they, I think, respected that. They had in their mind what they wanted to hear. They didn’t tell us exactly what they wanted us to do, so when I talked to them about what I thought would be a good way to go.
Now, Lost Planet 2 hadn’t come out yet at this point, so I didn’t know anything about how that was going to go, or that it was going to go all heavy multiplayer and all that kind of stuff. I just talked about telling this return to extreme conditions, because in Lost Planet 1, while it was extreme conditions in the sense of the gameplay mechanic of constantly dying when you’re out in the snow and everything, it didn’t necessarily visually feel all that extreme. I wanted to push that [aspect] really far and tell this very intimate, cinematic story in a way that we can do, as Western developers, that maybe isn’t one of [Japanese developers'] biggest strengths.
What ended up coming out of that was: Oguro nodded the whole time, and then he spun his laptop around and showed, basically, all the stuff that I was saying. He would show us things that he wanted to do with Lost Planet 1. He had concept art and all these different things that mirrored exactly what I was saying we wanted to do. So, it ended up being this kismet type of thing, where the things that I wanted to do were exactly where [Oguro] wanted to take the franchise.
EGM: Shared visions aside, did they have any hard-and-fast restrictions? Or were they looking to have you bring only Western sensibilities to the franchise?
Sophos: One of the things they always said was—and, again, I hadn’t seen Lost Planet 2 yet, but it kind of made sense afterward—they felt like they’d taken the franchise as far as they could. In Lost Planet 1, they told a singleplayer-style story that, I think, in a lot of ways, the nuances didn’t translate very well. Quite literally didn’t translate very well. And then with Lost Planet 2, they did this big multiplayer, co-op experience where they went really broad in scope and had deserts and jungles and all sorts of stuff.
They felt like, “This is as far as we can take it, and we still haven’t really reached the Western audience that we want to reach.” They were coming to us to try to leverage our expertise as storytellers, as Western developers and Western gamers, and they just wanted us to take the ball and run with it. They’d pull in the reins every once in a while if they thought we were going way too far outside of things, but for the most part, they were even very willing to retcon their own lore, in some respects, based on suggestions we’d say and they just happened to like. So, there were small restrictions, but by and large, they supported us—even when they probably shouldn’t have.
Richard Gaubert, lead designer: Yeah, and I mean, we also knew what the game should be, in that we weren’t suddenly going to introduce talking giraffes into it or anything—
EGM: That’s unfortunate.
Gaubert: I know, I know, but we knew what it needed to be, and I think we were all in alignment about it.
EGM: I imagine that’s a great position to be in as a developer, but at the same time, you have one audience that adored Lost Planet 1 and another that adored Lost Planet 2. Were you ever concerned about alienating either by going more Western and less, say, manga-inspired? Both in terms of gameplay and the writing itself.
Sophos: Well, from a gameplay perspective, we knew that Lost Planet 1 was a 360 launch title and people liked it pretty well, but it wasn’t super-well-known as the must-have game. It had an audience, but it wasn’t a terribly vocal audience. Lost Planet 2, on the other hand…It’s funny: It had a very different audience than Lost Planet 1. You’ll find people who loved 1 and hated 2 and loved 2 and thought that 1 was OK or whatever. They’re different audiences, and [Lost Planet 2’s] were very vocal, which we came to find out later.
But I think the beauty of the Lost Planet franchise is that it seems to reinvent itself with every iteration, and it’s not afraid of big changes. That comes with Lost Planet 3, or EX Troopers —the Japan-only 3DS [and PS3] game—so it’s one of those things where you can’t be beholden to what you think the audience is going to like or if you’re going to serve that audience perfectly and still try to draw in a new audience. We tried to always be mindful of the Lost Planet audience, the people who did like the franchise—and we did that a lot with legacy characters and themes and things like that—but we knew that [Capcom] came to us because they wanted to grab a whole different audience. And that’s the direction we took it.
EGM: Eight months out before your release, DmC—a similar East-meets-West situation—launched. And while critically well received, the core fanbase basically boycotted that game out of spite. When that happened, did any blowback trickle down to you?
Sophos: Never felt it trickle down to us. It didn’t really feel like it trickled down to us. With Devil May Cry, that’s a franchise that has a very specific aesthetic and way of storytelling and everything like that. And you know, because they went with this Western initiative and Ninja Theory was asked to reinvent things, really the main thing I felt was just bad for Ninja Theory, because [in addition to] Devil May Cry—which I actually played and I really, really liked—the game right before that, Enslaved, was one of my favorite games to come out in the last four or five years. They’ve just had just terrible luck, making fantastic games that no one’s playing. And to see that kind of vitriol come out of the Devil May Cry hardcore fanbase without really giving the game a shot was sad. But I didn’t feel like it really trickled down to us. Like I said: Lost Planet 2 already was so massively different than Lost Planet 1 that us being different than 2 or even different than 1, I don’t think that people had the same kind of expectations for it that they did with Devil May Cry.
EGM: You’ve mentioned how you wanted to keep things grounded and go for realism. Was there a conscious effort to shed certain video game tropes—by having Jim in a preexisting marriage, for example?
Gaubert: Well, I think we wanted to write something that we wanted to see and that we felt doesn’t exist in games right now or doesn’t happen that often. I don’t think we were trying to do things differently.
Sophos: I think it’s one of those cases where it’s the old cliche of write what you know. Rich and I both have wives, and Orion [Walker, writer] has a long, long-time girlfriend who might as well be a wife. And in game development, it always happens where you hit this stretch where you’re away from your wife or significant other for a very, very long time, working 70-hour long weeks, things like that. So it felt like a natural extension, in a lot of ways, of us and things that we believed other people could relate to—one of those things that crossed geographic boundaries, as far as themes go. It’s something that all the guys in Japan could completely relate to, but all the guys here in the U.S. or anywhere else could relate to, too. So it was just write what you know, you know?
Orion Walker, writer: And we were certainly maintaining an awareness of all the tropes that would come into play, so if you felt like you were expecting things to go a certain way and then we subverted that expectation, I think there are a few of those we did set out to execute.
Sophos: We did that with Mira. We set up her to have a little bit of an infatuation with Jim, and there was a conscious decision to play that up just a little bit, but never give any clues, never any red herrings that Jim was going to go for it. But we figured people would bring into it their own thoughts on those typical game tropes.
Walker: Yeah, we kind of wanted it implicit that Mira had a thing for him, but never really put it out there—never really put it in as many words. But let people feel it. I think an Éowyn-Aragorn vibe was sort of what I kept thinking while I was plotting, and then Gale to come along as the Faramir. Yeah I’m that guy.
But also with Braddock. I think we wanted people to really not be sure where he was going to land, as someone you could trust or not—giving you cause to doubt him, and then showing you these other layers and motivations and giving him a whole arc. Giving every character an arc as much as we could.
EGM: Did the idea to have video messages from Peyton’s wife—to me, one of the most defining elements to Lost Planet 3—come from this same notion?
Sophos: That was something that was really important to us. I know it was important to me, because the whole crux of the story is that it’s a guy sacrificing time with his family to work and send the money back home. We wanted to always remind players who Jim is and why he’s doing it. Without that, I think it’s something that would almost just be backstory and not something that is really tangible to the player. And we happened to just get great, great actors to play Jim and Grace. And they just brought it and really made you feel it. That was something we set out to achieve from the very beginning.
Walker: There’s also a great structural benefit to having those at our disposal as well. One of the nice things about gaming versus screenplays is being able to paint in all these different dimensions. We have cinematics, we have game dialogue, we have audio logs and text logs, and NPC encounters to round out the universe. So just being able to throw in these vignettes that just deepen characters and deepen your attachment to them without having to shoehorn it into the middle of a mission or something—but to have these interludes—is really nice to have.
Gaubert: We would have liked to have had more of them, but you’re at the mercy of what the production can support. We would’ve loved to fill every loading screen with those, but we couldn’t.
Sophos: That was actually the initial plan—to fill every loading screen with those—but it was unrealistic. And Xbox 360 disc space also didn’t really allow it.
Walker: Disc space!
Sophos: I know, right?
EGM: Was there anything in terms of story or gameplay that you really wanted to get into the game but just couldn’t get to work or didn’t have the capacity for?
Sophos: Well, we edited down every cinematic by quite a bit. And a lot of it was edits that needed to happen. As writers, we’re long-winded at times, and tell a lot more through dialogue that whenever it comes to the director’s eye—Jake Hughes, our cinematics director—he made smart edits. We also had to make lots of necessary edits to fit on space. Gameplay-wise, there was huge sections that we had to cut out because it’s game development. You run short on time. We had a whole other section of a boss fight and that had to go. That’s what happens when you make a game. There’s lots of story and lots of gameplay we had to cut at various points.
EGM: On the flip side of that, is there anything else you were doggedly insistent about getting in?
Gaubert: The bookends.
Sophos: Yeah, exactly.
Gaubert: The bookends with Old Jim and the granddaughter that, right now, are just cinematics—that was going to be playable. The plan was that there would be these sections that could be played as her, and those had to go. But we knew we had to preserve that framing device for it to just feel weightier.
Walker: But you’ll notice it begins, really, in medias res. You don’t really know what these two are talking about, but clearly they’ve been fighting and there’s been some action and Oh My God what’s going on and the game ends on a little bit of a cliffhanger—and neither of those were Plan A. There was actually a complete epilogue and prologue in context to all that, and more of a sense of not just resetting the franchise, but also setting up more clearly where a future installment would go. At one point I think that was going to be DLC, but I don’t know. I can’t speak for Capcom on this.
Sophos: And there was a time when the whole notion of the bookends kind of came under scrutiny, as we were looking for things to cut from a production standpoint, from a disc-space standpoint. The suggestion was made: “Hey, why don’t we just gut all of the future stuff and just tell a pure prequel?” And that was something we collectively stood our ground against and spent political capital, so to speak, to say, “No, it will not feel as important, it won’t feel as epic, without it.” Plus, you know, we just liked it so damn much!
EGM: Were there any compromises that had to be made in terms of the game’s narrative? Anything that, when presented to Capcom, they wanted to know where the crazy Japanese RPG tropes were?
Sophos: One of the things that was very, very important to them—and we kept getting the note over and over again—was, “Make sure that Nushi is trumped up—that there’s more importance to Nushi.” You know, the big giant creature at the end. While we were spending so much of our time on the character development, making all of the choices feel human and organic, one of the things that [Japan] does well—I’m generalizing as a culture—is big, epic, unbelievable creatures and continent-sized things that feel epic, while we’re really good at telling the personal story stuff.
We always knew that Nushi was going to play a big part, but it was something that I think—and Rich and Orion, you guys can feel free to step in—we were always a little bit afraid of and that we didn’t know how to tackle, somewhat. So, we kind of waited, pushed it off, and concentrated on some of the things we deemed a bit more important—figure out the Nushi stuff later. But that was something incredibly important to them, and we made it important [to us] as well, and I think it all played out correctly. But that was something that we got notes on repeatedly.
Gaubert: Yeah, that one was hard, because when you’re creating a story that is supposed to be grounded, something like Nushi felt so magical, and so we went back and forth about how we sell that without making it feel like magic—and yet that’s really what it is.
Walker: Every time I would try to take the story in more of a Dune direction, the guys would rein me in. No prophecies. No magic. And I’m like, “Oh, you know—but Nushi’s in there!” So again, you take challenges and you turn them into opportunities. And the fact that Nushi exists as a concept, that T-Energy is not something that exists in reality to be scrutinized, scientifically, we were able to come up with whole MacGuffin at the end: the whole gambit of Isenberg using Kovac’s device. There’s a bunch of NPC dialogue you can stand around for after the device is first unveiled where Kovac goes on, in great lengths, about what the important of his experiment was and electromagnetic frequencies and the unique properties of T-Energy. And it makes just enough sense that when Nushi is explained, there’s a logic to what’s going on at the end. It’s based on a kind of half sciencey-sounding, half plausible-sounding, and half this sort of…taking what could be magic and providing a feel to it that was at least consistent, scientifically, with everything else that was going on.
On the topic of Nushi: We were trying really, really hard to avoid covering Avatar, and there’s so many elements inherent to the Lost Planet franchise—especially when you’re doing a prequel—you pretty much have work with the nefarious corporate organization and the valuable element only found on a lost world and the different factions vying for it. And they’re essentially doing something that could very easily be a Tree of Life—that wasn’t there otherwise, and now they’re putting in. And I think we wanted to always go back to the common roots of the tropes as opposed to imitating what is most recent and fresh in people’s minds. But whenever people complain that it was Avatar-like, I’m like, “Eh, no. I don’t remember the part in Avatar where our hero kills the Tree of Life. I missed that.”
EGM: What about in terms of gameplay? One of the chief complaints lobbied against LP3 is the shooting mechanics, the feel of Jim.
Sophos: Well…how to be delicate about this? I guess when we were doing the game mechanics, when we were doing the tuning on the game mechanics, especially, this was one of the areas where I think we did a lot of compromising. We had a Japanese publisher who had a certain feel for the game—how they felt the dodging and the right response times and the right inputs should be. We had others. And we kind of settled on something we all kind of could agree to. I don’t know that, given our devices, we quite got it how they would want it, and we sure didn’t get it exactly how we would want it, but you make certain compromises. And that’s kind of what happens.
Gaubert: I like your answer, Matt.
Walker: I just decided to jump on the grenade of being the one to actually monitor Twitter and reviews as things came out. I think a more sensible person would’ve spared themselves, at a certain point. But not to put too fine a point on it, I was looking for pull quotes. I noticed that people would tend to find something to praise in the writing of the game even if it was otherwise a decidedly mixed review. We had a few really big fans who totally got it and a bunch of begrudging, mixed reviews who thought, “It was a lot better written than they were expecting!” And, you know, they couldn’t get past a lot of the meta-story about how the game came to exist. Like, they’ll be holding against it that it’s a different direction than Lost Planet 2, or they’ll be holding Spark’s track record against the game even though it was completely different creative team—this importance they were reading into the development house and all these sort of decisions made at a high level that led to them not necessarily giving the game a chance on its own terms.
The people who enjoyed it best are the people who took it at face value, who essentially got into character when playing as Jim and felt what it was like to do his job and miss his wife and to have events start to unfold. And the more they got into it, the more they enjoyed it. So when we were applying for the Writers Guild of America award—you have to submit your script and get it into submittable shape, and that’s a bit of work—I think part of that exercise was to test this premise. There was this reaction that we kept seeing: It was one of the better written games of the year. Well, alright. The WGA is as neutral as anyone. They’re not going to have these Spark and Capcom and Lost Planet franchise going to Western developer distractions. They’ll hopefully give the game a fair shake. So getting the nomination—in The Last of Us’ year—getting the nomination was definitely the big win. It was definitely what we were going after, and pretty hugely vindicating, to be honest.
Sophos: Thank you for jumping on that grenade. That’s something that Rich and I just can’t touch.
Walker: Yeah, people on the Internet can be misinformed and mean. I don’t know if you’ve heard that.
Sophos: What? No.
EGM: I’ve heard rumors.
Walker: Don’t publish that. We wouldn’t want that to get out. It would be destabilizing.
EGM: Given what you’ve told me so far and what you’re known for, it seems Lost Planet 3’s development was something rooted in the storytelling side first and foremost over gameplay. Was this the case?
Sophos: I think, for the most part, a lot of this stuff did start with the narrative. We knew who the protagonist was going to be. We knew, kind of, where we wanted to go from a story perspective, and then that informed some of the gameplay. Since we knew we were going prequel and we knew that we wanted to tell this story of early colonization and struggle and things like that that, what grew out of that, for instance, was the idea of replacing the VITAL Suits with the Utility Rig and making this big, giant construction vehicle instead of a gunship. And so, in that case, the creative informed where we went with the gameplay. That made us choose, “Hey—if we’re going to do this big construction mech, we’ll do first-person melee combat.” And then some of the things we did on the gameplay side would then inform parts of where the narrative went. Since we were doing the construction rig, and we wanted it to feel very manual, and when we were doing a lot of the mechanics iteration, that kind of made us go, “Hey, we should probably work into the narrative why there are no guns on this thing.” And so that informed some of the dialogue, some of the choices we made from there, too.
Walker: I think it’s safe to say that many of the larger boss battles were really story driven. We knew that LaRoche, Jim’s rival, in order to take him through some of the arcs we wanted to take him to, there came a point where he had to really flip to opponent mode. And as the only other guy with a Rig, it just made sense. Like, “Wow—there should be a rig fight!” So it wasn’t like, “We know we want to have a Rig fight, let’s justify it.” It really seemed like what would naturally occur, and thankfully they went for it on the production level. And I think the main finale was largely story driven, too. We knew some things we wanted to do, but it was mainly about what can be set up here as Isenberg’s final gambit and how Jim would have to stop it and where it ends up. We knew Nushi’s fate, but we didn’t know a lot of the circumstances until story justified it.
EGM: A coworker picked up on Sherman and the Oaks, a band name referencing the neighborhood we both live in. Are there any other nods or Easter eggs?
Sophos: Well, I don’t remember how many pages the script was, but I’m sure there was a lot of that in there. You picked up on the song names and band names. Those were just chock-full of references. One of the band names was something called Scotty and the Build Breakers or something like that, and that was a reference to when our character lead [Scott Eaton] broke the build with bad check-ins and stuff like that. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff all over the script.
Walker: Did we get some Anachronox references in? I’m trying to remember.
Gaubert: Well, we wanted to get the dopefish in, but we didn’t.
Sophos: Well, here’s a little tidbit that we’ve never told anybody, but we’ll go ahead and tell you, ‘cause why not. The character of Dr. Bonnie Roman, who’s one of our very important secondary characters, she’s just one giant nod to one of the main characters in Anachronox: Dr. Rho Bowman. We transposed the first two letters of the name. It’s a black woman who is incredibly smart, and is a scientist, and even has kind of the same quilted, green-ish jacket. She was a big giant nod to Anachronox, the first game that all of us worked on.
EGM: I was just about to ask if there are any characters modeled after anybody, be they real or fictional.
Sophos: Well, there you go. That character is modeled after a character that we all worked on 15 years ago or whatever. For all of the main characters, we did facial scannings, so they all look like the actors who played them. So we couldn’t really model them after anybody. I’ve seen a million times that Jim is Nic Cage, and it’s like, “No. Jim is not Nic Cage. Jim is [actor] Bill Watterson, and that’s his face.” Although Bill did tell me at one point he did stand-in work for Nic Cage on one of his films.
Matt: I don’t think it was Face/Off, but I like the joke.
Walker: We chose Mira’s name as a truncation of Miranda, referencing Tempest—just thinking in terms of the daughter and a sort of wizardly father figure. Just enough literary allusion there to feel like it was worth a nod.
EGM: What aspect of the game’s development did you have the most fun working on?
Sophos: I think the entire creative process was incredibly exciting—working with these two guys and some very late-night sessions. Every once and a while we’d bring in a guest star—a game flow designer or the cinematics director or the lead artist or something like that—and we’d bounce things around. From a very, very specific moment: I directed the performances of the actors on the motion capture stage and in the VO booth, and finding a cast that really got it and really understood and loved the material—that was very energizing. You can kind of put away all the struggle that you go through as a normal developer on the day-to-day of the game whenever you climb into a booth or step onto the motion capture stage and it’s all just positivity. It’s hard work, but it’s positivity, in those circumstances. So that was some of the most enjoyable days that I had.
Gaubert: Initially, I was very excited about how we were going to do the Rig combat, since we were doing it as basically first-person melee, which is unusual. And we learned it’s unusual for a reason! But it was very exciting to delve into that stuff. We knew the gameplay that we wanted, and we knew the story that we wanted, and I felt like they were very much aligned. It was exciting to just get that whole wrapper around the game—the whole narrative wrapper that, I thought, was going to work well with what the gameplay was.
Walker: I felt like the most gratifying phase—and this probably goes for a lot of more general screenplay writing activities—was that feeling when you’ve really found the voices of the individual characters, where you really look forward to writing a new Gale scene or a new Kovac scene because you know their point of view, you know their rhythm, and it’s just fun to find out what they’re going to say next, because you tapped into that part of yourself and breathed some life into them. It’s nice when that comes together.
Originally published in EGM Issue #Whatever and EGMnow July 3, 2014.
Originally published on EGMnow July 3, 2014.