The Big and Small of Sony Santa Monica
In addition to pumping out massive AAA titles like God of War: Ascension, Sony Santa Monica is home to a small incubator space that offers independent developers an opportunity to work in a professional space with an incubated deal for the release of their titles. In exchange for publishing rights, the companies that use the area get access to marketing and distribution help, as well as the resources needed to make their game.
Most notably this space was used by thatgamecompany as they produced Flow and Flower, but with the house Jenova Chen built growing in scale with his vision they’ve since moved out opening the space up for the next wave of young developers. Giant Sparrow, a team of about 12 people headed by the fresh faced Ian Dallas, currently occupies the narrow laneway as they wrap production on their 3-year project The Unfinished Swan.
Describing the game to those who haven’t seen it is a little difficult. Imagine a completely blank screen void of an HUD or even an environment. When you pull the trigger, a black paintball flies into view and splatters somewhere making the geometry of the level partially visible. It’s a game about exploration and wonder, framed by the tale of a sad orphaned boy chasing the ghost of his mother’s unfinished painting; the unfinished swan.
Upon meeting Ian it may not be immediately obvious he’s got the spirit of an artist, his demeanour falls very much under the prevue of programmer stereotypes, but what started as a clever tech demo while he was in university has since evolved into a small company and a much larger game and has attracted some stellar young talent in the process.
Like a lot of folks with their ear to the ground of the game development scene, Ben Esposito heard about the project shortly after Ian released the first concept video to YouTube nearly four years ago. “I guess it was before I was looking for proper jobs and I knew about this game from a long time ago, I think 2008, and I saw an article on Gamasutra or something where this new company called Giant Sparrow was looking for people. So, I checked it out and they said they were working on a game called The Unfinished Swan and they showed me the video and I thought it was amazing and I wanted to make it!”
It’s not uncommon for developers to seek out dream projects, but it’s much rarer outside blockbuster development. The excitement internally is a clear indicator that Ian was on to something special when he started proofing his idea, and without Sony Santa Monica’s help it’s uncertain whether he would have had the opportunity to complete it for release later this year.
Max Gieger sits as producer on the title currently and when I asked him how they chose their limited staff he said that finding multi-talented developers was very important to them. A one-page studio mandate posted above Esposito’s workspace backs this sentiment detailing that the studio is to be “a team of generalists; so everyone can pitch in as needed day-to-day as well as learn new skills to take on new roles as the project evolves.” This sort of talent is necessary for a small studio, without developers of cross-discipline training the collaboration process that has helped make the game what it is today wouldn’t exist.
Though Ian and Ben make a majority of the gameplay design decisions, everyone on the team actively contributes new ideas and is given the opportunity to take ownership of the experience they want to create. I got to experience some of this first-hand as I passively made suggestions to Ian while he was finishing up one of the game’s later levels, watched him implement them and accept the advice without a hint of ego. Some creators demand complete control over their projects, but Dallas has the ability to recognize a good idea and implement it; even when it’s not his.
In contrast to the small line of workstations that make up Giant Sparrow in the corner of the first floor of the office, upstairs holds the developers working on God of War: Ascension who are churning away to finish the project after a lot of post-E3 acclaim. With a staff over 10-times the size of Giant Sparrow, Sony Santa Monica is dedicated to putting out some of the most spectacular and cinematic games in the business.
Having such a large team – and significantly more clout – has afforded the studio to find top-tier talent in every discipline and laser-focus them on their craft. The intent is to give each developer the opportunity to be the best at what they do, and in turn make their contribution to the game the best it can possibly be; something that game design manager, Dave Hewitt, says can’t happen any other way.
Sequestered by discipline, the studio is designed to give each team the opportunity to own their own space and customize it to best help their work. The small concept artist area is full of models and reference materials, the testing room has special tech for capturing player experiences, and the design team has line of sight to the trophy case nearly full of awards they’ve won over the years.
One of the most interesting sections of the studio is the multiplayer team’s arena. While it may look like a string of office cubicles – a product of it being a rather recent addition to the studio – it’s where the greatest innovation in the series’ history is coming from. The team there is steadfast on creating the next great online experience, and talking to senior game designer and combat systems expert, Jason McDonald, they might actually reach their goal.
I’ve had an opportunity to play God of War: Ascension at E3 and though the multiplayer carries much of the same visual presentation, cinematic qualities, and brutal styling, there’s a real freshness to the experience. Combat is much deeper than the button-mashing affair it once was and the addition of character customization, multi-layer arena levels with traversal mechanics, and team-oriented objectives, there’s a real opportunity for the game to grow out of its arguably tired formula.
Leaving Sony Santa Monica I was left with the sense that SCEA as a group has learned to value the differences in development styles, sizes, and cultures. Harbouring both the massive and precision-oriented AAA team and their foster child incubator studio in the house that Kratos built shows their dedication to offering up the best environments for developers to make the best games they can, regardless of scale.