When I was invited to preview the upcoming first-party exclusive for the PlayStation 4, God of War, I was also given the opportunity to speak to Aaron Kauffman, a Community Strategist and Marketing Producer at Santa Monica Studios. While he didn’t play a part specifically in the development of the game, he has been a part of various God of War games as a community strategist and marketing producer as well on some awesome smaller titles like Journey. Regardless of the fact that he was not a developer himself, he was very aware of what went into the development of the game which showed me he was dedicated to it (a good sign, if you ask me).
WP: Let’s start with an easy one. You’re the Senior Community Strategist and Marketing Producer for God of War, what does that entail?
Kauffman: So over my time in my career, there was a titled called “Community Manager” which evolved to become a Social Media Manager, but I like to coin it as Community Strategist because I think we as community managers do far more than just talking on forums. We’re really setting the content strategy for our game and how we are going to talk to our fans, being the main conduit between them and the developer, which is us. I also work a lot with our marketing team, our PR team, our greater PlayStation and social media team, customer support – a lot of different teams who are involved with the marketing and production of making this PlayStation’s next big launch and I sit in the centre, as our Marketing Producer, as a conduit to the studio. So anyone who wants to do anything with the God of War franchise in terms of marketing and PR and even licencing comes through me at some point and then I work with your team on the creative side to help ensure that it is an idea that is kind of on brand or, as we say, on creative strategy.
WP: So how long has God of War been in development?
Kauffman: We have been on development for the new game as far back as just as we were wrapping up God of War: Ascension, so around 4 or 5 years.
WP: Given that this was announced one and a half years ago, at E3 2016, a lot of the talk about the game was the sudden change in direction and a lot of people have coined it as more of a reboot rather than a continuation of the series. Would you guys consider this to be apt?
Kauffman: I think “reboot”, by definition, almost means that you are not continuing the storyline. Especially in film, reboots always seem to go back to the origins. In terms of storyline, this is a God of War game that continues after God of War 3 by its narrative alone. What we did hit the reset button on, to a degree, was Kratos himself. But it’s a reset button in the sense that we’ve been making almost 7 God of War games about the same character. He’s very one-note, always on a path of rage and vengeance, always blaming the Greek Gods for the sins of his past. Just blame, blame, blame. But now we have to hit reset on him because Kratos needs to start looking in the mirror at himself and realising “I now have a son by my side. He is my new purpose for getting up every day, he is the reason that I am having this new beginning and the reason that I need to find humanity within myself so I can father him and make him twice the man that I ever could be.” So I think that is really where the kind of “reboot” or reset comes in, on a character level, not so much on the storyline level. This answer has some good title ideas.
WP: One of the more noticeable changes with the new game is the tighter and more dramatic camera angle which helped change the tone to a more raw and mature tone. How does this factor into gameplay, especially combat? Would you say it’s a radical departure from the previous games?
Kauffman: Changing the camera was one of the most fundamental design challenges that we tackled right from the beginning. We knew that in order to bring the player closer to the combat we could no longer keep it fixed in a skybox corner. We also knew that the action-adventure genre was evolving. Players were getting a lot more choice in games, whether it’s your ability to customise your character, whether it’s your ability to choose to go left, right up or down, or your ability to approach a battle how you want to play. We wanted to give the player a certain amount of strategic choice in their combat to approach it in a much more diversified way. Once we unhinged the combat it completely opened things up. Now you have to worry about what’s in front of you, behind you, to the left and to the right. Now you feel the intensity that you have always felt in a God of War game but up close and personal and I don’t think that we have taken away the traditional God of War feeling of this incredible world around you or that kind of fast and frenetic combat, it’s a different though and more measured so it requires more thinking.
WP: How are you guys at Santa Monica Studios anticipating long-time fan reaction to the shift in design and mechanics?
Kauffman: I have no doubt, as a community manager, that there is going to be a cynical group of God of War fans – there always are. It’s not like that should be something that is unheard of, but to those fans, and I’m talking to those fans specifically, they are going to be pleasantly surprised by how much this game still feels like God of War. We did not take away the core pillars that make up a God of War game which are the intensity of the combat, incredible creatures and monsters and that larger than life feel. Say what you want about the fixed camera and “square, square, triangle” button mashing, those are hallmarks of past God of War games, but in this game we are giving you so much more combat strategy and we believe that the core God of War fan has evolved to a place of they’re going to love and they’re going to feel it. So we are confident that God of War fans of all types, especially those that haven’t played a God of War game in a long time, will be there with us in month one and we are really excited to hear their thoughts and we think it is going to pretty positive.
WP: From what I played, there were some really uniquely designed puzzles which factored around Kratos’ axe, but will there be a return of some of the large scale/huge environmental puzzles that some of the previous games were known for?
Kauffman: Yeah, as previously mentioned, there is sort of that larger than life feel and there are some very intricate and complex puzzles found in this game, coming in both small and large scales. I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed at all by that.
WP: Moving on to Kratos. What kind of dad is he? Is he a forceful “my way or the highway” kind of dad or a more lenient one?
Kauffman: He’s the dad of the year haha. “My way or the highway” kind of means to me like you either do it my way or I’m going to leave you behind. I don’t think Kratos is that kind of parent. I think he is more “my way or I really need you to try hard to do it my way”. He doesn’t want to leave Atreus behind in any way whatsoever. What he is struggling with is his ability to allow Atreus to do it his way, to allow him to become a godlike warrior. He is very scared about what that means because he knows for himself that rage and anger is something that comes with that, because he believes that that disease is something that has been passed on to Atreus and so I think the reason he is so restrained with Atreus in combat at upfront is because, like anything, if you let your kid learn something too quick you are worried that they are going to make a mistake or they are going to hurt themselves. So you be kind of become overly protective, and Kratos is dealing with that in a way, but in a much more serious sense with respect to how he deals with his own rage. But on the other hand, Kratos comes from the Spartan Army, as a Spartan Commander. With that being one of the most dreadful, tough programs ever known to mankind, any time you overcame an obstacle the Spartans were always “on to the next one”. You never get the “good job” or the “be better” or the “hey, thumbs up” you know? And that is the DNA of Kratos that he is constantly dealing with.
WP: In the preview build, it was especially noticeable within the first couple hours which we got to play, Kratos slowly develops as a character as he connects more and more with his son, Atreus. Were there a lot of challenges for writing a character who is known for being hellbent on revenge and giving him depth and motivation as a character?
Kauffman: Probably the biggest challenge in writing for Kratos, credit goes to our writers, is Kratos is known as a man of few words. He doesn’t have long paragraphs and speeches and sentences, that’s why he just says “boy” and there are moments where he will say more than a few words but I think that the challenge in writing and coming up with the phrases and tones that sound like a man who isn’t just angry all the time and having all these tender moments is very difficult, he is definitely not an easy character to write for. Every word matters in the script for Kratos. It’s almost like when you’re reading an email and the tone of someone’s words may come across in a way that is inadvertent and you know if they had said it to you in person it would have sounded a lot different; I think that can happen easily with Kratos.
WP: There are two sides to every coin and Atreus is another key character. He is faced with a lot of challenges, he has to come to terms with the death of his mother and he has to travel around with his father who doesn’t know a lot about him. Would you say it is just as important to the story of the game that he develops as a character as he seeks to prove himself to his father?
Kauffman: Oh God yeah. Atreus is as important to this game as Kratos is himself. We didn’t introduce Atreus to be a sideshow or an escort mission. We know that at the beginning Atreus may not seem like a character that you are able to connect with, but by the end of the game you’re going to love him and you are going to feel as connected to him as you will Kratos, perhaps even more so. He becomes vital to your combat, he grows in combat as he grows as a character. He’s upgradable and customisable, even though you don’t control him in the game, his AI is so advanced that you will feel like you are controlling him at times, whether it’s in the puzzles or the combat. Without Atreus, this is not a new God of War game. God of War is no longer God of War without Atreus, from this game onwards.
WP: Would you say that the idea of Atreus being a character who grows with Kratos is one that was inspired by games like The Last of Us and The Last Guardian, where the bond between the characters is half of the story?
Kauffman: We’re definitely inspired by games like that and how they approach that, whether it’s The Last of Us or The Last Guardian or Bioshock, but it’s more coincidence than deliberate inspiration. We knew that the way to evolve this game, to evolve the character of Kratos, was to give him a son and from a design standpoint how we wanted to add that son was very specific to what we wanted. It had no relation to taking direct inspiration from other games. We love those games, we admire and respect them every single day but we made the game that we wanted to make with Kratos having a companion.
WP: One of the most notable points when God of War was originally unveiled was that it took a step away from the Greek gods and mythology which that it was originally set in and focused on Norse gods and mythology. With this in mind, are there any plans to explore other pantheons of gods like Aztec or Mayan?
Kauffman: That’s a great question, actually. We did a lot of research early on into different mythologies and we kept coming back to Norse as the place that offered us the richest universe in character, in backdrop setting, the best place to put Kratos in his adventure. So right now we are squarely focused on Norse and I know one of the things the core dialogue has said a lot is that we believe all mythologies could exist at the same time so Greece is down south, the Mayans and Egyptians to the left and we’re up here in Scandinavia at the north and that gives us flexibility to play with that kind of reality. That doesn’t mean we are entering a world with crisscrossing mythologies but it means that right now, while Kratos is in the Norse region there is still the remnants of his past in the Greek mythological and physical location of that but we are squarely focused on Norse right now.
WP: Much to my surprise, the game managed to keep a linear level design which is something that just doesn’t happen very often. Were there any plans to make God of War open world?
Kauffman: We never really set our sights on making an open world game. We always knew that we needed to expand the player’s freedom of choice to do and discover more things and that is why we are hanging our hats on this being what we call a wide linear game. This is the idea that you are on a very singular journey/mission but we are going to give you larger areas to explore, we’re going to give you ways to backtrack, but this is not open world in the sense that you go ten thousand miles to the other side of our Norse universe, do a side quest and come back. It’s more about going from point A to point B and if you see an interesting cliff with a ladder or stairs to climb up or a crack in the wall, you can go over there and explore and you’ll probably discover something in doing so.
WP: Well since it touts level design that encourages player curiosity and exploration, were there many challenges with balancing the way the game rewarded you for engaging your curiosity and exploring?
Kauffman: I think that one of the challenges was that we wanted to give the player this ability of progression with collecting rewards and XP and hacksilver and a way to kind of augment and customise your armour and give you more choice there. But with that comes the point of when are we giving too much choice or too many options and kind of deviating from this idea of giving the player different styles to play in combat and so I know that our team met those challenges head-on and tried to get that right balance of exploration with storyline and combat and giving them just enough to discover which gives them just the right amount of flexibility and customisation so you can feel like you’re going into combat with different ways to approach that.
WP: Playing through the game, I noticed that you could accrue XP and purchase skills. Would you be able to elaborate on this because there wasn’t much to delve into?
Kauffman: So throughout the game you will be able to collect hacksilver which is effectively our in-game currency that you’ll spend at the shop and there you’ll be able to upgrade your weapons and customise your armour. We also have XP which allows you to upgrade your abilities, whether it’s the axe or the bow or the shield or your fists. If you hit pause at the beginning of the game you can cycle through those menus and see all the different abilities that you can get. When you’re in the shop you can see all the different armours and things that you can buy or can’t buy yet and all of these things work together with the gems that you find which give you runic attack abilities on Kratos’ axe and Atreus‘ bow. Those also give you special attacks and elemental effects. All these things work together to give you a much more diversified combat experience and that is why we add exploration.
WP: Game development isn’t easy. A lot of bugs manage to make their way through and developers try their hardest to iron out the kinks, especially in visuals because you have to handle a lot of rendering but you want a balance between good rendering and solid performance. Would you say that there was a lot of focus on bug testing and optimisation, making sure the game ran well without having a lot of blemishes?
Kauffman: Oh definitely. I think from one of the technical perspectives that God of War has been known for is creating one for the cleanest and smoothest experiences. Rarely do you hear about major bugs in a God of War game and that is because we spend so much time tirelessly ironing out every last bug and making it as much of a seamless and the cleanest experience possible to be had, at least for a game that we make, on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro systems.
WP: One final question. What benefit will PlayStation 4 Pro users receive over the regular PlayStation 4?
Kauffman: PlayStation 4 Pro users will be able to play the game in 4K HDR. If you want to play the game with the absolute best visual experience it has to offer, not performance, PlayStation 4 Pro is the way to go. In saying that, the game still looks arguably just as amazing. I think for the visual nerd, myself included, people will enjoy the game on the PS4 just as much as they would on the PS4 Pro.
WP: Well thank you for coming in and allowing us to try out the game. We really appreciate it.
Kauffman: Oh not a problem, it was great. I look forward to see what you guys think of the full game when it releases!
Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time in the world for me to ask every question that I had for Aaron, but thankfully he was able to clearly and concisely answer the questions that I did get to ask. If you haven’t already, read my preview of God of War here.