Hades interview: “we’re holding nothing back”

Hades has been not just on the radar of many for a while, but played, enjoyed, loved by many too. Its Early Access campaign has been a resounding success, with the action-RPG roguelike already a firm favourite for many.

It marks the first time developer Supergiant Games has opted for the Early Access model, and though previous titles Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre all released in v1.0, ready-to-go fashion and were critically lauded from the get-go, it seems this pre-release release approach has still been a positive experience for the team.

And so, we had a chat with Greg Kasavin, writer and creative director on Hades (as well as on all of Supergiant’s previous releases), to find out more about this new approach, what the studio has learned, and what it hopes for after the v1.0 final release later this year.

Supergiant’s previous releases have been longer-winded affairs rather than something you play in a snappy session or two – what prompted Hades’ move to the roguelike genre (and all it entails)?

As our fourth game, Hades was a conscious attempt on our part to fuse together some of the best aspects of our past games into a unique whole. Those aspects included the character-driven storytelling of Pyre, our third game; the rich atmosphere and depth of Transistor, our second game; and the pick-up-and-play appeal of Bastion, our first game. We wanted players to be able to dive into Hades and immediately pick up on the basics of how it works, then have plenty of time to discover all the depth. We wanted to make a game that could assert itself to players in a matter of seconds, and entertain them either for minutes or hours at a time.

As for the roguelike genre in particular, I and several of my colleagues were really enjoying other games in this genre, and the varied explorations of it from games like Dead Cells, to Slay the Spire, to Darkest Dungeon. We felt we had something we could contribute to it as well, through our studio’s particular approach to worldbuilding and storytelling.

How much has the game changed since its inception?

Hades has grown a lot since we launched in Early Access, and become by far the biggest, most feature-rich game we’ve ever made. We have players who’ve been going at it for hundreds of hours and still discovering new story events or powerful combinations of abilities. The core of the game has been set since early 2018, only a few months since we started working on the game. We knew from the start that we wanted to make a roguelike Early Access game themed around Greek myth.

And how much of that change has been directly down to player feedback through early access, rather than regular internal decision-making?

You can scroll through our thousands of patch notes and see that a significant percentage of them were inspired by community feedback. We don’t really look to our community for high-level decision making about what the game should be or where it should go, and we think fans of our games generally want us to keep coming up with the big-picture stuff all on our own. But we do look to our community for feedback about literally everything we make. With such an expansive game, the balance and feel of the experience is really important to us, and our community provides invaluable feedback about that. They’ll also offer insightful suggestions about quality-of-life improvements and much more. Hades would be a smaller, less ambitious, strictly worse game without our community’s input. I don’t think it would even exist at all, since building it in partnership with our community was the central point of the project.

What’s been the most challenging thing to get right in Hades?

It’s hard to pick one thing. As our first-ever Early Access game, I think the relentless pace of development has been a challenge, and we had to learn to do a lot of things very differently. Our Major Updates are like miniature game launches every couple of months. Then once those settle, we tear everything up again to create tons of new content, then have to get everything ready for prime time, and so on and so forth. All while expanding on our story and building toward an exciting finale in our v1.0 launch. There’s never a dull moment, and getting feedback immediately is invigorating and useful, but pacing yourself for the long haul is really important.

And what’s been something that’s surprised you about making the game, in whatever way that might be?

Hades has grown way bigger than any of us imagined, and players have engaged with it way more than we expected, even despite us building a game designed around replayability. It’s on track to become our most popular game yet on Steam and it’s still in Early Access. So, the extent to which players have enjoyed and gravitated to the game has frankly been a surprise. We felt we had something special on our hands, and enjoyed working on it, but you can’t assume or expect a big audience will love your work.

The game has achieved significant success even in Early Access – does that increase or lessen the pressure on the v1.0 release?

I think the success of Hades so far helps provide a healthy pressure on our v1.0 launch. But most of that pressure would have been there no matter what. We have always aimed to create complete-feeling games that respect players’ time and reward them for reaching the conclusion. Speaking personally — I get to make a new game only once every three years or so. Each of these games has been based on ideas near and dear to my heart. It’s worth it to me to put all I’ve got into that, so that the end result can leave a lasting and positive impression on players, and therefore on me.

Did the decision to go with the Epic Games Store have discernible impact on things?

Launching Hades in Early Access initially on the Epic Games Store was the right decision for our team, as we were working on our first-ever Early Access game and we needed to learn the ropes before we could expand our audience to include more platforms. We heard from players who wanted the game on many different platforms, though the simple truth is our team never could have handled managing our Early Access on many platforms at once while still rapidly iterating and adding content. Starting out, it was vital that we be able to focus on a single platform, and Epic Games has been a great partner as we found our way.

What have you found to be the benefits of the early access system when compared to Supergiant’s previous releases?

Early Access has resulted in a bigger, better game than we could have made otherwise. From a technical standpoint, our Early Access updates launch with fewer problems than many finished games, because we have a large player population always keeping us apprised of any issues. From a design standpoint, we can rest assured the game has been heavily playtested, and have data to back up our intuitions as we make balancing and content choices. From a story standpoint, we know which characters and subplots are really resonating with players, and know that the tone and atmosphere of the game are well received. Overall, Early Access has meant we can approach development more confidently and iterate more quickly.

What’s the size of the team working on Hades? How has that differed from previous projects and/or changed as things have progressed?

Our team is just under 20 people. We grew a fair bit for Hades, from 12 people on our past two projects, inclusive of all seven who launched our first game together. The reason for the growth was we wanted to get the initial version out there quite quickly, knowing it would be an Early Access game. We launched Hades in Early Access after only a little over a year of development, whereas our previous games have spent three years from start to finish. Knowing this had the potential to become a bigger game, we needed to shore up our team. So, we’re now more than twice our original team size of seven from the Bastion days, though that was ten years ago. But I’d say we’re still on the small side.

Do you think the team punches above its weight? Or is the fantastic output of the studio more _because_ it’s not a giant team?

Our small team size is very important to how we operate. While small teams are not intrinsically better than big teams, being small carries certain advantages, as communication can be somewhat less complicated and decisions can spread across the team faster. Individuals can also have a greater sense of ownership, since each person ends up being responsible for a good-sized part of the whole. But I think our output is more the result of the individuals we have working together and our experience as a team than the team size. Many of us have been working together for more than a decade, and others have known each other almost all their lives. There’s no shortcut to that kind of experience, I think, and each of us by now are working in roles that play to our specific strengths.

You’ve worked as creative director and writer on all of Supergiant’s games so far. How much of the studio’s output, then, is Kasavin? How much of yourself do you put into these games, I guess is what I’m asking.

I’ve put everything I’ve got into each of our games. If I know deep down that I gave a game I worked on my best effort, I can move forward from it without regret, no matter the outcome. That’s important to me, because the truth is, these games stick with me forever. It’s not just the three years it takes to make them. It’s basically every single day after that.

I work with some extraordinarily talented people, such as Darren our composer and audio director, or Jen our art director. Ours is a highly collaborative environment and we each draw inspiration from each others’ work. A big part of my job is simply helping find the common ground between many disparate ideas, so they feel cohesive in the finished work. Many of us also have a lot of work we can do as individuals. For me, a lot of that is writing and narrative design. Hades is a highly replayable game with certain narrative ambitions, so it required a lot of writing.

Writing and worldbuilding certainly are some of the biggest highlights of my work at Supergiant. Developing our characters with Jen our art director and writing their stories, implementing those little reactive moments that make players surprised and delighted, working with Darren getting our music and voice and audio into the game so the atmosphere is just right… that’s my absolute favorite stuff about game development. And the work is so personal in some cases that not even my colleagues or my family know how personal it is.

Once Hades v1.0 is out there, what are your plans? How do you see the game evolving post-early access launch?

It’s too early for us to say what’s next for us past our v1.0 launch of Hades. Right now, our focus is on making sure our v1.0 launch delivers on the promise players have seen in the game during our Early Access. It’s always been our goal to create complete-feeling games, so we’re holding nothing back from our v1.0 launch.

Hades is out now in Early Access, with a full v1.0 release slated for ‘soon’.

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