The architects of ‘Hades’ strive to bewitch gamers again

Rao (left) and Kasavin at the offices of Supergiant Games in San Francisco on May 2, 2024. Rao and Kasavin have been with Supergiant Games from Bastion, its debut success, to Hades II, the anticipated sequel it released this month. — The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO: When Supergiant Games was wrapping up Hades, a mythologically rich hack-and-slash dungeon crawler it had spent more than three years developing, the studio concluded it was not quite done. The game’s premise of being trapped in hell, which particularly resonated during the pandemic, had opened paths to untold stories about Greek lore.

It needed a sequel.

This was a plot twist for the small independent studio, which had always pursued new ideas – even after its debut game, Bastion, was an immediate hit that ultimately sold millions of copies. Although Hades won numerous industry accolades and prestigious Hugo and Nebula Awards, the decision to make Hades II was a hard one.

“Making a sequel to us, as well, was unexpected,” Greg Kasavin, creative director of Supergiant, said at the company’s chic studio space in San Francisco before the early access release of Hades II last week.

“We think they’re really quite tough,” he added. “To be able to surprise and delight the audience in the same way is quite a challenge.”

For big-budget triumphs such as Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption, a new installment is an obvious step toward building a lucrative franchise. But although some popular indie games, like Spelunky and Slay The Spire, have pursued sequels, it is a much less frequent route for smaller game makers. Rather than making decisions for shareholders, they often prioritise artists and designers who are eager to express their creativity.

Indie hits also face distinct constraints. They often stand out because of a novel element – such as the ability to rewind time in Braid – and that buzz does not always carry into a sequel, said Jesper Juul, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Architecture, Design and Conservation in Copenhagen.

“The first time people will tweet and post about it and say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing’,” said Juul, who wrote a book about independent games. “The second time it doesn’t have that novelty value.”

Supergiant was founded in 2009 by Amir Rao and Gavin Simon, who had worked on the real-time strategy Command & Conquer franchise at Electronic Arts, a giant corporation responsible for franchises such as The Sims and Madden.

Rao and Simon had noticed that several bestselling games, like Plants vs. Zombies and Castle Crashers, were coming from small studios. So they decided to form their own, initially setting up shop at a vacant house owned by Rao’s father in San Jose, California. Kasavin, a former video games journalist who also worked at Electronic Arts, joined them.

Kasavin said Supergiant had been tempted to create a sequel after the positive reception of Bastion (2011), in which a child collects powerful shards in a hostile environment that unfolds as a narrator provides commentary. But the team of seven at the time decided to explore other ideas, including science fiction, instead.

That led to Supergiant’s second game, Transistor (2014), about a famous singer who battles robots in a futuristic city. Its third project, the role-playing game Pyre (2017), features a band of exiles seeking freedom from purgatory.

By the time the studio, which now has 25 employees, released an early-access version of Hades in 2018, it had unintentionally created a perception that it was antisequel. Yet Supergiant is anything but: Among the games that employees list as their favourites are classic sequels, including Diablo II, Street Fighter II and Warcraft II.

Hades follows the journey of Zagreus, who in some versions of Greek mythology is considered the son of the god of the dead. As he ventures upward through the layers of hell with hopes of visiting his mother on the surface world, Zagreus fights monsters (including his father) with the help of other gods.

The idea of a sequel clicked when Supergiant realised that the god Hades also had daughters. Melinoë, a witch, created the opportunity to dive deep on the connection between Greek mythology and witchcraft.

Hades II has been in the works for more than three years, and not a single member of the team was against pursuing it, Kasavin said.

“We’re too small for that to be an acceptable starting point,” he said. “It’s only going to get tougher from there if you don’t have the raw excitement at the beginning.”

The long development process of Hades underscores one way that games are trying to optimise their odds of success. An incomplete version of the role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 3 was available to players for nearly three years before it was officially released in August to universal acclaim.

The early access version of Hades was made available in December 2018 with the hopes of receiving player input; the game that was officially released in September 2020 was the result of revisions based on thousands of pieces of feedback.

Supergiant is repeating this approach for the sequel. Hades II was released in early access on Steam and the Epic Games Store last week, and the studio said it expected to keep refining it through at least the end of this year.

Rao, who works on the game’s design and mechanics, said player feedback was crucial to the success of Hades. “We will absolutely need that for Hades II,” he said.

In its current state, Hades II is much more polished than the original Hades was at the same point. (A year before Hades was released in early access, it was a game that involved exploring a minotaur’s labyrinth.) But the sequel will still benefit from crowdsourced feedback, Rao said, because it is much larger in scope.

Unlike Zagreus’ singular path in the first Hades, Melinoë will be able to explore two main routes, which essentially makes the sequel at least double the size. Option A is a path down into the underworld to fight Chronos, the god of time, who has usurped her father’s throne. Option B, which opens up later in the game, is a path upward to defend Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, which is under siege by Chronos.

Much of what made the original game addictive remains intact. Hades II is part of the roguelite genre, where players incrementally progress by starting out weak, failing, trying again and applying what they have learned or unlocked to eventually beat the main boss.

To get stronger, Melinoë picks up artifacts known as boons that contain powers shared by gods such as Aphrodite, Hermes and Zeus. The average player will probably die dozens of times before snowballing into an unstoppable force to defeat Chronos.

Sequels can have particular pitfalls. Sitara Shefta, the head of studio at No Brakes Games, said it had been a challenge to expand on Human Fall Flat – a physics-based puzzle game that involves controlling a character named Bob through a dreamy landscape – while preserving what people loved about it.

The original game, by a solo developer, sold 50 million copies. A team of about 35 is working on the sequel, focusing on adding levels and improving the graphics.

“What we don’t want to do is dilute it,” Shefta said. “It’s a physics game where so many people can express themselves in different ways.”

Juul, the video game scholar, said successful independent game makers often faced an innovator’s dilemma. As teams grow larger, he said, they can lose nimbleness and begin playing it safe in response to external demands.

Supergiant said it got no such pressure to make a sequel from partners, including Netflix, which recently published Hades as a mobile game. The studio declined to share sales numbers, saying only that Hades outperformed Bastion, which sold three million copies by 2015.

Days before Supergiant released the early access version of Hades II, a cluster of employees worked in its small studio space, which has an open floor design embellished with orange and crimson accents reminiscent of the original game’s colour palette.

The team was eager to reveal how Melinoë’s role as a witch added new dimensions to the gameplay. Zagreus’ punches and sword swings were conducive to rapid button mashing, but Melinoë’s spell-casting staff and other magic weapons require careful timing and precision. With one of her combat moves, she projects a force field that traps surrounding enemies.

Rao said Supergiant would study player feedback through the studio’s Discord channel, web forums, livestreams and social media. The studio also logs some important data – if most players are not picking a certain weapon, for instance, that can serve as a suggestion for designers to make it more fun to use.

The iterative process of learning from mistakes to improve Hades and Hades II is essentially a rogue game in and of itself. Supergiant has been immersed in Greek mythology for nearly seven years, so it is easy for Kasavin to draw a comparison: Sisyphus pushing a boulder for eternity. – The New York Times

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