At GDC 2019, Capcom held a panel to talk about designing an action game, specifically Devil May Cry 5. We reviewed Devil May Cry 5 earlier this month and thought it was incredible, awarding it a 9 out of 10. Getting into details behind the game, Director Hideaki Itsuno and Producer Matt Walker helped shed some light on the process. Keep in mind, this panel also mentioned spoilers. If you haven’t finished the game, it’s best to stop reading now.
Hideaki Itsuno is a legend among Capcom designers, having directed over a dozen games for the company. Some of these games include Power Stone, Darkstalkers, Dragon’s Dogma, and the majority of the Devil May Cry series. Having the chance to get insight on his design process would be pretty valuable for any future game designers.
Itsuno described the key to basic game design as capturing a certain emotion. With Devil May Cry 5, he took the emotion he wanted players to feel and worked in reverse from that feeling. But how does one make the player feel that emotion in the first place? Well this comes down to having it as an objective, and having several means to obtain that objective.
Itsuno would take real life experiences and capture the emotion from them. Before the experience, he would imagine the ideal feeling for each one, and then once he experienced it, he would compare the ideal feeling to the reality. The expectation and the analysis of the situation would draw your main inspiration for the emotion you wish to capture. Some of the experiences Itsuno used were things like finishing a triathalon and having an expensive full course dinner. Perhaps one of his main experiences came from movies and TV shows he enjoyed as a child.
The presentation showed some drawings to represent examples of television shows Itsuno watched. One of which was a super robot series where the main hero is getting destroyed by enemies. Suddenly, the creator of the robot steps forth and reveals his newest creation. Coming completely out of the blue, this new robot arrives with a flashy entrance and destroys all the enemies in one fell swoop. It’s basically a Deus ex machina, but in a way that exudes style.
Another example was a robot series where there was a team of three hero robots. Normally, they would fight together as a team to defeat their enemies, but this enemy they fight now is so powerful, that they just can’t defeat it. Another Deus ex machina arrives, this time in the form of a space princess that gives the heroes the ability to combine. Once the three combine into one, they become powerful enough to defeat the enemy effortlessly. Itsuno mentioned that this would normally be saved for the Fall to encourage kids to buy toys, but this particular transformation was a special sneak peek.
Using these examples, Itsuno asks to identify what part of the experiences were the most moving? Would people be moved without that element present? Is the experience still relevant without it? It’s this thought process that needs to be used for the game being developed. It needs to be noted that the cause that triggered the emotion shouldn’t be confused with the elements that amplified it.
Getting to the theme of Devil May Cry 5, the developers talked about themes during several interviews. Since the game wasn’t out yet, they didn’t want to spoil things, but now that it’s been available, the true theme was revealed: Setback and Awakening. What this means is that all three protagonists are given a setback from the start. As the story progresses, they each reach their awakening, tapping into their potential at just the right moment. The Deus ex machina moment.
The entire game development began from a single moment, one that Itsuno thought was “cool”. The concept of Nero between Dante and Vergil as they’re just about to clash. Holding them back and proving to Dante he’s not dead weight. Showing his true lineage as Vergil’s son. This is the moment the developers wanted fans to work up to, and the moment the developers worked backwards from to achieve.
Breaking down the scene, Itsuno described what was done to invoke the needed emotion. Using a chart, we see a theory of the game structure, beginning with mission 1, and the player gradually gaining power till mission 12 where they reach full potential and use it till the finale of the game. The reality however, was to have players build up this power all the way till the end. Once at the end, their power is so overwhelming that they barely know what to do with it. Itsuno then went on to point out the specific setbacks and awakenings for each character.
For Nero, his setback started with losing his Devil Bringer, left with one arm. He then takes on Urizen while impaired, only to lose. He then fights Urizen again with the Devil Breaker, but still loses. His awakening, the moment when he runs to stop the fight between Dante and Vergil, sees his arm grow back. He also unleashes a Devil Trigger, which gives him two more arms made of demonic energy. He proves himself to Dante, meets his father, and even maintains the ability to use Devil Breakers. Nero is the prime example of the reality chart, unlocking his full potential and then some.
Next, we have Dante. His setbacks involved him going into battle with a cool head, being extremely cocky. He fights Urizen with his Devil Trigger and has no effect, his sword Rebellion even breaking. Losing the battle, he then disappears for one month, those who know him losing hope. He reaches his awakening when he performs a ritual to birth the Devil Sword Dante, which also unleashes his Sin Majin form. With these newfound abilities, he completely obliterates Urizen’s second and third forms. This calls back to the scenario with the space princess delivering the new transformation.
Finally, we have the new character, V. His awakening is perhaps the most important in the game, as it involved bringing back Vergil with style. V being Vergil’s humanity, his setbacks mostly involve his separation from his complete form. Considered the unneeded portion, he doesn’t have much power to fight on his own. His body is continuously falling apart and he is slowly getting weaker. It’s when he reaches Urizen, the true demon portion of Vergil, that he has his awakening.
Itsuno says that you should have a clear objective for every scene and event. Without having the objective, the scene can’t be created successfully. The idea needs to be clear enough for the player to be able to enjoy the experience. In Devil May Cry 5’s case, Itsuno wanted to give the player a good feeling for overcoming a difficult challenge. As he described it, a “YES!” or “YATTA!” feeling.
The key to get this feeling is to figure out the tricks to winning. Observing enemy behavior, providing a proper balance of risk/return, etc. Brush up on these techniques to carry them out successfully and reach victory. Itsuno didn’t want players to give up on themselves and wanted to give them incentive to keep going. The sense of accomplishment is their reward. To amplify this sense, he designed the game to let players figure out the strategies on their own.
Good game design can apply to a lot of things, even to the concept and design of an enemy. Giving the enemies a design that gives players a way to predict their actions is one example. Avoid regional differences for the design and try to focus on something based on a simple concept.
One of the enemies, Riot, was picked from six different thumbnail concepts, each one similar but still having unique features. Riot was selected based on the razor blade spine, as the designers wanted to give him a spinning attack. Another enemy, Fury, was based on another one of those thumbnail designs. A red creature that stands upright can lead the player to believe this enemy will be smarter. Itsuno even mentioned that the color red was a symbolic color for more difficult enemies in Capcom games.
How players brush up on the techniques to defeat these enemies is mostly up to them, but the developers still have to design the game to make that possible. Providing direct, responsive and tactile controls is one piece of the puzzle. Giving enough tutorials is another. Finally, the game has to use gradual and intuitive level design to make use of these developing techniques. Players should also be given a key indicator so they know when they are doing well against an enemy or not.
One example to show players they’re doing well is with Nero’s Max-act ability. Compared to Devil May Cry 4, it was trickier to pull it off as it required specific timing within one single frame. Devil May Cry 5 changes this by giving a minor, medium and major success frame. Trying to get the right timing may give Nero’s Red Queen a slight charge. Just barely missing the timing will give it a single charge. Hitting the perfect frame will charge the sword up with all three charges.
Getting back to not letting players give up on themselves, Itsuno went through the details on the new continue system. He designed the game so that players would naturally want to see what happens next in the story. Should the player fall, they’re offered a chance to continue. Before, players could use a gold orb consumable to continue. With Devil May Cry 5, now players have the chance to use red orbs too. The amount of red orbs used determines the amount of health the player gains back when they continue. This was meant to give players a chance to gamble on themselves. Could they finish the enemy off with just a small amount of health? Or would they need a lot to finish their opponent and carry on with the mission?
Even with that, the developers wanted to design the game with a good difficulty balance. They didn’t want missions to be too one-sided, wanting players to barely lose, but also have to earn their victories. The mission structure also gave breaking points to serve a cliffhanger style. The graphics also had a design to take advantage of this, giving an exhibit for players to sense what comes next. Using the RE Engine, the visuals definitely helped to make this the most gorgeous Devil May Cry game yet.
And that just about concludes the discussion at the GDC presentation. Fans were ecstatic to be able to hear Hideaki Itsuno’s process and even thankful to have Matt Walker to help with translation. What do you guys think? Does this design process show in Devil May Cry 5? Are any aspiring developers out there in agreement with Itsuno’s technique? Let us know in the comments. Devil May Cry 5 has surpassed 2 million units sold and is available now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.