Come On and Slam: Pyre creative director discusses the game’s sports inspirations

This week saw the release of a new title from Bastion and Transistor developer Supergiant. I recently had a chance to speak with the studio’s creative director, Greg Kasavin, about Supergiant’s innovative team-based role-playing game.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

 ZAM: How has Pyre’s development differed from Supergiant’s past titles? 

Greg Kasavin: This is our longest development at about three years. It feels like it’s been a long road for us and it’s the longest I’ve personally ever worked on one single thing.

You’ve said  that Pyre represents your first foray into a completely new genre. Why is changing from one genre to another so fundamentally important to the studio?

We don’t have any hard-and-fast rules, necessarily, for the kind of games that we make. We just try to make things that feel exciting to us where we don’t quite know where they’re going to take us. So that means pursuing things that feel a little bit different.

In the case of Pyre, we set out to make it our version of a party-based RPG. Our games have always been RPG-inspired, but [Bastion and Transistor] are more kind of in the action RPG vein. Even though they don’t have too much similarity to Diablo past the surface level, they’re still kind of cut from that cloth.

[By contrast,] with Pyre we were really interested in making a game that had a larger group of characters in it and more of the hallmarks of the classic party-based RPG that we have fallen in love with over the years. We’ve really valued the opportunity to create new worlds and new characters and new settings. We think that’s something that not a lot of developers have the privilege of being able to do at any scale. At Supergiant, we could just go on and take a risk on something different.

Pyre has a mechanic you call “traversal sequences,” where it is much more about making decisions than heavy action sequences. Where did those come from?

We wanted a game where you can meet a lot of interesting characters and grow closer to them over the course of the journey. We wanted to make sure that Pyre did have moments where you just interact with the characters. If it was just wall-to-wall action, [there would be] less space for that. I think that some of the most memorable story sequences in games, where you could really get to know a character and kind of fall in love with that character, happen around more mundane stuff. We definitely wanted some of that day-to-day feel in Pyre because it helps to raise the stakes for the central action sequences.             

The structure is around you having to like get to these competitions in the first place which are these travel sequences. It’s almost like a fantasy road trip or something like that. You’re just on the road for long in-game time.

It doesn’t take long in actual play time but it’s meant to feel like a big journey that you’re on with these characters at close quarters so that by the time you finally get there you feel kind of closer to everyone around you.

I found it interesting that the “Rites” play much more like an esport rather than the action of Bastion or Transistor.

To us they’re similar to sports, in that they’re pitched battles. They’re back-and-forth exchanges and also they’re non-lethal.

The non-lethal nature of it is actually really key to us. We wanted a story where these characters can stay together over a relatively long period of time and learn from their successes and their failures. And the story moves forward whether you win or lose. There’s no game over state in Pyre. To us, it was more interesting for characters to live through their failures and deal with whatever that may entail. 

Gameplay aspirations for us come from many different sources. But I think for sure at a certain point we start to look at classic action sports games like from the 16 bit era. NBA Jam and Blades of Steel, stuff like that. I think that those games were first and foremost just great action games.

There’s a certain aesthetic that Supergiant Games is known for. Even if the games are completely different, as is the case with your three titles, there is a signature style. Is that done intentionally?

The super candid answer is that it is just the same small group of people [making each game]. If we wanted to make Bastion 2 or Bastion 3 we would have just done that by now. They’re recognizable as our games and part of that is because it is just it’s the same people working on them. It’s Jen Zee, our art director; it’s Darren Korb doing the music. While I think each of us who works on our games has a great deal of range, we’re still not going for something so wildly different as to make it unrecognizable.

Pyre: Original Soundtrack by Darren Korb

How can we expect audio to play a role in Pyre? 

Some of the ways that we use music to create atmosphere is consistent through each of our games. In Pyre many aspects of the music are more reactive than anything we’ve done in the past, where the instrumentation of each piece of the game for the most part changes based on context and even based on [which] characters are in a given scene. Darren is a core part of the development team. We don’t just commission a bunch of music in the last year of development and throw it in. The music integration is so thick that we invest a lot of time into it from the earliest moments of development.

I think from a certain point of view, there’s no accident that the audio in our games has been so well-liked. While the degree to which people have fallen in love with the music and art games has very much taken me aback on some level, it’s less surprising [that it happened to us] just because it’s something that we put so much time into.

In keeping with its sports motifs, Pyre has a multiplayer element, the first Supergiant game to do so. But it’s local only; not online, correct?

Yes, that’s correct. Pyre has a versus mode on top of the [single-player] campaign. It’s something that we decided to pursue pretty early.  We weren’t sure just how far we would take it because of some of these questions, like ‘will we be able to support online play’ and so on. We wanted to focus on the campaign which is our biggest campaign ever and we knew [that] was going to be the focus of our development.  We felt that supporting online play just was not going to end well.

I think that in this day and age, [the general consensus is] online play has to be the center of your game for it to stack up to other online multiplayer games which are popular. There’s no accident that the best games like that are as good as they are because it’s like the entire team’s focus, getting a great online experience. If the whole focus isn’t there, it’s just probably going to be bad. And ‘bad online’ is worse than ‘no online.’

We have a lot of interesting content for our verses mode. There are more than 20 characters from the campaign. There’s a lot of content that’s not even found in the campaign. So, for us it’s a really exciting mode. It’s playable single player as well, with a computer opponent of different difficulty levels. I think it provides a ton of lasting value. Some players might find they like it more than the campaign for whatever reason, because it is kind of the pure action version of Pyre. It’s like a separate game, essentially, that you’re getting on top of on top of the campaign. 

With Pyre completed, how much sleep did you miss?

I think anyone who works in game development would agree that making games is difficult and it can be quite taxing. We can only hope that other folks who play Pyre will have an experience that’s at all like the experience that we’ve been able to have with it.