Crafting a Savage Planet
Alex Hutchinson talks about his career, his latest game, and becoming a member of the Google Stadia family
Journey to the Savage Planet is director Alex Hutchinson’s first game since 2014’s Far Cry 4, and a lot has changed in-between. While the industry has moved and shifted — Far Cry 4 was a cross-gen title, while Savage Planet arrives right near the end of the current generation — Hutchinson has moved and shifted with it, starting his own studio and then being bought out by Google to develop for Stadia right before their first title arrived.
This latest game is a fascinating piece of design, an exploration-heavy comic adventure that wears its rough edges well, and a solid entry in a budgetary middle-ground that sometimes feels like it no longer exists. I caught up with Alex Hutchinson before the game’s release to talk about his career, his latest game, and his journey from his hometown of Melbourne to his current home in Montreal.
SUPER JUMP: Where are you right now?
HUTCHINSON: I got off the plane from your bushfire-ravaged country the day before yesterday. So I went from plus-30 to minus-20 back in Canada.
SUPER JUMP: Oh boy. I’ve been playing your game a bit in single-player mode. So the first thing I’m wondering is what I’m missing out on by playing alone?
HUTCHINSON: You’ll get a friend in-game who’s made completely from meat. Really, it’s designed to be single or co-op, but in co-op you get the sort-of systemic collision of your friend’s bad decisions. And you can sort of optimise a bit. But it’s exactly the same game. We decided early on that we weren’t going to make any sort of co-op only mechanics. It was going to be you and your best friend, or partner, or child, versus the game world, or going it alone.
SUPER JUMP: I’m still early in the game, so a lot of it is very mysterious to me still. How fleshed out is this world, would you say?
HUTCHINSON: There’s a lot of different secrets in here. It’s an exploration game, you know. It’s an upbeat, positive sci-fi, earnest satire about exploring a new world. So I won’t get into it too much, but the more you dig, the more you learn. The joy of the game is spending time off the beaten track trying to solve these mysteries.
SUPER JUMP: Can you expand more on the game being positive and upbeat? So far it seems like…well, obviously some bad things have happened on this planet, people are maybe going there and then realising that they’ve been tricked. My character’s developing tumours that are making them stronger. So when you call the game optimistic, what do you mean by that?
HUTCHINSON: I think that the game looks at “adventure” as a positive goal in and of itself. You’re sent here for adventure, not because the world is under threat from nuclear holocaust or the Trumpocalypse or anything. You’re there because adventure is something we should pursue. It’s like that old JFK line: “we’re going to go to the moon this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” There was a sense of adventure in old serials and stories that we’ve sort of lost, and over time things became bleaker. So it’s optimistic in that sense. And it’s colourful, and the game isn’t particularly hard…it’s embracing the player. And the fact that it’s a comedy gives it a more positive bent, I think.
“You’re there because adventure is something we should pursue.”
SUPER JUMP: Yeah. There’s also the whole element of you being there to fulfil corporate interests, at the same time. Is there a level of cynicism there about some parts of the experience?
HUTCHINSON: Absolutely. It’s definitely a satire of some of the people who keep telling you that they want to send you to space, as well. And that evolves over time as you continue on your quest.
SUPER JUMP: So is this partly about making fun of Elon Musk
HUTCHINSON: It’s making fun of all corporate narcissists.
SUPER JUMP: Awesome. Looking over your history and what you’re worked on, do you think this is the sort of game you could have made at Ubisoft? Or was it necessary to form your own studio to make a game like this one
HUTCHINSON: Oh, there’s definitely no way they would have let me do it for many reasons, I think. The fact that it’s a comedy, which I think are hard to do with big budgets. It’s not a PvP game, or a 1000 hour game, so it runs counter to corporate interests. It’s amazing that Jedi: Fallen Order was made by EA, because that’s a game that’s literally the opposite of all their corporate bullet points. It’s a great game. I think this is the same. It’s also like, the profit margins. Hopefully for us, we’ll do well, but this sort of game, even if it does well, for a giant corporation, it rarely makes the money that they think they need to make.
SUPER JUMP: I understand that you maybe can’t go into specifics on this, but what was the budget on this compared to the games you’re used to working on? Were there restrictions that you’re not used to or changes you had to make?
HUTCHINSON: We knew going in that there’s a heap of restrictions. But we also have 10–20 years of game development experience, so we’re able to pull on that. It was less than 10% of the budget of the Ubisoft games I’ve worked on. We turned those lemons into lemonade.
SUPER JUMP: Well, it looks fantastic. It doesn’t feel like a low-budget game.
HUTCHINSON: It’s incredibly low-budget. That’s why there’s so many live-action videos in there. Live-action is an expression of a sort of failure, in a sense, within the industry; you always want to have interactive fiction with interactive art. But it just worked in this. It worked and it was funny. But even those were done super on the cheap.
SUPER JUMP: Are there any ways in which working with a lower budget makes you sharper as a designer? Does it mean that you have to be more mercenary?
HUTCHINSON: Yep. I don’t mind constraints as long as they don’t change. You get your budget upfront and you know what you have to spend, and it lowers your fear factor a little bit — it means you have to really focus in terms of how much money you’re going to spend and what you’re going to do, so you commit to fewer things. You commit to fewer sprawling systems. So it means that at the end it can feel like a more cohesive and finished product. I’m pretty proud of the game. I’m sure that some people won’t like it, but that’s okay, because we know it’s done, as opposed to if you make something and people don’t like it, and you’re aware of all the bits that you left on the cutting-room floor.
SUPER JUMP: You said a moment ago that it would have been harder to make this within Ubisoft because it’s a comedy game, and I’m interested to hear more about that. What is it about comedy that would turn off a big publisher?
HUTCHINSON: There’s this feeling at the moment that it’s only epic, 1000 hour, life-devouring games which are worth making. So it’s opened this door to these smaller games. We’ve joked that our game is a game for old people, it’s infinitely finishable. I have two kids now, and the baby just waved goodbye as he went to bed — I like spending time with them, so if you tell me that a game is 1000 hours long, I’m just not going to buy it. The audience is broader, so we can make different sorts of games.
SUPER JUMP: I’m 32 and childless and I feel the same way.
HUTCHINSON: (laughing) It only gets worse. It only gets worse.
SUPER JUMP: Would you say that this game fits into the “AA” space that has kind of disappeared? Those games that are a bit more expansive than what we would typically talk about as an “indie” game, but which also don’t have the budget of these massive “AAA” experiences?
HUTCHINSON: Definitely. I think there’s a lot of room now — when I left Australia, in fact, it was because that market…it was what the big studios did, you know, licensed games, poor versions of AAA games. I think that was a bad sequence of executive decisions that sort of led to the sort-of decimation of the game development scene, for sure, around 2001, 02, 03. And so the realisation that there’s nothing there now — you’ve got these epic $100 million games, or these truly tiny indies. There’s an opening for midsize ideas if they’re high-quality and tight and different to the AAA games. There’s a market here they can work into. You know, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice has done super well; I’d also put Ark in that category. These are games that have found their own niche. So I’m excited to see the AA, or Triple-I, or whatever, side of the industry is coming back.
“There’s an opening for midsize ideas if they’re high-quality and tight and different to the AAA games.”
SUPER JUMP: The previous game you have a credit on was Far Cry 4, which is a cross-gen, AAA title. What differences have you felt in the industry, and during development, between creating a game like that at the beginning of a console generation, and now this one at the end of it?
HUTCHINSON: The cool thing is that technology is stabilising, so we can go a lot faster. Technology is a differentiating factor, but it’s less and less of a factor as the industry develops. I think the idea of generations is going to start disappearing, between Microsoft’s plans and Stadia — I think it’ll just be games, which is a bit of a relief. And hopefully they can stay available for people much longer. Towards the end of a generation it’s easier to develop.
SUPER JUMP: I’d love to quickly get into that Stadia buyout. What does this mean for what happens next?
HUTCHINSON: We don’t know yet, and that’s part of the fun. The whole team is moving over, and we want to continue making unusual, hopefully upbeat, satires. Grow by embracing what Stadia does well, which is persistence and scale.
SUPER JUMP: Does this mean that everything you make going forward will be exclusive to Stadia?
HUTCHINSON: That’s it! We’re Stadia babies now. I’ve worked on everything from licensed games to new IPs to franchises, but I’ve never been first-party. This is a new experience.
SUPER JUMP: Google has announced that they have a bunch of exclusives coming in the first half of 2020 — are you a part of any of them?
HUTCHINSON: We are not. We’re just finishing this one. So we are sending people on vacation and finishing some DLC, and then we’ll figure it out.
SUPER JUMP: DLC?
HUTCHINSON: We’ve added Photo Mode already in the first patch, which is really cool. And then after that, we’re going to release some new DLC. A new biome and stuff, and then another few little free surprises.
SUPER JUMP: Do you think what you work on next and what you do for Stadia will be influenced by how this one performs? Or do you already have a pretty set plan?
HUTCHINSON: I think the team has a pretty good idea of what we’d like to do, and the success of this game will show us how much they’re gonna let us do it. (laughs)
SUPER JUMP: Does the Stadia buy-out give you more of a safety net for exploring?
HUTCHINSON: Oh yeah. It gives the team stability. You know, game development, it’s a tough business, and you work better when you’re not at risk in your day-to-day life.
(Journey to the Savage Planet is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.)