Sharks fascinate and scare me. I have loved learning about sharks, their evolution and their place in the world for as long as I can remember. But at the same time, the longest recurring nightmare I have involved a big white man who devours me (29 years and counting, thank you, brain!).
So it doesn’t surprise me at all Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater intrigues me. It’s an open-world role-playing game in which you play as a shark, from baby to elder. As you grow up, you eat everything you can find – like fish, alligators, seals and people – by exploring the world and avoiding shark hunters. Its framing is from a reality show following Scaly Pete, a veteran shark hunter who killed the star’s mother.
Maneater launched on May 22 for PC on Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (it will arrive on Switch later this year), and I enjoyed it for my reading review. It was a hoot to play like a shark, tearing up a bayou and eating all the fish in sight. You also learn that there is always a bigger fish, avoiding predators like a vulnerable puppy. Although absurd, Tripwire also hopes to teach you a little more about sharks and their role in the ecosystem. And CEO and founder John Gibson explained how you design role-playing around a shark – a task unique in the industry.
This is a revised part of our interview earlier this year.
GamesBeat: When did you start developing this game, when did you decide to use a bull shark and create freshwater habitats for it?
John Gibson: When the idea came up – let’s do an open world action RPG for solo sharks – we looked for what would be fun to play. There are areas that are in the deep ocean, but we thought that if the whole game was only the deep ocean, there would be no diversity of environment. We want to be able to go into rivers and lakes, just to provide a variety of environments in which to play. So what sharks can go to these regions? And it was a bull shark. These decisions came very early, just in prototyping. What is it fun to play in? It’s fun to play in a river. It’s fun to have caves there. I am not a golfer. What is the small lake on a golf course? Ponds on a golf course? Water hazards. The shark jumps from one water hazard to another to get where it wants to go. These are just conceptually fun things, when we thought about it. Yes, a bull shark can do it.
GamesBeat: Who had the idea to create a shark RPG?
Gibson: It started as a game that we are releasing. There was a developer named Blindside led by a guy named Alex Quick. We signed the game to publish it. We have a long relationship with Alex. Alex was, in the mid-2000s, the mod maker who made Killing Floor. We then established a relationship with him and bought him the IP for Killing Floor. He got a good royalty deal and we co-developed Killing Floor. With the income he got, he created his own team and they created the game Depth, sharks against humans multiplayer. After that, he wanted to do something different. He said, I’m going to do a solo shark game. He just started brainstorming and thought it would be something interesting to do. He came to us and we thought the sharks might be interesting, but it’s probably not going to be fun. We played its prototype build and said, wow, playing like sharks is really fun.
GamesBeat: It’s nonsense that makes it fun, right?
Gibson: That’s it, and it’s the unexplored waters of – as a shooting developer, I’ve spent the past 20 years making first-person combat fun, with weapons and monsters that you shoot and who shoots you. shoot at it. And then when you take it all off the table and you have to basically do what is almost a melee space combat game, which is the kind of shark in the water – moving around in 3D space and getting beating with its mouth and tail and things it can pick up and throw away, it’s a completely different design language. It was really nice to take on these challenges.
GamesBeat: How difficult is it to make a shark as the protagonist of an RPG, given that none of us know how to be a shark is supposed to feel?
Gibson: We focused so much on it. I would say that to feel really good, it took a year of iteration. As Tripwire started developing the game in-house, the Blindside team was about five or six people, and we launched 50 more. Being an experienced developer, I think they were a bit arrogant. We will feel good in a few weeks. Twelve months later, we were rehearsing again. Small breakthroughs would occur from time to time, from our animators who found the right way to move the shark, trying different things with bites.
When biting, you initially pulled the trigger or the button and the shark was biting statically. You would move towards something, a few meters away, you would bite and it would not do you any good. Then we came up with the concept of how shark fighting should look like a sword fight, with lunges and strokes and a forward movement. Then we tried this. Let’s move the shark forward when it attacks. Small experiments like this have made it possible to do good to the shark. Ask the audio team to capture really cool audio. We had some very interesting sessions using one of our developers’ pools to capture underwater sounds. All of these things combined together and started to get a really good feeling. When this happens, we call it creating magic or finding magic. When you reach the development stage of a game where the light bulb appears over your head and you hit all the cylinders, not to mix up my metaphors, it just gives you chills. We had this moment.
GamesBeat: What did you do in the pool? Because you can’t just go to an aquarium and say, hey, can we record audio for our game?
Gibson: Throw things in the pool. Make people scream underwater, so the sounds of humans screaming are people in the pool, underwater, with a microphone, screaming.
GamesBeat: What about shark chopping?
Gibson: The chomping is interesting. It’s a mix of a lot of sounds. Because a shark bite, a real shark bite, doesn’t make much sound. It makes a little bit of sound. But he must feel powerful. It should feel like you expect it to feel, not what it really looks like. Not being an audio engineer, I cannot fully explain it. There are grunts associated with the bite. Sharks don’t growl, but it’s cool if they growl when they bite. There is a little lion in there, big cats in there.
Mutant sharks (sorry, no laser beams)
GamesBeat: The whole idea of evolution is how to get the RPG in Maneater. Did it come from Alex, or did you find it?
Gibson: It started with Alex and we composed him until 11.
GamesBeat: When did mutagens and radiation become factors?
Gibson: If you allow me to use a Star Wars analogy, we don’t want “midichlorian” evolution. We don’t want it to be 100% clear why this is happening, at least not yet, in the arc of Maneater’s history. But we wanted to put things in there, like it’s not a normal shark. Maybe it’s radiation. It may be the mutagen. There is something special here.
GamesBeat: Do you see the radiation of a reactor?
Gibson: A nuclear reactor, yes.
GamesBeat: Shark loot: Did this idea come from Alex, or is it from Tripwire?
Gibson: I think it happened in some of our experiments, just having fun. We knew we wanted exploration to be one of the key pillars of the game. But why is a shark going to explore? There must be something to find. What about shark loot? What about the crates? No looting of cases, because these are not DLCs, microtransaction objects, but cases or boxes, things in the world that they can find and that give them benefits. Lots of new transfers, special developments that are hidden. This is where it comes from.
GamesBeat: What is the relationship between you and the Quick team? Are you co-developing?
Gibson: We purchased the Maneater IP from Alex and the Blindside team. They receive royalties on the game. But they worked with us along the way to create the game. Alex is a very creative designer. He also has skills as a programmer. Justin Knapich, with whom we have already worked on Rising Storm in the past, great designer, great level designer. Chris Latham, who worked on the audio, got his comments. Really work as a team. If we buy something and we have to spend a lot of money on it, we drive. But we also work very closely with the original creators behind the game, because … they are talented people, and we want them to help make this thing great when we work together.
GamesBeat: You have three archetypes: electric shark, vampire shark, armor shark. How did you do?
Gibson: This is largely due to watching people play, their styles of play. What can we do to increase their styles of play? You watch some people play the game, they jump and go, go, go, go, attack, attack, attack, Rambo. How can we make it even more fun? Bone shark. Sharks usually have no bones other than their teeth, so give them bone armor outside so they can ram the boats and destroy them. Give them more powerful teeth so they can sneak into boats and sneak into enemies. Some people wanted to go out and enrage a bunch of enemies and get 20 things attacking them at once. They want the coast guard after them with 20 boats. They want to swim in the water very quickly and get 10 enemy fish to chase them, then fight them. OK, electric shock. It’s a great way to stun your enemies and deal with a large number of people. Then there are the stealth explorers and players who wanted to sneak up on people and quietly get them out of the water and get in and out. A little more tactical. By really seeing people playing with these archetypes, we built the evolutions around them.