Ghost of Tsushima: The road to launch

inFamous Second Son and First Light had just shipped. We’d completed three big and two small games in the series, spanning nine years of work. The PS4 was still pretty new, and yet it was time for us to move on from inFamous. You could feel it in the room. 

So we set off towards an uncertain future — to conceive and create a new game — but starting that process without the faintest idea of what the final product would be. We launched ourselves into the unknown…

Early on, we concluded that we wanted to build a large, open world experience — and one that featured melee combat.  But beyond that we were uncertain. Pirates? Rob Roy? The Three Musketeers? All these were considered — but we kept coming back to feudal Japan and telling the story of a samurai warrior. Then one fateful fall afternoon we found a historical account of the Mongol invasion of Tsushima in 1274, and the entire vision clicked into place. 

Here’s some of the very first concept paintings we did — shortly after deciding this was our path:

We had a lot of creative problems. We wanted to tell the tale of one of the only samurai who survived the initial assault, but what was his story?  Who would our adversary be? Could we structure a game and story that featured a relatable, human experience — but also surround it with an anthology of other stories to explore? And how would we present the story? The world we were building had no modern technology, so no cellphones to help us communicate with the player, no glitzy super-powers to create visual spectacle. Oh, and the entire game would collapse if we couldn’t figure out how to make melee combat work. We had some serious problems to get to work on.

We’d helped launch the PS4 with Second Son. We’d built our rainy home of Seattle and a powerful visual effects system to provide visual sizzle. Now we were trying to build a place half a world away and more than 700 years in the past… that’s a lot of distance to cover. But the real challenge? The scale. Nothing was immune. World size, foliage placement, dialog lines, missions, characters. These things didn’t just increase, they multiplied. 5x, 10x, 20x, even 40x in some cases. And none of the tools from inFamous were up to the task…. except for our visual effects system.

At times, the task seemed impossible. The game got away from us a little bit — it felt like we were wrestling an octopus. We had trouble just keeping track of the state of the game. Was it playing better with yesterday’s new changes? It’s a simple question to ask, but hard to answer unless you can cancel all your meetings for a week and play through the game. (Shout out to our amazing QA team who came on and provided excellent counsel in the late stages!) 

In the end, what pulled us through this six (!!!) year project? I think the key was the clarity of the original vision. Unlike any project I’ve previously worked on, Ghost of Tsushima’s topline vision stayed almost entirely unchanged throughout years of development. The story evolved, the combat went through countless iterations, but the vision was clear from the first presentation to today:  “A lone Samurai survives the Mongol invasion of Tsushima, and is forced to reinvent himself to save his island home.”

This has been a remarkable project that has tested us as game creators. Along the way we came to trust ourselves a little bit, and to trust players too. So, It is with great pleasure and immense pride that we present Ghost of Tsushima to you today. It’s the best work we’ve ever done as a studio, and we hope you enjoy your time with it!

Credit: Ghost of Tsushima: The road to launch