In 2011, Comedy Central aired a documentary called 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park. The documentary was a showcase for how South Park comes together every week and detailed the presumed impossible process of conceiving, writing, and animating a television show in six days. It proved the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are brilliant, hard-working, fast, and maybe a little bit insane.
Fractured But Whole is not being made in six days. The game has been in development for years, but that does not mean Trey and Matt are abandoning their fast pace or penchant for last-second changes. We spoke with Ubisoft San Francisco about what it’s like to work with the award-winning duo, and how it is translating their work ethic into a video game.
Trey and Matt enjoyed their time finishing up Stick of Truth with Ubisoft, preferring that process to their earlier work on Stick of Truth, which helped them make the decision to pursue a second game. “From the first brainstorming meeting we asked, ‘What story do you want to tell? What game mechanics were you unhappy with in the last game? What things do we look at from the last game that were definitely successes, but where do we want to iterate?’” senior producer Jason Schroeder says.
The answers to those questions were outlined, and Trey and Matt went off to start the design process, while Ubisoft started making decisions about the technical side of development. For Stick of Truth, Obsidian essentially translated all of South Park’s animation into its engine by re-animating it. For Fractured, Ubisoft adapted its Snowdrop engine (which was used to build The Division) so that it could take the art assets directly from South Park’s animators and artists and insert them into the game with little to no need for adaptation.
(Please visit the site to view this media)
Senior producer Jason Schroeder and director of design Paul Cross discuss working with Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
From there, the game started to take shape. In the early stages, Schroeder and select team members would visit South Park Studios for a few days twice a month and have frequent video conference calls. Schroeder describes seeing Trey pace around the table in these meetings, just as he does in 6 Days To Air, outlining what he would want to see in the game, while Schroeder would outline the feasibility of his ideas.
The script for the game arrives from Trey and Matt, and it’s written just as they write the show. “They work in Movie Magic Screenwriter. It’s old as hell. It’s like the precursor to Final Draft,” narrative designer Jolie Menzel says. “I guarantee you they started using it in college and just never stopped.” Outside of the dialogue, those scripts have stage directions in them, which are translated to gameplay.
Ubisoft makes changes in those scripts as necessary, but recognizes their technical role in the process. “We are kind of the straight man,” Menzel says, “They’re going to handle all the big jokes. They’re going to handle the big punchlines. A lot of what we do is support them. We set up the shot so they can slam it in.
Schroeder would be the one to tell Trey and Matt no when necessary. “You want them to be happy. You want to please them, and have them be proud of what they’re working on, so there is a level of that – wanting to impress them,” Schroeder says. “But at the same time, I think that if I was coming at it purely as a pleaser, they’d go, ‘You’re not going to get s*** done from me. I need someone who is going to get things done.’”
With the show, Trey and Matt know the limits of both the medium, and their self-imposed time constraints, and after completing one game, they’re well on their way to learning the constraints of this different, interactive medium. “When their creativity runs up against a constraint, that’s when they hit another, ‘Oh, we can make fun of that.’” The game’s original title was less subtle, and when they were told you can’t release a game with the word butthole in the title, Trey and Matt worked within those constraints in order to arrive at the game’s current title, as an example of recognizing boundaries.
In this later portion of development, Trey and Matt play frequent builds of the game, giving feedback and making changes where necessary. They will even write out changes on their whiteboard during these video conference play sessions, and Ubisoft points its cameras at the board to better understand what needs to change. “I know [Trey] well enough at this point where we jump onto a call and if he’s like, ‘How much is it going to bum you out…’ I’m like, ‘Dammit. Here it comes,’” Schroeder says. Sometimes those changes are large, but often they are small. Schroeder has the wider, full game experience in his head, which works in tandem with Trey and Matt’s decisions.
When South Park is on the air, the dynamic changes, but not dramatically. “I become slightly less demanding,” Schroeder says when Trey and Matt are working on the show. They don’t disappear, however. After 20 seasons of television, Trey and Matt know exactly what their availability will be and continue to work on the game. The meetings are fewer, but they are still happening. Schroeder knows he can’t ask for that extra 15 minutes he might get when the show is not airing, but the communication channels are still open. “Bill Hader is in the building and he’s like, ‘Hey. Get out of here.’” Schroeder jokes that Hader is the muscle making sure Trey and Matt stay focused on the show when the season is happening.
“They’re not horrible tyrants. They’re always happy to compromise with us,” Menzel says. “It’s not as tumultuous as you might think it is. We have a few people who work on the show who also work on the game, and they have it a lot worse than we do in the show.” Trey and Matt still work very fast, but the game is less compressed. They have more time to create the game than they do their show, and for the most part, Menzel says things are mostly all set, but changes will come, and Ubisoft is ready for them.
“Our ending is actually very gelled. There was this one weekend where Trey was like, ‘I got it!’” Menzel says. In regard to those all-important last second jokes, Schroeder says, “If it doesn’t mess with our age rating? It shouldn’t be a problem.”
For more on South Park: The Fractured But Whole, click the banner for more from our month of coverage.