How a small group of de­vel­op­ers cul­ti­vated a sin­gle, sim­ple con­cept into the most orig­i­nal first­per­son shooter in years


Time moves only when you move. For the game mak­ers at­tempt­ing the 2013 Seven Day FPS Chal­lenge, noth­ing could have been fur­ther from the truth. In the space of a sin­gle week, their task was to con­cept, cre­ate and fine-tune a work­ing first­per­son shooter. The clock was run­ning and com­pe­ti­tion was stiff. The pre­vi­ous year’s stand out, Re­ceiver by David Rosen, had captivated play­ers with a highly de­tailed sim­u­la­tion of dis­as­sem­bling and reload­ing a gun – to get no­ticed this year, con­tes­tants not only needed to make some­thing quickly, they had to come up with a sim­ple, unique hook, too.

Flash devel­oper Piotr Iwan­icki had a plan. In­spired by an on­line game called Time4Cat –a web game in which threats only move when you do – Iwan­icki as­sem­bled a group of mo­bi­legame de­vel­op­ers and game-de­sign stu­dents for the chal­lenge. For­go­ing sleep, they cre­ated a pro­to­type and called it Su­per­hot – named af­ter the types of feel­ings Iwan­icki ex­pected it would evoke: ‘su­per’ for pos­i­tiv­ity, and ‘hot’ for in­ten­sity. Its sim­ple premise – a shooter wherein bul­lets and en­e­mies would only move when the player did – leant Su­per­hot an im­me­di­ate ap­peal, re­pur­pos­ing tra­di­tional FPS me­chan­ics into a puz­zle game while mak­ing the player feel like a su­per­hero. In the wave of pub­lic­ity that fol­lowed, Iwan­icki saw the op­por­tu­nity to turn his sev­en­day con­cept into a fully-fledged game. For a mo­ment the game stood still as Iwan­icki basked in his suc­cess. But with de­vel­op­ers from all over Poland en­am­oured with its pro­to­type, pro­duc­tion of a much more com­plex ver­sion of the game would soon be­gin – Iwan­icki just had the small task of as­sem­bling a team first.

“I was sup­posed to have been at the chal­lenge,” says Cezary Sko­rupka, writer and level de­signer at what would later be dubbed Su­per­hot Team, “but I was work­ing at the time at Fly­ing Wild Hog, the stu­dio which made Hard

Re­set. When the pro­to­type got re­leased on­line, I just felt like, ‘Oh my God. Why am I not work­ing on this?’ It was a huge thing on the Pol­ish game-de­vel­op­ment scene. There was noth­ing, and then it ex­ploded out of nowhere. But still, Piotr was try­ing to re­cruit peo­ple onto it for about a year, so we met once or twice and talked about the story and the vi­sion, and af­ter a lot of or­gan­is­ing I quit Fly­ing Wild Hog and went to work on Su­per­hot. That was one of the best de­ci­sions of my life.”

By now it was Fe­bru­ary 2015, and two other game-mak­ers had joined the team. Panos

Rriska, a friend of Iwan­icki’s who’d ap­proved de­sign doc­u­ments for the orig­i­nal pro­to­type, was re­cruited to cre­ate lev­els. Marcin Surma, who dis­cov­ered the game via a Face­book post, was tasked with art and vis­ual de­sign. His early work on the project helped re­fine the dis­tinc­tive, min­i­mal­ist look of the game.

“I joined two weeks be­fore we launched the Kick­starter,” Surma tells us, “and my job was to make Su­per­hot more pre­sentable. It al­ready looked stark – peo­ple didn’t think of it as the weird game with the weird red guys, which was good, be­cause we didn’t want the look to be dis­tract­ing – but that strange­ness helped us at­tract as many peo­ple as we could.”

“From the begin­ning, Piotr had a vi­sion of some­thing min­i­mal­is­tic and im­me­di­ately strik­ing,” Rriska con­tin­ues. “But our feel­ing was, ‘If we get the Kick­starter money, great, but we’ll find a way to make the game any­way.’ By that time we also had To­masz [Kacz­mar­czyk], our pro­ducer and busi­ness guru. He’d oc­ca­sion­ally do this magic and come into the of­fice and say, ‘I just earned half a mil­lion zło­tys (£100,000) for us.’ He had this way of find­ing money un­der a rock.”

In the end, Su­per­hot’s Kick­starter yielded $250,000 – more than dou­ble its orig­i­nal goal. That to­tal, com­bined with the money con­jured up by Kacz­mar­czyk, meant the team now had the cap­i­tal to be­gin de­vel­op­ment. The pro­to­type had been cre­ated us­ing Unity, and the Su­per­hot Team saw no rea­son not to build the full ver­sion the same way. It proved use­ful, ini­tially: the an­gu­lar, white­washed vis­ual style honed by Surma looked al­most iden­ti­cal to the place­holder graph­ics in Unity’s level ed­i­tor. This spared artists from creat­ing dozens of dif­fer­ent tex­tures, and also meant draft ver­sions of lev­els could be ren­dered in-game al­most in­stantly.

“Hav­ing worked with Un­real 3, my first thought about Unity was that it was an in­fe­rior tool, for peo­ple who don’t work in big com­pa­nies,” Sko­rupka says. “But it was so easy to learn and, com­bined with a tool we had called Pro Builder, we could start and fin­ish a level in­side two or three days.”

Rriska hadn’t worked as a level de­signer prior to his ap­point­ment, so such swift it­er­a­tion proved a use­ful boon and he and his team ex­per­i­mented with work­flows. Even­tu­ally, buoyed by the ab­stract na­ture of the game, he set­tled on a freeform method that meant the fun of mess­ing about with time was al­ways front and cen­tre. “My­self and the other de­sign­ers would start by think­ing of a place, say a prison,” he ex­plains. “Then we’d try to imag­ine some­thing, some sit­u­a­tion, that could hap­pen in a prison and would be cool to play. Af­ter that I’d check ref­er­ence images for the places and try to work out the ar­chi­tec­ture – there was a lot of chang­ing the lev­els around, es­pe­cially the back­grounds, and the en­tire team would hold con­ver­sa­tions about how they should look. But the com­bi­na­tion we had, of sim­ple art as­sets, Unity, and some tools we’d built our­selves, made it easy to make and edit Su­per­hot. I wouldn’t call it an en­gine. It was more like an en­vi­ron­ment.”

Build­ing lev­els was sim­ple enough, then, but get­ting Su­per­hot’s cen­tral me­chanic to ac­tu­ally work proved to be some­thing of a stick­ing point. Slow­ing down time was eas­ily achiev­able, and even run­ning it back­wards was work­able, but to stop and start it dozens of times per level, with so many dif­fer­ent ob­jects and en­e­mies on-screen at once, pre­sented myr­iad prob­lems.

“Phys­i­cal ob­jects in a game have a cer­tain amount of ‘ticks’,” Rriska ex­plains, “and the


ticks dic­tate in which di­rec­tion and how quickly the ob­jects move. Once we started chang­ing the flow of time in the game, we also had to change the ticks. But if we moved them too far for­ward or too far back, ob­jects would start reg­is­ter­ing a sin­gle col­li­sion many times over – in­stead of dy­ing prop­erly, en­e­mies would go fly­ing miles back­wards. So the whole game had to be made us­ing hacks. We even­tu­ally got to a pretty sta­ble en­vi­ron­ment with the physics, but if we moved or changed any­thing the whole thing would break. And if we wanted to put in a car or, for ex­am­ple, make a level set on a train, be­cause those ve­hi­cles were mov­ing faster than the char­ac­ters it got very com­pli­cated try­ing to get them all work­ing prop­erly to­gether. In the time it took to make those sin­gle lev­els, we could have made ten oth­ers.”

Such com­plex physics, hashed to­gether or oth­er­wise, re­quired a great deal of mem­ory. The game’s sim­ple aes­thetic be­lies hugely com­plex un­der­pin­nings, and in or­der to keep ev­ery­thing clip­ping along at a con­sis­tent fram­er­ate the team had to make dozens of cuts.

“Orig­i­nally we had bod­ies that would stay on the ground,” Rriska con­tin­ues, ”but they were cut. We had more par­ti­cle ef­fects for when bul­lets hit the walls. They were cut, too. Su­per­hot wasn’t like other shoot­ers where you can have 99 health and if the game skips a frame you maybe take a hit and it’s fine. If you got hit with one bul­let you died, so it had to run per­fectly.”

Any time gained from the rel­a­tively fast con­struc­tion of lev­els was soon eaten up by the need to op­ti­mise fre­quently. In some cases, this led to un­fore­seen frus­tra­tions. Once lin­ger­ing corpses were re­moved from the equa­tion, the team set­tled on the idea of hav­ing en­e­mies shat­ter like glass when bul­lets – or hastily flung ash trays – hit them. How­ever, Su­per­hot’s now un­fail­ing frame rate meant that ev­ery sec­ond of that an­i­ma­tion had to be mod­elled in de­tail, which in turn meant that Surma and the art team had to spend days con­struct­ing en­emy mod­els from the hun­dreds of in­di­vid­ual red tri­an­gles that would sep­a­rate on death. The re­play mode also proved prob­lem­atic. Sim­ply record­ing footage from in-game didn’t pro­vide a sharp enough im­age, and so a re­al­time so­lu­tion had to be used. This, of course, meant that the game would have to re­mem­ber the po­si­tions of each en­emy and ob­ject, and ren­der them fully. For three months, four of Su­per­hot Team’s staffers worked on the sys­tem. “The game was easy to make,” Rriska says. “Then we spent two years op­ti­mis­ing.”

In other ways, how­ever, this con­tin­ual backand-forth proved ben­e­fi­cial. Su­per­hot’s orig­i­nal story saw play­ers be­ing ma­nip­u­lated and mis­led by a shad­owy com­puter net­work, against which they would even­tu­ally turn and then de­stroy. Mul­ti­ple re­drafts pro­duced a more sin­is­ter tale – in­stead of suc­cess­fully re­belling against the sys­tem, play­ers would be sub­sumed by it, killing them­selves in the cli­mac­tic mo­ments in or­der to be­come one with the hive­mind. Af­ter launch­ing a beta, which com­prised the game’s first five lev­els, Sko­rupka and the other de­sign­ers planned to work ex­clu­sively on Su­per­hot’s sec­ond half, but th­ese nar­ra­tive changes meant re­work­ing the game from scratch. Such pro­found re­vi­sions con­tin­ued up to the last mo­ments of pro­duc­tion.

“Af­ter the beta, we ba­si­cally deleted the whole thing and started over,” Sko­rupka says. “We could clearly see what place the game was in. We’d watch peo­ple play the beta at shows and they’d turn around and say, ‘This is fan­tas­tic!’ How­ever, we didn’t let up with it. We knew our game bet­ter than any­one and we knew how it should work. Only about ten hours be­fore it shipped, we went back and com­pletely changed the plot. That sums up our process, I think. It was so easy to change things that we just couldn’t stop do­ing it.”

“But there was never any crunch­ing,” Surma adds. “Or if there was, it was all in­ter­nal. Ev­ery­one wanted to make this game and to make it as good as pos­si­ble, so it wasn’t, ‘You have to do it right now.’ It was, ‘I want to do this right now.’ And it wasn’t as if we had strict roles. From the begin­ning, Su­per­hot was an idea that could be made quickly, by peo­ple who didn’t know lots about creat­ing games, so if some­one wanted to do some pro­gram­ming it was like, ‘Be our guest.’ It was a good process.” On 25 Fe­bru­ary, 2016, less than three years since its in­cep­tion at the FPS Chal­lenge, Su­per­hot launched. But while stand­ing still is a cru­cial strat­egy in the game, it clearly didn’t suit the team in real life.

“We filmed the mo­ment that we up­loaded the game – the whole group of us gath­ered around this one com­puter,” Sko­rupka re­calls. “I asked To­masz, ‘Is that it? Have you clicked it?’ ‘Yeah, I clicked it. It’s on­line.’ Ev­ery­one was just like, ‘OK. Now let’s go back and fix some bugs.’

Two months later the game made its de­but on Xbox One, and a Rift ver­sion – which Sko­rupka de­scribes as an op­por­tu­nity to “get rid of all the stuff in the game that was bor­ing or an­noy­ing” – fol­lowed in De­cem­ber be­fore the team turned its at­ten­tions to other vir­tual-re­al­ity plat­forms. In 2017 a tie-in card game was an­nounced and suc­cess­fully crowd­funded. What started as a novel idea, shared be­tween friends, had evolved into a sen­sa­tion.

“I was watch­ing peo­ple stream­ing the game and see­ing the re­views,” Sko­rupka says. “But I didn’t feel like peo­ple were play­ing some­thing I’d made. They were play­ing Su­per­hot.”

In­spi­ra­tion for Su­per­hot oc­ca­sion­ally came from real life. De­signer Panos Rriska once found him­self in the mid­dle of a bar fight, and used it as the ba­sis for the sev­enth level

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