THE MAKING OF ... SUPERHOT
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
“IT ALREADY LOOKED STARK BUT THAT STRANGENESS HELPED US ATTRACT AS MANY PEOPLE AS WE COULD”
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