Interview with David Amata and Bill Munk, Developers Behind Maneater
Maneater was released exactly a year ago and I absolutely loved it. A completely bonkers game about a shark hell-bent on murdering every single living being in sight, all while being graced with dad puns and commentary narrated by Archer‘s Chris Parnell. This is something that felt like it was tailor made for my bizarre tastes.
I just had to talk to the minds behind this title and learn a bit more about its development process, as well as the one responsible for coining the expression “ShaRkPG”. I was fortunate enough to interview Bill Munk, the game’s director, as well as David Amata, the product director responsible for the Switch version, which is out today.
I can’t think of a better way to start this interview than by getting right into the meat of the matter.
How did the team come up with the idea of an open world game starring a shark? What was the thought process that led to the development of Maneater?
DAVID AMATA: The story of how Maneater came to be is just as interesting as the game itself. The original concept was created by Alex Quick and his crew. When they showed it to us, we knew that it was something very special, so we teamed up to develop something out of it, and I was honored and lucky enough for them to entrust us with their baby and adding the Tripwire twist to it.
Maneater obviously reminded me of Jaws Unleashed, which wasn’t exactly a good game, but was so different from everything else at the time I can’t help but still remember fondly. Was that game an inspiration for Maneater?
BILL MUNK: Interestingly, when we started working on the project, Jaws Unleashed wasn’t what inspired us to do it, but we played through it in order to see what worked and what didn’t in it.
Was the game supposed to feature self-aware humor right from the get-go (something Jaws Unleashed lacked and surely needed), and if so, was the idea of inserting a Discovery Channel-esque narration adopted early into the game’s developmental stages?
BM: Actually, it wasn’t something that was initially in the game. While playing through early builds, we didn’t have anything that could move the story along in a way that felt right. After lots of brainstorming, I had the idea of going the Natural Geographic route. There seemed to be something really special with this direction and it morphed into the self-aware humor you experience in the game. I’ve always been a huge fan of comedy and with just how extreme and silly this experience was it really ties the experience together perfectly.
How fun was to work with Cyri… I mean, Chris Parnell?
BM: He’s a total pro! After signing him onto the project, he was completely game for any lines we threw his way, no matter how absurd or ridiculous. I have to give major kudos to Mark Maraski on signing the great Parnell to this project. I never in a million years thought he would do it, but our Audio Director has a knack for getting top-tier talent. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in any of the recording sessions, but from what Mark told me, he was amazing to work with and they both had a lot of fun with it, and I think this really shows in the final product.
How did the level designers cope with the limitations imposed by Maneater‘s setting? Especially considering there’s just so much you can do when your map is mostly set underwater, with a more limited amount of assets at your disposal, as well as a more limited field of view?
BM: There were definitely limitations to making a game in this setting, but a lot of these limitations called for some really creative problem solving that resulted in the most fun aspects of the game. The hardest challenge to tackle was walking the line between something believably realistic and something genuinely absurd. For instance, instead of giving the shark a laser beam or a machine gun, the whipshot was our more “believable” solution when giving the shark a ranged attack.
Regarding the camera, it was very important to us to make sure the players felt like they were getting stronger and moving up the food chain as they progressed through the game. At the end of the dev cycle, a lot of time was spent tinkering with the camera so we could narrow in on the right field of view that visually communicated the shark’s growth from a pup into a predator.
Let’s just say that at a certain point in Maneater, “realistic science” stops becoming important, with the titular shark starting to mutate into a thing of nightmares that pretty much destroys everything and everyone in sight. Was the idea of upgrading the shark into a totally bonkers mutant featured from the start, or did the game take a more “scientifically accurate” approach at first?
DA: At first, the team did start relatively realistically with science and evolutions. For example, we choose a bull shark as the player shark because it has the capability to survive in both fresh and seawater. As we got further into design and gameplay iteration our intent for the evolutions evolved to become what they are today. We started from the perspective of which play styles we wanted the player shark to have and then the artistic and design teams supplied the concepts and ideas for how they could be visually represented.
How was the porting process to make Maneater run on the Switch? Considering that the base game is ridiculously well-optimized, running very well on low-spec computers, was it a smooth transition?
DA: Every platform’s needs and bottlenecks are different, so it’s fair to say that optimizations made for one do not necessarily translate across others. For the Nintendo Switch, we knew Maneater would translate fantastically to the platform as a portable experience with our bite-sized mission structure, but to ensure it ran and looked beautiful on the platform, we needed to refactor our systems and assets from the ground up.
From an asset standpoint, the art team handmade each of the levels of detail variants of the models to be tailored to the platform’s limitations as we found the automated methods of LODs didn’t offer high enough fidelity to meet our standards. From an environmental detail standpoint, we needed to make selective cuts to the environment and rendering distance to ensure the original intent of an area was maintained, while ensuring everything fit within the lower budget requirements we had on the system’s memory and GPU.
The world map level streaming systems were overhauled to separate the sections of the world into smaller chunks so that it could maintain the same seamless world navigation as its bigger console brethren. We also made a choice very earlier on in the project that we wanted to target a higher base screen resolution for the Switch than some other titles on the system, because we believed having a higher clarity for the image would do better justice to the source assets and help keep clear legibility to the action on-screen especially as combat can get hectic. Because of this priority, there was a lot of work done on the rendering side to ensure all our post-processing systems ran with absolutely the least amount of overhead.
Additionally, to maintain stability on the CPU side with the lower core count on Switch, we needed to refactor a lot of systems specifically from our AI navigation, wildlife, and boat spawning systems. Finally, once you start refactoring and reconstructing these core systems we needed to go through an intensive testing and bug fixing pass to ensure any knock-ons from our changes were addressed and the expected functionality of the core game was maintained. Because we were aware of these challenges, we made sure the port had the time it needed over the last year since we originally launched Maneater to ensure it could be the best it could be and we’re pretty proud of the results and the team’s efforts.
Maneater has already been ported to the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X, but are you planning on developing a sequel that takes advantage of the horsepower provided by these consoles to come up with even more ludicrous set pieces and environments?
BM: I don’t have anything to announce, but I can say that Tripwire loves what we’ve created and I feel like we only scratched the surface of what I wanted the game to be. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to work on or be a part of a sequel someday!
Finally, who was the genius who coined the term ShaRkPG? I feel like I need to congratulate that person for the best dad pun I’ve read in recent memory.
BM: HA! I can’t take credit for that, John Gibson was the mastermind for that powerful dad pun!!! His dad puns are unmatched at the office.
Maneater for the Nintendo Switch is available as of today, so feel free to dive in and see what the fuss is about!