Hothead Games, the independent developer based in Canada, is well known for its development of the undeniably popular Penny Arcade
episodic, digitally distributed video game series. However, when confronted with the idea of developing Ron Gilbert
’s DeathSpank character introduced by his Grumpy Gamer comic series
, the Penny Arcade duo
gave the go ahead to Hothead to transition gears from their series to start work on the action RPG game.
We had an opportunity to delve more into the back story of both the development of DeathSpank
, as well as the details behind the gameplay itself via a roundtable discussion with Executive Producer Vlad Ceraldi, Lead Designer Darren Evenson and RPG Designer Dennis Detwiller. We even got some interesting insight to their opinions on the industry itself (particularly the future of digital distribution), and their other game in development named Swarm. Read on to see what we learned.
I know a project can change a lot from its initial concept to final product. Was mixing classic adventure games and action RPGs what you started out trying to do?
Vlad Ceraldi (Executive Producer)
: Everyone here is an RPG fan. We're also old school adventure fans. When we first formed the company in 2006 we were trying to think of what we wanted to create. What were we most excited about? We looked at pure adventure games and thought that we wanted to do something new and different with adventure games. We didn't know what to change exactly, but we didn't think they would stand alone and create the experience we wanted to create.
We were also looking at RPGs and at some point we said, "Adventure games are really good at bringing across character and story. Could we mix the two and bring some of the puzzles and some of the humor?” We had already been dealing with humorous games in our past history working together. We thought that was going to be a nice mix. RPGs are something we are fans of. Regarding our first title we were working with, Penny Arcade was interested in doing a Japanese style or older school RPG, which was totally something we were excited about and had already been discussing. We started blending those two together, and we made that pitch to them and they were excited. So that's how that started. Our initial goal was to try to re-invigorate adventure games, or what they can be expected to be and how they could add something new and exciting to existing genres and what's already out there.
Since this is Hothead's second game, were there any particular lessons that you took to heart after the first Penny Arcade that you're implementing this time?
: Absolutely. What we first tried doing was mixing more of a Japanese RPG flavor in with the adventure gameplay. Although we are connoisseurs in the sense of gamers, none of us had created an adventure game in our careers at that point. We actually got in contact with Ron Gilbert and he started consulting with us and walking us through the different dialogue structures and gameplay structures with regards to how to map out the story and plot, and how that can affect puzzles and how things interact. He really gave us a really great lesson on how to approach that kind of gameplay.
Still, it was our first take on it so we wanted to do a better job with regards to how to present the dialogue. Some things we improved. We did full voice acting with the experience with DeathSpank, which was a huge win. The other thing was that although there are a lot of Final Fantasy fans here, we mixed a little bit of Paper Mario semi-turn based gameplay. The pacing wasn't what we wanted to continue forward with. We wanted to get something that was more exciting, more action focused, but still had RPG roots. We were all Diablo fans, so we wanted to mix the action RPG and the classic Monkey Island humor and dialogue structure from the get-go. Our second take was to take the more action RPG approach rather than the Japanese RPG approach to come up with a unique mix that we hope becomes a Hothead RPG style.What has been the biggest struggle through the process from turning the Penny Arcade to an action RPG featuring a more open world gameplay style?
: I worked as a producer on Simpsons: Hit and Run which was Radical's first attempt at an open world, I then went on to Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which was ranked as one of the best super hero games of the time (and was open world). Other people on the team worked on Scarface and other open world games.
Although most people don't think of Radical as an open world company, we made a lot of those games. Dennis, who is on the call, was a co-creator for Prototype (another open world game) before he finished the game and left Radical to come to work as the RPG designer of DeathSpank. We have a lot of experience in understanding the pacing, challenges of an open world, trying to keep people active by giving them choices and things to do. That background we felt very comfortable with, but there are some challenges with regards to the turn-based RPG that we started with and wanting to go action RPG.
Darren Evenson (Lead Designer)
: From a design standpoint, one of the big struggles or changes between the two was going from the turn-based or semi-turn based, more static style of combat to a more action-oriented fluid combat. While they're both considered RPGs, they're two drastically different systems. Making that adjustment took some time and took a few tries to get it right, even the pacing of the moment to moment gameplay as you're going through the world fighting enemies. It's a very different system, so that took a little bit of adjusting.
Dennis Detwiller (RPG Designer)
: DeathSpank is a larger than life character. We wanted to get this kind of rocket action going in there where he got waved into combat with a dozen people. Turn-based just doesn't lend itself to that very well. We were hoping to make it much more action packed ,and that's what the game has been built around: player choice, moment to moment, as opposed to plotting and planning, and basically sitting back and relying on the interaction. It's much more action packed.
: The difference is that we thought our first experience was more laid back, you were in the back of your chair. We wanted to create something that had you are at the edge of your seat and more involved. Then there are moments where you break that up with the dialogue and the adventures so you can relax. It mixes up the pacing in a very unique way.
What was the original inspiration for the DeathSpank universe? What inspired you to translate it into video game form?
: I touched on the action RPG: the Monkey Island mixed with something we've already been trying to think through. Even while we were working on Penny Arcade, we were thinking of what we wanted to do next. It seemed like the table was well set while we were working with Ron at that time as a consultant.
: Originally, this character was Ron's idea and it first appeared on his blog in cartoon form. When he became a consultant with us on Penny Arcade, he really instructed us on how to create adventure games. He gave us the DeathSpank pitch, and it was a natural fit for where we were wanting to go as a company and the style of games we wanted to make. It was kind of Diablo meets Monkey Island and it was exactly where we wanted to take this game and this character.
There are a lot of references in the trailers that poke fun at quintessential video game components similar to the humor of the Grumpy Gamer comics. Is this a common theme throughout the game?
: I would say no. We're trying to make sure that the humor comes across with the videos that we've given so far. There's definitely some of the conventions of self referential commentary and jokes throughout the game where we do play with some of the conventions. We took the RPG elements very seriously, however, so we also wanted to create something serious in that regard.
I think Ron said in other interviews that it's subtle. We don't beat you over the head with it, but it's definitely in there and there are a few times where I guarantee you're going to be laughing out loud as a result. I'm not going to spill what those moments are going to be, but they are there.
Where did you get the inspiration for the character DeathSpank? He reminds me of the hilariously self-righteous Captain Hero from the Drawn Together series.
: It was originally Ron's idea. The team at Hothead here flushed that character out, but really what helped drive who DeathSpank is was largely in part due to the voice auditions. As we went through the different auditions we realized what we did or did not like about different aspects. There was one that completely defined him as a character, and we're incredibly happy with that.
How big is the world of DeathSpank?
: Definitely big enough to support 10-15 hours of gameplay, that's for sure.
: It's filled with dungeons and locations and monsters. It's huge.
What kind of quests can players expect to find in the game?
: Without revealing too much, they're definitely going to be familiar quests that people know and understand, but we tried to make sure we had a different spin to make them interesting, different and unique; something that most people have never seen before.
In one quest most people are familiar with involves Eubrick from the trailer. You're delivering a gravestone for him to a gravedigger so he's prepared when he goes. You find your way there through these tremendous battles, you get to the gravedigger and you're given the receipt to go back to deliver that to Eubrick. Between that and something like planting golf flags in the swamp, those are some of the things you can expect to be up against.
I think the key is that we started off with familiar structures for people to get comfortable because we're introducing a lot of game systems at the beginning of the game. But, quite realistically, I think the best phrase we can use is that the further and further you go along, you're going further and further down the rabbit hole until you're in this off filtered world that makes sense all of a sudden. I liken it to my experience with British humor back in the day when I was a big Douglas Adams fan. When I first read Hitchhiker's Guide I was like, "What the hell? This is so bizarre," and suddenly it clicked.
I think there are elements like that when you move through this game where the humor is going to be there, and you're going to start chuckling. We did a lot of play testing and we know that people are going to be laughing out loud. That's rare in video game form for that to happen. So we're pretty excited.
How many traditional RPG elements are actually in DeathSpank? Is it limited to just the numerous wacky items or are there stats and maneuvers to be gained as well?
: All the traditional bells and whistles of an RPG system are in there. We control a lot of the things with the character in a streamlined fashion using Hero Cards. There are dozens of these in the game. You can select them to upgrade your character stats, and get to choose from three every level you go up in.
In terms of items and equipments: there are hundreds of items. There are different types of items. We have mortal weapons, which are the standard "let's stick the monster" or "smash him over the head with this sword or club." We have elemental weapons, which are kind of enchanted weapons with different qualities like fire, ice, etc. We have weapons of justice which are the kind of zany weapons you are talking about. They are these mystically powered weapons like the Thunderstomp Club, which is a boot on the end of the magical item that knocks enemies unconscious. We have ammo, such as fire bolts and ice bolts. We also have items of vanquishing that are one-off magic items that allow you to do things like put out a magical shield around an enemy.
All these things are layer-able. You can throw them together into different combinations and make each combat experience different. We even have a chaining system, and we have unlockable things called runes that allow you to combine two weapons together to get a one-off magical effect. We have pretty much all of the standard things you'll see in an RPG, but with the DeathSpank flavor.
: There is the D-pad and the four face buttons. You can map anything you want to these buttons. We have the defaults that we set you up with, but you can map items, weapons or whichever you choose in these slots. You can also combine different weapons together, and the chaining system is totally optional. It's just there as a damage modifier for those that want to get rewarded for mixing up attacks and using different weapons in different orders.
Although it's a simple system, it allows another layer for those that want to have a more robust experience and get more kills with their attacks. At the same time, we allow for someone who wants to just button mash, see the content and explore. They will have to be more persistent, and will probably die more often, but death is forgiving and we allow for that sort of gamer to enjoy the experience without having to go and get too complex. We really believe that we cater to both ends of the spectrum as far as gamer style.
It looks like there will be a lot of interesting items to collect throughout the game. What are some of your favorites that are not poop?
: For me, one of the standouts would be the portable outhouse. We have an outhouse system that functions both as checkpoints and respawn points, but they can also be used to teleport through the outhouse sewer system to go throughout the world. That's one of the ways you can travel from place to place, using any of the outhouses you have unlocked. You can find a very unique item (I won't say where or how you get it), but you can then have a portable outhouse anywhere you want and instantly teleport back to that location from anywhere in the world. It's actually a lot of fun to use.
: For reasons that I'm not comfortable sharing, I like the sock. The turtle gonads have a special place in my heart. But, ultimately, I enjoy the C4 explosives.
: My favorite item by far is the repeating crossbow. We do this really cool thing where an arrow stick actually sticks out of enemies when you fire them. As many times as you can press the button, that's how fast the repeating crossbow fires. So you end up making them look like a giant pin cushion, which is a heck of a lot of fun. Like a sub-machine gun, except it's a crossbow.
Hack and Slash games are traditionally filled with gore, even if done in a graphic novel-esque manner. How do you compliment the art direction of a hack and slash game that is also meant to be humorous?
: We weren't going for a full-on gorey, kind of gross experience. Even Diablo is kind of stylized in its own way. You're fighting undead creatures, you're fighting goblins. It's very similar. In DeathSpank, you’re never attacking another person, per se, usually. You're fighting orcs, demons, swamp donkeys. You're fighting horrific monsters, basically. We're generally pretty light.
We use blood splatter to illustrate that you're actually landing a really solid hit on an enemy. It's very important in combat to know that you're affecting multiple enemies at once with a swing or something similar. We kept it pretty light, and the blood is generally not gratuitous.
: It can get gratuitous if there are a ton of enemies and they all leave their blood splatter behind, but it's meant to be satisfying. To have that sense of power in the moment of combat, not necessarily to be for the sake of gore.How are you guys combining the adventure and RPG elements and what will the balance between the two genres be? Will it be more adventure, or more RPG?
: From my experience I would say it's 90% action. We nailed the adventure part, but we interspersed that to break up the action and give the pacing a little bit of a different twist so you can explore the conversations and do some of the puzzles.
: Like Vlad was saying, we nailed the adventure. There's amazing dialogue in the game with tons of choice and loaded with humor. This is definitely more RPG because that is your moment to moment action gameplay that you're doing. We have the adventure there to drive the story. The quest and the items are all adventure related. However, all the weapons, armor, hero cards and potions support the combat, which is what the player is primarily doing most of the time.
: The adventure element really helps flush out the characters in a nice way. It's one of the reasons why we were attracted to it with regard to the story and characters. It is a nice method for exploring the different dialogues with the character. That was one of the things that we definitely learned, is that it's not like a branch where you make a choice and you never get to see this other dialogue again.
We allow you to explore all of it, and all of it is relevant, interesting and funny. The goal is to help flush out the story, the world, the character and enjoy that part without any sense of time limits. That's something you would have found in Monkey Island that was brought forward into DeathSpank.
Has the mixing of these two genres worked out like you thought it would, or have you had to fix some unexpected points along the way where you needed to take a 180 with your approach?
: I definitely think we found the chocolate/peanut butter combination in video game form. We think it works really well. That was our original goal. There were definitely a lot of dead bodies along the way. We took a lot of iterations to get it right.
: In development, trying to find the exact mix was definitely a challenge. There were a lot of iterations and going back to the drawing board. We really strove to make sure what we went forward with was what we wanted, and that it was right for the product. DeathSpank is definitely at a point now where we're all very happy with it. We've taken it to a place where we're all very proud, and it was not necessarily a simple road to get there, but the fact that we're there makes us really happy.
: This is something that I've talked about internally at the company a lot: you talk about Japanese RPG and you see it dominated by Square and Final Fantasy as a structure going way back, and all sorts of variations of that. But that's primarily what people think of. In North America it's dominated by, say, BioWare and some more of the D&D roots and approach. Now, they're focusing more on the emotions and dialogue choices that they provide, and the sense of choice in the game.
There are different styles that you consider as the Western style, the Japanese style, and the companies that made them have their own take on it. We've been really excited to explore what Hothead's take is. This is our second take on that, as we talked about, and I'm hoping that it's a very successful structure that people really enjoy because we love making it this way and we'd love to make more in this sort of vein.
Without spoiling too much, can you answer if DeathSpank is open ended or will it be finished once you finish the main quest? If it's not open ended, do players have the ability to wander and level as much as they want on their way to finishing the main quest?
: The game is set up so that if you want to race through the game and finish it as fast as you can without doing everything available, you can do so. Once you're done, you can go back to that world and finish off things that you hadn't finished before. It will put you at a place right before the ending. While it recognizes that you've completed the game, you're always able to go anywhere and continue.
If you're a completionist and you want to do every quest in the game, you are completely free to do that. Or if you want to collect something, keep racking up your kills for the leaderboards or anything of that nature, you are definitely free to do that.
: I think we're the first game to have a leaderboard based on most chickens killed. There are all sorts of leaderboards that you can go back and continue to do. Or, just to level up if you didn't get to the max level. You can go back and do that, as well.
: Enemies do respawn.A 15 hour adventure game could easily be a full retail release. Why go through XBLA and PSN? What kind of freedom does this method of distribution afford you when compared to traditional disc release?
: When we formed the company, we saw an opportunity as gamers to bring some new ideas to gamers without having to get it approved by all sorts of green light processes that are going to widdle down your idea. Quite frankly, our industry is suffering from a lack of innovation in a lot of ways, we felt. We thought that it was a wild west opportunity that really allowed for some games that never would have gotten made to get into gamers’ hands. We've seen that with other successful downloadable games: what started as a small arcade retro game really blossomed. We had an experience working with Jonathan Blow on Braid, taking that to the PS3 and the Mac.
There are a lot of games coming out this summer that look great. Quite honestly, a lot of those games would never be found on a shelf, because to take it from that point of a finished game to a shelf would be double the cost. Most companies only want to spend that cost on a lower risk game where they can put 10 million dollars directly behind it to make sure it's successful. You've got these 20, 30 million dollar productions. There are a lot of those (fewer and fewer actually), but there are still a lot of those and they really dominate the show. When you do that, it's hard to innovate and hard to take risks.
We're excited by the opportunity that digital presents right now. We firmly believe that one day there won't be any disc space, everything will be downloadable. Smaller games, big games, they will all be on that format. It will be like film where you have lots of opportunities to bring different productions to audiences. We're excited about what that allows us to do as a company looking forward. We may end up doing retail at some point, but we can finish our game, get it into gamers’ hands quicker, get feedback, make new games and spend less than the typical 3 year productions to do so.
It took us a little longer with DeathSpank, because it was the first time we were working on creating an original IP. We're following this up with our next title, Swarm, which is another original IP. We're taking some risks: creative risks, technical risks. That's something that is really exciting. So, yes, maybe on the content quality or the content length we could have taken DeathSpank to retail. Maybe that will even happen one day, we don't know.
This is a space that we have been exploring, and that's what our focus has been. I think we're stupid for selling this thing for $15. When you play it, you will understand what I'm talking about. It's got to be one of the biggest, most expensive XBLA/PSN titles yet, we believe. But what that means, really, is that gamers are going to get great value and I think they're going to love what we've done.
You mentioned Swarm. Is that also going to be an action RPG, or is it going to be something completely different?
: It's going to be something completely different. As a company, we're not just focused on RPG. We've explored a lot of different genres in our careers, and it's really about the idea. While we have a lot of excitement on iterating, we're definitely putting a lot of eggs in the RPG basket with regards to our experience and our passion. But there are a lot of people here that had a lot of excitement about the original concept for Swarm.
It's an idea that we've nurtured for a long time, and we just announced a partnership for that just recently. We've got a lot of talent here, I'm really proud of what we've created as far as the team. That's a totally different game focused on controlling a swarm of tiny creatures, but there's more information on our website.
We’d like to thank the Hothead representatives for answering our questions, Lisa Chan from EA for presenting our questions, and Hiro Ito from fortyseven communications for coordinating this roundtable interview.