Joel DeYoung and Ron Gilbert interview

Do you know Hothead Games? If not, you probably should. Founded by industry veterans in 2006, the Canadian studio is quickly making a name for itself as it's already working on two highly-anticipated episodic game series. First Hothead announced they were collaborating with popular web comic Penny Arcade on a new episodic series of adventure-roleplaying games. Then they brought on board Ron Gilbert, legendary creator of classic adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, as a story and design consultant. Finally Hothead announced it will also be developing and publishing Ron Gilbert's next game, the episodic video game parody DeathSpank.

Wait. Let's review. One of the adventure genre's most famed designers is collaborating with the creators of Penny Arcade, the web's most popular and influential gaming comic. But not only that, Ron Gilbert is also working on a new episodic game series, which seems to feature the same brand of humor that made Monkey Island such a huge phenomenon. Feel free to pinch yourself.

At this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco we met with Joel DeYoung, the COO of Hothead Games, and Ron Gilbert, who recently became creative director at Hothead. We talked about On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, the soon-to-be-released first episode in the Penny Arcade Adventures series. Later we also discussed DeathSpank, which is still in the very early stages of development, but promises to be an innovative mix of Legend of Zelda style gameplay with the fully-fleshed storylines and puzzles we have come to love in adventure games.

(For more background information, read the original announcements of Penny Arcade Adventures and DeathSpank Episode One: Orphans of Justice).

Let's start with Penny Arcade Adventures. It's a license-based game, but in some ways I suppose it also isn't. How did you hook up with the Penny Arcade guys?

Joel deYoung (JdY): A lot of people at Hothead Games have been fans of Penny Arcade for a long time. Some of the people there we've personally known for a number of years. Vlad [Ceraldi – Hothead president] was actually at the very first Penny Arcade Expo and spoke on a panel there. So we talked on and off with them.

They've been pitched games before -- pitched the possibility of doing a Penny Arcade game -- but a difference in our suggested approach was that we're very much collaborating with them rather than just getting a license and getting their approval at the end. They're actively involved in the development, which has been interesting because Jerry [Holkins] over at Penny Arcade is writing not only all the dialog, but also the descriptions of all of the items and pretty much any word that's in the game. Mike [Krahulik] who draws the comic has done a lot of the concepting. He designed the characters, concepted the feel of the levels and is actively involved in the art direction on a day-to-day basis.

I understand you're aiming to make it a pretty accessible game. Is a Penny Arcade game not an opportunity to make a really hardcore game? Why did you choose to make a casual RPG?

JdY: Certainly a lot of Penny Arcade fans are hardcore gamers. But we think there's a lot of people who – in a way, like ourselves – have considered themselves hardcore gamers for a long time, but are now a lot busier. It's a lot more difficult to finish a forty hour game and you spend a lot of money on these games. We think there's a place for games that are very accessible but also can be completed in a reasonable amount of time.

That was one of the main reasons we wanted to go for an episodic format. Certainly I think we are making this game so that it's going to please Penny Arcade fans and is going to feel authentically Penny Arcade. But the accessibility is also going to mean that anyone who is only passingly familiar with Penny Arcade or even never heard of it can also enjoy the game and get to know the characters.

It's a stand-alone story where the Penny Arcade characters are sort of put into this other world, right?

JdY: It's placed in an alternate universe, so [Penny Arcade main characters] Gabe and Tycho and a bunch of other characters that you've seen in the comic strip are there, but it's set in the 1920s and it's got this steampunk HP Lovecraft cult horror feel to it. I think that's a setting that Jerry's wanted to play with for a long time.

I noticed the Fruit F&^%ker in some of the screenshots, so despite having this alternate universe we will still see elements from the comics?

JdY: Oh yes, and if you've seen any of shots of the Fruit F&^%ker he's changed for the 1920s. He's got gears and he's steam powered, with stacks coming out the back. It's pretty cool.

The people who visit our site are obviously into traditional adventures. Can you speak to how much of the game is story-based and how much of it is combat?

JdY: It's definitely a combination of the two. It's hard just putting into a percentage, but you might say it's half and half. It's definitely something we have tried to integrate from the beginning, so that as you are working your way through the adventure game itself you are unveiling the story. The different battles are integrated into the story, but also act as sort of soft gates. You have to have your characters leveled up sufficiently to be able to make it through certain enemies.

So are there encounters in the game that are repeatable in order to level up?

JdY: No, there's actually no random encounters.

Is there anything you unlock in the game through the type of inventory puzzle that Ron's games were famous for?

Ron Gilbert (RG): It's kind of light. As a gamer I've been going for much lighter games, so there aren't those kind of diabolical puzzles where you are trying to figure out how two unrelated things fit together. But I see the puzzles in the Penny Arcade game being very story-focused puzzles. Because one of the things about this game is that it's very rich and heavy on story. The work that Jerry has done on the story and the writing is incredibly funny.

A lot of the adventure game puzzles are really about bringing out the story, as opposed to being just mind-boggling adventure game puzzles that you are trying to solve. You're not going to get that deep stuff but it's about telling the story through the puzzles and situations that come up. What we also rely pretty heavily on is that kind of Monkey Island style dialog, where you go up to characters and you have really funny choices. I worked very closely with Jerry to get his story structured in a kind of adventure game dialog format.

Gabe and Tycho are in the game, but there's also a third player character. How do you assign dialog to those three characters? Does your player character kind of stay in the background?

JdY: Your character is customized and you work together with Gabe and Tycho. When you have a specific dialog encounter the choices are the player's choices. You may have your party – yourself and Gabe and Tycho – on one side and the person you are talking to on the other. Gabe and Tycho will speak during the conversation depending on the situation, but all three of them can participate in them. Effectively in the combat as well – you are the player character so when you walk around you walk around and Gabe and Tycho follow, but you are really controlling all three characters. They're all in your party and you can do attacks with each one of them.

I noticed the game has 2D and 3D segments. Was it hard to make those work together?

JdY: Taking what is effectively a 2D comic into a 3D world is a big challenge, but a lot of the people on the team have experience with it. A lot of us worked on Simpsons Road Rage, Simpsons Hit and Run and Incredible Hulk Ultimate Destruction. Those are all 2D comic type intellectual properties brought into a 3D game.

In Penny Arcade Adventures we really wanted to give the feel that you get in a panel-based comic. So when you move through the world and hit the edge of an area, a comic panel appears in the window with a little arrow. You click it and it slides like you are moving to another panel. The actual 2D is even drawn like panels and will have action going on in one while you'll see the edge of the other... and when that one's done it will slide over. All those things were done to try and get that feel.

One of the challenges of making that work though is that you have a fully customized character. You can choose your clothing, colors, and all that stuff, so we had to get that character appearing in the 3D world but also rendering it in the 2D world.

And from different angles I guess?

JdY: Yes, so the cutscenes are not prerendered movies. It's actually being done in runtime in 2D. It's pretty neat technology and we are really happy with the results.

Did you have to limit the degree of character customization to make that work?

JdY: Well, certainly it's always a trade-off. Every time we add, say, a shirt we would have to model it in 3D and draw it for the 2D cutscenes as well. The customized player also appears in the HUD for your combat and for your dialog, so that's actually also a separate piece of art. So any new piece had to be done three times. Of course, making the game episodic gives us the option of adding new parts later.

Regarding the episodic structure, is it going to be a continuing story or is it more like you are going to release a series of small games?

JdY: The story in each episode stands on its own. You can buy episodes and play them without having previous episodes installed. So we definitely want people to be able to play them in the order they want. However there is a larger story arc from the beginning to the end much like the season of a TV show that ties everything together.

How far apart are they in terms of release? Is it similar to Sam & Max, or...?

JdY: It's not as quick as Sam & Max but it's not as long as Half-Life. It's a new model for us, so we're still working through it. We are targeting three to four months but we haven't announced any specific release dates. To achieve that -- and I know that's something Telltale did as well -- you have to overlap and prepare a lot of the work in advance. We're very close to releasing episode one, and a large majority of the assets for episode two are already done, and we're working on episode three. So bugs are being fixed in episode one, polish on episode two, and there's people generating assets for three.

Will episode two have you return to scenes from the first episode? In other words, will you be reusing stuff?

JdY: Absolutely.

What kind of different combat encounters, or gameplay progression, will you have within the game and throughout the series?

JdY: The difficulty is going to increase as you move along. If you play episode one and you customize your character and collect certain items and get certain stats in your combat, you can actually carry that over to subsequent episodes.

However if someone were to, say, pick up episode two, and hasn't played episode one, we can't start them at level one. They have to start at a reasonable level to be able to fight the enemies that they are going to encounter in episode two, so we've got a plan for that.

If you do very well in episode one and you level up your characters as much as you can, it'll probably put you at a slight advantage over someone who just starts at episode two.

How will the games be distributed?

JdY: Well, not in a store...

It's going to be PC and Xbox 360 right?

JdY: Yeah. Windows, Mac and Linux and Xbox Live Arcade. All of those will be done through digital distribution. You'll be able to get the game directly from Hothead and Penny Arcade and you'll also be able to get it on Live Arcade.

As a company we are platform agnostic, so we want to get this to as many people as possible on whatever platform they want. We don't want to have to force a particular platform on someone. If somebody loves playing on a particular console we want them to be able play the game on it. So we'd love to put Penny Arcade Adventures on even more platforms and there'll probably be some announcements in the near future on that.

Go to the next page for more about Penny Arcade Adventures' storyline and Ron Gilbert on his new game DeathSpank!

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Mar 20, 2008

Really good interview. I am interested in seeing the final results and it would be great to have something like this on Xbox Live.

VinceTwelve VinceTwelve
Mar 20, 2008

I love the idea of “leveling up” being connected to the items that you find rather than the number of battles you’ve fought in an RPG.  So, presumably, instead of grinding to power up my character, I go and solve some optional puzzles to reap their rewards.  Color me excited.

dantebk dantebk
Mar 20, 2008

I’m so psyched to play these games!  I love Penny Arcade.  As immature and silly as the comic can be, those two guys are VERY smart and VERY discerning about their product.  I trust them to put out a good game.

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