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.
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?
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!
Gabe and Tycho have an identity in the comics that is basically based on them being gamers and talking about games, but in Penny Arcade Adventures they clearly have a different role. How are their characters going to be different from the comics?
RG: Their personalities are actually very much the same as they are in the comics. Clearly the game takes place in the 1920s so they're not really going to be playing video games or talking about them but their personalities are the same. They interact with and play off of each other in the same way.
JdY: And they argue a lot.
RG: Yes, they are clearly the same two guys. They're not playing two other characters. And then there's just a lot of satire of video games through the little things in the game itself. Like how some of the combat happens and some of the story happens.
What is the story like, actually? I've seen the trailers but I don't yet have a clue about what's going to happen in this game.
JdY: You're a regular guy and you're standing in front of your house raking your leaves, and a giant robot comes to smash your house.
JdY: And you see Gabe and Tycho run by and you chase after them and they agree to help you find a place to live. But they are these investigators who run a detective agency specializing in the occult and bizarre phenomena. They're trying to solve the mystery of why the giant robot is in town and you're trying to find a place to live, so that's kind of running through the story. But as it progresses and even into the future episodes it just gets really, really weird. (laughs)
We don't say too much about what happens in the story because it's episodic and we don't want to give any spoilers, but it's from the mind of Jerry, so... it's going to be pretty bizarre.
Let's talk about DeathSpank for a moment. Ron, you've been thinking about this game a long time haven't you?
How did you end up working with Hothead on this game?
RG: The game came about several years ago. It kind of sprung from those little Flash comics that Clayton [Kauzlaric] and I did. We created this character called DeathSpank who was supposed to be a satire of video game characters. It's just over the top and about the stupidity of it all. Clayton and I thought he really should be in a game, because we kept thinking of all these great things that we could do. We started working that into a kind of game format.
Of course I love adventure games, so I really wanted to have a very strong adventure game element to it, but I also wanted it to be somewhat of an action game because he is kind of an action hero. He needs to be fighting and he needs to be wreaking destruction on everything. So that was important.
I'm a big fan of Diablo and Zelda and those types of games and I've always wanted to combine those things together because they're right. A lot of RPG games do a very mediocre job at storytelling and puzzle-type things and so I wanted to bring into them those really solid adventure game puzzles that you see in games like Monkey Island. And then kind of meld that with some good action and RPG-type fighting.
What conventions from RPGs are you going to use and which ones are you going to leave out? Are we going to see stats like dexterity or strength, and so forth?
RG: No, not a lot of stats. Again none of this is finalized, so it could be totally different by the time the game comes out. (laughs) It's not a very stat-heavy game, but it is about what you are wearing. You get all your abilities through the items that you find. So in that sense it's a lot more like Zelda. It's making sure you have the right weapons, armor, hat or boots. That's really how you progress your character as opposed to dexterity stats or all the D&D type stuff. That also fits really well with the adventure game model, because adventure games are really about acquiring items and using those items.
How would you characterize the parody elements in DeathSpank? Is this going to be “videogames: the video game”?
RG: There is a lot of parody. The whole game is really just a big satire of video games. The characters you encounter, the situations, and just the absurdity of it all.
Is DeathSpank the same game you mentioned in one of your early blog posts as pitching to various publishers, or is this something that evolved out of your comics later on?
RG: No, this is the game.
Is it the game you worked on at your desk at Double Fine, which I guess people turned into a bigger deal than you wanted?
RG: (laughs) Yes.
At what stage was the game while you were working on it there? Were you prototyping or writing design documents?
RG: When I design games I like to draw maps. Things kind of gel in my head when I draw maps. So I was mostly using mapping software to draw maps of the game world, figure out where everybody was going to be, and writing all of that out. So yeah, it was mostly design work that I was doing there.
The piece of concept art that was attached to the DeathSpank announcement – is that indicative of the final art style of the game? People on forums spent a lot of time arguing about that image.
RG: No, that is really not that indicative of the art style. We were pulling that work from the Flash comics.
Is the game going to be 2D or 3D?
RG: It's going to be 3D but ... not 3D... like you are used to seeing.
Okay. That sounds... very mysterious.
... Cel shading?
No? Alright. So how big is DeathSpank going to be? Will episodes be similar in size to Penny Arcade Adventures?
RG: I haven't made a final decision on how long the episodes are. I don't know if I want to keep it down to the shorter end to have more episodes or bring them to a longer end and do them less often. The way I design the first episode... there are places where I know right where to snip it, to make it a short, or to keep it long. That's probably a decision we'll make in a couple of months.
What is the timeline from here? When can we expect to see more?
RG: Don't really know.
“When it's done”?
RG: When it's done. (laughs) We have to keep saying that.
JdY: At this very early stage it's important to let ideas simmer, right? In terms of how the game is going to look and what the final story will be.
Right. Penny Arcade Adventures' release date is more set in stone now at this point?
JdY: Yes, spring 2008. Very soon, we're beta.
I believe I'm all out of questions. Do you have anything to add?
JdY: Only that we're super psyched to work with Ron Gilbert.
Thanks for your time.