It's taken developer Hothead five years and four games to get around to making and finishing XBLA and PSN game Swarm. Not only has the concept existed that long, Swarm also represents the first completely solo effort by Hothead. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness was a collaboration with Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. DeathSpank was a collaboration with LucasArts adventure game hero Ron Gilbert. Hothead is finally going it alone.
Neither of the two Penny Arcade Adventures episodes released sold particularly well which, coupled with the on-going demands of DeathSpank and a strained relationship with Penny Arcade makers Gabe and Tycho, essentially nailed that coffin shut.
But what happened with Ron Gilbert? Is the door shut on DeathSpank? And what is this new game Swarm? We pounced on Hothead's co-founder Joel DeYoung to find out.
Eurogamer: What is this Swarm thing?
Joel DeYoung: Swarm is something we've been working on for quite a while; we formed the concept back in late 2006 and we got started on it in very late 2009. The team is about 12 to 15 people.
Swarm is based on the PhD research of doctor Mike Hayward, who's our advanced technology specialist. He had done research in artificial life, in artificial intelligence. He came up with this idea of having these cute little characters who, individually, can't really do much. But when they co-operate with each other they can do some really amazing things. So Swarm is an action platformer where you control 50 little blue morons all at once. The Swarmites are these pudgy blue cute characters that don't really have much concern for their own safety because they don't have much going on between their ears. They're curious and they'll do whatever they're told, but they don't have any individual personality. The reason for that is because they're expendable. We've put them in really harsh, dangerous environments. Death and destruction is a key theme in the game.
There's lots of games where you control a collection of guys: Pikmin, Overlord. But in Swarm there's no lead Swarmite, you've got 50 guys running in one direction and you're controlling all of them at one time. And it's quite tricky. The swarm naturally flocks around the environment. If you push them up against an object they'll naturally flow around it. If you're in a particularly precarious area and you need to control the shape of the swarm you can huddle them. If you squeeze one of the triggers they'll huddle, if you squeeze the other they'll spread out. You can also jump them. When the first guy jumps, the rest will follow him. The cool thing is that there's an emergence in how the swarm behaves. If you huddle them then and start jumping, they'll end up jumping on each other's heads. And as you repeatedly jump they'll squeeze tighter and tighter until they form this totem pole 30 guys high. And you can use this to jump to higher ledges you couldn't reach - in which case you end up sacrificing half your swarm because they fall to their deaths.
Eurogamer: Is Swarm a big game?
Joel DeYoung: The core experience, running from beginning to end, is going to be six to eight hours. But we also built a scoring system. We really wanted people to understand that the game was in many ways about sacrifice. The scoring system rewards collecting everything in the game, collecting as fast as you can and sacrificing guys when it's appropriate. There's a whole multiplier system that ties in to how fast you collecting things and even how fast Swarmites are dying. As we progressed we realised that the play testers were really getting excited about higher scores. And that feels really old school, like being back at the arcade.
We've made this game all about replayability and score competition with your friends. We've got leaderboards for every level. We even have a leaderboard for how many Swarmites you've killed in total. How you're doing against your friends, and how you're doing globally on the leaderboards is going to be constantly put in your face. It sort of does what Trials HD did.
No direct multiplayer. But the experience is designed - with the leaderboards - to be a single-player game that feels like a multiplayer experience.
Swarm pulls you in and begs you to try and master it. On PSN there's going to be, on the main menu, a count of how many Swarmites have died globally. We're thinking about having an office pool to guess what number people can get to. There's a lot of factors involved. I'm working on putting a global count on our website as well, which would be inclusive of all platforms.
Eurogamer: Can Swarm grow post-release?
Joel DeYoung: Yeah, the game's set up to do DLC. If we're hearing people say, "We want more levels!" "We want a level editor!" "We want a sequel!" then we can respond fairly quickly to that.
Eurogamer: Your last game, DeathSpank - were you satisfied with how that turned out?
Joel DeYoung: Yeah, I think we were. It was a really fun game to work on, and being part of Ron Gilbert's next game was a lot of fun to do. We didn't start the company to make funny games, it just seems that's just what we do - it's a natural thing we tend towards. It's really heartening when you release a game and you read online about people liking it and the fun they had with the game. And now everyone's asking us online about a third version of DeathSpank.
Sales-wise its been a big success and we're really happy about it.
There's always things as a creator that you look back on and think you could have spent more time on, could have made it a bit better. Some things you don't even expect: some people, when DeathSpank eats food to replenish health he makes this smacking noise - I guess for some people it's a bit of a finger-nails on the chalk-board effect. For some people it really sets them off. In hindsight we should have had a check-box in the options to be able to turn that off! I think I publicly committed that we would do that anyway in the future.
Little things like that; things with the UI, the combat system, the progression, the quests. We put on our blog about a month ago and said hypothetically speaking, if we were to make another DeathSpank what would you like to see? And we got a flood of responses.
Eurogamer: Will you make a third DeathSpank game?
Joel DeYoung: Well I won't say anything officially, but you can just read our blog and read between the lines I guess.
It's been a great franchise for us and it's a great character, and there's a lot of world that's still unexplored for DeathSpank.
Eurogamer: Hypothetically, then, if you did make a third DeathSpank - would it be very different to how Thongs of Virtue was to DeathSpank? Those two were released very close together.
Joel DeYoung: Yeah. Those games were worked on more in parallel and they came out in rapid succession. If we did another DeathSpank it would take a lot more time and give a lot more chance to respond to people's feedback.
Eurogamer: What was it like working with the legendary Ron Gilbert? Was he a diva?
Joel DeYoung: Ha ha ha! No! I never saw him throw a latte or something like that!
He is very creative and he was great to work with. The thing I noticed, and this will apply to Gabe and Tycho and to Ron is that there does seem to be - and to a lot of people here at Hothead because we're a creative bunch - a lot of emotion and a lot of passion. Certainly when we made DeathSpank there was lots of vigorous debate about what features would be in the game, how DeathSpank would be portrayed, how far we'd go with certain jokes. But at Hothead the whole office and environment is set up to be a creative space. We allow people to have a creative outlet. If that means having heated discussions or being emotional or being passionate about what you think then we certainly allow for that.
But we also have an environment that's set up for mutual respect. Our philosophy is that we run the studio so that there is no diva or central figure and it's their creative genius that rules the day. Everyone's a designer and everyone contributes - it's actually one of our three core values. Just because you're, say, the lead designer of a project or just because you're Ron Gilbert does not mean your say-so has any greater weight than anyone else. Everyone gets to contribute and through a collaborative environment and process, we believe it's the best ideas that rise to the top.
Eurogamer: Are the roots of why Ron Gilbert departed buried within that communal spirit?
Joel DeYoung: Well you'd have to ask him specifically about his exact reasons for leaving. I mean it was an amicable departure certainly, but my sense of it was that he was working with us a consultant on the Penny Arcade titles and we really enjoyed not only his experience of making adventure games and how he could educate us and Gabe and Tycho, but he was also a nice guy to work with. And very creative.
When he said he had the DeathSpank concept and he had been pitching it to publishers for a few years but never had any bites - how about Hothead making it? We said yeah we're definitely interested in that. There was a brief period when he was going to work remotely from the States and we were going to possibly open an office near where he was. But he said why don't I just move to Vancouver and that's when we hired him in as our creative director, and he of course had an influence on all the stuff we were working on at the studio.
But DeathSpank was his focus because it was his baby. I think when DeathSpank was nearing completion he decided he had done what he came to do and then he moved on at that point.
Eurogamer: Do you feel a bit lost without him?
Joel DeYoung: No, like I said: based on the way we run this studio it just comes naturally. DeathSpank as a character, I think it's very clear what he's all about. You could easily imagine DeathSpank in some other scenarios or other situations or other environments and extrapolate out what that means. We've got writers and designers and artists internally here and they were the people who created DeathSpank. Because of the way we ran it it's not the sort of thing that's really reliant on any one individual.
More on Swarm
Review: Download Games Roundup
Swarm! Slam! Rescue! Battle! Ghostbusters!
Update: On Euro PS3 a week later.
Hothead's latest gets platform details.
Eurogamer: Will you partner with other big-name collaborators - like Penny Arcade, like Ron Gilbert - in the future?
Joel DeYoung: These were opportunities that arose organically. We didn't start the company saying we're going to find really well-known, famous people in the industry and try to collaborate them. If opportunities were to come up in the future to work with someone again, then yeah, we'd be open to it - but it's not something we're seeking explicitly.
At the same time we're releasing Swarm we have other new ideas in the works where we're creating our own original IP.
Eurogamer: Are we going to see another game from Hothead this year?
Joel DeYoung: Possibly. Possibly. I can't announce anything right now.
Eurogamer: How many teams do you have at Hothead?
Joel DeYoung: We're pretty fluid. Up until recently we had two teams, because we had the team on DeathSpank and the team on Swarm. You might have heard about the card game we're making as well, which has a working title of Arcana. That was a smaller third team. So it's about three right now; we're about 50 people, and we have the flexibility to move between up to four or five teams as necessary.
Eurogamer: Did you settle on a name for that card game? I remember you asking the internet for help.
Joel DeYoung: We still haven't settled for one yet!
Eurogamer: My suggestion is Cazards and that's probably the best.
Joel DeYoung: Ha ha ha ha! That's good!
Yeah we were really amused by the suggestions.
Eurogamer: [He doesn't seem to be going for it. I'll try again] When is Cazards coming out? Is that this year?
Joel DeYoung: Ha ha!
We don't have a date yet, but we're working on it. But obviously that will be posted on our blog when we have more information.
We're going to have to use that name now I guess!