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.
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.
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.