1. Tell us about DeathSpank. What's the premise? The gameplay?
The elevator pitch for DeathSpank is Monkey Island meets Diablo. All the interesting and complex storytelling and humor of the golden age of adventure games blended with an action RPG. That said, DeathSpank is not a hardcore RPG.
2. Describe some of the RPG aspects you intend on having in the game (character creation, stats, equipment, etc).
The one thing DeathSpank is missing from the traditional RPG is character creation, since the game revolves around the character DeathSpank. He is who he is. Don't try to change him. But, there are a lot of different stats, equipment and abilities in the game. Players will build those up over time, customizing DeathSpank to fit their play style and challenges the game throws at them.
3. How are you combining the adventure and RPG elements? What will the balance between the two genres be? More adventure or more RPG?
Good question and probably the hardest thing about designing DeathSpank. If there were ever two genres that belonged together, I think it's Adventure and RPG. They share a lot in being story and world focused. But there are also differences, mainly in what motivates players to move forward and how they attack problems. An adventure game can be described as a bunch of immovable objects you need to navigate your way around, and a RPG is a bunch of really heavy objects you need to push out of the way. I would be lying if I said it's not a constant challenge to balance the two. As John F. Kennedy once said of the moon landings: We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
4. What about dialog? Will there branching dialog trees?
Yes, the way you interact with other characters (besides beating on the them with a sword if the need arises) is humorous Monkey Island style dialog trees. In the past few years this has become a lost art. Players today don't seem to enjoy a good conversation, or maybe it's that no one is giving them a good one to enjoy.
5. How important will the story be in DeathSpank? What sort of story could you create around this character?
Story is paramount to the game. This is one of the strongest aspects borrowed from traditional adventure games. There is a complex story the weaves its way through the world. DeathSpank has always been a character that stories just write themselves around given that both the character and the game are a satirizing of games and two dimensional game characters.
6. What about exploration? Will there be a world to roam around in or it will it be a more linear situation?
It's a completely open world. You can go anywhere you want, provided that you can either puzzle solve or fight your way there. There is not set order events will unfold in. This aspect of how stories are told is taken directly from good classic adventure games (not the bad ones, just the good ones).
The large non-linear world is also completely load-less. As you wonder from area to area, in and out of caves and buildings, there is never a load screen. In my mind, this kind of immersion is one of the more important aspects of the game.
7. Since a Diablo mention is unavoidable at some point, is there anything about Diablo you'd like to avoid with DeathSpank?
There are a couple of things. But first, I think Diablo is a brilliantly designed game. It should be standard for deconstruction in game schools (if game schools did that sort of stuff, which they don't, which is too bad). I never felt the Diablo world was one that I could just explore and experience. Diablo is very much about getting equipment/stats to kill the next thing you encounter (PvP mode aside). While there is a very rich world, it's mostly told as backstory. I prefer stories are told to me while I play the game. Some of the older games such as Baldur's Gate do a pretty good job of this. Zelda also does this well.
8. Does the sad fate of Hellgate: London give you any pause about going into the action RPG business? After all, these guys were professionals at this sort of thing...
No. One game failing to live up to expectations should never write off an entire genera. It's important to look at games that fail as much as games that succeed. There are always lessons to be learned.
9. Can we expect further RPGs from you in the future, whether action-oriented or more traditional?
I tend not to think too far in the future.
10. Is it anymore of a challenge incorporating comedy into an action RPG rather than an adventure game? Is there any difference in how you'd approach it?
The most important thing for me when integrating comedy into DeathSpank was to make sure -- at some level -- the combat is always taken seriously. I didn't want to give DeathSpank a bunch of silly abilities like throwing a pie in someone's face or farting. There are funny things he does, such as cast a spell that conjures a bunch of chickens that attack someone (it's the funniest thing you've ever seen) but there are real stats behind the attack. Players can look at it and understand the damage it does and the effects it has on the enemies (i.e. fearing them), plus these chickens are tearing some guy to pieces. Tragedy is when bad things happen to you, comedy is when bad things happen to someone else.
11. What made you decide to go with Hothead Games? What was your role on the Penny Arcade games?
The main reason I went with Hothead was they were a small Indie studio that self published their games. I did not want to do the game with a huge publisher that would want to water down the game. It's a weird game. I wanted to preserve that.
12. Are there any other studios you'd like to work with in the future?
I'd go work for Blizzard if they wanted me to work on their next MMO.
13. What are some of the challenges you've found working on an episodic game?
DeathSpank is no longer episodic, so I guess you could say there were some challenges. :-) I really like episodic, but it's hard for it to make financial sense unless you drop yourself into a fairly ridged structure and we decided that wasn't the best thing for DeathSpank. When the industry has matured a little more, I think episodic will be big and I very much want to do that.
14. Given your and Clayton Kauzlaric's connection to Total Annihilation, was there any consideration of going with an RTS? Any other genres you'd like to give a try? Any genre you'd never try?
Funny you should mention that. Back when I was running Cavedog Entertainment, I was designing a game called "Good & Evil" that was a melding of adventure and RTS. DeathSpank shares a lot in common with that game. As far as other genres I'd like to try? Just about anything except FPS. I'm not a huge fan of them and I'd probably make a really bad one.
15. What recent or upcoming projects in the adventure field excite you, give you hope? Anything about the current state of the genre that frustrates you?
Telltale does a lot of good things with adventure games. It's good to see them being commercially successful making them. It's also nice to see the indie movement take up the genre, but I'd love to see more market aware innovation from them. Adventure games suffer from two problems in todays market: 1) The majority of today's gamers enjoy things that are more visceral. They like to be told what to do and where to do it and then get good at doing it. Adventure games are fundamentally about not knowing what to do or where to do it and figuring it out. Adventure games are slow moving contemplative affairs. 2) I believe there is a big emerging market for more traditional adventure games. Casual players outnumber hard core players today and adventure games (with some changes) would have great appeal if we could figure out how to reach them. It's a problem time will solve.
16. Has being the "Monkey Island guy" ever been a hindrance to you in the industry? For example, pitching an idea and being told "...but that doesn't sound like an adventure game."
Just to opposite. Conversations usually start with "We don't want to hear an adventure game pitch".
17. It's pretty safe to say that most of the folks that follow your career are adults. But are you concerned about keeping DeathSpank below the threshold of a "Mature" title, especially since the yougins are likely to be drawn to any combination of the words "death" and "spank"?
There is no specific mandate to keep DeathSpank a T. If the game needs to be a M, it will be a M. Problem with a lot of M titles is they come from "developer immaturity" more than artistic need. The industry is made up of a lot of people that still giggle when they see a breast. Being M doesn't make you cool. Making a game where two girls kiss doesn't make you an "artist".
18. Where do you go after DeathSpank?
The overarching story in DeathSpank is more than one game, so I hope to finish the sequels in fairly quick succession. I don't want to have another Money Island 3 situation. At the end of the DeathSpank saga all will be explained.
19. You're given $10 million and told to go make Diablo 4 or Anachronox 2. Which would you go with and what would you do with it? Would there be any more or less pressure working with someone else's I.P.?
I have a feeling Blizzard's Diablo 3 cut-scene budget is well over $10 million. Working on someone else's IP is a lot of work if you want to be true to their creation. The thing I love about designing games is creating worlds and characters, so working on someone else's IP always removes one of the "fun components" for me.