Joystiq interview: Penny Arcade Adventures

It's fair to say that quite a lot is expected from Vancouver-based developer, Hothead Games. The group not only has to deliver a series of downloadable and episodic adventure RPGs in regular intervals, but also appease a fanbase so large and rabid that it can click your website to death -- accidentally, if you're lucky. On top of all that, the poor developers are occasionally dragged into a tiny room for the sole purpose of being poked by a plethora of questions regarding their upcoming games.

Penny Arcade Adventures producer, Joel DeYoung, and Hothead creative director, Ron Gilbert, had to endure just such a prodding during GDC, the results of which can be viewed after the break. Appropriately enough, our interview's almost as long as the title of the series: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.

How far along is Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness?

Joel: It's very close to done, we're beta on Episode One right now, and because it's episodic and we're gonna release episodes every few months, a lot of the work and content on Episode Two is already done. We've already started started work on Episode Three and so the team is split in working on them in parallel.

Do you have a maximum number of episodes already planned out?

Joel: We haven't announced how many episodes we're gonna release, but we do have to plan a fixed number of episodes. Each episode has its own story, bu the story arc runs the entire length of the game series and so it definitely has a beginning, middle and end.

Ron, what have you been doing for the last few years? We've been reading your ramblings on Grumpy Gamer, but what have you done outside of that?

Ron: For most of the last couple of years I've been doing two things: I do a lot of consulting with companies, which is how I hooked up with Hothead, because I'm doing consulting on the Penny Arcade game for the adventure game aspects of it. The other thing I've been doing is just working on the design for my DeathSpank game and pitching that to different publishers which, once again, led me to Hothead since they're gonna be publishing and funding the game.

So it has nothing to do with that Monkey Island money finally running out?

Ron: [laughs] There was no Monkey Island money to run out, so no.

What exactly does your job entail at Hothead? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Ron: Two basic things. As creative director, I work with the other designers, just brainstorm with them and look over their designs and provide support where I can. And for the Deathspank stuff, I'm the designer for that and also leading that project. We're in pre-production right now, so I'm working very closely with the artists, getting the whole look and feel of the thing figured out.

How was the connection made between Ron and the Penny Arcade game?

Joel: Well, at PAX back in 2006 we announced we were doing the game, and Ron actually sent us an e-mail. We were a bit cagey about what style the game was -- we said it was a "comic adventure" -- and so he said, "If that means it's at all an adventure game or even close to an adventure game, then I'm really interested in working with you guys on it." So, he jumped at the opportunity for sure.

So you guys didn't just say, "Hey, we can put Ron Gilbert's name on our game!"

Joel: Well, it's great having Ron associated with Hothead and having him on as our creative director, but he's really brought a lot to the process of helping our design team. And frankly, Mike and Jerry at Penny Arcade understand how you structure a story for an adventure game.

What's it like working with Mike and Jerry? They're obviously familiar with games; they write about them, they make fun of them, but they're not really known for designing them.

Joel: Well yeah, they're not game designers and they've never made a game before. They're absolutely insane to work with, they're very creative guys. We'll sit around at their office around the whiteboard, brainstorm out the story, the structure, the way the adventure game stuff's gonna work. It's been a real eye-opening experience for them I think, seeing the process of making a game from beginning to end. They do see a lot of games, they talk a lot about games, they know a lot about games but, I think it was eye-opening for them seeing how unfinished games look throughout the process. That being said, they have definitely been involved day-to-day. Jerry has not only written all the dialogue, but every word in the game has had his hand on it. And Mike did a lot of the character design and environment design and they work on a daily basis with our people at Hothead.

Ron: They're both really great people and I think the brainstorm meetings we've had with them have been some of the best brainstorming I've been involved with. They really understand the whole brainstorming process and how you churn ideas through really really well. So, it's been wonderful to work with them.

That's an interesting way to approach game design, isn't it? Getting people who aren't already entrenched into the development scene, acting like a fresh pair of eyes.

Ron: I think there's a little bit of that. I think with Mike and Jerry, they're very very creative. And Jerry is such an incredibly good writer, and that's something that the game industry really needs more of -- really really good writers. So, it was really great to be able to work with him and yeah, he does kind of bring a fresh perspective to things and how they approach things with the comic versus games.

So, why choose episodic for this series of games?

Joel: Well, for several reasons. It's really the best way to tell a story in a lot of ways. Because, you know, we're pretty familiar with TV shows and having self-contained stories, but having a larger story arc. But it's also just getting the game into the hands of the gamers earlier and being able to hear their feedback and respond to that. I'm sure we'll get lots of feedback from the Penny Arcade fans after Episode One comes out, and we will listen to that and incorporate that into future episodes. It's also very difficult these days -- you buy a game for fifty bucks, and it's forty hours of gameplay and it's actually really hard to make it through the whole thing. And episodic, I think, is just reflective of how a lot of hardcore gamers or formally hardcore gamers now have busy lives and aren't able to actually play a game. I've picked up some big AAA games recently and they look really great, they're really polished, it's just almost a daunting feeling that I'm gonna have to work through this and finish it all. And as you know, a lot of games don't get finished. We think episodic lets people have a chance at having a self-contained experience that they can get through.

Ron: Yeah, I think the number one thing for me and why I'm interested in episodic, is I want people to see the end of my game. I think for a lot of games the endings are just not seen by most players.

Or they're just not very good.

Ron: Well, I think they're not very good because ... who puts the time into them? I think a lot of developers know that 15% of the people are actually going to see the ending, so why build an arc towards things? Why spend time and effort, technically and creatively, on the ending when 15% of the people are gonna see it?

Do you know how long it'll take between episode releases? Do you have a fixed schedule?

Joel: Yeah, definitely there's a fixed release schedule. It's tentative right now, but we're talking about one every four months. Because, you know, this is a new model for us, and it is quite tricky with all the project management scheduling, making sure we're officially overlapping the work on all the episodes.

I imagine deadlines are a huge issue when it comes to episodic games.

Joel: Absolutely. People know it's going to be coming out regularly, they're gonna expect that it comes out on time at a regular interval. I think Telltale's done a great job of saying, we're gonna release episodes of Sam & Max every month, and people that are fans of the series look forward to the release day very much.

Do you think the constant pressure of deadline after deadline -- you have to finish the game and work within your allotted amount of time -- spurs on creativity?

Joel: Well, it's always a struggle making video games. You always have deadlines, you always have these pressures, but you also don't want to release something too early. Certainly in the case of the Penny Arcade game, we know the fans are very particular about their games, and we think they'll be really critical of this game, as they should be. So, it's important to us to make sure they get an authentic Penny Arcade experience and something that's really high quality. While we certainly have our own pressures to get it out as soon as possible -- we want to get this in people's hands -- we've always said we weren't going to release this until we really felt it was ready, and frankly, until Mike and Jerry really think it's ready. One philosophy we have at Hothead is to get the game running as soon as possible and then take the time to step back, see what's good, see what's maybe not so good, and take the time to iterate. We've really done that with this first episode.

Ron: I think with episodic games, you have something else going on in that a lot of creative work is really done upfront. It's not that, you know, we're making a game a month or a game every three months. There's a whole lot of work, so I think that creativity isn't really cut short because it's episodic since a lot of work is done upfront. I think with the episodic stuff, at least for me designing the Deathspank games, is it really focuses me. It really says, "You know what, I need to put the important things in this game and not the unimportant things." I think in some ways that's a good thing creatively.

The first Penny Arcade trailer you guys released was met with a bit of a lukewarm reception. Was that too soon?

Joel: Well, possibly. Looking back on it, we definitely wanted to show people we were very excited about the 2D look and the sort of vector graphics style cutscenes that we have in the game and how you're customized player shows up in there. But we also didn't, because it was very early, we didn't want to give the wrong impression that it was a strictly 2D game, so we threw in bits of 3D. Definitely, we were at a very early stage with not only the look of the characters, but the rendering approaches we were using -- the toon shading wasn't in at all and so forth -- so I think some people might have misinterpreted what that means. It simply means that when the next trailer released, people were able to see the progression we were making along the way.

I was looking at it yesterday, and you have these really neat transitions from 2D to 3D. Did that present a notable technical challenge?

Joel: Absolutely. Even just aesthetically, trying to bring a 2D comic IP into 3D games is a challenge. It's two very different art styles, and we wanted to make sure that it was very seamless. So, there's aspects of it in the 3D world. When you run to the edge of an area, a little comic panel appears and the whole thing slides over. When you're watching the 2D cutscenes, you see them in comic panels and you can see the other panel (non-animating) that's coming next and then one panel freezes, it slides over ... We wanted to just have those themes go through the entire game to make it seem as seamless as possible.

Why did you decide to make the game into an adventure RPG? When you read the comics, they don't immediately lend themselves to any specific genre.

Joel: Yeah, it's true. I think the story, being set in an alternate universe -- it's in the 1920's, it's kinda H.P. Lovecraft style -- It's a story that Mike and Jerry have wanted to tell for a long time. In terms of the style of game, we think that people who are fans of Penny Arcade are pretty hardcore, and we believe that there are a lot of RPG fans that are also fans of Penny Arcade, so we wanted to definitely get those RPG elements in. But, the adventure stuff comes from the fact that this is a very story-focused game and it's about telling that story in the way that only the Penny Arcade guys can. You know, we've all got a soft spot in our hearts for adventure games, having played a lot of the old adventure games (it's why we're so happy to be working with Ron), but we believe that for today, to bring adventure games back if you will, we wanted to add something extra to it.

It's kind of an unusual game for XBLA in particular, since most of the games are action-based, pick-up-and-play titles. In this one, you have to immerse yourself in the story and RPG elements. Do you think it'll be tough getting the attention of Xbox Live Arcade gamers?

Joel: We think there's a lot of people that are Penny Arcade fans and that really like Xbox, so a lot of them are gonna have Xboxes. The thing about Live Arcade, certainly it has been pretty focused on arcadey-type games and this is definitely going to break new ground, but we think Live Arcade is a great service because it's focused on digital distribution. More and more people have broadband, more and more people want to be able to just be on their couches and download a game directly to either their PC, which they'll be able to with this game, or to a console. So, we're very excited about the platform and we're excited to be breaking some new ground with it as well.

Any other target platforms under consideration aside from XBLA and PC?

Joel: We've always said that we want the gamer to choose the platform they play this on and not have the game impose it on them. We don't have any extra news to announce at this time, but there's probably going to be some stuff coming up about being able to get this in other ways as well.

So, Gizmondo version?

Joel: [laughs] We'll have to see, we're doing that after the Amiga.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.