RPS Exclusive: Ron Gilbert Interview

By John Walker on January 12th, 2008 at 12:55 am.

The very moment we heard the news that Ron Gilbert had upped sticks to Canada, become Creative Director of Hothead, and announced his new game, we leapt upon him for more details. More details we have, in our exclusive chat with the brains behind your favourite adventure experiences. We discuss his new job, get some juicy details on his new game, DeathSpank, the role adventure games can play today, and the merits of episodic gameplay. And find out who Grimtub Hobblepotty is.

Can you hear the call of the monkey?

RPS: Congratulations on the new job. Can you tell us what you’ll be doing as a Creative Director?

Ron Gilbert: First of all, it’s great to be at Hothead, I could not be more thrilled. My job will be to oversee the creative aspects of the games, with most of my focus on the game designs and working closely with the designers.

RPS: What was it about Hothead that drew you toward them? We mean, beyond their agreeing to publish your game…

RG: I got to know the people here while I was consulting on the Penny Arcade game and I was really impressed with their indie spirit and how they looked at games. They were really into ideas and concepts that were different and “creative”. They loved the strange satirical humor of DeathSpank and got it right away. We hit it off quickly and I realized I’d be able to make DeathSpank the way it needed to be made with them.

Maniac Mansion. Ahhh, memories.

RPS: For a while now your name has been showing up on credits and thank you lists for a number of games. Have you enjoyed this avuncular position in the industry?

RG: I don’t know what avuncular means.

RPS: What has your role been during the development of the Penny Arcade game?

RG: My focus on Penny Arcade game has been the adventure aspects. I worked with the designers on puzzle design and structure, plus how to layout a Monkey Island style dialog. I was involved in the initial game design brainstorms with Hothead and Mike and Jerry and corralled the great ideas that flowed from that.

RPS: Are you impressed that we got four questions in before mentioning Monkey Island?

RG: You are an interviewer with a will of steel.

Anyone recognise this game?

RPS: Adventure gaming has been through some interesting twists and turns in the last few years. Fahrenheit tried to pull it in some new directions, Psychonauts squished it into a platform game, The Adventure Company have… oh wait. Why do you think the genre lost its sense of identity, sending it on this peculiar walkabout?

RG: Hard question. In same ways, adventure games are just as popular as they were back in the day, the real issue is that the rest of the industry took off without them. I blame Doom. That game showed up and interjected testosterone in gaming that wasn’t there before and adventure games had a hard time competing with that kind of energy. There is an audience for adventure games, but it’s not the same people that are buying Halo, Bioshock, or even Mario. Problem is, until a company really decides to focus (spend money) and discover that market, it’s going to remain small.The future my lay in good adventure hybrid games, like… oh just to pull one out randomly… DeathSpank.

Did someone mention DeathSpank?

RPS: You say you’re planning to combine adventure gaming with the RPG in DeathSpank. I’ve often wondered if the RPG hasn’t simply replaced the area adventures once occupied in our lives. What properties of each are you aiming to bring to the mix?

RG: Adventure games are all about telling a good story with interesting and sexy puzzles. One aspect of the DeathSpank design I am very happy with are the puzzles and the puzzle flow. It’s very “Monkey Island”. For an adventure game, telling the story should be flawlessly woven into the puzzles, if it’s not, then the puzzles seem out of place and are just progress blockers. I like the way the two ended up complementing each other so well.

As for the RPG, let’s face it, there is something fun about whacking stuff with a sword and collecting items that make you stronger and more powerful, or just look cool. The real trick is going to make sure that those two aspects of the game complement, rather than fight with each other. Getting that right is going to be a fun challenge. Oh… there will be no grinding. That is one part of RPG/MMO that I do not like, and from a design standpoint, it can be replaced with the adventure play.

Kinky

RPS: Do you think one of the reasons publishers may have refused your gaming pitch was because it was called “DeathSpank”?

RG: One publisher did specifically mention that. But what can I do? The big lug is who he is. He’s a force not to be toyed with or understood. While some people are taken aback by the name, he is a satire and parody of games and game heroes. That’s what he started out being in the comics, and will continue to be in the games. Clayton and I like to make fun of the game industry.

RPS: If that wasn’t it, then why? These people like making money but are also often giant pusses, so they must have a reason to fear your project. Tell us their fears. We aren’t scared.

RG: Some of it was the art style, which is why I love the game so much. It’s not a realistically rendered world, it has a style and look that will be very distinctive and “artistic” and this scares some people. That said, things have changed in the last year because of the Wii and XBLA. Publishers are now looking for games that looks different. Team Fortress 2 is a good example of this.

But, I think it’s mostly because I didn’t have a demo. The game concept was strange enough that it was hard to visualize and people needed to see it. If I’d had the resources to build a real demo, I probably would have gotten it signed sooner. I see the publisher’s reliance on demos (that they won’t pay for) as a huge industry problem, but that’s another interview. Let’s not spoil the happy time.

Best. Adventure. Ever.

RPS: So, go on, tell us something juicy about DeathSpank that you’ve not revealed. We’re all ready to get excited about it, if we only knew something.

RG: DeathSpank frequents a local pub called the Haunted Crotch Bar and Grill (all you can eat salad-bar Tues nights) owned by Grimtub Hobblepotty. You read it here first.

RPS: You’re doing this episodically, so what is it about the episodic model that’s attracted you? Are you encouraged by Sam & Max’s success, or worried by the number of victims episodic releasing has taken?

RG: I love episodic. I’ve loved it since the day I left Lucasfilm and wanted to do episodic adventure games, but the cost of mailing out floppies was to prohibitive. The thing I like about episodic is not spending 2+ years working on the same game, and putting all my creative eggs in one basket. The cost of game development is astronomical, and doing smaller episodic games allows us to experiment and try out new ideas and story’s with much less risk and reach to new audiences. Also, gamers are changing, they are getting older and the time dedicated to games is being taken up by family and other “grown-up” stuff. Episodic games mean less time commitment, but a deeper more interesting experience than a match-3 casual game. I owe a huge debt of thanks to the people of Telltale for forging this path. I am not afraid of episodic.

A cliche on a random word with an animal on a day of the week, little buddy.

RPS: A frequent criticism leveled at Telltale is too much similarity with each release. How do you hope to generate a constant freshness for each episode?

RG: Each DeathSpank episode takes place in a very different setting. Now, you’re probably saying, “Hey, what about all those assets you’ll have to make!”, to which I reply, “I have a plan!”. Now, that said, I’d also like to say, “Get over it”. Why don’t people complain that the Simpsons live in the same house and visit the same church every episode? I think this is one of those “problems” that people will forget about when episodic starts to come into it’s own and players begin to focus more on the interesting stories and characters.

RPS: In our dream world, you and Tim Schafer get back together and start making games with each other, probably while holding hands and inadvertently curing cancer. So how come you don’t join him at DoubleFine?

RG: I don’t dream about Tim Schafer, but I don’t judge you for it.

, , , .

52 Comments »

  1. drunkymonkey says:

    Nice interview, as ever, RPS! Gilbert is a gaming hero of mine.

    Looking forward to Deathspank.

  2. Leeks! says:

    Dick move in not telling him what “avuncular” meant, though. I mean, who wants to go through life not having a word to succinctly describe their uncles?

  3. Seniath says:

    You’re up late.

  4. drunkymonkey says:

    “Dick move in not telling him what “avuncular” meant, though. I mean, who wants to go through life not having a word to succinctly describe their uncles?”

    I’m guessing it was a prescribed interview. :)

  5. WCAYPAHWAT says:

    Ron and Tim – Hottest couple of 2009?

  6. DuBBle says:

    If I owned a publishing house assembled from bricks of pure testosterone, I still wouldn’t take a risk on Deathspank. Based on the little I know, Deathspank’s trojan horse is that it’s developed by a gaming legend, yet I fear Ron Achilles’ weakness is an exposed and overly whacky Haunted Crotch.

  7. Ryan says:

    Since when do the Simpsons go to church every episode? WHAT HAVE I BEEN MISSING

    That said, great interview, and I am perversely fascinated with the name “Grimtub Hobblepotty.”

  8. FaceOmeter says:

    “There is an audience for adventure games, but it’s not the same people that are buying Halo, Bioshock, or even Mario.”

    Sure, there are people (I know some of them personally) who played Monkey Island and will never touch Stalker (say), but I think it’s wrong of RG to assume that I’m a console tard (copyright yahtzee 2007) simply because I’m a big fan of two of the three titles he mentions there.

    I can play Discworld and Doom with the best of them. I’m sure most of the readers of this site feel the same way.

  9. Novack says:

    Excelent interview.

  10. Lunaran says:

    If I ever have the chance to meet Ron Gilbert, I will bring two things: a sharpie, and a baseball.

  11. Masked Dave says:

    I think it’s wrong of RG to assume that I’m a console tard (copyright yahtzee 2007) simply because I’m a big fan of two of the three titles he mentions there.

    Aw, buddy.

    I think you’re being a *tad* over sensitive there, he’s just saying that the majority of the market for adventure games isn’t the same as current hardcore gamers.

  12. I_still_love_Okami says:

    RPS: For a while now your name has been showing up on credits and thank you lists for a number of games. Have you enjoyed this avuncular position in the industry?

    RG: I don’t know what avuncular means.

    Rock,Paper,Shotgun:PC Gaming’s Most Pretentious Pricks

    It wouldn’t be half as funny, if you guys hadn’t posted about the pitfalls and potentially hilarious results of pre-written interviews a few guys ago. Comedy gold.

  13. John Walker says:

    Yes, it’s hilarious how I didn’t delete that line. I think it’s safe to say Ron was being silly, as he has as much access to a dictionary as the rest of us, and is a perfectly articulate human being.

  14. I_still_love_Okami says:

    Of course I forgot to add, that the whole interview was a very funny and interesting read. Also, I don’t really think, that you are pretentious.

  15. Evo says:

    Great interview, starting to look forward to DeathSpank :D

  16. Leeks! says:

    I think “pretentious” can be a sort-of badge of honour, anyhow. The definition doesn’t strictly permit it, but I’ve often described people as “pretentious” even if they’re able to back up their rampant intellectual posturing with, well, intellect. Among my circle of comic-book reading friends, we often, indeed, describe Mr. Gillen’s work as “pretentious” and mean nothing ill by it. Of course, this is likely just a failing of my vocabulary.

  17. Kieron Gillen says:

    Pretentious is fine when done in good jest. It’s a horrible word applied to anything seriously.

    KG

  18. GEOFF HURST!! says:

    You should have told him to hire that Canada girl who made That Game you posted The Other Day. Imagine Death Spank with an open narrative, as decided by Gilbert!

    Also, re-interview him about this:
    “I see the publisher’s reliance on demos (that they won’t pay for) as a huge industry problem, but that’s another interview.”

  19. Tr00jg says:

    I also recently discovered what “avuncular” means and I have strangely encountered it a lot of times since then… Maybe the universe is telling me something.

  20. Leeks! says:

    A prize to the person who knows the origin of this quote:

    “Ladies! What’s the word? Is it… ‘avuncular?’”

  21. Lh'owon says:

    As Steven Poole put it (on “pretentious”):

    …but since anyone who can use this violently resentful, very English word with sincerity has already committed to the idea that it is better not to try than to try and fail, that clever and creative people should in general shut up rather than try to provoke an audience out of its aesthetic complacency, and that art overall has no business attempting to be transcendent…

  22. Pace says:

    Ah, perhaps the “very English word” is key here? Because I’m scratching my head a bit as to what’s wrong with the word ‘pretentious.’ (I’m American.) I would never have characterized it a “violently resentful” word, nor would I have hesitated to use it (in a serious manner) if I saw fit. Perhaps we could use a bit of cultural clarification, if this is indeed the case? To avoid irritation on any side?

  23. John Walker says:

    I think it’s a word used either side of the Atlantic as a rather insidious short-hand for, “You are more intelligent than me and this makes me scared and cross.”

  24. Matt says:

    Being pretentious means you are not necessarily speaking intelligently but deliberately trying to sound more intelligent than you are, that is why the word has a negative aspect.

    It is basically accusing someone of trying to sound smarter than they are to make other people feel stupid.

  25. Dinger says:

    Uh, wow, this is a nice off-topic diversion. “Pretentious” just means pretending to be something one doesn’t have a right to be yet. You know, like using fancy words such as “diegesis” when describing a video game. It boils down to three factors: the person, the object and analysis. The person’s analysis pretends that the object has more than it sctually has. So you can have a pretentious analysis of Shakespeare (e.g., the academic urban legend of the Queer Theory paper that insisted the anus in Coriolanus indicated the title character’s sexual preference), or you can have a pretentious analysis of an unworthy subject (such as reading in the McDonalds’ logo an explicit program for capitalist imperialism).

    So yeah, much of the time, “pretentious” is used as a weapon, accusing the object of either having an unworthy target or an unworthy argument, but with the expedient of not specifying the fault.

    And “accusing someone of trying to sound smarter…” is better known as “you sure got a pretty mouth, boy!” So define your terms and ignore the little stuff.

    If your thesaurus has led you astray, “Pompous” and “Academic” can also have high-quality connotations of vain futility.

  26. Leeks! says:

    What a strange off-topic conversation. I appologize for my part in starting it.

  27. Zell says:

    I think your note examplifies the problem with the word right there, Dinger… first you say, “pretending to be something one doesn’t have a right to be yet,” and then “using fancy words such a as ‘diegesis’ when describing a video game.”

    Right to be yet? What does that mean?

    The word basically amounts to a sneer. It’s a celebration of mediocrity. It says “mind your station” and “who do you think you are?” It’s the most basic tool of the bully and of George W. Bush.

    There really are pretentious people, of course. But the word has been too inextricably tainted to be useful.

  28. Pace says:

    Well alright then. For tomorrow, may I recommend a discussion of the word persnickety? That’s always been a favorite of mine.

    (One last pretentious bit, I’d think if you’re a writer of any sort and haven’t been called pretentious a few times, you’re probably not doing it right!)

  29. John Walker says:

    Who’s excited about DeathSpank?

  30. terry says:

    Me, but I’m far too pretentious to admit it ;)

  31. Dinger says:

    I eagerly anticipate engaging the (notional) reification of his proposed conciliation of diegesis and ludus.

  32. Typhon says:

    I don’t dream about Tim Schafer, but I don’t judge you for it. OUT LOUD.

    @Lh’owon: That’s the first time I’ve heard of a bunch of artists with a stick up their butts being described as ‘transcendent’ :D

  33. Matt says:

    Definitely optimistic about the game, it is so early and we don’t know much but fingers crossed it will be a gem. We need more clever, fun games and it is a shame to see how few there are of late.

    I assume Dinger is being ironic, demonstrating pretentious in his deifinition rather than giving a good definition? (If I am mistaken I apologise).

    “Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed; making an exaggerated outward display; ostentatious, showy.” – OED

    (I know I’m a pedantic jerk I couldn’t help myself… )

    Interestingly it is also a good definition of 90% of everything written on the internet. :)

  34. Lacero says:

    Pretentious is not the same as turgid, Dinger :)

  35. Matt says:

    I remember reading something on here about the way many games are designed with mechanics in mind then the writing itself being done to fit the mechanics of the game. The nice thing about good adventure games is that they give the impression of being made with the writing as a prominent part of the development process.

    While not an adventure game what was notable for me about Psychonauts was despite flaws in the gameplay the concept of entering other peoples minds, the art design and great writing made it something special.

    I am hoping DeathSpank will be a similar game in that respect. Gameplay is a crucial aspect but so is character, the games with a sense of character are the ones I remember. Max Payne is a good example, when I remember the game it isn’t that I remember how I shot someone in a spectacular way but how Max said something funny, or interesting at a certain point.

  36. drunkymonkey says:

    It’s weird, because a few weeks before this news was announced, I was talking to an e-buddy on Xfire about how bloody cool a game with a focus on story like Baldur’s Gate would be mixed with a system of RPG which isn’t mind-bogglingly confusing, like Diablo.

    It seems iconic to me that Gilbert is the man to see this dream through.

  37. Joe says:

    I would have been, but I worked with a games industry “legend” recently and he was living in the past, convinced that his new game was incredible and exactly what people want. No sir, it really wasn’t.
    I’m not saying that’s the case here, but the fact is that just because you once worked on a good game in no way guarantees that you’ll be able to pull it out of the bag again.

  38. Zeh says:

    Most excellent. Hadn’t heard about DeathSpank before, I confess, but now looking forward to it.

  39. Typhon says:

    Must admit I can’t see the title working unless it makes a joke about necrophilia. A *good* joke.

  40. Babs says:

    I used to be a necrophilic, sadistic beastophile. Then I realised I was flogging a dead horse.

    BADUM-TSH.

  41. dhex says:

    pretentious is one of those words that means wildly different things to different people (it is much like “spiritual” in this sense), but it generally seems to mean “you’re talking too much about something i think too little of.”

  42. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah, but you’re a Gamers-Quarter Guy, so you would think that.

    I personally think if you use a word of more than four syllables, you’re probably a rapist.

    KG

  43. Nick says:

    Deathspank has that Monstro! sort of feel to it – as a word to shout from the rooftops. It makes me happy.

  44. Alex says:

    “I used to be a necrophilic, sadistic beastophile. Then I realised I was flogging a dead horse.

    BADUM-TSH.”

    hahahahaha genius!

  45. Garth says:

    “Max Payne is a good example, when I remember the game it isn’t that I remember how I shot someone in a spectacular way but how Max said something funny, or interesting at a certain point.”

    That’s a great example — I remember the cut-scene art and quips far more than the gun-shootery.

    I do, however, still have nightmares about the sound a grenade makes when it hits a wall. I immediately flick my hand to where the Quick Load button would be.

  46. Whelp says:

    Nice interview, but the intern who transcribed it deserves to be fired, since it’s full of grammar & spelling errors.

  47. Discount says:

    Most excellent. Hadn’t heard about DeathSpank before, I confess, but now looking forward to it.

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