Ron Gilbert, Pt. 2: Legacy, Learning, And… Diablo?

By Nathan Grayson on June 2nd, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

Look into my eyes. The real ones or the necklace. Whichever.

Yesterday, I had a chat with the first half of Ron Gilbert about his upcoming descent into madness (and in the game), The Cave. Shortly after, the other half of Ron Gilbert teetered awkwardly into the room, so I decided to speak with it as well. In this very special non-Cave-flavored episode, we discuss goofy adventure game logic, the ups and downs of being inextricably tied to a legendary hit like Monkey Island, leaving a legacy, rebelling against that legacy, and kids games like the secretly-completely-rad Pajama Sam. Also Diablo III for some reason. The thrilling conclusion’s after the break.

RPS: Old-school adventure puzzle design is sort of… in some cases, it’s very obtuse. You have to really get into adventure game logic to understand what you’re doing. Obviously, The Cave has its water-powered hotdog machine, but that aside, over the years, how has your approach to designing these things changed?

Ron Gilbert: I think my approach over the years has been probably to do less and less just ridiculous solutions to puzzles. It was always, from the beginning, I always tried to make it so that, if solving the puzzle made no sense when you were doing it, it at least made sense after you’d done it. After you’d done it, you think, “Oh, okay, I see how that could probably work. Maybe I should have thought of sticking the pencil in the whatever.”

But I think over the years, I just shied more and more away from that, in that I think things should really make a lot more logical sense when you’re doing them. It isn’t about combining completely unrelated object A with completely unrelated object B, and then getting some puzzle solution out of that. Yeah, it’s funny that it happened, but it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. So I think with The Cave, it’s trying to get the puzzles in such a way that they make a little more logical sense when you’re putting them together.

RPS: Do you think, though, that there’s a chance people will actually miss that aspect of adventure games? I mean, if you mention point-and-click adventures to people, they’re like, “Oh yeah, really silly puzzle solutions!” I feel like it’s this strange part of the nostalgic appeal. It’s not necessarily on paper a “good” thing, but people still like it.

Ron Gilbert: Yeah, I’m sure there are going to be people that miss that aspect of it. And there certainly are fun parts of that. But I think to a lot of other people, that was just a frustrating part of adventure games. So I think some people certainly will miss it, but in some ways I think it’s a good thing to miss it. And I think when adventure games started to lose their popularity, it was just that those goofy things… there were just too many of them, and it made no sense again. We’re trying to pull back a little more into the realm of sanity. Even if I was going to make just a pure point-and-click adventure game, I wouldn’t put all that ridiculous stuff in it at all. I think that’s more of a design evolution than anything.

RPS: Both you and Tim Schafer have this very powerful and fondly-remembered legacy. Whenever people mention either of you guys, it’s usually followed shortly by Monkey Island or another classic along those liens. But by the same token, what’s it like to be so attached, at least in terms of association, to a single or a couple games? Does it ever become almost, well, irritating to not be able to distance yourself from things you worked on so many years ago?

Ron Gilbert: [chuckles] Yeah, in some ways it can be, because, you know, whenever you talk about doing something and it’s not a point-and-click adventure game done in 2D with 320 by 240 resolution, there’s suddenly [cries of] “Oh my God, what exactly are you doing?” You’re always trying to be able to do something new and have people be really interested in it rather than just criticizing it because it’s new. But on the other hand, it’s nice to have so many people that like something you did so much. I can’t complain at all.

RPS: So when you did Deathspank, was it kind of a reaction to that mentality? I mean, it still had elements of puzzles and stuff to it, but it was still a very different sort of game. Was that in any way you saying, “I’m going to make something different now. Screw you guys”?

RG: Yeah, with Deathspank I wanted to make something that was a little more Diablo-esque. I love Diablo, I’ve played that game a ton, and I like World of Warcraft. I’m obsessed with that game. And so that’s a genre of game that I play a lot, and I always wanted to make one of those. From a design perspective, I just love this whole concept of skill trees, that whole thing about RPGs just fascinates me.

And so, Deathspank was wanting to do some of that, but also marry it with the things that I do like about adventure games. I like the dialogues you have with characters. I thought that was always really neat. So I wanted to bring that into Deathspank. The original design for Deathspank was a lot more adventure game-ey than what it ended up being, back when the game was supposed to be episodic. And the combat was kind of that fun activity that you did when you were running in between puzzles – as opposed to the much more action-ey that it ended up being.

But I think for any designer, it’s important to explore as many different genres as you can, because I think you always learn something by doing it. You can always bring something you know about adventure games to the RPG world or whatever.

RPS: So, conversely, was there ever a point where The Cave was – at least, by design – more complex? Did you ever consider adding skill trees or something like that to it?

Ron Gilbert: [laughs] No, I never did that. I mean, the very first incarnation of the game, which is about 25 years-old… that was a game that was really, really hard. It was just very, very intense puzzles, as far as how you worked your way through the cave. It was a very harsh, unforgiving game for the player. But again, that was a long time ago, before I’d ever done any real game design. I think there’s this thing where a lot of really young designers, they become masochists in a way with the player. They revel in the player’s failure. I was certainly in that mindset in the first incarnation of the game. So it’s kind of changed in that sense, that it isn’t this horribly difficult, hard game to work your way through, and it is something that is just more of an enjoyable experience for people to have.

RPS: That’s also interesting to me, because I didn’t actually put two and two together, I can’t believe I didn’t realize this until earlier today, but you founded Humongous Entertainment. Whenever I was a little, tiny kid, I played Freddie Fish and Putt-Putt and stuff. But anyway, you went from having these ideas for brutal adventure games that’d decimate the player to making something that’s for kids. How much did you have to change your mindset to do that? And how did that, going forward, affect the way you approached game design from then on?

Ron Gilbert: Well, the Humongous Entertainment stuff, the whole idea for that company came from directly from watching four-year-olds play Monkey Island. Because they loved that game. They couldn’t read, so they had no idea what the story was. They had no idea what the puzzles were that they were solving. But they loved running around this world, clicking on doors, opening and closing them, they loved picking up stuff, they loved giving things to people and having weird little animations happening. They had no understanding of what the game was. But there was just something that they just loved about running around this world.

And so my idea was, well, why not just build adventure games for them? Because there’s obviously something about this adventure gaming that is really appealing to them. The idea was, okay, let’s build real adventure games for them – not watered-down interactive storybooks, but real adventure games. But we’ll simplify the puzzles and we’ll fully voice them so they don’t have to read and we’ll get rid of the verbs so everything’s just really simple. You click on stuff or you apply something to something. So that was really the whole genesis of that company.

I think what that really taught me as a designer was just the beauty of simplicity, that people really can get a lot of entertainment out of something that is really simple at its core. Because we used to get a lot of letters from parents who would describe how they would play Putt-Putt or Pajama Sam after the kids went to bed. They were just really good games. And these were parents who weren’t gamers, because this was many years ago when most parents weren’t gamers. They just loved these games, because they were simple and they were just an interesting experience that they could have in a way.

I think what the whole Humongous Entertainment thing taught me is just the simplicity of things. A lot of people,when they go in to play games, if they’re not these hard, hardcore gamers, they just want to have a fun experience. They don’t necessarily want something that’s beating them on the side of the head continually. That’s what I derive from that. Games should be a fun experience that people have.

RPS: Yeah, Pajama Sam was also amazing.

Ron Gilbert: Yeah, he was my favorite.

RPS: A co-worker [*cough* ALEC *cough*] wanted to know this one, and then I thought about it and it actually made sense, even though I’m pretty sure he asked me as a joke. The exact quote is, “Ask him what he thinks of Diablo III,” and I was like, huh, he made Deathspank, so it actually fits. So have you gotten to play Diablo III at all?

Ron Gilbert: Yeah, I’ve played quite a bit of Diablo III. You know, it’s interesting: it’s been 12 years since Diablo II came out. I think there’s like 12 years of nostalgia that built me up for that. And even though over those 12 years I’ve gone back and played Diablo several times through it, just playing Diablo III, it just reminded me of what a monotonous game that is. Like, oh, yeah… [bangs in a steady rhythm on the table] Yeah, oh, this is Diablo, yeah, yeah, they totally captured it. [laughter]

But I can’t stop! I think that’s the interesting thing about Diablo, is that it is an amazingly monotonous game, but there is something compelling about it. There is something that just keeps you going, keeps you through that level progression. “Oh, I can probably level if I just kill these next hundred guys. I’ll do that before I go to bed.” You know? It keeps pulling you on through that stuff.

But I don’t think that Diablo III’s captured me in the same way that Diablo II did. I don’t think there was enough new and interesting about it. Yeah, the graphics are much better than Diablo II, but it’s still that same camera. Yeah, it’s 3D objects now, you get a little bit of this when you’re moving around, but it’s not fundamentally changed anything about it. I’ll play all the way through it, but I don’t know that I’ll go back and play it five years from now like I did with Diablo II.

RPS: Have you had any issues with all the kind of connectivity stuff?

Ron Gilbert: Oh, I hate that. That really ticks me off. Because I’m never going to play Diablo III with anybody. Never going to PvP when that comes online. I’m never going to use their stupid auction house. I’m never going to do any of that stuff.

In terms of the single-player, yeah, that really annoyed me. I guess at some level I’m a little paranoid – I’m a little bit tinfoil-hat-ish – so I don’t really like this giant corporation knowing every single time I play a game. I kinda feel like I should be able to play a game in the privacy of my own home and not have a company monitoring that whole process. So it’s a little bit of that that goes on with me.

And then, I do wonder, well, how much of it is just their DRM? How much of it is they realize, well, we can do this DRM so nobody can pirate the game, but we’re going to say it’s because of the auction house, we’re going to say it’s because of this other stuff. I don’t know. I’m really cynical about that online single-player stuff. But unfortunately I think it’s the wave of the future.

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36 Comments »

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  1. Skipperoo says:

    OH, is Diablo III out then?

    • Metonymy says:

      “for some reason”

      Once we have the 15th article about such a terrible game, we all know what’s happening. Yeah I know you guys have to pay the bills, and you’re less obnoxious about it than other people.

      I’m ecstatic. Just as I was ardently hopeful that Cataclysm would bury Blizzard, (didn’t) and SC2, (not yet) maybe D3 will finally show everyone that they have to think carefully before buying a Blizzard product now.

      As far as adventure games go, I never tolerated the combine X with Y nonsense. I loved Monkey Island and all, but I didn’t love it enough to finish it on my own. Zork 1/2/3, Beyond, all had genuinely difficult puzzles that only occasionally required weird combination of items, and it always made rock-solid sense. The puzzles were always extremely fun.

      • Slaadfax says:

        Ehhh…

        There was a great deal of logic lacking in many of the puzzles in the Zork series to the point where it’s pretty darn near impossible to actually complete if you don’t look things up. Not just difficult, but completely arbitrary and without any kind of logic, rock solid or otherwise.

        Especially considering you had a pile of typed in commands that may have had only one use in the entire game, and the visual descriptions weren’t always the best in terms of telling you what something actually was or providing implication to what it could be.

        Even with the zaniness and the occasional odd puzzle with Monkey Island, there wasn’t *that* much stuff that completely defied logic.

        • The Random One says:

          Yeah, it’s pretty weird to compliment the solidity of the puzzles in Zork when it’s the game in which a ridiculously difficult puzzle would only make sense if you were very familiar with baseball. ‘Use film reel on cheese grater’ is not the only way adventure puzzles can be obscure.

        • oddshrub says:

          For some reason you made me think of the skeleton king. Waiting for Blizzard to fail at sales. :p

  2. Bhazor says:

    I scanned through the article first and totally thought

    Because they loved that game. They couldn’t read, so they had no idea what the story was. They had no idea what the puzzles were that they were solving. But they loved running around this world, clicking on doors, opening and closing them, they loved picking up stuff, they loved giving things to people and having weird little animations happening. They had no understanding of what the game was. But there was just something that they just loved about running around this world.

    was about Diablo.

  3. misterT0AST says:

    As soon as I saw that first image I started hearing the Monkey Island theme, loud and clear in my head.
    Immediately.

  4. khaz says:

    All hail Ron Gilbert.

  5. TaroYamada says:

    Love Ron, thanks for the interview guys.

  6. iGark says:

    Ron Gilbert founded Humongous Entertainment? That’s amazing! I loved all of those games.

  7. Nameless1 says:

    “But unfortunately I think it’s the wave of the future.”

    I really hope not. :|
    If that will be the case, one less hobby for me.

  8. pilouuuu says:

    What I like about Ron, besides he being the amazing guy he is, is the fact that he’s pretty innovative in his vision. He doesn’t like Diablo III as much because it’s more of the same, he doesn’t like illogical puzzles, he doesn’t like remaking Monkey Island just like it was. While Telltale, as much as I love their games, is pretty old-fashioned in their design, Mr. Grumpy Gamer is looking for new ways to make adventure games up-to-date.

    • rockman29 says:

      Well said.

    • InternetBatman says:

      That’s why I’m glad he’s at doublefine. Stacking, Psychonauts, and Brutal Legend showed that quest for innovation. There are some places they succeed, and some they fail, but it drags games as a whole forward and into new and exciting places. I hope it’s sustainable, but either way I think game designers are probably learning elements of fundamental philosophy from them.

  9. Klarden says:

    “but it’s still that same camera”
    That’s one of the good things about Diablo III, actually. Who loves fighting with the camera instead of just playing the game.
    Although, if he meant something more Divinity II-like, it’d check that out

    • Gilead says:

      True. I always prefer a fixed camera for that sort of game, if only because the encounters are then designed with that in mind and you don’t have to think about it; everything’s visible one way or another. As soon as you get the ability to rotate the camera, you end up doing it constantly because the developers feel that they can put monsters anywhere.

      • misterT0AST says:

        Since Ron said it right before mentioning the 3d graphics, I think he meant that having a 3d environment with a fixed camera is very close to having completely 2d graphics, from a gameplay perspective.
        I think he was implying that with a fully 3d environment (maybe a third person camera, maybe some other kind of camera) things could be organized in a more dynamic way, feel more different, innovative, etc., while the fixed camera makes it feel flat just like Diablo II.
        It seems he was disappointed by how similar Diablo III felt to Diablo II, and the camera was just one way of expressing that.

        Then again, this is my opinion of what could be his opinion, from what I read in the article, so, yeah…

    • Beelzebud says:

      I didn’t get that criticism either. The camera angle is one thing they got exactly right. When he said that, I thought of Fallout 2 to Fallout 3. Surly he wasn’t wanting another first person perspective game, that looked nothing like its predecessor…

  10. fish99 says:

    My current complaint about D3 on nightmare is how grindy the item and gem crafting has become. IMO they’ve done that deliberately to force you onto the auction house, knowing that you might graduate to the RMAH once it launches. The actual gameplay is better on nightmare though, more caution needed, more risk of dying (although not enough penalty for dying).

    As for the game being monotonous, I’ve always said Diablo games and their clones are only fun co-op.

  11. Lemming says:

    You know, I’m looking forward to The Cave, but Ron sounds almost jaded with things that we actually want to see more of from him. Lambasting quirky puzzle solutions and praising Diablo/WoW skill trees and thinking his characters don’t need to say anything (from part 1) in the same interview just made me really uncomfortable, tbh.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      To be fair, the D3 skill trees are the best thing to ever happen to, eh, skill trees. :)

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      I cannot talk for mr. Gilbert, but for some reason I do so very much like talent trees. So much so that if I find a nice one I tend to play with it whether I own the game or not.

      For me it has to do with a fondness for customisation, I think. Of tailoring my character’s playstyle to what I like best. It has not necessarily always to do with how great the system works in the game proper but more with the feeling it evokes.

  12. Stochastic says:

    *Staring eyes* That is all.

  13. Chandos says:

    I have no way of proving this scientifically but I always felt the silly puzzles in all those adventure games really helped me a lot with my lateral and creative thinking skills, later in life.

    • Vesperan says:

      Yea but the problem is that those silly puzzles helped me quit the games and never play them (or even the genre much).

    • InternetBatman says:

      Those puzzles just annoyed me. I don’t like the idea that one solution to a simple problem, especially an outlandish one, is better than another one. I find it limiting and artificial. It probably did help people who stuck with it grow, but I was a bit too late for adventure games anyways.

  14. maladroid says:

    Interesting interview. I like how Ron is keen on trying new stuff with his games and making them more “friendly” and enjoyable besides having many happy childhood memories from banging my oversized head against the wall trying to figure out how to obtain a monkey wrench and whatnot.

    But what I enjoyed most about Deathspank was the pure silliness of the dialogue and how Deathspank’s own personality made the journey worthwhile and fun despite the grind-y gameplay and some clunky combat. So I am a little bit unnerved with his decision to provide such a delightfully colourful cast of PCs for The Cave and then having them stay mute for the whole process while the Cave itself (presumably) talks their ear off. I am getting a very clear vibe of a Chell – GLaDOS dynamic here but I am not sure it will work as effectively with such a diverse cast acting like a “clean slate” for the player to step into their shoes. I would rather have their unique insights into what’s going on, to be honest. And of course, the entire success of the endeavor, in this case, will hinge on the Cave itself and how well it is written and acted.

    That said, I am entirely willing to be proven wrong and have the game turn out to be as delightful as it looks from the trailers.

  15. Deano2099 says:

    You could have least have thanked him for his time.

  16. bill says:

    The problem is that what people hated about adventure games was the insane obscure puzzles, but what people liked about adventure games was the insane obscure puzzles.

    Make the puzzles logical and they usually become easy, and then there’s not much actual game in your adventure game. (then again, there was never any adventure either).

    PS/ No awesome comment from the PR rep this time??

  17. Contrafibularity says:

    Great interview. I have to say I rather enjoyed and enjoy puzzles of all kinds in adventure games, and it’s a bit disconcerting to hear Gilbert talk of gradually removing this element altogether in future games. I mean, I get it, I’ll be 30 in a few years, and every year there’s less time to spend on adventure games, so it’s not unreasonable to expect some flow in games where you’re not (feeling) stuck half the time.

    But in one of the recent DFA videos (the one where Gilbert and Schafer have a 45-min talk about adventure games etc.) they hit the nail right on the head; forcibly obscure and non-sensical inventory puzzles = bad (well, it’s a good kind of bad, but I guess adventure gamers sort of lost this battle, sigh), sub-atomic pixel hunting = bad, pretty much everything else about adventure games = good. I do understand how hard good puzzle design is, to make them in such a way that it gives people joy to solve them but not to have the player become stuck for too long (that said it’s usually a sign that you should quit and return later). I still think they have a place in adventure games, this is one area where it will pay off not to dumb the puzzle mechanics down to cater to the masses, bur rather to make them so excellent even they will feel challenged and be encouraged to solve them.

    This is an area where I think the solution is not to implement a hint system (hints should be restricted to visual or auditory clues surrounding the puzzle itself) but to make puzzles excellent and scrap the ones that are sub-par. I do agree adventure games should explore other non-puzzley ways and experiment where possible, but I really hope this doesn’t mean there’s no place for brain-teasing puzzles.

    Adventure games have so much more to offer, sure, but isn’t it rather silly to cling to this idea that Grim Fandango and obscure puzzles killed off the point&click adventure game a decade ago? I’m pretty sure they didn’t, because A) they’re still alive and kicking and simply refuse to go away and B) if you look at criticisms levelled at virtually EVERY other genre of games you’ll begin to see a strange longing for more complexity, more mature content, better written characters, more challenging gameplay, quality humour etc. It’s almost as if other games are gaining that which adventure games are trying hard to shake off.

    And yes, sometimes PEOPLE ARE PLAIN WRONG. Grim Fandango is proof of that. For a game so superbly excellent to be a commercial failure means that gamers can be wrong (and of course the reverse proves it further: adolescent right-wing power-trip fantasies like CoD are the most commercially successful games in existence). It must be awful for Gilbert and Schafer to carry around that reputation, but I hope they don’t conform to those free-market ideals which say consumers and the marketplace are never wrong, because that’s bollocks and we all know it. Of course no one wants to make unsuccessful games, I get that, but that doesn’t mean ideals, ideas and vision should be compromised, because it’s precisely those things which set good games apart. And this is coming from someone who applauds wholeheartedly that Double Fine is experimenting with other games, and how to bring that back to adventure games. I don’t know, I sound like I’m babbling and I’m not even sure why.

    All that said, I look forward to The Cave, it sounds and looks great.

  18. 2late2die says:

    Well, when I share the same opinion on D3’s DRM as Ron Gilbert, I know I’m in the right camp. :)
    Great interview Nathan. I actually kinda agree with the move away from totally crazy/obtuse puzzles. I mean don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them as well on occasion but at the end of the day, if I’m stuck on something for a long time and then I discover that the solution was something that didn’t require me to think harder or be smarter but rather to just completely randomly “figure it out”, well that just pisses me off.

  19. minipixel says:

    i’m pretty sure the resolution was 320×200, not 240 ;p