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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.