Hothead Games talks Swarm, sadism and what people want from downloadable software

We speak to Joel DeYoung, director of technology at Hothead Games, about the Deathspank studio’s upcoming action-platformer.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, January 28, 2011

All three of the games you’ve released so far have been spoofs or satires of one kind of another. Is irony a Hothead trademark?

It’s something we stumbled into to be frank. We didn’t really start the company to do that, it just sort of happened, and we’ve done a bit of reflection on that. A lot of people say to us “you don’t see a lot of comedy games, you don’t see a lot of funny games – it must be really hard to do, what’s your secret?” I think if we tried to do something really serious we’d struggle with that. It’s just not in our nature.

Un-clustering the Swarmites mid-run gives them a speed boost.

So we haven’t ever really said this is a pillar of what Hothead is all about, it just sort of happened. If people end up thinking that’s something they’ve come to expect from us, well – I hope they won’t be disappointed with our future efforts, because I imagine that spirit will be in future games as well.

Is collaboration with outside creatives another one of your “pillars”, or just a question of resources?

Again I think that’s something we kind of fell into. When we started the company really what we were about was just being part of the indie game scene, making the kind of games that fit digital distribution, that was kind of an emerging thing when we started the company five years ago. It meant we knew that we’d be able to make the kind of games that don’t really get to see the light of day at retail.

The trends we were seeing in the business were that games were becoming more and more expensive to make, and that meant publishers were becoming more risk-averse, and simply relying on established franchises and sequels to licensed titles. And yet at the same time you’ve got people who are really creative in the business.

A lot of us who started Hothead, we’d been at Radical Entertainment before, and we had become very good at working on licensed projects, having worked on Simpsons: Road Rage and Simpsons: Hit & Run, Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction – working on licensed properties, understanding how to bring a game for those properties forward, that made fans of the IP feel like it was an authentic experience.

So when we had the opportunity to work on Penny Arcade, it was like “OK, this really makes sense – because we want to make sure that fans of the comic feel like it’s an authentic Penny Arcade game”. With Deathspank that didn’t come into play because Deathspank was an original idea. I wouldn’t say it was something we did because of limited resources – one of the things we want to do at Hothead is create original IP, so working with Ron and his idea to bring it to game form, that helped fulfil that. And certainly Swarm is a completely original creation.

Swarm puts me in mind of Pikmin and more recently Overlord. Were there any particular games you drew on for Swarm?

Certainly a lot of us played Lemmings way back in the day, and we’ve got a soft spot in our hearts for that. The idea for Swarm came right from Mike Hayward’s research, but when we started working on it we did look at games like Pikmin and Overlord specifically. It’s interesting – we get a lot of those comparisons. The main difference is that those are crowd-based puzzle games, while ours is more of an action-platformer.

Spread out when negotiating minefields for double-digit casualty figures. Sweet.

And the swarm control is the thing that really feeds into that, in that you’re controlling all 50 at once. It’s less like an RTS where you’re telling subsets of guys to do different things, and more that you’re just bravely driving them over the edge of a cliff. That happens a lot! With Lemmings, we get that comparison quite a bit – these guys are small, they’re pudgy, they’re kind of a funny colour.

The comparison stops there, although I will say that a special moment for me when I played Lemmings was when you had that “blocker” type, who stopped the other Lemmings running over a ledge. And then you save all the Lemmings, and you realise that the blocker’s the only guy left. And you say, “I want you to stop blocking”, but you can’t actually do that – the only way to win the level is to kill him, and there’s that little countdown over his head… I remember that being a funny moment.

That always used to really depress me.

Swarm is filled with those moments! These guys die all the time. They’ve got this stupid look on their faces, these googly eyes, and you look at them and you can just tell by looking that there’s not much going on between their ears. They don’t care about their own safety, and they’ll do what they’re told. They end up dying accidentally, or sometimes it looks deliberate. There are points in the level where you do have to sacrifice them to proceed.

And it’s funny – the character design’s really cute, we find that it’s really approachable to a wide range of people, and we do get a wide range of reactions to when they die. Some people find it sadistic and funny, some people say they feel bad. But we make sure players understand within the first two minutes of gameplay that killing them is all right, and that they’re ultimately expendable and replenishable, fairly readily.

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