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

I look forward to being deeply, deeply depressed then. You’ve talked about emerging as a company alongside the emergence of console-based digital distribution. What do you think of PlayStation Network and Xbox Live right now?

Well they’re great channels, and Microsoft and Sony have been great partners on those. They do allow the kind of games that have never seen the light of day to come out… There’s certainly only a limited number of games that can get released on those channels. My understanding is that XBLA has even fewer games released every year than PSN, there’s only a certain number of games that are going to be on there. Now of course, Microsoft have their Xbox Live Indie Games channel, and there have been some interesting titles rising to the top there.

For us, it’s been a fair bit of reflection about what kinds of games gamers who are on those channels really want to see, based on the kinds of games that have done well, and our sense is that people who play on a 360 or PS3, almost by definition, are fairly hardcore, and are fairly serious about their game-playing, and put a fair number of hours into playing games. But XBLA and PSN provide a bit of a diversion from playing Call of Duty or whatever, in that it’s kind of smaller, lower-priced experiences, but also unique experiences. They’re like a nice break.

The (innumerable) traps have more than a whiff of Abe's Odyssey to them.

So we’ve made Swarm to be quirky and unique in its gameplay and its art direction – but it’s also tuned to be pretty difficult. People will be challenged by the game – it’s easy to get into, but it’s hard to master. And we made a conscious decision to go very old school in how the scoring system works, there’s a multiplier system that allows you to really drive up your score. It might take you three hundred thousand points to pass one level and unlock the next, but if you’re really good you might get 20 million.

So we’ve really focussed on replayability for that reason – there’s a leaderboard for every level in the game. And the leaderboards are really in your face, kind of like in Trials HD – right when you’re on the level select screen it’ll show you how you compared against your friends. It’s all about finishing the level half a second faster than you last did, and getting an even higher score – time, point collection and maintaining your multiplier, they all feed into that.

What do you think of the iPhone? Do you plan to release games for that platform?

The iPhone and mobile in general are really interesting to us. It’s interesting because the games industry is changing very quickly, and gaming has been around for several decades now, but it hasn’t ever been something that’s truly mainstream, but I feel that mobile is somewhere now where it’s turning a whole bunch of people into gamers. They’re in the line at the grocery store and they’re playing Angry Birds or whatever, and they’re hooked!

And they’re understanding what gaming is all about. Now it’s a different kind of game on those platforms because of that demographic, that market – the games are much smaller, much simpler – but that’s deceptive. It’s still very much a challenge to create something that is polished, well-tuned and addictive and fun. Arguably, it’s even harder to do that within the smaller scope of an iPhone or iPad game.

We started the company to focus on digital distribution, because we wanted to get our games directly to people. We’ve always said we’re platform-agnostic, we’ve released on Windows, Mac and even Linux. So we’re definitely interested in looking at iOS and other mobile platforms.

I was in Amsterdam to see 3DS last week. One of the big questions there is whether the market will tolerate “old school” pricing for portable games these days, post-iPod and post-App-Store. What do you think?

All really interesting questions. The pricing is unreal to me, when I think about it sometimes. I don’t know where this is going to go, I’m not some prognosticator for the industry, and every time in the past I’ve tried to make a prediction – it seems in particular about Nintendo and how their platforms are going to perform – I’ve always ended up being wrong! So probably best not to say anything, in that regard.

I’m excited about the 3DS personally, I think it’ll be a cool device. But I remember when we were making games back in the Xbox and PS2 era, and the PS2 was definitely the market era, so we were always interested in that, making our games on there. And year by year the install base for that platform just kept growing and growing. When it was 20 million very early in its life, it was like that was a really viable thing – we could sell retail games on there for 50-60 bucks.

But then later before the new generation came out, it was 80 million, 100 million – these were big, big numbers. It was unprecedented. Well, how long has it taken Apple to get iPhone to that point? The scale, the number of devices that are out there, is pretty mind-boggling. So if you’re playing the numbers game – 99p isn’t a lot, but if you’re able to make something that really catches on, then the upside is a lot less limited.

Joel, thanks for your time.

Swarm is due on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade sometime in Q1 2011.

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