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Spanking Death: Ron Gilbert Goes Episodic... And Loves It
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Spanking Death: Ron Gilbert Goes Episodic... And Loves It

June 30, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

Game designer Ron Gilbert is best known for his crucial role in classic adventure games at LucasArts, where he co-authored the SCUMM graphic adventure tool and birthed seminal releases such as Maniac Mansion, the particularly fan-beloved The Secret of Monkey Island 1 and 2, and Day Of The Tentacle.

Following his co-founding of Humongous Entertainment, which had notable kids' game success with the Freddi Fish and Putt-Putt titles, as well as his nurturing of Chris Taylor's Total Annihilation at sister firm Cavedog, he stepped back from those firms and into a consultant career.

More recently, he has been thrust back into the spotlight, in a small way, thanks to the success of Hothead's recent Penny Arcade Adventures for the PC and Xbox Live Arcade, which he worked on and which transforms the popular web comic into an episodic adventure/RPG. His own DeathSpank - based on an online comic he helped create - is now confirmed to be Hothead's next episodic game project.

Gilbert, in fact, is a major supporter of episodic gaming, and here talks about his role as creative director at Hothead Games, his belief in that format, bringing back lapsed gamers with these games, and how the Hollywood production system might just be inevitable for the video game industry.

What have you been up to the past couple of years?

Ron Gilbert: The last couple years I've been doing a lot of consulting; I do a lot of game design consulting with companies. I've been consulting on those Penny Arcade games that Hothead is working on. I've done some consulting on a large MMO that's yet to be announced.

I've been doing a lot of that, but I think the main thing that I've been doing is working on the game design for DeathSpank. I've been working on it for probably close to four years. But it's just kind of been this background thing, which both Clayton [Kauzlaric] and I have been working on.

And what is Clayton's role, exactly? He, obviously, works with you on the comics on your blog, but how did you get involved with him, and what exactly does he do on the project?

RG: Well I've known Clayton since, probably, 1996. He used to work with me at Cavedog, and he was the lead artist on Total Annihilation, and he was the lead designer on Total Annihilation: Kingdoms. And we're just great friends, and we've always done creative things together, and we decided to do these little animated comics on my Grumpy Gamer blog.

So Clayton and I just worked on those, and I did some of the writing, and he did the art and animations for them. And one of the characters that was created for the comic was the character DeathSpank. He was kind of a parody, and a satirical look at games' heroes, and how seriously games seem to take them.

And so he and I just created this character, and as we created it, we started to think, "You know, he'd be really fun in a game." So we just started working on some game designs, and story, and building up this world. He and I have just worked on that together.

Is he actually out there at Hothead with you?

RG: No, he's the creative director at Gas Powered Games right now. So his involvement is just kind of casual, and we continue to talk about stuff and work out story and designs, but he's not involved with the project full-time.

At Hothead, I assume you're involved in a sort of general sense with the company, in addition to your own projects, since previously you were consulting already on the Penny Arcade games.

RG: Yeah, I'm the creative director here, as well as running the DeathSpank project. So, here, I oversee all of the projects from a creative standpoint: working with the designers, brainstorming with them, and helping them out whenever they need my help, and dealing with external projects that might come in, and those types of things.

So as far as your project goes, do you want to just give a run-down on what that's all about?

RG: Sure, sure. DeathSpank is an episodic RPG that's been described as a combination of Monkey Island-style storytelling and adventure, kind of melded with a very light Diablo-style RPG gameplay.

DeathSpank is a kind of over-enthusiastic hero that often does more damage than he does good, when he comes in to help people out with things. And, as his name suggests, the game's really a satirical look at gaming's heroes, and how seriously games tend to take them. I just really wanted to poke fun at that kind of stuff with him.

How contiguous are the episodes going to be, from release to release? Is it one overarching story, or will the episodes be more independent?

RG: Each of the episodes is very independent. There is some larger story context going on, but the story episodes are very short little completely self-contained stories.

They're really meant to be played in any order - you could play number five, and then play number one, and then play number four - so the order you play them is really kind of irrelevant.

What led to the Diablo influence?

RG: Well I think it's because, mostly, I love Diablo. I've played lots, and it's been a style of game that I've really liked. And it's kind of strange, because I really have not found a game since Diablo that I really have liked playing; you know, that kind of action RPG stuff. They did so many things so well with that game, and I think a lot of people have come along and tried to imitate them, and I think they've really missed the core of what was fun about that stuff.

I know what you mean.

RG: I'm also a big WoW player, and I really like that kind of structure of games. I like that whole "paper doll" thing, where you build up characters, and put equipment on them, and give them new weapons. That's just a lot of fun, and kind of why I wanted to do that. And I think that kind of stuff could meld really well with an adventure game, because I think those two play modes really complement each other well.

Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

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Dean Gebert
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Coming from the movie industry, I still don't understand why games wants to move into the Hollywood model. It's exclusive, fragmented, and rarely innovative. On top of that, it's financially obese at every step of the supply chain. None of these things are good for consumers. Why do we want to follow this model again?

Luke Rymarz
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Disregarding the money aspect, Gilbert does make some other interesting points about the movie industry. Clear job titles would be very useful, proper standardization (movie scripts all look the same, why not game design specs?), and more focus on cultivating talent by publishing games that are in the middle ground. As it is now, it seems like you either already have a big studio to make your game, or you build it in the garage as an experiment. Something in between, like a lot of indie movies, does sound like it would bring a lot of talent to the surface.

Philipp Kolhoff
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Comparing the game and movie industry i always like to see episodic games like TV Series because it is so obvious. Episodic games should tell some small stories with recurrent characters and elements and maybe a larger storyline over all episodes of a season. By doing that, the gamer has the chance to get to know his characters in a much deeper way. For example, the game designer has the chance to take a whole episode just to introduce one character. And i think taking the time to slowly build up a story would pay off. At least it does in TV series. Following a Season of Lost or Heroes is by no means less attractive than watchnig a blockbuster movie. It is just different and for some people exactly what they are looking for. So is episodic gaming.

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Concerning his comments about a bunch of people designing something. I think think the disadvantages outweigh any advantages. There always needs to be one person in charge of the final design. For us it seems like its the lead designer but there are too many people above him on the chain that can come in and change things. It might be someone who is remotely attached to the game but they can come in and ruin ideas.

You definitely need to give other designers, or level designers, scripters ownership for their part too and the lead designer needs to recognize that. Otherwise team members can get frustrated and you might lose some talent.

Basically I am trying to say its very complicated these days and amazing that situations like I describe ever produce something decent. I think it would be a great idea to have clear definitions of responsibilities and I think the old adventure genre is still ahead of the curve in these respects.

Jeff Zugale
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The movie industry has a distinct advantage over the game industry - they only have one basic "platform" that's been essentially the same for roughly a hundred years, the motion picture camera and photographic motion picture film. Even though the technology has recently changed a great deal with the introduction of digital filmmaking and processing, the basic hardware used to shoot a film is essentially the same, and functions the same way. You have a camera, it has lenses and some kind of recording medium, you have lights and sound recording equipment, and all that other stuff.

Sergey Eisenstein would not have to re-learn the mechanics of how to shoot a film if he suddenly were reincarnated and put on a brand-new film.

In contrast in games, we're reinventing the platforms and basic tools every 3-5 years, or upgrading them so drastically that the tools themselves wind up re-engineering the way games are made. On top of that, most studios have their own in-house tools and engines, with varying design and user-friendliness.

Sure, there's a bit more standardization happening these days with engines like Unreal and middleware like Bink and Havok, but even with that, there's no "one toolset fits all" solution. Most games require custom programming within the engine, which means the toolset changes, which can mean steep learning curves for the production staff at inconvenient times.

So we can't just go over to Studio Systems and rent 2 Panavisions and 3 Arris, buy 5,000 feet of film stock and "shoot a game" in 3 weeks, then take it over to a post house and cut it together, like filmmakers have been able to do since what, the 1930s? '40s, maybe?

Using their basic standardized toolset, it's still possible for filmmakers to make a *distinctive*, high-quality film. Using a generic game toolset, it's extremely difficult if not impossible for a game studio to make a distinctive game.

We're always going to have a problem to some extent with our constantly-evolving tech and tools.

Trace o'Connor
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This interview really got me thinking about target audience and how they like to play games -- not just age, gender, and what entertains them short-term. The section on p. 4 talking about Valve, Portal, and "hard core" gamers who like to play to the end really intrigued me. Emailed a link and the topic to a few friends whom I thought would also find this tasty food for thought. Thanks for the inspiration! -- And I'm looking forward to Deathspank!

Steven An
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Total agreement with the "lapsed gamer" market. There have been other names, like mid-core and ex-core gamer, but I can say I'm definitely in this market. I have other responsibilities these days, so I can't dedicate myself as much to games, but I still want to play "full" games. I have no interest in Bejeweled, but no time for Mass Effect either. "Portal" was great for me. Looking forward to "DeathSpank"!