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.