Ron Gilbert: A New Adventure

By Chris Remo

[Adventure game veteran and Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert talks to Gamasutra on the production processes behind his once-episodic title DeathSpank, and how the very nature of game development influences creative direction.]

Ron Gilbert is best known, perhaps, for his work at LucasArts on Maniac Mansion and the Monkey Island series, as well as creating the SCUMM scripting language for the studio. While Monkey Island may have recently been revived by LucasArts and Telltale Games, the series would have endured without that revival; it's never been far from the minds of its fans ever since its release.

However, Gilbert, who founded Humongous/Cavedog after his LucasArts departure, before striking out on his own earlier this decade, has his own project in the works: the awesomely named DeathSpank.

In development with Hothead Games (Penny Arcade Adventures), it's a blend of adventure gaming and Diablo-style dungeon crawling; it's a humor game with the clichés of video games squarely in its sights. Originally announced as an episodic game, it has been reformulated into a more traditional release.

Here, Gilbert discusses the genesis of the DeathSpank project, how rapid prototyping has allowed him and the team to redesign its combat system repeatedly until they got it right, and how the production process for games can shape their contents -- in good and bad ways.

How is DeathSpank's development going? How long have you been working on it?

Ron Gilbert: I've been working on the game for almost four and a half years, and it started out as a concept on the Grumpy Gamer website, which is my website where my friend Clayton and I were doing this series of Flash cartoons parodying the games industry.

We needed this video game character for one of them, and he needed to be completely over the top and completely ridiculous. In a way, we wanted to come up with the dumbest name we could think of for him, and we called him DeathSpank.

He just took on this life of his own a little bit. We started talking about him, and I started thinking about his world more and his stories around him. I put together a little adventure game design around him. That blossomed into what DeathSpank is today, which is this mix of Monkey Island and Diablo.

I started pitching that to a lot of publishers, and it met a lot of resistance because it was just weird and different -- weird aspects to the art style, stuff like that. Eventually, I ran into the guys at Hothead, and they really liked it. They decided to make it with me. I went to work with them a year and a half ago or so. It's really been worked on for about a year and a half. That was a very long answer to your very short question.

What phase are you guys in now?

RG: I don't know what phase [laughs]. I can't put a word to that. We're getting very close. The whole world is completely carved out, totally textured. Everything's all done. All the adventure game is done. All the monsters are placed. It really is just about playing and tuning, playing and tuning, over and over and over, just making sure everything just works perfectly.

When the game was originally semi-announced, it was going to be episodic. Now it's not. Why did you originally want to do it that way, and why is it no longer in that format?

RG: I like episodic stuff. I'm still very interested in that. I would still love to do episodic stuff at some point. With DeathSpank, as we started fleshing out the whole design, we had all these episodes done for him. He was this very large, epic character. We were always pushing the edges with these episodic things. He always wanted to be bigger.

After struggling with this for a while, we sat down and thought about it -- "You know, what if it weren't episodic?" We played around with that a little bit. We took all the episodes, and we didn't stack them end to end linearly. We merged them into one big, very non-linear story, and it just worked so perfectly. So, we just said, "You know what? We should probably not make this episodic."

When you look back to games like the Monkey Islands you made, and I think particularly Monkey Island 2, that almost is an episodic game. You have these acts that are very defined, and they have their own arc within the larger one. Is that part of the reason for your interest in that in that format?

RG: I don't know if that's the reason itself. One of the things I do like about episodic, which is ironic given the DeathSpank stuff, is that I would like to make a lot of games really fast.

That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about the adventure games I did at Humongous Entertainment. It took us [fewer] than nine months to make those. It allowed us to do a lot of games over a very short period of time and learn a whole lot from that. That is what I really like about episodic, being able to go in and build a whole bunch of things very, very quickly.

I was talking to Chet Faliszek from Valve, and he was saying it's been almost a revelation for them with Left 4 Dead 2. They've never had this experience before where they immediately just make a sequel this quickly -- they've learned so much that is still applicable, that isn't five years out of date.

RG: I think that's very, very true.

You said one reason this game isn't episodic is because DeathSpank is sort of an epic character. Do you find from a writing standpoint that there's sort of a line that has to be straddled between ironically epic and genuinely epic enough that the character feels real?

RG: I've never found that to be a problem. I think ironically epic and genuinely epic are actually, you know, the same thing.

Yeah, certainly in video games.

RG: [laughs] Yeah, that's right.

How long did this character and world take to really congeal? It seems like it's been a years-long process.

RG: Yes, that was a very slow process that lasted several years. It's one of those things where I don't sit down with a blank sheet of paper and just start writing. You think about it in the car, and you think about it in bed, and you think about it while you're watching TV. It just all slowly, slowly builds up.

It took a while to figure out what his world was like, how the people in the world acted, how they reacted to him, and how they reacted to situations. It was just a slow build with that stuff.

Do you think that happens much in studio game development? After a studio finishes a game, they have to immediately be making another one. You don't have many free agent designers just hanging out until they have a new project, like in film. A publisher or even a developer says, "There was Halo, and that really worked. We want you to make that."

RG: Right, right. And then you say, "I just wish there was this other weapon in Halo and stuff. I'm going to put it in my game."

But the same thing was actually true with Monkey Island. I started working on Monkey Island, and I spent a couple of months really thinking about the character and the world, and then I went off -- because of some timing issue with the [latest Indiana Jones] movie -- I went off and did the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game, which took about a year to do. That whole time, Monkey Island was just percolating in the back of my head.

I'd think there's a lot of value in having the luxury to just let something bounce around in your head like that.

RG: Yeah. That's really important. If you're taking a game that exists in a very large world, you really want to be able to have time to flesh that world out. Sometimes, that stuff just takes time to figure out. There's a lot of stuff with DeathSpank that I thought of and I really like but that I threw out at the end because as I sat with it for a while, I realized, "You know what? This really isn't going anywhere." I think if you have the time to do that stuff, it can really help.

Did you end up going back and forth on complexity of combat systems? As a fan of Diablo-style action RPGs, it definitely seems that it's difficult for developers to really nail the right balance. It can't be so complex that you lose the fluidity, or so simple that you aren't doing anything.

RG: Yeah. That's a really hard thing. One of the things that I wanted to do with DeathSpank was to be able to get the combat working just as fast as we possibly could. So we got that up really quickly, and we've redesigned it three times already.

We'd done a combat system, and we lived with that for several months, and then we just threw it all out and started over. Then we lived with the [new] thing for several months, and then we just threw that all out and started with the third one, which everyone really likes now.

I think that was a really good process. It allowed us to play with these things. The whole system that I put together to build DeathSpank is really about very rapid prototyping. If we have an idea, we can get it in the game in a matter of minutes if it's just some funny little gag or funny little joke. Things like the combat system and how the user interacts with it, that probably took less than a week to completely redo, and we've done it three times already.

That is really important, because games are things you play. You have to touch them and feel them and see how they react to you. And if they don't work, you start over.

Do you do much coding or scripting at these days, or do you prefer to delegate that down to the dedicated programmers?

RG: No, I actually love to program. I just love it. I programmed a lot on this game. I programmed a lot on the engine in C++. And in our custom scripting language, I do a lot of programming in that.

I think a lot of people wouldn't necessarily expect that. That's the nature of how people know other people, I guess: you get known for one thing, and I think most people know you as a writer and a designer, as opposed to an engineer or a programmer.

RG: Yeah. That's how I got started. I got started in programming, and certainly back in the early '80s there really were no game designers. There were programmers who also made games. There weren't even artists who made games back then. That's how I got into everything, but it is just something that I've loved.

Occasionally, I've not done it for a couple of years, but when I start programming again, I'm so happy doing it. I also like to tinker a lot, so when I'm working on DeathSpank, I'm playing the game. It's very hard for me to play the game for more than ten minutes, because I see all these things that are wrong, and then I go in and try to fix them all. Sometimes, I wish I actually could.

Actually, before we went to [consumer expo] PAX [in September], I just told myself, "You know what? For the next three days, you're going to play this game and you're not going to stop and fix anything." That was actually a nice experience.

It's funny -- I've interviewed you a few times at this point, and I don't think actual programming has ever come up.

RG: No, I don't think it has.

Do you have any personal philosophy about game design? You're known for doing so much in the adventure genre, and now you're doing something that draws a lot from other types of games. Do you see design as being fairly genre-specific, or is it more of a spectrum?

RG: It is hard to define. A lot of things cross over. There certainly are genres of games, but I think they do share a lot in common. I have a lot respect for movie directors who direct movies in all different genres, who have done really good comedies, and action movies, and sci-fi stuff.

I really like that breadth, and I think that's true also with games. There are strategy games and adventure games and first-person shooters, but there are a whole lot of things that are common there.

One reason I ask is because when I interviewed you several years ago, I enjoyed how much you had to say about other genres besides adventure games.

RG: Adventure games are probably most commonly known for how they tell stories -- or at least that's how I think about them. It's how the stories are structured, how the puzzles are structured, and how the story weaves in and out of the puzzles.

I do wish that was something that people who do other genres would understand better. Even doing a first-person shooter, I think if you understood how really good adventure games are structured, there is a lot that can be learned.

And vice versa, too. There are a lot of really great things that first-person shooters and real-time strategy games do that I think adventure games could really learn from.

That must be particularly applicable to DeathSpank, because you have to deal with flowing in and out of adventure game-style puzzles and dialogue without it being jarring.

RG: Yeah, that's true. I think if there were any two genres that do fit well together, it's adventure games and RPGs. There's a lot they share in common with how they tell stories. RPGs are about quests, and adventure games are about going on little problem-solving missions.

Those have very [much] in common. They're both about collecting items at some level. Adventure games are about stealing them from somebody's house, and RPGs are about killing monsters to get them.

There's a huge overlap. Actually, melding those two things together in DeathSpank wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.

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