Designer Ron Gilbert is best known for his landmark LucasArts adventure games Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, but his career has also encompassed children's games at Humongous Entertainment, and he served as producer on Chris Taylor's ambitious large-scale RTS Total Annihilation. His latest game, DeathSpank, debuts on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network this week, and represents the addition of the action-RPG to his repertoire.
Unabashedly described by Gilbert himself as "Monkey Island meets Diablo," the game seeks to marry the storytelling charms of the adventure game genre with the simple but deep monster-grinding lootfests that so few games have managed to successfully capture.
After conceiving the concept of DeathSpank -- a tongue-in-cheek parody of video game excess -- in a Flash cartoon series on his personal blog back in 2004, Gilbert and longtime collaborator Clayton Kauzlaric realized it could actually support a real game.
In 2008, he joined up with Vancouver-based Hothead Studios to develop the game; in April of this year, with production largely complete, he left the studio.
Gamasutra sat down with Gilbert to discuss why he left, how DeathSpank originated, how the game's design evolved and crystallized, and what makes a good action-RPG work.
How many people worked on this game, and for how long?
Ron Gilbert: It's been about two years up there, working on it, fluctuating somewhere between 10 and 30 people depending upon what phase it was in.
What was behind your decision to leave Hothead?
RG: Just that I came there to make DeathSpank. That was basically the reason I went there: to get that game made. Basic production was all done, and it seemed like a good time to go do other things.
Have you figured out what those things are yet, or are you taking some time right now?
RG: Yeah, I'm taking a couple months off. I've got a lot of ideas just rolling around in my head, figuring out what to do. I don't have anything locked down right now.
Do you think you will return to that kind of studio role any time in the near future, or are you planning on doing something more on your own?
RG: I'm not really sure yet. A lot of things are very interesting; iPhone games are very interesting to me right now. I play a lot of them, and they're neat because then you can do two- or three-people teams to make those things. That's kind of interesting. So I'm just playing around.
I know you consulted with Telltale on the Tales of Monkey Island games. Did you end up playing them after they came out?
RG: Yeah, I think they're really good. I think Telltale does a really good job with the episodic stuff; they've really nailed that whole format well, and they're extremely good at getting things out on time and not taking forever to get episodes. They really do tend to crank them out. I think they've done an absolutely fabulous job with that stuff.
Now that DeathSpank is done and you can look back, how similar is it to what you initially intended to make?
RG: I think it's surprisingly close. Because, yeah, games really do change a lot, but my original vision for this game -- and it's been in my head for five years or so -- was "Monkey Island meets Diablo." That was really the catch-phrase for it, and I think it did that. It's got a lot of the humor and the dialogue; the way it tells story is from Monkey Island. It's got the nice action-RPG element that I really like from Diablo.
You've always talked a lot about Animal Crossing as well, and the physical vibe of this game's world evokes that to me as well, and there's also a bit of Maximo, which you've mentioned in previous interviews we've done.
RG: Yeah, that's very true.
How conscious was the inclusion of those elements?
RG: Well, the rolling world that you mentioned, which is in Animal Crossing, is a good example of that kind of stuff. I always wanted to meld this 2D art with a 3D world; that was all really neat. So when we started playing around and mocking up prototypes in Maya, we kind of hit on that idea of the rolling world, which I had seen in Animal Crossing. We tried that out, and it worked really well.
So, a lot of the things that you mentioned are part of the core vision, but there are other things that just pop up here and there. You think, "Hey, you know what? They did this in that game, and it worked really well; it would work really nicely here." You change a little bit and put it in.