It's funny that DeathSpank the character was conceived to say, "Look how ridiculous games are! Look how ridiculous this guy is!" And then you said, "Oh, man. I really want to play this guy." That's an interesting turn.
RG: [laughs] Yeah, it's a fine line to walk, because you want the character to be funny. He is not the smartest guy in the world, but he is not a buffoon. He might not know what to kill, but he will kill it really good. That's kind of how we thought about his character; he shoots first and asks questions later.
What I didn't want to do was make an RPG where you're starting out as some young kid or an apprentice magician for somebody. I wanted to throw you right in there. So he's a fully formed character.
I'm starting you in the middle of his big story, in a way; you can actually go into his quest log, and there's a whole bunch of quests that have already been completed when the game starts, which give you a little bit of background about how he got there.
So those are just part of the same quest log as ones the player himself has done?
RG: Yeah. You can look at all the quests you've done. You can go through them, and they're all written exactly like normal quests would be. You see what brought him to this place.
Very few games include explicit or implied history using actual game UI; usually it's a cutscene, or a separate page for "lore," or whatever. How did you come up with that?
RG: I don't remember exactly how that came about; I know I had always wanted him to have a history. That was really the thing. I remember I was sitting around, talking to [Hothead's] Darren [Evenson], who's one of the other designers, and I don't remember whether it was him or me, but somebody mentioned that. We just said, "Of course! Perfect!"
Did you have a history in mind prior to that?
RG: Yeah, I had the whole story arc which you get to experience in the game. I understood that whole story arc. I understood how he got to where he is in the start, but not so detailed yet. I didn't map out five hundred quests that got him there, but I did understand the larger arc that really took him to the place where he is.
In terms of quests and world exploration, how did you think about the balance between the extremes where you just line up the quests and players knock them down, and where you just have this huge world and players encounter quests as they stumble on them? Action RPGs have fallen at very different points on that spectrum in recent years.
RG: You want to give players enough of a feeling that they're not being just shoe-horned into an area. You want to allow them to roam. More importantly, you want to allow them to make mistakes. That's the key. You've got different monsters in different levels, and the monsters that are too high-level for you to really win a fight with -- their level numbers are red. We use those as soft gates. Then there are hard gates -- literal gates -- that are locked.
You have these hard monsters around to kind of push the player in the direction you want them to go, but you don't want to just block them off all the time, because there's a point where the player will realize this is artificial, and then it just becomes a linear game in their head. But if they just see some really hard monsters that they can't really fight their way through, it's just as "hard" as a hard gate, but it doesn't feel that way; it doesn't feel like you've tricked them.
There's something to be said, I think, for the notion of not going somewhere because you legitimately feel like you're not yet up to the challenge, as opposed to just because you arbitrarily can't.
RG: Right, right. You know what you need to do to get strong enough: you can go kill monsters, you can do quests, you can get XP. Once I've done that, I know that I'm going to be able to go there.
MMOs really lean on that a lot.
RG: Yeah, and they do it really well. I'm a big World of Warcraft player, and I have a lot of respect for that game. It's incredibly well-designed! That is one of the things that they do well: they've got their zones, and each zone is strictly leveled -- this is a 50- to 60-level zone. As a player, you learn that. You learn that, if you see these guys and their level is red, don't go there. It works really well.