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[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.