Digging For Worms: Why Doug Tennapel Doesn't Care What His Fans Think

In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, artist, game designer, and Earthworm Jim creator Doug Tennapel discusses what game developers look for in an artist, transitioning between mediums, and why your fans don't necessarily know best.

Doug Tennapel

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

Occasional game developer and character designer Doug Tennapel is probably most often remembered for his work creating the Earthworm Jim franchise. In addition to EWJ, The Neverhood, and other fan favorites of the 16-bit era, Tennapel is an accomplished comic book artist, and is currently working for Nickelodeon on the show Catscratch.

Gamasutra took some time out of Doug’s day to catch up on Earthworm Jim, get some thoughts on character design, and wax philosophical about the state of game creation today.

Gamasutra: What do you feel the main differences are between designing a character for a comic book versus designing them for a video game?

Doug Tennapel: I have very strong opinions on that, and it's kind of my area of expertise. The reason why I got out of video games, or am at least leaning away from video games (I just contract for them,) is really that a video game is a terrible place to tell a story. It's really because the reason we go to a game is different from the reason why we go to a more passive form of entertainment. And really a great story can be there, but it's optional. What must be there is good gameplay. And that's why at its core, I think it's inaccurate to call it some kind of sequential storytelling medium when, at its core, it's not necessary.

GS: Does that make it harder for a character designer to know that they're not as necessary as they would be in a more passive medium?

DT: Oh, they certainly have less clout in gaming than they do in television and movies, that's for sure. I mean, if you want to know where the clout is, you'll find it in the programmers or designers, but certainly not in character development.

GS: So what would you feel developers look for in a game artist?

DT: First of all they want an artist that is going to be an all-purpose, strong artist. He needs to be really good at basic forms of anatomy that could be applied to a man or an ogre or a horse or a dragon or a living vehicle. I mean, the more variety, the better. If you get a guy who just good at drawing wacky cartoons, you've probably got in the wrong guy if your next game is going to see some Gothic horror. A broad, traditional skill base is what I would look for.

GS: So these are the things you personally look for in an artist?

DT: Oh, absolutely. And when we go through their portfolios and they’re void of the sort of classic qualities, you just pass over their portfolio. They really do start to blend together; after you look at hundreds of portfolios you really start to see the kind of skill base that our schools are cranking out.

GS: So do you feel that the industry discourages specialization? Or just that if you want to be a game artist, you would be wise not to specialize?

DT: I do think that the gaming industry is too immature to understand what classic artistry even is, because the ones I keep seeing them hire are just the wrong kind of people. Like for instance, if a guy maybe renders with his pencil really well, puts good shading on a creature, but his anatomy is completely wrong…they hire him because he tricked them with his cool detail, even though the foundation of his drawing is weak.

GS: Do you have any particularly bad examples from the current industry?

DT: You know, I'd rather not do that. But I'll say it's rare that I'm impressed with the design or vision of a character. I can give you an example of good ones, how’s that? I think everything that Insomniac does is really cleverly designed.

GS: Now, things like Psychonauts did not get much in the way of critical acclaim up front. Definitely what you would call a “sleeper hit.” Do you think that there's room for that kind of innovation in the industry?

DT: I think there's always room for that kind of a risk, but it's a huge risk from a business standpoint, to go out on a limb and come up with something unique like Psychonauts, which is brilliant. And then, you know what? To the winner go the spoils. I see all these other big giant mega-companies that aren’t pushing those kinds of games. They should be embarrassed that a game like Psychonauts could kind of sneak up on them and just really sweep the attention and critical acclaim away from them.

Earthworm Jim

GS: How does that tie into the fact that these people who are making these type of non-creative games are still selling them? What does that say to you?

DT: Yeah, well the bottom line is if selling games is the sole goal -- and frankly, I don't think any medium is more tied to the bottom line quite the way video games are -- video games are very difficult to develop. They have a very long gestation period. They are an enormous risk. They are expensive systems to deliver on when you're paying that kind of a royalty to a platform. Salaries are expensive, programmer salaries are outrageous and development costs are up and those are all things that give studios pause at taking risks. I mean, let's face it: to make a high quality, funny game doesn't seem that strange to me if it's part of someone's business plan. But again, the humor always comes second to gameplay, and it needs to. The problem is, just because it’s second doesn’t mean it needs to be last, or un-thought-of, or rounded out of the process or disrespected.

GS: So you would have no problem with a game that played great, and was funny and entertaining, but looked like junk?

DT: I would have no problem with the game that played great, and did nothing else. I mean, I still bang out my Atari 2600. I love great games. Me and my friends would go play [Dr. Robotnik's] Mean Bean Machine as a drinking game, we bang out these really old games all the time. There's just not a lot of soul in overly complicated games, and it's kind of like I said with the figure drawing, where an artist can trick developers into thinking that he's a good artist by putting detail in a poorly structured work. In a way, if you step back from a video game, sometimes the entire game does the same thing. It's a poor foundation, it’s poorly designed, but they throw a bunch of detail on and think they're going to fool everybody. And it's just weak design, and frankly it's immature design without vision and video gaming is a very immature industry. It's brand new if you compare it to the movie industry or other classic storytelling mediums. They’re ancient compared to video games.

GS: Would you feel that this is a trend that seems to be reversing? This “adding a spit and polish to lackluster games”?

DT: Yeah, I think in a way video games have gotten a really bad start with how expensive it became to develop in such a short amount of time. You know if you look at the budgets of what it cost to make a film in the first year that film was invented versus the fifth year or the 10th year the budgets didn’t go up astronomically. But if you look at video games, they went nuts and the original developers were working with this primitive technology and most games were done with under eight people in under a year for three quarters of a million dollars if you were lucky.

GS: So they're still spending that much money but they're not putting out quality product?

DT: They're spending so much that now they’re making $30 million games. Big business is big business, and I think some of the smaller mom-and-pop shops got closed down or bought out, and again, I think it was kind of because the gamers weren't even in it for the art of gaming. They wanted to sell their company and make big stocks to swell up the company to 70 people and try to unload a bunch of cash.


Earthworm Jim, at the height of its popularity, inspired a
television series and line of merchandise.


GS: I couldn't interview you without asking about Earthworm Jim. You mentioned in a post on your message board about having to redesign the characters to be rendered in 3D?

DT: I didn't redesign them to be rendered in 3D, I redesigned them. The fact is, I would've done the same thing if it was done in 2D or 3D. Also, let me just say that the amount of misinformation that’s out about the project on PSP is just staggering. Almost everything I read is wrong. Also, I'm not at liberty to talk too much about the specifics of it, and it's simply because we're it's just not a done deal by any means. And that's the story of Jim's whole life: a struggle between powers and control on all that.

GS: Where is Jim intellectually? Are the rights still a mess?

DT: The problem with Earthworm Jim's life is that his DNA is spread between multiple companies and even now most of it eventually reverted back to Playmates Toys. So Playmates is kind of the holder of them all and they're a great company. I have no complaints with them. Atari got the handheld rights, under the inspiration of Dave Perry.

As for the PSP project, I did the redesign stuff. Dave Perry and I have been talking about redoing Earthworm Jim for years, ever since he and I kind of kissed and made up five or six years ago. And we just said, “look, the main thing is our fans are just begging for this game.” We all know that he really has a strong presence in video games. He's a legend, and it would be great to do him right and kind of re-launch the character. And I've learned a lot about drawing in designing in 13 years so I can kind of freshen him up a little bit and make him not so much this bulky clunky thing and kind of pay tribute in the original spirit, and so Dave Perry invited me on and we are having all these conversations. And we quickly said we've got to get the rest of the guys on. I think what happened was Atari, when they originally assigned us to do the Jim PSP game, I don't think... I'm trying to be very careful here. I don't think they thought it would be very expensive to make, how’s that? And we needed salaries, Dave Perry and me and some of the original creative team on board, and that can cost a lot more money.

GS: Is that one of the things that's holding up production for the time being? Financial issues?

DS: I think it’s the main issue that's keeping us off the project, let's put it that way. These decisions were kind of cast in stone a long time ago. I don't have a lot to say about Atari, and I don't know what I could say that wouldn't be really incriminating and so forth.

GS: Would that involve the team that is so far assembled to work on the project?

DT: The team is made up of Shiny employees, the ones that are still around, and Dave Perry is no longer with Shiny, and neither is the original Earthworm Jim game except for some of my own sketches and some of my meetings that I had where the Shiny team was involved. We kind of wanted one direction and, while I love the team, they're good guys and everything, but no offense to them - it would dishonor the original team to say that these guys are going to throw down an authoritative Earthworm Jim.

GS: As far as the future of Jim beyond the PSP, is anything else in the works or is this taking up all of your time?

DT: You know, I know those rights are still available, and that would be between whatever big publisher wants to go get them from Playmates. But I think they'd be crazy not to. It doesn't mean I necessarily want to see it because, if they’re going to come and shit out another Earthworm Jim 3D, then what's the point? And by the way I get my royalty rate regardless.


Earthworm Jim 3D (N64, PC); a success neither
commercially nor critically.


GS: So if they did pick it up, would you be involved with that?

DT: The only thing... I'm not automatically involved with anything, but I get creative control of the characters on my contract with Shiny. Basically that just means I get approval. It doesn't mean I’m going to do free design work for them, although if I like the team I may help them out a little.

The thing to understand about Earthworm Jim is that from the very start, we basically said his original strength is that he's is a simple, appealing character on a side scrolling platform game. Kids like him, adults like him and the gameplay was incredible. That was kind of my charge in the original discussions I had with the team and “what can we do to make the gameplay rock solid;" easy to pick up, very few buttons, don't create a bunch of new moves…kind of update all the characters and environments and still innovate a little bit within what we can do on a budget.

GS: Was the decision to go to the PSP part of the original discussions?

DT: I think at that point, we knew it was going to be on the PSP. Atari had already decided and Dave Perry was on to do the PSP. I was of course completely unfamiliar with the PSP, but I got updated on a real quick.

GS: What about some of your other properties like Neverhood?

DT: Neverhood is actually over at EA. When EA partnered with DreamWorks, they picked that up. I don't even know if they know they have it. I've also talked to some developers about my graphic novel, Creature Tech. There are some Hollywood video game companies that wanted that one. And they're looking at Earthboy Jacobus.

GS: Would you feel that something like that could be done well? The record shows that there has yet to be a real standout comic book translation.

DT: The guys I was talking to basically said, we just want to do a videogame version of your comic book. Not so much holding to the story, but really trying to make the characters look kind of cartoony like the comic book, and really nail a lot of the scenes in the book. You know bosses and stuff, because it really lends itself well to a videogame, so it would be appropriate to do that.

GS: Some would say that there has yet to be a really great comic book game. You'd think it would be a no-brainer for something like Batman or the Marvel comics. Do you think the reason we haven't seen something really outstanding is that they weren’t choosing the right property? Or possibly not working closely enough with the original creators?

DT: You know, I work at Nickelodeon on my TV show Catscratch, and this guy had talked to me about bringing in a new character group that would specifically be launched as a TV and a videogame thing. So we're talking video games... and the first thing I said was “if we work with the developer to make this game, we really need to listen to them about their engine and about their development process, and really let them take the lead and just dictate to them what it has to be.” So it's the opposite of what you were saying: I think that Marvel comes up to a company and says “we've got Spider-Man the comic book or the movie or Manga Spider-Man and this will be what your bosses look like and this is what the character has to look like, and don't show the back of the character all the time like your engine is built to do, we want to see his front and side all the time.” So they're jacking with the gameplay.

I actually think most gamers are a lot better at making games than a comic book marketing department would be. I actually think it's a lack of freedom…the toughest game I ever made was Jurassic Park for the Genesis. And it really was, because we had our world based on the character license, as opposed to our other games which were kind of a free-for-all. They’re like, “Make a great game. Here are the characters that you will work with, and go make a great game." And you know, you can't change the world of the character and no video game developers should be trying to do that either.


Tennapel and company were given total freedom with Jurassic Park


That's a problem. A lot of creators think that their job is to re-create stuff, and it's already really good, because they want to justify their job or are make a name for themselves or whatever. If I was making a Spider-Man game, there is so much in that world that would make a great game without having to slap my name or my style on it. It's like you're sitting there saying, when are we going to get a great comic book adaptation? There should've been a Watchmen game by now, it probably would cost some company like 50 grand to get the game rights to it. When you stand outside the business it’s really confusing how things work. And even if it's explained to you it doesn't come off logically or even make sense.

GS: Where do you feel the fans factor into the decision-making process of a game based off a comic or other intellectual property? Do you think a more independent comic would have a better chance of making good game, since they don’t have this large and potentially rabid fan base?

DT: No, because…I'm going to piss some people off here, but I don't care what the fans think. I love my fans, but never ever design a game for your fans. When you originally made the thing, the thing that all the fans liked, you made it because it was good, and they came to you, because of what you did. Your instincts lead you correctly in that instance. So to suddenly change that formula, and follow what fans want and redesign something in the image that you think, second-guessing, that they will like, would create a different thing, that isn’t you and probably isn't good. And you will always lose fans by doing that. Of course, like if I were doing that for one of my characters like Earthworm Jim…you see, I love my fans, but I wouldn't do that for them. As far as designing the game goes, I follow my gaming instincts and my character design instincts and make the very best game I know how to make. That's what I'm all about, and there are some guys that lose your trust. Old fans leave, new fans are made. Somehow we survive.

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