How Spelunky helped Dan Marshall reinvent The Swindle

Last year, developer Dan Marshall cancelled The Swindle, a game he had been working on for two years. Now the dev has resurrected the game with a new direction -- and it's all thanks to Spelunky.
It was 2011 when Dan Marshall of Size Five Games revealed The Swindle, a steampunk-filled stealth game about infiltrating facilities to hack computers and steal money. Then, towards the end of 2013, disaster -- Marshall admitted that he had decided to can the game after two years of development. The game was too complicated, he said, and rather than try to work something out of the mess, he needed a change. Yet here we are, a year on, and the Size Five dev is once again announcing The Swindle. This is a rather different beast than before, and this time Marshall is certain he's got the formula right, thanks to inspiration from one game in particular -- Spelunky. Gamasutra chatted with Marshall to find out how exactly the release of Spelunky helped him discover that special something that was originally missing from The Swindle. So you started work on the game in 2010, right? What happened there? Marshall: Yeah, the first version of Swindle was years ago. It was in XNA, but then XNA started to look rocky, so I shifted it all over to Unity. Ported the whole bloody thing over. It was working really well, but it was just one of these weird things where there was so much stuff it in that was fun - loads of different little fun element - but it just wasnt gelling together properly. The individual parts were all really good, but the whole thing just wasn't fun to play. For some reason it didn't work. I got to the point where I couldn't afford to make the game it deserved to be. One of the main things about it was that there would be half a dozen locations, and you keep going back to them - there was an AI director that would patch up the bits that you broke into last time, and force you around a different way. So if you broke in through the sewers and worked your way up, the AI director would clock on to that and put extra guards on that area, or reinforcement it. It was a really cool idea and it worked, but it just wasn't fun to play against.

So I cancelled it. It was a shame, but it was one of those things - I'd rather lose two years of work than put out something that I am constantly struggling to make it fun. Then about a year after everyone else, I got hooked on Spelunky. I was playing it, and it was suddenly crystal clear to me. This is what The Swindle needed: procedurally generated levels, so it's different every time, and predictable baddies. The guards in the original Swindle were human, and it was another of those things where it was like OK, this is going to cost a fortune to get the AI right. They needed to chase you around and follow you through the levels, and it never really worked satisfyingly well. I was playing Spelunky and thinking, "This is what I need - guards that are predictable." So I put together a prototype, just to see roughly how it would hang together, and to see if I was right that the procedurally generated stuff would solve a lot of my problems. I took a week, and even when it just looked like Thomas Was Alone - you were a red rectangle sliding around, hitting blue rectangles with your white rectangle - even at that point it was fun to play. It had that one more go feel, that constant "die, try again" thing. So I ran with it. I'm so pleased that I'm still making this game. I absolutely got the Spelunky vibe from the trailer. Also a bit of Mark of the Ninja? Marshall: The original Swindle was actually a lot more Mark of the Ninja, but I dunno, it's not really a stealth game. Well, it ostensibly is a stealth game, since it's about sneaking around buildings, but... well, I am shit at stealth games, and I'm not all that into stealth mechanics. It's one of those things in games that just sort of upsets me a little bit - the idea that on the whim of an AI turning around, this whole thing could go to bollocks.
I got hooked on Spelunky. I was playing it, and it was suddenly crystal clear to me. This is what The Swindle needed."
Yeah, I don't mind stealth in my games - it can be great for breaking up the shootybang sections - but when it's kinda forced on you in weird ways, like how Dishonored would turn its nose up at you for not properly stealth beating a missions, I'm not so into that. Marshall: Yeah exactly. So for me, The Swindle kinda feels like a stealth game for the rest of us. It's one of those things where being discovered and setting off all the alarms is more an inevitability than a fail state. You pretty much will get spotted at some point - it just depends on how long you can keep it up. All that happens when you get discovered is that the focus of the game shifts. Instead of being a sneaky sneaky trying not to get spotted, it becomes an all-out action game. It turns into walloping guards on the back of the head and trying to get around the level as quickly as possible. When you get spotted, the amount of money in the level starts draining, so all the computers start draining of all their cash. If you want to maximize your take-home, you sneak around and try to get as far as you can without setting off the alarms, and then once they've gone off, it's a kick-bollocks scramble to grab as much as you can and leg it before the cops turn up. It looks like the game is using a lot of the same features and effects that you put together for Gun Monkeys. Marshall: Yeah, it steals a few bits of codes from Gun Monkeys. Some of the explosions are swiped. It's not a massive amount though - it's mostly the character-control stuff that's been taken from Gun Monkeys. It's one of those things where, I'm not going to rewrite a load of camera code when I can just copy and paste it across, and it'll work first time. The stuff that has been taken has been massively tweaked though.

Tell me, then, about the XCOM elements. I know you're super into your XCOM, so I can't say I was massively surprised you're putting those sorts of elements into it. Marshall: I did a talk years ago at the first Bit of Alright festival [now Feral Vector], called Tea and Death. It was about death in video game narratives, and how it just doesn't make any sense. It's this really weird hang-on from the olden days of arcade games. Nathan Drake is constantly dying, and everyone is mourning him briefly, and then time resets. It's a weird concept, but I never really found a solution to it. What I found the solution was here, we randomly generate a new thief for you every time you die. When I was first testing that, if it generated you a really cool character, and then they died, it had that XCOM feel of being really disappointed that your fake man had pegged it. Especially when I put a random name generator in as well, so every character has a random name. Sometimes it would generate you an Ian Smith or a Laura Jones or whatever, but then every once in a while it'll generate you a Captain Billworth Humpington or something. The combination of having a cool name and a cool character, means that when they die it's really horrible. It's got that permadeath, gutting, "you don't want these little chaps to peg it" feel. How does your procedurally generated stuff work then? Is it similar to Spelunky? Marshall: The building is a tilemap - it's a load of tiles, and the game digs out rooms in the building, and hooks up all the rooms with corridors, then starts eating away at the building. It starts forming bits of roof and adding elements. Then each room is decorated, so it says OK, this room is a kitchen, so I'll have a fridge and a washing machine here. This room is a library, or a bedroom, etc.
"The Swindle kinda feels like a stealth game for the rest of us."
I did start reading that article about how Spelunky generates random levels, but I got really confused and scared by it and stopped. As I understand it, Spelunky takes pre-made sections and sort of bolts them all together. This is much more random on a tile-by-tile basis, I think. I'm surprised that more developers aren't doing Spelunky-style games. Marshall: I don't want everyone to think I'm ripping off Spelunky! Oh no, I don't think it looks like a Spelunky rip-off - my reaction was more, "Oh cool, this looks a bit like Spelunky!" And honestly, I think even if you were ripping off Spelunky, lots of people would be very interested in that! Marshall: The thing is, it feels quite different to play compared to Spelunky. It doesn't send you back to the start every time you die - it doesn't have that roguelike feel to it. You're constantly building towards something, and your progress isn't completely gone when you die. It's more of a persistent universe, and the structure of what you do is actually quite different to Spelunky too. So I'm not hiding from the fact that it's very Spelunky-like, because Spelunky basically made me realize what was wrong with my game. You say there's some buying and upgrading elements to it? Marshall: Yeah, so the way it works is that you break into a building, and you nick a load of cash, then escape again. You can spend that cash on upgrading your thief with all these bio-mods and upgrades. There's bombs for blowing away sections of the map, for example, double jump, EMPs, remote mines...

The cool thing is that when you first start, it's this really down and dirty gritty game, where you have to get up close and personal with the guards. You're basically hanging in the rafters, dropping down behind them and thwacking them over the head to take them out. As the game goes on, you can start taking them out from a distance. You start detonating mines from a distance, or you can hack them and turn them against each other. Or hack a drone and send that in to take them out. By the time you're a few levels in, you're not necessarily having to take them out point blank. Is there a story to it? An end-game? Marshall: There kind of is. I haven't entirely worked out what it is yet, it's influx. I don't really want to stick a load of plot into it, because I don't think it's that kind of game. It feels superfluous, and any sort of cutscene stuff just feels like it gets in the way. I think it's going to be book-ended in a, "OK, here is your motivation for why you're breaking into buildings," and as a result, there will be an end goal. It's taken me a while to think of something that isn't just, "There's a nice big diamond, you should steal it." It needs something a little more exciting than that. But yeah, I'm not ready to talk about it just yet, in case I scrap it all, which is quite possible. Who's doing the art for the game? Marshall: A guy called Michael Firman is doing the art for me, and that's why it looks so pretty. He's a very talented young man. It's been really weird, because I've always done the art for stuff myself - Time Gentlemen, Please, Gun Monkeys etc - and it was just one of those things where I had the prototype, and I thought, "This is really good, but I need to do it justice with someone who knows what they're doing with the art style." I always usually struggle with art. I do my best and cobble stuff together... but this time I got Mike involved, and he's been amazing and really into it. He sends me stuff and I animate it and stick it all together, so it's very my style. The dreaded "when" question. I'm guessing it's still quite far off? Marshall: Yeah, it is quite far off. A lot of it is down to when Michael can get me stuff, but the core of the game is in. I'm hoping it'll be done by early next year. So not massively far off, but still a while.

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