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Interview: Size Five's Dan Marshall On Creating His Own Grim Fandango

Quirky British developer Dan Marshall closed down well-known indie studio Zombie Cow, and resurrected it as Size Five earlier this year. Having now announced his 'first' game, he talked to Gamasutra about the future.

Mike Rose, Blogger

August 25, 2011

6 Min Read

Indie developers have enough on their plates to worry about, without added risks thrown into the mix. Sometimes, however, being stuck in a rut and taking a risk can lead to the revitalization of a studio, rather than a developer having to call Time Gentlemen, Please. When quirky British developer Dan Marshall opted to close down well-known indie studio Zombie Cow -- developer of Time Gentlemen, Please -- and resurrect it as Size Five Games, it was more than a tense moment. Would the fans react well to the new name, and would the preferred result of attracting a larger fanbase pan out? Fortunately for one-man-band Marshall, his previous work on the Ben and Dan adventure series, not to mention his collaboration with Channel 4, means that he really can stretch his legs properly for the first time. "It's all off my own back this time," he told Gamasutra. "Thanks to the cash that came from Privates and continuing sales of Time Gentlemen, Please!, I'm now fully self-funded and having a whale of a time with it." Indeed, Marshall revealed his first game under his new studio name last month, steampunk platformer The Swindle, which will see players infiltrating facilities and hacking computers -- and it's rather different to anything we've seen from the dev before. "The idea started about a year ago," Marshall explained. "But it's been in full production for six months or so, so it's still very early days. A lot of that time has been spent getting the various technologies like physics simulation and lighting to work together nicely, and nailing the visual style." "I'm not an artist," he noted, "so getting something that both looks good and was easy enough to mass-produce assets actually took a lot longer than I was expecting." The art style is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the recently revealed screenshots, as the game is looking miles apart from the style Zombie Cow once delivered. Says Marshall, "I worked hard trying to get the look right. I knew I wanted something bold and cartoony, with just enough detail to make it interesting. Originally it was less detailed, but I quickly learned that steampunk is very much in the intricacies." Letting his indie roots shine through, Marshall isn't shy to share the names of indie games he's been inspired by. "The backgrounds were largely inspired by World of Goo," he said. "I loved that blurry, indistinct look and wanted to recreate it. "Again, as a one-man band, a style like that is a Godsend because it's much quicker and easier to do than a spangly, detailed backdrop!" He continued, "I also drew inspiration from Eets, Shank and Castle Crashers at times - I continually referred to their screenshots, trying to work out how to nail that bold graphical style." With this new visual style, will Marshall be laying off his trademark dark, British humor and stepping out of his comfort zone? "A little bit, yes," he admits, although he quickly notes, "I'm sure The Swindle will wind up having a heavy comedy bent, but it'll be quite different tonally from my previous games." "I think of it as this is Grim Fandango compared to Day of the Tentacle, you know? A bit darker, a bit more gritty, certainly less crude humor. The creative part of me doesn't want to do the same things over and over, so it's good to do something quite different." Marshall is once again tackling development on his own - well, most of it anyway. "I know my limitations," he said. "Given that AI is going to prove so very crucial in The Swindle, I decided it'd be silly to try and do that myself. It'd be cobbled together and awkward." "So I've roped in someone who really knows what he's doing, just to make sure the enemies can get from A to B in a sensible and timely fashion." However, he's adamant that working on his own can give the final product that extra added something. "Essentially I'm doing it all myself - the code art and design thus far are all me, tapping away late into the night. There's something nice from a development point of view of doing everything on your own, there's a luxury of having everything looking exactly as it is in your head." "I think there's something nice as a gamer as well playing something made by one guy," he explained. "When you're playing Cliff Harris' games, or Rob Fearon's stuff, you really feel a much stronger connection and understanding of the game. And of course it means there's only one person to blame when you lose!" So when can we expect the first game from Size Five to drop? Not too soon, it would seem. "It's some way off, yet," Marshall told us. "I'd like to say it'll be ready by the end of next year, but we all know that games take twice as long as your wildest expectations." "Fortunately I've got both the time and funds to make something special, here, so I've got the luxury of making sure it's a great game that does really well. I'm taking a Fez approach to development - it'll be out when it's perfect." Yet it sounds like we don't have to wait that long for a new game from Marshall, as he may well have something up his sleeve before then. "As the release is some way off, I am tentatively looking at releasing something else in the interim - something tiny to give me a break from The Swindle which is pretty full-on. We'll see what happens there." As for the studio name change and the risk involved, Marshall is pleased with the results he has seen so far - in fact, he saw sales of his past games increase thanks to the press and discussion he received. "The Swindle announcement went down really well, I think all the main sites covered it," he mused. "I made a point of starting the press release by mentioning Zombie Cow, Privates and Time Gentlemen, Please!, so within moments people know who I am and that'd give me the extra chance of the story being picked up." He continued, "Changing the name was a gamble, but I really think it paid off. Sales went up with all the press and discussion that followed the name change, and I can't even begin to describe how much happier I am in my job as a result. So it was a foolish gamble, but one I've been very happy with so far."

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