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Gamasutra speaks with Hohokum studio Honeyslug about how the game came together, what it's been through, and where the duo will go next.

Mike Rose, Blogger

August 11, 2014

17 Min Read

I first played Hohokum back in September 2010, when the game was being presented as part of the Eurogamer Expo Indie Game Showcase. It was a delightfully bright and silly demo, with players controlling a snake-like creature that could pick up inhabitants of this strange world and take them for a ride on his back. Four years later, and the Honeyslug team, in collaboration with artist Dick Hogg, are finally releasing Hohokum for PlayStation platforms. The game has gone through quite a journey since I last played it, and it's now an SCE Santa Monica first-party game. What hasn't changed are those gorgeous visuals, and the general wackiness of it all. I spoke with Hogg and Honeyslug's Ricky Haggett about how the game came together, what it's been through, and where the duo will go next. How did it come about in the first place, that you decided to work together? Haggett: We'd met before, and we were sort of friends. Dick was in a band called Satan's Cock, and I ran a club night that had Satan's Cock play. So we were friends through that, and Dick gave me him Amiga 1200 which lived in my loft for about a year and a half before I put it in a skip. Sorry Dick. Hogg: It's alright, I kept all the good games. Haggett: So then we'd go to the pub sometimes and chat, and we started talking about what it would be like if we made a video game. Dick out of the blue sent me this amazing picture of a crazy machine and said hey, here's a starting point for a video game! Hogg: It was around the time that I was becoming self-employed, and I was leaving my job at a design company called AirSide. One of my self-employed strategies was to deliberately try to find interesting things to do, so I was going out of my way to find interesting projects to get involved in. This included painting murals, and various publishing stuff. But also I play video games a lot, and I'd been friends with Ricky for a few years. Obviously we used to talk abotu video games a lot. I think both of us thought, wouldn't it be interesting to have a go at making one? So I just started sending him stuff. What year was this in? Hogg: Ooh, this must have been 2008, 2009. Haggett: At the same time I was getting into Flash. Actionscript 3 had just come out, and it was the start of like, loads of 2D physics engines had just appeared in Flash and increasingly it was just easy to throw things together. It was a really lovely prototyping tool. So I was just using it as an opportunity to learn a bunch of stuff about physics and Flash and vector graphics. It started off that Dick would draw something, and then I would implement it in the way I thought it might work. I'd show Dick, we'd talk about it, and then often nothing would happen then. Hogg: I was deliberately drawing stuff where it wasn't that obvious how it would work as a game. Haggett: He wasn't sending me stuff and saying, "This is for a platform game." He'd say, "Here are some crazy things." [laughs] Hogg: "Here's a bunch of weird objects that look a little bit like a machine that's been broken up into lots of little bits, or some sort of strange alien architecture." Haggett: It was less figurative and less real than the world of Hohokum. There weren't any characters, or arms and legs and eyes. Hogg: But the interesting thing is that we started calling it Hohokum quite early on, even when it was something very different to what it's ended up being. I don't really know why. So you're putting this thing together and you're not really sure what it is. At what point did you decide what it was going to be? Haggett: It was a period of really intense prototyping. I remember getting to the point where we'd made three different versions of the game. We had a top-down, navigating through a sort of alien maze, a bit like Flow. We had a side-on platformer, but where you were a guy with a jetpack. We had a mini-golf game. [laughs] We had ideas for musical interactions as well. There were things we liked, but we were generally unsatisfied by what we'd done. I just went through this process of every day, starting from scratch, but taking the elements we'd made and iterating them in some crazy direction. I'd send them to Dick, we'd talk about them. Then the next day I'd think right, what kind of crazy shit will I do today! Hogg: There were also whole periods where nothing happened for months, because we were busy with earning money type things. Haggett: But Hohokum came together from all those bits, over the course of maybe two weeks. The thing you are in Hohokum emerged organically from a load of other things, but realitvely quickly.

Hogg: The other thing that had been slowly growing in among all these prototypes was just the mood and feel of it, and the sense of the kind of game that it would be in terms of the look, the colors, a particular... Haggett: A particular flavor of wistful music. Hogg: Yeah, yeah. All that kinda stuff was coming together before we even had the snakey thing happening. We were chipping away at the idea from a couple of different directions I suppose. One thing I always like to say is that there's almost like a mantra amongst indie developers to come up with an idea for a novel mechanic, prototype it as quickly as possible, then make a decision on its merits and be quite hard on yourself, and if it feels like fun, make it into a game. If it doesn't feel like fun, ditch it and move on. Haggett: "Fail fast." Hogg: Yeah exactly. Hohokum is the exact opposite of that. Hohokum was two guys meandering along. Haggett: Meandering for years! Hogg: And very slowly working out what it is we were trying to make. So what was the core reason that it has taken so long? You can meander to a point, but you start wondering if you're meandering for too long, right? Hogg: We got to a point that we felt like we had something we really believed in, and at that point we entered it into the IGF. And we got into the IGF. Haggett: Yeah, Summer 2010 was when we put it into the Eurogamer Indie Showcase. That was basically the result of that final, "OK, we know what this is now." Dick quite quickly put art together, and we just made a quick level that you could do stuff in. That got entered into Eurogamer. We then spent 2 weeks polishing and tidying it up. Hogg: Then it was in IGF and Indiecade. Then we took a year off to make Frobisher Says. That's a weird thing that happened. While we were finishing off Frobisher Says, we were talking to Sony Santa Monica who we'd met at Indiecade. Not long after we'd finished Frobisher Says, we were ready to get going properly on Hohokum. It was quite a weird thing - we went back to Hohokum having not touched it for the best part of a year, but we went back to it as a full-time thing, which we'd never been before. It had always been something we'd done when we had some spare time, or we'd pushed hard on it to get it into Eurogamer and IGF and Indiecade. So we'd not really spent much full-time work on it ever, so when we came back to it after Frobisher Says - this was about two years ago now - we were suddenly doing properly. We had money to pay animators. Haggett: And proper time to spend building a whole technology platform that it would all sit on. Making our own PC tech that would run with the editor, building lots of editing facilities, spending lots of time thinking about the full scope of the game... There's a lot of places in the game, and a lot of them nobody has seen. So figuring out what those places were, and how they would fit together, took a long time. So you were able to do all this because you formed a partnership with Santa Monica, right? Haggett: Yeah. So it's a first-party title, and Sony Santa Monica are the publisher. And I'm guessing you wouldn't have been able to make it without them? Haggett: We could have released something, but we weren't excited about doing that. We weren't excited about taking the IGF version, polishing it up and releasing it as a small thing, because we felt like it had a lot of scope to be something more. It wasn't like there was a huge list of people that were interested in funding a crazy thing like this, where we would feel comfortable that they knew why they were funding it. Santa Monica were right at the top of that list. Why do you think Santa Monica were so interested in funding a game like this? It's pretty different to anything else they were doing at the time. Haggett: I think it's been part of Sony Santa Monica's DNA for a while. Part of their remit is to champion small, interesting things. They were talking to the Giant Sparrow guys about Unfinished Swan around the same time, and they'd obviously already released Flow and Flower. Journey was substantially far down the line when we started working on Hohokum. So it's a part of what they do, and within the Sony eco system, it's incredibly valuable to have a team like that who are going to be pushing the boundaries of what a PlayStation game can be. Why do you think Hohokum was nominated for awards and picked for shows? Haggett: Well IGF was Excellent in Visual Art, so that one is fairly straight forward. I think generally there's something about Hohokum that is part of this movement of games that don't feel like other video games. Games that lack conventional objectives and GUI, and a lot of the trappings that games tend to have. It's not like we invented that, but being part of that movement has kinda helped.

Hogg: I think one thing that is still true of what we do that's unusual is that, even within "indie", and people who are doing quite interesting stuff in the indie scene, often the person who's responsible for the visual art is someone who thinks of themselves as someone who makes art for video games. I think the whole idea of going and working with an artist who's not a video game person is still quite unusual. It boggles my mind why that is the case. Going all the way back to PaRappa the Rapper, that's a good example of someone outside of video games doing the art for a game. So it has happened for a while, and it's happening now - David O'Reilly just made Mountain, and Olly Moss is working on a game, which is really amazing. It's good to see it happening more. Haggett: Now Dick isn't the only person doing it. Hogg: [laughs] Yeah, I like that. It feels weird to me that there aren't more people doing that. More people thinking, "How are we going to make our game look different - I know, we'll hire someone who draws comics." It just seems like a no-brainer to me. Absolutely. We see so many games coming out nowadays that all have the same style of pixel-art visuals - then you look at Hohokum and think wow, why are there not more studios hiring people like this to make their games look this pretty? Hogg: And the other weird thing for me is that, within the context of people talking about games, a lot of people have looked at the Hohokum trailer and said, "What the fuck is this?" But in the world that I come from, the world of trendy illustration, it's really not that unusual. It just looks like lots of other stuff. I'm not the most original illustrator in the world. My stuff is distinctively mine, but it's in the same ballpark as lots of other people. It's just a context thing - it's weird that you can take something out of its context and put it into a video game context, and people behave as if you've invented a new color that they've never seen before. It's really cool! Haggett: The other thing that characterizes Hohokum to some extent, is that Dick isn't just "the art guy." It's not like we're making the game, and Dick draws all the pictures. The design and the world-building - almost everything in the game really - is collaborative between us. Yeah, I mean the whole "Dick showing pictures which influence how the game comes together" angle is obviously very different to how games are normally made. Haggett: Yeah. I mean, stuff comes from both directions. A lot of stuff we make, we just make it without really knowing what it's going to look like or even going to be, and then we try and solve that problem. Sometimes Dick draws a bunch of stuff, and then we solve the problem of "Hey, this looks like a cool thing - I wonder what it does?" And that just seems so much more interesting to me than sitting down on your own and trying to figure out what game design is going to be. Hogg: Yeah, that's at the core of what I care about when it comes to making games. I always quote this thing - years ago I read an interview with Nifflas, and he was talking about how he sometimes makes a piece of music, and then wonders what sort of gameplay he wants people to be playing while listening to this piece of music. I think that's genius. It's such a good way of thinking about music in a video game, and such a good way of inspiring the spark of what's actually happening in the game. That spark coming from the music or art kinda makes me feel like, those things aren't a cosmetic thing you skin your game with at the end. They're fundamental. I was talking to the Vlambeer guys recently about sound design, and they were saying that they've come to realize that instead of just putting sounds in their games that maybe they bought online and threw in, they've started to realize that sound and art are so important in defining your game and making it stand out compared to everyone else's. Hogg: Vlambeer are very good at working collaboratively in a backwards, forwards kind of way. Joonas Turner has talked about different explosion noises, and the amount of care and love he puts into it is amazing. They're all coming from the same place - he's putting way more effort into the sound of a gun firing than a lot of people would do with audio for a game like that. So it's not something you're putting on at the end - it's part of the gameplay design. JW gets that - he's a genius with that stuff. So what happens after Hohokum? Do you have other ideas you want to work on? Hogg: We have ideas. It's a bit like how it was with Hohokum. We've got lots of ideas that we don't know quite how they fit together. But I think a lot depends on whether Hohokum is successful. We will make something together, but in terms of how ambitious it is, and to what extent it will be a reaction... people love saying now, when someone has made a game and they're being interviewed about what they're going to do next, they say, "It's going to be nothing like the game we just made! It's going to shock you how different it is." I don't really want to say something like that.

What would you do in terms of your art style in future projects? Would you want to keep it such that people could look at your next game and say, "This must be from the people who made Hohokum," or would you want to explore entirely different styles. Hogg: At the end of the day, I am me. Often when people say to me, "Where did you get the idea for the art style?" and I say, "Well, that's just how I fucking draw." [laughs] It's not that complicated. So in that sense, I'm stuck with who I am and the way I draw. It's not exactly a bad style to be stuck with! Hogg: But at the same time, I have loads of ideas for games that would be 3D. And yet I don't know how I would make a game that is 3D, because I don't have any skills in that department. I can't build art in a 3D environment. It's a thing I sort of find myself fantasizing about. A game like No Man's Sky is almost like the sort of game that I'll find myself lying in the bath thinking about. But the reality of me making a game like that, is that I literally have no skills at all in making it. There's lots of things about the way that we have been working, and the way that, in terms of the way my art style works with the stuff that Ricky does... and the third piece of the puzzle is the animators that we've been working with. In a way, we've only just really started really getting good at that stuff. There's stuff we did towards the end of Hohokum that's really exciting in terms of animation, and it'd be a shame to walk away from that. Haggett: What I will say is that Hohokum is a very broad game. There's lots and lots of places and characters that are all completely custom and different. There are hundreds of different objects that behave differently in the game, and a future game could potentially have fewer elements, and focus on a smaller number of places, yet really go to town on the animation and storytelling, and the mechanical things that could happen in those places. That's what I'm excited about. Hogg: There's that whole, to what extent do you want to be more ambitious? If Hohokum isn't a big hit, no-one will care what our next game is, and that will be nice in a way. But if Hohokum is popular, then are there expectations to make something more ambitious? Hohokum is already quite an ambitious game! One thing I loved about Journey was that it was almost simplier than Flower. Thatgamecompany actually paired down and made this game that, when you first started seeing screenshots, you thought hey, this is going to be quite a big world. But actually the game they made is a very simple, linear thing. I really admire that, because I think there must be a massive temptation to make something bigger and more complicated. I admire their resistance to say "No, let's just tell a simple story, and do it really well." Haggett: For me, I think things generally have a natural size that they're meant for, and it's about finding what that natural size is, and squaring that up with the size of your team and your budget, and how long you've got, and how good your tech is. For Hohokum, there was a natural size that it wanted to be, and there were lots of things that we were attached to and didn't want to cut - so we didn't. It's hard to say what the case will be for the next game, really.

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