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Ron Gilbert On The Synthesis Of DeathSpank

We catch up with beloved designer Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island) to discuss the ins and outs of DeathSpank, discussing how the title originated, how the game's design evolved and crystallized, and what makes a good action-RPG work.

Designer Ron Gilbert is best known for his landmark LucasArts adventure games Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, but his career has also encompassed children's games at Humongous Entertainment, and he served as producer on Chris Taylor's ambitious large-scale RTS Total Annihilation. His latest game, DeathSpank, debuts on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network this week, and represents the addition of the action-RPG to his repertoire.

Unabashedly described by Gilbert himself as "Monkey Island meets Diablo," the game seeks to marry the storytelling charms of the adventure game genre with the simple but deep monster-grinding lootfests that so few games have managed to successfully capture.

After conceiving the concept of DeathSpank -- a tongue-in-cheek parody of video game excess -- in a Flash cartoon series on his personal blog back in 2004, Gilbert and longtime collaborator Clayton Kauzlaric realized it could actually support a real game.

In 2008, he joined up with Vancouver-based Hothead Studios to develop the game; in April of this year, with production largely complete, he left the studio.

Gamasutra sat down with Gilbert to discuss why he left, how DeathSpank originated, how the game's design evolved and crystallized, and what makes a good action-RPG work.

How many people worked on this game, and for how long?

Ron Gilbert: It's been about two years up there, working on it, fluctuating somewhere between 10 and 30 people depending upon what phase it was in.

What was behind your decision to leave Hothead?

RG: Just that I came there to make DeathSpank. That was basically the reason I went there: to get that game made. Basic production was all done, and it seemed like a good time to go do other things.

Have you figured out what those things are yet, or are you taking some time right now?

RG: Yeah, I'm taking a couple months off. I've got a lot of ideas just rolling around in my head, figuring out what to do. I don't have anything locked down right now.

Do you think you will return to that kind of studio role any time in the near future, or are you planning on doing something more on your own?

RG: I'm not really sure yet. A lot of things are very interesting; iPhone games are very interesting to me right now. I play a lot of them, and they're neat because then you can do two- or three-people teams to make those things. That's kind of interesting. So I'm just playing around.

I know you consulted with Telltale on the Tales of Monkey Island games. Did you end up playing them after they came out?

RG: Yeah, I think they're really good. I think Telltale does a really good job with the episodic stuff; they've really nailed that whole format well, and they're extremely good at getting things out on time and not taking forever to get episodes. They really do tend to crank them out. I think they've done an absolutely fabulous job with that stuff.

Now that DeathSpank is done and you can look back, how similar is it to what you initially intended to make?

RG: I think it's surprisingly close. Because, yeah, games really do change a lot, but my original vision for this game -- and it's been in my head for five years or so -- was "Monkey Island meets Diablo." That was really the catch-phrase for it, and I think it did that. It's got a lot of the humor and the dialogue; the way it tells story is from Monkey Island. It's got the nice action-RPG element that I really like from Diablo.

You've always talked a lot about Animal Crossing as well, and the physical vibe of this game's world evokes that to me as well, and there's also a bit of Maximo, which you've mentioned in previous interviews we've done.

RG: Yeah, that's very true.

How conscious was the inclusion of those elements?

RG: Well, the rolling world that you mentioned, which is in Animal Crossing, is a good example of that kind of stuff. I always wanted to meld this 2D art with a 3D world; that was all really neat. So when we started playing around and mocking up prototypes in Maya, we kind of hit on that idea of the rolling world, which I had seen in Animal Crossing. We tried that out, and it worked really well.

So, a lot of the things that you mentioned are part of the core vision, but there are other things that just pop up here and there. You think, "Hey, you know what? They did this in that game, and it worked really well; it would work really nicely here." You change a little bit and put it in.


I would think that, particularly in this genre, a lot would come out over the course of development. There are very few good top-down hack-and-slash Diablo-style games; most of them never quite hit that right feel. It doesn't seem as fully understood as, say, the FPS.

RG: Right. That's very true. You can only take something so far on paper. You can map out your stats, and you can map out the interactions and all these things, but it really is [a matter of] sitting down with it, playing with it, and realizing, "You know what? You need to slow this combat down," or, "We need to speed this combat up," or, "We really need different types of weapons," or maybe, "We need to regenerate health faster. Something just isn't working at all." It's just a lot of playing and a lot of talking. You whittle things down to something that's good and works.

Having never made a game in this genre before, did it feel like a learning experience?

RG: Yeah, very much so. I'd played the games a lot; I was very familiar with it. But there are things that look great on paper -- "Ah, this is how Diablo does it. It must be easy!"

But then you really get down to it, and you realize, "Okay, this is a little bit harder than I thought." There was a lot of stuff -- balancing stats of all the weapons and how things all interact with each other. It's quite a complicated thing to really sit down and look at.

Despite the massive success of Diablo, why do you think there are so few games like this?

RG: I don't know. That's a really good question because it seems like a game that has been wildly successful. Other than Torchlight, which came out about a year ago.

Yeah, it did really well for itself.

RG: Yeah, that was a really good game. But it seems like a lot of people who try to do the Diablo stuff might miss the core and the essence of what made that whole game fun. I think there's a category of RPG games that are like paper doll games; it's about dressing up your paper doll, getting all this armor and putting it on. It's about weapons, and they all do different things.

With a lot of console games, you play it for awhile, and then, boom! You get this new weapon, and then that's the weapon you use. You play for the next hour, and you get to something, and then, boom! You got the new weapon, and that's the weapon you use.

I really didn't want to do that with DeathSpank, and one of the things I pulled from Diablo is that you could be a mage in Diablo and yet there are so many different ways to play that character. With all of the different weapons that you get in DeathSpank, if you're a melee guy, you can get all of the big melee weapons and you might get some stun weapons. If you are more of a ranged guy, there's a whole class of weapons that follow that.

It's really about how you approach problems; it's a personal thing for the players. That was something I liked about Diablo and something I really liked about World of Warcraft as well, which follows the same model. That was something I wanted to do with DeathSpank.

You baked that into the level upgrade system to an extent. Instead of a class system, you sort of "equip" these cards that mean you're faster, or you shoot better, and so on. Was that intended as an ongoing reminder to say, "Hey, you can pursue any of these styles, so feel free to equip whatever you want"?

RG: Yeah. The upgrade thing with the hero cards -- we actually did play around a little bit in the beginning with different classes for DeathSpank, and it just never worked, because he is who he is. He's not some magic-wielding guy; he's DeathSpank. We kind of pulled away from that, and we also looked at the hero cards as a simpler way to solve applying skill points.

Doing big skill point trees can be really complex. I think with console games, especially with an Xbox Live Arcade game, some of that stuff has to be simplified a little bit. The hero cards were a way to simplify those skill trees, but still give you that ability to kind of push your character in one direction or another depending on what your play style is.

When you say about DeathSpank, "He is who he is," who is he? He was born out of a little Flash cartoon thing, right?

RG: Yeah, he was a character that my friend Clayton Kauzlaric and I created for the comic strips we ran on my website for awhile, until we realized how hard it is to make comic strips.

So you decided to make a video game! [laughs]

RG: Much easier! [laughs] The comic strip was really about poking fun at the game industry. We did a strip where we needed a character, and he needed to be ridiculous. He needed to be the absolute anti-stereotype of every video game character out there. That's what we were really creating. We gave him the goofiest name we could think of, just dumb and over-the-top.

The more we played around with the character, we kind of liked him a lot. We said, "You know, we really need to make a game about this character." That's when I started looking for publishers or developers and tried to find somebody who wanted to do this. I ran across the guys from Hothead, and then I just went there for two years and made the game.


It's funny that DeathSpank the character was conceived to say, "Look how ridiculous games are! Look how ridiculous this guy is!" And then you said, "Oh, man. I really want to play this guy." That's an interesting turn.

RG: [laughs] Yeah, it's a fine line to walk, because you want the character to be funny. He is not the smartest guy in the world, but he is not a buffoon. He might not know what to kill, but he will kill it really good. That's kind of how we thought about his character; he shoots first and asks questions later.

What I didn't want to do was make an RPG where you're starting out as some young kid or an apprentice magician for somebody. I wanted to throw you right in there. So he's a fully formed character.

I'm starting you in the middle of his big story, in a way; you can actually go into his quest log, and there's a whole bunch of quests that have already been completed when the game starts, which give you a little bit of background about how he got there.

So those are just part of the same quest log as ones the player himself has done?

RG: Yeah. You can look at all the quests you've done. You can go through them, and they're all written exactly like normal quests would be. You see what brought him to this place.

Very few games include explicit or implied history using actual game UI; usually it's a cutscene, or a separate page for "lore," or whatever. How did you come up with that?

RG: I don't remember exactly how that came about; I know I had always wanted him to have a history. That was really the thing. I remember I was sitting around, talking to [Hothead's] Darren [Evenson], who's one of the other designers, and I don't remember whether it was him or me, but somebody mentioned that. We just said, "Of course! Perfect!"

Did you have a history in mind prior to that?

RG: Yeah, I had the whole story arc which you get to experience in the game. I understood that whole story arc. I understood how he got to where he is in the start, but not so detailed yet. I didn't map out five hundred quests that got him there, but I did understand the larger arc that really took him to the place where he is.

In terms of quests and world exploration, how did you think about the balance between the extremes where you just line up the quests and players knock them down, and where you just have this huge world and players encounter quests as they stumble on them? Action RPGs have fallen at very different points on that spectrum in recent years.

RG: You want to give players enough of a feeling that they're not being just shoe-horned into an area. You want to allow them to roam. More importantly, you want to allow them to make mistakes. That's the key. You've got different monsters in different levels, and the monsters that are too high-level for you to really win a fight with -- their level numbers are red. We use those as soft gates. Then there are hard gates -- literal gates -- that are locked.

You have these hard monsters around to kind of push the player in the direction you want them to go, but you don't want to just block them off all the time, because there's a point where the player will realize this is artificial, and then it just becomes a linear game in their head. But if they just see some really hard monsters that they can't really fight their way through, it's just as "hard" as a hard gate, but it doesn't feel that way; it doesn't feel like you've tricked them.

There's something to be said, I think, for the notion of not going somewhere because you legitimately feel like you're not yet up to the challenge, as opposed to just because you arbitrarily can't.

RG: Right, right. You know what you need to do to get strong enough: you can go kill monsters, you can do quests, you can get XP. Once I've done that, I know that I'm going to be able to go there.

MMOs really lean on that a lot.

RG: Yeah, and they do it really well. I'm a big World of Warcraft player, and I have a lot of respect for that game. It's incredibly well-designed! That is one of the things that they do well: they've got their zones, and each zone is strictly leveled -- this is a 50- to 60-level zone. As a player, you learn that. You learn that, if you see these guys and their level is red, don't go there. It works really well.


Are there other things you feel games like World of Warcraft have taught single-player games, or should?

RG: I think that the big thing about World of Warcraft is the whole open world. I had played EverQuest and Ultima Online, but the thing that struck me about World of Warcraft was the fact that the world never loaded. It seems like a small thing, like a technical thing.

Doesn't it load when you go between zones, though?

RG: Well, no. It does when you go between the continents, but the continents are giant. They're the size of Manhattan; you can walk from one end to the other, and it never loads.

For me, when I was playing the game, that was the "A-ha!" moment: "This thing never loads! This is a real world!" I'd look up at the sky and see people flying by on little flight paths.

That was a big thing in DeathSpank that I drew from World of Warcraft. I want this to be really an immersion for the player. Once they start playing, I don't want them to hit loading screens, because that yanks you out of the fantasy completely.

So that was one big thing in World of Warcraft: how they immerse people. And there aren't hard gates on the world! They've really done a good job of that with monster levels.

There's a funny thing about loading times -- everybody knows it's valuable to have shorter loading times, but it doesn't necessarily end up high on the priority list. In the GameCube era, Nintendo was really hardcore about reducing loading times as much as possible, and their first-party games had very impressive and clever solutions to that. But you can't show that in a screenshot, and you don't have to show it in a video, so I think it gets short shrift sometimes.

RG: Yeah, I think it's one of those conventional wisdom things. There's a whole lot of just conventional wisdom that runs through games just as much as movies or books or anything; people just go, "Oh, we've got a load screen. This is a load screen. We'll just do a load screen." They don't really think about it.

I think it's really important, when you're building things, to reexamine the conventional wisdom and go, "Do we really need to do this? Just because everybody else does this, do we really need to do this?" You do see games now doing that; Brutal Legend was a seamless world as well. You're starting to see that kind of stuff, and people are starting to recognize it.

DeathSpank has a comedic tone that's very different to a lot of modern games, and it's in a genre that's not well represented today, especially on consoles -- do you have a picture in your head of what the audience is? That is, who do you see playing DeathSpank? Or did you just go for it?

RG: Well, I was building it for me. I know that seems like a stock answer, but it really is true. I love adventure games, and I love Diablo-style RPGs, so I was just making this game that I wanted to play. Diablo is a really good RPG, but I honestly couldn't tell you what the story was; I didn't pay any attention to it. Adventure games do a really good job of telling a story, and I just wanted to kind of bring those two things together.

I'm kind of hoping that [among] people who play DeathSpank, some of them will be adventure game fans who miss that storytelling and miss the puzzle-solving and miss the funny dialogue, but still like some good action. They still like beating something with a sword.

How much adventure-style puzzle-solving is there in the game? Is there much of it, or is the main adventure influence the dialogue?

RG: There is a lot of puzzle-solving. It isn't to the level that Monkey Island was; that whole game was puzzles, so that was really fine-tuned, and it was very, very hard. If you go back and play Monkey Island today with no hints or anything, it's a very hard game to play. So we didn't go into those really hardcore puzzles with the game. We knew we were speaking to a different audience.

I tried to make the puzzles a little simpler, not so layered like you'd get in Monkey Island. But there are puzzles where you have to combine things, where somebody wants A and you have B and C and figure out how to combine them together to make A. There are definitely puzzles like that for adventure game people.

This is purely a downloadable game. Did that factor into the design at all? I don't mean in terms of storage space, but did it affect your design approach?

RG: Not really, and I don't know whether that's a plus -- history will answer that question! But no, it really didn't. The game is very different from a lot of stuff that's in the download space; I'm kind of hoping in a way that it'll open up the door to the Xbox and the PSN having more games with some real meat on them.

At least on the consoles, downloadable tends to be either reissues of older hardcore games, or newer stuff that's smaller-scale, or just straight-up downloads of full retail games. DeathSpank seems more in between those poles.

RG: Yeah. I'm really hoping this is kind of the future of downloads, and that we can get some really good, interesting games in the download space.

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