Quirky side-scrolling action game Alien Hominid was something of an unlikely success -- one of the first indie games to become a console property, before the days of online download services -- though it also later came to Xbox Live Arcade as Alien Hominid HD.
This year, The Behemoth, the development team behind that game, released its first original Xbox Live Arcade game: Castle Crashers, a classic side-scrolling beat 'em up that is one of the successes of this year on the service -- some stats have it selling over 350,000 units.
How do they manage it? Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield and Chris Remo met up with two of the company's co-founders, Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin, who handle programming and art, respectively.
The duo talked to them about the creative process, how genre classics inform the development of features, and how working cross-country (with Fulp outside Philadelphia, and Paladin in San Diego) affects the process.
Here, in a spirited and casual conversation, the developers reveal why they'd never want their team to get much bigger than it is today, how breaking out of the signature style they've adopted could become a challenge, and how working with their own technology is both a limitation and an advantage.
Brandon Sheffield: Castle Crashers is doing super well.
Dan Paladin: It's doing really, really well. I think it set some records. Judging by the leaderboards, it seems to be that way.
BS: Now that the castle is crashed, what are you going to be doing?
DP: We tossed around new ideas, and we started on one that we kinda want to run with. I was working on it on the last few months of Castle, on the weekends. Seems to be pretty fun, and I think we know what we want do, but we're not going to announce what it is just yet.
BS: Of course. Are you sticking in the downloadable space?
DP: I'd love to, 'cause retail is just not made for us. Too small.
BS: Tom, obviously you're all about PC portal-style stuff. What do you think about that?
Tom Fulp: PC games? There's always potential. There is something romantic about consoles, though. People think it's so amazing when your game is on consoles. So, I'll probably keep getting sucked up in that. But it's also plenty of PC potential there.
BS: It seems like in terms of money potential there's a lot on the PC that could be tapped. Casual stuff. Dan, your art style lends itself really well, potentially, to the casual type of game, if you want it. And Flash-oriented stuff also. It seems like you could be making --
TF: We're working on Dan Paladin's Solitaire and Dan Paladin's Jewels right now. (laughter)
BS: Dan Paladin's Jewels, man, that's a risqué title.
DP: (laughter) I just won't go into that. Yeah, we tossed around all kinds of ideas. (laughter)
The Behemoth's Castle Crashers
BS: I know you've been asked this question before, but I've never asked you this question before: How is splitting your time with [Flash portal] Newgrounds and The Behemoth actually working?
TF: It can be tough at times. It's a big juggling act. It all, in the end, used to work itself out. I want to get out some Flash games, now that I've got some breathing room. So, I'm excited about that.
BS: Newgrounds is still doing well for you, right?
DP: Yeah, it's still the most vibrant community of Flash artists and programmers. We've got a lot of stuff going on.
Chris Remo: Is there an actual, official or legal connection between Behemoth and Newgrounds?
TF: No, they're two completely independent companies. I'm the owner of Newgrounds and the co-owner of The Behemoth.
BS: The team has grown, right? How many people total do you have working?
DP: Right, about nine right now?
TF: Something like that.
BS: You're much more centrally located in San Diego now, right?
DP: I think we're split down the middle. We got like four guys in San Diego. And three or four [on the East coast].
DP: We borrowed the place from Newgrounds.
TF: For example, Mike [Welsh] is officially Newgrounds, but he did a lot of Castle Crashers programming work. And then we just borrow people for little things, like Stamper produced the music and sound effects. He did a lot of sound effects. Jeff [Bandelin] did the player portraits. And the rest of the art's all Dan.
BS: If the companies are completely separate, how do you do that? Do you have to sign them on as contractors?
TF: I guess we just kind of keep tabs of it, and then basically they'll all be billed for some time. We're pretty lenient about all that -- how stuff gets used. It's all exciting for everyone in the end. As long as it all works out, you know, we're having lots of success so far, so as long as it just keeps working out, it's like one big, happy production of energy.
BS: Where is the Newgrounds office on the east coast?
TF: We're in Glenside, outside of Philadelphia. I grew up there, and the Newgrounds servers are all based out Philadelphia, and moving those to the west coast would be a huge mess.
CR: How do you like it in San Diego?
TF: I never moved to San Diego. Actually we just fly out when we worked on Alien Hominid. I'd fly out for two or three weeks at a time, while we were working on it. [Programmer] Josh [Barth] originally lived down in San Diego, after Alien Hominid was done, Josh moved out to the east coast, 'cause he was excited to have seasons again.
So, once Josh was in the office, there was less need for me to go to the west coast, 'cause we got more centralized with our dev kits and everything, working on stuff.
BS: Are you going to be keeping with the same kind of scale and scope of games for The Behemoth, or do you want to make something larger? We were just joking about it: World of Castle Crashers MMO. Do you have ambition to get larger, game wise?
DP: I don't think so. I think the overall feeling is "similar or smaller." Having even light RPG elements in the game makes it so much bigger, so much more balancing is required on all these stats and everything.
Having to balance the character per level of his abilities made it way bigger. It's really simple in presentation, but underneath it all, it's this gigantic nightmare. And I think that's the biggest game that I'm going to want to work on for at least the next title. (laughter)
We have lots of ideas, and I'd like to get around them more. More ideas, at a slightly faster rate than that. So, I don't think that we ever try to make anything bigger with our current size.
BS: Basically all the art content is coming straight from you, right? It sounds like there are potentially a couple production bottlenecks in the system that you have, because you're [Dan] doing all the art and you're [Tom] the lead programmer guy, so if one of you gets stopped up, then it's like, "Well, it's tough to make the game now."
DP: We have a really good pace though. A lot of people say, "Oh, one guy was drawing, and one guy was coding, so that's why it took so long." But that's really not true. You can have nine ladies, but it's not going to take them one month to have the baby.
BS: Wouldn't it be funny if that were true, though?
DP: Yeah, it would be interesting if that was true. I mean, you've got 10 guys or one guy or 20 guys, and they're all worth their salt and everything, but basically you can't get any faster.
All games have always taken at least two or three years, whether you go back to SNES days or whatever. You're always stuck at a certain thing, and you have to let things marinade. You've got make an idea, and then sit on it, and then think about it.
BS: I think it's good to take time, even with smaller titles. It's good that you can actually afford to. I'm not sure if most people can't, or if most people think that they can't. I think that a lot of the blocks in terms of taking more time are mental. They're just not willing to say, "Fuck you, Sony! I need three more months."
DP: I think it's a step backwards that feels like a step forward to business people. Because they think that if they save that extra time, they're making more money. But in the end, I think it hurts quality, and people don't talk about the game as much, so they're not selling as much as they could have done if they invested more money.
TF: The really difficult thing is, the more people you have... Let's say we had a whole lot of people when Castle Crashers was done, if they weren't immediately working on something, they'd all be getting paid to twiddle their thumbs.
That's where the big companies usually just lay them off, and they re-hire later if they need them, and that's just not our style. We're really a great family. I always think of it like an old Japanese company, where everyone stays there for life.
DP: It's funny, we're working on an old-school genre, but it also feels old-school. Where the team's small and tight-knit. You know, it's just the way we're making games. It's more like it used to be, just by team size and all the approaches, and things like that.
BS: The Behemoth art style style has been consistently very Flash-like. I know that there's a lot of detail in it, but it's that certain stylized look. Are you going to continue in that vein? I would be really interested to see what kind of [game you'd make] if you did something that was more... delicate, shall we say.
DP: Yeah, possibly. I've been working with vectors; that's just the nature of vectors.
BS: Would you do a pixel-oriented thing?
DP: I wouldn't mind doing a pixel thing. We were just messing around with Super Soviet Missile Mastar. It was kind of fun to work with a different kind of resolution and things like that. I like it.
I guess it was so comfortable the way I'm doing it, and just the sheer amount of work that needs to be done --- it's scary if you want to jump into a completely different look or approach. It's always possible, but I'm just so comfortable with it right now.
BS: It also, in a way, sells. It's instant marketing, in a way. At this point, core gamer types recognize your art style, and they'll be like, "Oh, that's the new game from the guys who made those other two games that look like that!"
DP: Yeah it's kinda neat. People see it and they're like "It's like Alien Hominid or something!" It's cool that people make that connection. That's neat.
You know, you do something like that long enough, and you almost feel locked in, in a way. Sometimes I try to draw people and I'm like, "Oh my God! They've got necks and noses!", 'cause I don't do those.
BS: Do you feel like you've painted yourself into a corner a little bit?
DP: Sometimes. I mean, even when I sign things [for people], I'm using a pen and I'm like, "Oh my god, a pen!" I've been working on a digital tablet for like six years now. That's a total vacation from what I used to do, which was just traditional.
So yeah, it's all different. I don't feel like I'm stuck though. I know that it would just take a little bit of ramp up time to go the other way. But I just never want to go the other way 'cause it works so well right now.
BS: What about 3D?
DP: I'm not afraid of 3D... I don't mind 3D. When I started -- when I first animated -- it was on 3D.
BS: At [former employer] Presto Studios?
DP: Yeah, and even before that I was learning animation on my own, and that was 3D. And that's how I got started. So I'm comfortable with 3D, and I think you could translate it into 3D well.
Because, if you look at our figurines, it kind of proves that you can have the designs in 3D and still be appealing. But I think that some of our audience would be upset with us.
BS: Oh yeah.
DP: And I don't think I'm ready to piss people off. (laughter)
BS: It's a whole different scenario, because then you've got cameras, and you've got entirely different gameplay mechanics.
DP: And all our tools that we've built all these years, and our proprietary engines and everything, would be gone. We would be abandoning all that underlying structure that we've been creating.
BS: Sounds like a fun time. People do that all the time!
DP: We did it before. I don't know; I'm not against it. If we have something that works better in 3D, that's 3D at the concept [level], I have no problem exploring that. But right now we're still working with 2D.
BS: You sort of have a bit of the versus fighting arena stuff. It reminds me very much of [Treasure-developed Sega Saturn brawler] Guardian Heroes. It seems like Guardian Heroes is the basic model for Castle Crashers.
TF: It's weird, 'cause, it's in the spirit of Guardian Heroes, but there's not a lot that's really that similar. Guardian Heroes was Street Fighter mechanics on two planes, kind of like a Fatal Fury thing, jumping in and out.
And it's completely different in the way Castle Crashers plays. But there's just something about the spirit of that game, the chaos and the cartoon graphics. That is sort of the same spirit as Castle Crashers.
BS: It's also thematically similar in terms of the multiplayer...
TF: The leveling up the character stuff.
BS: The way you level up the character, choose the stats. And once you unlock more characters, you can play them against each other in the arena. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn.
TF: Yeah, and some of that was intentional, and some of that actually just sort of happened. But that game's definitely one of my faves -- everything by Treasure, I always say, is one of my biggest faves.
BS: A lot of it just makes sense for that kind of game. So why not use it?
TF: The character stuff was an organic thing. "Oh, we've got all these characters, let's make them playable."
DP: See, I'm always out of the loop on that one. I didn't play Guardian Heroes. My inspiration is River City Ransom. I like that game, I really like it.
BS: But you can't pick up dudes to throw them at each other in Castle Crashers.
DP: You can pick guys up in River City, but they've got to be on the ground.
American Technos' River City Ransom
BS: You can pick up the other players, so you can throw them at each other!
DP: Yeah, you can. I wanted to explore that. But, you know -- there's always things I want to explore -- there's a billion things in that game that I wanted to do that I didn't do. Just 'cause there was too much.
If you added everything Tom and I wanted in the game, I think I can't even imagine... I can't even imagine what that would be like.
BS: Did you try implementing some of those ideas?
TF: We're always tinkering with little things that don't quite work right.
DP: We look at all the weak parts. We fill out all the weak parts. That's always what takes precedence. You know, this level isn't right, we need to do something with this level. And then that level takes precedence. When we're happy with player mechanics -- and they can always get better in some way, but once we're really happy with player mechanics, we start looking at all the rest of the adventuring and all the other stuff.
That's the way it goes. We make sure that there are no loose bolts. And I think that that sometimes takes the precedence, because you have to schedule it all out in a way where everything is cool, instead of really cool mechanics, but you play shitty levels. So, we have to balance out all the quality.
BS: What tools and development environment do you have? Both on the art and on the code side?
DP: I draw in Flash. We got a bunch of proprietary tools and export stuff. The game ends up in C...
TF: It's a big mash-up of Flash and C++ that it all comes down to. And really, we don't really use anything else for development.
BS: It's simple, not in a bad way. It's quite straightforward.
DP: It helps us focus on the things that matter. Instead of me having to worry about what dimensions an image is and whether I export it with an alpha channel or not. I don't have to think about that.
TF: On the original Alien Hominid we had to switch the way certain vectors ported over, so it became this whole thing of basically creating spreadsheets in Photoshop and cutting them out and rasterizing all these parts of Dan's art.
BS: Oh wow.
DP: I didn't even realize he was doing it.
TF: There was this ridiculous amount of stuff in Alien Hominid that was just like, it felt like weeks of rasterizing Dan's art 'cause it wasn't all converting properly. But now we got it all down to a proper science.
DP: Tom didn't want to bother me with that, so I had no idea he was doing it until the last couple of days where he had lost his mind. Because he's in Philly, and I'm in San Diego, I had no idea that was happening. But after he went through that, I guess we perfected it, right? We won't do that again, right?
TF: I didn't have to do any of that, this time around.
BS: In Flash, isn't collision detection really difficult to do, to get right and precise?
TF: It can be tricky... for the first Flash games, people used [Flash command] Hit Test, but I never used Hit Test because I'm still stuck in the old thought of when Hit Test was really too slow, and would slow down your stuff. So I just compare X and Y with input.
BS: It seems to be working okay. Just anecdotally, I know that a lot of Flash games have more of that than others.
TF: Hit Test is the easy way to go. And Hit Test really works well. A lot of people now can do platformers, and lots of people use Hit Test on the terrain. And they make it look so easy and effortless, but [with] the way I'd do that, it would be a big headache.
So, that's why I stick with straight lines and diagonals with my platformers. (laughter) But also, it could be why some of them don't always work as well -- but a lot is really down to tuning. Like, if someone just tunes it up well, they'll nail it, no matter how they do it.
CR: Castle Crashers is very visually busy. How much testing did you do to figure out if people were going to be able to figure out what the hell was going on at any given time? I'm thinking of, say, the arena where you fight the first boss that has the big smashy thing, and all those people stand up in front of you sometimes.
DP: The people that stand up are actually reacting to when you get hit. When you get smashed into the ground they'll cheer. It's kind of a punishment for getting smashed into the ground.
They're supposed to jump up and block stuff for a second. But you're already on the ground. In multiplayer it can be a little more annoying if you're not the one that got hit into the ground and also can't see. That's part of working together. He jumps up in the air -- you gotta get out of the way.
TF: Alien Hominid has issues with too much visual foreground stuff. Castle Crashers, we're more sensitive to it. But then we still hear some people complain about visual chaos. Where there'll be a pillar in the foreground in the desert, or too much magic on the screen.
I don't care about the too much magic on the screen. Just me, personally, I want to see see a screen full of explosions or whatever. It all just kind of works itself out.
DP: So do I, and if think if people have a problem with all the magic blocking what they're seeing, then they shouldn't all be using their magic at the same time. Really, if all four players are using any effect whatsoever all the time --
TF: If they're all doing it, all they're doing is getting killed anyway.
DP: Yeah, and everything is getting destroyed. All the smoke clears, and you're alive.
TF: Just jump a lot.
DP: It is tough, though, and I know that some people have a problem with it. Personally, I don't ever lose my guy --
BS: I do.
DP: ...So it's hard for me to be aware of that at all times. But I'd rather see a cool explosion than a really tiny one, personally.
And you can't really do it -- one thing I wanted to look into was additive effects, 'cause then you still see stuff that's behind, and it would be glowy. But apparently our engine didn't support additive, so I just had to roll with it.
BS: You mean transparent stuff.
DP: Yeah, it blends the color in with it, and you're still able to see what's behind there. It would still be brilliant looking. Because if I did alpha, it would just be a darker and not bright effect. I didn't want alpha stuff. I still feel like it works okay.
When you have three guys, it's still not so bad, but once you have four, it reaches this point that's like, "Okay, that's a lot."
TF: I love it. I love seeing that.
BS: You're just making little drawings all day long. "Oh look, I'm Dan! I'm drawing -- now I'm drawing some poop!"
DP: It's true, Tom's process is busier than mine because he'll lay down all the foundation, and then he has to tweak that foundation.
BS: So uh, why you got so many pooping animals, Dan? 'Cause I really like the pooping animals.
DP: I think it's funny, and Tom thinks it's funny, and I think some of it's --
TF: Dan came to visit the office so we could have a good jam session. And it was one of those late night type, "You know, let's make all the animals crap" things.
DP: Slap happy. We work cruelly late hours, so when we get slap happy, we make funny stuff.
TF: Sometimes, it's like, "Let's just destroy this and make a mess of it." It's funny, though. (laughter)
DP: It's the essence of, when you were younger and you had slumber parties and everything was funny at a certain point in the night, because you were all tired. And everyone's like "Hur-hur-hur hah!" Somebody made a fart noise, and no one could help but laugh. I think it's the essence of that in the game. And I think it still reads well because people laugh when they see it. So, it's like they get to join in on that.
TF: It's like we stop the camera, and it'll be all dramatic, and then an owl's gonna crap.
DP: (laughs) We're gonna force people to watch this.
BS: We've got all these people talking about advancing the art of games and making everything more serious, so that people take it seriously as mainstream. You're just makin' poopin' animals.
DP: I don't think it should be taken that seriously. It's just for fun. I didn't want people to take our game seriously.
You know, like that they're thinking that there's some kind of statement that we're making in any form whatsoever. People will do that. I think that the more we show people that, we're just having fun and want them to have fun.
BS: I think there should be games that are serious and games that are made to be played and have a good time with.
DP: Yeah, just like movies. You got your comedies and your dramas.
BS: I want to see the video game equivalent of a romantic comedy.
DP: You've Got Mail, but translated into a videogame.
BS: You've Got Mail, oh man. You've Got Melee!