[Crackpot Entertainment's Curse Of Monkey Island alumnus Larry Ahern has just debuted DS detective action-adventure Insecticide as part of an intriguingly decentralized and outsourced development effort - and he tells Gamasutra how he pulled it off in this interview.]
Like many other members of the decade-long LucasArts adventure game veteran diaspora, Larry Ahern has been involved in a number of freelance projects since leaving LucasArts.
But he recently served as creative director on Insecticide
, a Gamecock-published action/adventure detective title that shipped for Nintendo DS in March and is planned for downloadable release on PC.
During his ten years at LucasArts, Ahern worked on numerous games including Sam & Max Hit the Road
and Day of the Tentacle
as an artist and animator, and is probably best known as the co-designer of 1997's fondly-remembered Curse of Monkey Island
before leaving in 2000.
was developed by Crackpot Entertainment, an outsourcing-heavy studio that reunited several former Lucas adventure developers including concept artist Peter Chan, technical artist Mike Levine, and, briefly, designer Dave Grossman (now at Telltale Games with numerous other Lucas vets).
Ahern sat down with Gamasutra to discuss Insecticide
's odd platform pairing, how Crackpot and its decentralized structure work, and why the studio probably won't have another project for a while.
You recently released Insecticide. Hooray! It's an unusual target, PC downloadable and DS. What made you go that route?
LA: It's interesting, we hear that a bit. But for us, given that we are doing some puzzle-y adventure-style stuff in the detective sections, it actually makes a lot of sense on the DS.
The stuff that you can do with the mouse makes sense with the touchscreen and the stylus, so I think it's a good combo. It definitely seems that DS the market has taken a liking to a lot of the adventure-style products recently anyway.
How do you think the DS market is for original IPs? It strikes me it's a little bit difficult in some ways.
LA: I don't know, that's probably more of a Gamecock question as to how they're positioning it and marketing it. I can just speak to what we wanted to make and what made sense on the platform.
The DS wasn't initially part of the plan, we just came with a general pitch, and then we talked about what platforms made sense and Gamecock was helping us figure that out, and so…
Oh, I see. That makes sense. It was an interesting decision to have the DS game have the whole extent of the narrative, and then the PC version be broken up into two spots.
LA: Yeah, like I said, it's mostly based on trying to keep the size of the download pretty small. I know some of the downloadable games can be pretty big and you sit there for hours, but the feeling was, we're not a next-gen title, we're not some big licence that everybody knows, if we're going to him them and catch their interests, it probably makes sense to make the price point low enough so that it's intriguing, and make the download quick enough that they'll go, "Oh, yeah, let me try that out."
And, obviously the cart on the DS, you can get it all on there. The PC side, there's a heck of a lot more visual detail and a little bit more interactivity that's not critical path stuff on the PC side, so we wanted to have all that extra stuff in there and we didn't want a huge download for it, whereas with the DS you pretty much have to say, this is the product: what is it, start to finish?
Were you able to share any resources over the two?
LA: In terms of reusing models or geometry or any of that kind of thing, no, that didn't happen. But the basic design, yes. The storyline that got put together, the basic gameplay structure, how the level designs were working – essentially we put together the PC versions of those levels and then handed those off to our team who's our co-developer which is actually Creat Studios.
They're a Boston-based American company, but they have a studio – the ones we worked with were in St. Petersburg, Russia, so the team we were collaborating with were over there. They had the DS engine technology, so they were taking a lot of our levels, a lot of the design lead, and fitting it onto the DS there.
How has outsourcing some of that stuff been working for you?
LA: You know, it has its challenges, but I'd say at the end of the day, it's one of those things where, how we did this and what we did, we couldn't have done this if we'd done it any other way. There were specific people that we'd worked with that aren't going to want to be hired as employees.
Peter Chan, our concept designer, he works exclusively in film except for a couple of people he worked with at Lucasarts who he'll do some game work for, kind of the old crowd. And a bunch of people who are like that, there'll be people who we used to work with, like the music guy – some of those things are more contract work anyway – but a bunch of that stuff is: these people are out there doing freelance, that's how they want to do it, they have their own service company, and you just plug them in.
Whereas if you're going to bring staff on, you've got more overhead, more stuff to worry about – what's my next game the minute this is done? – so we liked that structure and we think it worked well. The downside is that you're a virtual company and there are some communications issues long distance.
Working with Creat there's a little bit of those issues, but it's balanced out by: they're a separate group, they can pull on more staff to meet a milestone, because they've got a bigger studio, and they can go, "Oh my gosh, we're not going to make this milestone unless we steal some people from some other project that's not in crunch and put them on here to meet that milestone."
Or, we're working on something and it's late at night here, and you can say, "Hey," because the workday's about to start for them in Russia. The flipside of course is that, "Oh, I really need to talk to the guy in Russia" and it's the middle of the night. It's back and forth.
Did you find there was more asset management you had to do, making sure deliverables were alright?
LA: Yes, it's a combination of more headaches with that and there's a little bit more of – I just had to let go of things. [Laughs.] I think I said this in some interview elsewhere recently. This is more like, I tried to put together this train and design, what is the train? Here it is.
And now I'm running along behind it, trying to catch up. It's still my train, I still came up with where it's going, but sometimes things are happening and I'm not totally in control of it.
Eventually, by the end of the project I jump on and I'm driving again, but before that there's a little bit where you have to let go and say, "That wasn't how I wanted to do that, but it's still good, so it's good enough I guess." You sort of deal with it that way, and that's the trade-off.
You said before about the LucasArts thing, it does seem to have, to me, a bit of LucasArtsy – more like Lucas-related – stuff. More like Psychonauts…
LA: We've heard that before and it's interesting. It's "Did you try to do that? Where did that come from?" Honestly, the best answer is I worked with Tim Schafer as his animation lead and designed characters for most of his games, except for Grim Fandango
, so if my stuff looks like his game…
And Peter Chan – the art director who did a lot of the environments and he did some of our character stuff too – worked on Psychonauts
. So we have similar tastes, I think. That's where it comes from. We like a lot of the same stuff.
Makes sense. Where are you guys going to go from here?
LA: The bad answer that I'm not supposed to give is that we don't have something lined up next, but, again, that sort of folds back in to the whole virtual studio thing. We like how we put this project together – it's more like the film model where it's project by project and that's how it goes.
And it turns out that my partner Mike Levine, he has another company and does a lot of web development, a lot of online casual MMO-type stuff, and he's swamped, he's got a bunch of projects there.
And I already committed to a freelance project that's going to keep me busy through the end of summer, so you look at that and it made sense to set up this company to do this project the way we did, and the great thing is then we can do those projects and we're not freaking out on how to hire somebody to step in because we've got to do something else.
We can bounce back and forth, we can do the freelance stuff and then say, what do we want to do next as Crackpot?
How big is your core team?
LA: The core team, right now we're down to five or six guys as we're finishing up – we're almost done, so nobody was officially an employee. Essentially Mike is the only guy that's Crackpot because the company's in his name and we co-own the IP, so even I'm a contractor in terms of getting paid for it, until royalties kick in or something like that.
But we had staff that we brought on – we had four or five level designers that were working for us for a while. We subcontracted out animation with the FMVs, we subcontracted out the character models, so a lot of it was subcontracted out.
The people who were officially managed by me as individuals was maybe fifteen guys, but then there's also subcontracting groups where it's like the animation studio doing the FMVs, which I would do primarily with one person – the guy who was the production manager there and I'd talk mostly to him about, "This is what I need", and then he has to put his team on it. And that works a lot better I think.
That's the good thing, it leaves us to be pretty flexible – the people that we're working with: you don't have employees that you have to lay off if you don't have another project, so you can kind of plug them in if you want to do it again.
Like I was saying, the animation company that we worked with, they do a lot of subcontracting for stuff like that, so if we do another project like that next year, we can plug them in again, because that's what they do. They're a service company that does animation. So it's a good set-up.
The fact that there's enough infrastructure that you can work as a virtual studio, it's like the Hollywood model. The reason the Hollywood model works is that there's a workforce that's around Hollywood, and they know there's jobs they can get on.
But because of the versatility of being able to work virtually from wherever, we're starting to be able to do that, because a lot of game developers are spread out, but if you can handle it all through phone and email and instant message and Skype, that's what we did.
The guys doing our character models were over in Europe, we got the development partner in Russia, so it's nice having that ability, because these are people that you're not going to hire and have them come work for you, you'd have to find someone else, because they're not going to move.
So there's no home office for you guys?
LA: No. I have an office in my house, Mike has an office in his house, he runs another company out of it. Some of the people we work with have their own studios – like the animation company we work with has its own facility.
I found definitely that working with subgroups, people set up that way - that was the easiest, because you talk to one key guy at the animation group, he's got everybody there with him, and then he can disseminate that info and they can focus on that and really get the details right.
Whereas some of the people we work with, we worked with level designers – three or four guys in a bunch of different locations – and it was harder to pull all of that together than if it was our level design team all together somewhere. So I would probably do that a little differently in the future. Some of them work, some of them don't.
Our concept designer lives up in the San Juan islands up near Seattle – he can be wherever because he's doing an isolated one-man job and he just has to work with us, whereas the other thing is you have to work more closely with the people in production. The production work gets trickier that way.
So it will be probably be a while before we see another game that is technically from you guys – from the name anyway?
LA: I don't want to make it seem like, "Well, we're done!" but we don't have something that's currently in the works or we've signed a deal on, so I'm guessing it would be later in the year before something got put together. Like I said, we've got some freelance stuff keeping us busy through the summer.
It's definitely an interesting way to go about it – to come together for a single project.
LA: Yes, and what I like about it too is because people are working on other stuff, you get the ability for people to bring in other influences. Even myself going out to do other freelance stuff, you get a different perspective and then you can roll that into your next project.