[Gamasutra speaks with Dan Marshall of indie developer Zombie Cow
, makers of the comedy adventure game Time Gentlemen, Please!
, about humor in games and how "all games journos should be forced to make a game."]
Have you heard of Zombie Cow? They would be the pair of joint minds who spewed forth the excellent (and free) Ben There, Dan That
, a satirical adventure game with an emphasis on the satire.
This was more recently followed up with Time Gentlemen, Please!
, the commercial sequel to their previous adventure game, now sporting far more content, and a wonderfully cheap price tag.
We talked to the duo's Dan Marshall about their previous exploits in creating such classic scrolling shooters such as Gibbage
, and the phenomenon that is Cruxade
Can you explain a little about who you are and what you do?
My name’s Dan, and I run Zombie Cow Studios, a teeny-tiny little indie studio in fashionable South London. I can’t really afford the rent, but I can take days off whenever I want, so it balances out.
While you're perhaps most known for your adventure games, you've got both a puzzle game and a deathmatch 2D shooter as previous titles. How much did you have to experiment with genres until you found one you enjoyed working on?
I enjoyed working on all of them, really -- it’s not really a case of having the luxury of trying ideas out -- Gibbage
was made as a way of teaching myself to code. It’s brilliant and clever, but clunky in parts -- I’ll remake it with a pronounceable name as soon as I suddenly find myself with too much money. Cruxade
, the block dropper, was made purely to teach myself XNA and all the whizzy trendy graphical stuff that can be done with it.
Adventure games are a labour of love -- because they’re script-heavy and that’s something I find both fun and easy, but they’re time consuming to design properly, you can’t really do it on the fly.
I think it’s fair to say Zombie Cow Studios won’t just be adventure games –- there are a couple of projects in the pipeline that aren’t adventure-based. Instead, it looks like we’re going the comedy route, since that’s where our strengths clearly lie.
Dan, you've come from a semi-journalism background. How have you found working on games rather than being a critic of them? Do you think your previous experience on the other side has helped you in development?
When I was writing Gibbage
, I pitched the idea of some articles to PCZone magazine, and wound up doing a 10-part series about what it’s like to learn to code, and suddenly have to design gameplay elements, making sound effects, and balancing weapons and stuff... As a gamer, I always assumed that sort of thing was relatively simple, so it was a fairly harsh lesson.
Off the back of those articles, I wound up doing some reviews for PCZone. It’s really interesting, because as a developer I think you’re slightly more understanding of the process involved, but as a gamer you know whether or not you’re having a good time. I think all games journos should be forced to make a game somehow, see how they get on. It gives you a more rounded perspective.
Pricing aside, Time Gentlemen, Please! has been received almost extrodinarily well across the board. Did you expect such a reaction? How much has the critic's reception carried over to the public?
Time Gentlemen, Please!
has done really well for us. We’ve had a huge round of support from the press, which is finally turning into a nice steady stream of sales. Unfortunately, you have to sell a hell of a lot of £2.99 games to turn a decent profit. I haven’t been able to buy Ben a DeLorean yet, put it that way.
That said, as a fledgling studio that no one really knows about, at this time it’s arguably more important to have a hit game with scores around the 90 percent mark than it is to make a shedload of money. Time Gentlemen, Please!
has pointed an awful lot of people our way, which is tremendously helpful in the long run.
With adventure games, it often feels as though there needs to be more focus on the writing and story than with other games, due to the fact you need an incentive to combine the fork with the table to reach the bookcase, otherwise it would just seem inane. How did you go about making sure Time Gentlemen, Please stayed interesting and fun to play?
For Ben There, Dan That!
, Ben and I were flatmates, and all the designing was done in the pub. We now live on opposite sides of London, so pretty much everything was done via email. At first, we assumed that’d make the process impossibly hard, but actually it works really well- you’ve forced to articulate ideas really concisely in an email, and ideas get boiled down and refined really quickly.
There are several ways puzzles come to fruition, but the joy of working on a comedy game is the freedom to be a bit silly – don’t give the player a boring old dictaphone when you could give them a prehistoric parrot instead. Real life objects like corkscrews aren’t very interesting, but a hardened pig’s tail does the same job and is more fun to play around with.
Every step of the way, you’re thinking ‘does the player need to know to do this?’ Again, there’s freedom in comedy games to be thoroughly unsubtle about it, which is a relief at times.
The humour in your adventure games is certainly one of the main pulls, with an almost obsessive attention to detail applied, so that every item has a line that makes sense, and remains funny, when you try to use it on something else, even if that won't work. In regards to adventure games as a whole, do you think such attention is necessary, or just preferred?
Well, why not? It’s one of the few a luxuries we can afford, given that I can’t really justify the cost of a full talkie. Unique responses for nearly everything is one of those little things that has really helped the project stand out- it’s something people really liked about Ben There, Dan That!
, so we were always going to do it for the sequel.
Of course, if we were to do a talkie for TGP, the filesize would be impossibly massive.
While the audio in both Ben There, Dan that and Time Gentlemen, Please! has been excellent, so far you've omitted voice work from your games. Is this due to logistical reasons or personal preference? Do you think it's something you'd look into in the future?
It’s primarily a cost issue. We can’t afford to audition and hire actors or studio time for tiny little adventure games that potentially only a handful of people will play. Besides, we’d have to cut back on the unique responses if we did a full talkie, so you’d get ‘I can’t do that!’ to everything, which would be a shame.
In the future, obviously things will be different. But as a start up every penny obviously needs to be spent sensibly.
While the games are certainly funny, they tread the line occasionally into mildly offensive humour, in particular regarding Hitler's arm in the second game. It never really slips into bad taste, but can you explain the reasoning behind going that far?
Using Hitler’s bloody stool in a puzzle is one of those ideas that we came up with in the pub, which might partly explain it. Initially, I decided there was no way we were going that far and dropped it. Later in the project, it didn’t feel out of place or over the top whatsoever – out of context it’s obviously pretty shocking and horrible, but enveloped in the rest of the game, it feels like a fairly reasonable thing to be doing.
We dropped much worse stuff than that. We were never deliberately out to offend, we just put in things that made us laugh.
While the art in both games could hardly be called beautiful, the environments are certainly charming and fun. Do you feel adventure games need a certain style and visual fidelity that is perhaps not quite so necessary in other titles?
Yeah, I think having a certain unique look has really helped BTDT and TGP. No one looks at South Park and says ‘yeah, it’s funny and well-written and everything, but it looks pretty clunky’, because not only is that not what South Park is about, but it’s part of where the humour comes from.
So for both BTDT and TGP we play on our weaknesses. We know the animation’s clunky, but we can make jokes about it. I’m not so sure Time Gentlemen, Please!
would be as funny if I’d have hired a professional artist to do everything properly.
The general consensus regarding the pricing of Time Gentlemen, Please! your latest title, has been that it was priced far too low for the standard of the game. Do you feel, in retrospect, that you picked the right price?
Yeah, I think so. If it had been more, would it have gotten such outrageously positive reviews? Cost is an extremely important thing to take into account, and ‘the price of a pint’ means more people have probably taken a gamble and checked it out than would have done had it been full price. As I said before, at this point in the studio’s life, it’s more important to me that people know who we are and what we do than making enough money to buy trendy shoes.
Besides which, you can get Fate of Atlantis
, a very professional, very pretty, very clever, full talkie adventure game from Steam for £2.99
You've recently announced an episodic adventure game. In light of how the pricing of your previous title has been received, how do you plan to go about charging for the game?
I have no idea, yet. In order to make it even remotely worth doing, it’ll probably only be slightly cheaper than TGP, maybe even a similar price. I’ll take a look at the project when it’s nearly done, and work out what it’s worth, and how little I can charge for it without going bankrupt.
Previously, your games have only been available through your own website. Now that you've made it onto Steam, do you see this as a huge step forward for both yourselves as developers and the games themselves?
As an indie developer, it’s a full-time job trying to get any attention whatsoever for your game. Doesn’t matter if it’s scooping up great review scores left right and centre, you really have to work for coverage. So getting the games up on Steam should hopefully be a huge leg-up for us, both in terms of sales and recognition; it’s an extraordinarily exciting time.
While you're keeping the price the same on Steam as it is on your site, was there a temptation to charge slightly more for it, after so many people thought it was under priced before?
Crap, that didn’t even occur to me. All this ‘business’ stuff is really, really difficult isn’t it?
Seriously; not at all. I’d rather people got hold of the game, enjoy it, and find out about the studio at this time. Hopefully Steam is a fantastic opportunity to do just that...