Q&A: Hothead's Evenson Details Penny Arcade Adventures

In this exclusive Gamasutra Q&A, we chat with Hothead Games' Darren Evenson, lead designer of the forthcoming Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, talks about the nature of episodic content, working with the beloved per
At this year's PAX festival in Seattle, Hothead Games announced that Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, a downloadable episodic adventure game series based on the popular web-comic, will debut on Xbox Live in early 2008. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One is the first title in the planned series announced last year initially for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. Gamasutra spoke with Hothead's Darren Evenson, lead designer of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One, to get all the details. So the game's release will be episodic, correct? Yes, it is. It will be episodic, and available for digital download before the end of the year. How are you distributing it? It will be online at our site. We'll make it available shortly. That will be the way by which you'll get all the episodes. You're not going through GameTap or Steam or anything? You're doing it yourselves? Or are you not sure yet? Yeah, exactly. I think they're investigating all possibilities right now. All I can confirm at this moment is the site that we'll have. The character creation system looked impressive, since it translates your 3D character into 2D [for in-game cutscenes]. How did you go about doing that? You might want to ask our tech guy. He sprinkled the magic sauce. I believe it's, for every asset we have in 3D, we also have a 2D component representation of it. As you select the pieces that comprise your character, it will also choose those 2D elements. It's definitely been a big challenge to get into the game, but I think it's one of the strongest features that the Penny Arcade fans will love. Yeah, it seems like it would be pretty time-consuming. Absolutely. But it's definitely worth it. How long has the development process been for this? It seems like there's a lot of very specific detail. Definitely. We've been talking with Mike and Jerry -- Gabe and Tycho -- for about a year now, and they've been involved from the very beginning. Obviously, they're in charge of the story, and Jerry does all the writing for every piece of text you'll see. Mike does all the concept work and some of the art in the game, and approves everything. We've been at it for a year now, and we'll have episode one out before the end of this year. At their Q&A, Mike mentioned that it took a really long time to get the look right, and they felt really bad for you guys, because they kept bothering you and trying to make it different. But it does seem to be pretty close to the right feeling now. A lot of that is how it looks, but a lot of it is also how it animates. It animates how you would imagine they would. How much tuning was involved? I think the real magic involved in any video game comes with iterations. Obviously, when we released our first trailer, there were a lot of skeptics out there that were upset. But that was the state of the game at that point, and we knew that we still had a ways to go, but we wanted to share a glimpse of what we were working on. With every iteration comes giant strides in the right direction, and if you find that it's in the wrong direction, we get that feedback and can adjust accordingly. But that all comes from iterations, over and over. You've got a point-and-click interface with RPG-type battles. What was the inspiration for that? Why did that come about, from a design standpoint? Last summer, we had actually conducted a survey on the Penny Arcade site, scanning the PA fans for what some of their favorite games were. RPGs, especially. A lot of them mentioned some of the old-school RPGs from the early to mid-90s, so that's what we based our RPG elements off of. As far as the adventure gameplay, that's a great way to tell a story, and we're fortunate enough to have Ron Gilbert involved with the adventure-making of our game. He's been involved since last summer. We've been very fortunate to have his help. How did he get involved? He just contacted the company, and he said that he liked what we were doing. We replied instantly, since Ron Gilbert has been doing a lot of consulting work, and we took him up on that right away. It's been absolutely amazing. He seems to be all over the place with those episodic games nowadays. Yeah, definitely. The transition from adventure to RPG seems pretty seamless. It's not a big mental stretch. Did you have to work on that, to integrate the gameplay systems? It really came together quite nicely, especially for the storytelling aspect of it. It really seemed to meld together quite well. It's neither a hardcore RPG with a thousand stats and customizations - so it's approachable to everyone, and the adventure gameplay is not a hardcore point-and-click pixel-hunter adventure game, either. It's just a great blending of the two that lets Mike and Jerry tell their story. It almost seems like it's more a vehicle for telling a story than a game that's meant to challenge and confound you. Definitely. Was that something that they really wanted to happen? I think it's something everyone wanted. Obviously, this is geared towards the PA fans, first and foremost, because they helped define what the genre was going to be. Mike and Jerry know their fans better than everyone. I think as long as Mike and Jerry like it, the PA fans will like it, and they're not going to release it unless they like it. In terms of what types of things you can customize, can you change out your weapons, or can you choose any kinds of stats or anything? The stats themselves are hard-coded, so there's no selecting if your strength goes up more than your toughness. But you can upgrade weapons, so in any given episode you'll have a few weapons to select from, each one obviously doing more damage. We're going to try and continue that throughout the entire series. It seems like Tycho is the most powerful character - is that going to be consistent throughout? You can't decide if you want Gabe to be more powerful because you like him more? That's right. The stats are whatever they're intended to be on our side, but as far as some of the characters being more powerful than others, we'll definitely be tuning the weapons and the special attacks they get, so you'll get some variety. The tradeoff is that Tycho takes longer for his initiative to fill, so he'll do more damage, but you'll have to wait a longer time for him. That makes sense. How many different team attacks and things do you have? Every combination - so, every combination of two or all three characters. You can do a three-way team-up attack with devastating results. What were the main inspirations on the RPG front, in terms of working out the battle system? Again, looking back at the older styles. So, looking at the Final Fantasy series -- the earlier ones -- and Chrono Trigger. Those ones. They definitely had a lot of influence on our combat style, for sure. Was the steampunk theme brought about by Jerry and Mike? Absolutely. I think they've actually had this story in their heads for a long time, and they're finally getting a chance to do it. In that aspect, it's very exciting, because they've obviously put a lot of thought into the depth of the story and the relationship of all the characters. So it's really exciting, and doing it episodically will allow us to try and make it more like a TV series, where there's cliffhangers at the end of one episode, and continuing a story arc over all the episodes. Are you looking to prove to people that episodic games are the way to go? You've got a real ready-made group of people that are going to rabidly consume this. I think episodic is definitely an untapped way of the future as far as video games go. Certain people are getting into it. Telltale's been doing it very successfully with the Sam & Max series, and so they're definitely the pioneers. We hope we're right in there after them. I think you're going to see a lot more delivered episodically, because it's a digestible chunk of gameplay for an affordable price, is easy to get -- like easy access, because you can download it -- it's very simple to get. Telltale did a postmortem for Game Developer, for Sam & Max. They were talking about how one of the things they learned was that it's very hard to be one team working on two episodes simultaneously, because you have to get the next episode ready while you're working on the first one. In addition, if you want to share assets and stuff, you have to really carefully plan it. How have you been working with that? It's definitely a new model for us. I don't know how the Telltale guys do it, but they release an episode every month. To me, that's just crazy, but they do it, and they do it very well. I think the first episode is always going to be the hardest, because that's where you're starting from scratch, but you can build momentum as you go. There's definite overlap within the episodes. Before we finish Episode One, we're already going to be working on Episode Two. It's not going to be every month that we release an episode like Telltale's doing, but it won't be every year, either, like what Valve was doing. They have a lot more content, so it's justifiable. Hopefully, we'll try and do it every three or four months or so. So you haven't worked out a specific, set timeframe? We have an idea of what we're trying. I guess the proof is in the pudding. We'll have to wait, mainly because it's new for us. After we do it a couple of times and get comfortable with the model, I'm sure it'll flow a lot easier. Are you sharing assets between episodes? Definitely. Are you taking any precautions to make sure that, if you have to change an asset that's used throughout, that that can be populated throughout every episode? Yeah. We actually are beginning work on Episode Two, so we're very aware of what assets we want to reuse, but not necessarily just reuse. They also should be slightly modified so that it feels like they're growing with the story or changing a little more dynamically. So everything will need touch-ups going forward, but definitely we're trying to reuse everything from characters and environments to items. Will your custom-created character be consistent throughout? Absolutely. The character you make in Episode One will be carried forward to Episode Two with all the items and stats that you had gained in Episode One, but we're also making it approachable to someone jumping in. If they didn't buy Episode One and just got Two, they will be able to have a character that is not starting at scratch, because they'd get slaughtered in this new world. There will be a default character that will be powerful enough to handle it, but definitely the advantage will go to the player that bought the first episode. And will they be able to change their character at all from episode to episode, in terms of visuals? Definitely. They will be able to revisit the create-a-player and modify them with additional clothing or parts, if you get into armor, or any items that might modify the character in that way. Anything else you want to say about this game or the process right now? We're just very excited to be working with Mike and Jerry on this. Obviously, we know that we're under the microscope. It's kind of like the movie critic making the movie, because everyone's going to be hard on it. While we're expecting that and bracing ourselves for it, ultimately we're just going to make a game that is going to be entertaining and fun to the Penny Arcade fans first and foremost, but try and make it approachable to everyone else. Hopefully, people will just take it for what it is, and have a good time and enjoy it. The skepticism may not be too severe, because it's obviously funny already. As long as you've got that, you can always say, "At least it's funny." That's right. Exactly. With those guys doing the story and all the writing, you can't not be funny. The interface and all that looked pretty solid, but it's a formula that you certainly could fuck up. And rest assured, even as good as it looks, we're still striving to make improvements as we go. We want to make this as polished as we can, and as intuitive to the player and as easy to get into as you can.

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