Sure, we love RPGs here at RPGFan, but we also love point-and-click adventure games. In fact, we think a lot of gamers who like the one also like the other. And we're not alone in that opinion. In fact, I had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with Hothead Games today about their upcoming action-RPG-point-and-click-adventure game, Deathspank, and they described those two genres as "the chocolate and peanut butter of video games." The developers on the call were executive producer Vlad Ceraldi, lead designer Darren Evenson, and RPG designer Dennis Detwiller, and they shared a lot of very interesting things about how Deathspank came to be and a bit more about what we can expect when it is released this week on PSN and XBLA.
A few years ago, Hothead released Penny Arcade Adventures, a turn-based RPG. It was intended to be a four episode series, but sadly, the sales numbers didn't support any episodes beyond the second. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and for Hothead, the silver lining was not only the experience that they gained from making Penny Arcade Adventures, but also a relationship with the legendary Ron Gilbert, creator of the amazingly classic Maniac Mansion and the equally amazingly classic Monkey Island series. They hired him as a consultant, and in addition to helping with their current project, he also presented them with an idea of his own: Deathspank. The character's first appearance was in an online animated comic, and although he's changed quite a bit since then, Hothead has worked hard to keep the humor that Gilbert is known for. In fact, during the interview, they flat out guaranteed that we would find ourselves laughing out loud at some of the jokes in the game.
They talked about one of the quests that's been shown previously, in which Deathspank needs to deliver a gravestone, and when he does so, he's given a receipt to take back to the man who gave him the gravestone. A fairly standard fetch quest, if one that's based around a funnier idea than most. But they also said that this quest is far from the oddest that players will come across. As you progress through the game, you'll go "further and further down the rabbit hole." One of the developers likened Deathspank's humor to his first experience with British humor: "When I first read Hitchhiker's Guide, I was like 'what the hell?' It was really out there, but all of a sudden it clicked."
Of course, just being funny does not make a good game, and Hothead knows that too. They say that although Deathspank does feature some subtle jabs at familiar RPG conventions, they took the development of the game's RPG elements very seriously. They're long-time fans of RPGs, so they wanted to make the kind of game they'd want to play. In Penny Arcade, they made a turn-based game, but as they said in our interview, they're also big fans of games like Diablo. "Turn-based games are fun, but they're often like a dance... we were hoping to make [our next game] much more action-packed, and that's what [Deathspank's] been based around." They feel that currently Japanese RPGs are dominated by Square-Enix's style, and Western RPGs are dominated by Bioware's style, and with Deathspank's mix of genres, they're hoping to break both of those molds and present gamers with something fun, but uniquely Hothead's.
The developers worked hard to find what they feel is the perfect mix between Deathspank's two genres, and to tune the gameplay to allow gamers who are fans of either one to enjoy the experience. They describe it as being "mostly action," with the point-and-click adventure style gaming there to drive the story and quests, flesh out the characters, and break up the action from time to time. The combat features an attack chaining system to help build depth and challenge for those who are dedicated to combat, but the developers say that button mashing will get you through the game as well. You'll die more often, but death is "fairly forgiving." To help gamers of all stripes, they said that the game allows players to map any items or actions they desire to all four face buttons and all four directions of the d-pad. If this feature is implemented well, I'll cheer. After all, the lack of configurability in the controls on console games has been an embarrassment to the industry for years.
The game will feature standard RPG items and equipment as well as some more wacky items like a boot on a stick, which boots enemies unconscious. Players will also be able to unlock "runes," which will allow them to combine weapons of their choice. The possibilities in that functionality seem very interesting. When asked what their favorite items in the game are, one developer chose "the portable outhouse." Outhouses are used in the game as a fast-travel/teleportation system, so having one that you can put wherever you want sounds very useful, although they wouldn't reveal just how players can obtain it. One chose "the repeating crossbow," because it can be fired as quickly as you can press the fire button, and arrows are shown where they hit an enemy, so you can leave someone looking like a medieval pincushion. The third developer chose "the sock," but gave a chuckle and refused to explain why, or even what it is.
Deathspank will be released next week on PSN and XBLA, but there is currently no plan for a physical, retail release. When asked why, the team said that their experiences with Penny Arcade and Braid (they developed the PS3 and Mac versions of that game) showed them some really encouraging things about digital distribution. They feel that the industry suffers from a lack of innovation, and that the problem is largely driven by the amount of greenlighting that developers have to go through in the standard retail process. (They have clearly found a kindred spirit in Ron Gilbert, based on another episode in his Grumpy Gamer comic.) They also say that developing a game for digital distribution makes a huge impact on the development costs, in addition to freeing them from having to compete for shelf space in retail stores. They aren't altogether ruling out releasing a game there, but for now, they have no plans to do so.
Speaking of distribution and cost, they also told us that they're insane to be releasing a game of this quality and with this quantity of gameplay for $15. They say that it's "One of the most expansive XBLA/PSN titles yet, we believe." One playthrough should last ten to fifteen hours, as long as many retail games, but players are free to spend as much time as they want exploring the world and taking on every side quest they can find, either before or after the game's official end. They can also bring a friend along for some co-op, with the second player taking the part of Deathspank's companion, "Sparkles the Wizard." It may be crazy, but this is definitely the kind of crazy I can get behind. I've been a fan of Ron Gilbert's work ever since I first played Monkey Island all the way back in the early '90s, and Hothead clearly has the passion and the experience as both players and developers of RPGs to deliver something great in Deathspank. The game comes out on July 13th on PSN, and the 14th on XBLA, and I can't wait.