Ron Gilbert Interview

After the release of DeathSpank, Kroms went on a quest to find Ron Gilbert and ask him some important questions. The day he waved goodbye was the last time he was ever seen by a mortal soul. Though Kroms disappeared, it seems he was successful as the following interview appeared in Mojo's mail box on a tattered piece of paper.

Congratulations on releasing Deathspank! It's excellent! How do you feel about how it's been received so far? I'm very pleased with the response. One of my biggest concerns was how the humor would come across and it hit dead on. I could not have asked for more. Except for a big pile of money. I forgot to ask for that.

How different is the final game - by evolution or design - from its original pitch? Was it originally meant to be an episodic game? And how different is the final story from its episodic form (Orphans of Justice)?

Yes, it was originally going to be episodic, but for business reasons it was changed to non-episodic. What you saw in Part 1 of the game was basically the Orphans of Justice story drawn out and beefed up with a lot more combat.

In the episodic version, the world would have been much smaller and there wouldn't have been as much grinding on combat, but it would have been 3 or 4 hours of game play. The episodic version was more of an adventure game with combat thrown in to give you something to do as you went from place to place. In the released version, combat became more important.

In a recent interview with Chris Remo, you talked about games' examples of "conventional wisdom" and why game developers should attempt to re-examine them. How did you approach that with Deathspank? Do you think there was anything you'd have done differently, in retrospect? Obviously I could write down hundreds of little nitpicks I have with the game, but I could do that for Monkey Island as well. I don't know if there are any major things I would have done different yet. It's too soon after the release of the game. My brain needs time to digest stuff. Just last week I had a great idea for the Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade adventure game.

It's interesting how you approached Deathspank differently to how you approached Guybrush Threepwood. Guybrush arrives as naive and clueless as the player, whereas Deathspank arrives fully-formed, complete with a backlog of completed quests. What was the thinking behind that? Thongs of Virtue is really the end of the DeathSpank saga, so I wanted players to feel that he was at the end of a long journey. Guybrush was a fish out of water character and that fit well for an adventure game where the main character needs to be as lost as the player. For an action game like DeathSpank, he needs to be competent and know what he's doing. The trick was to put him into a world and situations he didn't know about so the player wouldn't feel like they are playing catch-up with the main character. DeathSpank knows how to fight, but he doesn't know where the Artifact is or even what it is.

Your departure from Hothead brings-up a question of a sequel: the ending of the game certainly hints at one. How would you approach that? Would you just let Hothead work it out on their own? There is a lot more to the story. Part 2 was just announced which will end the Thong of Virtue story. Part 2 was done at the same time as Part 1, so I was completely involved in the design, writing and production of it as well. I know it's splitting hairs, but I don't see it as a sequel so much as the second half of the epic story. We'll let lawyers and nuns argue over semantics.

In terms of gameplay, how did you think about the balance between quests where players have to basically knock around a bunch of orqs, and where they need to sit down and think about how to tackle a puzzle? Especially since this is the first time you make this kind of game.

That was a hard thing to balance. In the original design, there was a lot more adventure game play, but what we found as we played the game and watched people playing it was once you let people beat on something with a sword, their mind disconnects and becomes more primal. Players were having a lot of fun with puzzles and combat, but found it hard to switch back to a 90s style adventure game. That's one of the reasons the non-episodic version focused more on combat and less on the puzzles.

In retrospect (and to answer the question above a little more), I do wish I had put in more adventure game puzzles.

Some of the things you showed in previews were cut out of the final game. Why did that happen? I was especially hoping you'd clarify the situation re: Scurvyville. Nothing you've seen was cut. It all appears in Part 2.

What did Hothead change about the game post your departure? I know they decided to no longer show weapons on Deathspank's back as he explored his world, for example. Was there anything else?

There was a lot having to do with combat that was changed. My vision for the game was a lot more RPG and less button mashing action combat. I had wanted the combat to be more cerebral. Each collection of enemies was a little combat puzzle to solve. Which weapon do I need to use? How do I attack this group? Some of that was changed or never implemented after I left.

The Hero Cards were one specific area that differed from what I had implemented. In my version, the Hero Cards were a lot more free form and flexible, allowing the player to really min/max their play style. In the version that got implemented they were more rigid, and in my opinion, took away a lot of the choice. But this is probably just a nitpick on my part.

And to address your question, I have no idea why they removed the weapons from DeathSpank's back. It was working when left and it was a huge character builder for DeathSpank. Maybe they will put them back in Part 2.

It's interesting you say the original Hero Cards were more flexible about play-style, because it brings-up how you'd balance who Deathspank IS and who the player wants him to be by use of the cards. At what point do you say, "There has to be a limit for these cards' powers, or else this guy won't really be Deathspank anymore"? How do you balance it out?

The Hero Cards were meant as small changes that can push the player's play style. They can be compared to adding points to Strength, Agility, Stamina, etc in a traditional RPG. They don't change who the character is, they just allow the player to do some customizing.

Early on in the games development we toyed with the player being able to choose a "class" for DeathSpank. Was he a Fighter, a Ranger, a Wizard, etc? After only a day of brainstorming, it because clear that it wouldn't work because, as you stated, DeathSpank is who he is. Hero Cards were a way to customize him without fundamentally changing that.

Was Clayton Kauzlaric directly involved in making the game? If yes, what did he do? Obviously Clayton was involved in the creation of the character and the world, but in addition to this, Clayton did most of the concept art for the main characters. He also came up and spent several days with me and a couple of the other designers when the game went from episodic to non-episodic. Clayton and I also talked a lot during the production and I always bounced stuff off him. Clayton is wonderfully creative.

Did you ever consider working on Thongs of Virtue with a longer amount of time between the first and second Deathspank games, just to take audience response into account? Both games were built at the same time. After going from episodic to non-episodic, we took all the stories that comprised the episodes and made one big epic game worthy of DeathSpank. Later on it was decided the game was too big for downloadable and it was split in two, so it wasn't like we built Part 1 and then went and built Part 2.

You also say that Thongs of Virtue will finish the Thongs of Virtue storyline. Does that mean there is more Deathspank on the horizon? I don't know what the plans are for the future DeathSpank or if I will be involved. Thongs of Virtue story wraps up nicely, so players won't be left hanging, but there is the giant story of his world that is still left to be told and the original idea was the sequels would actually be prequels. My concept was that the 2nd game (not to be confused with Part 2 of Game 1) would come right before the 1st game and you'd play DeathSpank and Sandy. Not as sidekicks, but two independent and equal characters and be able to switch between them Maniac Mansion style. Then the 3rd and final game in the trilogy would come before game 2 and you'd play Sandy, since the whole epic story starts with and is really about her. But that was just the plan in my head.

Thongs of Virtue has nuns. Will killing them open-up the hell level? Playing and designing video games pretty much opens up the hell level for all of us.

Some of your long-time fans have noted similarities between Deathspank and what little is known about your canceled game Good & Evil. Are the similarities there? If yes, were they intentional? There are some similarities for sure. Good & Evil was a combination of an RTS and an adventure game. How you'd meld action and adventure together was something I thought quite a bit when designing Good & Evil. The biggest thing I learned that was key to DeathSpank was how to weave conversation trees into an action game. Good & Evil was on my mind a lot during DeathSpank. It's still a game I would like to make some day. I'd also like to finally make my episodic adventure game Bobo and Fletcher Go Deep into the Congo.

Is DeathSpank coming to PC? People really want to know. I really wish I could answer that, but I can't. I don't know what the plans are for a PC version, nor do I have any influence over them. I sincerely hope there is a PC version. Maybe they are waiting until Part 2 is out and they'll bundle 1 and 2 back into one epic game. Who knows. I know a lot of Monkey Island fans are PC gamers and so am I. I feel your pain.

How was the experience of talking to Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman about Monkey Island 2 for the developer's commentary?

I've had a lot of contact with both Tim and Dave since leave LucasArts in 1992. I consider both of them to be close personal friends that would loan me $5000 with no questions asked.

Dave did writing for me on some of the Humongous Entertainment titles and Tim and I always got together anytime we were both in the same city, but the three of us had never been in the same room to chat and goof around before the commentary. Getting together with the two of them as a lot of fun. Really made me want make another Monkey Island. Oh well.

What are the chances of you doing a new Monkey Island game, anyways? Who knows. That decision is not up to me, it's up to LucasArts. Over the years I've had several discussions with them about doing another Monkey Island, but the timing never seemed right, or management changed in the middle.

I got a request to ask this. How do you think Curse Of, Escape From, and Tales Of Monkey Island hold up as adventure games about pirates set in a universe you conceived? I liked Curse of Monkey Island, but not Escape. Maybe it was just the 3D, but it didn't seem to meld well. It's always weird to see what other people do with a universe you created. Some of it is good and you go "why didn't I think of that", and other things you just shake your head at. I usually don't care one way or another as long as they do a good job and are respectful.

Were you happy with how Tales of Monkey Island turned out? Which of your ideas ended up in the game or influenced it at least to some degree? Yeah, very happy. TellTale did a bang up job on those. Is TellTale one or two words? I can never remember.

Craig Derrick (from LucasArts) recently expressed interest in doing a Special Edition of Maniac Mansion, perhaps even going so far as to change things in the original game (like removing the key from beneath the rug at the opening). Would you be interested to work on something like that? Especially considering that your design sensibilities - for example, you now dislike punishing players for failing - have changed since 1987.

Doing an updated Maniac Mansion would be fun. Maniac Mansion was where I formulated most of my rules for how to design an adventure game, so it has a lot of flaws that don't appear in Monkey Island. It would be an interesting job to go though and fix all that stuff without changing the game too much.

Interesting of the opening lines in Maniac Mansion is "Don't be a tuna head." Originally, that line was "Don't be a shit head". My boss (Steve Arnold) at Lucasfilm Games told Gary and I that we should change it. Gary and I fought hard to keep it. In the end Steve said "You guys go off and think about why you want to use the word shit. If you come up with a good reason, we'll keep it". We never came up with a good reason. It really taught me a important lesson about swearing when you write and the language you use. We really didn't have a good reason for it. It added nothing and it didn't make us cool.

Ok, maybe it wasn't an interesting story.

You've said that you hope Deathspank helps usher-in an era of downloadable games with "real meat" on them, and I was wondering if you had any such games to recommend to people... Limbo and Castle Crashers are good examples in that they aren't just simple arcade time wasters. XBox Live Arcade is called "Arcade" for a reason. Microsoft's original vision for that service was just simple arcade games. But times are changing. The retail game business is going to vanish and when it happens, it's going to happen overnight and a lot of people are going to be standing around saying WTF (but not using LTAs). It's like seeing a truck and it's 100 miles away, then it's 100 miles away, then it's 100 miles away, then it hits you. Watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail for a visual example of that. I see games like DeathSpank as probing the future.

Finally, what's next for you? Do you see yourself returning to the studio space? Do you see yourself possibly returning to adventure games in some form in the future? Telltale, perhaps? I don't have any firm plans. I've been doing a lot of iPhone and iPad programming, just to better understand it. If you exclude my WoW playing, 90% of my gaming happens on the those two platforms. There are a lot of great indie games out there that are really pushing some creative bounds and they're not being corrupted by big game developers and publishers. It's like the 80's again. I love it.

Thanks for your time, Ron! You're welcome!