Straandlooper interview

Straandlooper Speaks

Straandlooper has stormed into Telltale's fold, and possibly your hearts, with Hector: Badge of Carnage! but who exactly are the people behind the scenes? We investigate, talking to Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, and Richard Morss.

First, could you introduce us to Straandlooper to those who aren't familiar with your previous work? What has the team -- individually or as a full team -- worked on before "Hector"?

Straandlooper started off, and still is, primarily a digital animation company (hopefully you might have already picked up on that from the unsurpassed quality of Hector's cinematic cutscenes in groundbreaking 2D).

"The response to the first instalment of the Hector: Badge of Carnage trilogy of games has been extremely positive."
- Wikipedia (but not so much Zaarin)
The company was co-founded by Alastair (Ali) McIlwain, Richard Morss and Tim Bryans after the completion of the kids' animation series and Alastair's creation, Lifeboat Luke. The idea was to originate and sell IP in digital animation, direct to consumer where possible, and to test the theory that the new market of multiple delivery platforms would be a great opportunity for a small truly independent creative unit.

Ali and Richard wanted to retain the group at the heart of Lifeboat Luke and, armed with some investment money from private and state sources, set about developing new product. Hector, created by Dean Burke, was one of those properties. The others were Small Tragedies, a collection of animated lifestyle disasters—Richard's baby, and Schroedinger's Cat, a wild action comedy for kids with quantum theory at its heart, that sprang from the brain of Kevin. All these projects are still alive and kicking—and if Hector allows the time—will see the light.

The team has a wide range of experience of many aspects of the industry, and the expertise gained enabled us to take on an ambitious project like the first episode of Badge of Carnage with a very small team providing everything from the games engine, the designs, the music, the voices to the online PR.

We at Mojo are LucasArts-of-yore fans and we can see some of its influence in "Hector." Could you tell us a bit about how LucasArts adventure games influenced you, both in terms of your game's narrative and puzzle structure?

Dean and Kevin grew up with all the classic, wit-based point & click adventures, (while Richard and Ali watched their kids play them with a wry envy and enjoyment of the daftness) and quietly shed a tear when the FPS genre more or less fragged it into submission. The thing is (as you're probably familiar with), whenever we're in a conversation about the glory days of gaming, the point & clicks always come up. We're a small audience, but a passionate one.

There's been an attempted resurgence lately, mostly through the porting of the old classics onto smart phones, but there aren't a lot of people out there making new ones—besides Telltale, of course. (There's an "escape" genre in the indie flash world, which we loathe, because they tend to involve a lot of convoluted pattern matching without any plot, characters, or at times even logic.) We wanted the chance to put the wacky characters and wit back into the genre, and because of Dean and Kevin's adventure gaming background we knew the way a point & click gamer thinks. We were even able to slide in a number of homages to prove we were the real deal.

Other than other games, have any particular movies or TV shows been of particular influence?

Originally, when Hector was still being thought of as a TV series, we attempted to keep it as British as possible, and watched some old episodes of Frost and Inspector Morse to get us thinking. But that soon proved dreadfully dull and we could barely sit through an episode of either.

[E]very voice in Episode 1 (females included) was performed by Richard Morss
When working on a crime drama parody spoof like Hector, we realized very early two things: 1) don't limit your sources, and 2) don't underestimate your audience. Our references run from the mainstream to the obscure, Hollywood to the Hadron Collider. There's CSI, Columbo, Back to the Future, Spaceballs, Monty Python, all the way down to shows we watched as kids or something we saw on YouTube... sometimes we don't even get each other, but pretty much every line has a reason for being there, even if in the end only five people in the world besides us get the gag.

You've gone from self-publishing your games to having Telltale as a publisher. What kind of advantages do you see with this new publishing deal? Any misgivings about giving up control of your game?

Yes—but any misgivings were quickly dispelled by the team at Telltale! Apart from the obvious major advantage of much wider reach and distribution for the game, it's all advantages, as far as we're concerned. Telltale loved what we did with the first one (after all, it's what caught their eye in the first place), and script-wise we've basically got total autonomy. They've cast their eye over the scripts for Episodes 2 and 3, which toes the same line as the first in terms of offensiveness and visual nausea, and only come back with logic and script suggestions.

In terms of the Hector IP, we see all our properties having lives in multiple genres, and we hope and believe success in one genre will enable the spread of Hector onto other screens, so the profile gained by the association with Telltale is great for us. And the fact that we're working hand in hand with some of the pioneers of the original point & click genre—Dave Grossman, one of the writers on the original Monkey Island, is poking holes in our scripts—obviously, that's huge.

"Hector" seems a bit more adult than most Telltale games -- more "Leisure Suit Larry" than "Wallace and Gromit" if you like -- would you say this game is more dedicated to a different audience than the standard Telltale followers?

While Telltale is doing everything in its power to get the new generation point & click into the eyes of the greater mainstream public, the core audience will always be people like us who played the classics and want them to live on. As far as Hector is concerned, anyone who was around for Monkey Island and the like is certainly old enough to meet the standards of the 17+ rating.

It should be said though that, while it is classed as adult, the game has a lot more suggestive adult humour than outright vulgarity. We believe there's a lot more humour to be garnered from a creatively oblique insult than a barrage of rude words; too often games that are classed as "mature" end up being more juvenile than something a 12 year old would cook up (no disrespect to Larry).

Sure, we've got our share of toilet jokes (in fact, the entire first puzzle is centred around a blocked toilet), but the humour is actually a lot more "mature" (in the clever sense) than what you'd expect at first glance.

Is Telltale merely a publisher or are they assisting with the development of the episodes? If so, how is the work divided between the two companies?

Straandlooper's still handling the plot, game design, art, animation, and voice; everyone wants the ultimate feel of Episodes 2 and 3 to follow in the footsteps of the first one. Telltale has adapted their engine to accommodate the 2D style of our game and spent the past few months re-engineering Episode 1 for its recent release on the iPad, PC, and Mac. Episode 2 and 3 are being built straight into their game engine. Plus, we have access to their QA and debug team, not to mention marketing and PR, so these games have got many more talented people behind them.

Telltale tends to have a cast of regular voice actors; are you going through Telltale for voice work or are you using your own set of actors? Any names we might have heard of?

Not many people know this, but every voice in Episode 1 (females included) was performed by Richard Morss, one of the founders of Straandlooper. He's got a fantastic vocal range and a full bucket of accents to draw from. We send him a 600-page script of 24 characters, and he locks himself into his home studio for a month (okay, it's a closet). Occasionally his wife slides a used Kebab under the door to keep his strength up.

Since Telltale's backing Episodes 2 and 3, we've actually scraped enough cash together to hire a real live woman to do the female voices! Now we won't have to rely on a combination of falsetto and pitch-bending, and Miriam Kelly gets to add Stripper, Skank, Drunk Clubber, Unfit Mother and various other sex workers to her CV. As an added bonus, she smells nicer than Richard (especially after a month in the closet).

Telltale has had a tendency to only publish one episode of their franchises on iPad ("Sam & Max," "Wallace and Gromit," and "Tales of Monkey Island") -- has there been a firm release schedule set for "Hector" to prevent this from happening again?

Since Hector's initial release was iPhone, that's where the original fan base lives. We've all agreed that to not release Hector on iDevices would be a very bad idea, since they're the ones who've been waiting the longest. Not a day goes by that we don't have to delete yet another inbox full of "Where the [pottymouth]is Episode 2?" emails.

So, you'll definitely see them on iPad and iPhone, not to worry.

"Hector" started off as an iOS game, any plans on hitting other platforms like Android, Windows Phone or its ilk?

Since Hector's now on Telltale's game engine, whatever they can do we can do. So you could someday see Hector on other platforms supported by the Telltale Tool. If they don't do Android or Windows Phone, then our sincerest sympathies go out to those who wasted their money on a substandard piece of rubbish.

The iOS version was obviously built around a touch interface, can you tell us a bit about the process of converting it to a less direct type of computer controls?

We created Hector with the iPhone in mind. We'd played a couple of the smart phone ports of the old games, knew more or less what worked and what didn't in terms of navigation, controls, and use of screen space. In the end we went with dead simple: one tap to look, two taps to use/pickup/walk, slide about with your finger to hunt for clickable objects. Sure, occasionally there's a bit of confusion between a single tap and a double tap, but overall it's very easy to get used to.

Telltale's engine has a bank of built-in features that we were able to take advantage of: resolution/performance options, multi-slot game saves, audio options, and the like. Only difference in the game controls is that on screen you've got a cursor. Suppose we could have added more functionality to the controls, but why change a good thing?

If they don't do Android or Windows Phone, then our sincerest sympathies go out to those who wasted their money on a substandard piece of rubbish.
How about the graphics? Did a lot need to be redrawn for larger screen resolutions, or was the plan always to convert it to larger screen platforms?

We had it in the back of our minds that Hector will make it off the pocket-sized screen, so all the animation was done in hi-def and exported in low-def. When we struck the deal with Telltale, it was still a bit of a hill to climb to re-export everything (especially when some of the little adjustments to frames were done post-export in Photoshop), but it certainly wasn't a mountain.

What's next for Straandlooper? Any new projects in the wings, or are you considering a "Hector" sequel if the game does well enough?

In the short term we're re-packaging Lifeboat Luke as quarter and half hours, porting the Spotisode apps to the Android platform, putting together finance to complete a portfolio of Small Tragedies to take advantage of the interest the existing five shorts have created, and maybe developing a new game while we monitor Hector's progress. We have a feature script for Hector we'd love to proceed with and co-production partners waiting, we merely need to wake up distribution to make that! Simple!