As Rainbow Studios' Deadly Creatures creeps ever closer to release, we met up with lead designer Jordan Itkowitz for another chat about invertebrates, waggle-based Wii games, and the risks of making an unconventional game.
VideoGamer.com: A lot of people seem to feel that while the Wii has been very successful, the system hasn't really seen enough decent third party games. Do you think there are too many "waggle-a-thons"?
Jordan Itkowitz: Yeah, there's a lot of that and there's a lot of party stuff too. Some of it is really good and some of it is not so good, but it's one of the things for which we've got to give credit to THQ. They said, "We want to do more original IP, and we already have a lot of licenses to fill out our portfolio." The last title I worked on was Cars for Pixar, which is about as different from Deadly Creatures as you can get. But THQ were already making De Blob, and then when we brought this to them they bit as well, because they wanted original content in general, and then it felt like a good opportunity to do something on the Wii. And it was really different, we knew we would stand out. You know, I hope that a game like this... it's received a really positive response from the press, and the fans on messageboards seem to be excited by it, so hopefully it'll do the right numbers and get the right scores so they want to make more of them. Because the flipside is, and we all know this... you have an original game, it looks good, it plays well and people seem excited about it - but if it doesn't perform, you're going to see a lot more party games.
VideoGamer.com: Even when the critics like a game, there's no guarantee it will sell. For example, No More Heroes really didn't perform that well. Do you think it's a risk making games like this?
JI: It certainly could be. I mean, the biggest risk you're going to look at is that there are Wii-owners who are hardcore gamers - or perhaps not even hardcore, but simply people who want something more than family-orientated or juvenile orientated or party-orientated stuff. But a lot of those gamers own other consoles. So you have to really stand out. You want people to say, "I want to get this game because I don't have a lot of titles for my Wii". As far as to why No More Heroes didn't perform... it's a risk on any console when you have something that looks really different and strange. Psychonauts is a perfect example. Okami is a perfect example. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant games, but you have to get them out there. And the missing piece we're not talking about here is the buyers at retail. The sales departments at publishers have got to work really hard sometimes to get this woman, whose just finished buying an order of toilet paper, to look at the games. "Okay, that's a licence, that's a sequel, I recognise all these... what the hell is this?" We've been lucky in that we've been able to show Deadly Creatures to some buyers, who were like, "Oh this looks cool, and the press likes it. We'll take a chance on it".
VideoGamer.com: The concept behind Deadly Creatures speaks for itself quite quickly...
JI: Yeah, and even if you don't know exactly what the game is, just the fact that it's so different makes people want to find out more about it. We've been really pleased about that, both at Rainbow and at THQ, even if people are a little skeptical at the beginning. "What can you really do with a game about a tarantula and a scorpion?" then, "Wow, they've really done a lot! And it looks great!"
VideoGamer.com: Were human characters always part of the plan?
JI: No, that was something that evolved - much like everything. This game has been one huge evolution, with a lot of collaboration. We started with the basic concept of, "play as a predator, do it on the Wii, do creepy creatures." It started as a snake...
VideoGamer.com: Yeah, you told our deputy editor that it started from a dream about a snake...
JI: Yeah! The snake started the idea of "play a predator, and emulate its attacks using the Wii controllers." But as a team we work-shopped a lot of ideas around, and we quickly realised that playing as a snake doesn't offer enough diversity in terms of gameplay mechanics, and it makes a much better boss. With a tarantula and a scorpion there was so much we could do... Uh, we started off on a different question!
VideoGamer.com: Where were we?
JI: Oh yeah, the humans! When we started to come up with ideas, looking for the wrapper or the story, we thought about doing it like a National Geographic thing. "It's a scorpion and a tarantula out looking for a mate!" - sort of like an arachnid booty call. And then we talked about them looking for food or going out to conquer territory, sort of like an insect version of Saints Row! None of that really felt compelling enough - and we knew we wanted to do humans. At one point we had a couple of hikers walking past, but then we felt, "We've got to do more with this." There was such an opportunity to contrast what you were doing at your level, with the humans. And then this True Crime story just started evolving. Our art director actually came up with the idea of what if we told this other story at the same time as focusing on these two other creatures. And it was a really brilliant way of doing it. For all our animators, when we were blocking out scenes, it was a key directive not to cut away from that subjective experience. You'll never go from a shot of the tarantula to a shot you or I might see in a movie, with two talking heads in a two shot. The creatures had to always be in the foreground and the humans had to be in the background, and they had to seem distant and impossibly large. It's like that throughout the game.
VideoGamer.com: It's interesting, because you have this Coen brothers-style plot, but your key protagonists don't really care about the prize at stake. I mean, what's a scorpion going to do with a load of gold?
JI: It's actually a lock-box of civil-war gold, and it's a lot different to just saying it's something that's out there in the desert. This is a game that takes you out there, through brambles into this dense environment, so actually having something that's buried underground that these guys are looking for and that you can then find yourself - because you're going where they'll never go, exploring these things that humans have never seen, that's really novel. There's a scene at the beginning of chapter eight where the guys are up above you digging down to the lockbox, and you're in a chamber below watching as the box gets pulled up. You're listening to dialogue, and it's actually a replay of a scene you've seen already in chapter seven - but now you're seeing it from the scorpion's perspective. The fact that we've got two separate protagonists - and we didn't want them to be separate, we interwove them - meant that we could do really interesting things with structure. The chapter system, the fact that we have them crossing paths to fight A as B and B as A, that means that we can cover a story beat from the tarantula's perspective and then present the same beat from the scorpion's perspective, and the chronology is overlapping. Wait until you get to the boss battles at the end of the game, because they're happening simultaneously but in separate chapters.
The tarantula, at the end of chapter nine, fights the rattlesnake. That's outside the gas station, but there are things going on inside the gas station, and that's affecting the fight with the snake. You don't know what that is until you go inside in chapter 10, and then you're fighting as the scorpion versus Dennis Hopper's character, hearing the events outside. We have those beats throughout the game, so you'll get an idea the first time, but you won't really put things together until you play through a second time.
VideoGamer.com: It's really quite impressive that you have both Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thornton lending their voices to this game. What was the thinking behind the casting?
JI: We looked at a lot of actors who had that earthy, weathered sounds to their voices, but they also had to have that indie film cache, so they would be appealing to people who liked those kind of Coen brothers movies or edgy horror films. Deadly Creatures has such an indie feel to it already, so it felt like a good fit.
VideoGamer.com: So what did they make of it? I'd have loved to have been in the room when the job was pitched.
JI: Me too! I wasn't involved in the negotiations, though I was in the room for the recording sessions. Neither one of them had done a video game before, so they were already a bit "so, what's this all about?" And then when they heard that it wasn't really your average game and that it had a lot of unique elements to it, they were like, "Ok, this is something special".
VideoGamer.com: To go back to what we were talking about before about the Wii's controls. Some games barely use the whole motion-sensitive aspect, whereas others go completely overboard. How do you find that sweet spot in the middle?
JI: It's a learning process. It's obviously weeding out what doesn't work, and having the discipline to know that there's a reason why tried-and-true conventions are a big thing. Back when the snake was the main character, we felt like "Well we can't do a game where you're not gonna do this" (slither motion) and just move the remote back and forth to slither. That seemed too cool to give up - never mind the fact that that was going to get old after about 30 seconds. And then we thought, we didn't just want to have a regular control scheme for the tarantula, so what if you do cycling forward to walk? But right away we saw that was going to get old - plus it would limit us, because how are you going to make a fluid transition to combat? So we had to take a step back a bit, and just say "let's really work with the controllers, forget that the gestures are there for a while". Just come up with a good control system. But for a long time our combat system was gesture based. Your basic strike as the tarantula was flicking the remote forward, and that got really old. It became spamming, button mashing - you weren't hitting buttons, but it was the same thing. So again, it was a learning process. We needed variety and we needed to bring some strategy into it, so we looked at traditional light and heavy attacks plus block triangles. And it worked really well. The ends result is that you have a lot of moves, you pull them off in different ways, you have to fight differently as the tarantula and the scorpion - and where the gestures are there, it feels appropriate. For the quicktime events, it feels appropriate. For the the finishing moves, it feels appropriate. It's using the gestures as the exclamation points, rather than the nouns and verbs.
VideoGamer.com: That's a nice metaphor. What other third-party Wii games do you think achieved that balance well?
JI: I think De Blob did a great job, just in the way it's put together. It's a fun experience. And Okami of course, though that's a port. When we were building this we looked at a lot of Twilight Princess, but you wanted non-Nintendo stuff...
VideoGamer.com: One last question, then. I've had this idea that I've pitched to your colleague, and I want to know what you think of it. In the next Deadly Creatures, I think there should be an unlockable feature that lets you play the entire game as a snail. Do you think that could work?
JI: Yeah! Because that would take an eight to twelve hour game and make it a 12 to 24 hour game!
VideoGamer.com: Exactly! It would bump the play-through time considerably.
JI: You only have one move. You can retreat into your shell, and that's it. Actually, have you ever seen Microcosmos?
JI: It's an amazing documentary about insects. It's shot in super, super high-def with special lenses, really down at their level. It's incredible to see what insects and stuff do. But there's a sex scene with two snails which is either really revolting or really beautiful, depending on where you fall. They're undulating against each other and there's quite a lot of mucus involved, so I think we could do a whole mini-game based on that.
VideoGamer.com: That might bump up your T-rating...
JI: "Rated M for snail-related porn!"
VideoGamer.com: We'll look forward to playing that, then.
Deadly Creatures will lay eggs inside your face (be released on Wii) on February 13, 2009.