In the lead-up to this year’s PAX Australia, our very own Hayden Waugh had the chance to sit down with programmer Dave Lloyd and games artist Barney Cumming from indie team Powerhoof. They chatted about the continuing success of their first game, Crawl, the changing landscape of the Australian games industry, and the power of local multiplayer.
Hayden Waugh: Firstly, thanks for seeing me, guys. Now, how did the idea of Crawl come about?
Dave Lloyd: We had a little multiplayer ‘game jam’ with a group of friends where we’d all make some games, bring them out here, drink some beers and help each other finish them [the games] off and just play them heaps. We thought local multiplayer would work really well as something everyone can play together, so the focus of everyone together would be playing the game more so than just making them.
Crawl was something that Barney managed to put together in a couple of days beforehand – a very simple version of what it is now. It was a very good first game choice for us because it was something us and all of our mates just wanted to keep playing. Also, the scope of it was quite flexible and we thought we could release as just a pretty small thing on a website for few bucks and we can flesh it out later – like adding the core RPG tropes and bosses.
Barney Cummings: Yeah, that’s a really important part of why it was a good thing to go with, because the format of the game allows it to be modular. Where you could make it with only four monsters, less weapons, and sort of one different environment where you could play it and still be a full game – it would only take you sort of six months.
Then you can put it out there, see if people like it, and if they do you can add more stuff. So there’s that instead of the regular single player method ‘where there’s X number of worlds and X number of levels’ and if you haven’t got anymore there’s just a big gaping hole where the gameplay needs to be. With this, we could constantly scale up how much we should be gambling on this game relative to the continuing feedback we received.
Hayden: Why did you choose to present Crawl with retro-style graphics?
BC: Initially, it was to do with the fact that I was programming it myself. So, because I’m not a programmer, I was just using this really bad software, where it’s got this horrible scripting interface and you can only use pixel art. And, since my whole career so far has been working with 3D animation and, because I had to make in two days in time for the ‘game jam’, I just thought: “I’ll just use this.” Mainly, I just wanted to get the gameplay in there as quickly as possible and this was the quickest way to do it. So, for the art, I needed to make it as small and legible as possible to make it really quick to do.
3D art for Crawl was out of the question because there are already so many games in the fantasy setting using that kind of animation. If we had gone down that path, the game just would’ve ended up looking like a crap DOTA or crap League of Legends. If it wasn’t for the graphics that we’ve opted for, we simply wouldn’t have been able to make this kind of game.
Hayden: Okay, let’s talk about the game itself. Give us a quick rundown of what we can expect from a match of Crawl.
DL: So, there are three players who start out as monsters and one player starts as the Hero. The monster players start out as ghosts, constrained to following the Hero around various parts of the dungeon, but they can take control of traps or spawn into the game as one of their three monsters using pentagrams throughout the level. Their immediate goal is to try and kill the Hero. The Hero switches spots with whoever lands the killing blow, becoming a ghost themselves. As a ghost you’re building up the selection of monsters you’ve got and, as the Hero, you can buy stuff at the shop, upgrade and level up your weapons.
Hayden: So the Hero does actually get a break in the game?
BC: [Laughs] Yeah. So, basically you’re switching the whole time. The player who’s controlling the Hero could, theoretically, be the Hero the whole time and win the game, but that rarely happens. Usually, you spend a bit of time as the Hero, then you die and become a ghost to control traps and things, then killing them and becoming the Hero again – so it’s always going back and forth.
What we like about it is that players are, very quickly, changing up roles. One time you’ll be teaming up with other monsters, saying: “Quickly, get them over here and I’ll help you bait them into this trap” or whatever but, when the Hero’s almost dead, you’ll start competing with each other. Suddenly, those guys you were teaming up with are now trying to kill you; we like that social dynamic of forming alliances and then switching them around and betraying each other. That’s more fun than anything we could build in the actual game.
Hayden: So how do players win a game of Crawl?
BC: :Well, each player has their own unique Hero they level up from killing monsters and once your Hero gets to Level 10 you can challenge the Boss. So, you go and fight a huge Boss who’s co-operatively controlled by the ghosts. The ghosts can jump into different body parts and whoever kills the Boss wins the game that, again, turns the ‘people dynamics’ on its head. Because, when you’re all controlling the Boss together, you’re one hundred percent co-operative with the other ghosts – if the Hero wins, you all lose.
Hayden: The game is local-only multiplayer. Why not implement an online component as well?
DL: It was local from the start, so it was always going to be about being in the same room as one another and playing. We looked at online and, apart from the cost that was required implement it, it took something away from the game that was there when you’re actually in the same room as the people you’re playing with.
BC: Yeah, I feel like a lot of that [going online] with anonymous strangers had the potential to be really frustrating, especially with this being our first game. There’s so many issues with not just online games, but indie game that are online, that if it’s a small game to begin with than players aren’t going to be able to find others to play against. With the local multiplayer-only thing we knew what we were doing. For our first game it was the right foundation.
Hayden: So, the game has seen some success. Last year you guys won the Game of the Year at the Australian Game Developers Association Awards, as well as an award in the Arts area – you would’ve been happy with that, Barney?
BC: Yeah, I think for both of us it was a massive surprise.
DL: It was pretty cool and something that we definitely didn’t expect. It also came at a really exciting time for games development in Australia.
BC: I also feel that it was such a surprise because it’s a pretty old-fashioned type of game. Although we’ve been doing some new stuff, it’s just the basic things like running around and killing monsters – not that it’s a bad thing – but I just assumed awards were progressive with the times. So, at the time I thought: “What!? Smashing monsters in a dungeon? I guess it’s still cool!”
Hayden: What are your thoughts on where the Australian Games Industry is at the moment?
DL: Well, the bigger companies really haven’t come up again. Companies like Firemonkeys survived because they doing mobile stuff and they weren’t trying to get triple-A contracts on consoles, so that’s a really strong studio still. There’s also Halfbrick that’s still going around too. So, there are a couple of large companies that are still around but I don’t think it’ll grow back into the same thing that it was.
What I mean by that is I don’t think we’ll see people securing contracts from the U.S for a discounted price – ticking the boxes once it’s done so they can survive. It’s great seeing teams of people are realising they can make their own games as an alternative to doing these dodgy contracts that are really cheap.
BC: Seeing the overriding culture change from “I’ll learn just enough to get a job at one of these companies” to “I’ll learn enough to start making my own games” is a healthier outlook. The old system was flawed for so many reasons but a part of it was people holding off making games so they can beat another company that’s making a bigger, more spectacular game.
One of our [Australia’s] weaknesses was that we were getting these really crappy contracts from America to make movie tie-in games and we actually didn’t learn much from it; it wasn’t a good environment for our game designers to develop skills.
DL: Whereas now you get artists and coders making their own games and you get more small teams doing lots of amazing things.
Hayden: What’s the one motto that independent developers should live by?
BC: Well, the way go about it when of project is: If a younger version of me had to pick it out of a line-up, make it so that he’d say “this is definitely the coolest thing!”
You know, there were so many projects we were working on from EA that was like “this is a really good game but, if I had to pick it out of a line-up, I’d never even look at it.” They were almost always identical – sci-fi, space-things each with their own version of this giant robot tentacle arm who is the main bad guy. But, what’s the point if it’s not something unique to what you like in a game?
Hayden: When you guys aren’t updating Crawl what games do you like to play?
DL: What? Taking a break to play games? [Laughs] I’ve just been playing a bunch of really small indie stuff recently. I’ve been playing Downwell and… what was the name of that other one? The guy from The Stanley Parable?
BC: Oh yeah! The Beginner’s Guide!
DL: That’s it! Yeah, it’s a very thought-provoking little game.
BC: I’m always behind the times. I buy games when they’re on Steam sales and then I won’t play them for a month. One I really enjoyed was Tele-Glitch, a top-down rogue-like thing with really simple art reminiscent of Quake 1.
Right now, Crawl is currently available on Steam in Early Access. You can check out our PAX coverage through our diary articles below: