Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss
|Kevin Beimers is an animator at Straandlooper Animation and the developer of Hector: Badge of Carnage.|
|Dean Burke is an animator at Straandlooper Animation and the developer of Hector: Badge of Carnage.|
All images are courtesy of Straandlooper Animation © 2011.
The growing popularity of Apple's iOS platform has heralded a small but definite resurgence in adventure gaming, mostly in the form of ports of previously released classic adventure games as digital downloads for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Straandlooper Animation, based in Northern Ireland, is amongst the few independent game developers who are creating brand new adventure games for the mobile platform. Hector: Badge of Carnage, initially released on the iOS platform, has received both critical and fan acclaim. The game's success has even led to a partnership between Straandlooper Animation and Telltale Games to develop the series in full for the PC platform.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, and Richard Morss from Straandlooper Animation about Hector: Badge of Carnage. In the interview, they speak of their surprise in the series' success, the adventure game development scene in Northern Ireland, their newfound collaboration with Telltale Games, and what the future holds for Detective Inspector Hector and the town of Clappers Wreake.
Checkout our exclusive gallery of concept art from Hector: Badge of Carnage!
- Your works extend from animation shorts that target children (Lifeboat Luke) or teenagers and young adults (Small Tragedies) to a satirical and lewd adventure game (Hector) that targets mature gamers. With such wide scopes of content and differing audiences, what creative direction has been the most rewarding for you thus far? How does this success inform your development plans for the future?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: We think it pays to have a wide mix of properties, pre-school to adult, because it means that every idea has an outlet. You can be in the middle of an episode of Lifeboat Luke, and suddenly be hit with a really funny (or off-colour) idea. Obviously if animation for four-year-olds was your only project, you'd have no release for all your pent-up primal offensive vulgarity. Thankfully, Hector's perfect for that.
- Both Small Tragedies and Lifeboat Luke are series of animated shorts. While Hector has moments of the same, why have you decided to make it into a point-and-click adventure game instead of another animated short?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke: When Hector was first being developed, we were thinking of it as a feature or TV series (and it may one day still become one). However, funding for that sort of thing is rather tight these days, and the appeal of the iPhone's mass distribution potential, audience and micropayment system proved to be a worthwhile avenue to explore. But what kind of game? We grew up as big fans of the classic LucasArts adventure games, and convinced the company owners to take a crack at making one ourselves. The spoof cop drama and mystery of Hector's world of Clappers Wreake, combined with Hector's own barbed and boorish wit made point & click a perfect fit.
How we approached the game in some ways paralleled how we'd set about creating an animated show. Both mediums' underlying forms share common ground such as plot, character, situational humour, and the whole visual side involved in designing the world, including the animated cinematics and 2D game character animation. So the modest team was able to creatively use our background in producing animation and apply it here.
- What inspired the creation of Hector? How did the decision to develop Hector come about?
- Dean Burke: I had the initial idea for Hector about nine years ago; I created a handful of characters, a lot of story ideas and a fictitious British town called Clappers Wreake. I wanted Hector to be a nod to crime dramas, where the detectives are routinely angry and cynical, while giving it a distinctively British slant, taking the humour, crime cases and filthy world he inhabits to greater depths. The idea stood waiting by the wings until the day I'd get a chance to pitch it to someone half interested in getting on board with it!
I held the role of Animation Director at Straandlooper and toward the wrap-up of the animated series we were working on at the time, I pitched the idea of Hector to Straandlooper's Joint Managing Directors, Alastair and Richard. In the early phase of expanding development on Hector, the ultimate form it would take had yet to be decided. While brainstorming marketing ideas, I thought an old school point & click style adventure would be a great spin off marketing idea (and fulfill a goal of mine to one day make a game!). I created a mockup screen shot of what it might look like and pinned it on the studio wall with all the other development art. The point & click adventure genre seemed perfect for setting up Hector and the world he inhabits, it has the ideal structure to give focus to character and have the narrative take more of a front seat. So the idea eventually stuck and we all agreed Clappers Wreake would make the perfect setting for an adventure game.
- Why did you decide on initially releasing Hector on the iOS (iPhone, in particular) instead of the PC platform, especially given Apple's strict review policies for iTunes' App Store? In hindsight, how would you handle the game's release differently?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: Why iPhone? Because we could. Apple's SDK and App Store made it very easy (relatively) to create, produce and release a game that had the biggest chance to get noticed by a lot of people. On PC or Mac, you're talking about either a flash game (which you'll never make money on) or a shipped box and a marketing campaign. The App Store put us on more or less equal footing with the big companies, and allowed it to shine on its own merit, not on how many bus shelters or banners we could afford to post the ad on.
As for strict policies... well, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot here, but the game has a lot more suggestive adult humour than outright vulgarity. There's a lot more humour to be garnered from a creatively oblique insult than a rude word... too often games that are classed as "mature" end up being more juvenile than something a 12 year old would cook up. 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" than what you'd expect at first glance.
In hindsight, we don't think the game's release could have gone better. We hit the App Store's #1 adventure/role playing game in over 20 countries (including US and UK), were in the top 50 apps (not games but apps), received loads of five star reviews, and were rated #35 Best iPhone Game of All Time by Art of the iPhone. Short of a bit more self-produced social media to keep the momentum going, everything went better than we could have pictured.
- The current crops of point-and-click adventure games are mostly being developed in Europe. How is the game development scene in Northern Ireland? What government or private sector support currently exists for game or animation production in Northern Ireland?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: The Northern Irish animation industry is very small, and the size of the local market and the difficulty of even getting into the UK and European market such that companies come and go and can tend to depend on grant aid for their survival. Straandlooper has been very lucky in achieving significant private investment in its properties (before the crash) and also receiving grants from various Northern Ireland bodies. The first game was financed with the aid of a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland topped out with investment from Straandlooper. As with the rest of the world, the industry faces a struggle to finance development and production and looks to international partnerships, co-productions, etc., to enable its work.
- How familiar is the development team at Straandlooper Animation with adventure games?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke: We grew up with the classic, wit-based point & click adventures and shed a quiet tear when the genre of the first person shooter fragged it into submission. (Richard and Alastair watched their kids playing and enjoyed the medium vicariously as parents, so were eager to give it a thrash.) The thing is, whenever we're in a conversation about the glory days of gaming, the point & clicks are the ones that always come up as the ones to remember - we're a small yet passionate audience. There's been an attempted resurgence lately of P&C, 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). We wanted the chance to put the wacky characters and wit back into the genre, and because of our background we knew the way the audience thinks, and were able to put in a number of homage to prove we knew what we were doing.
It's such a compliment to our creation that we're now working with Telltale games on the next two episodes. We've visited their studio in California and got to meet a lot of the pioneers of the original point & click genre. To have received a compliment from any of them saying they liked our game would have been amazing enough, but the fact that we're working hand-in-hand with the originals guys, having holes poked in our scripts by one of the original writers of Monkey Island, it's huge.
- What community (local and international) feedback have you received so far for Hector? How (if at all) will this feedback impact upon the content in future episodes?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: People responded to it so well. Online, if they don't like something they get straight to the point and say it. When the game started to get many positive reviews and responses, after a while you start to believe that it's not a fluke and that they genuinely like it! People getting a kick out of what you've created is what makes it all worthwhile.
The fact is, most point & clicks on the iPhone are ports of the classics – Monkey Island, Broken Sword, Beneath a Steel Sky – obviously these are a sure sell. We were taking a punt riding the coattails of this genre, because it's a small yet passionate audience, and they could have easily raked us over the coals for trying and failing. Luckily for us, we tried and succeeded. It's amazing the number of times I've read "best game on the iPhone” in the App store user reviews.
For the record, our favourite review that we've ever received on iTunes is: "This game is as funny as a vegetable that has grown into a rude and amusing shape!"
- What is in store for Hector's future? What will become of Hector when the series is finished (if ever)?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: The aim with Hector was to eventually do a series or feature. With the positive success of the game, who knows. At least we know there's a hungry audience out there for the big man himself.
The hope is that a successful game will leverage other opportunities for the fat man alongside making what will hopefully be an ongoing game franchise that has long life across lots of platforms.
- How did your partnership with Telltale Games come to pass? The first episode of Hector ended on a cliffhanger and a "coming soon" teaser. To what extent, if any, was the teaser made to be a hint of this partnership?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: The original story we wrote was three episodes, without ever knowing if all three would ever be completed. When we released Episode 1, the future was simply, "Let's see how this goes. If it does alright for itself, roll on to Episode 2." (In fact, we even said that in the game description on Apple.) 'Coming Soon' was more of a hope than a promise.
Our partnership with Telltale came about as a result of getting noticed. Someone with enough clout over at Telltale bought our game, showed it to the boys in charge, and it blossomed from there. Hector proved to be a perfect fit for their audience. A few months later, here we are.
- Telltale Games has never released a game as remotely raunchy as Hector. How concerned are you that this partnership may impact on your vision for subsequent episodes of Hector?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: Not at all. They loved what we did with the first one – after all, it's what caught their eye in the first place. 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. As an animator, you tend to know which subjects are taboo and which subjects are fair game for a bit of stomach turning. They've had no problems at all with pushing the comfort zone, or the decency barrier... in fact, in the early puzzle overview discussions, they said that Episode 3 didn't contain enough poo jokes. Well, we soon fixed that, let me tell you.
- How involved is Telltale Games with the development of new episodes of Hector?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: Straandlooper's still handling the plot, game design, art, animation, and voice; we all want the ultimate feel of Episodes 2 and 3 to follow in the footsteps of the first one. However, Telltale has put together a crack team of superhuman developers bred in a government lab, adapting their multi-platform game engine to accommodate the 2D style of our original game, and have spent the past few months re-engineering Episode 1 for its recent release on PC, Mac, and iPad. Episodes 2 and 3 are being built straight into their game engine with the aid of the aforementioned crack team. Plus, we're going to have their QA and debug team, marketing and PR team, so these games have got a much larger number talented people behind it.
- Telltale Games has recently announced a number of other game projects, including a revival of the King's Quest series as well as games based on the comics Fables and The Walking Dead. What impresses you most about Telltale Games' approach to episodic adventure game development?
- Kevin Beimers, Dean Burke, Richard Morss: They're the only ones out there who know how to make a decent adventure game. Besides us, of course.