Like Jay Sherman's L'Artiste est Morte, there comes a time when a critic, commentator or close industry watcher tries their hand at making their own version of a product that has captivated them both personally and professionally. For the two man web-comic team turned mini-media empire that is Penny Arcade, their foray into the other side of the equation came in the form of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (hereafter just Precipice or Rain-Slick). Their plan: an episodic downloadable title that takes their characters and their sense humor into a new interactive world.
The first two titles were well received by fans, but when a conflict of priorities came between Penny Arcade and developer Hothead Games, the series languished in near oblivion. Enter indie developer Zeboyd Games (Cthulhu Saves the World) and one complete visual makeover later Part 3 is released to a grateful community.
Now with the final part due in the Spring and with Penny Arcade giving away copies of Part 3 for a limited time, Newsarama sat down with Jerry “Tycho” Holkins and Zeboyd co-founder Bill Stiernberg to talk about not just the process of bringing a nearly dead franchise back to life, but shattering expectations of a classic form of gaming.
Newsarama: Seven years after the series was announced, how does it feel for the final game in the Rain-Slick series to be nearing release?
Jerry Holkins: Weird. I don't really know how to feel about it, I just keep my head down and do my writin's [sic]. When it's done, I'll play through it just to close the chapter. It was kinda of a rough ride there in the middle.
Nrama: In that time how has your concept of what it means to develop and release a game changed since not just announcement, but the early days of Penny Arcade?
Holkins: Well, with Hothead [Games, the developer of the first two parts of the series], it was much more elaborate in terms of production. Even though it was a smaller studio, it was still a studio staffed almost exclusively by vets. Zeboyd is almost the opposite of that. Everybody does all their own work, separated by hundreds of miles, and then magically a game pops out at the end.
Nrama: What did working on the third entry, and hearing from the Penny Arcade fans, teach you about how to approach the final chapter?
Bill Stiernberg: We learned a lot having worked on Rain-Slick 3 and getting feedback from fans. It was incredibly exciting to be part of this project, resurrecting this series that was canceled. The feedback was really positive, and it was encouraging to hear that fans were excited to get back into this series, especially given that we're a different developer that uses a different style from the first two episodes. Since we started out creating Rain-Slick 3 based on Jerry's completed write-up, which was posted on Penny Arcade's site, we built Rain-Slick 3 around that story. We wanted fans of the game to experience the story at a smooth pace without getting stuck at certain points. We also wanted to streamline the RPG for Penny Arcade fans. As such the game was designed with a "path and node" map system, sort of like Super Mario World's overworld maps. We thought it would be a fun way to get players moving around New Arcadia, and focus on each area of the city and areas that the story takes place. However, one big thing we did learn was that a lot of people much prefer a more open, less linear feeling to maps in these games. With Rain-Slick 4, we decided to vastly open up the game world; the overworld is huge and freely explorable with tons of optional areas to explore. The game's dungeons are numerous, too. They're larger, but they are also more varied visually so as to keep players engrossed in this strange Underhell world. People enjoyed the style and mechanics, and of course the writing, in Rain-Slick 3; so on those ends we simply ramped things up!
Nrama: Is there a particular part of this, or any game in the series that you created that sticks out in your mind that you are fond of?
Holkins: I am fond of puns, and the game is stuffed with that kind of thing. I enjoy the work I am given to do generally, but naming things and coming up with descriptions is a highlight for me and people seem to enjoy that aspect.
Nrama: There was a big change between Part 2 and Part 3, what kind of change, if any, will gamers see from Part 3 to Part 4?
Holkins: The main thing is probably that the urban setting is mostly gone, and you'll see tons more traditional RPG type settings because of how things turned out in episode three. I think people will really appreciate Hyperduck's soundtrack, too.
Bill Stiernberg: Rain-Slick 4 uses a slightly enhanced version of the engine from [Part] 3. With [Part] 3, I was able to rework the dungeons and maps according to a system we implemented about halfway through development. However, starting with Rain-Slick 4, I took some time to mess around and toy with the new aspects of the engine where game maps and dungeons are concerned. As a result, I figured out some really interesting ways to spruce up the map visuals, giving them far more detail and variety than we have had in our previous games, and to do so in a relatively short time.
The story and setting and development of Rain-Slick 4, from the beginning, was a much more collaborative process than Rain-Slick 3, too. Initially, Rain-Slick 3's story and setting and events were already set in stone- the story was written and posted online already, and we based the game around that story. With Rain-Slick 4, we were able to fly to Seattle and hash out the details and the locales and events in Rain-Slick 4 with Jerry from the get-go. This allowed us to really explore ways to make the game world itself, and the events that happen, more interesting to players and fit better within the flow of a game. The game has benefited a great deal and I think the game world in Rain-Slick 4 is incredibly interesting as a result.
As for mechanics, we learned from Rain-Slick 3 that a lot of players enjoyed the diverse class system - it let players choose their own methods and strategies for taking on the game. We learned that a lot of players ended up, however, picking a few key classes and playing through the battles using only a handful of reliable strategies. To mix this up, we created a monster collection and battling system. The monsters act largely the same as classes in Rain-Slick 3, but can be modified by the "trainer" who controls them. It gives the familiar mechanics more depth without totally overhauling them. Secondly, the story behind Rain-Slick 4 has sections wherein the game characters are split up; this allows us to give the players a chance to try different monsters and trainers during battles, which avoids the problem where players chose 1 or 2 reliable strategies throughout the game. So it mixes things up.
Nrama: In game development there are commonly reams of material that needs to be created that some gamers though circumstance will never see, how does that make you feel and if you could what would you do to keep that from happening?
Holkins: That's not true for the Precipice in the way it might be for other titles, just in terms of scope. For example, you might remember Obsidian's KOTOR2 - all the stuff enterprising players found on the disc itself. That game was huge that some stuff was always going to slip through. But here, there's only three of us. Work doesn't get done unless it's gonna ship. That's a privilege we having such a small team. There are smaller, certainly. But this one's pretty small.
Nrama: Jerry is known for his esoteric style of writing; describe the challenge of bringing his ideas, both for creatures and for worlds to life.
Stiernberg: Rain-Slick 4's world and settings are very, very esoteric indeed! It's a fun challenge bringing the maps and enemies and characters to life. The game world itself, since it takes place in this nether realm, means that I have to kind of rethink how to portray areas of the game world. This game doesn't take place on Earth, and it exists outside of time; it allows me to be really creative with different ideas for game dungeons and maps, but I also have to try and think of new and interesting ways to present things. Also, some of the game events take place in really, really insane places with a LOT of things going on. Without spoiling it, I have spent a ton of time animating a lot of little insane details and objects to try and bring some of these game areas to life.
For enemies and creatures? It has been too bad - it's actually more fun and interesting, or in fact easier, to draw and animate oddball enemies and creatures for a game. Nobody wants to fight yet-another-sewer-rat. So working with Jerry and Robert Boyd to come up with some crazy creatures and then being able to draw and animate them is a pleasure.
Nrama: If possible, describe briefly the process for developing a creature for a 16-bit reality.
Stiernberg: From a visual standpoint, the key to developing 16-bit characters or creatures is having very distinctive, bold features. I was fortunate in making the art for Gabe, Tycho, etc, in that these characters are very distinct to begin with. Gabe has his trademark large black hair spikes, and Tycho has a large, bold, lantern jaw as two examples. When working with only a few pixels, these characteristics come out really well in pixel art form. The result is that the characters appear in that sort of classic SNES-look but are still clearly true to their original comic strip look as well. For creatures, it's the same deal - distinct features, and, ideally some features that stand out. I try to exaggerate features of creatures we come up with for this purpose, because they look more interesting and they animate better.
Nrama: Do you think the 16-bit style will remain a viable medium for games in perpetuity?
Stiernberg: I do, actually. I think a lot of people can look at some classic SNES games and think that they have aged, visually, very well - better so than even some 3D games from the 32 bit generation or last generation. This 2D style, it may be pixelated, but it's colorful and allows for a surprising amount of character and expression to show through. If it's been all these years and there are still people that enjoy this style, I think it will always be a classic style. It has aged well and at this point, I don't think increased age will make it any less appealing going forward. As for those who believe that maybe this style has appeal now because of the adults that grew up with these style of games may have nostalgia for it; well that's certainly part of the appeal, but, I've spoken with many younger fans who have not played the SNES/Genesis classics who love the colors and sort of "cute" presentation of sprites in this style. So I'm not worried there either. Lastly, game development tech has improved a lot since the SNES, and I believe that there is still a LOT Of really cool things you can do with this style that haven't been tried before. Going forward we're going to really try out some interesting new ideas and ways of mixing modern tech with the old school look to create some interesting visual styles using this pixel art.
Nrama: What’s next for the Penny Arcade Adventures brand?
Holkins: Something, I'll say that much. Our approach is to treat it like a Jazz album; we find people we want to work with, whose work we respect, and then see what we can do together. That's where we're at right now, and we're sifting a few of those proposals now.
Nrama: What’s next for Zeboyd?
Stiernberg: We have a lot of ideas! Tons. We've mentioned various ideas before, such as the scifi RPG we want to do at some point. And Rain-Slick 4 wraps up the Rain-Slick series so the options for what game we do next are wide open. We haven't decided yet, at least not set in stone; what we do for our next project depends on a lot of factors - the success of Rain-Slick 4 being one of them. So right now we're super focused on polishing Rain-Slick 4 and want to make the best game we can and finish this series right. After that, probably take a few days off, then dig deep into plans for our next project.
Rain-Slick 4 will be released June 7, 2013.