Interview: The Behemoth’s Dan Paladin
Launched in 2008, The Behemoth’s Castle Crashers went on to become one of the most popular co-op experiences on XBLA, with it just recently having crossed over the 3 million player threshold on its leaderboards. More than just inspiring gamers to fight with and against each other for the right to make out with princesses, though, the title also put the development community in a scramble to get their own take on the genre onto the platform. While none have enjoyed the same runaway success that Crashers has, certainly their collective presence has made the platform a modern haven for games of its ilk.
If PAX Prime was any indication, the rush isn’t going to be slowing down any time soon. The show floor was full of promising (and not-so-promising) 2D side-scrolling action games, and our team played just about every single one of them. On the second day of the show, XBLA Fans caught up with one of the men responsible for kicking off the craze, The Behemoth co-founder and Art Director Dan Paladin. He was open to talking about everything from the state of the beat-em-up to the studio’s past projects to its current one, BattleBlock Theater, to developing for XBLA. In fact, about the whole thing Paladin declined to discuss was BattleBlock‘s release date. It’s a subject he says the studio hasn’t talked about since it announced a 2010 release that it was unable to meet, a strategy that he claims hasn’t stopped the press or the public from announcing dates on their own. Read on for the full details.
Castle Crashers really sort of popularized the side-scrolling, co-op beat-em-up on Xbox Live Arcade. Does The Behemoth feel a certain sense of pride or maybe even some flattery that so many other XBLA developers have jumped on that bandwagon?
Paladin: Yeah, it’s like, it’s been really weird the whole way — not just Castle Crashers — because we just wanted to make a game that, you know, we liked, and we were lucky enough that other people agree that — we’re just lucky that we have good taste! [Laughs]
I mean, not to really pat ourselves on the back, but I wanted to make a game that I remember beat-em-ups as. I’m sorry, but a lot of the beat-em-ups from the old days are just not as fun when you try them right now. If you sit down and play Golden Axe — I loved Golden Axe as a kid, and now I kind of like Golden Axe, right? So what I wanted to do, and what Tom [Fulp, The Behemoth co-founder] wanted to do, was recreate that feeling that we had as kids, but with a modern-day beat-em-up.
That’s all we were trying to do, and then amazing things came out of it — just like all the things people try to tell us in emails and just all these really cool things. But really the base of it was we just really wanted to recapture what beat-em-ups felt like to us as kids in the arcade.
And it was crazy how many adjustments we had to make and how many changes we had to make in the genre. We didn’t even think of, ‘Man, we gotta do this, and this, and this,’ and it’s just like, it was really, really interesting. But yeah, we’re really happy with the reception. It’s something that we would have never expected. We would have never expected anything like that.
Yeah, I think you guys definitely found an audience there, obviously. As I said, it’s really taken off and a lot of other developers have gone the same route and had success there, too. But one of the other things I wanted to ask you was in regards to the reality that we’ve seen a lot of other indie and small developers moving away from Xbox Live Arcade recently, often because of complaints that things are a little too tight under Microsoft, that they’re perhaps too controlling. And yet you guys are returning to XBLA once again with BattleBlock Theater. Why did you make that decision? Was there ever even a question as to whether or not you would?
Paladin: We just never really made any decision to leave it, really. I’m not sure what anybody else’s thing is with them, but we really like working with Microsoft. We think it’s really easy. We’ve had no problems since day one. We did Alien Hominid HD and then Castle Crashers, and now we’re moving onto BattleBlock. There’s a lot of fans on XBLA, and quite honestly there’s nothing difficult about working with Microsoft, and it’s very good. They treat you properly, and if you have a problem you just say to them, ‘Hey, I don’t like this.’ And they work with you. I think some of the guys you hear [complaining about Microsoft] might just be reactionary, and they didn’t do that stuff. They just went right to their blog or whatever. I mean, I have no idea. I have no information about other people.
I understand, and I’m not asking you to put words in other people’s mouths. I’d just like to know what the experience has been like for The Behemoth.
Paladin: We just like working with Microsoft, so we keep working with them, and we see good results. I mean, you’re implying that indies are going somewhere else. I don’t know where they’re going, but it’s kind of a shame if they’re going somewhere else.
I don’t mean to say that everybody’s jumping ship. Obviously there’s still a good amount of them working on XBLA. Indie Megabooth is huge for them at this year’s PAX Prime. But we have heard more than a few indie developers complaining about Microsoft for various reasons, and talking about developing for other platforms instead, such as Steam.
Paladin: It’s a really interesting perspective, because we’ve seen the whole thing. Alien Hominid HD was the first sort of indie kind of games on XBLA, so we kind of saw when it was a very, very brand new thing — and it’s still brand new in the whole scheme of things. And so indies just got onto consoles thanks to that whole thing. Of course there’s going to be systems that aren’t perfect because it’s a first try. You know, nobody gets anything right on the first try. I think maybe some of the growing pains are there, but nothing that has us sad about anything.
How has the community responded to you over the years in reaction to the games you’ve released on the platform? I imagine you’ve gotten a lot of feedback from it.
Paladin: Yeah, we’ve gotten crazy stories from them. We’ve saved marriages, apparently.
Paladin: Yeah, I mean one guy wrote in and said, ‘My wife, she thinks that I’m too old to be playing games, and she doesn’t understand why I do it. And she hates my guts. And then I showed her Castle Crashers, and she didn’t mind picking it up for some reason. She thought it was cute or something, and now she understands why I play games. And now she plays Portal with me.’
It’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s just like that sort of thing I talked about earlier — you just make something co-op and then all the sudden you’ve saved a marriage…or two or three. There’s been quite a few of those, and then there’s been ones where, ‘Oh, my kid and I, the only time we talk is when we play Castle Crashers on Xbox Live, because he’s in college.’ Really cool just nice stories like that. Co-op itself just lends itself to these little relationships that get built, and maybe somewhere people are just like, ‘Why aren’t you helping me with this?!’ [Laughs] But I think for the most part that’s a good thing that’s come out of co-op, and that’s just a really neat side effect that we weren’t expecting.
Yeah, co-op is great, especially when you have those drop-in/drop-out, online/offline options in there allowing players to experience it however they please. Of course the co-op is a major component of your next game, BattleBlock Theater, which is a game that you guys talked about sort of pulling the plug and reworking a lot of on your blog earlier this year. Obviously it’s not finished yet, but looking back from where you are now, are you happy with the decision?
Paladin: It’s fascinating because when you look at it you’re just like, ‘Oh, I don’t get it. You know? You just go down the thing there and jump over…’ But like, the amount of ways you can play the game and the amount of things people discovered when we just gave them the game and let them play — things the design just naturally dictated that we had to do — ended up just being processes that had to take long. So it wasn’t ever really going back to the drawing board. It was really just that we kept going to the point that we feel it needs to be.
The good news is that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Thank god, because I’m just as impatient as anybody else about it. We don’t have any kind of release date or anything, but at least we can feel like we’re wrapping it up to some degree. And we’ve also announced our level editor…but the fact that you can upload/download great levels, the whole system of content that’s going to be just ongoing from the community, I think it’s going to be a really cool thing. And Castle Crashers had taught us that we needed a trading system, so we put a trading system in the game. But we had already had it when we made that post about the design taking us elsewhere.
So there’s a lot of stuff you can do in the game, and it’s very open-ended. Any moment where you’re in an arena or story or user-made level you can always just go back to the gift shop, and you can buy things and unlock things and trade with each other, so it’s just like any point you’re in you’re always in the theater. It always feels like you’re in the theater.
Getting all that together and getting people to understand the story — the story sort of set us back a little, but not that much. It’s a kind of weird concept to have an abandoned theater that people crash land into, and then these cats have sort of evolved and forced them to go into this gladiator-type thing, and they’re sort of misusing the theater. There’s a lot of layers to the story, and that was an interesting one too.
We have a usability lab where people can play through it, and we can see where they like things, and where they got stuck, and where they just really loved something. We can always fix things or play off things. I think the biggest, most interesting part was just getting to people what’s going on with every little detail. Even with Castle Crashers we felt we sort of dropped the ball a little bit.
Is that so?
Paladin: We never told anybody what that big gem was in the beginning that the guy flew off with. Everybody was like, ‘Yeah, you get the princesses…but what about that thing that he stole from the king?’ So sometimes I feel like we dropped the ball with some of our story stuff. Now we’re a lot more careful, especially since we have a narrator who will narrate as you play. He’ll talk about that death you just had or that gem you just picked up once in awhile.
And it’s really funny. He nailed it just so phenomenally that it made the game feel like so much more. So I think I looked at a build from about a year ago, and I’m so much happier that we didn’t just put it out there just yet. We’re really only a couple months past where Castle Crashers — we’re about on par with the same development as Castle Crashers, so that should make people feel a little bit better. When they think about Castle Crashers, and it’s a quality game, it takes that sort of time to make a game like that.
Is it a challenge for you guys to keep all of those story bits in-line with each other every step of the way?
Paladin: There was a lot of discussion about how to convey things and where to convey things, so it was an interesting one. I wouldn’t really call it difficult, just kind of involved. And just ‘What are we talking about in chapter one, and what are we talking about in chapter two, and is there any little side thing that we throw in in-between?’ Stuff like that was an interesting thing. But never really — I kind of let our narrator choose where things go, and he would just be like, ‘Hey, check this out. I made this little piece. Let’s throw it in right here.’ And we just let him do it, and it solved everything.
That was the one kind of neat thing is, we show the game at the trade shows, and when I have to pop in and tell someone, ‘Oh, you have to do this!’ or, ‘Oh, you hold the button for magic!’ Now, anytime that I feel like I needed to personally tell someone something I can just have our narrator say it. It’s a little bit of a crutch, but we also reinforce it with our visuals and things. It just makes it like ‘Bam!’ There’s no question about how to do something. It’s just, it’s more solid.
I’m really, really proud of it. I feel like anybody who sits down with this game, they’re going to have some level of fun. Now, it’ll vary how much fun people have with it, but I can guarantee you’re going to have some sort of fun when you play it with someone. It’s just, it’s solid, and I’m just really happy. And I would never say that a couple years ago. I wouldn’t be like, ‘Yeah! It’s definitely going to be fun!’ I wouldn’t tell you that, because I wouldn’t lie. I mean, it wasn’t quite ready yet, but we figured it out, and we’re really happy with it.
I definitely hear what you’re saying, because I played it at the past two PAX East shows, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had changed in the year between them, but it definitely felt like I was having more fun. I did enjoy it the first time, but the second time I had no idea what specifically was different, but it somehow felt better.
Paladin: Yeah, I actually looked at the builds, and I was trying to figure it out too, and I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter. I have a terrible memory [Laughs], but we just tweaked stuff. Anything that pops up we just tweak it if it’s a big deal. And yeah, that’s the really weird thing about this game.
And the other fact that it’s modular, and all these blocks can just be placed down however, and that was really misleading in terms of being a developer, because it’s like, ‘Oh, the ice level’s done! Oh, the forest level’s done! Oh, we got the boss!’ It’s this very chronological thing, but in this game it’s just like, ‘How much more content do we need? What feels right?’ You know, there is no ‘ice world’ kind of thing. It’s kind of like, it’s a little different.
So chronologically it was also very, very deceptive from a developer’s standpoint, so that’s why we misjudged ourselves. And the other kind of funny thing that I want to clear up is that we haven’t kept delaying the game. I read a lot of comments that are like, ‘Why do they keep pushing it back?’ But it’s really like we just said 2010, and then we were wrong. And then we just never said anything since. There’s been a lot of stuff in press where it’s like, ‘It’s coming out this year.’ I think the perception is that we said 2010, so people just like, ‘Oh, it must be 2011. It must be 2012.’ And it’s like, ‘Hang on! I didn’t say anything!’
So OK, we’re sorry. We were wrong. I really do feel that the game tricked us. I have no idea when it’s coming out.
OK. We promise not to put any crazy dates in our headline, then. [Laughs]
Paladin: [Laughs] Yeah, as far as that stuff goes I have no idea.