Apr 5, 2012

Dan Marshall of Size Five Games gets interviewed

Dan Marshal of Size Five Games (formerly known as Zombie Cow Studios) has been crafting indie games for more than a few years now and is actually preparing something rather ambitious even as we speak, which, well, does make sense for an indie developer I suppose. Anyway. Here's the interview with the man that can be both funny and, funnily enough, designing anything from run-and-gun to point-and-click games:

Though I'm pretty sure it's not needed, could you please introduce yourself to the illustrious Gnome's Lair readers?

Hello! My name's Dan, I run Size Five Games which used to be called Zombie Cow Studios until I realised how much I hated that name. So I changed it, which kind of weirdly worked out because all the press about what a stupid thing to do it was meant sales shot up.

I made a couple of adventure games called "Ben There, Dan That!" and "Time Gentlemen, Please!" which were very well received. We then did that Channel4 sex-ed game called Privates which everyone just referred to as "the vagina game".

Mind you, I do believe I remember your work ever since those PC Zone articles on Gibbage. Is that really how you entered the world of game development?

Not really - as a kid I always used to tinker about with the likes of Klik 'n Play. One day I decided to learn 'real' programming and picked up a C primer. I'd been working on Gibbage for about 18 months, teaching myself how to code along the way, when I dropped the editor of PC Zone a line to see if he'd be interested in a developer diary. I decided it was a fairly unique thing to be doing, since the indie scene was waaaaaay smaller back then. Anyway, he accepted and that's how I started doing bits and bobs for PC Zone. But the truth is that the 'monthly updates' on my progress were largely things that had happened about a year previously.

And you have now moved on to the world of BAFTA ceremonies. Quite an impressive achievement. How did you do it?

Magic, largely.

In reality: no idea. Channel 4 gave me some money to think up a stupid (albeit sexy) idea, which I then spent on assembling a team, kind of like something out of a blockbuster movie, but way more low-key and with more nerds involved. So I grabbed Lemmy and Binky, who have gone on to work wonders with Project Zomboid, and they programmed and arted a load of stuff. I cried a lot, things went wrong, more things went wrong, and then at the end a game came out.

After that, it was up for a BAFTA which, preposterously, it won.

You've also been instrumental in the recent rebirth of adventure gaming and have managed to remind everyone just how delightfully wild a point-and-click game can be. Why did you decide to go on with Ben There, Dan That?

Ben There, Dan That! actually started life as a stupid little game to bring some attention to Gibbage, which was selling for REAL MONEY. After two years of solid development, I wanted something small and silly to do, and BTDT was the result - it was largely a product of Ben and I going to the pub, having stupid conversations, which I then programmed into a silly-but-charming little game.

On release, it wound up being WAY more popular than Gibbage and eclipsing it entirely.

What were you aiming for?

We were just making a game like the old Tim Schafer/ LucasArts ones we used to love; there really was no big 'thinking' behind it. We weren't aiming to bring back the genre or anything. We were just doing it for the love.

Was it its success that spawned Time Gentlemen, Please?

Yeah, BTDT did really well. We'd talked about doing a sequel, and left it kind of open for the possibility, but all we had was a name. BTDT had done really well and I was getting lots of emails requesting another - Ben and I went to the pub on the understanding that if we could think of something good that didn't feel trite and forced, we'd do it. We wound up sitting in the boozer crying with laughter over some of the stuff we'd come up with, and I guess from there we had no choice...

And how about another sequel? Think it will be possible? Hope it would be able to live up to them lofty expectations?

We're looking into it. The third game, Revenge of the Balloon-Headed Mexican, wound up getting canned for various reasons, which can pretty much be summed up as: it was exactly the same thing again. So, yeah, we've toyed with various other ways of doing another sequel, and it's certainly a possibility when we finally work out an amazing way of doing it that feels fresh and different enough.

 Considered the crowd-funding solution?

For a new Dan and Ben game? Nah. I'm generally anti-alpha funding. Not for other devs, I think it's great for them. But mainly because I do all the work; Ben helps with the design stuff, but I do all the code and art and most of the writing and design... so if I suddenly die horribly, all that money would be for nothing and angry gamers would basically wind up forcing Ben to suddenly learning programming and Photoshop. It'd be a disaster. There'd be binary all over the place, peoples' computers exploding. Doesn't bear thinking about. 

What's more, I'm a bit worried about alpha funding from an 'entitlement' point of view - some of the devs I've spoken to have found their angsty backers constantly berating them for crimes like 'taking a weekend off'. One guy told me he was living in a perpetual crunch, because if he stops his backers get angry. I'm too laid back for any of that sort of nonsense.

As soon as I run out of money, I will change my mind entirely.

You do love variety, don't you? From 2D shooters, to puzzle games, to full-blown adventures, to the run and gun of Privates and the stealthy Swindle. How difficult is it to successfully design all those decidely different games? Don't you confuse yourself?

I guess it comes from the fact that I'm an eclectic gamer - I love all sorts of different things. Growing up I was all about the adventure games and the platformers, but I'm a massive FPS/ third person nut as well. I dabble in everything from little freeware indie games to big RPGs. I quite like the fact I'm constantly doing different things, it means there's fresh passion behind every project. If I was still making point-and-clicks, I imagine they'd have gone pretty stale by now, whereas I'm itching to do something like that again...

On to Privates then... were you shocked when people (especially those Xbox people) considered a funny and deeply educational game offensive?

No, not really. I knew from the off getting it on Xbox would be a challenge- their Rules and Regulations are laid out for everyone to read, and Privates broke most of them. I'd kind of hoped it might just get through because of all the frightfully-worthy educational content. Sadly, it turned out rules is rules. That whole thing wasn't nearly as exciting in real life as the screaming "MICROSOFT BANS VAGINA GAME" headlines. As far as I'm aware, no one at Microsoft even looked at it. An Xbox contact played it, said it was ace, but the rules won't bend and it was a mite too saucy. That was all.

It's not actually very offensive. There's a couple of icky bits - what I wasn't prepared for was most of the ire came from people ewwwwing over the inclusion of pubic hairs. I now realise that was probably from teenagers who haven't seen a vagina outside of RedTube.

Then again, how did you (and the brilliant Privates team of course) manage to make a game that can actually warn about venereal disease in such downright enjoyable way? 

Ha, no idea. The gameplay's pretty simple, because despite all the 'it's rude' protestations it's actually designed for kids. I don't know if you've seen a 13 year old play a game - it's tempting to think they're all Call of Duty whizzkids, but the reality is they're exactly as rotten as we all were when we were that age. It's a nice, pretty, stylish game with some funny bits and some great voice acting, I think that's what really got older people enjoying it. It's an easy romp, nothing too stressful.

You seem to be mainly developing for Windows. Any particular reasons?

Yeah, PC development is great. No barriers to entry, no one breathing down my neck. If I had any talent, I could make a game in a weekend and be selling it online first thing on Monday morning with no forms to fill in whatsoever - that's a huge draw.

There's something really satisfying about seeing your game running on a console, but from a boring business point of view Windows makes a lot of sense.

I'd love to support Linux and Mac, but the adventure games are made with AGS - as soon as that supports Linux and Mac I'll look into doing ports. Privates and The Swindle are made with XNA, so for the time being they're locked to Windows too...

Would you like to have more, relatively at least, open platforms like iOS, Android and Windows available to you? Any plans of bringing your games on mobile platforms?

If AGS had an iOS port, I'd look into making BTDT and TGP for it, but it's not a straight port; they'd have to be re-jigged for the control method. I can see them also being quite fiddly on the tiny screen, so it'd be more work than you might imagine. I'd consider it, but if AGS suddenly worked with iOS I'd probably be more interested in making a smaller, voiced, made-for-the-device Dan and Ben game than struggling to make the existing ones fit.

You are currently working on The Swindle. How would you describe it?

I originally described it as being like Sonic the Hedgehog meets Deus Ex, and I think that's still pretty much spot on - it feels like a platform game, but with multiple path sneaking, shooting, hacking and upgrading, that sort of thing. It's a cartoonish Steampunk game about thieving money, upgrading your kit and going back to thieve more.

Judging by your Twitter comments you have already made quite some progress. Happy with the development so far?

Yeah, it's taking longer than I'd imagined to get the basics set up, but it's finally all coming together. The AI's finally up and about, wandering the halls and chasing after you if you're doing something naughty, so it's finally starting to feel like a game. I'm just toying with various different bits and pieces right now, seeing what works and what doesn't. I'm having a blast, my job is amazing.

The art style seems lovely too.

The big headache at the moment is the art - I'm on the verge of scrapping the current graphics and starting afresh with something a bit bolder... we'll see.

Any other comments kind sir?

None, I'm afraid. I think I've used up all the words I know. My Twitter is @danthat, go there please.

[This very interview has also been (cross-)posted over at the lovely IndieGames.com]

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  1. Blue Gnome4/5/12, 6:18 PM

    Very nicely done. Always appreciate when you take the time to bring us the view from the creator of something brilliant. Thank you for your hard work and time in bringing this to us.

    1. You are most welcome my friend! Thank you for the kind words.

  2. Awesome! I found a new game I must play! "I now realise that was probably from teenagers who haven't seen a vagina outside of RedTube." LOL

    Downloading Privates now. Hey look it's done. Wonderful interview, but now I must go inspect vagina's with guns blazing!!