One of the coolest games we saw coming out of E3 was Studio MDHR's Cuphead. The side-scrolling Xbox One and PC action game drew crowds on the show floor, both for its distinctive classic cartoon art style and its mix of gameplay inspired by the likes of Gunstar Heroes, Contra III, and Mega Man X. The resulting cross of vintage animation and video games reminded us of Epic Mickey, so we thought it would be appropriate and enlightening to have that game's creative director, Warren Spector, interview Studio MDHR art director Chad Moldenhauer, one game developing animation aficionado to another. Many thanks to both Spector and Moldenhauer for going along with the idea. GamesIndustry.biz plans to bring you more developer-led interviews in the future.
Warren Spector: Was Cuphead always supposed to look the way it does, or did you start out wanting to make a side-scroller and THEN come up with the look?
Chad Moldenhauer: Cuphead began as our personal take on the run-and-gun genre. The gameplay template came first and still remains our primary focus during development. In preproduction, we knew we wanted some kind of hand-drawn visuals and we explored a variety of different styles to try to find something both feasible and that we really loved the look of. Initially, we created concepts with very simplified art based on different mediums: marker, crayon and colored pencils. We wanted to stand out from all of the hyper-realistic and pixel art games that already exist - something a little more traditionally artistic. Something looser, more free-form. While prototyping gameplay designs we made some concepts with 1930s cartoon characters as placeholders (Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Oswald). After showing these off to our peers, we found the combination of the twitch gameplay and quirky cartoons really resonated with people, and then we knew it would be the defining style of our game. From there, the main character design process started that eventually led to Cuphead and Mugman.
WS: If you had to, could you translate that look into a 3D setting? I'm kind of a 3D guy and I'd love to be IN a cartoon like Cuphead rather than looking at it from a theatre seat, as it were. (As an aside, I thought about something in an early-'30s look for Disney Epic Mickey, but broke down and went with something more conventional.)
CM: With enough pre-production time and a really good budget, we might be able to come up with something that was pretty close. Arc System Works pulled off some amazing 2D/3D results with Guilty Gear Xrd characters, so a good interpretation of the 1930s look in 3D would definitely be possible. With all of that being said, we are still more of 2D people at heart; we love the warm and humanistic feeling that comes with traditional media. All of the tiny flaws offset a lot of the mechanical, glossy-eyed doll look that comes with computer generated art. We feel there is still a lot of exploration to be done within the 2D gaming landscape. But don't get us wrong, one day we will want to make a 3D game...and thanks for not doing the early-thirties look before us, it's helped us stand out!
"We feel there is still a lot of exploration to be done within the 2D gaming landscape. But don't get us wrong, one day we will want to make a 3D game."
WS: What specific cartoons inspired you - what were your touchstones? The Fleischer/Paramount influence is pretty clear. And I see clear echoes of specific characters there (in some cases, enough that I'd be a little worried if I were you). I'm asking about cartoons, though, that you thought about and watched obsessively as you were making this. (If you haven't seen the Fleischers' 'Koko's Earth Control' and 'Bimbo's Initiation,' check them out. Also, from other studios, 'Sunshine Makers' and 'Balloon.')
CM: The two key cartoons that define the odd atmosphere we want to keep in Cuphead are 'Bimbo's Initiation' and 'Swing You Sinners'. They share such a creepy, adult atmosphere and are filled with such creative ideas that we refer to them again and again throughout development. But, we are continually combing through a ton of other classics.
Betty Boop cartoons between 1930-1935, with 'Minnie The Moocher', 'Old Man of the Mountain' and 'Snow White' being the defining masterpieces. Old Popeye cartoons are a ton of fun and are brimming with creativity. The Comicolor greats like 'Balloon Land ' are pure brilliance, ditto for 'Humpty Dumpty'. All of Disney's films from 1929-1939, including all the 'Silly Symphonies' hold a special place in our hearts as far back as our childhood. And Van Beuren greats like: 'Opening Night' and 'Magic Mummy' (we've only seen 'Sunshine Makers' recently). Our choice for a cool cartoon that most people don't know about would be Cy Young's 'Mendelssohn's Spring Song' from before he was at Disney.
WS: I always start projects with a kind of a mission statement - the core elements of the game that must not be changed no matter how many details change. Did you have one for Cuphead? Can I see it?
CM: We've never had any specific corporate style mission statement, but we've known from the beginning the exact style of game we wanted to make and a bunch of principles have stemmed out of it. Mainly generalized statements, like, not sacrificing playability for art. Remove any and all bloat from the game. Keep the player playing the game rather than watching or listening to the game. Keep the mechanics simple to grasp but with enough variance and technique to allow player mastery and expression. And, a sufficiently skilled player should be able to potentially defeat every challenge on the first try; no trial by death or cheap hits.
WS: Is Cuphead a one-off project or do you envision more to come? Will that franchise involve anything other than side-scrollers? Surely, there are linear cartoons to be made, if not games in different genres and from different perspectives.
"How the hell did you get anyone to greenlight a game that a lot of people must have said looks like ancient cartoons six people in the world know or care about? (I'm one of those six people, btw.) No way I could have gotten money to make this."
CM: We would definitely be open to working on more Cuphead games at some point, just not back-to-back. Currently, we are putting all of our focus on making Cuphead the best game it can be without thinking of what's in store for the future. Our hearts tend to lead in the decision making process, with business stuff coming after everything else. Slightly naïve? Yes! But it's the only reason Cuphead is being made right now, so we're going to hang on this way of thinking.
WS: How the hell did you get anyone to greenlight a game that a lot of people must have said looks like ancient cartoons six people in the world know or care about? (I'm one of those six people, btw.) No way I could have gotten money to make this. So how did you get it greenlit and how many times were you told you were crazy? (On Deus Ex, I was told repeatedly to "just make a shooter." You must have gotten similar input.)
CM: Easy - my brother Jared and I mortgaged our houses to fund the game, so there was no need to have our idea greenlit. Along the way, the awesome Alexis [Garavaryan] from Microsoft found us when he saw early pictures of Cuphead on NeoGAF. That eventually led to an amazing partnership that came with great opportunities, additional support for development and full creative freedom... we are firm believers in the fact that you need to work on something you truly love so it doesn't feel like work at all!
WS: Does it bother you that people seem to care more about your art style than about your gameplay? Or are you just happy people care?
CM: Initially we were taken aback by some of that feedback because deep down all we care about is gameplay, but we soon realized that it is a blessing. There are a lot of people who would never play a traditional run-and-gun platformer because of the genre, yet these same people really want to try Cuphead. Our hope is that we can potentially convert some of this crowd and have them embrace this genre!
WS: Did your art style ever get in the way of or dictate any aspects of gameplay? Flipping that, were there specific ways in which the art style contributed positively to gameplay? In other words, does great/unique art make for a better game or, well, not?
CM: We said we don't ever let art dictate gameplay, but that was meant more in the sense that we won't allow art that takes away from the gameplay. For example, we wouldn't let an elaborate animation slow down player control or force the player to sit through a tedious visual flourish. But on the other side, we have had to rethink an enemy attack or movement to reduce the amount of animation involved. It forces us to design fights intelligently, rather than just throwing whatever we want in it and letting the animators go nuts.
That's the give and take with utilizing such a work-intensive visual style - even the simplest things have a huge amount of art involved. If we wanted an enemy to have a clear 'tell' before an attack, it has to transition from a specific frame of the neutral animation, loop frames for the anticipation and then transition into the attack... which means more frames for the attack itself and another transition back into the neutral animation. Since we are animating Cuphead on "ones" like the classic 1930s cartoons, the amount of frames for one simple movement/attack can skyrocket.
As a positive, the breadth of animation space gives us plenty of room to present anticipation, movement, and reaction into enemy patterns. This gives enemy and player actions a lot of "visual information" that helps with conveyance in the basic silhouette. We feel that players can more readily react to what will happen and what is happening because the animation presents movement in a natural, consistent fashion, similar to player reactivity in 30fps games versus 60fps games. In essence, the style and animation of Cuphead makes Cuphead a better game!