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Design for Live

The Behemoth's Dan Paladin talks 2D gaming, Xbox Live versus PSN and battling for creative control.

San Diego-based developer The Behemoth was set up in 2003 by four veteran developers. Their first game was Alien Hominid - a 2D side-scrolling shooter. After considering the potential difficulties with getting investment for a new developer working on a new IP in 2D, The Behemoth's founders decided to fund the project themselves.

They went on to self-publish Alien Hominid in North America, while in Europe it was picked up by Zoo Digital for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. GameCube, GBA and PC versions were also released, and most recently the game appeared on Xbox Live.

Co-founder and art director Dan Paladin was at the Nordic Game conference recently to talk about the experience of developing Alien Hominid. GamesIndustry.biz caught up with him to find out more about The Behemoth's next project and the importance of remaining independent.


GamesIndustry.biz: What is The Behemoth working on at the moment?

Dan Paladin: Right now we're working on Castle Crashers for Xbox Live Arcade. It's a beat-em-up, a brawler of sorts, with RPG elements. It's also an adventure. It's 2D but you have a playfield that you can move in and out of, like River City Ransom.

Your previous game, Alien Hominid, was also 2D. Why do you think there's still a demand for these games when 3D has been around for years?

Well, because there was never anything wrong with 2D. It kind of died out, but not because the market didn't want it - because the technology was being pushed.

That's not a bad thing; being able to use that very powerful technology and hardware now, with old school-style gameplay, we can do so many more things and have so much more going on.

What lessons did you learn from Alien Hominid? What mistakes did you make?

I won't take this all as my mistake, but we've learned that we make games a little harder than people want. Well, I can't say harder than they want, because people really enjoyed the game, but we make games pretty hard.

That kind of alienated some people, so with Castle Crashers we made the game a lot more accessible. People who don't always play games can get into it and be able to feel like they know what they're doing, instead of dying and never getting past level 2. It's quite a balancing act, it's very difficult to hit the right spot, but I feel like we're right around there.

What about pricing? Castle Crashers is for XBLA of course, but do you think it would be difficult to make a 2D game and charge full price for it?

There is some public perception that if it's 2D, or if it looks old school in any way, it isn't worth as much. I think that could change just by having games going back up in price - because those games are still very hard to program and they take a lot of work, although on the surface it looks very basic and easy.

Does that perception make it hard for you to make money?

Yes and no. XBLA has come just in time; it's profitable and it works for everybody. The consumer pays less, the developer sees more and Microsoft has to be happy because they set it up. So everybody is happy in the end and that's awesome.

What do you think of PlayStation Network?

I haven't really looked into Sony's [online offering] too much because I don't have a PlayStation 3. It's too expensive, I'm hoping it'll go down in price. I don't have a Wii because I can't find one!

Some people have criticised the PlayStation Network's interface, saying that Sony are lagging behind Microsoft in the online stakes - is that something that would put you off working with the system?

I don't know enough to comment but I would say that the market does seem to be smaller for PS3, and that would scare off a lot of developers. It would be hard to make your money back. It would seem like it wouldn't be your first choice.

So for you, it's the installed base which determines if a platform is viable?

I would say that is a large part of it. As far as online games go you don't have to worry as much because there's no fee to create all the box and materials. So for online, I wouldn't personally have any problem working with Sony - or Nintendo for that matter.

Online, the sky is the limit, that's what so exciting as an independent. That just sounds so much more appealing than a publishing deal; they're a big mess. I would like to see the traditional publishing deal change. I would like to see publisher act more as distributors than publishers.

All developers will tell you the same thing - a publisher has taken away something of theirs that they felt really needed to be there, or they changed something in a way they didn't agree with because they own the money and the IP. That's why we risk everything up front, so we can take it in and it's all there; we trust our own judgement.

I do you think publishers have too much power over developers, for the most part. All publishers are different, but on the whole.

What's the solution? Will online distribution shift the balance or do you think developers need to be more pro-active - to do what you've done and say, 'We want to own this and this is how we'll do it'?

The problem with developers being more pro-active in that way is that they may never get a contract. The industry as a whole needs to move that way.

The problem is the people who aren't making the game are calling the shots on how the games should be made. It's armchair developing. They're saying, 'Wouldn't this be cool?', and lots of things that sound cool don't necessarily turn out that way or make the game more fun.

I've definitely learned that over the years. We go to trade shows and people suggest things, and we brainstorm ideas and think, 'That'd be great' and we put them in - and they suck and ruin the game. Publishers aren't developers so I think they should stay out of the creative process.

Going back to XBLA - it's been said that there's too much reliance on old games like Frogger and Pac-Man. Some developers have complained that it can be quite hard to get Microsoft interested in putting original IP on there. How does that compare to your experience?

It wasn't very hard for us, but I don't know if that was because we we're already on Xbox in Europe. With Castle Crashers they seemed pretty pleased but we already had our foot in the door with Alien Hominid.

As far as people complaining about the old school games goes, I can see that. I think people should do what we do [laughs]. I think people should make old school gameplay but with new concepts so they take it to new places. I'd love to see Joust, but re-done in a way where there's more to it, so maybe it scrolls or something. Just something I didn't play in the arcade.

I enjoy the nostalgia but I can see where people are coming from, because some of those games just don't stand up to your memories.

So what's next? Are you sticking with XBLA?

We always work organically, whether it's a game or a business plan. Whatever seems right. We don't have any clear vision of staying on any one platform; we always want to spread out and reach as many people as possible.

Dan Paladin is art director at The Behemoth. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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Ellie Gibson

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Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.