When the trailer for Crawl hit the web a couple weeks ago, I was already all the way in. Crawl had me at hello, or whatever the Lovecraftian horror version of hello is.
Gamers are begging more and more for local co-op. With Steam boxes on the way and home theater PCs getting cheaper – not to mention a new generation of solid consoles ready to accept as many as eight controllers in the case of the Xbox One – we're at the perfect time to revive it. Games like Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn are reminding us how much fun it can be to get your friends on the couch for some PC gaming.
Crawl joins the growing wave with a unique asymmetrical approach. One player has to make it through the dungeon while the other players do everything they can to slaughter, end, and otherwise murder the poor jerk.
We chatted with Barney Cumming and Dave Lloyd of Powerhoof games to find out more about this intriguing game.
Some game ideas are really silly, and hard to take seriously as a development prospect. Crawl, it turns out, is one of them.
"We organize a game-jam type thing with some friends we call Multijam. The main point is to have a little holiday from serious game development, and focus in on just producing silly little toys to make each other laugh," says Barney, who responded to my questions on behalf of himself and Dave.
"Some of the best games boil down to pretty simple elevator pitches. I'm calling Crawl 'reverse tag.'"
"The first one of these [Multijam games] I made was a basic four player arena battle game, and I was surprised how much fun it was. The game was bad, but four players chasing and harassing each other made it automatically pretty funny," Barney says. "I guess it triggered all my old memories of Bomberman and Gauntlet!"
As the second Multijam came around, Barney says the ideas grew naturally.
"I love dungeon crawlers and drawing monsters, so I figured getting three players as monsters ganging up on one hero would make for some pretty funny griefing and cooperating scenarios," Barney explains. As an added benefit, this allowed him to create a dungeon crawler quickly without having to worry about designing any AI for the monsters.
The prototype for the game came together over the course of a couple days and was fun from the start.
"If I had been under more pressure to make something 'good,'" Barney says, "I may never have explored the idea."
Trying to Find a Balance
Of course, the game wasn't complete after just a weekend. This is a game that can be played by two, three, or four players. In all cases, there's only one hero. Many games have to balance a simple paper-rock-scissors style of interlocking abilities, or balance out a fighter's speed, size, and moveset. Powerhoof has to make that scale across all three groups of players.
Some things are easy – Barney says they already make a hero fighting against three monsters a bit more powerful than a hero fighting just one monster. Heroes up against a bigger group will find the dungeon a little more generous with gold. This sort of thing is obvious to anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons once or twice.
In a dungeon as chaotic as the one in Crawl, though, the moment-to-moment play is going to be a bit tougher.
"The hardest thing so far has been 'anticipate time' at the start of enemy attacks," Barney says. "Every good monster has an anticipate time or 'tell,' from the bosses of Dark Souls and Spelunky all the way back to Bowser in Super Mario Bros."
For the hero, that tell is very different against one monster versus three. For a hero to survive for any length of time, it helps if they have a split second to dodge an incoming attack. What works with three monsters, though, feels downright sluggish with just one, according to Barney.
"Recently, I turned up the anticipate times… in 1v3, and have been regretting it ever since! I hadn't realized how much it would mess up the feel of the monsters," he says.
Despite all the work Barney and Dave are having to put into balancing the anticipate times of various monsters, they think it should be pretty easy to pick this game up and play it right away. If new players are having trouble against more experienced dungeon crawlers, the team plans to have bots to practice with.
The simple approachability of arcades is a big draw, especially for Barney.
"Games with overly complex control schemes don't tend to get picked up again after I put them down. I don't get much time to play these days, so I don't want to spend a lot of time relearning the control scheme."
Instead, the complexity lies in discovering the ins and outs of each monster and item.
"Figuring out a good strategy for one monster may involve dropping hazards and hiding behind them and attacking, or you might have a dodge move that takes finesse to master. It might take a handful of lives with a given monster before you figure out how to prevent being killed and how to deal good damage with his unique moves," Barney says.
Another part of the fun is just discovering those monsters for the first time, seeing the items, and what both can do.
The pixel art, for Barney, addresses both practical and stylistic needs Crawl presented the team with.
The team loves H.P. Lovecraft, and part of Lovecraft's appeal is in what he doesn't tell you. Lovecraft stories are full of unimaginable horrors and unspeakable madness, but not much detail.
"When horror gets defined into specifics… it gets limited by those specifics. You're told the precise maximum horror you are allowed to imagine. The same way that translating a decapitation into 'unspeakable mutilation' can let the reader's imagination run wild, pixel art gives players an opportunity to fill in blanks".
"I think the heavy atmosphere and low fidelity detail makes room for people to imagine much better horror than I could possibly draw," Barney says.
On the purely technical side, the benefits are a bit easier to pick out.
"The game design hinges on having a lot of monsters," he explains. A 3D monster requires a large set of animations to be believable. One animation for running in 2D becomes five, six, or more in 3D.
Simply put, Barney can make more interesting monsters more quickly. He can experiment with monster types without spending weeks creating them, and try out every idea he has. Not just the good ones. Remember, Crawl might not have happened if the team was only going after good ideas.
The team is trying to figure out how to get more of that H.P. Lovecraft feel into the game, as well.
"I like Lovecraft!" Barney explains. "I like monsters and I like them being monstrous and intimidating and maybe even a little disturbing; I'm not so much into high fantasy."
They're also trying to work the Vincent Price-esque narrator from the trailer or something like him into the game.
"Our initial plan was to have the narrator building a story dynamically over the action through the course of each game. It would have been perfect for a single player game, but we ended up feeling it wouldn't gel with the four player crazy party play format," he says. "We have ideas we're dying to try out, but haven't had time to prototype them yet."
The idea for Crawl preceded Valve's announcements last fall, but Barney says the movement toward living room PC gaming is encouraging, even if PC gaming habits don't change fast enough for it to make a difference with Crawl.
For those of us without a living room, the team is looking at adding online play, but only if they can replicate that couch co-op feel.
Crawl is set for release sometime in the first half of this year, so get ready to delve into the darkness and get chased around by your murderous, monstrous friends soon.