The Swindle is planned for release on the Wii U eShop this Summer, and it brings an interesting blend of action, platforming, strategy and humour. With a steampunk aesthetic, procedurally generated levels, its combination of styles and design approaches left us impressed in our first impressions.
When going hands on with the game we had the opportunity for a detailed chat with its creator, Dan Marshall, and in this part of the interview we discussed Marshall's diverse development history through his studio Size Five Games, Curve Digital's publishing support to bring The Swindle to consoles and Marshall's views on the Indie and Triple-A gaming scenes.
I think a good starting point is your development history, because I don't think anyone that's not primarily active on Steam or the PC scene will be particularly familiar with your work. Can you tell us a bit briefly about your background? You've done work for Channel 4 in the UK and quite a few interesting projects.
Yeah, it's weird, I was saying earlier to someone I just sort of feel like there's no Dan Marshall game; like I don't make the same thing over and over and over again. The next project is generally something completely different. So I've been making Indie games for ten years, since before Indie games were a thing that you could make a job out of; you know, it wasn't a career in any way. When I first started doing it I got press from websites, magazines and stuff, people saying "Oh, man, this guy's made a game on his own. This guy's just made a game in his bedroom, or whatever" and that was enough to get me. If you think about now, right, people go "So what? Everyone can do that", but ten years ago that was an unusual thing.
So I made a couple of little games, and where I first started to get properly into it was I made some adventure games which were sort-of old LucasArts point-and-click style games called Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please!, which took off and did really well, and people were really, really into. Then, Alice Taylor, the Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, was making video games for Channel 4, they decided to start making educational video games, and she'd played Ben There, Dan That! and really liked it. She got me in and she said, "Would you be interested in making an educational game for us? It either has to be about sex or politics." And it's like, well, right, how do you make a sex game for teenagers?
How do you make a game about politics?
There were various different versions of The Swindle which got cancelled because it wasn't working as a game. It just wasn't. It didn't have the fun elements to it that it needed.
I've got no fu****** clue. I didn't even entertain the possibility of making a politics game, I have to say.
So as a result of that I made Privates, which was a quite successful little way of teaching 12 - 13-year-old boys to wear a condom really; that was kind of the gist of the idea of it, but had enough rude jokes in it that other people played it as well, you know.
Well, I started making The Swindle after Privates. There were various different versions of The Swindle which got cancelled because it wasn't working as a game. It just wasn't. It didn't have the fun elements to it that it needed, I think. Then I made Gun Monkeys, which was a two-player one-on-one death match thing that was very good but didn't take off in a way that it needed to sustain itself. It's quite sad 'cause it's a really good game, it's really well-made and it's really good fun. You know as an Indie developer you try and do experimental stuff and you try and do different things to what everyone else is doing, and the idea of it was that it was a game that you play against your friends. So here's two copies of Gun Monkeys, give one to a friend and you say, "Do you want a quick game of Gun Monkeys"? It was like a thing you do to fill 10 minutes. Like when you're waiting for another free player so you can go and play Left 4 Dead, or whatever, you can have a quick game of Gun Monkeys, little short jabs, sort of like Worms or Unreal Tournament, or Bomberman.
That was the idea of it was that you would hook up, you'd meet up and you'd go off and play games, but people didn't want to play it like that. People wanted to play random strangers at three-o'clock in the morning. And I remember at the time Titanfall, which had all the money in the world behind it, was cancelling game types because servers were empty, right, and here's me with my Indie game with a marketing budget of zero. How do you convince people?
How do you fill those servers? It's basically an impossible job. So I basically swore off multiplayer ever again, 'cause I just think it's hard work to sell the numbers necessary to have people online all the time in the way that people expect.
You probably need Pewdiepie to play it.
Yeah. But, no, TotalBiscuit played it and gave it a decent review and it made no difference. Made no difference. It's just one of those things. I don't know; people either weren't that into it, which is a shame, or it didn't sell itself very well, or whatever, for one reason or another. I mean it's a great game and I get a lot of fan email from it, people telling me that they really like it. I'm like, "Don't tell me, I know it's good. You go tell someone else, please."
So I'm basically an Indie Developer. I've been an Indie Developer for the last ten years and I've made a lot of things, and a lot of different things from adventure games to death match games and now procedurally generated steampunk cybercrime heist things.
Moving onto publication of The Swindle, how did you get started with Curve? Did you approach them, or was it the other way round?
The opportunity with Curve was really that we can launch them all at the same time. So no matter what type of box you choose to buy and you devote your life to, how you most enjoy playing games, you can play the game, and that's more important to me than anything else.
I've known 'Bidds' (Curve Director Jonathan Biddle) for a while, we've bumped into each other at Indie drinks and, you know, down the pub and all that sort of stuff a couple of times. I announced The Swindle with the trailer, and I think he sent me an email and said, "We should talk about bringing this to X, Y and Z, if you want to come in and talk about it and have a look"; I think he instigated. So I came down, I showed them the game and they were really into it, they really liked it. It was one of those things where you sort of think, you know, I could probably port this to like PS4 myself, maybe Xbox One, maybe Wii U; I'm not sure, you know, I don't have any experience doing it and there's so much stuff involved in putting a game on console. There are so many rules and regulations that I don't understand and I would have to look into and go through.
So, basically, if I did it myself it would come out on Steam, then six months later come out on a console, then three months after that come out on another console and sort of drip, drip, drip. The opportunity with Curve was really that we can launch them all at the same time. So no matter what type of box you choose to buy and you devote your life to, how you most enjoy playing games, you can play the game, and that's more important to me than anything else. I think that's basically it, and it's taken very little time to go from "Hello, I'm making a game" to "Hello, I'm making a game and it's coming out on everything."
Does that give you an extra buzz at all, because obviously PC's a very distinct community and now it's opening up to a whole new community?
It really is, and there's always something exciting about games on a console. I've never had a game on a console, and there's something really exciting about seeing it on there. I think, you know, Steam is amazing and I love Steam, and they are utterly brilliant and beautiful, but Steam used to have an exclusivity about it. When Time Gentlemen, Please! went on Steam, there was a bit of a 'hoo-ha' about like, my God, there's this little Indie adventure game thing is going on Steam. That was a boon. That was a real unique thing that happened, and now everything's on Steam running. It's not hard to get on Steam. It's very open. One of the things that bringing a game to consoles does is it has that it's got a cool factor about it, 'cause that's an exclusivity factor I really like. I mean, the Steam version is my version, right, and I should go all out on it and it will get exactly as much love as all the other versions, but there is something quite special about seeing it on a console, on a TV.
Regardless of platform, this strikes me as the kind of game you could maybe play for half an hour, make a bit of progress and then put it down for a bit.
I think you're right, and that's how I play games these days. I never play anything for more than half an hour. You know, there's half an hour while dinner's cooking on a Sunday evening and that's basically it. So stuff like this works really well. You know, I play Indie games so much more than I play Triple A stuff these days and I'll buy them, dip into them and dip out of them, and the way I play games has just changed massively over the last three or four years, because I used to buy … you buy a game, then you play it, and you've spent 40 quid on it and you're like "I don't really care if I'm not enjoying it. I've spent 40 quid on this and I'm going to play it through to the end." The idea of buying a game and not finishing it was just weird, but now you sort of buy things and the stuff that you really, really enjoy you get all the way to the end of. But I haven't finished Escape Goat, or Spelunky, or any of the other millions of games that I've got sitting at home.
I guess that's another thing with the Indie scene though is that it's everywhere now, so the boundaries have gone away. I imagine Curve's pretty important for guys like yourself who have focused on the PC for a game, because it can be quite a leap, there's a lot of paperwork, there's ratings and…
I like making video games, and as soon as my job turns from what colour the explosion should be and are there any cool new guns I can put in the game, as soon as I'm not doing that sort of stuff, as soon as there's an email from an accountant... my brain shuts off and I get very bored very quickly.
I'm not going to pretend I have any interest in it. I like making video games, and as soon as my job turns from what colour the explosion should be and are there any cool new guns I can put in the game, as soon as I'm not doing that sort of stuff, as soon as there's an email from an accountant or stuff like that, my brain shuts off and I get very bored very quickly. So, yeah, it's a massive help having these guys.
Assuming it stays easy, do you hope to bring future, maybe not all, it depends obviously project to project, but do you plan to bring future games to consoles now? Now that you've broken the 'duck'?
I'd do it again. I mean, we'll see how it goes. I don't know. The next game might be Dan and Ben 3 which might not be allowed on consoles 'cause, you know, I don't know what the rules are on swearing and rudeness. There could be …
I think if GTA can come out on consoles then …
You'd think, but, well, Privates we were going to put that on Xbox and people bandied around the word 'banned', which wasn't even remotely true, but basically I emailed Microsoft and said to them "I've made this game called Privates. Is it worth me looking into putting it on Xbox?" And they said "No", because there are very strict rules about bodily functions on Xbox.
Basically, the rule was something like if it comes out of your body in any capacity, it's not allowed, right. And this is the same time that Limbo had come out, and so I was looking at, you know, this email from the guy at Microsoft saying, "Really sorry, but we wouldn't be able to get it past our own terms and conditions", and then there's Limbo which has got this little boy having his head cut off and being sliced up and crumbling to his death, and that's all right, isn't it? Right, the little boy being mauled to death in a bear trap is fine, but this silly game about spunk is somehow completely unacceptable.
Do you sense that's changed? I mean, obviously you're here now with Curve, but do you follow all of the trends with Indie games pushing more boundaries?
I think they're a lot more open to the concept now. I think if I was to make a game that people were really into, so take Swindle, so let's say it really takes off and everyone's doing really, really well, but I've put a big load of cock and balls jokes in it, I can't imagine it not getting past, do you see what I mean? You know, if Privates had been a for sale game that had done incredibly well on Steam and was making a lot of money, and all that sort of stuff, I guess Microsoft would say, "Oh, don't worry about those terms and conditions."
I was looking at your library and it's very diverse, lots of different styles. Do you think that's becoming increasingly important? Obviously there are plenty of Indies doing great stuff that's procedurally generated and point and click, and all kinds of things - do you think it's more important that Indies start bringing that kind of thing to consoles? Because the retail scene's generally very safe.
Do you know what, I don't see people as console gamers and PC gamers, not any more.
I think it's great to have as much variety as you can with stuff. You know, in the same way like I love 24, it's amazing, but you wouldn't watch it all day, every day, as your only TV programme you ever watch, right?
Do you know what, I don't see people as console gamers and PC gamers, not any more. I think it's great to have as much variety as you can with stuff. You know, in the same way like I love 24, it's amazing, but you wouldn't watch it all day, every day, as your only TV programme you ever watch, right?
Sometimes you want to watch Breaking Bad and House of Cards, but if you only watch American dramas you'd also go potty. So it's this kind of thing about variety is the spice of life. It's great that you can have these experiences that are like, you know, as you say, the Triple A 5 million copy stuff that obviously people enjoy, but then on a whim you download some little game and it winds up consuming your life in a way that you never would have imagined. You know, I bought XCOM on console because I admired them for putting it on the console, 'cause I thought that's a PC only title, but good on them for putting it on the console, well done. So I bought it on console rather than PC as I thought, I'm going to buy this game so I might as well buy it on a format that I want to encourage them to release on more in future. That game wound up consuming my life in a way that I never would have imagined. I wound up playing that game more than is healthy. You know it was one of those games I'd shut my eyes at night and I could see the icons, you know, with my eyes closed.
So I guess that barriers between Indie and retail are coming away, to an extent?
Yeah. Well, I hope so. I mean, I think it's a shame if you only play one type of a thing. In the same way if you only watch Jerry Bruckheimer films, can you imagine how awful that would be?
Life would be very noisy if you only watched Jerry Bruckheimer films.
Or if you only ever watched Michael Bay remakes of 1980s cartoons, right, and then suddenly one day someone comes to you and says "Here's Raiders of the Lost Ark," or, you know like, I don't know, "Here's Scrooged. Here's Tremors. Watch this" and your mind is just blown by other types of film.
But games have that sort of thing.
Like my plumber came round and he was telling me about Call of Duty, and I've always been dismissive of Call of Duty; I was like "Oh, f****** Call of Duty". I said to him "Why do you play a lot of Call of Duty then?" He said "Well, it's basically like a chat room with guns." He boots it up with his mates, they sit there, he has a beer on the go, he sits and he has a chin-wag with his mates, they all shoot each other and that's it. I'd never really considered that people played it in that capacity.
It's paintball without the effort.
But the weird thing was so I say "Do you play a lot of games then?" "Yeah, play loads of games, play loads of games; really into my PS3. Really love playing Call of Duty". I said "What games do you play?" He said "Oh, I play Call of Duty." "Well, do you have anything else?" He said "Well, I buy the Call of Duty every year." So I said "Do you play anything else apart from Call of Duty?" And he's like "No, no, just play Call of Duty on it." So I was like "Have you not played The Last of Us?" He said "No." "Have you played the new Batman game?" He was like "No, no, no. What are they? What Batman game?" So I lent them to him and I was like "Try this." He came back the next week and he genuinely had no idea that stuff like that existed, which is kind of beautiful in a way, but it's nice that I opened his eyes up a little bit to other experiences on his console, and he massively opened my eyes to Call of Duty that I had dismissed as videogame Chum, this disposable vapid nonsense, and I hadn't realised the massive amount of pleasure that people get from it. People enjoy it in a way, and who am I to piss on that? Who am I to tell you that you're playing the wrong game? "You play whatever game you like, mate." You know it's quite nice that he's found a thing. You know I wish I had a decent enough internet connection...
With thanks to Dan Marshall for his time, and to Curve Digital for arranging the interview. Check back tomorrow for the second part of this interview in which we discuss The Swindle in detail.