Well, PAX East 2013 is behind us. This year we once again tried to devote most of our effort to hunting down and covering indie developers. Thus, we spent most of our time cruising the Indie Megabooth and the outlying areas of the Exhibition hall, but we would be remiss if we didn’t swing by to chat with one of the massive success stories of the indie world, The Behemoth. Renowned for their distinctive visual style and old-school 2D gameplay, The Behemoth is responsible for some of the most played games in my XBLA library; Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers. Now, after a lengthy development, they are back with their long awaited new title, Battleblock Theater.
First, a bit about the game. Battleblock Theater is a game about a group of friends who shipwreck on a mysterious island, where they are swiftly taken prisoner. Once there, they are forced to engage in a series of deadly “plays.” These prisoner/performers collect gems to rescue their pals as they seek to reach Hatty (he’s the fellow with the hat). When asked exactly what sort of game they had made, the folks at Behemoth dubbed it a “Co-optional Action Puzzle Platformer.” If you have attended any of the PAX or PAX Easts in recent years, you’ll know that Battleblock Theater is built upon a solid platformer base, and takes the form of a variety of mini-games. When playing the campaign, players can cooperate to complete the level as quickly as possible by hurling, boosting, and bashing each other across hazards and pitfalls. Versus modes are a good deal more frantic and adversarial, as you might imagine. Some of the more notable additions to the game are a built-in level editor, allowing players to create their own courses. The Behemoth will even offer a curated feed of player-created content, giving Battleblock Theater potentially limitless replay value as cherry-picked levels flow in fresh and new week after week from the most talented players. This will also be The Behemoth’s first game to feature voice-over, something the creators were very excited to include. In the announcement video below, you get a taste of the voice of Battleblock Theater
Considering the clear old-school inspirations for Castle Crashers, I was curious to learn what exactly served to inspire Battleblock Theater. It turns out the game has its roots in the PDA mini-game from the Alien Hominid days. They brought years of experience and piles of resources to bear, increasing the central premise in both scope and complexity, adding in things like AI helpers. The game has been in development for nearly half a decade, and I distinctly remember playing a game that was already devilishly fun back at the original PAX East, so I was curious what exactly had been going on behind the scenes for all of this time. It turns out The Behemoth subscribes to the id Software school of game development, with a standard release date of “When It’s Done.” After each big game expo they would gather up the player feedback from the legions of fans and use it to improve the final product until it was as good as it could possibly be. There aren’t many developers who could afford that sort of attention to detail, but the enduring success of Castle Crashers did much to build confidence in the company and keep the money flowing in. Their stunning array of merchandise probably didn’t hurt either, and I was surprised to find that everything from the t-shirts to the figurines to the fancy hats is developed by in-house talent. It stands to reason, since Dan Paladin, who as the Art Director is responsible for everything from Animation to Game Design, has left his fingerprints on everything the company has produced. In fact, his graphics and animation are tightly entwined with the core game design, each evolving and shaping the other.
The Behemoth, with one of the XBLA’s most notable titles under their belt, have naturally had a strong relationship with Microsoft. Recently MS has had something of a falling out with indie devs, and I wondered how The Behemoth was getting along with them these days. They assured me that their dealings with Microsoft are just as good as ever. When I asked about the rumors swirling about the massive gouging that indies received when they needed to push out a patch, I learned a few interesting things. First, agreements with Microsoft prohibit you from handing out that sort of information, so people listing actual dollar amounts aren’t playing by the rules. Furthermore, the Behemoth devs feel that being an indie doesn’t mean you should be allowed to put out an inferior product. You have an obligation to the player to give them a functional, solid piece of software. If that means paying for a patch, so be it. Unlike Steam, the XBLA has a long and detailed verification process associated with a patch. That costs money. Behemoth doesn’t feel that it is an act of greed. In their words “No one is getting rich on patches.” Having come to the XBLA by way of a history of console development (they started out doing console ports of Midway games), they were used to a world where once the game was pressed and shipped, there was no possibility to patch. It had to be perfect before it left the door.
Of course, The Behemoth isn’t exclusive to XBLA anymore. Now available on Steam, for instance, they seem pleased with the Valve-operated marketplace, which they say is a valid platform. In general, their feelings are that any “managed portfolio” carries a huge benefit to those able to pass the verification process and be accepted. Such a marketplace pits you against thousands, rather than tens of thousands, of other games. Less competition means greater discoverability, and a bigger slice of the pie once gamers find you. I asked about their attitudes toward some of the new kids on the block in terms of content distribution. Are they looking at the Ouya, for example? Well, The Behemoth is more about the games than the platform. They begin by getting the game right, then finding the platforms that fit it best. Nothing has been ruled out, but they are more interested in starting where they know it will work.
If reading this has revved up your craving for some Battleblock goodness, here’s the best news of all. The game releases on XBLA on April 3rd! The wait is over! Learn more at www.thebehemoth.com