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Interview with the Behemoth

Alien HominidThe CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

I chatted with several members of the Behemoth about their unique IGF finalist Alien Hominid – the first IGF console title. Alien Hominid brings back the old 2D fast-paced side-scroller action shoot-em up, featuring hand-drawn animation coupled with humorous and crazy gameplay. Besides this interview, you can get some more information about the game and themselves from their FAQ.

Who are you and how were you involved in Alien Hominid?

Tom: My name is Tom Fulp, and I was the gameplay programmer for Alien Hominid

Dan: I'm Dan Paladin, and I did the majority of the visuals in Alien Hominid. I was also a co-creator of the original online version

John: I'm John Baez, and I do the business side of the Behemoth. I was the one who originally wanted to bring AH to the consoles

Congrats on making the IGF finals. How's it feel?

Dan: It feels awesome. I am like William Wallace seeking revenge, because in 2002 the web version of AH never made it into enemy lines!

John: It feels really great. After what we have been through to make this game, being recognized by the IGF is an honor

Tom: It rocks! I'm especially excited for any opportunity to show the game in public and get feedback from players

What's the basic idea behind Alien Hominid?

Dan: Aliens trying to get their UFO back on earth with everyone but fat kids against them…

Tom: You're an alien and you want your spaceship back, so you will blow up everything in your path to achieve that goal. So the basic idea is to cause as much destruction as possible

Dan: …and a yeti or whatnot

Who came up with the original idea? How long ago?

Dan: MEEEEE. Oh and Tom! Haha. That happened in 2002; it was a quick dirty idea that grew into a large, clean, polished, beautiful little beautiful idea later on

Tom: Dan and I were tossing around ideas for web games when Dan approached me with the alien character. We decided it would rock to make a web game in the tradition of Metal Slug, Contra and Gunstar Heroes.

Dan: Yeah, we bounced stuff back and forth till we had what we had!

Tom: Just a few months later, it was live on Newgrounds.com! This was in August of 2002

To me, the Alien in Alien Hominid almost immediately reminds me of Stitch from Disney's Lilo & Stitch - any relation, creative-wise? :)

Dan: None whatsoever. The web version was out before we even saw advertisements for the movie

Tom: That is the most aggravating comparison, because we posted artwork of the alien before we were aware of any publicity put out by Disney. For example, although we released AH in August, it was produced off and on over several months... My original Flash FLA file is from March of 2002

You guys are one of many companies I've interviewed so far this year that have left the industry to go indie. Why did you guys leave, and why do you think so many others are doing the same?

John: For me, it had more to do with what I'd experienced at the places I'd worked. It is really hard to be a creative person in the trenches, doing your job each day, and then watching your bosses make what I considered errors in judgment. Around my second year in the industry I knew I wanted to run my own company, so years later when AH popped up, I went for it

Dan: I was keen on following John's idea partially because I am psychotic and have to get my hands on every process or I'll turn even more psychotic. This wasn't really possible in a large mainstream company

John: As for why many others are doing it, it's simple – It's more fun to call the shots. Gamers like competition, they like to take risks. We're the first console game in the IGF finals I believe, but I'll bet there will be more next year

Tom: My story is a bit different because I wasn't part of the traditional game industry. Living on the east coast in Philadelphia, it seemed impossible to "break through" without moving out west. The Behemoth was a great opportunity to break into the game industry on my own terms

John: I think as the industry continues to consolidate, smaller, more experienced teams are going to leave the big corporate world and do their own thing

So you guys aren't all in the same location?

Dan: Cleveland, Ohio here

John: No, all the console coding happens in San Diego, and all the content is created on the East Coast. We're just like most indie teams – working distributed. It's tough, but it works. Every few months Tom and Dan would fly out to San Diego and power work for a few weeks, which helped a lot

Dan: I'm all alone…

What tools do you guys use to keep in touch and manage your projects since you're working remotely?

John: Visual Source Safe over a VPN, AIM or Secure Shuttle Transport (but SST doesn't always work), vBulletin secure forum. Telephone too, and we are just starting to use Skype

Dan: I prefer the phone, but nobody answers when they see me on caller ID

Tom: We used SST a lot during production, but I'm not a big fan now that we're done. And don't forget email!

Dan laughs

John: Yeah, and email. Probably the most important communication tool during production though was the forum, but now that we are doing PAL it isn't so important

Did you guys make use of any scheduling software?

John: Nope, no design doc either. MS project isn't my favorite piece of software…

Tom: The game followed a very organic development process. We basically came up with cool ideas, implemented them and were inspired to add more cool ideas. I know they call it "scope creep" and "feature creep", but we call it fun. The hard part was drawing the line for when it was finished

John: …and we didn't use a design doc because we funded the game ourselves, so we didn't have to

Tom: We didn't need to look good on paper. We just had to look good

Dan laughs

John: very nicely put!

How tough was it to secure your development tools for the PS2 and GameCube in order to actually make the game?

John: Well, on the technology side, we were an experienced team who had just finished the last of 6 console ports at Gratuitous Games before they closed their doors. Actually, that's where I met Dan when he was hired by GGames after being laid off from Presto Studios. So when we contacted the hardware manufacturers, we had a decent enough resume to convince them that we had the brains to pull this off. That's another reason what we've done won't seem so remarkable in 5 years – there are a lot of console industry people out there with good ideas, experience, and a love for making games who will take the same risks we did. Before we started the Behemoth, we were just the worker bees; we weren't the guys with the fancy titles and access to lots of contacts with publishers and hardware manufacturers. We just went for it, learned as we went along, and the gamble has paid off

The console game is pretty much a new version of AH compared to the original Flash version. Still, were there any design/technical issues with developing the game for console as opposed to the Flash version?

Tom: For this project, we had to fit each level into the system RAM, although we intend to stream the levels for future games

John: Early on, we experimented with 3D because there was the feeling that it would be cooler than the web prototype

Tom: We tried both shaded, "realistic" 3D as well as cell-shaded "cartoon" 3D. Neither, however, had the personality of hand-drawn animation

Dan: It was swiftly obvious that 2D's kinetic energy was undeniable for this project

John: But after we realized that the prototype was the way to go, it was a matter of design to make sure that we kept true to the original, since it just "felt" right (and was wildly popular on Newgrounds.com)

Dan: Yeah, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

John: Pretty much! That's probably why we succeeded, too. We didn't become Alien GTA or anything like that

What's the inspiration behind the look of the game?

Dan: it's kind of just my own personal style – bunches of years of animating and a love for simplification

What were the development tools used in order to make AH?

John: You name it, we probably used it

Tom: On the creative side, we made use of Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash MX and a Wacom drawing tablet

John: Also CodeWarrior, Windows, Linux, 3D Studio, Painter, Visual Studio, and notepad :)

Dan: Much notepad

John: I also think Matt did all the music with ProTools

What was the biggest problem you had during development? How did you solve it? Could it have been avoided?

John: Yeah, all our problems would have been solved if we had found a publisher to fund us instead of doing it on our own! (but then we wouldn't be in the IGF!) Money really was the biggest problem, at least from my perspective. We never really solved it. A big warning to all aspiring console game developers...don't try this at home unless you have a strong stomach!

Tom: The "long-distance-relationship" definitely put a strain on development at times, although it was a proud achievement. And yes, the biggest problem overall was development time (twice as long as planned) and budget (much much more than planned)

John: Yeah, looking back it is nice to say we did it all by ourselves and people really seem to enjoy the game

How many hours a week did you guys normally put in? Was there any serious crunch time? Could the crunch have been avoided?

Dan: The first 6 months, I didn't even know what a weekend was. Crunch was impossible for me due to the volume of work necessary

John: We do this full time, so we easily put in 50-60 hours a week. Crunch time was more, but thankfully it wasn't long or drawn out.

Tom: Alien Hominid became a lifestyle

John: Now that we are doing PAL the hours are a little more regular, which is nice

Tom: It came to a point where it wasn't "I have to go to work today", it was "I'm awake in the world of AH"

John: Yeah, more kudos goes to our wives, kids and girlfriends for their patience than to us

Dan: Except my ex fiancé…

Tom: Those who stuck around, at least. :)

Dan: (just kidding ;) )

John: Our crunch time was real crunch time, not the drawn-out agony of big corporate gaming where you have to be there just because everyone else is there and no one dares to leave because they might get a pink slip

Dan: Yeah, it was pure love

Quality of Life is the new hot topic in the industry. As indies we're mainly tasked with our own QoL. What are your views on the industry's QoL and what do you do to keep it fun?

Dan: Everyone in the company here gets a little bit of breathing room with what they do, allowing their work to be a bit more exciting

John: QoL for me was hardest on my wife and kids because I was doing something I had wanted to do for years and I was putting all my time and our money into it. So to balance things out, I made sure we had breakfast and dinner together each day. It didn't make the 18 hour days any shorter, but it kept us together

Tom: I program drunk once in a while…

John: Other than that, I don't have much of a life yet since I am trying to get Japan signed and Europe out the door. But someday soon I'm going to have to buckle down and mow the lawn...it's been 2 years now...

Tom: I let my cat sit in my lap sometimes while I work

Dan: I was so infatuated with my work that everything around me exploded and lit on fire, and I've rebuilt things since. And Tom's cat sat on my monitor a lot and would block my color palette.

Tom: In fact... You can see that cat in level 3-3 of AH!

John: Yeah, the cat is rad...

Dan: Yes, yes you can. That's Charlie on the Norman boss

Tom: He is sleeping on the monitor of the "color pattern boss" Norman, although no one knows that is his name

Dan: Okay, color pattern boss

John: But that was part of making the QoL bearable... nobody was there to tell us we couldn't do it when we wanted to put something new into the game.

So have you guys looked beyond AH yet? What's next?

John: Getting paid!

Dan: We've been cooking some stuff on the burner and tasting it every once in a while to see which is best, but it's all ultra secret super secret confidential

John: We'd like to keep what we are doing going... visually unique games that make people happy and are fun to play

Tom: We'd also like to involve the fans more on future projects, via the web

Dan: That's right; we're going to keep making cool projects that are out of the norm, as long as the money says we can

Tom: They'll just keep getting weirder and weirder until they are too weird for anyone to want

Dan: Yeah, we'll make them so strange that nobody will buy them eventually. But don't worry, the next one will be desirable

John: I'd like to do more toys. The merchandise is fun because I like to build things. At the end of production, before the game came out it really kept us going by holding a real, physical object that represented the last 18 months of our lives. And they look cool on a computer monitor!

Dan: Yeah, it was like an injection of PCP and energy and sugar and calcium nitrate and butterscotch

Tom: Eventually we will entertain the idea of an Alien Hominid sequel, but we want to try out something different in-between

Well good luck guys, I'll see you on the Expo floor come March

John: Bye, and thanks!

Dan: Bye! Yes, thank you is in order

Tom: Thanks for the interview!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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