We talk of trolls, speak of specibi, and alliterate on adventure with Jess Haskins of Hiveswap.
Hiveswap is the upcoming adventure game spinoff of Homestuck, a popular webcomic with an enormous cult following. The game is being shown at events and talked about in much more than hushed whispers; enough so, in fact, that we managed to talk with the studio in charge. Jess Haskins, creative director at What Pumpkin Studios, was kind enough to talk to us about everything to do with Hiveswap, and it’s Homestuck-ian origins.
Jay Petrequin: As the Homestuck is clearly inspired by a lot of games, the idea of creating a game isn’t exactly hard to swallow. But did the group always have a clear idea of what type of game it would be? What made a point-and-click adventure title the best option?
Jess Haskins (Creative director, What Pumpkin Studios): There are certainly influences from a bunch of different genres in Homestuck, from sims to puzzle games to JRPGs, and a lot of that finds its way into the game, too. But the overall framework of the comic is really playing on text and early graphical adventures, with simple visuals, a pseudo-parser interface (“Quickly retrieve arms from drawer”), and a lot of text carrying the action and narrative flavor. There’s also an emphasis on well-developed characters, deep dialog, and a strong story arc. The best way for us to create that kind of experience was with a classic adventure game. (We did update the parser to point-and-click, and bump up the graphical quality to modern full 3D, though!)
Jay: Hiveswap got its start as a Kickstarter campaign, which saw monumental success. Did the projects crowdfunding success expand the scope of what you could do with the game?
Jess: It definitely did. What we would have been able to achieve with the original funding goal would have still been neat and fun and interesting, but much more modest in scope. There’s a certain kind of epicness that’s part of the feel of Homestuck, not just in the cosmic sweep of the story but in the sheer amount of content and attention to detail. It’s wonderful to have the budget to be able to think a little bigger and make the game feel grand and epic as well, and we’re touched and grateful for the outpouring of support the project received to make that happen.
Jay: We know the game will be episodic in nature. How big, both in time and scope, will the episodes be? And what made the team decide on an episodic format?
Jess: The episodes themselves (which we call Acts; there will be four Acts in total) will be pretty hefty – a fair bit longer than, say, a typical Telltale episode. That was one of the reasons for breaking it up, because each Act will take a good chunk of time to play and spacing them out will make them a little more digestible. There’s room to play, discuss, mull it over, maybe replay and try some different choices, and have something left to anticipate and look forward to. That’s part of the structure of the webcomic, as well – big, action-packed Acts with a lot of drama and twists and turns, and then a pause to build up excitement and anticipation before the next content release.
Plus, we’re really excited to share the game with the world, and releasing it episodically lets us get it into players’ hands that much sooner.
Jay: Since Homestuck was influenced by a lot of games, can the same be said of Hiveswap? What are some of the biggest influences and inspirations driving the team?
Jess: Yeah, we definitely draw from a wide range of inspirations and references. We look hard at games like Double Fine’s Broken Age and anything from Telltale (the Walking Dead series was groundbreaking, and The Wolf Among Us is a particular favorite) to see how successful contemporary studios are making high-quality, modern, episodic, 3D point-and-click adventures for a big audience. We’re also very inspired by the classics, with LucasArts games like Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and the Monkey Island series remaining the gold standard for comedy adventures.
Outside of point-and-clicks, I really enjoyed Gone Home, which did a fantastic job of transporting us back to a teenage girl’s bedroom in the 90’s – The Fullbright Company are masters of atmosphere and environmental storytelling. Then there’s the stuff that directly informs some aspect of the game. In Hiveswap, the UI in the parts of the game set on Earth is inspired by 90’s PC and console aesthetics, and we have a mock-battle mode called “Strife” that riffs on Final Fantasy-style combat. Homestuck is all about highlighting and playing with some of the absurdities of video game conventions, like character classes, leveling, crafting, and inventory mechanics, and we continue that tradition in Hiveswap.
Jay: Ironically, the Homestuck comic sports a more game-esque pixel art visual style than the game. All of the concept art for Hiveswap has shown very detailed art direction and some 3D environments. What led to the choice of this visual style for the game?
Jess: The art style in Homestuck was very much a product of its medium – very flat, lots of simple, reusable sprites, flash animation of just a few frames, and heavy use of photo-manipulated textures to fill out the world. We didn’t want to just do a direct imitation of the 2D aesthetic, but really take advantage of having a full 3D game world. We landed on an art style that’s a little richer and more detailed, while still being recognizably part of the Homestuck world. The character designs, stylized environments, and bold color palettes are definitely a part of that look.
Jay: Speaking of that concept art, you guys have shown a lot of interesting environments. Will Hiveswap offer much in the way of free exploration, or is it planned to be more linear in design? Or is it a balance of the two?
Jess: It’s actually a linear story, structured into Acts (the episodes) and scenes. Scenes are generally self-contained locations where you can move around pretty freely to solve a particular set of challenges or interact with a group of related characters. We play with that structure a little bit at points. You can sometimes switch between characters in different environments, and there’s some branching, where you can take alternate paths. But overall the game’s structure is linear, and the story is always moving forward.
Jay: Hiveswap was originally announced to be a collaborative effort with indie studio The Odd Gentlemen, but has now been moved to What Pumpkin. What made What Pumpkin a better choice?
Jess: Forming a game studio and bringing the project in-house was a big development for us, obviously! We have a bunch of game ideas for the Hiveswap universe and beyond, so it just made sense to move all production in-house. It opens up the opportunity for us to work on other game projects in the future once Hiveswap is completed, if all goes well. It’s been nice to have a direct line between the creative vision of Andrew Hussie and the writers to the rest of the development team.
When we started the studio I was the sole What Pumpkin employee working full-time on the project as writer and game designer, and we were fortunate in that there’s a great pool of creative talent here in New York City. That’s where I’m based, and where we established the game-development branch of the company. We were able to very quickly put together a wonderful team and dive right into production work, and since then we’ve been making great progress. It’s been really exciting to see the game come together.
Jay: It was said in an update about the game that development was going “alarmingly well.” What have some of the biggest surprises and challenges been along the way?
Jess: A lot of it is just the basic challenges of any software development, but especially games – establishing our tools and pipeline, building out the core features of the game, and getting it all working seamlessly and bug-free. We’re developing the game in Unity, and we’re building our own adventure game engine on top of that. We looked at a few off-the-shelf options, but apart from some piecemeal plugins and tools, none of them really offered what we needed. Apart from the game engine, we’re also building our own custom tools for managing data, since everything we looked at was either overpowered for our needs or really lacking in flexibility.
The first and biggest hurdle has been just getting the first playable room, which requires basically the whole asset integration pipeline and all the game systems and features to be in place and working together. After that, it’s all just content creation. This is a huge game with a lot of content, but we have a bunch of brilliant writers and awesomely talented artists cranking out loads of funny jokes and beautiful art. We might be going faster if we didn’t have to stop all the time to goggle at the new assets or laugh at stuff in the script as it comes in, but it’s that good.
Jay: Homestuck has an impressive library of music associated with it. Will there be musicians from the various soundtracks coming back to do music for the game?
Jess: Yes! Actually the composers for the game are the incredibly talented James Roach, and the amazing Toby Fox, who has done a lot of music for Homestuck over the years. (Those soundtracks are available on homestuck.bandcamp.com, and they’re great. I listened to them a ton while writing the script.) Between the two of them, the soundtrack is in great hands. It’s got a really fresh feel, while also being very informed by the sound established in the comic. When we say we want a track to sound a little more “yellow-blood troll,” Toby knows exactly what we mean. Their music is very distinctive and catchy, too – I often hear other members of the team humming one of the songs as they’re walking down the hall.
Jay: Hiveswap is planned to be the first in a pair of games that will round out the original Kickstarter-funded project. What then? Are there plans or ideas floating around for future game projects once this is done?
Jess: There are always tons of ideas, but nothing concrete after Hiveswap and the companion game, which we plan to make if the first one does well. At that point we’ll have two big games spanning eight episodes under our belt, and be ready to take over the world. Obviously we would love to keep working on stuff and keep making projects after that. So we really really want Hiveswap to do well! We hope people have as much fun playing it as we’re having while making it.
Thanks again to Jess Haskins for taking the time to talk to us about Hiveswap! You can check out the game’s official website for more updates on the game, and check out the original comic Homestuck to see the eccentric, witty, utterly inspired beginnings of whats to come.