I recently had a chance to talk with Behemoth's Aaron Jungjohann about his work on BattleBlock Theater, and in the first half of our interview we delved into the thought process behind the game's level design and how the team's creative goals were achieved. After an hour our talk eventually turned to the lasting legacy of Castle Crashers, the future of BattleBlock Theater DLC, and that delightfully mischievious narrator of BattleBlock Theater. Read on!
Holly Green: One of my favorite parts of BattleBlock Theater is the narration. As an aspiring comedy writer, I'm curious about the back and forth process between BattleBlock Theater's writers and Will Stamper and how they wrote material for such a talented voice actor.
Aaron Jungjohann: Will actually wrote some his own material for BattleBlock Theater. He and [Behemoth artist and designer] Dan Paladin worked closely on the cinematics and what each chapter would entail, but Will also did a lot of improvising. His style is very stream-of-consciousness. The cinematics are presented as they were originally recorded; he didn't do a single version and then refine it with additional takes. Of course, there was a lot of material that was funny but ultimately didn't end up in the game; sometimes Will would decide to go in a different direction and we lost some of those moments in favor of others. But he didn't then take that material and then try to stick it somewhere else. If it wasn't a natural segue and it didn't work, it didn't happen. Our job as a studio was to take all the audio, parse through it, and find some kind of narrative in there.
Will's sort of an enigma to me; he comes in at night and does his voice work when everyone is gone for the day. I do know he's nothing like the narrator of BattleBlock Theater, he's actually kind of quiet. But he's a pretty cool guy, he got his start with us doing stuff for Newgrounds. The tone of BattleBlock Theater really came together when he joined the team. I remember watching the first cinematic, and thinking "Wow this is a real game now". There were a lot of clips that went unused and I hope someday we can offer those as an easter egg to the fans in some way, maybe hide them on the website. There was a hilarious Little Red Riding Hood story within the game that we ultimately had to cut out; I would love to show them some of the art and dialogue.
HG: So, what can you tell me about the future for BattleBlock Theater's DLC?
AJ: Well, I can tell you what it probably won't be. We're probably not going to do any straight level packs. What you might see instead is new weapons, maybe new levels based around using those weapons. Dan has talked about new art packs, something that would cosmetically change the way the whole game looks--maybe instead of being in a theater, you're in an ice cream palace, or a circus tent-- something to make the game even more fun and crazy, a reflavoring so to speak. I think that's the more likely thing.
HG: One thing I hear a lot from fellow Behemoth fans is, "Well let's hope it doesn't take forever to get to PC this time." Do you think it will be a lengthy process porting BattleBlock Theater to Steam?
AJ: Well, it's good to keep in mind that Steam wasn't a big thing when Castle Crashers originally came out, so obviously that was a big part of why there was such a huge gap [between Xbox and Steam release]. Add to that, when we were working on porting Castle Crashers to Steam, we were already spread thin because we were simultaneously working on BattleBlock Theater. With a company of our size we really don't have enough people to take on a big project like that without their being some kind of impact on development time. I don't know when we're going to pull the trigger on that, or if it's even been confirmed for a port. Of course the testing process, depending on the way BattleBlock Theater was coded, could be a lengthier process for QA. But I don't think it'll take as long as with Castle Crashers.
HG: After following the game for four years upon its announcement in 2009, as a fan I'm quite pleased with the end result. The response from gamers seems to be extremely positive as well, despite the wait. It must be nice to see that after all the time that was spent in development that it all counted for something.
AJ: It was very validating, yes, after all the time we spent getting the game to the point where it is. I haven't seen one person (although maybe I haven't read enough reviews, ha!) say "it took this many years, what the hell were they doing with their time?". Even if they weren't excited about one feature or another, they could at least appreciate the amount of content that is in BattleBlock Theater. For a $15 it is a massive title. I have to keep reminding myself that we're not on the same price point as our competitors. Other puzzle platforms like Super Mario Bros. Wii or Rayman Origins have a full price tag for their platform, they're not $15 downloadable title. That BattleBlock Theater is so big is pretty amazing, and you can see the years that went into it.
One thing to keep in mind, if we'd rushed and released BattleBlock Theater a couple of years ago, the game would not be what it is. The narrator, Will Stamper, didn't get on board until about a year and half ago.
I'm really glad we didn't go for Castle Crashers 2 because there's always going to be comparisons. It's a lot easier when we keep on doing something we've never done before. In that sense we escape people saying "It's not as good as the original". In the reviews for BattleBlock Theater, some compare it to Castle Crashers in terms of quality, but we never hear "Well the controls aren't as good as last time." or "The music isn't the same as before." I dont have to suffer the ghost of our last game.
HG: I think it helped that you guys always do a genre change, first you had the shooter, then you had your beat 'em up, then your fast paced side scrolling platforming dasher...
AJ: Yes! We're not competing with ourselves that way. If we did Castle Crashers 2, there would still be people asking, "Well why not Alien Hominid 2?" And if we did that, there'd be no Castle Crashers or BattleBlock Theater.
HG: The feedback process was obviously very important to the development of BBT, as you guys showed the game several times during the course of the past four years and were able to get an enormous about of fan feedback in that time. Do you see yourselves changing the lead-in process for announcing the game, given the impatience for BBT?
AJ: You know, our process never really has changed; we actually started talking about Castle Crashers as soon as we began work on it, too. When we'd show it as a trade show, it was often the first time they [the attendees] had heard of the game. We had much more attention and scrutiny by the time BattleBlock Theater was announced.
I think we value player feedback so much that the game would ultimately have suffered if we'd delayed the announcement. We might have ended up with more wasted time. We could have put in a year and a half on a game and then taken it to a trade show and found out it's not what they player wants. It makes it difficult for people to wait, but once the game comes out, it's amazing how fast people forget how long they waited. I think at the end of the day, it's a more efficient process if we're seeing people's reactions to the game sooner.
HG: Castle Crashers had quite the legacy on Xbox Live Arcade, maintaining a hold on the best seller's list for years. Currently, BattleBlock Theater's Metacritic score is even better than that of Castle Crashers. Following this long lived success of Behemoth's last title, what do you expect the impact of BattleBlock Theater to be?
AJ: In terms of where gaming was when Castle Crashers was released, it was kind of a matter of timing. When I first sat down with Castle Crashers as a player, my first thought was "Wow I had no idea a downloadable title could be this robust, have this many hours and this many characters to unlock." I think I played it an hour when it first came out and thought I was halfway done. Then later of course I was like, "Oh my God, this is a five hour game!"
Other games in the genre, like the old coin op Ninja Turtles game, were only an hour a pop. They were very shallow because originally they were designed to eat quarters. Now in 2013, the entire iOS market is on board and people are expecting a lot more out of downloadable titles. Castle Crashers redefined the downloadable genre. Whether or not BattleBlock Theater makes the same kind of impact as Castle Crashers remains to be seen...I think the fans will have just as much fun, but based on the timing of the industry I don't know if it's going to necessarily redefine anything and get the same amount of notoriety that Castle Crashers had, at least in terms of the digital download market. With Castle Crashers we were on every front page talking about its success, the unprecedented amount of players and hours spent playing the game. That's much more common now. It's tough to keep on revolutionizing things.
HG: It's of course too soon to talk about what Behemoth's next game will be, but can you discuss what the team is spending their time on now?
AJ: Well at the moment we're marketing BattleBlock Theater and looking into bugs, refinining and addressing issues with Castle Crashers on Steam, and of course, there's talk of what to do with BattleBlock Theater in terms of ports and DLC.
One idea floating around is the possibility that we might do a bunch of smaller games next, something that can hit several platforms at a time and get more of a lateral impact. The only thing that can be said for sure is that it'll be something new: a new genre or concept, something we haven't done before. I know of a few concepts floating around and some sound awesome. There's nothing I can confirm though, I don't think anyone really knows what's in store next!