Ghost Town Games' Overcooked starts with a simple premise: work together to fix meals in a restaurant. A couple levels in, however, that task becomes much harder as you and your friends will be sliding scross ice floes, fending off rats, or trying to fix a soup in the middle of an earthquake. We spoke with Phil Duncan about where the origination of this concept, the benefits of applying common knowledge to a video game, and an enthusiastic eight year old.
Co-Optimus: Thanks for talking with us about Overcooked! This is your first game as a two-man development team, but not the first game Oli and you have created. My first question is: why this game? Was this something dreamed up while you were at your former gig?
Phil Duncan: The idea for Overcooked came about quite naturally for us: Oli and I used to play a lot of multiplayer games when we worked together at Frontier and having grown up in a house with 3 brothers I've always been really into co-operative games. So we knew quite early on that we wanted to make a game people could play together but we also wanted to make a game which focused on the idea of genuine co-operation, one where a team's ability to work together was more important than the skills of the individual players.
We started thinking about situations in real life where people work together and where communication plays a big role and a kitchen just seemed like a pretty obvious fit for that (I've worked in kitchens in the past and I still remember the atmosphere, there was always such a great buzz and such a great sense of unity when you had this group of people all working against the clock, all falling over each other and yelling to make sure each meal went out on time, it was manic but it was really exciting).
With that in mind we built a rough prototype in unity with some friends and pretty quickly we had something that just seemed to strike a chord.
Co-Optimus: I've worked in a kitchen or two (mainly as part of the waiting staff) in my time and there's a definite hectic feeling the game captures well. Also, that's great it came from a love of co-op gaming! One of the interesting things I noticed with Overcooked when I was playing the demo was that it's very easy to get into it right away; there's no need for a lengthy tutorial or special menus to explain certain things. You have just a few buttons that do everything and the instructions of "chop, prepare, serve." Was this ease of access design intentional? Do you feel it's a key part of the co-op play?
Phil: That was definitely intentional on our part. One of the great things about making a game about cooking is that people come to it with a certain amount of pre-existing knowledge. Even if you can't cook, most people generally know how to make a burger or how to make a salad, which means we don't have to go through a lengthy process of teaching the player every part of the process with tutorials etc. (Which is especially important for a co-op game because you can be trying to teach 4 players at the same time when all they want to do is jump in and start playing).
The main reason for keeping the input simple is that it meant we could make the kitchens themselves and the interaction between the players much more complicated. As I mentioned earlier we wanted a big part of the game to be about communication and co-ordination between players; getting teams to talk to each other, to let each other know when a pot is about to boil over, or when a dish is ready to be served etc. which starts to happen much more when people aren't having to worry about the controls.
Another great consequence of this is that allows almost anyone to pick up the game really quickly, even people with little-to-no experience with games can quickly get to grips with the controls and join in. At conventions we've had hardcore gamers being yelled at by 8 year olds because they've not chopping the onions fast enough.
Co-Optimus: That's a very interesting design choice, i.e., giving any/all players a common pool of general/real world knowledge from which to draw and apply, and one the value of it seems to get overlooked sometimes. You mentioned that doing so allowed you to focus more on the interactions between the players as well as the environments. Those environments present the players with new challenges each time, like having to carry dishes over a moving ice floe or trying to keep rats from eating the food. How does that affect the communication between players?
Phil: Communication between players definitely changes as they advance through the game. Short hand terms arise and people find themselves falling into familiar roles. What's really fun for me is trying to keep the players on their toes, when players become accustomed to certain mechanics or methods, that when we try to introduce something new, something which provokes a new conversation. Even fairly simple mechanics can introduce a completely different play style: we added conveyor belts to the game and now suddenly there was this new element of time, players can't instantly pass items to one another, they need to coordinate their actions not only with each other but with the movement of the conveyor.
Co-Optimus: Have there been any ideas for levels that you couldn't implement or decided weren't feasible? Like, putting players in a Chthonian plane where they have to fight against their ever dwindling grasp on reality as they fix a tomato soup.
Phil: We had a lot of ideas for levels which haven't made it into this game, nothing quite like the one you described but I like the idea of introducing a sanity metre into a cooking game; feels apt.
Generally when it comes to new mechanics or new environment we like to work backwards: we think of the experience we want the player to have and we create a scenario which encourages or enforces this. Mechanics wise, since we're such a small team, it also helps to focus on features which we can get multiple uses out of, if we can only build one level out of a mechanic then we have to really consider whether it's worth the implementation time.
Co-Optimus: You hinted at this a bit earlier, but is there a reason why the players themselves aren't given different roles to fulfill? For instance, one player could be a fry cook, the other a pastry chef, a third is sous chef, and so on. These kinds of duties are normal in a kitchen (depending on its size, of course), and having role-based characters is something you see in a fair number of co-op games.
Phil: It's actually something we toyed with early on in the development of the game, and in many ways you could make a very good game which used a similar mechanic: ie. giving each player different abilities or specialities and then working out as a team how you want to utilize them, but in the end we were just really drawn to the idea of all players coming at the game with equal standing. Again it ties back into this idea of players working as a team rather than as individuals: no one player has any advantage over any other. It also means that we can be quite clever with layouts and have levels where certain players are forced to chop and prepare ingredients and then create another level where they're assigned a different task, meaning players are constantly forced to try new things and organise themselves in different ways.
Co-Optimus: What's been one of the best moments you've had thus far showing the game off to others?
Phil: I don't know about best moment but certainly the most memorable moment for me was the first time we demoed the game in public. We took a very early prototype build to the Norwich Game Festival here in the UK (Fantastic event, completely free and open to the public, highly recommend it). We had been sweating over it for at least 2 weeks before, then we got there and we finally fired up the build we took a step back and just stood there... waiting for our first punter.... it was really early in the day so the crowds were a little thin but eventually this little redhead girls comes up, she must have been about 8 or 9, and Oli and I just looked at each other thinking "Oh crap" -the youngest person we'd tested it on up to that point has probably been like 25 so we figured there was no way this was going to end well- but she picks up the pad and we hastily explain the controls and we're sat there playing along holding our breath, and suddenly she just starts beaming, and it was just like an enormous weight being lifted, she started running about picking up ingredients and shouting at us to help her put them in the pot and she's laughing and we're laughing and it was just such an enormous relief.
We demo'd the game hundreds of times that day to hundreds of different people and that little girl kept coming back, she even started to explain the rules and the controls to other players, seems silly but when you've been heads down on a project for so long you really do start to doubt it's worth, so when you get that kind of positive reaction it can be really powerful.
Co-Optimus: That's an incredible! Says so much not only about your game, but it also captures that spirit of co-op we love so much around here. One last question for you. You talked about playing games with your brothers growing up, and later with your co-workers. What are some of your favorite co-op games, and what's been your most favorite co-op moment so far?
Phil: Hmmm always a tough question... Think I'd have to take the rest of the day off to answer this question so instead I'll just give you some of the first responses that came to mind.
Bit of a random one, but I actually really enjoyed some of the fan-made co-op levels in the original Little Big Planet. The main game obviously had to cater for 1,2,3 or 4 player combinations, but the community levels didn't have to have such restrictions so there were some really great puzzle levels which actually required 4 players to get through them. As I'm sure you guys are aware it's very rare that you get to play a game which has been designed specifically with co-op in mind, normally it's just something tacked on to what is primarily a singleplayer experience, so it was great to play levels which were built specifically around 4 players working together.
I played a lot of co-op games growing up, I have fond memories of Streets of Rage, Bubble Bobble, Toejam and Earl etc. Most recently I've enjoyed playing Lara Croft Temple of Osiris, Pixel Junk Monsters, Lovers in a Dangerous Space time; basically any game where you can play with friends and where you're actively encouraged to communicate and to work together towards a common goal always gets my vote.
Thanks again to Phil for taking the time to talk with us about Overcooked. The game is still under development, but will support four player couch co-op when it is released.