Veteran game developer David Jaffe didn’t get to where he is by filtering his thoughts. It’s fitting these days given the deliberately raw art style of his next game, Drawn To Death. Its high school-doodle-inspired visuals look like it’s never been evaluated by a marketing department, which makes the game all the more intriguing. Underneath its juvenile humor is a potentially deep multiplayer shooter-brawler. In our most recent chat with Jaffe, it was easy to sense his excitement for the April 4th release of Drawn To Death. And despite his enthusiasm, it was refreshing to hear someone with his industry experience express uncertainty of how Drawn To Death will be received.
Gamespot: How has Drawn To Death evolved since your last round of press previews last year?
David Jaffe: It’s just gotten deeper. It’s probably one of the hardest games to impress upon because there’s so much stuff. Every weapon, every character, even levels–we’ve had the benefit of time to put in all of this nuance and mechanics. It’s hard to express that in soundbites. You always want to put as much depth and mechanics into a game as you can. You’re typically pushed up against the wall with time. In Drawn To Death, I think we’ve gotten the benefits of time to flesh out these characters in the weapons and other things.
A lot of times when I talk to people about the game, I’ll say it’s like a hybrid shooter-brawler. What we are trying to build is a skill-based competitive game. That includes learning special moves of individual characters and their pros and cons against other characters.
It sounds like you’re implementing fighting strategies in a shooter.
That’s right, yeah. I’ve always used brawler because fighting game might sound a little bit hyperbolistic. The goal for us is that if you look at a lot of shooters, there’s a high concentration of meta progression, whether it’s leveling up your overall account rank, your weapons, or what have you. This whole game was built around the question of whether we could enrich and deepen the moment to moment on-the-battlefield experience, where the players are gonna do the best are not all the players who have good shooter reflexes but who are mentally engaged in with they’re fighting, which character they’ve picked and knowing the pros, cons, and counters. What we wanted was a feeling of having learned a bit more about the mechanics of the game after every match, no matter if you won or not. There should always be a sense of, “I may not have done great but I know there’s more. There’s a deeper end of the pool I can go into to get better.”
How do you think Drawn To Death communicates that?
I don’t know. I literally don’t know. I’m coming to interviews like this and I’m trying to make sure that hopefully the press will like the game. When they play, watch, and experience the game, they’ll go, “Okay, we get what Jaffe is saying.” These characters are more than just different skins with one or two special moves.
There’s going to be a large number of gamers who’ll come in and hopefully they’ll enjoy it when they pick it up, run around, and do some fun moves. Hopefully in little time they’ll start to see the real meat of the game and mastering the great level of depth. That applies to not just the characters.
We see people checking out Drawn To Death just for the weapons. Some are straightforward and basic like the Tommy gun. It’s a horrible weapon unless you’re moving in close. It’s almost like a machine gun shotgun. A lot of the weapons are definitely more satisfying if you take the time to learn how they work. For example, we have these two monkeys, Emily and the devil monkey. They both eat bananas as ammo and they shit out little blobs of poop, which you can throw. What I love about this weapon is it’s very high risk-reward. It’s hard to kill in the game. We want players to experience more of a brawler game where you’re not dead after just a couple of hits. The high level goal is to bring a shooter that really rewards players for not just fast skill but a lot of mental engagement.
Can you share more about what content you’ll have at launch?
We’ll launch with 6 characters, 7 maps, 5 modes, 20-plus weapons, and a very large number of costumes, skins, and taunts. Some of these are harder to unlock than others. All of our unlocks are built around not affecting gameplay. There are weapons to unlock but there’s no powering up and leveling up weapons. It’s all about player skill.
There’s also Tower Mode which is very much inspired by the Hearthstone rank system. If you get into the ranked mode every season, you’ll have these different towers that you can work your way up. In the first season, we’re going with a dark funny Grimm fairy tales look. You’ve got little gnomes that are killing unicorns and if you move on to the next floor, you see they’re actually selling dildos in the x-rated store.
Each tower gives you stickers depending if you can make it all the way to the top. Then every season we’ll refresh the tower. I think next season is crazy science fiction. Just stuff the student artist would draw. There’s just a lot of nuance that we want players to pick up on. There’s tons of secrets in all the maps and a lot to discover in the designs of the levels themselves.
I was gonna ask about that. What is below the surface of the map designs themselves?
I want the story embedded in the game so players can discover pieces of the doodler’s life. There are no cutscenes or anything like that. If you look up in one map, there’s a detention slip based on the fight the guy got in with another guy in the opening. When you explore, you’ll see things he’s written about in the margins. There’s this girl in class he likes. Her name is Amy and if you explore the levels there’s stuff you’ll find related to her. They got little conversations and she’s written things in the notebook. There’s also animations happening in the backgrounds you can look for.
The hope is that players who really get into the game will start to piece together not only the fiction of the individual characters’ own stories and relationships, but also who this guy is and why he’s drawing what he’s drawing. On the surface, it is a very juvenile level of humor. There’s a giant butthole and vomit jokes but this game is also about a kid who’s drawing these characters. For instance, there’s Alan, a character based on his step dad who he cannot stand. You can start to learn about the relationships between him and his stepdad, his mom, his brother, and his sister through the game.
I love storytelling but I don’t like the way traditional games do it with just cutscenes. I like it more where you really are invested in the game and as you start to explore, you’ll see that the story is embedded all around the nooks and crannies of the game.
The story is very juvenile and funny but there’s also a sweetness and heart to it. It’s reflecting a typical teenage kid who’s just trying to get through high school and uses his art, drawing, and creativity to make his day go faster and make things a little less challenging.
My biggest challenge, my biggest worry is that there are people who only understand the game’s juvenile side. I love the juvenile stuff. I’m not embarrassed. What I thought was funny at 15 is absolutely what I still think is funny now. I like fart jokes, dick jokes, and butthole jokes. What’s funny about a butthole joke? Cause you have a hole in your butt and poop comes out of it.
There is very much a sense of that in Drawn To Death but I also think there is a self awareness that I hope people pick up on like the announcer. When he says, “Headshot!, it’s very clear we’re ripping on 90s arcade shooters and racers. If you play enough, you start to actually hear this guy talk about how he’s living with his mother. His mother’s like, “Dude you’re too f***ing loud!” He acknowledges he hasn’t worked as an announcer since the 90s when they stopped making arcade racers and so he’s thrilled to be working again. He’s complaining about the game not being pay to win because he has to take the bus into work but he cannot afford a car. There’s an awareness of the juvenile aspect but there’s also a non-apologetic aspect. I don’t know how that alchemy is gonna work when it comes to the humor but we’ll see.
I like fart jokes, dick jokes, and butthole jokes. What’s funny about a butthole joke? Cause you have a hole in your butt and poop comes out of it.
Can you speak more about the features beyond the PvP multiplayer?
We have Sphinx missions which are these sets of riddles you can solve. If you figure them out, you unlock levels, hand moves, and weapons that are separate from just the normal group of weapons you unlock by playing the game.
There’s a lot to do in that launch content but I do think it’s correct to say that I have always looked at this as a service based game. We want to put out new content as often as we can. That’s new levels, characters, weapons, and build a community around the people who really vibe with this game. You know how it goes. That’s the pipe dream. It’s like watching a TV series. You hope you’re in business 3 years later and on Season 3 but the Day One launch content is still super compelling and robust.
So Drawn To Death has global profile challenges and character-based challenges, correct?
Yeah. We have a bunch of these costumes to unlock; you work through each character. If you’re into this specific character or into the game in general, there’s a lot of things to chase and go after. None of it affects the gameplay other than just getting new stuff to play with. None of it makes you more powerful.
What were some of the inspirations that led to some of the character designs?
For Alan, we knew that we wanted to do a character inspired by movie slashers like Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers. We probably spent about three or four weeks just looking at more of the traditional, hockey mask-wearing slashers that a kid would associate with. That was really just looking for the creepiest thing we could find, while also something that was original enough. We haven’t seen a lot of creepy mascot characters, like a dark version of Mickey Mouse.
That’s where he came from. If we were to make a slasher movie, that would be a really cool one, like a rundown theme park or fast food restaurant mascot where the costume has kind of gone to shit. It’s matted and moldy and it’s got parts gnawed out of it. Who is inside this costume saying all these creepy weird things and stuff?
Given the art direction, I assume there are very few characters that don’t make it past the conceptual phase.
Well, so far, very few. What’s cool about the game is that we’re able to exert unbridled creativity. Whatever the kid can draw, we can do, right? It’s not like we’ve had a lot of limiting factors of characters. I think it’s the ones that don’t stand out with a personality, the ones that don’t pop or are memorable. I think Ninjaw is a sexy, sharp woman, and just such a weird concept. When one of our concept members came up with it and drew it, that was an instant one.
There’s kind of an unembarrassed lack of a filter that happens when you doodle and that certainly happens when you’re a kid who’s in a sort of stream of consciousness. If I were to come to Gamespot and say, “We’re spending $250 million making a game about a robot cyborg vampire.” You would say that’s got B movie written all over it. That’s super cheesy and stupid. But it feels like it fits right in with a kid who’s just like, “I like vampires and robots are cool. I’ll mash them up!”
When you’re drawing and doodling, especially when you’re a kid and you’re bored in class, there isn’t that editorial voice. It goes straight from dumping your stream of consciousness onto paper. He hasn’t really filtered these characters and he hasn’t really worried about what people are going to think. In some ways, that’s what I love the most about the game. I really think it has a point of view, a voice, and a spirit that reflects that.
You don’t know what is or isn’t going to be a hit. But I do think there are going to be players out there that take it at face value and maybe don’t view it as a reflection of that unbridled creative innocence. They just go, “A f***ing vampire robot? That’s f***ing stupid.” And they just dismiss it out of hand.
I don’t know where we’re going to come down on that, but I’m tremendously excited by it and proud of it, because it really does reflect that spirit, even though I’m very many years removed from being 15 or 16 and doodling in my notebooks. I think the art team has done a really good job of connecting with that.
It’s hard to talk about multiplayer shooters these days without wondering if Overwatch influenced Drawn To Death in recent months.
Not really. We were in development around the time they were so it’s not like we played Overwatch. Honestly, I’m a huge Hearthstone fan. I love Blizzard for that. I’m not a big Overwatch fan for the same reason I’m not a big shooter player where it often seems to be too fast for me. I love the art and character designs in Overwatch but honestly I haven’t played Overwatch enough. This game is much more influenced by Quake, Super Smash Brothers, and Hearthstone.
You guys didn’t go into your business model initially with PlayStation Plus as the front-runner, correct?
No, no, no. We started as a free-to-play game. Sony was doing some free-to-play initiatives at the time. I’ve had a handful of thoughts on free-to-play that I look at as positive. But there was a sense of rejecting free-to-play in the console space. It didn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of console gamers.
There was enough data coming through globally about free-to-play on console that said to us, “Okay, let’s walk away from that business model but maintain the essence of what the game is.” Then when Plus came, it was like, “Holy shit, that’s the best of both worlds.” Something like Plus puts us in a position where people don’t really feel any kind of real risk, hopefully.
Now I’m thinking of how games like Rocket League helped demystify this free-to-play perception.
Yeah, I think Rocket League’s a great example. I don’t know how Disc Jam will ultimately do but I think it’s a fantastic game as well. I think it’s a wonderful way to put really cool quality games that, conceptually, might be a little off the beaten path.
There’s a balance, though, because there are people who would be very happy if every month they got an Uncharted 4 for free. I get that there’s that voice on Plus where they want that level of game. You never know if it’s going to be a month that really excites you. I think Drawn To Death is such a robust package and interesting while still in a genre that’s pretty commercial. Hopefully, Plus members will feel excited by the opportunity to give it a shot.
You can always count on that NeoGAF knee-jerk reaction a second after the lineup announcement.
Yeah. You got to be careful. Live by NeoGAF, die by NeoGAF. I’ve had days where they’ve loved stuff that I’m working on and days where they’re just like, “You’re a f***ing idiot, Jaffe.” The second news comes out, it’s almost like you ignore the first three pages and then go to the fourth page and go, “Okay, what do they really think?”
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