Couch co-op is something that has, sadly enough, become rarer and rarer in this industry with the passage of time- but every so often, a game comes along that looks to leverage its unique strengths in the best way possible. Ant Workshop’s upcoming twin stick shooter, Dead End Job, is looking to do just that, on top of displaying a vibrant and colourful aesthetic, having a variety of weapons and items to use, and promising chaotic action through its procedurally generated levels. Recently, we sent across some of our most burning questions about the game to its development team- the following questions were answered by Tony Gowland.
"When we were first throwing around ideas for the art style my only direction to Joe (the lead artist) was “I want it to be colourful, eye-catching, and not pixel art”. Not that I have anything against pixels, I just felt that a lot of similar style of indie shooters were using that style and it would be hard to do something that felt fresh."
To begin with, can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hi, I’m Tony! I’ve been a game developer for about 19 years now, at some companies you’ve never heard of, and some (Rockstar and Activision) that you have.
You have worked on Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, which are arguably two of the biggest gaming properties out there. Can you share your experience working with those two titles?
It was great work on those games. I was at University when the first GTA came out, and San Andreas came out literally days after the company I’d been working at ran out of money and made us all redundant. My pre-ordered copy of SA got delivered the same week I interviewed at Rockstar Leeds and found out I’d got the job. Overall I’d say Chinatown Wars was my favourite Rockstar title to work on though, it was just a blast from start to finish.
Out of curiosity, what is your take on the recently released Red Dead Redemption 2?
Honestly I’ve been working so much on getting Dead End Job finished I haven’t really had time to dive in to RDR 2. I want to make sure I have enough spare time to give it the room it deserves without other things distracting me because I’ve heard that’s the best way to experience it. I did buy an Xbox One X just to play it on though!
You are now working as an independent game developer at Ant Workshop. Can you describe your day to day workings with the studio and Dead End Job?
Well, Ant Workshop is still a tiny little company – the Dead End Job team at its largest was five of us working full time on it – so my day to day changes a lot depending on what is happening at the time. I do most of the coding and design on the game, so a lot of my time is spent reviewing what’s going in and tweaking things. Also replying to emails – you might think indie game development is glamorous, but it’s 90% replying to emails. Oh, and probably 5% coming up with puns.
Dead End Job features a pretty distinctive an eye-catching art style. Was there anything in particular you looked at that served as an inspiration for it?
When we were first throwing around ideas for the art style my only direction to Joe (the lead artist) was “I want it to be colourful, eye-catching, and not pixel art”. Not that I have anything against pixels, I just felt that a lot of similar style of indie shooters were using that style and it would be hard to do something that felt fresh. Pretty quickly we latched on to the cartoon style of things like Ren & Stimpy and Spongebob, and it’s been great to see people react really positively to that – we get lots of people at conventions and shows coming up to our stand because they’ve seen the artwork from across the room and want to know more!
"The player’s main way of customizing their character is through the perks that you get when you do well enough to get promoted by your boss. We didn’t want to lay out a full skill graph because we wanted to keep choices very quick, but did want to give the player some control over their build so the game picks three random perks for you to choose between."
Can players apply mods or customizations to their weapons?
The player’s main way of customizing their character is through the perks that you get when you do well enough to get promoted by your boss. We didn’t want to lay out a full skill graph because we wanted to keep choices very quick, but did want to give the player some control over their build so the game picks three random perks for you to choose between. Perks are split in to three groups – things that affect you, things that affect your weapon, and things that change your scoring. Weapon perks might increase your firing rate, or make your shots have a chance of bouncing or going through enemies. Some effects are also exclusive, so you’ll have to choose between shots that poison or slow down enemies, for example.
Can you speak to us a bit about the supernatural items players will be using in the game?
We have loads of these – 100 in total – and their effects range from simple health boosts with the burger and pizza, to a vortex that sucks up enemy attacks, a glitterball that attacks ghosts with disco music, a magic 8 ball that gives random effects, and a sentry gun that’ll help you out. We’ve even got the Ark of the Covenant in there (it’s not really a good idea to use that one). We had a lot of fun thinking up weird stuff for players to find, and there’s a sticker book in the game keeping track of each one you’ve discovered.
How does our mentor and her soul factor into the game?
Hector’s mentor, Beryl Ware, has recently been killed and come back as a ghost and Hector has until the end of the month to rescue her soul or she’ll be trapped that way forever (this is officially the worst thing that can happen to a ghost hunter). That means you’ve got just 30 nights to earn enough money to buy a device that’ll punch a whole in space and time and let you in to the ghost dimension. Beryl also appears as the couch co-op player character. We didn’t want the second player to just be a copy of player 1, so being a ghost she has different abilities to help out.
Will Dead End Job feature any competitive online modes?
There isn’t any online in the game on release.
Why did you decide to go with procedurally generated levels for this game?
Our last game, Binaries, had 101 hand created levels of tricky puzzles, so we thought we’d take the easy route this time around and just let computers randomly pick everything. Not really- making really nice procedural generation levels that play well is pretty hard, but we wanted to make a game that would feel fresh and fun to play over and over again for a very long time, and couldn’t see a way to make entirely hand-created levels do that.
What can we expect to see by way of enemy variety? For instance, are there any enemies that are stronger or weaker than the others? Like boss fights?
The entire month is leading up to one epic boss fight for Beryl’s soul, so definitely check that “boss fight” box on the feature list. We also have mini-bosses spread throughout the levels that introduce themselves with very brief animated screens so you know you’re in for a fight. Having the enemies as ghosts and possessed things has really let us go to town on enemy types. I think my favourite is in the park, and it’s the bin that acts like a dog – it chases after you and then sicks up bags of dog poo at you. Or possibly the chicken in the restaurant that fires eggy grenades out of its bum.
"Our last game, Binaries, had 101 hand created levels of tricky puzzles, so we thought we’d take the easy route this time around and just let computers randomly pick everything. Not really- making really nice procedural generation levels that play well is pretty hard, but we wanted to make a game that would feel fresh and fun to play over and over again for a very long time, and couldn’t see a way to make entirely hand-created levels do that."
Can you elaborate on how Twitch and Mixer integration functions within the game?
This is a cool feature we wanted to get in right from the start, and I was so happy when it actually worked! Basically if you’re streaming the game you can set it to hook up with your channel and then at the point you get promoted your viewers get to vote on which of the three promotion perks you receive, rather than you getting to choose. But also the game adds negative perks that just make it harder. So if they want to your viewers can really screw you over. Sorry to any streamers reading – I really hope your viewers like you!
What is your take on the Nintendo Switch, which seems to have become a haven for ambitious indie titles?
Both Ant Workshop as a company, and me as a human man love the Switch. It’s an awesome little machine that just seems to have slotted perfectly in to a whole in my gaming life that I didn’t even realize was there – I guess that’s the sort of thing Nintendo is good at? We’ve released a few games on Switch now as we’ve helped other indies put there titles on it, and it’s just been a pleasure from start to finish. Switch was the first console we got Dead End Job running on and I’ve got to say that although I might be biased, I think the art looks incredible on that crisp little screen.
Next gen is coming sooner or later. From a development perspective, what is your biggest expectation from PS5 and Xbox Scarlett?
Honestly I think those consoles are pretty locked on to a path of just doing the same kind of thing but bigger – it’s what their audiences want. I’m not really one for hardware specs and pixel counting and that sort of thing so I just hope they keep letting people do really cool stuff on normal HDTVs so I don’t have to buy a 4K one!
What is your take on Sony’s reluctant policy on cross-play with Xbox and Switch?
I don’t really play much online multiplayer so it doesn’t really affect me at all. I think I vaguely remember Microsoft having a similar policy at the start of the 360, whereas Sony who was on the back foot a bit were allowing it. Just seems like whoever’s the market leader at the time will drag their feet on it.
Do you think cross platform will be one of the defining features of next-gen consoles?
I think it entirely comes down to games. Fortnite surprised everyone recently with how huge it became, and it’s 3rd party so everyone’s scrambling to try and make sure it’s attractive to play that game on their own console ecosystem. You can guarantee that if it had come out of a first party studio they wouldn’t be so keen to allow cross play!
What is your take on the ongoing drama of loot boxes and microtransactions?
It’s tricky, having a AAA background I know how much time and money those games take to make, and it’s very hard to recover those costs with just a £50 game purchase. When you look at the really big games trying to do that, the developer often has some other kind of deal going on to cover their costs (or they’re 1st party, and it’s about selling consoles not just games). I do think there are “right” ways to do these things that makes fewer people angry, but what you also have to remember is that in the majority of these cases the developers that people are getting angry at aren’t the ones ultimately deciding how their game will implement them.
Do you have any plans to launch on Stadia?
Not currently, but I guess never say never!
"Both Ant Workshop as a company, and me as a human man love the Switch. It’s an awesome little machine that just seems to have slotted perfectly in to a whole in my gaming life that I didn’t even realize was there – I guess that’s the sort of thing Nintendo is good at?"
As an independent developer, what is your take on the platform-war between Epic Games and Steam?
For exclusives, again it comes back to the cost of developing games really, I can totally see how a guaranteed payment up-front is very attractive compared to just gambling on your sales figures being high enough. Steam has been sitting pretty for a while and I’m hoping that some of the Epic attention will galvanize Valve to improve some of their way of doing things – both for developers and players.
Do you think Google’s Stadia has a future especially given the infrastructural issues?
Infrastructure will always keep improving, for me the tech thing is really down to how long Google stay interested in the space – if they’re around for the long haul then the internet stuff will catch them up. I wonder more about the market for what they’re offering, to be honest – so far they’re showing off very “gamer” games like DOOM and Assassin’s Creed. I’m not sure if people who want to play those titles wouldn’t already have a console or PC, I think the audience there are enthusiasts who actively enjoy buying and owning their hardware. I think something much more mass market like the Nintendo Wii would be more of an obvious fit.