Chris Capel discusses making the ultimate PC-only Worms with the game's slippery Lead Designer
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Okay, admit it, you’re a little cynical about this. “Another Worms game?” I hear you cry? Well, I was the same. I love the series in principle, but I still only pick up one game every five years. So when I heard Team 17 were unveiling a new title, Worms: Clan Wars at this year’s Rezzed event, I was massively cynical. Even being PC exclusive didn’t sway me – the last PC-only Worms was Reloaded and, while fun, still was a shadow of Armageddon. But I played a bit of Clan Wars and I was massively impressed – and shock of shocks, it was by the single-player of all things. Then I started talking with Gavin Hood, Team 17’s Lead Designer on the game, and I started getting the feeling they were aiming for The Worms Game To End All Worms Games. Have a read and see if you get that same impression. Oh, and we have a talk about Superfrog HD too… wait, what?!
Strategy Informer: Okay, first of all… was that Lara Croft? [The single-player missions in Clan Wars are narrated by a character very like Ms Croft]
Gavin Hood: That was actually Katherine Parkinson, Jen from The IT Crowd. She’s playing a character who’s very like Lara Croft, who sends you on these missions.
Strategy Informer: The single-player seems to have received a lot more attention this time around.
Gavin Hood: Yeah, the single-player’s quite a lot different. They’re all mission-based, and Katherine Parkinson’s character ties in to the new story. She’s this “crypt-creeping” archaeologist, and the whole game’s set in this museum where all the exhibits are coming to life [Note: Yes, I know I should’ve mentioned Night In The Museum here, I’m sorry] and these are all fights that are happening on them. The whole game is to do with an evil worm, a 19th century hypnotist, and he’s stolen an ancient artifact called ‘The Stone Carrot’, which is why a lot of levels have concrete in them. The Carrot corrupts the landscape wherever it touches and turns it to concrete, and this worm wants to use the mystical powers of the Stone Carrot to fire his hypnotic ability and take over the world. These worms are trying to stop him, and this character Tara Pinkle is at Pinkle Manor helping them out, but all she really wants is the artifact. We have proper single-player levels with machines and contraptions sort of similar to LittleBigPlanet, where you’ve got doors and pulleys, switches and things like that.
Strategy Informer: You blow a worm up and it has a knock-on effect so something else happens…
Gavin Hood: Yeah. Also your inventory is now taken across from level to level so it’s more of a proper progressive single-player game. As you gain weapons and items you get them to use across all levels.
Strategy Informer: I particularly like the new water effects!
Gavin Hood: Yes, the dynamic water! That was in Revolution, but we’ve doubled the amount of particles that we can have with optimizing the engine. We’ve added the option for it to be free-flowing to create waterfalls and things like that. In Revolution it was static pools of water, now it can flow, be blown about, it can be used to wash worms away even in multiplayer. The single-player is important to me because this is the first Worms game that I’ve been the lead on so I wanted it to be different. The other big thing we needed to do was to address any issues the fans had, such as feeling like a console game or removing certain things that people really liked. So we’re making Clan Wars exclusively for PC, which allows us to put many of those things back in. WormNet for example is coming back, which was in Armageddon where it had various channels to set up matches, send taunts, search for people, go in lobbies to chat, etc. The whole matchmaking system has been given an overhaul, and then of course we’ve introduced Clans, hence the name.
Strategy Informer: So what are the Clans?
Gavin Hood: I don’t know why I always talk about them so late, as it’s kind of the biggest thing in the game!
Strategy Informer: [laughs]
Gavin Hood: It’s also the biggest investment that we’ve made. A Clan is effectively an MMO-style Guild. You can create a Clan and make yourself the leader, name it, and choose an emblem which everyone in the Clan fights under. As leader you can invite, kick, or promote people to become an officer of the Clan, where they can have extra administration powers. The whole point of Clans is to drive the social aspect of the game, like a Guild going on raids. Within WormNet a Clan will have its own chat channel, so everyone in that Clan will be able to talk within that Clan or play Clan matches. Clan matches are effectively multiplayer matches but where the players are on the same team. So if we’re in the same Clan we’re in the same team, we can share the same weapons, if we only had one Holy Hand Grenade we decide between us who’s going to use it.
The Clans also extend to our new League system, which has divisions within it. When you first start a Clan it gets put into a Holding Division, where you play a certain amount of games to find out how good your Clan is. It’s similar to Starcraft II’s system. You have time before your Clan goes into a certain League, and then we’ll have a rolling league that runs for a month where if you’re the top of that league you get promoted and if you’re at the bottom you get relegated. All the games that your Clan plays counts towards your points in the League, and the better you do the more perks and buffs your Clan gains, like being able to recruit more people, create more impressive emblems or items that can be displayed to the whole community, and you can get the most out of that system. We’re also going to launch a Web Portal at the same time which each player will have a home page on that they can customize. This will track all of their stats and their progress. Each Clan also has a page where members can talk to each other, or write newsletters that are available to anyone who goes to the website and can actually turn up while you’re playing in-game. A message could pop up saying “everyone should be on at this time” for example.
Strategy Informer: It sounds pretty deep.
Gavin Hood: I think so! We’ve tried to really flesh out the idea of Clans as much as we can. I know when the game was announced earlier last week there were a few people saying they didn’t know what these Clans were about. We hadn’t really talked about them yet.
Strategy Informer: The big proper reveal is today, right?
Gavin Hood: Yes. A few other comments asked what these Clans would do for the game, I think you have to understand what Clans are in order to understand that. We’re going to have community-wide awards for everybody who’s playing the game, not only if they’re competing in the Leagues but also if they’re working together to achieve certain goals, like “walk around the world”. We track how worms walk and then we work out if the community as a whole walked around the world, then for that weekend we could run a special event to reward them like the community gets double points for all games or access to new things for a short period of time.
We’ve also got no plans for DLC for the game at all, we’re not hiding anything away. Instead we’ve got full Steam Workshop support out of the box planned for the game so people can make their own items, make their own speech banks [“Hooray!” – Me], make Clan outfits and share all these. Post launch but within the launch window we’re going to release a Mission Toolkit, so we give all players access to the contraptions and the machinery...
Strategy Informer: So they can make single-player stuff too?
Gavin Hood: Yes, single-player missions as well. It seemed kind of the obvious thing to do!
Strategy Informer: It seems you’re aiming to be very LittleBigPlanet-like with your tools.
Gavin Hood: In that way, yeah. The contraptions thing was like, where do you go with Worms? With the single-player the only way to make it feel like a proper single-player game and to still be Worms was to put these kinds of things in it. How would worms have moving platforms? Well they’d be on elastic bands of course!
Strategy Informer: Any new items you can tell us about? I noticed the “Teleport Gun”.
Gavin Hood: The Teleport Gun is hopefully to address concerns some people have had with the changes to the Ninja Rope. Those were unavoidable because now the physics system is based on real-world physics so we have flowing water and things, and that just didn’t work with the Rope as it was.
Strategy Informer: Like this? [your intrepid journalist makes ‘bouncing really fast back and forth and then flying off’ motion with his finger at this point]
Gavin Hood: Yeah, so to give players some replacement for the Rope we’ve added a Teleport Gun [alongside the new physics-based Ninja Rope]. When you fire it wherever it hits the worm will teleport to that location. If not on the ground the worm will start to fall, and while falling you can aim anywhere else, fire it again and teleport there. You can keep doing that for as long as you stay in the air, so effectively you can teleport around the entire level as long as you don’t touch the floor. There’s a high level of skill involved in pulling that off.
Strategy Informer: Any other favourite new additions?
Gavin Hood: One of my personal favourites is an item called the “Winged Monkey”, like from Wizard of Oz with a fez. You let him go, he flies off and comes back with a dynamic physics object. You can then move him around, choose what kind of object you want, and what angle and rotation you want to place it in the world. You can make platforms or bridges, block a worm in, or cut away a bit of the landscape and destroy it so things fall in, water flows through, stuff like that.
Strategy Informer: Can these monkeys pick up other worms?
Gavin Hood: No they can’t. We had a conversation about how far to take it. Technically they should be able to but it becomes too powerful. Another favourite weapon in the office at the moment is the Aqua Pack. It’s effectively like a Jet Pack but it’s water-powered and fires dynamic water fluid out to power it.
Strategy Informer: Like Super Mario Sunshine?
Gavin Hood: Exactly that kind of thing. You can use it to push worms away or make pools of water, it’s a lot of fun basically.
Strategy Informer: Right, so I noticed Team 17 have Superfrog HD over there...
Gavin Hood: I know very little about Superfrog! It was a complete surprise when the company revealed it to us. I know the basics, like how many levels it has...
Strategy Informer: How many levels does it have? [both laugh]
Gavin Hood: There are 48 levels. 24 original levels as they were in the Amiga game, and 24 “reimagined” levels which are based on the originals but are made to suit today’s gaming market a little more. The Amiga version is an early ‘90s game, and when you go back and play it it’s punishingly hard! The newer levels are a little gentler. In the originals you’d run down a hill and at the bottom there’d be spikes and was like “this is fun… oh, I’m dead”. We’d now move those spikes out of the way so people can run on and keep having fun.
Strategy Informer: Like Sonic The Hedgehog really should be doing in most of his recent games…
Gavin Hood: Yeah, exactly.
Strategy Informer: It seems very much both a remake and a sequel.
Gavin Hood: Exactly that. I know it’s got a level editor in it too.
Strategy Informer: That’s quite cool.
Gavin Hood: That looks quite in-depth from what I’ve seen of it.
Strategy Informer: Team 17 is one of the UK’s (and indeed one of the world’s) long-running independent developers…
Gavin Hood: I think so, yeah!
Strategy Informer: Over 20 years I think?
Gavin Hood: Yeah! I’ve not been there that long, though! [laughs]
Strategy Informer: So how have you guys managed to stick around and stay independent all these years?
Gavin Hood: I guess the easy answer is “Worms”! Having your own IP puts us in a very strong position, and it’s given the company a position that I don’t think any other developer possibly has. We have something that publishers want and we get to control it. Because of that it’s allowed the company to always have a revenue stream they can turn to, and contrary to popular belief we do make other games!
Strategy Informer:Superfrog of course, the Alien Breed series...
Gavin Hood: Yeah! Worms helps us pay for those things, because we do want people to play other games that they like. Alien Breed used the Unreal Engine, very fancy at the time for an Xbox title, and that was only possible because of Worms basically. So although people have this impression of Team 17 as a company that only releases Worms games all the time and doesn’t release anything else, it’s like “we do”! Worms is our bread and butter though, it’s what everyone knows about and everyone seems to like. Team 17 is also a very well-managed people company, it’s been really well run. They’ve not done what some small companies do, which is have a bit of success and then expand to the size of EA or something and then all of a sudden everyone is made redundant. They’ve been very good at knowing the limitations of being an independent developer. So seventy people work there, there’s a really friendly atmosphere, everyone works exceptionally hard on the games, and there’s no forced crunch or anything because people just want to work on these games. It’s a much less stifling environment then a lot of larger studios.
Strategy Informer: Why do you feel Worms has stayed popular all these years?
Gavin Hood: That question has been asked at the studio too! [laughs] I think it is just because it’s funny, and it’s a game as well. That’s a little bit hard to explain, but there are a lot of games that get made now that take themselves too seriously, and there’s nothing wrong with that you know? The Last of Us and stuff, they’re more than a game, but Worms knows what it is. It’s a game, it’s there for people to have fun, and I think it’s almost impossible to play a game of Worms and not have fun. Even if you’re really cynical about it you start playing and it’s just funny to see a sheep explode! You can’t avoid the fact that inherently it’s got appealing characters and it’s an appealing game, and I think through each version the company have tried to take it forward in some way, and in Clan Wars we’ve really pushed the boat out quite a bit! The tech is much more advanced than what we’ve used before, the feature-set is quite extensive, we’re really stretching it as far as we think we can.
Strategy Informer: Have you expanded the amount of worms you can have in a team?
Gavin Hood: We’ve got four teams and you can have up to eight worms on a team.
Strategy Informer: Is that more than Reloaded? Because that got some criticism because it didn’t allow as many worms as Armageddon.
Gavin Hood: Yeah. Often we do post-release patches to address those kind of issues, but what we’ve just done is start this new project. Before the game was even out we were looking at the criticisms the series had had and thought that was as good a starting point as any – to address what people didn’t like about the games, those are the things we need to fix.
Strategy Informer: Is it challenging to make new iterations on the formula without damaging that core gameplay?
Gavin Hood: For me personally yes, because as I said this is the first 2D Worms game that I’ve worked on and I’ve felt the pressure and responsibility of it quite a bit! There are a lot of things that might seem a good idea but then you start to think about it and realise it would break something else. It’s been really hard to keep the balance right, keep it feeling like Worms and still make it fresh. It’s probably more difficult than people think!
Strategy Informer: I think with the weapons in Worms it’s probably comparable to something like Blizzard have with Starcraft II, they have to add things very carefully or they might totally break the entire game!
Gavin Hood: Yeah! And the other problem we have is that we’re professionals, we’re always pushing the tech so there’s always a lot of re-writes to the physics and things being done, which means the weapons have to be re-worked just so you get them back to how they were before! It doesn’t come for free, we can’t just bring in a Holy Hand Grenade from another version and expect it to work the same, we have to make it work.
Strategy Informer: Okay, final question: with such a long-running series, when will it be time for Worms’ gritty reboot? [Says dramatically:] “WORMS”.
Gavin Hood: [laughs] Probably the next one, we’ll see!
Strategy Informer: [laughs] Excellent, thanks for talking with us!
I’m certainly up for that gritty subtitle-less reboot, with Boggy B getting impaled on spikes and having to hunt deer before going after enemy worms. For now though Worms: Clan Wars is genuinely looking like the ultimate Worms game, back home on PC where it belongs (okay, technically it belongs on the Amiga, but close enough) with a raft of cool online features, plenty of community involvement and challenges, Steam Workshop support (it’ll be worth getting for the player-made voice banks alone in my opinion), and a fantastic new LittleBigPlanet-influenced single-player game. Oh yeah, and there’s Superfrog HD too! Now there’s another gritty reboot I’d like to see...