Heads Up! Hot Dogs Interview With Emmett Butler And Diego Garcia
At the beginning of this month, we reviewed publisher Adult Swim's latest madcap mobile game Heads Up! Hot Dogs. We've since spoken to the two designers behind this surreal title, Emmett Butler and Diego Garcia, to discuss their inspiration for the game, working with Adult Swim, and where the duo are headed next.
Where did the idea for the game come from?
Emmett: We both really love hot dogs (just kidding, but we seriously do love them). I think the first time I heard about the hot dog-on-head idea was in a text from Diego, an idea that apparently just popped into his head. I don't remember the exact way in which it was first described to me, but I was excited that we had an idea that I imagined was just crazy enough to be fun. I also remember thinking that I could learn a lot from diving into iPhone programming and building a mechanic that was pretty unfathomable for me at the time, about a year ago.
As the game grew, we wanted to keep the frantic, silly atmosphere intact and not lose sight of the strange idea that sparked the whole process. I also think that the success of games like Katamari Damacy that have pretty off-the-wall premises allowed us to come up with a crazy idea like hot dogs on heads and not immediately dismiss it as too silly.
Diego: Emmett's correct that Katamari was an inspiration. The idea popped into my head after I had been reading about Keita Takahashi's playground designs and thinking about the sort of eccentric, mischievous but not mean-spirited feel to his design. I was also walking home from my day job in midtown, surrounded by businessmen. I also really like hot dogs. Like, a lot. Emmett and I have a really similar sense of humor and even though we were still fairly new friends at the time, I was pretty confident he'd be into it.
How long have you been working together and can you tell us a little bit about your development backgrounds?
Emmett: Diego and I met first on Twitter and then via the NYC chiptune scene, which we were both into at the time about year and a half ago. We hung out a bit and then there was a moment when we both said "I want to really get into games, let's do that together". We've made one other game together, which actually happened during the Heads Up development process.
It was a weekend game jam where we designed and implemented a game in about ten hours. I think that helped a lot to solidify our roles and how we work well together. We learned to function as a unit. My background is mostly in web development. I work at a web analytics startup, and go to school for my undergrad in CS at NYU (Heads Up was pretty much entirely developed on weekends). I've made a few small games prior to Heads Up, but it's definitely my most ambitious game so far.
Diego: I studied Digital Media at Drexel University and began doing some freelance animation on graduating. Although I played around with pixel art for a long time, I didn't commit to game dev as a career pursuit until I found Babycastles and the NYU Game Center lecture series here in New York. There's an amazing independent development scene full of talented and friendly people. I made my first game, Ultimate Flirt-Off for graduate school applications, and started Heads Up! Hot Dogs shortly after. Now I'm studying full-time at the NYU Game Center's brand new MFA program.
Did you experiment with any other gameplay mechanics that didn't make it into the final release?
Emmett: There was a lot of iteration in our process, so we had a few mechanics that didn't make the cut. I think at one point we were considering ideas like targets that the hot dogs could hit, super-bouncy head combos, baseball batters, cartwheeling guys, stuff like that. A lot of those features ended up not making it in mainly because we wanted to make sure the package was consistent and easy to pick up. Believe it or not, difficulty tuning was surprisingly tricky when dealing with bouncy hot dog physics, and finding the sweet spot for the core mechanic took a lot of iteration. Also, the reality that this was a totally unfunded project constantly reminded us to pare down our grand visions in favor of those things that we were certain we could produce.
Diego: Yeah, we had a few early ideas but very few ended up getting worked on if they didn't make us laugh or yell about gameplay possibilities. Because we were working around full-time jobs and educational careers, we had to stick to the stuff that really made us excited. I know that in the original concept, the player would have a bank of hot dogs that he or she would spawn via a touch, rather than the auto-spawn/lose five dogs mechanic that made it in.
The artwork for Heads Up! Hot Dogs is very distinct. Did you experiment with any other styles before settling on this?
Emmett: I actually first heard of Diego through his tumblr, where he was posting lots of pixel art gifs and I was really attracted to the style. When we started talking about making a game together, we both assumed that it would have a retro visual style, since that's the aesthetic that we were both steeped in at the time. We never actually experimented with other styles, it was just kind of a given that we would have pixel art and chiptunes. As for the artwork being distinct, that's just Diego being a master pixelsmith.
Diego: I've been doodling and cartooning for my whole life, so the characters you see in the game are just the natural conversion of my style to pixel-art. Heads Up! Hot Dogs was always kind of envisioned in that style, as it's generally how I think about my work. As I think about making some slightly less comedy-focused games in the future, I recognize that I kind of need to move beyond that, but silliness comes natural to me and I think the pixels are a good fit for simple, funny games.
Adult Swim is pretty well known for publishing original and perhaps eccentric games. How did you come to work with the publisher?
Emmett: Heads Up has been called "perhaps eccentric" quite a few times now! We were working in semi-secrecy from January til June, building and beta-testing the core mechanic, and then we spent one day in June smashing together a website and the announcement trailer (a hellish day, I don't recommend doing both of these in a single day).
We threw the trailer and website up on my server, and within a few days we were written up on Kotaku, had scheduled an interview with Destructoid, and got an email from someone claiming to work at Adult Swim asking to publish Heads Up. I only believed it wasn't a troll since Diego got the same email! That was in June, and we worked with them for a few more months adding features and playtesting. They were mostly hands-off in terms of design, though, and it was awesome working with them.
Do you have any plans to update the game with different levels and mechanics?
Emmett: At this point we're not planning on it. We're too excited about our next project! Personally, I view Heads Up as an awesome learning experience, and I'd like to explore other facets of game design and development while I still have the freedom to do so. That's not to say that you'll never see a content update though, because I do have a bad habit of playing Heads Up and always thinking "I should have done this, and this, and this".
Diego: I'm with Emmett here. It would be awesome to release more content for Heads Up! Hot Dogs, but my mind goes a million miles a second when it comes to what game I want to be making and what I feel like working on. This is especially tough given the fact that we're both in school, so everything gets drawn out to be much longer than it might normally.
What's next for you and Diego? Are you currently working on a new title, and can you share any details with us?
Emett: We definitely want to continue working together. I think our work and design styles mesh well, and we obviously have a similar sense of humor. We've only just begun to think about what our next project will be, but we're both itching to get to work on it. Whatever it ends up being, you can be sure it'll be full of our personalities.
Diego: Somehow, amazingly, Emmett is still willing to sit by and let me tell him to make things work as I set absentmindedly drawing stupid looking people and watching TV. We're hoping to start something up relatively soon, but no news. Our weird, kind of long development cycles make it hard for us to give information too early.
Do you have any high-score tips that you'd like to share with Modojo readers?
Emmett: Since you asked, I've only ever seen a few people pick up on the best ways to get high scores in Heads Up - I guess it's not so obvious. Rather, as a designer, I play a very specific way that the average new player has no concept of.
The main thing is to keep the special sandwiches on screen as long as possible. They give you ten times as many points as normal hot dogs, but they're pretty rare. As soon as you get one, put it on heads but don't let it leave the screen - keep transferring it to new people for as long as possible. That's kind of a hack, but I don't think it really breaks the game since you still need to concentrate on the other falling dogs. Also use two fingers!