OVERCOOKED! DISHES UP A BIRTHDAY FEAST
Ghost Town Games tells Jess Kinghorn about the road so far, and the runaway success of Overcooked!
Overcooked! All You Can Eat has received a free update in celebration of the series’ five years of gaming domination – er, we mean its fifth birthday! It debuted in 2016, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least poked their head into the chaotic kitchen. From its slapstick tone to its chaotic action, its charm as a series is irresistible to many. The All You Can Eat rerelease, collating both games and all DLC, gets five new levels as part of the series’ birthday bash.
Ghost Town Games is keeping hushhush about the future but confirmed it’s working on a new title and, yes, the game will have co-operative aspects. To mark such a momentous double whammy, we’re catching up with co-director Phil Duncan and lead writer Gemma Langford to ask how they went about developing such a delicious co-op classic.
PLAY: Did the response to the first game surprise you?
Phil Duncan: Yes, yeah. No, it really did for a number of reasons, one of them being that we kind of made the game for ourselves. There was always that aspect of ‘Oh, are we just making something that only we’re going to enjoy? How big is that pool of people that will also enjoy the kind of thing that we’ve made for ourselves?’ […] Also the fact that when we pitched it to publishers, we got turned down by 99% of them.
Everyone was kind of like, ‘Yeah, couch co-op’s not really selling that well these days, we’re not really that interested’ – particularly because it didn’t have online multiplayer at the time as well. I think when we released it, we were a little bit like, ‘Well, you know what? We’ve heard from a lot of very influential people that have said this isn’t going to do particularly well.’ So we were hoping to maybe make our money back. […] We were like, ‘Okay, that would be enough and then we could do another project.’ But yeah, the fact it took off was a massive surprise for us – and a lot of other people I suspect.
PLAY: It sounds like you had a very pleasant surprise!
PD: It was, it was really nice! It was nice to hear from so many different players, you know, that they enjoyed what we made, and they got the same sort of kick out of it that we wanted people to.
PLAY: Did the response to the first game affect the development of the sequel?
PD: Ah, that’s a good question. […] That there was such a positive response, first of all, was a sign that we could now go digging into our back catalogue of ideas of all the stuff that we had to leave out of the first game, by virtue of the fact that we made the game in 18 months. It was just [me and co-director Oli De-Vine], and we basically released it when we ran out of money. There was no ‘That’s absolutely, 100% the game we want to make! It has all the levels and all the bells and whistles!’
“We were hoping maybe to make our money back… The fact it took off was a massive surprise for us.”
There was definitely a feeling of like, ‘Okay, actually, you know what? We left a lot of stuff out. Now, we actually have this opportunity to add that stuff in.’ And then the other big feature that we added for the sequel was the fact that you could play it online, which was where Team 17 came in, effectively. I mean, they published the first game, but they were co-developers on the sequel, so they were able to help us raise the bar and to add aspects like that. Which, with just the two of us at the time working on it – and Gemma [Langford, the series’ lead writer and studio manager] – we couldn’t have handled [on our own], really. […] The extra stuff Team 17 were responsible for [was] just like taking my sort of rubbish, thrown-together artwork and making it tidy and lovely.
PLAY: Clearly your artwork was illustrative enough!
PD: It’s more than that. The whole [first] game was sort of held together with glue and string! [They were], you know, professional artists who have been doing it for years and years, and I was a designer before starting Ghost Town so I was sort of figuring it out as I went along. There was a definite sense of embarrassment sending these things over and being like, ‘I know we’ve done some things in unusual ways, but we’ve figured it out since then! Please don’t mock us too much.’
PLAY: Everyone begins somewhere. Speaking of which, you’d been part of the industry for a while before Ghost Town Games. How did working on other projects inform the creation of Overcooked!?
PD: So, I worked at Frontier [Developments] for I think about eight or nine years before we started Ghost Town. […] We just worked on such a vast array of games. […] Frontier was kind of finding its feet and figuring out what it wanted to do. So we worked on platform games, we’ve worked on Kinect games, we did some stuff with HoloLens, we did mobile games. So I think really the main lesson was figuring out the kind of games we wanted to make, I think, because we got a taste for where our skills lay and what we thought was missing, I guess, in the market. […] When you work on so many different games, you kind of get a taste for
what’s out there, and what’s doing well and what people like.
And then also when we worked at Frontier, we used to meet up every lunchtime and play local multiplayer games together. So that was why we made Overcooked! in a lot of ways, just because we were making a game that we didn’t think existed and we wanted to exist, and we wish we could have had when we were working there.
PLAY: What do you think is so essential to the Overcooked! series’ enduring charm?
PD: I feel people are more animated playing a co-op game than they would be if it was competitive somehow. Definitely, communication is one of the keywords that we always use […] It’s really important to us that players are talking, they’re not just sat in silence going through the motions. Something we hit on in the first Overcooked! with the pirate ship level, […] we were finding when we were playtesting [that] people would sit down, and they would get into their role – so one person would be chopping, one person would be getting the veg, and they just stayed in those positions. […] When we added this slant, that the levels could change, it meant you couldn’t sit and do the same thing and suddenly you had to communicate. You have to tell players like ‘Oh, I’ve left a half chopped onion over there – can you finish it? Oh! That’s gonna burn!’
I suspect that’s one of the things that makes Overcooked! unique and one of the things that has people coming back to it is the fact that they are forced to communicate and they’re forced to kind of talk and have these animated discussions.
PLAY: ‘Animated’ is the word for it. Coming back to how unpredictable some levels can be, where did the idea of a chaotic co-op cooking game come from in the first place?
PD: Cooking is the best analogy for the kind of experience we wanted. We wanted something where people are playing together, where one person can’t be like the hero and carry the whole team – it really is dependant on everyone playing. Again, communication, we wanted that to be important. […] Also, it’s universal, right? There’s something about the fact that everyone kind of knows how a burger is made. If they’ve never made one themselves, they kind of know how a pizza is made. So that means that we don’t have to teach people too much […] And means that players can really just focus on the chaos rather than getting bogged down with the minutiae of recipes.
PLAY: What helped to shape the series’ often chaotic, slapstick tone?
PD: Lack of sleep, I think, was probably originally what sort of shaped that. […] And also we didn’t want people to think that this was going to be just a sort of everyday cooking game or that it was going to be a game that was like – I dunno – Cooking Mama, where you’re focussed on, say, the minutiae of putting together a meal. We wanted something that sort of spoke to the chaos a little bit. But I have no idea why that led us to be like ‘Okay, well, there should obviously be a talking onion and it should start on a skyscraper’ […] That, I can only put down to lack of sleep.
As the series has gone on Gemma [Langford] has joined us and does all the writing and all the stories for Overcooked! 2 and for All You Can Eat and she’s really sort of tied together the world. I think it’s a much rounder and nicer place to be, but it still has a lot of that kind of crazy oddball comedy that she just writes so well.