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Exclusive Interview: Up-and-coming XBLA developers Halfbrick Studios

Halfbrick Studios is the developer of the upcoming platformer/racer Raskulls (an XBLA exclusive). I recently got the chance to chat with two members of the Australian-based studio, Daniel Vogt, the Lead Designer/Raskulls Creative Lead, and Phil Larsen, the in-house marketing coordinator. After introductions and niceties, we got down to business and I learned a lot about Raskulls and the good people behind it.

What inspired you create Raskulls? How did the idea for it come about?

Daniel Vogt: It started with us playing Mr. Driller, and deciding it should be a whole lot more like Mario Kart. That was actually waaaay back in 2002. We created an initial prototype that was designed to be played over the web. Then about two years ago, we revisited the concept and took it to the DS, trying to take the best of what was working on the platform at the time.

Phil Larsen: It’s evolved to be a racing platformer, but as you’ll see in the trailer there are similarities to Mr. Driller. The art style has even been compared to Castle Crashers from some of the fan comments. We built the Story Mode adventure with heaps of levels, and we’re constantly refining various elements, so with a good amount of time and work it’s become a pretty packed game.

Why'd you decide to move to XBLA?

Dan: We decided we really wanted to offer a higher quality experience that we felt we could squeeze into the DS at the time. That and local split-screen became to absolute highlight of the Raskulls experience - it just wasn't the same when you had your own little screen.

Do you guys think that it has the potential to provide that awesome, group-huddled-around-the-TV fun aspect that Mario Kart has?

Phil: Well, we've actually had many play-testing sessions with local gamers who would give their feedback on both single and multiplayer sessions. The multiplayer matches ended up with people jumping all over the couches and yelling at the TV - then everyone came around to see what all the noise was! It certainly had that aspect to it, with everyone enjoying the game, and that was way back in development even before we had all the characters and items finalized.

I was pretty interested in that design-a-character contest you guys had a while back. How many characters will be in the final game?

Phil: There's 16 playable characters, but as for the actual cast that you'll be seeing in cut-scenes and have various roles in the story, there's definitely over 20. We're still refining a few characters right now, trying to get as many meaningful inclusions to the cast as possible.

How many of them are those community characters?

Phil: Just the one winner, Police, which we had never seen or even thought of during development. There were certainly a few entries that came close to our own recent designs, so everyone seemed to have the right idea for what works with the Raskulls concept.

What are your future plans for the game? DLC, sequels, etc?

Dan: We're exploring options for DLC when we can, but it's crunch time now and we still need to finish the core game! Once it's out and we get the response from fans, we would be more than happy to look at what direction we can take the Raskulls IP next.

Was there anything you were hoping to get into the game that did not make it?

Dan: There's always things you want to add to the game that don't make it. That's true of any game.

For sure.

Dan: But yeah, we've started jokingly referring to late, awesome ideas as Raskulls 2 ideas. Which is obviously not, y'know, an official announcement! We could keep adding to Raskulls until the end of time with new ideas, but at some stage you simply have to get it out there when you feel it's at its best.

Very true. Like I said before, DLC is always an option with this platform :) People pay for it if it's good.

Phil: That's absolutely right. When the price is right and you have something that adds more playability to a game, DLC becomes very popular.

Do you have any hints or tips for players for once they get to dig into the game?

Phil: Don't play it against friends who are bigger and stronger than you. They will end you. Some of the race finishes are incredibly close, and if you school someone with a Flame Charge at the last second, they'll be none too happy about it. Which is totally awesome!

Do you guys have like crazy homing weapons and stuff like that? Tell me about the weapons.

Dan: We don't have the dreaded Blue Shell if that's what you mean! We have six items in the game, not including the Frenzy ability. Some are offensive zap-everyone-with-lightning style items, others are more cut-through-blocks and launch-that-poor-unassuming-Raskull-into-the-air items. We also have the dreaded Sucker, a plunger that will steal an opponent's item. Guaranteed to start a fight or two.

Hehe, I'm assuming there's full online features, right?

Dan: You bet. We're working on 4 player online Grand Prix matches (which is 4 consecutive races) as we speak. We're naturally including local split-screen too, for that gathered-around-the-couch experience.

I was gonna ask about that. Local multiplayer splits the screen?

Dan: Yeah, split-screen matches are a blast with Raskulls. Speaking of online features, players will also be able to upload their best times and high scores on certain levels within Story Mode to add another layer of competition.

That's what I'm assuming, based on that trailer

Phil: Absolutely. It's easy to see the other players and where they are coming from in relation to your position. Screen-cheat, as Dan puts it!

Heheh I personally am not ashamed of screen-watching. It's a legitimate strategy lol. So on a serious note, what is the ultimate goal for your company? Any seemingly impossible dreams that you guys have?

Dan: We hope to become well-known when it comes to fun, downloadable games. We've been developing for handheld platforms for years with great success, so XBLA was a natural transition. I guess you could say our ultimate goal is to have a string of highly successful games that are consistently a whole lot of fun. Raskulls will set us on the way!