As someone who has worked in a kitchen, albeit briefly, there are many words I could use to describe the experience. None of them are safe for work. “I’ve worked in kitchens before,” says Ghost Town Games’ Phil Duncan. “Overcooked was just like that experience, you know, it’s this feeling that you’re all in it together, even if you’re all shouting at each other when we’re working in a kitchen. Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between games, because you are working against the clock. You are trying to get each dish out as quickly as possible and to an adequate standard, in the case of the restaurant I was working in.”
This comes full circle with Overcooked. Published by Team17, the game made by the two-man team of Duncan and Olu De-Vine has won much critical acclaim. The started life, as many things do, over lunch. We were both working together at Frontier Developments, explains Duncan. “Oli was a coder there. I was a designer, and I think it came about because we used to meet up at lunch time, so we’d play basically any kind of local multiplayer games we could get our hands on.
Someone took the fire extinguisher
and just threw it in the bin and
the kitchen caught fire
Phil Duncan, Ghost Town Games
“There was a group of us that would gather in a room, and we’d all gather around a TV with any console we could find, any games, and I think there was just a feeling that there was a type of game that we wanted to play that didn’t exist yet.”
“When you’re looking for local multiplayer games to play, you discover that they die out after a certain time period and you run out of ones to play pretty quickly,” explains De-Vine. “We wanted more of them basically. So, we tried quite a few different little prototypes of local co-op things that we wanted to play, where everybody is doing things simultaneously. You didn’t feel like you were competing with the gameplay itself, and we ended up stumbling on to Overcooked as a formula that worked.”
“We wanted a game which was much more about how a team coordinated and cooperated,” says Duncan. “And cooking seemed like a really good analogy for that.”
Getting to a stage where the idea for Overcooked was exactly what the duo wanted took a while. “We did try a lot of different games before we made the jump,” says De-Vine. “I think it was something with Overcooked where we got to the loop of it really quickly, which was surprising.
“We took it to a game expo in Norwich and got some people playing. You could certainly see all the potential, and suddenly have lots of ideas for levels, and it starts to become a real thing. That was when we realised we need to do this.”
So what was that early build like? “Oh. Ropey,” answers De-Vine.
“Yeah, super ropey,” adds Duncan. “There were about eight or so levels, maybe, and it didn’t have many mechanics in there. We didn’t have any of the restrictions in place, so you could pretty much do whatever you wanted with any of the ingredients. So you’d be able to add an extra onion to a pot, or half chop something. There was lots of standing over peoples shoulders saying ‘you can’t do that’.”
“It was a lot less intuitive,” says De-Vine. “We had more of a focus on recipe construction than we did on the environmental side of it. What we discovered when we took it to conventions was people were less interested in the recipes than we thought they were and were much more interested in the level, the sort of environmental puzzle element. So we expanded that a bit more than we were originally intending to.”
TOO MANY COOKS
One of the early parts of the game that was very different was the timer. Originally, the game had a different method of finishing a level – death. Losing a dish meant losing a life.
“It was more of a survival game,” explains Duncan. “It was just how long can you stand before you run out of lives, and we found that people got a bit bogged down. Then you had a certain number of lives and then if you survived over a certain period of time with all your lives intact, then you’d pass. If not, you failed.”
The timer mechanic won out over the lives idea, something that was learned from the many conventions and expos Ghost Town attended. Nothing is more indicative that something is working than seeing the actual panic on peoples faces.
“I think that was always part of it, to make sure there was panic there,” says Duncan. “The very basic design of the game is having too many tasks with the amount of players you have, and then these upper-level nuances that bring about that panic. I think some of it is the fact that there’s many timers within Overcooked and the whole thing can unravel fairly quickly.
“Going back to that early prototype, something we noticed a lot was people would occasionally figure out the puzzles and level and then just do the same task over and over again, so we did a lot to disrupt the players.”
“You want people to have to change around what they’re doing a little bit during the level,” adds De-Vine. “So we did a lot of things with the level moving around to get people out of position and things, just so you didn’t get into a routine.”
One of the qualities of co-op gaming is the level of entry. Overcooked is a game the whole family can play and has a simple, easily readable, number of tasks – chopping, boiling, frying and even baking a limited number of ingredients. Keeping that level of difficulty balanced was another challenge for the new team.
“Part of that balance was trying to make sure that players weren’t inundated with complex interactions,” explains Duncan. “They just had a small subset, they didn’t feel completely swamped. Another part of it was level layouts, because we didn’t want levels to get too sprawling and for the camera to pull all the way back.”“A big limitation was UI,” says De-Vine. “We were trying to find a way of communicating recipes efficiently to players, without them having to refer to a lot of steps. There aren’t really a lot of games that try and communicate that kind of information to players. We were trying to invent a language for doing that. So every time we introduced a new recipe, there had to be a pulling back of how difficult the environment was a little bit, so we had to balance that.”
“A big limitation was UI,” says De-Vine. “We were trying to find a way of communicating recipes efficiently to players, without them having to refer to a lot of steps. There aren’t really a lot of games that try and communicate that kind of information to players. We were trying to invent a language for doing that. So every time we introduced a new recipe, there had to be a pulling back of how difficult the environment was a little bit, so we had to balance that.”
Another part of the game that almost didn’t make it was the ability to have two people playing on one controller. “That was quite a tricky one,” says Duncan. “Because at that point we were still worried that we were making this local multiplayer game, and we weren’t sure how many controllers people have these days. Whereas, in the days of the N64 you were fairly confident people had access to four controllers. I didn’t know anyone who had four PlayStation 4 controllers. ”
The split controller system was hard to communicate, not just to the player, but certification too. “We never got told whether we should or shouldn’t do split controllers,” says De-Vine. “I will say, from a certification point of view, because there’s no other game that I’m aware of that does have split controllers, it wasn’t something the process was quite ready for. It was quite a lot of interaction between ourselves and the production and QA department at Team17 to do it.”
“Nobody gave us any advice on that front really,” adds Duncan. “We certainly heard that people had some misgivings about local multiplayer. ‘Oh, I’m not sure that there’s a market for that anymore.’ Well that’s the kind of game we really want to play, and it’s something we’re crying out to play. The consoles obviously aren’t set up completely for it. Now you’ve got the Switch coming in, they’re a bit more open to that kind of thing, but we did get through it.”
Overcooked has won two BAFTA awards. For a debut game, from a debut studio, this is an incredible achievement. The project started back in 2015 so for the game to have come so far in just 18 months is quite astounding. The team is currently working on the Nintendo Switch port of the game so for Duncan and De-Vine, the work isn’t finished yet and they are still learning. “When we’ve finished one task and stick our heads up above the sand, I’m like, ‘right, what’s the state of play right now?’” says Duncan.
“We knew that we enjoyed working in a small team I think, even at Frontier, because it was the kind of company that would occasionally break off into little splinter groups. I think both of us had experienced with teams of like 30.”
“The one thing I would say that’s different that took us a bit by surprise was we didn’t really think about the non-development parts of running a studio,” admits De-Vine. “Neither of us had any kind of administration-type experience, and there was a lot of that, which started to sidetrack us a bit, and we had to find a way of dealing with that, which wasn’t going to get right in the way of the development.”
Taking the game out to conventions really helped the team focus on what they do best, making a co-op game that people enjoyed. “One of the things I think that we did right with the game is the fact that we took it to so many conventions,” says Duncan. “We got to see people actually playing the game, rather than keeping it to ourselves, and seeing that fundamentally there’s some really big problems.
“There was a great moment in the first convention we took it to actually, in Norwich, where someone took the fire extinguisher and just threw it in the bin. It just disappeared, and then the kitchen caught fire. Just a really weird moment because it’s like ‘oh, yeah I guess you can do that’.”