At PAX Aus 2019, we were fortunate enough to be able to speak with Shannon from Mighty Kingdom about their upcoming co-op action adventure game – Conan Chop Chop.
Alex: Hello everyone, it’s Alex from Switchaboo here. I’m joined by Shannon from Mighty Kingdom. How are you today, Shannon?
Shannon: Hey! Very well, thank you.
A: That’s good, enjoying PAX so far?
S: Oh man, it’s amazing!
A: Very very busy. Very loud, we can hear it in the background as well.
S: Absolutely, there’s so much going on here, it’s incredible.
A: Please tell us about Conan Chop Chop?
S: The story’s pretty awesome in that it started out as a school project. Originally, it was called Dungeon Chop Chop and after a five-month development period, it developed enough interest from local developers and a couple of publishers that we thought it was something worth pursuing, and we were lucky enough to go to Paris to pitch the game to bigger publishers, and that’s where we met Funcom. Funcom have the IP rights to Conan the Barbarian, and those guys saw the game. It was a little bit for a younger audience than what they were used to. Conan the Barbarian generally has very serious, mature sort of content, so they were like, we love your game, but maybe it’s not the right fit for us. Then they had a bit of a think about it and they said, “you know what, we’ve never really done a parody of Conan; we’ve never had a whimsical or child-friendly Conan. How would you feel about putting Conan in your game? And it was like, “oh my God,” I’ve been inspired by Conan my whole life, and even when I was working on Dungeon Chop Chop, I looked at Conan for inspiration with the story, and I pulled out some notes that I’d made for the game that were based on Conan; it was like, check this out, I’ve been inspired by Frank Frazetta, one of the artists who worked on Conan paintings back when the novels were released. And the Funcom guys were like, “wow, clearly this isn’t a big stretch for you, it’s something you’ve actually thought about”, and then they basically said that I should do a little documentation to show how it would look with Conan in your game, and we’ll see if we like it. And I was like, “oh man, that’s so exciting!” So one thing led to another, they liked the documentation, they funded a prototype, we had a month of development to try and make something from nothing, and they were like, yeah, this is great, we’re really into it, let’s go full production. So for the last, maybe ten months, we’ve been working on it from scratch, and that’s sort of how it came about, which is just dream-come-true stuff, really.
A: Yeah, that’s incredible! So this your very first project and they decided to put their name behind it?
S: Absolutely! So I’ve been working on different little titles, indie games, for twelve, thirteen years. It wasn’t until I went to study at AIE [Academy of Interactive Entertainment] that I was able to spend time with a group of people, make something and spend five months of just solid time working on a game. The idea was something small and bite-size that we could actually accomplish in that time-frame, and that’s what led to these guys getting on board. But up until then, it’s just been that hard struggle of making stuff, hoping it’s gonna take off and when it doesn’t, you just go again. Not only was it just a publisher willing to help fund it, but they were also the Conan the Barbarian IP holders, and it’s just been an absolute buzz. The whole development of the game on the back of that has had that real great energy to it, so the whole team is really excited. The guys at Mighty Kingdom have made a bunch of mobile games, and they’ve been really keen to get into the console market, so this game is their first entry into the console field. Which is huge for what it means for the company as a whole and the future of the company to branch out. The energy is awesome and the whole vibe of the game is rad. It’s a multiplayer action-adventure, so testing it’s really fun, you get the team around and everyone can jump in and have a play; it ticks all the boxes.
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A: I noticed that with the co-op jump in and play, it’s very quick and easy. That obviously works really well for Switch, so was that with that in mind?
S: Absolutely that pick up and play stuff. Working with students who were a lot younger than me, it was quite a surprise that none of those guys had played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past or Secret of Mana, these early titles that I grew up on. Even the original Zelda where it’s like, you jump in and it says, ‘Take this sword’, and then that’s it, you’re out. I really love that element of exploration without the hand-holding and ridiculous amounts of text boxes. Jumping in and having a play was absolutely the idea behind it, so that people could just pick it up and go, and not really have to invest much before they could go and hit stuff with a sword.
The Switch was always a huge selling-point for us, especially at the time when we started developing, it just seemed like the perfect fit for the console because it had all the right ingredients. The first publisher that reached out to us when we put up our game online for free on itch.io said, “hey, we’ve seen your game, we think this would be really great for the Nintendo Switch – would you be interested in publishing it with us?” and we were just buzzing, you know? School students getting that email was just ridiculous. We told our teachers and they’re like, ‘What? Hang on a minute, no no no, normally you have to knock on a hundred doors of publishers before one says yes, they don’t come to you – what’s going on?” So we’ve done something good here. So it’s definitely a great fit for the Switch, that style of gameplay, and multiplayer stuff.
A: That’s fantastic. So in regards to that, being based around the Switch, were the controls made so that it maps perfectly with single Joycon play?
S: I’ve been trying to come up with button configurations that work well with all controllers, including the Joy-Cons. However, the Joy-Cons don’t have that extra bumper, so we had to be smart and modify the controls so that it works. It wasn’t something that we thought about making it feel specifically great for the Switch because the publishers that we’re working with at the moment stated that they want Conan Chop Chop on every console and PC; we had to keep that in mind.
A: From what the public saw, this all started from an April Fool’s joke with an initial trailer. How did that come about?
S: That was the marketing team at Funcom. They reached out to us and said, “hey guys, we know it’s really early in development but we think that we want to put together a trailer for April Fool’s Day and just tell everyone that it’s a joke.” It really lends into the fact that every Conan game made thus far has been mature, 3D/hi-res and top-notch studio production stuff. So to jump in with 2D hand drawn stick figures lent into it being portrayed as a joke. They were taking some footage from early development which was really rough. We were looking at the work we were doing at that point and saying, “hey, do you want the new logo or the new gameplay footage where we’ve actually fixed up the effects,” and they were like, “no, this is perfect, we’ll use Comic Sans as the font for the logo,” and apart of our hearts thought that we’ve put a lot of work into it and they’re making a mockery [laughs]. But it worked so well as the response that we received was always saying, “wow, if this was made, we’d play it,” or “this has to get made,” and that created a great buzz where behind the scenes, we knew that we were on the right track. It was all just incredibly smart by the marketing team and Funcom to make that decision because it created a story that people were intrigued about.
Alex: Very clever marketing campaign, something I haven’t seen too much. A lot of social medias and marketers tend to use April Fool’s Day, but that was really clever and especially by using the old footage.
S: Absolutely, people were saying, “Why is it always the April Fool’s games that I want to play?” and to be able to say, “Psych! It is a game!” was great. We knew we had that ammo there to hit them with when we were ready to announce it. It was just so exciting and awesome.
A: So with the art style being very cartoony and unlike your regular Conan games, were there any inspirations drawn from other games or mediums out there?
S: Absolutely. The original version, Dungeon Chop Chop, was a low-poly 3D game; more inspired by The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker stuff like that – nice, simple and poppy. Then when Funcom showed interest in funding the whole project, a lot of feedback that we had showing it to other publishers and other people who played it would say, “this looks like a very generic unity art style. What are you going to do to fix it?” and I was like, “hey, I thought it looked alright,” [laughs]. But that kept coming up again and again. I’m actually quite good friends with the guys who made Hollow Knight, so Ari Gibson has been a mate of mine for quite a while and as he had seen my game documentation, he said that I should just make it in 2D as indie games do well when they’re in 2D; do it in the same art and animation style and that will look wicked. I always wanted to do that but as it started out as a school project and I had teachers who were 3D artists, I couldn’t just say, “hey, how about I just forget everything you taught me over the past two years and just start animating 2D?” [laughs]. So this was a good opportunity to explore that art style.
The inspiration of the style mainly came from old children’s fairy tale books and illustrations from old 70s style children’s books. I’ve been collecting that stuff for years and it’s a lost art that people don’t really seem to see how ransom it was. I kind of wanted to pull that out and present it so that kids these days could enjoy it. It’s also that simple stick figure style; it’s easy to draw and easy to look at. I’m also really bad at drawing limbs and I figured that sticks are going to be a way better option for me; a ball with a square body and sticks for arms – I can do that! It’s all about understanding your limits and working within your bounds.
A: In regards to the Switch version, will there be any exclusive features like HD Rumble?
S: Oh man… maybe as we keep going with the game’s development, we can start looking into those feature a bit more. At this point in time as the game is for all consoles, we’re mainly focussed on just getting the game done. I feel bad for saying that…
A: Not at all, it’s better to be honest here. Can you please tell us about the rest of your team working on Conan Chop Chop?
S: Absolutely! The team is quite extensive. Mighty Kingdom as a whole has 70 staff now. Eight years ago, they only had about eight staff members and they’ve been growing since then. On Conan Chop Chop specifically, we’ve had up to 20 people working on it at different points of time. The lead programmer, Chris Butterworth, has just been a genius at putting things together and building all of the systems; we’ve also had two or three other programmers who have worked closely with him. Jeff Wong, the producer, has done an excellent job at keeping everyone on track. We’ve also had a bunch of amazing artists, animators, sound designers; Sam Reid is the lead artist, he took my vision and has just pushed it to a whole new level. He’s the one who designed a lot of the newer characters and bosses in the world which are incredible. Even going back to the original university team, with Harrison Gibbons and Jack Vine, two programmers who were students at the time but just did an incredible job at taking something that was just an idea and turning it into this to be able to captivate the attention of publishers is all to their credit as well. The list is way too extensive to list everyone and their roles because the team has been quite large but like I was saying earlier, there’s a real buzz with what we’re making, everyone is so enthusiastic about it and it’s been incredible. There’s also the higher ups like Phil Mayes who is the CEO of the company; he was there at the start of the company when the first publishers expressed interest but pulled out and he just said to put a pitch together and send it to more publishers. He really believed in the project and has been there every step of the way to make sure that it’s stayed on rails and we’ve finally got somewhere with it. From the top down, it’s just been an incredible team.
A: That’s really good to hear! Is there anyone else that you’d like to say to our readers?
S: I’m really excited to get this game out. It’s a multiplayer action/RPG/adventure that pays homage to games like Castle Crashers and the such. I feel like there’s room for this stuff out there but there’s just not a lot of it. From couch co–op to multiplayer online, I just really want to encourage that getting together with friends, having an adventure and exploring together. I just hope people enjoy playing it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it.
A: And where can our readers go to keep up to date with the development of Conan Chop Chop?
S: You can check it out at Conanchopchop.com, Funcom’s website and their Twitter @funcom; a lot of the media is being taken care of by Funcom. They’ll do the write-ups and keep the development updates coming.
A: Thank you so much, Shannon. I appreciate it.
S: No dramas, thanks for having me.
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