Above: Dan Paladin, left, and Tom Fulp, right.
* John interviewed The Behemoth’s Tom Fulp and Dan Paladin for Imagine’s X360 magazine back in 2009. Here’s the whole four page spread, featuring the most promising creative developers on the planet today.
Castle Crashers stormed Xbox Live Arcade when it was released. A smash hit in its first week, it has since found another outlet via PSN, cultivating a whole new following thanks to the art direction of Dan Paladin and the imagination of Tom Fulp. Good progress then after their 2004 debut, Alien Hominid.
Those who played Hominid will no doubt have made the obvious link between the two titles. Their developers, The Behemoth, are fast catching the attention and critical praise they’ve worked incredibly hard to receive. What you might not know about these people, though, is the story that led them from a bedroom in Philadelphia to your own front room.
Those who have shelled out for Hominid and Crashers have been treated to a homage of games gone by. Influenced by classics like Metal Slug and Golden Axe, Crashers spent a painful three years in the making. The accusation was that Hominid was a one-off, and bettering it through a follow up would be too tough a task for two amateur developers.
Tom always refuted such a notion, putting his faith in the feedback he received from those who saw Crashers during its development. “We always loved showing off Castle Crashers because it got such a great response from people. We didn’t need to win over any publishers because we opted to self publish.”
There was a point though, when Castle Crashers was nearing three years in development and conventions became somewhat bitter-sweet. “People still loved the game, but they also questioned if it would ever be finished, and it pained us that it wasn’t.”
In its first month, the public’s patience was rewarded. After spending so long out of the spotlight after Hominid, they took Crashers around the world to show that The Behemoth was still biting. San Diego Comic Con, Tokyo Game show and more. They were sat there, tired in their stall, with flash demos of Crashers which took a painstaking 15 months to code.
Tom admits there were low points during the development phase. “If people had hated Hominid, I probably would have just stuck with web games, but there was this feeling of unfinished business that remained afterwards. It was like we got a taste of what we could do on consoles, and we wanted to give it another go and make something bigger and better. It helped knowing there were fans out there who would appreciate the effort.”
Above: Tom and Dan work the floor at Comic Con
Web games were all part of an exhausting journey into the development spotlight for Tom. He was praised early on in life for his creative school projects, but constantly stepped over the line with some of his more outrageous creations. A video book report in Year 6 featured death, drugs and alcohol, and earned him a D. Throughout school, Tom dipped into coding and found his passion for programming, animating shorts in the school media centre and growing up throughout the mystical golden age of gaming with his Neo Geo and other classic consoles.
The influences from these consoles shine in his debut project, Alien Hominid. Problem was, Tom could see the difficulty pitching his idea to an already flooded platformer market. “We learned early on that it would be an uphill battle to pitch Alien Hominid, considering it wasn’t based on an existing film or console franchise.”
Rather than land a development deal up-front, he took a leap of faith and made the game on his own, funding it from his own pocket. Tom recognises it was a massive gamble. “Some publishers totally didn’t understand the appeal of the game and didn’t have any interest, while others wanted to pay us lots of money and lock up the characters for sequels and licensing deals.”
Tom rejected such ideals and stuck to his guns. Alien Hominid took off and sales grew steadily after its release. Hominid was getting a great critical reception and sold particularly well in Europe, becoming a cult favourite with gamers. Tom was in no mood to rush the next project though, and actually had difficulty establishing what console it should appear on after Hominid‘s cross-platform success.
“Alien Hominid was a rewarding but stressful experience, so I wasn’t in a huge rush. We dabbled with a lot of stuff and eventually just sort of fell into Castle Crashers when we knew it felt right.” They originally started with Gamecube and PS2, but knew these platforms were on their way out of the market. “We tinkered with PSP for a while but weren’t really feeling it. Once we settled on XBLA, we knew we had made the right choice. It was an awesome platform for our style and had enough processing power for us to go nuts.”
Not as nuts though as some of his early work. It was in 1995 that Tom created an HTML website called ‘New Ground Remix’ that hosted all the shock content he created out of boredom. It hosted a game where you could take up a bat and club a seal, to a celebrity slugfest known as ‘Assassin’, which featured ways to bump off the most irksome figures of the 90s (Britney Spears’ monster truck for instance is still relevant today…)
What started off as a bit of fun ended up generating quite a stir. Letters from the BBC threatened to sue following the sadistic Tellybubbies game, but it wasn’t all bad. Tommy Lee described one of Tom’s first games as the best thing he had ever seen on the internet.
Above: Newgrounds always hit the mark with its satire, when it wasn’t busy hitting Britney…
“I was just goofing around when I first set up Newgrounds, but I always wanted it to be a fun destination for people to visit,” explains Tom. By 1998 the site evolved with a new Flash interface, with lots of simple games appearing developed with Flash 2, moving off free hosting provided by his ISP.
The Flash interface was crucial for the next stage of the project in 1999 when he created a section called the Portal, intended as a black hole for small or unfinished projects. “Other people were making games with Flash and looking for exposure, so I started to showcase their small projects in the Portal alongside my own”. The demand became so great that he started becoming overwhelmed by all the files people were emailing him. YouTube? Newgrounds did it first.
Newgrounds soon developed a following and was the first place on the internet that people could submit their own creations to get an instant mass critique. One artist in particular was Dan Paladin who, in 2001 and beyond, climbed to the top of the awards system with his quirky and colourful submissions. Dan remains humble, though. “Newgrounds had a significant impact on discovering things about myself as well as how an audience reacts. It can sometimes be a tough crowd there who can either push you to better yourself or to give up – all depending on how you take the really honest reviews.”
Tom took notice of Dan’s popularity. It was only a matter of time before the artist and the programmer met. Tom remembers their first project with fondness. “Dan and I met and just casually started talking about making a game together. It was all just for fun – Dan made funny cartoons in Flash and I made Flash games so things just clicked“.
Their first game revolved around a guy with enormous testicles. Players used their giant sack to bounce around on and crush kids. Dan agrees with Tom’s first impressions: “We clicked really quickly since our approach and tastes are somewhat similar. We are passionate about what we do so we have strong opinions. Sometimes those opinions differ but the great thing about that is we always find a compromise which ends up benefiting our games greatly each step of the way.”
Their shorts were well received on Newgrounds. With fire in their bellies, their next project was a breakaway flash game – Alien Hominid – which currently has over 19 million views on the website alone. Newgrounds was something of a guinea pig to test their skills, and the reception from users was glowing.
Then real life took hold. Dan’s employers shut up shop and he, alongside some industry mainstays found themselves destitute after working on an early XBLA project. Proving that it’s not what you know but who you know, Alien Hominid reached a co-worker of Dan’s, John Baez, who loved the web version and wanted to see it on consoles. The three got their heads together and formed The Behemoth with some of Dan’s ex co-workers, becoming an entirely self-funded company devoted to publishing their own titles.
For anyone else looking to set up their own company, John issues a stark warning. “Remember that each developer is on their own in terms of funding, the hardware manufacturers are not funding games they don’t own.” John, now considered an industry veteran, emphasised the point early on that pitching Hominid would be thankless.
The differences between designing a game for the web and for a console began to become very apparent. With a new title to show off, conventions had to be attended with an incredible desire to prove themselves. After Hominid’s acclaim, the desire – thankfully – was still there to tap into for Castle Crashers. “When you have little time and put a lot of care and love into what you’re doing, things can take a while!” says Tom of Crashers’ delay. Three years may sound like a long time, but in hindsight, both men have just hit their thirties and have two bestselling games to their name. Anything is possible in the future.
Despite seeing both titles thrash the competition when released on XBLA, Dan still has a tone of regret in his voice. “I would have liked to see 2-on-2 arena battles [in Crashers]. People are still finding ways to have team battles by calling out who is on which team. So in a way, it is still able to be achieved but I would have liked to have a leader board for it. We had this feature on its way but I believe we had to drop it due to time constraints. I’ve learned that no matter what happens we’ll always want to go back and change something. I think realising that has given me a little more peace of mind with Castle Crashers!”
Below, Dan takes us through the character creation stages with some of his gorgeous Castle Crashers concept art:
“A lot of the time I will show Tom a character design and we both talk about what he might do, what would be funny and so on…”
“Then I will go and create a few actions for him and Tom blocks in his attack patterns”
“After we play around with that for a little while we brainstorm once more for the finishing actions and touches.”
“Sometimes approaching something that doesn’t feel right later with fresh eyes makes the correction that was needed extremely fast and obvious!”