Ever heard of Alien Hominid? It was an Xbox sleeper hit back in 2005 and was developed by a small, independent company called The Behemoth. Those who shelled out their hard earned pennies on Hominid were treated to homage of games gone by. Influenced by classics like Metal Slug and Golden Axe, Hominid was best known for its crushing difficulty level and vibrant art style, and we loved it! But why bring up a game from last generation, you say?
You’ve probably also heard of spiritual sequel Castle Crashers which is currently doing the rounds on Xbox Live Arcade and those who played Hominid will no doubt have made the obvious link between the two titles thanks to the artwork of Dan Paladin, which simply bleeds from the screen. Of course, it’s made by the same people, but what you don’t know about these people is the fascinating story that led them from a bedroom in Philadelphia to your very own bedrooms via the advent of Xbox Live Arcade.
It all starts with a young American programmer by the name of Tom Fulp. Born with one eye darker than the other, he was praised early on for his creative school projects, yet drew gasps at some of his more outrageous creations such as a video book report in Year 6 which featured death, drugs and alcohol. It unsurprisingly got a D. Throughout school, Tom dipped into HTML and found his passion for programming, animating shorts in the school media centre and growing up through the mystical golden age of gaming with his Neo Geo and other classic consoles.
It was in 1995 that Tom created what would lead him here today. An HTML website called ‘New Ground Remix’ that hosted his shock content created out of boredom, such as a game where you could take up your bat and club a seal, to the 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 the reaction; letters from the BBC threatened to sue following the sadistic Tellybubbies game, yet Tommy Lee described one of Tom’s first games as the best thing he had ever seen on the internet.
“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,” recalls Tom. “By 1998 the site evolved to a Flash interface, with lots of simple games developed with Flash 2. This is when I bought the domain name and moved off free hosting provided by my ISP. In 1999 I created a section called the Portal, intended as a black hole for small or unfinished projects. Other people were making stuff 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 I started becoming overwhelmed by all the files people were emailing me and I wanted a better way to manage them. I hired my friend Ross, a PHP/MySQL whiz, and the automated Flash Portal launched in early 2000.”
YouTube? Newgrounds did it first. It developed a cult following and was the first place on the internet that people could submit their own creations to and get a mass critique. One such person who came across the site was Dan Paladin in 2001, who instantly climbed to the top of the awards system with his quirky and colourful submissions. “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.” Tell that to Gary Brolsma who did the Numa Numa dance! First seen on Newgrounds, the internet jive-bunny had to go into hiding after the ensuing popularity, although we hear he’s doing fine now…
It was only a matter of time before the artist and the programmer met. Tom remembers their first project well. “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. Our first game was about a guy with a giant sack, and I don’t mean Santa Claus. You used your giant sack to bounce around and smash things.” Dan agrees, “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.”
But how do you make that jump from making games about testicles to publishing games for consoles? Could the controversy on Newgrounds turned out to have been a self made noose? Not if you can turn negatives into positives. Their next project was a breakaway flash game-Alien Hominid-which now has over 17 million views on the website alone. Newgrounds was a prime guinea pig to test their skills and the reception from users was glowing. Real life would soon take hold though, Dan’s employers had shut up shop and he, alongside some industry veterans now 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, an entirely self funded company devoted to publishing their own titles.
“Remember that each developer is on their own in terms of funding, the hardware manufacturers are not funding games they don’t own.” warns John, now considered an industry veteran, emphasising the point that pitching Hominid would be thankless. Tom could also see the difficulty pitching the idea to an already flooded console 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, we took a leap of faith and made the game on our own, out of our own pockets. 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.”
So, they had to network. Comic Con, Tokyo Game show, you name it. They were there in their stall with copies of the game-which took a painstaking 15 months to upgrade from flash-generating a fan base and meeting as many people as they could inside the industry. It wasn’t easy and there were low points for Tom. “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.”
It finally took off and sales for Alien Hominid grew after release, the game getting a great critical reception and sold particularly well in Europe. After the initial success of Hominid, the next move was, of course, Castle Crashers. Tom was in no mood to rush the next project though, and actually had difficulty establishing what console it should appear on after Hominids 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. We originally started with Gamecube and PS2, but we knew they were on their way out. 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.”
Again, the differences between designing a game for the web and for a console were a massive task. With a new title to show off, more conventions had to be attended but this time with the absence of a need to prove themselves. “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, when Castle Crashers was nearing the three year development point, where conventions became somewhat bittersweet. People still loved the game, but they also questioned if it would ever be finished, and it pained us that it wasn’t. When you have a small time and put a lot of care and love into what you’re doing, things can take a while!” says Tom. 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, especially with a reworking of Alien Hominid just released over XBLA in HD.
The hard work has so far paid off; initial reception for Crashers has been great, the game regularly hitting top spot for download figures. So, Dan, anything missing from the game that you wish to God had gone in there? “I would have liked to see 2on2 arena battles. 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 realizing that has given me a little more peace of mind with Castle Crashers!”
It sounds like the quintessential American dream for two American developers who share a common love of gaming. Of course, talent and luck play their part but it just goes to show how anybody can get into the industry with focus, hard work and socialising with the right people. And with the new community games feature on NXE, getting into gaming suddenly seems a whole lot easier…
Want to find out more? Head over to http://www.newgrounds.com where it all started or http://www.thebehemoth.com where it’s all happening!
Newgrounds has never shied from causing headaches for the legal world. Here are three of their best submissions:
TELEBUBBY FUN LAND
A satanic Tinky Winky and promiscuous Po made Ragdoll see red, but visitors flocked to the site regardless.
CHAINSAW THE CHILDREN
One of their first joint web projects, Dan and Tom caused uproar with this early imagining of Gears of War…
K-FED: DANCING WITH FIRE
A more recent entry gives you the chance to batter the irritating Kevin Federline whilst Britney holds the baby.
Here, Dan Paladin gives us an insight into character creation, thanks to his previously unreleased 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!”