Interviews

Laugh until you pee — Dan Paladin and John Baez on The Behemoth’s 15 years at SDCC

The show floor was packed at San Diego Comic-Con with fans standing in line to try out the newest Nintendo game or snag the must-have Blizzard merch, when I stepped into The Behemoth booth. Amid the colorful plushies, silly hats, and adorable t shirts, I found CEO and cofounder John Baez, and Dan Paladin, cofounder and art director for this tiny yet, dare I say, behemoth-ly strong studio. As fans picked up souvenirs and tried to guess the number of plushies inside a cube, we settled in to talk Pit People, anniversaries, and some of the most memorable fan interactions over The Behemoth’s 15 year history.

I hear you’re celebrating an anniversary this year at Comic-Con.

Paladin: That’s right, it’s our fifteen year, I mean, well, it’s the company’s fifteen year, but I guess it’s the sixteenth year of Comic-Con [for us], is that correct?

Baez: Uh, yeah! That is true, because our very first year, was the first year of Comic-Con, was zero year of the company. Sixteen years at the con.

Can you share with us a little about what you’ve learned over fifteen years at Comic-Con?

Baez: I think one of the most important lessons that we learned, as a company, starting out at Comic-Con sixteen years ago is that if you’re an independent gaming developer, going to trade shows is a lot more important than you might think at the beginning. Because when you’re unknown, getting out there and getting in front of people who will talk about your game is very very important. We really didn’t understand that back in 2003 when we came to Comic-Con for the first time. We just thought, “Oh, maybe somebody will walk by our booth and — you know–because we’ve gone to Comic-Con before, but we didn’t really anticipate the reaction that we had that very first year where we had lines of people waiting to play our game. So it was quite impressive, changed our whole concept about what you should do if you’re unknown, and it’s something that we’ve continued to work with.

Paladin: I mean, there’s so much! It’s changing all the time, the terms of what you should and shouldn’t do, but I think the overall thing I tell people is to get it in front of people that you might not know and get an honest opinion, and take criticism. Learn to take criticism as fast as possible rather than write those people off as not understanding your game or something like that. Because, really, they’re who you’re making it for, and I see a lot of people turning away from criticism lately, and I tell those people, you know, welcome it in.

And try to make something that isn’t already saturated. You know? Don’t try to make something that’s already been doing really well in the genre, unless you have some kind of spin on it, ’cause that’s what we do. We always try to put a spin on our games. Within the genre, but doing something weird enough that you have to try.

So Pit People doesn’t have a Battle Royale mode in the works, then?

Paladin: There is no Battle Royale at this time.

How has The Behemoth changed over the last fifteen years?

Baez: Our company has changed remarkably over fifteen years. When we first started out, nobody was getting paid and we were struggling and we were very, very small. We were basically betting the farm on our first game, Alien Hominid, and bringing it physically to the consoles, and it was really, really a bet. Because we were coming to Comic-Con before the game had released, so… That has kind of showed us that the game was viable, and then allowed us to promote the game, which allowed us to ship the game, which allowed us to stay alive as a company, which allowed us to grow, which allowed us to make it to the downloadable.

This is–fifteen years ago, there was no downloadable! So this was all PS2 and GameCube days, and now it’s all downloadable. So it’s much easier to be an indie developer now than it was, and that kind of seismic change in the industry has been very helpful to us and others.

Paladin: I think some stuff that we added along the way are things that people generally don’t attribute to a company directly. Like we have our own QA, and we have our own usability lab, and things that we would use other people for, we eventually wanted to do ourselves or at least facilitate ourselves. I think those have been really, really big leaps for us, having our own QA start from the very beginning, and then start doing usability as quickly as possible.

But in terms of our mentality, it’s never changed, which I think has been really awesome, and I think that’s why we’re still around. Because everybody’s here just to make something cool, that we feel like should exist, and I think that not changing is also important.

What’s your favorite part of San Diego Comic-Con?

Baez: My favorite part of San Diego Comic-Con is 7PM on Sunday night! But that’s only because it’s been sixteen years here. It’s always the same, for me. My favorite part is meeting the fans that play our games. And talking to them, finding out what they like about our games, and really watching a lot of the kids grow up. We’ve had kids that started coming here fifteen years ago that have now graduated from college, it is totally bizarre!

Paladin: Yeah, we had kids who’d come in here that could barely look over our table and now they’re taller than I am, and it’s really, really cool to see that. It helps remind you, you know, because usually you’re at your desk all year, and you get to finally see the results of it, so it’s been really awesome. I think, I had another thought in there about coming to Comic-Con that I really liked…

So each show has its different sort of feel. Comic-Con is an interesting one because there’s a little bit of everyone here. There’s people who don’t know who we are, and there’s people who kinda know who we are, and then we have big fans, and I think that makes the show kind of interesting. Because some are like… PAX we don’t really have to tell people who we are, which is a nice feeling, but they all have their own purposes. PAX is almost more about just checking in with people and saying hi again, where here it’s a little bit of everything. That’s what I kind of like about San Diego Comic-Con, is the variety of it. But I like the other shows just as much for other reasons.

You spoke about the importance of putting games in front of people, and how you had lines to play the first year–but I don’t see any gaming stations here! Your booth has certainly changed over the years.

Baez: Yeah, totally different.

Paladin: Well, we’ve been doing different experiments! Last year was all games and this year is all merch, and we’re just sort of seeing what people think about that. I don’t know what–I don’t know what the response to this is yet, but last year people wanted things to bring back with them and now we have lots of things that they can bring back with them! So we’ll see how that goes.

Baez: It is totally a different experience and a lot of that has to do with how Comic-Con, as a show, has changed. Gaming used to be down by TV and movies, which always had a ton of people, but that got so popular that they needed the room, so they moved us out and moved all the gaming down here, and you can definitely see that all of the game industries, all the game companies down here, everybody’s moved to merchandise. Nintendo’s the only one that’s holding out with playable games anymore. Everybody has gone the direction that we are trying, so we’re kind of joining the crowd, which is something we don’t normally do, but we’ll see how it goes.

Paladin: Yeah, don’t judge us!

Baez: Don’t judge us!

Paladin: We’re just tryin’ it out.

You mentioned that some of your favorite parts of conventions is seeing the reactions of fans, do you have any favorite stories of fan interactions?

Baez: There’s all of ’em. There’s the kids–the ones that are the most difficult are the make-a-wish, you know? That’s super, super tough. But also super, super rewarding.

Paladin: I had one–does it have to be Comic-Con specific? Because there was one at Tokyo Game Show that was interesting to me was… The entire family had made things for us. So dad had made Castle Crusher masks, Mom had made cookies in the shapes of our logo and characters, and the kids made drawings. So I made a drawing for the kid, and then they started crying, and then I couldn’t help it, and everybody was just appreciative, you know? And it was a really nice experience and then they bowed all the way out, until they were gone. That was really… that was just–you know! I’m just making something that I want to be cool, I don’t, I guess I just didn’t expect something that deep, you know? It was a really neat experience, and I just–there are countless experiences but seeing kids come back that…

So we were talking earlier about kids that were really short or whatever, young, and they get taller than me; there was one kid who would come by, and he said he always wanted to do art and that he was inspired by our stuff. And it was really cool to get to see when he actually had a comic published, and everything like that later. That was really neat, because you hear people say, “Oh, I’m inspired,” but then when you see they actually made it, and they come back to say thanks, it’s just like–uugh! It’s good, you get a good feeling from that.

Baez: I think one of the most, well — I guess you’d put it under the interesting column, was several years ago, when we had chairs for Pit People, some of the kids got so excited playing the game that they just… they just peed. They just let it all go!

Paladin: …I didn’t know that.

Baez: Oh yeah! Yeah, it was like, “Oh wow, what’s that smell?” And then you go over to the chair and it’s… luckily they were these white, Ikea outdoor chairs, so it drained all the way through. But you know, they just got so excited and so into playing the game that they were laughing soooooo hard that–

Paladin: They laughed ’till they peed!

Baez: That’s good!

Paladin: That’s our new motto for our game: Laugh ’till you pee.

I don’t think I’ve ever had that come up in an interview before.

Paladin: We’re not your usual gaming company, we’re not shy!

I know you’ve got some updates coming up for Pit People, how much can you tell us about that?

Paladin: Well, we have Update 7 on the way, there will be new quests, and there will be new items that are functionally different. There’s an epic item that’s being introduced that I think people really will like, there’s been a lot of requests for a certain–I don’t wanna get too close to saying what it is, but we are–we do have–it is a substantial amount of stuff if you’re into the sidequests. If you’re looking for something like the main storyline, that’s not in there. So, I wanna set expectations correctly there.

So there’s quite a lot of side quests and items being introduced into Update 7, there’s some balance changes and stuff like that. It’s not a gigantic drop, it will have–I believe it is a few hours that you can play of sidequesting, so that’s what you can expect out of it. I don’t know when it will drop, but it seems to be getting fairly close.

What’s your favorite and/or most frustrating part of working on games?

Paladin: Ok, so… they can be separated right? ‘Cause I usually don’t have one that’s connected like that. I’d say the most frustrating part, for me, is not being able to share what I’m doing until it’s released, or about to release, because I always used to be on my personal blog, and I’d keep people up to date the very second I made something. And the way our industry works, I guess, shortening it to that is…. you just can’t do that. And so I have to be more secretive, and make people be like, “Awww, c’mon, what are you doing?!” And that’s frustrating for me, too, I feel the same way they do.

I’d say my favorite thing is exploring things that just haven’t been done, you know? When we did Pit People and we did BattleBlock, those kinds of things, the way that it’s designed is not really something I can reference anywhere else, and there’s something really exciting about that. We’re exploring some uncharted territory.

It’s also, I guess, in a way, a little scary, because you don’t know if you’re making something anyone will want or enjoy, because you’re mixing stuff, right? So, with the Pit People we bucked so many conventions. Like, in the turn-based strategy, you can usually pick your target and choose what ability and all this stuff, but that also takes much longer to do a turn. And so we fought against the idea, and I think there were just–the genre’s been so stagnant in the sense that you always knew, in every single game that comes out, turn-based, for the most part. And we had to fight against that, and we also had to do so in an interesting way. And that can be a little frustrating at times because we have something really cool, but certain genres have stagnated so long that you have to meet it halfway and compromise. But that’s also fun! So I guess there’s one that kind of ties in together.

Baez: I think the most frustrating part of my job is not having a clone. If I had a clone I could get everything done that I really want to do. And so related to that is… what am I not doing that I wish I had my clone to help me with is to get all of the experiments that I want to do at trade shows out and actually run them. I go to four or five trade shows a year, and I really try to do an experiment of some form at each one and some of the stuff that we haven’t been able to accomplish could be really, really exciting, just from a personal interest type of thing, but we just don’t have time to get them all up and running just because of the number of hours it demands. Hours in a day! And just making stuff new every time we go to a trade show can be really challenging. Seeing different reactions to stuff is great.

What’s your favorite part of Pit People?

Paladin: My favorite part of Pit People is playing against other players. People being really weird team compositions, and in all the years of playing it during development and afterwards, I’ve never really had the same experience twice in Versus, because everyone’s got a different strategy, a different decision on what they’re going to bring. And in 2v2, it gets so weird when you put, you know, two teams of totally different ideas together. Usually those people aren’t coordinated with each other either, and they just have to make it work and I think–I just really like those. I could do it all the time.

Baez: Yeah, for it’s the simplicity of the game. I really love strategy games, but I’m to a point in my gaming career where I don’t want to have to micromanage, and so Pit People kind of fills that gap of giving me a strategic game to play but not having to worry about mining materials, or having somebody who is idle and not doing anything, and I have to say “Hey! Go do work!” Because he should be smart enough to do that on his own. So taking out all the micromanagement out of a strategy game just made it much more exciting for me, because I get to focus on the strategy part of it, not on the technical part.

Anything else you’d like to talk about before we wrap up?

Paladin: I guess, since we’re doing lots of merch stuff lately, we’re gonna have new stuff coming up in our online store for all of our anniversaries that are hitting. So it’s the 15 year anniversary for the company, it’s the 10 year anniversary for Castle Crashers, next year is the 15 year anniversary of Alien Hominid, so I hope that we have a lot of cool merch coming up for the online store in a few months, and hopefully for the next couple years. So if anyone’s interested in that stuff, we do have new stuff coming up.

Anything you’d like to say to your fans?

Baez: Thanks for supporting us the last sixteen years, and coming to Comic-Con, and all of the other shows we attend; it really means a lot to us to have people show up and talk to us about their experience in our games. It really meaningful.

Paladin: Yeah, I just really wanna say thanks for, basically, making our dreams come true. Because this is really–there’s nothing I’d rather do, and we can’t do it without people picking up our stuff, so I just wanna say thank you for that.

You can learn more about Pit People at the official site, or head on over to The Behemoth website to learn more about their games and check out their Comic-Con blogs.

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