The Vibrant World Of Hohokum

by Jeff Marchiafava on May 07, 2013 at 08:00 AM

Santa Monica Studio is no stranger to working with talented indie developers, having helped bring games like Sound Shapes, The Unfinished Swan, and Journey to Sony's platforms. Its latest collaboration is Hohokum, a colorful and creative 2D sandbox game from developer Honeyslug and artist/designer Richard Hogg.

In Hohokum, players control a floating snakelike creature called The Long Mover, exploring a variety of unique, hand-made environments as they help the world's inhabitants, solve puzzles, and just have fun. Santa Monica Studio's Nathan Gary saw an early demo of Hohokum at IndieCade back in 2011, and was so impressed that he raved about the game to the rest of his team. After a few conversations with Honeyslug, the two companies began their collaboration and have been working together ever since.

To learn more about Hohokum, we spoke with co-creators Ricky Haggett and Richard Hogg about what the gameplay entails, how the collaboration with Santa Monica Studio is going, and what they think about the current state of the industry.

Hohokum is a collaboration between Honeyslug and artist/designer Richard Hogg. Can you describe what the creation process is like and what each party brings to the table?

Haggett: The process of making video games with people from other disciplines is highly recommended – there are so many subconscious assumptions about how things should work in a video game that you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of trying to justify without really knowing why. Collaborations with "outsiders" are a good way to force yourself to approach things from first principles and really think about the thing you want to make and why. Dick and I were working on Hohokum part time for several years before the IGF build in 2011 and it went through at least four distinct phases before we settled on what we have now (one version had a golf mini-game!). The ethos and atmosphere have remained consistent throughout though; we were always trying to make quite a playful, relaxed game, but it took a while to work out what our core values (or manifesto) for the game should be. 

Hogg: Collaborations are really cool. Making things and being creative with other people is probably my favorite thing to do in life and I guess working on a project where two people have very different but complementary skills is a nice solid foundation for a collaboration. The bits which cross over, where we can work together – like the game design – are the most important and fruitful. But the things that we rely on each other for are the glue that keeps us working together.

Haggett: And recently we've become more relaxed about allowing other people creative input – animators, gameplay programmers, designers, and musicians...Getting amazing people to work with you, then giving them a free hand and seeing the amazing stuff they come up with is one of the best things about what we do!

How did Sony get involved in the game? Who approached who?

Haggett: It was during Indiecade 2011; Our fairy godmother Robin Hunicke (and producer of Journey) introduced us to Nathan Gary, creative director of Sony Santa Monica, and he came along to check out the game in a big neighborhood fire station in Culver City, LA. Though unfortunately he wasn't able to actually play the game because a four-year-old boy named Alex was hogging it. Alex was a bit of an early Hohokum megafan and kept dragging his poor dad back to play more. Anyway, that's where we started talking to Nathan, explaining our vision for the game, and it went from there.

What's it been like working with Sony? How has adding SCE Santa Monica Studio affected development?

Hogg: The thing that drew us to Sony Santa Monica was that we had a hunch that they would respect and protect our game. You look at the games that they have published and you can see where they have worked with artists who have a strong, uncompromising vision and they have supported and championed that. We are unapologetic about the fact that we are auteurs; we are passionate about our game and were unwilling to see our vision get diluted by a publisher. So we were always limited to either self-publishing or working with a publisher who we trust and who has artistic integrity. But actually working with Santa Monica has been way better than us just trusting them – they are very good at this stuff! What they have brought to the game in terms of creativity, enthusiasm, design expertise, and moral support has been fantastic. It is a really good collaboration.

Haggett: Yeah, there's that indie rhetoric about "the publisher ruining your game," but our experience has been the opposite. We've been working with incredibly experienced, thoughtful people who provide a sounding board from the perspective of being a little bit removed from the day-to-day development process. They are often able to see the high-level issues more clearly and prod us in the right direction, while being respectful of what we're trying to achieve. We've never felt that Sony Santa Monica want to stamp their own vision onto Hohokum. Ultimately, we could never have self-published the game we're making, and I don't think there were many other publishers who would have supported the game so well.

Hohokum was nominated for an IGF award for Excellence In Visual Art back in 2011. How has the game evolved since then?

Haggett: We spent a long time in the early stages of development thinking about places we want to be in the game, walking around places like the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum or the National Maritime Museum looking at all the exhibitions and talking generally about stuff. Then we would try to make sense of the things we were interested in, and look for ways to fit them into the game. It is isn't overt, but there is definitely an attempt to make the game feel "well-rounded" in anthropological or historical terms; to capture a range of experiences and places from our own world, rather than just having, say, a lava world or an ice world. 

There is much more variety, in terms of the atmosphere and art style, but also in the gameplay, which varies between being very playful and unfocused in some places, and a bit more "puzzley" in others.

Coming Up Next: Haggett and Hogg discuss the characters and world of Hohokum, and share their thoughts on the current state of the game industry... 

Can you describe the basic premise/backstory for the game? What is the character that the player controls, what is the main goal, etc.?

Haggett: The player controls a long, thin creature with a single eye, who we're currently calling the Long Mover. It is a very expressive thing to control, and feels a little like doodling in the air with a kite. Each place you visit has its own goals – the world is not bound together by a shared "plot" (this is not a hero's quest game). In some places you definitely are helping out (someone at Sony once made the analogy to the old TV series The Littlest Hobo, which we really like), but in other places your role isn't so clearly defined – you may be causing mischief or just messing around for fun.

Hogg: Causing mischief! I have never thought of it like that before. We really want Hohokum to be a game where the player feels comfortable just moving around spaces in a playful, expressive, creative way. What is the "main goal" of someone who is snowboarding or flying a kite?

So far we've only seen one level of Hohokum, which involved floating city structures. How will the other levels be different? Will you be introducing new gameplay mechanics? Can you describe some of the other experiences players will have in Hohokum?

Haggett: Hohokum doesn't use the common approach to making a game where everything is made up of a kit of parts which get reused in different ways. Instead, pretty much everything is bespoke and handmade for the place it lives in; there is very little repetition. This makes it special, but also hard to make – not just technically, but also in terms of communicating things to the player, and retaining enough of a common feel to everything. We need to ensure that we get all these crazy, different things in without the "surface" of the game feeling bumpy or uneven.

Recently we've been adding things like swimming through pipes full of guano, making a Ferris wheel spin really fast, and having Gibbos throwing fruit at the bottom of a giant Baribosa.

What is your goal for Hohokum from a design/gameplay standpoint?

Haggett: We're trying to make a game where people can relax and just enjoy being in a space, and make their own decisions about whether to engage with the "things there are to do" or just fly around making fun shapes and listening to amazing music. There are enough games out there which spend too much time telling the players what to do constantly. Turns out this is a really tricky problem; without any guidance, some players can find the experience unsatisfactory – they are so used to games telling them exactly how they are supposed to be having fun that when a game doesn't do that, it feels stressful. So a big goal for us is figuring out a way to give players enough information about what the "goals" of the game are without this impacting negatively on the people who are content to take things at their own pace and figure it all out organically.

Hohokum looks like a really unique and uplifting game. What are your thoughts on the current state of the industry? Do too many developers use violence as a core gameplay mechanic?

Hogg: Cheers! It's got kind of sad bits in it too, though. Anyway, the state of the industry, as far as I am concerned (which mainly means indie games) is fantastic! There are so many great games around at the moment and loads more in development that I am excited about and none of them use violence as their core mechanic. It is an amazing time to be playing video games. The indie stuff that is happening these days, it feels like a direct continuation from the kind of gaming that I was doing as a kid in the '80s. The stuff that happened in between mostly feels like some kind of bad dream.

Haggett: I think it depends on what you mean by "too many" developers. As Dick says, if you look at the wealth of amazing smaller games around now, there is every reason to be optimistic. For my tastes, there is definitely too much money and talent being spent on violent games, but that is a direct reflection of what games people are buying. The good news is that every year the big money is being pooled into fewer games, and every year there are loads of opportunities for smaller, interesting games to be supported financially.

For more on Sony's involvement with indie game developers, check out our previews of Counterspy and Doki-Doki Universe.