Indie Developer Interview: Size Five Games

Lair of the Clockwork God is a 2020 indie darling by the United Kingdom’s Size Five Games, available now on Steam, Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One/Xbox Series X/S. Developers Ben Ward and Dan Marshall were kind enough to join me via email for an interview about the game’s development and mechanics.

Disclaimer: Ben also happens to be a member of the Avocado commenting community – you’ll find him below under the username @Ben.

What is your background in the video game industry?

Dan: I don’t have one! I started making indie games before indie games were really a thing, or certainly before they were widely commercially viable. I just decided I wanted to make games, and slowly grew my skills and business from there. 

Ben: I have even less of one. I occasionally make little freebie things myself and do freelance writing gigs, but mainly I’ve worked on a few games with Dan and that’s it.

For those unfamiliar with it, could you please give your elevator pitch description of Lair of the Clockwork God?

Ben: A comedy mash-up in which an adventure game character and a platformer have to combine their skills to save the world!

Given the hybrid point-and-click/platformer nature of the game, and your fictionalized in-game avatars, I was wondering if each of you did indeed prefer one of those two genres? What are your favorite point-and-click and platformer titles?

Dan: Hah, I was always probably more the Platformer guy- I grew up with BBC Micro games like Boffin (1985), Stryker’s Run (1986), and Chuckie Egg (1983), and moved on to Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) and things like that. I feel like my gut answer to Best Platformer is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), although actually I think Sonic Mania (2017) is a better game? I just have such fond memories of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. The best Point and Click is Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993).

Ben: I like platformers, but adventure games are deffo my favourite genre. Day Of The Tentacle (1993) is actually the best Point and Click, I think you’ll find. For platformers, I’m going to be a hipster and choose a semi-obscure, not that mechanically solid one: Silly Putty (1992) on the Amiga 500. I love its ’90s post-modern pop-art sensibility, even if I can still feel the ache in my wrists from those terrible joystick controls.

Were you always planning for a Mature rating, or were there discussions about how raunchy the game could get?

Ben: With all of the Dan & Ben games, we’ve started off thinking ‘maybe for this one we’ll keep it PG’ and then within about five minutes realised that we’d be hugely limiting our design and comedy arsenal by holding back. Sometimes a line just works better if you can say ‘shit’ instead of ‘plop’. Losing the tween audience for these games about growing old and nostalgia for a handful of games from the 90s isn’t a big concern anyway! 

Dan: We just wrote what we thought was funny, and didn’t really worry about it.

How long did it take to develop the game and what were the greatest or most surprising challenges?

Dan: It’s taken over 10 years in all, but probably 2-3 of actual development. I think the biggest struggle was probably in pre-production, working out the puzzles and how it’d all hang together. There were very few surprises in front of a monitor.

Ben: Another big challenge was making a very modern, relevant game that pokes fun at a lot of stuff without coming across as mean. The first two games were mostly ‘ha ha, aren’t adventure games silly’, but because this game is half ‘trendy arty indie platformer’ we wanted to give it some genuine thematic depth and biting social commentary under all the plop jokes, so we had to be careful that we were saying the right things about the right stuff in the right way. We didn’t want to realise once it was released that we’d thoughtlessly put forward some offensive message, get yelled at until we changed it, then get yelled at by gamergaters for changing it.

What is your favorite chapter or area in the game?

Dan: Oh, I’ve played that game through start-to-finish so many times I hate the whole damned thing now.

Ben: Ha ha! It’s hard to talk about without spoiling the experience a bit (so everyone please go buy and play the game first, then come back!) but I’ll say the Grief chapter. It’s just a big mix of playstyles, puzzles, atmosphere, satirising indie games that try to pull on your heartstrings while also trying to manage it ourselves, and some wonderfully extreme tonal whiplash – I remember at one point while I was writing dialogue for it I was crying one minute then laughing to myself moments later.

Are there any gameplay mechanics or story sequences that didn’t make it into the finished game? If so, what caused them to be cut?

Ben: We’ve still got a massive document of stuff that *almost* made it in, from individual jokes up through puzzles and whole levels. We could only afford to spend so much time on the game, so we just had to pick the very strongest ideas and abandon the merely ‘very good’ stuff. One thing I was sad to see go was an extra layer to a puzzle where Ben has to learn a dance. In the full version, the player needed to learn different moves and then work out what combination to perform to fulfill a young trendy person’s request. So if this yoof told Ben to do the Drunken Octopus, he’d have to combine the, uh, Twin Snakes and Tied Shoelaces moves or something. And it’d all be presented in this QWOP pastiche with Ben turning into a flailing ragdoll.

The art design of Lair of the Clockwork God seems entirely unique; I’m not sure I’ve seen anything that looks quite like it. Could you speak to its inspirations?

Dan: Well, a guy called Michael Firman did the character designs, but wasn’t in a position to follow through with the art for the full game. I think I realised in order to sell the ‘indie’ vibe of it, it needed to be in pixel art. Quite a lot of the atmosphere comes from that classic new pixel art style that a lot of indie games had… but I always want to try to do my own thing. It’s about pastiche, rather than parody…

Is the game genuinely running in a 2D engine or is it (like Shovel Knight, 2014) a 3D game engine offering the impression of 2D?

Dan: It’s made in Unity, so arguably 3D, but the whole thing is proper 2D, yeah…

Do you see yourselves revisiting these characters or this style in a future game?

Dan: I’d love to. I don’t think it’s done well enough financially to really justify that conversation at the moment, purely because it’s getting SO crowded being an indie, I can’t afford to take that gamble that it wouldn’t sell enough. Presumably sequels sell less than the original… I dunno, maybe there’s scope to slot Dan and Ben into something else? That could be fun.

Ben: I vote we make a Dan & Ben co-op FPS next!

Dan: NO.

Could you describe the process of porting the game to home consoles?

Dan: Nope! I have no idea how to do it, so I got Ant Workshop to do it. That kind of code bores and terrifies me in equal measure.

Are there any other indie studios with whom you’d like to collaborate on a future project?

Dan: I don’t think so? I’m kind of happy just tapping away here doing my own thing. As soon as you start getting other people involved, it’s going to limit my freedom. I love my job, it’d be a shame to ruin that by making it go all serious…?

Ben: Hello Games would be cool, especially if they let me make an ambitious VR adventure game. But I’m a freelancer, so really my answer has to be: all of them! Spread the word, I’m available!

What’s next for Size Five Games?

Dan: I’m making a game where you play a bitey little dinosaur, we’ll see how far that gets before I decide to can it.

Lair of the Clockwork God is available now for the PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox, or Nintendo Switch; you can also follow Dan and Ben on Twitter, where they’re just as funny and insightful as they are here. If you’d like to see more from me, you can find me on Twitter under the handle @SinginBrakeman. Thanks for reading, and be sure to let us know what you think about Lair of the Clockwork God in the discussion below!