The Overcooked games are a real treat on PS4. The first was a modestly sized but perfectly executed co-op game that players of all ages and skill could enjoy, and Overcooked 2 builds on this firm foundation with new features, including the highly requested online play. We caught up with Phil Duncan of Ghost Town Games to talk about the transition from the original game to the sequel, how design decisions are made, and even the secrets of the Onion Kingdom.
Push Square: Overcooked is a fantastic multiplayer experience, which of course marries well with Team 17's pedigree with the Worms series. How did the relationship between Team 17 and Ghost Town Games come to be?
Phil Duncan: Back when Oli [De-Vine] and I first took the leap into indie development, we had a very early prototype of Overcooked that we were trying to pitch to anyone and everyone who would listen. We got a lot of rejections from various publishers who didn't see the merit in our chaotic, co-op, cooking game, but Team 17 were one of the few who saw the potential (they actually turned down the game originally, but came back to us a few months later after they'd been repeatedly playing the build in their office). We got on really well with them as a team, showing the game at various conventions in the UK and the US, and they continued to help us as we went on to release more content and port the game to various new platforms.
The success of the game was something none of us were really prepared for; suddenly we found ourselves with thousands of players all hungry for more content. Every DLC we released would be demolished in a matter of days followed by an influx of emails asking for 'more please'. The most frequent request we got from people was for online multiplayer, a feature we simply weren't equipped to deal with as a two-person studio, but when Debbie [Bestwick] approached us saying she had some devs available to help us add the feature to a sequel, we jumped at the chance.
The first game was in large part developed by just Oli De-Vine and yourself at Ghost Town Games, but presumably the scope for Overcooked 2 is much larger with Team 17 on board from the start. How has development changed from one game to the other?
Overcooked 2 is very much a collaboration in terms of development, we worked with a small team at Team 17 to really expand on the promise of the first game, and it was great to have a new group of people to bounce ideas off. We sat down with them in the early days to talk about all the features we weren't able to include in the original game and talk about new features we'd like to bring to a sequel. It was a really fun period, bouncing ideas and creating this new expansion to the Overcooked universe. It's been really exciting seeing what each new team member has brought to the game, seeing their enthusiasm for the game shine through. In the original game, [Oli De-Vine and I] were having to do absolutely everything ourselves, but this time, having dedicated artists and designers and audio etc. means we've really been able to push the boat out in terms of quality. On the Ghost Town side we also brought onboard Gemma Langford to pitch in with the story for the sequel, as well as wearing a whole host of different hats here at the studio.
Online play was a highly requested feature for Overcooked, which you've implemented for the sequel. Was it a challenge to get this right for a game that demands constant communication between players?
It was definitely a challenge, and it definitely brings a whole new dynamic to the experience, but we're just so happy we've been able to give people a chance to play the game with friends who they otherwise wouldn't have been able to. We had so many emails from people asking if they could play the game with their friends or families living in other countries, so it does feel nice to finally be able to provide for that audience. In terms of communication, we added an emote system to work in tandem with voice chat which has gone down really well. We've also seen people communicating in ways we weren't expecting -- spinning on the spot, or throwing uncooked chickens at one another for example!
Part of what makes Overcooked's levels so chaotic is the variety of dynamic elements, such as ingredients moving around, rats stealing food, etc. It looks like you're doubling down on this aspect -- we've seen a lot of the level that has a hot air balloon crash into a sushi restaurant. How do you ensure these dynamic aspects are fun and not frustrating?
We spend a lot of the design process with Overcooked thinking about freedom and restriction. In our early prototypes there was much more room for user errors: players could part chop an ingredient, or half cook a pan of soup, or even serve soup while it was still in the pan. We had to do a lot of work to ensure players weren't getting frustrated making little mistakes, and could instead focus on trying to co-ordinate their actions while working around the various obstacles each level would throw at them. The same is true without dynamic levels, we try to make sure that our recipes are simple enough and the process streamlined enough that the levels can challenge the players in wild and exciting new ways without feeling overbearing.
Can you roughly talk us through the process of designing a level for Overcooked 2?
Levels in Overcooked always start with the 'story' -- that is, what we want the players to experience and how we want them to act in each particular scenario. We want each level and each new mechanic to challenge the players in a way that will require them to co-operate in a slightly different manner. Normally we start with a mechanic and we think about the various ways we can use the mechanic to create a new player story (if a mechanic can't be used to create multiple stories then maybe it should be dropped in favour of something more versatile). When we have an idea for a story, we create some very rough sketches detailing the rough layout of a level, before firing up Unity and building things out. Our levels are grid based, so it's fairly quick to create an early prototype, but then there's a long period of refinement where we focus on the division of labour between the players, the position of the various stations (sink, crates, chopping boards etc.) We also look at the level in 1, 2, 3, and 4 player combinations, and playtest over and over again until we're happy with the result.
With such simple controls, Overcooked is a game with an incredibly low barrier that means almost anyone can enjoy it. Do you hear many cases of people who aren't gamers enjoying Overcooked, and was it always your aim to make a game for everyone?
Originally we wanted to make a game that we would enjoy playing ourselves. It wasn't until we started taking the prototype to conventions that we started to see non-gamers gravitate towards the game. I remember distinctly a really young girl sitting down to play Overcooked at Norwich Games Festival and just being thrilled at how quickly she was able to pick it up, and how enthusiastic she was about it. By the end of the convention she was sat there explaining to new players exactly what they needed to do for us! After that we made a concerted effort to make sure the controls were never a barrier to entry for the game. The game isn't easy by any stretch, but the difficulty comes much more from a team's ability to communicate than it does with how seasoned a gamer you are.
Were there any plans for Overcooked 2 that didn't quite make it into the final game?
There are a few but I don't want to talk about anything at this stage just in case we get to add them as future content later on down the line. We did at one stage have the villain in the game being a giant Food Cricket (food critic... get it...) but it was such a groan inducing pun we just couldn't bring ourselves to do it!
Why isn't the Onion King horrified by the idea of chefs chopping and cooking onions, and all manner of other ingredients?
The ecosystem of the Onion Kingdom is far more nuanced than here on Earth. One day we'll have to collect together an encyclopedia detailing the complex food chain involved, but I think it would go over most people's heads if we were to get into that now...
This interview has been lightly edited for readability. A big thank you to Phil for answering our questions and to Team 17 for making the interview possible. Will you be cooking up a storm in Overcooked 2? Brew up your thoughts in the comments below.