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How to murder adorably

So, there’s this idyllic summer camp built atop the ancient burial ground of a certain S’lay’a Way tribe. And the camp attracts numerous alcohol-drinking, drug-taking, sex-having, cultural-code-violating teenagers, the sort of crowd that might accidentally kinda bully/murder a kid to death, a kid who then comes back to life a year later as a rampaging bloodthirsty monster. The perfect setup for a cute and cuddly puzzle adventure, right?

Enter the murderously engaging Slayaway Camp from Blue Wizard Digital, coming soon to Hatch. We spoke to studio founder Jason Kapalka – previously known for PopCap casual games such as Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies – about his new direction, and the hopes and dreams of an adorably psycho serial killer.

So… what made you do it? Why did you found Blue Wizard Digital?

After I left PopCap, I was looking for a change of pace. I branched out into a few things that were not video games, like the sci-fi/fantasy themed Storm Crow restaurant-bars in Vancouver.

But I still felt that I wanted to do video game things. I didn’t exactly rush out to start something new, but I knew some ex-PopCap guys from back in the 90s. At that time I was playing some pretty hardcore PC titles, and strategy games like Civilization and so on. Having a family and kids, my gameplay habits have changed. I’m playing games that are shorter. I’m not playing 100 hour RPGs or super in-depth multiplayer shooters now. More simple games are what I’m interested in. And so we wanted to work on games that we ourselves would want to play.

Blue Wizard is also allowing me to experiment with topics and genres that would have been a little bit too different for PopCap – things like Slayaway Camp, which is a bit out of the range of what PopCap could get away with.

Slayaway Camp is soaked in vintage horror references. Do you have a favorite horror film?

I’m a lifelong horror fan. In college years I wrote a bunch of columns for local newspapers reviewing all sorts of Grade Z horror films and so on, which is part of the background for Slayaway Camp. But if I had to pick one film, I would pick John Carpenter’s version of The Thing.

Was horror always the inspiration for the game?

It didn’t start off as a horror game, it started off as a kind of roguelike. It later morphed into something like a sliding block puzzle. And we felt it was a fairly solid mechanic, as the puzzles were going, but the themes of those games tend to be very boring. You’re sliding crates around, or whatever. It’s not the most compelling thing, usually. So how do you make a sliding block puzzle that’s not going to be super boring? We decided to make it a slasher film, and you’re the slasher. Rather than sliding blocks around, your job is to murder campers.

How important to you is character and story in game design?

It varies, depending on the game. Some games I’ve worked on have been pretty light on characters, like Bejeweled. But whenever possible, it’s always good to have really strong characters in a game for a bunch of reasons. Part of it is, particularly in the world of casual games, it’s harder to rip off a game that has a strong character identity. For example, in the case of Plants vs. Zombies, there were some clones made, but none of them really worked very well. It was very hard to copy that without copying the characters. Having strong characters gives you more defensibility when you’re in a really competitive field.

Let’s get into the character of Skullface.

There is a surprising amount of information about him that is mostly not very easily seen in the game. He does have an invented backstory, that you can find here and there in obscure spots in the game. He has a history of how he came to be, which is kind of a pastiche of different horror movie clichés. He was a high school kid who was obsessed with this girl. And then his classmates played a prank on him, that somehow ended up disfiguring him. And he put on a mask and kinda sorta murdered people.

In the world of the game, as the series of Slayaway Camp movies proceeds, it becomes more and more ludicrous, more and more bizarre. So eventually he’s going to outer space and stuff.

What does Skullface do in his spare time, when he’s not planning trips to space or killing serially?

I think he’s got an Instagram account. He likes taking pictures of nature and stuff. And he composes haiku poetry as well. In his backstory there’s a collection of his “die-ku,” which are rather tender poems, with only occasional references to chainsaw murder.

Horror movies have long been a part of mainstream entertainment and pop culture. Is Slayaway Camp aimed at a mass audience?

Part of the idea here was to do more smaller scale, indie things. I’d like them to make money, but I’m not working with the expectation that we’re here to come up with the next multimillion dollar franchise on the level of Plants vs. Zombies or Bejeweled. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but working at that blockbuster, arena-rock scale doesn’t allow you an enormous amount of creative freedom. Slayaway Camp is a smaller scale project, and to be honest, it’s a niche kind of game with a niche kind of theme. So our expectations are in line with that. Since the team is fairly small, if the game can make its money back and provide a reasonable living for the people working on it, that’s plenty.

PopCap began as a small project and then grew and grew into a highly successful and influential company, finally becoming part of EA. What’s it like to be an indie developer again?

PopCap was certainly an indie thing in the beginning, back when we started in 2000 – three guys working out of their apartments. So Blue Wizard is kind of like going back to square one. But at the same time, the computer games industry has changed quite a bit. It’s a little intimidating, because the things that would have worked in 2000 are not necessarily what would work today. There’s a lot of relearning of everything. In 2000, Steam didn’t exist and the downloadable game market was pretty minimal, whereas now of course the landscape is entirely different, and the majority of games are downloaded in one form or another.

For the most part, the premium business model for games on mobile has suffered an agonising and gory demise. What motivated you to take Slayaway Camp premium?

I don’t have any strong feelings about free-to-play vs. premium games, I just think that, as with anything else, there are good and bad implementations. For Slayaway Camp, we were aware of the challenges of making it premium on mobile, but we wanted to see if we could make it work regardless. And anyway, mobile isn’t our only platform – it’s also available on Steam and consoles, where premium games are more the rule, and it has done pretty well there.

What are your thoughts on subscription models, like what Hatch is developing? Could that be the route to mainstream acceptance of indie games?

I think subscription models are attractive. You see that with things like Netflix, people are pretty keen to pay a reasonably priced subscription to get a large array of quality content that they want.

For games, I think that’s something that people would like, but we’re still in an early stage. The market is ripe for it, but it’s a question of who will come up with the right service, and whether people will gravitate toward it. In that regard, I think Hatch is certainly one of the more interesting companies blazing the trail, particularly on mobile.

What are you working on now? Something with lots of kittens and unicorns?

We’re doing a few different things. There are a couple projects we can’t really talk about yet. But we are doing a game called Space Tyrant, which is in early access on Steam right now, and coming out, I hope, early next year. It’s sort of the space strategy equivalent of Slayaway Camp, in the sense that it’s meant to be a very light, humorous take on playing the bad guy. In this case, you’re a Space Tyrant who is out to conquer and/or destroy the universe.

I feel pretty good about that.