Ghost Chef: interview with Whitney Hills, game designer
Whitney Hills started her career in video games at Microsoft Game Studios, where she worked on several titles including Viva Piñata, Toy Soldiers, Crackdown 2, and Fable II. She is currently working on Once Upon a Monster at Double Fine, the well-known studio headed by Tim Schafer. Besides this "mainstream career", Whitney also runs the indie studio Haymaker in her spare time. Her first project, Ghost Chef, is coming soon to the iPad!
Despite her busy schedule, she kindly managed to give us an interview.
Hi Whitney, according to John Sutherland from Microsoft Game Studios, you were "the first (and only) person ever hired straight of college" in their writing department. That's quite a recommendation! What was your background at this time? (your goals, your mentors, ...)
Even though I'd been playing games my whole life, it didn't occur to me to go after a career in games until I was a junior in college. I was an English major, which meant there were pretty limited avenues into the industry, as only a small portion of studios hire full-time writers. My goal was pretty simple at the time: Get a job in the games industry. Bonus points if it wasn't paid by the hour. My writing portfolio at the time was mostly poems. My most relevant work experience was a top-300 battle.net ranking in Warcraft III. I have no idea why they hired me.
What did you do at Microsoft Game Studios?
I was primarily an editor, though I'd also write when projects necessitated it. My first big project there was Fable II, which I worked on for about a year and a half. About four or five months of that was spent at Lionhead, wrangling the voice recording. It was a gigantic, 750,000-word game. I got to work on a variety of smaller projects, too, and liked the rapid ship cycles that come with working at a publisher.
What is your job today at Double Fine?
I'm an Associate Designer. Currently working on the Once Upon a Monster team!
Before joining the two-headed baby, you launched Haymaker in summer 2009. What were your motivations?
My main motivation was to be a better designer. I haven't found a faster way to learn than putting my money where my mouth is and making games from scratch. You think pretty damn hard about every design decision when the art’s all coming out of your checking account. It was also really important to have a creative outlet outside of my day projects. That way you don't live or die by someone else's game -- you've got the opportunity to make your own terrible decisions and dig your own little grave when you get home.
Besides you, who is behind Haymaker? and who is doing what?
I started Haymaker as a one-person operation, and technically I'm still the sole proprietor, but Chris Moolenschot hailed me from South Africa last year and stepped in as the developer for Ghost Chef. He's a fantastic dev and friend, and the project may have died without him. The two of us are Haymaker, and everything that we can't do is contracted out to super-talented people.
Now can you tell us about Ghost Chef?
I used to work in a really cramped, busy bakery in rural Georgia. We needed more counter space, we were always catching things on fire, and the kitchen manager had lost all but two of his teeth to meth. It was total Benny Hill. I like to look at systems in the real world and try to create an abstract version of that experience. So here's a simulated kitchen with all the mayhem and triumphs of a real one. But, you know, with ghosts instead of rednecks.
The gameplay is kind of like: “Hmm, I'll help this guy stir a little faster. Oh shit, Steve is trying to wrestle the kraken out of the supply room! And now Kanye's on fire, I've got to get someone to extinguish him! ... oh, and suddenly everyone's happy and productive. Until Esmerelda slips on some grease and drops the singing soup. Shit.”
You announced that Ghost Chef would be developed solely for iPad. What drives you to that choice?
It was originally prototyped in XNA, and we were going to release on Xbox LIVE Indie Games. But iPad has, like, an actual user base, and the design of the game was begging to be on a touch platform.
From the prototype on Xbox 360 to the final version on iPad, does it come with a lot of changes and evolutions regarding the technical part of course, but also the gameplay itself?
We didn't even try to port the Xbox prototype to iPad in any technical sense; Chris just started coding from scratch. The gameplay is largely the same, but all of the input had to change for touch. It's definitely much better suited for the iPad. I'm sure the gameplay will evolve further once we get into serious playtesting, which I'm pretty excited about. Even with the platform switch, though, the vision has remained largely unchanged.
Have you had yet the opportunity to check the ghosts bumping quality on the iPad 2? are you still focusing on iPad or intend to use some new stuff incoming with iPad 2?
We were crossing our fingers -- "no whammy, no whammy!" -- before the iPad 2's release, because neither of us wanted to have to buy a second iPad. Since there was no resolution increase, we're in the clear, and don't have any plans to release an iPad 2 specific update. But who knows, that could change.
Now THE question: when will we be able to play Ghost Chef?
Soon! It'll be on the app store as early as July, and no later than August. Hard to give a precise date due to the unpredictability of Apple's approval process. I personally am aiming for my birthday in mid-August, since most of the free world will be busy celebrating it and Ghost Chef would be a good marketing tie-in.
Do you intend to continue on long term both "day mainstream" and "night indie" careers?
Not if I get rich off this puppy. Every night I dream about cabana boys, palm fronds, and those gold-plated toilet paper holders from SkyMall.
Can you tell us about what's coming next on your schedule?
There are couple other projects floating around in the ether, but nothing I'm ready to talk about yet! All I'm willing to say is: "Ulysses meets The Facts of Life".
Thank you very much Whitney, now as a conclusion, do you have a little word for G2unit's readers?
Make stuff! I think everyone should make stuff.
If you want to know more about Ghost Chef, I urge you to check regularly Haymaker's website: http://www.haymaker-games.com.
Tweeters can also add Whitney's feed to their list: http://www.twitter.com/whitney.