Two Point Hospital: The Developers Speak
Kim interviews Gary Carr and Ben Hymers about the latest movement in business sims.
It seems like a while ago that we mentioned Two Point Hospital, back when it was announced a few months ago -- it was certainly something that excited folks, or at least myself...I mean, a game about building hospitals, from the makers of the undoubted greatest hospital building sim there's ever been? What's not to love? Thankfully, I'm here to report that work on the game has been progressing smoothly...so much so that I was invited to SEGA HQ not just to have a look at an alpha build of the game's first hour, but to sit down with the game's developers and have a bit of a chat.
The video above will show you the impressions I got from that first hour, but needless to say there's plenty of good to be said about Two Point Hospital -- it's certainly a game that will feel familiar to fans of the almighty Theme Hospital, but in a welcoming way. Nothing that didn't need fixing is broken, and plenty of improvements have been made -- it's a smooth experience with all the good humour and lovely art you'd expect. More than a simple run through of past glories, it feels like the start of something -- which is exactly what Two Point Studios want. But enough of myself -- for now, I'll let Two Point co-founders Gary Carr and Ben Hymers do the talking.
Kim Justice: So, I wanted to ask you first -- there's normally always an interesting story behind the names of companies you're involved with. Is there anything interesting behind the Two Point name?
Gary Carr: (laughs)....No!...it was a number of different things.
Ben Hymers: Names are really hard...we spent a whole lot of time on a number of them and just found one we didn't hate.
GC: We find games much easier to make...much easier to make games than find cool names for a studio! It's really easy to be pretentious about a name for a studio, be something pretentious like Whispering Pig, y'know.
BH: Adjective Animal.
GC: Exactly. I felt too old for a name like that, I'd be embarrassed...the truth is, partly, it was a really bad idea that I started pushing on you and Mark (Webley, co-founder) that the pair of you turned into a less angry idea. I was a little bit negative about what had happened with Lionhead and there was a lot of terminology being thrown around at the time like "Oh, we're going to make Lionhead 2.0 and it's going to be amazing" and of course it wasn't, so as a joke I said "Let's call ourselves Two Point Zero because THAT didn't work", and then Ben told me to stop being so bitter...
GC: And Mark just didn't like the name anyway, and then we tried to turn it to Two Point Perspective for a while.
BH: We did some logos with the lines meeting...
GC: Yeah, it was all about construction, that isometric -- I know 2-point perspective isn't isometric! -- but it has that feel of being a look-down viewpoint. And then we kind of argued around that for a while and I think it was Mark who said "What about just Two Point?", Ben liked it and I thought well...it's got a bit of my idea in it so I'll just shut up. (laughs)
BH: And that's a true story!
GC: Yep! And another thing, why we called the game Two Point Hospital...Theme Park was a RUBBISH name for a game because if you google it you don't get the game, you just get theme parks!
KJ: It's ungoogleable.
GC: Exactly! So we came up with a kind of mashup that could only really be us.
KJ: Gary, did you think 25 years ago that you'd still be working on games like this when the original idea for Theme Park first came about?
GC: Um...I didn't think I'd be still working in 25 years if I'm honest! (laughs)...but seriously, games were something I got into by mistake in the first place, I wanted to make films but they put me in the game division of Palace film company. But it gave me a lot of freedom, as no-one worked in games back then and I could just make it up and nobody said anything...but I did think at some point that I'd grow up and get a real job.
BH: It is a real job, Gary!
GC: But the weird thing about games is that they take so long to make, before you know it two more years have gone, then two MORE years have gone by...
BH: That's what we say about the starting of this, because people always ask "why haven't we done it sooner?" and we say "Dunno...just didn't happen! Another year goes past..."
GC: You're on a project, you've gotta get that done, that's 2 years gone and you're on the next thing, you get excited about the next thing and that's 2 more...it takes time! But Mark and I spoke about this for years -- whenever we'd go out for a beer or just wanted to reminisce about the good old days, one of the big highlights was Theme Hospital. It was really Ben who encouraged me to get back into this idea and stop talking about it and go and do it, so I spoke to him and said "Look, I really wanna leave (Lionhead), but I need someone like you to come with me", which is REALLY scary. I always said jokingly that my career's behind me in the sense that I've done my risks, I've been around a long time, but this is Ben's opportunity, he's been at Microsoft and has a massive opportunity here and I just thought...I didn't want to drag Ben out of that.
BH: I WANTED to be dragged out!
GC: (laughs) I was just scared that I was encouraging you to leave a good career!
BH: Pretty good opportunity though, right?
KJ: So this is all going back to Lionhead?
BH: Yes, Gary hired me for his Incubation team at Lionhead, which was just for prototypes, and in the interview he sat next to me and just, y'know, dropped it in...
GC: I did NOT just go "Oh by the way, I was the artist on Theme Hospital!" Why would I say that?
BH: He did exactly that.
BH: And I was starstruck thinking "Oh my god I'm sat next to the artist of Theme Hospital..."
GC: I like Ben, but he's such a liar...
BH: But however it happened, my jaw dropped and I thought "Whoa! This is amazing". Anyway, we worked on a couple of projects and one of them was a sim type of game, and I dunno -- Gary must have seen something in how we were working together, so we went for a wander and talked about potentially leaving! I don't know why he thought I'd hesitate because come on, if you're asked to start a company with the creators of Theme Hospital you're not going to say no.
GC: There were a lot of hurdles to get over though, right? I didn't exactly tell you how scary it is...
BH: You did make it sound easy!
GC: But I couldn't have done it without Ben...thing is we were looking for a sim guy (at Lionhead), and while trying to get a sim designed through Lionhead is not a challenge, it's getting it through Microsoft. They'd had the same four IP's for forever, Fable, Forza, Gears of War...
GC: ...And it was just getting a little bit like "Can we do something else?"
KJ: You did become known as "the Fable studio" for a bit there.
GC: ...And it's fine because they're big IP's and they're doing really well with those IP's, but I just didn't want to do another Fable.
BH: It was becoming frustrating. Most of us worked at Lionhead and all of us have worked within large companies, and it's just such a different atmosphere so it's really nice to do something small...
GC: We weren't bitching about anything, it's just that I was given an incubation team and told "Go on, think of something then!" and all I wanted to do was go "right, Lionhead used to make Black and White, The Movies, it was born out of Bullfrog who used to make a lot of sim games...why aren't we thinking about incubating something in that space?" so I hired in Ben who was a big fan and had a lot of experience in A.I and making people come to life so he was perfect for us, we were plowing through prototypes really well and I thought "This guy really knows how to build these games"...so that was really the motivation to start the company, it wasn't like "Me and Mark should get together and hire this dude", it was "We should get together and make this dude a partner" because that was important. There's no point bringing this talent on board and not giving them the chance to direct the company.
BH: ...You're very kind. (laughs)
KJ: Two Point Hospital definitely carries on the kooky spirit of Theme Hospital. Where did that spirit come from, and why did you decide to keep it going?
GC: It's a little bit of insecurity on our part...it's easy to hide behind not taking things too seriously. If you make something too serious you kinda get judged on it -- it's easy to make jokes and it's kind of a nervousness/lack of self-confidence thing sometimes, you can hide behind humour a little bit. Also, we don't take ourselves too seriously if I'm honest! We don't have detailed design documents.
BH: Or long meetings going through all these documents...
GC: If SEGA ask us for a design document we kinda go "ok, we'll get onto that, umm..." (laughs) Bullfrog never did one design document, ever. Never seen anything written down, ever. It was either Peter (Molyneux) had an idea and we riffed on it, or we had ideas if we weren't working with Peter and we riffed on them, and that was the way we worked -- I appreciate that in large teams you can't do that but we're not a large team, we're a small experienced team...do we take notes? Absolutely, but there's no point in designing your game before you start it because you have no idea if that's any good or not, you have to design it organically -- at least that's what I believe.
BH: And that's why it's nice having the team we've got because it's small so you don't have the overhead of trying to communicate to everyone in all the different departments, plus we've hired some super experienced guys...I'm a bit of a weirdo geek so I track this stuff -- I made a graph of how the average age of the studio's changed over time and it's somewhere around the 40 year old mark?
KJ: That's AWESOMELY nerdy.
BH: Yeah...I think the average dropped down to about 38 at one point, which is still pretty old for a game studio!
GC: Did we have a work experience kid in or something?
BH: Might be after Harry joined, actually...(laughter) bless 'im. But the joy of having experienced people is that you can just talk about ideas and they'll do them without needing a huge amount of direction and documentation. It's nice to just have a small group of guys, who all know what they're doing, who you can just discuss things with and it happens, that's really cool and that's why the game's grown so rapidly.
GC: And back to the humour point...y'know, sim games are quite strategic. Two Point's got a lot of depth there but if it was dry, it might scare people off. Humour is hopefully a way of encouraging people to play a little longer in the space and then suddenly before they know it they're actually clicking on some of these lists and boxes and sliders, and then you've kidded someone into playing a genre they might not have actually naturaly been into! It's a way of hoodwinking people into playing more core games, really.
KJ: It does humanise it.
GC: Yeah, it does -- and it lets you push boundaries a little bit because...y'know, hospitals are all about life and death, and we didn't want to do that and make it too heavy. We wanted a situation where death's almost a bit of a celebration -- our ghosts are kinda fun and playful and you don't get to the point where you think "Oh god I've killed somebody!"
BH: That would be a bit of a downer...
KJ: It's more like "Oh well!" (laughter)
GC: We want you to care about them but death shouldn't be this thing like "Right that's it, I'm not playing this anymore because that's just horrible."
KJ: "It never gets any easier...."
GC: (laughter) That's it!
KJ: When it comes to graphics, obviously it's 3D as opposed to Theme Hospital being in 2D, but it's not mega triple-A standard. What were you going for with the art style?
GC: It scared me initially because I did all the stuff for Theme Hospital apart from the 3D intro and the board, which Andy Bass did although sometimes if I'm asked I take credit for it...
BH: Well that's ok, we can pretend...it's all on camera now!
GC: I know, sorry Andy! But one of the things about the original art style was that at the time it was quite dated, but weirdly it's less dated now because it was bespoke, it was hand-drawn, and it was really down to me what it looked like rather than any 3D rendering technology, whereas the 3D technology looked amazing back then but by today's standards looks pretty ropey, right? So I was really mindful that the style of Two Point had to survive, hopefully, another 20 years -- so we've gone for a very clay/soft look that doesn't look too rendered, it looks a little wonky and hand-crafted.
KJ: It looks a bit like the work of Nick Park.
GC: Exactly. If you look at his work it hasn't really changed -- from the art films he made early on to what are essentially triple-A movies, they look the same tech, right? So in that sense it's an obvious trick to play, but we're just trying to make it look like it's not too tech dependent? So hopefully it won't age as quickly.
KJ: A lot of projects tend to start on Kickstarter these days, or go into Steam Early Access. You've decided not to go down those roads...
BH: We toyed with the idea early on...we thought in the beginning that that was the way to do it, but then we talked to some people who we know who put us in touch with Debbie (Bestwick) from Team17.
GC: Yeah, we spoke to Debbie -- she was someone we sort of knew.
BH: And we got some advice from them that perhaps the wave of Kickstarter success has peaked...
GC: She wasn't putting us off, she was just saying that it's riskier now...
BH: We got in touch with her through my friend Gavin (Price) at Playtonic who did Yooka-Laylee, which was a huge Kickstarter success and blasted through all the thresholds, which was one of the reasons why we were considering it, but then they gave us the advice that actually there's plenty of negatives to that, that there's perhaps too much control in the hands of the community and you're kind of beholden to them for certain things, and there's lots that come off the budget...so there are tons of negatives, plus they reckoned the Kickstarter wave had passed. Plus there's the stress of wondering if you'll make your goals, or wondering if you'll just dribble past your goals...
GC: I just don't think it's a world I understood particularly well if I'm honest, old fart that I am. It's kind of like "Yeah, don't ask for what you want, ask for a lot less than what you want!"
BH: That's one of the weird things...
GC: And it's like, why are we asking for less? "Because people don't want to give you what you really need!" So we're gonna lie to people? "Yeah but it's not really a lie, it's the way.." and I just don't understand this world, I'd rather just make a game, with a publisher, who'll help us make the game and for me that was like "Yep, publisher, I understand that! They do good things, we do good things, we put our work together. Let's do that!" I didn't know how to reach out to a community, I didn't know what stretch goals meant, I didn't understand the whole tier system. You came in telling me what all of it means and I was like...still don't get it! (laughs) they're giving us money...and we haven't done anything yet? How does that work? That's what publishers do!
BH: And you actually have to do some stuff as well, there's a lot of that.
GC: I don't want to take money off of people if I've not got anything to give them! "But you're going to make something for them"...well then they can give us the money! Why are they giving us money when we haven't got anything for them?
BH: In the end Gary got confused, so we didn't do that. It just wasn't worth it!
KJ: "Don't start me talking..." speaking of publishers, SEGA are normally associated with action games. Obviously they've got a couple of franchises in strategy like Company of Heroes and Football Manager, but this sort of sim is a pretty new area for them. How receptive have they been to it?
BH: Hugely. That was the great thing -- we spoke to a few publishers, we eventually got in touch with SEGA and actually they told us that just last week they had a meeting and said they wanted a game that was..
GC: Exactly what Bullfrog used to make!
BH: Yeah, a bit like what Bullfrog made! Then we came along and...
GC: LITERALLY knocked on the door. It was thanks to you and your relationship with Christian (West) from Playsport.
BH: Yeah, Christian.
GC: You've actually been really helpful when it comes to this sort of thing...without your input we would REALLY be in a bad spot! Anyway, Christian got us in the door and then SEGA were literally "Oh my god! You're those guys who did those games! Wait there" and then they brought a few more people in and said "It's those guys! We were just talking about making a game like this!" In a sense it made both our jobs easier -- they were looking to build a team from the ground up that could make these games and we were looking to make these games so...just one of those serendipitious moments. Is that the wrong word?
BH: No, exactly the right word!
GC: Good, I said it right! Nice one.
BH: And it's been a good relationship. As you say for SEGA it's quite uncommon territory but at the same time they have started making inroads into strategy with things like Company of Heroes, Total War and other things like Football Manager, Motorsport Manager...
GC: Yeah, it fits into this new sort of PC direction.
BH: The relationship's been great because they're very hands-off -- supportive, but hands-off. They let us make the game that we want to make and then arrange things like this lovely press day, which is exactly what we want.
GC: We would have done a rubbish job of this -- we would have sent invites out and put down the wrong day...it would have been terrible.
BH: You'd have all had to squeeze into a meeting room...
GC: Our offices are rubbish, this is nice...
BH: You'd have all had to sit on like, office chairs or a lap, we'd go to Lidl and get some sandwiches for you...
KJ: Lidl? Bloody hell.
BH: (laughter) Not a bad word against Lidl, it's lovely!
KJ: Are you looking to follow games like Cities: Skylines in terms of upgrading the game?
GC: Careful you! You're on camera.
BH: You say this one then.
GC: ...I'd love to tell you plans Kim, I really would, but it's the first time were showing the game so we have to be happy that we've got stuff to talk about in the future. To be honest with you it's a long road off being in any kind of modding space, but we'll look at what people who like our games want and think about it as we go. We've got loads of ideas.
BH: Ideas for extra content, ideas for extra stuff we wanna do, we've got analytics and telemetry built into the games so we can have a stab at guessing the kind of things people want...we would love to support the game as much as possible.
GC: Get the game right first.
BH: ...And potentially other games in the same world of Two Point County -- that would be the dream to carry on making little people games forever and for them all to kind of fit together in this world.
KJ: Yes, because you've been very open about wanting to make more sim games...what other products could we potentially expect?
GC: I will say, once again, that it would be lovely to chuck all our ideas at you but we obviously wouldn't be allowed to do that...but what I will say is; don't think of the most exciting things that you would want to see as they're the LAST things we should be doing. It should be the most mundane, ordinary...because what we like to do is we like to twist those subjects.
BH: Hospitals aren't really very interesting, are they?
GC: (laughs) We saw a list from SEGA..."We've done some market research and these are really good subjects for things to potentially be in Two Point County" and #3 was hospitals! Would hospital have even been in this list 27 years ago? No it wouldn't! So it's not the really exciting things, the space games...we should be making sim games out of REALLY dull subject matters, things that aren't exciting or interesting.
BH: Two Point Department Store!
GC: Or Two Point Car Park...anything that is not necessarily interesting gives us something to twist and exaggerate.
KJ: That's the nice thing especially about a lot of the Bullfrog sim games -- a lot of them do make the mundane into something, which is one of the best things about video games in my opinion.
GC: Yes, exactly. It's an amazing trick -- you're amping something above what it was before and making it look like we've done an amazing twist on this thing...it's easy to turn a hospital into something interesting, but try making space travel into something interesting. It's already interesting, right?
KJ: Pretty much, yeah.
GC: So what can you do with it? You've got nowhere to go!
KJ: So many alumni from Bullfrog and Lionhead have gone on to form studios -- Peter himself with 22cans, Media Molecule, Intrepid, Mucky Foot...do you feel there's any reason for that?
GC: It's something we're trying to recreate -- there was a lot of kinship and trust. Peter was brilliant at just harvesting talent, just finding them and just letting them run. It became more difficult towards the end when Peter was in charge to necessarily allow creative freedom because you've got hundreds of people costing millions of dollars a month to make games, so there's a point where you just can't do that and it's got to be driven by decision making. So our trick we're trying to play, as I say, is small teams, creative freedom, trust of each other's ability, everyone's got a voice and that's really the way we've built Two Point -- we all pretty much have a share in the company, so why wouldn't we allow everyone to speak because it's their company...and that's it, really! And I think that's what early Bullfrog was like -- it was just a company full of people who were allowed to be creative.
KJ: One last question -- is there roughly an idea of when we can expect to see Two Point Hospital?
GC: Good question! I joked last week "May" to the PR person, who obviously knowws that's a joke because they said "Don't even joke!" (laughs)...officially we're allowed to say...
BH: Later this year.
GC: Later this year! Which it is -- as you can see we are feature complete, we're just polishing, bug fixing, things that look wrong are wrong and we'll fix them graphically but it isn't far off from coming this year...LATER this year!
BH: We've got time to fix things and we've got time to balance things, and that's the important thing.
As was made quite clear by the boys, Two Point Hospital will be out on Steam later this year.