Swarm Hands-On Preview

The next downloadable title from developer Hothead Games, Swarm, is on its way to Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network fairly soon. Late last week, Hothead's Director of Game Technology, Joel DeYoung, stopped by the Shacknews offices to give us a quick peek at the chaotic, new action-platformer, and to chat a bit about the game's evolution and design.


Swarm is all about action, and doesn't muddy things up with an overly complex narrative or break the flow of the game with elaborate cut-scenes. "This blue blob arrives from space, lands on this devastated planet, grows a tentacle out of its head, and spits these guys [The Swarmites] out," said Joel. "There's the story."

The action in Swarm involves sending your pack of Swarmites through hazard-filled terrain in order to collect pickups of varying color and point values that are fed to "Mama," mother of the Swarm. Mama appears at the end of each level to assess your performance, and will react based on how well you did.

The entire Swarm is moved using the left-analog stick. Individually, the little blue buggers -- while certainly not the pinnacle of mental acumen -- are smart enough to keep up with their brethren and circumnavigate obstacles in their path. The Swarmites also have a basic suite of moves available. Running, jumping, dashing, and bashing are the basic tools at players' disposal, but the Swarm can also be directed to interact with various (usually deadly) machines in the environment. Furthermore, the triggers can be used to bunch-up or spread-out the Swarm, and each formation has its own uses that can also be combined with other moves. For example, jumping with a bunched-up Swarm will cause the Swarmites to stack atop one another, and the teetering tower can be used to "stack-bash" crates suspended from the ceiling.

BOOM video 7735

I was able to play through one of the game's early levels, and my initial impressions of the controls were quite positive. Despite controlling fifty of the anthropomorphic blueberries at once, the controls were nice and responsive, but also exhibited a level of "squishiness" that feels appropriate when controlling a cloud of dudes. There's a bit of a learning curve involved, but the controls all seemed to work very well in-context.

"The world is extremely dangerous. We've basically taken these cute, pudgy, daft little guys, and put them in this horrific world," DeYoung. "Right at the beginning of level one in the game, we put the player through this field of mines, or bear traps. Universally almost, people are like, 'Oh my god, my guys are dying!' And they're trying to protect them. But we wanted to teach people right away that that's okay."

Case and point: Joel showed me an area filled with poisonous gas, which would asphyxiate any Swarmite that wandered into its choking radius. However, by directing a dozen or so of the Swarm to interact with a nearby machine (which they did by happily stuffing their bodies into portals on the machine's side), Joel was able to shut down the gas and save the bulk of his group. Those who bravely sacrificed themselves to the machine weren't so lucky, but expending tiny, blue lives is often necessary (or at least, unavoidable). In another segment, the Swarmites came upon some bombs that could be used to blow up a nearby structure. A simple button-press issued the order to grab the bombs. Most of the Swarmites grabbed bombs, hoisting them above their google-eyed heads; however, a few of the Swarmites hoisted their buddies.

Each level can be completed with a single Swarmite, provided the area's modest high-score threshold is reached, but there are also mid-level checkpoints that restore your Swarm's population to full strength. While completing levels is certainly important, Swarm is really about amassing the largest score for each level, and besting your friends, whose level scores will taunt you via a host of leaderboards.

Swarm's controls are accessible enough for anyone to pick up and play, but the game's high-score chasing bent is obviously geared for a more core audience. "It's tuned to be hard. It's for a hardcore audience," DeYoung clarified. "We think that XBLA isn't the 'casual channel' on Xbox Live. It's for people that play Call of Duty, and then they want a break and try something different. It doesn't mean they don't want the game to be hard. It's interesting to me that games that have been known to be really hard -- like Trials HD or Super Meat Boy -- the difficulty is lauded." One only needs note that Swarm's high-score multiplier tops out at "x99," and that it's possible to complete each level with a continuous multiplier, to understand that Swarm's leaderboards could be quite competitive after launch.

The original idea for Swarm came about back in 2006, and DeYong explained how Swarm's game mechanics evolved from teaching your AI cohorts to perform basic tasks into purely action-oriented platforming with light strategic elements.

The origin of this idea came from our resident PHD at Hothead [Dr. Mike Hayward]. This was actually based on his PHD key research in artificial intelligence. In fact, in our first prototype, you only took control of a single one. And then the others would watch and they would imitate him. And they would learn from that.

It was a cool tech demo, but we found that is wasn't a good game, because the more stuff you taught them, the less you actually did -- the more you ended up just watching. So [Dr. Mike] spent several years toying around with it. While we were making Penny Arcade and Deathspank, he was working on his own. And he came up with this idea of 'swarm control,' and it's much more actiony, and visceral feeling.

Overall, I came away quite amused and impressed by my time spent with Swarm. The Swarmites themselves are incredibly funny and charming, but more importantly, the game's approach to platforming and group-AI brings some new (and well-executed) ideas to the genre. I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on the final product. Swarm has been submitted to Microsoft and Sony for final approval, but doesn't yet have a confirmed release date.

BOOM video 7724

Developed by Hothead Games, Swarm is coming to XBLA and PSN soon, following certification. Hands-on based on PS3 preview code provided by Hothead Games.