A Conversation with Duck Game’s creator, Landon Podbielski

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Duck Game is an anarchic arena shooter/platformer for up to 4 players, available on PC. It features a quack button, trombones, nerf guns, hats, furniture and a Duck TV presenter called ‘John Mallard’. It is one of my favourite games of all time.

I have an addiction. An addiction to Duck Game. I had to speak to its creator, and through some incessant Twitter messaging, I managed to get on Skype to Landon Podbielski, the loveable genius behind this frankly ridiculous videogame. I jumped straight in with the important questions:

Have you got any thoughts on ‘Untitled Goose Game’ as an encroachment onto your avian niche?

I’m glad people want to make more bird-based games! I loved birds and from the very beginning, like I played a game on DOS called ‘Howard the Duck’, where some guy followed a demo on how to make a Super Mario-style game and he’d just swapped the character out with the Duck character and then kind of went further with it and made it into a whole game – it’s just a cute little Duck that platforms around, makes cute sounds and floats in the water… Most of the games I liked as a kid were animals and birds and stuff too – I liked Sonic the Hedgehog and James Pond, who was some kind of weird frog thing? I guess when I sat down to make a platformer I thought, well, I have to pick some kind of animal here because all my favorite platformers have that and Ducks were always my favourite.

Where did the idea of Duck Game come from? What were your inspirations? Did Ducks just get pasted onto a platformer or did you specifically want to make this Duck based arena game?

Honestly, it kind of came out of a completely different idea! I started using Game Maker when I was 10, at version 3 or 4 or something, and I always had this idea. Ever since I played James Pond 3, which was like the Sega Genesis’ version of Super Mario World which wasn’t as good but it had a lot of cool stuff going on… If I could make a game like that it would be so awesome. Every time I sat down to make a platformer I would be thinking about that, and in Grade 11 or 12 I prototyped this game with a duck running around with 360 terrain, to see if I could, and I finished a couple of levels of that and then began to learn C# after school. I was like, okay, that game with the Duck, it was cool but never done, so I’ll start over. I drew a new Duck and put it on a platformer level – and that new duck was basically the Duck Game Duck now, to a T… and then I left that sitting for another year until I brought up that platformer engine a year later while me and my friend were having a game jam, and he said you should make it a multiplayer game or something, “cos I’m bored”. We’d been playing lots of multiplayer around that time, so yeah, I just put guns in it as a spontaneous thing.

There’s something about that simple base idea that you can just add all these extra things on top that give it this extra layer of richness, and I love this idea of you adding features not necessarily because they’re good but because you’re bored and you want to add something else

That’s the whole development of the game really – I started making it and get to a point where I’d played it enough, then look at it and say ‘I don’t know how much longer I’m going to want to play this game… I feel like it needs more stuff’, and at the same time I’ve always been obsessed with trying new things – I see something else in another game and instantly want to add something! I sort of have an obsession with programming random things for the heck of it to see how they work – and a lot of the things in duck game were kind of like that. The ragdolls were me just looking at it and saying ‘can I do a simple physics joint’ and seeing how that worked out, and all the guns came that way too – the net gun especially came out of me just thinking ‘what if you could move your buddy around and throw him into stuff?’

One of my friends described the magic of Duck Game coming from its physical comedy – it’s such a wonderfully slapstick videogame at every turn, in the ways that things interact with one another.

That’s a really cool way to put it! When I was working on the game initially and whilst it was evolving I was trying to work out what it was that was fun about the game, and I kind of added lots of things around the time like hats, pitching your quacks and ragdolling to make it more slapstick. Even just those few seconds after each match to kind of gloat or throw yourself off the map – all of that was sort of ‘how can I be more expressive when I’m playing with people?’ I wanted to be able to act, almost – just mess around whilst playing the game.

I think that aspect was really highlighted by Videogamedunkey- his video on your game is one of his best and he really takes the ‘acting’ aspect to the next level.

I love Dunkey, and that video is really fantastic and was really lovely to watch. Whenever I got bored with Duck Game there was always stuff where I thought ‘I haven’t been able to pull this off’ so I’ll try adding that for a while, and like it ended up making a great party game because it doesn’t matter if you’re winning or losing, you can just screw around a lot – and if cool stuff happens I guess we all win, because the ‘cool stuff’ is usually funny.

A typical scene in Duck Game, as a duck with a car for a head mercilessly slaughters his avian brethren.

The Ouya obviously had a very strange life cycle that’s kind of been attacked a lot by videogame press, which totally sucks. How was it seeing Ouya come and go around your game?

It was interesting, as I was definitely was excited when Ouya came out, but I wasn’t really that into their advertising and was worried about that at the very beginning. They were very cocky about it in a kind of Adult Swim style, and I respect confidence but I guess when it comes to a company, with the intentional confidence where they’re trying to be cool about it? It’s easy for that to fall flat.

The console itself was interesting and cool, and the reason why I really worked with them in the first place was because Bob Mills (one of the co-founders) found me at PAX. I was hanging out with a friend of mine who I’d done music for, and Bob was there talking to us and asking about our games. He said he had this new console and was looking for developers, and I told him I didn’t really have anything at the time but I got an email from him down the line and we got along really well. And then a year or two later I was talking to him whilst busy porting Duck Game to C# because I was working on a new engine, so I just threw Duck Game onto my Ouya and sent it to him and he was like ‘oh my god, this is so great, we gotta make this, how much money do you need?’. And I’m really not used to getting funding so I was like, ‘I think this is how much I’d need to pay rent and eat until April’, and from the very beginning he was so helpful and supportive. They would fund us and he would message me randomly asking if I was hungry and ended up ordering me pizzas and things, he’s just the greatest guy and we’re still friends and I think that there was a point where Ouya was dying and they were losing their market, and when he left I think I left too. The Ouya’s only problem was that it was excited about games! They were trying to get Netflix stuff like that, but things that eventually did get Netflix, and got it sooner, were the ones that succeeded in the end.

How was working with Adult Swim? Do you feel like their humor entered your game or did your game fit their humour?

I’ve always liked Adult Swim and was happy working with them from the very beginning. The music I did for Super Puzzle Platformer was published through Adult Swim so I’d already had some contact with them, and they always had really great people – everyone on the games team was so thoughtful and helpful and kind of had a different mentality to the TV team. They were new to it and trying to make something big happen! When I was a kid seeing Adult Swim was a novelty because I live in Canada and we didn’t really get it – we’d only see it at my friend’s house or a hotel or something like that, so it was cool working with them.

a well-earned break for some duck jazz

What’s your favourite Duck Game community ‘thing’ that someone has created?

There’s always one that’s stuck with me that came up randomly when I added the mode that let you download random maps and play from the pool of the 500 most popular maps – One that came up was a KFC restaurant, but KFD instead, and all the Ducks were in a deep frier, and when they died the cooked duck shot out of the restaurant into the hand of a Team Fortress Scout who for some reason is outside of the restaurant waiting for chicken? I thought that was the best thing ever, it was so creative!

I really like all the bullet hell ones too, there are dozens of Undertale boss bullet hell maps and things like that, and there’s one from when I added Parallax backgrounds where someone made a map that was just black and white bars, and the scenery was all black blocks, so it kind of scanned over the level and you could only see where everything was sometimes.

Have you got any other projects in the works at the moment?

There’s some big Duck Game stuff on the way that I’ve been working on for a while, and I can’t really say anything about it… There’s something really soon and then something not as soon… I’m still working on Duck Game, more is coming! I’m also working on a bunch of other stuff – I’m a little torn in every direction by some of what I’m working on because I can’t focus on one thing at a time! I’m working on a game development tool that Iwant to sort of work like an operating system, like a browser where all the assets in your game are like a file system of stuff lying on a big infinite plane, and you kind of drag it around and you can make widgets to open levels, drag sprites in there, with editor panes to let you edit all your assets… I’m hoping to get that to some point where people can see it within the next year. 

Where did the idea for the wonderful John Mallard* come from?

I had Madden games on Genesis when Iwas a kid, and they were always funny because I didn’t really like football, but I would open the games up and they would always have weird, funny announcers. I would constantly get penalties over and over again and hearing them talk about that was always great – so I’ve always kind of had John Madden in the back of my head because of my Sega Genesis days – so when i wanted to do a sportscaster at the end of the round I wanted to do something that would just so obviously be him, but notI’m obsessed with characters in videogames – it’s why games like Undertale are so exciting to me, because they do such a good job of putting so many characters into a videogame and it makes you realise that writing can mean so much in something and John Mallard was part of me grasping at something like that – I wanted characters that would say and do weird things.

On what basis does John Mallard pick the highlight clips? He always picks the strangest moments! And what’s the hotness rating based on?

Well, the hotness rating is basically broken, but it has some kind of magic to it, as depending on exactly what happens you get different ratings? But there’s probably a bug somewhere that just blows it all out. So long as fire does something in a match the game thinks it is automatically super exciting – all of it is calculated by actions and deaths and things like that… and it takes the velocity of all the items on the map together and there’s a timeline and if events are closer together they get a multiplier, and if lots of deaths happen together then that’ll push it really high and increase the likelihod of the highlight… There’s a lot going on…

There’s a lot of wasted effort in Duck Game where I’ll obsess over something that doesn’t matter and then just be like, ‘Cool, that’s got way more going on that it needs to’. I intentionally added so much to the system as possible so that I didn’t really understand what it was doing.

a shifty-looking birb tries to sell me some game-breaking modifiers

I’ve got 220 hours in Duck Game (Landon interrupted here with the most sincere ‘Man, that’s legit’ I’ve ever heard) over three years of University – I introduced it to my mates in the first week on the off chance they would enjoy it, and now it’s become a bit of a ritual occurence – so personally thank you so much for giving me the most consistent piece of entertainment in my life.

I make games because I love games! I made Duck Game because I played so many multiplayer games with my brother when we were kids, and like we’d play Sonic and Knuckles and Toejam and Earl and all different kinds of games, and I’d obsessively search for local multiplayer things and Duck Game came from the feeling of ‘If I could make a game that would be perfect for me and my brother when we were kids, what would it be?’.

I feel like it perfectly gets all of that, it taps into a nostalgia I shouldn’t have, but I do? And so much of the game is spent looking at the person next to me laughing rather than at the screen.

I did rely on blatant nostalgia, but I tried to make something a bit like the original Earthworm Jim game? Because it felt like everyone on the team must have been so excited to be doing what they were doing, and the music was so good and the art was so good and everything just fit together so well! It wasn’t so much playing on nostalgia as much as it was just thinking something was cool – everything that was cool I just wanted to try and put it into the game and have it fit together. It’s a series of like me trying to make something like an AMV – I love this, and this, and this, and just want to smash it all together

As a final question, what kinds of games have you been playing and what music have you been listening to?

The album one is hard because honestly, my listening to albums kind of comes and goes, I’ll just kind of look at bands as a whole – but alot of what I listen to at the moment is Japanese rock – Apple Music just recommends me random J-Rock and i’ll just enjoy that – there’s this band called ‘Art School’ that i’ve been really into lately – their album ‘In Colours’ came out and is brilliant!

In terms of games, Red Dead Redemption 2 was fun but it has that classic Rockstar ‘you can do everything but you can really do nothing’ vibe to it It’s such a big game and there are so many things that they must have to pay attention to that means that it’s just missing odds and ends that people might want included. Hitman was probably my GOTY just because it does everything right. there’s this brilliance that some games hit and some games just miss… Like the Godfather game was so fascinating to me because could just shoot your gun whenever you wanted to, so if you were running on the street and you pressed the shoot button you would just shoot randomly? It was so ridiculous, the things you could do with such a simple feature! Hitman kind of taps into that energy and I love it.

 

*John Mallard is the wonderful commentator who serves as a delivery method for the nonsensical ‘hotness ranking’ and highlight reel at the end of every Duck Game. I love him.

Landon is a lovely man, and Duck Game is available now on Steam and PS4.

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Records Executive and a real mess of a human being. Just an absolute garbage boy. Don't trust him or his 'associates'.

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