HomePlatformPCInterview - Team 17 Head of Design, John Dennis

Interview – Team 17 Head of Design, John Dennis

 The Worms franchise has been a gaming staple since the little invertebrates first crawled onto our screens in 1995, got their disembodied hands on a sheep and a banana and decided to kill each other with them. I got to sit down (virtually, through the magic of the Internet) with John Dennis, Head of Design at Worms developer Team 17, to discuss the series’ origins, development, transition into 3D, relapse back to 2D, and a few exciting Worms projects in the coming months.


Capsule Computers: How did the original Worms concept come into being? What influenced its design?

John Dennis: The game was brought to Team 17 as a demo. An extremely clever young chap named Andy Davidson had developed the game himself for a competition run by a games magazine. While there had been other “artillery” type games before “Worms™”, Andy had added a whole heap of character and a little bit of magic to the formula, with the titular worms as the main characters and a host of bizarre additions such as the Concrete Donkey. When we saw it, we knew it had something special… and the rest is well… history!


CC: Were there any particularly interesting elements that were left out or removed from the final product?

JD: Hmmm… there’s normally features that don’t make the final cut. I don’t remember for the original “Worms™” game, but there’s a number of “Worms™” concepts we’ve worked on that never saw the light of day, such as the board-game and collectible card game. If something gets left out and it’s worth including, it’ll often find its way into another, later version of the game.


CC: The very first game alluded to the zany personality of the characters, but didn’t communicate it as clearly as later games. Was this due to technological restrictions, or did the character, environment and weapon designs take a zanier turn for Worms 2?

JD: I think when you look at any game that has a history as long as that of “Worms™”, there’s always progression from one title to the next. The characters, environment and weapons have all evolved and continue to do so, with newer, more powerful gaming platforms always offering more play possibilities and the graphical power to make it look ever more attractive. 


CC: What processes go into deciding which weapons are included in each iteration of the series?

JD: We have a number of ways of new weapons finding their way into games. Sometimes we finish a game and have a number of ideas for new weapons left over, sometimes when a game comes out people want to see a particular weapon added, and sometimes people write to us or contact us via our Facebook page with ideas for weapons they’d like to see. It’s important to us that whatever weapons we add to each new title don’t disrupt the balance of the game while adding something a little bit different. We’ve had a lot of suggestions over the years for weapons that “unleash massive destruction on the enemy”, but while they’re satisfying, they don’t always make for the most balanced gameplay.  

A poster design, from the upcoming merchandise range


CC: What difficulties were faced in the series’ transition into 3D?

JD: Taking the game into 3D was a massive challenge. There were many hurdles to overcome, the largest of which was probably being able to create a completely deformable 3D landscape. It hadn’t been done before, and without it the concept kind of falls down, so the first question was “can we create a completely deformable terrain in 3D?” Once we had a technical solution for that, there was still a whole lot of work to do in making the game play well, but it very much felt like things were easy after the challenge of the landscape.


CC: How were these difficulties addressed in later 3D games?

JD: When we followed the first 3D game “Worms™3D”with “Worms™4: Mayhem”. Our focus for that game was to improve on every aspect, and as a result the single player experience is far superior, there are many more multiplayer modes, better and more varied customisation, the addition of a weapons factory and Wormpot (our very own fruit machine for customising the game rules) as well as a narrative and story sequences at the beginning of each mission, improved visuals, easier to navigate menu system and better audio throughout. 


CC: What brought about the return to 2D gameplay in the last few years?

JD: For quite a long time Team17 worked with 3rd party publishers to bring games to market, and when you work like that, you have to pitch a concept for a game to the publisher: if they like it you get to make it and have it published. If they don’t like it, that’s the end of it. During the 1990’s, most publishers were having great success with the first wave of 3D games, games like “Tomb Raider”, and as a consequence, it became very hard to interest publishers in 2D games like “Worms™”. Consequently, we did a couple of 3D versions on console and the 2D version of the game moved onto handheld platforms (like PSP and DS) with the very successful “Open Warfare” series.

Things changed with the advent of digital channels such as Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, the App Store and Steam though. For the first time, developers had a way of developing games independently of publishers, and bringing them directly to the people who wanted to play them. Obviously, the first game we wanted to arrive was a 2D version of “Worms™”, and when it hit Xbox Live Arcade in 2007, we were very pleased to discover just how many people there were out there waiting to play it. In the years since then, the game’s been massively successful on all digital platforms, and we’ve been joined by many other small independent developers bringing original titles that probably wouldn’t have made it to market via the traditional way of publishing boxed games, which is great for creative, original games, and also for gamers who have more games to choose from than ever before.      


CC: How was the reception to the 2D games, such as Space Oddity, Open Warfare 1 & 2, Battle Islands and Reloaded?

JD: Very positive on the whole. There’s some very good versions of the 2D game right there.


CC: What can we expect from the upcoming Worms: Ultimate Mayhem?

JD: The game is a “best of” compilation of the content of both “Worms™3D” and “Worms™4: Mayhem”, so it’s got all 40 weapons from both those games, all the customization options plus a selection of new ones making for 115 individual customisation elements in total, and has all 60 single player missions from both as well, making it a just massive game. 

We’ve also taken the opportunity to improve on what was there already too.  It’s not often you’ve get the chance to revisit titles that you remember fondly, so our starting point was wanting to do the games justice. This meant going back to consumer reviews and seeing what people liked and where they felt improvements could be made. The main bugbear seemed to be the camera, so this is where we started… we made a number of improvements, from making it less interfering to adding a picture-in-picture function that means you can both retreat your worm and see where your shot lands at the same time without ever losing sight of either! We also set about making the game more approachable, and to this end we added a new utility (the Binoculars) that helps you aim, an introduction sequence to guide you through the menu system and an automatic shot assist mechanic that helps your shots find their targets in easy mode. It all adds up to making the game feel much friendlier and more approachable for players who’ve never had the “Worms™” experience in 3D.

In terms of visual improvements, we’ve brought the game up-to-date with a raft of enhancements. New water effects, up-scaled textures and fonts, higher polygon counts, specular materials, real-time lighting and dynamic shadows all add to the game looking a little more modern while still retaining its attractive cartoon style visuals. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the audio improvements either… we’ve a whole bunch of new music in the game, or all of the cut-scenes have been re-edited, voice-acted and lip-synched, which makes a massive difference!

It should be arriving on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam some time later this year. 


CC: Can you explain the premise of the upcoming Worms Crazy Golf?

JD: I can have a go… If I could sum it up, I’d say “Worms™ Crazy Golf” is an irreverent mash-up of our own turn-based strategy game “Worms™” and everyone’s favourite turn-based game of ‘hitting little balls with sticks’ (Golf!)

But anyone expecting a straight Golf game will be in for a bit of a shock… it’s got many of the favourites from “Worms™”, including sheep, old women, moles, magnets, mines  and crazy chain reactions. It’s set across three surreal 18-hole golf courses plus a diverse range of skill-based challenge modes, with each hole being more like a puzzle than a traditional Golf course. Completing each hole in par or under unlocks the next one, but there’s a bunch of things standing in your way, including  increasingly puzzling hole design and an array of obstacles; from castles that teleport your ball, cannons that shoot it across the landscape and even obstructive comedy bats!

Based on the “Worms™” gameplay mechanic of choosing shot power and trajectory, you also have a number of special powers such as the parachute ball, the ability to reverse gravity, or the ability to slow time down to maximise the effects of top-spin or back-spin. It’s pretty funny, and with four-player social multiplayer support, it has all the hallmarks of the “Worms™” brand: the trash-talking, pressure to make the shot, terribly unhelpful ‘advice’ from opponents, and often hilarious consequences when that risky shot that could have won the game goes terribly wrong.

It should be arriving on PlayStation Network, iPhone / iPad and Steam some time later this year.


CC: What does the future hold for the series? Will it primarily keep to the classic 2D gameplay, will 3D gameplay continue to be tweaked, will there be more experimental games like Forts Under Siege and Crazy Golf?

JD: Who knows? We’ve got some *very* cool things in development at the moment… some things that I think will really surprise people, but we can’t really talk about them just yet. Watch this space though! 


CC: What other genres have been discussed as possible future ventures for our little invertebrate friends?

JD: Over the history of the brand we’ve pretty much discussed the possibility of every genre. Except football. Because they don’t have feet.


CC: A few months ago we received news that a deal had been made to license Worms merchandise. What’s the status on the development or production of this line? Can you give us any indication of what Worms items we can look forward to?

JD: Just this week we’ve taken delivery of the first batch of Super Sheep plush toys. They look great, and should be in the shops some time later this year.  There’s a whole collection of new things coming too, including posters, apparel, action figures and key-chains… it’s an exciting time to be at Team17! 


Looks like it’s an exciting time to be a Team 17 fan, as well! We’ll keep you up to date with any news on Crazy Golf, Ultimate Mayhem and the merchandise line, and keep an eye out for our reviews when the games are released.

Of course, you could go straight to the source; check out Team 17’s website, or stalk them on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Irving
Michael Irvinghttp://behance.net/michaelirving
Gaming since the days of Lemmings and Wolfenstein, and writing since Scamper the mouse in Grade Three.