Q&A with “The Swindle” Coder/Designer Dan Marshall

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“The Swindle” is the latest game from Size Five, a BAFTA-winning indie developer. The game is a described on the title screen as a “steampunk cybercrime caper.” Once in control, players can break into procedurally generated buildings, hack computers, steal money and run back to their airship before the authorities come. When back safely in the ship, there are upgrades to purchase with what was looted.

“Geeks With Wives” was given the privilege to interview its coder and designer Dan Marshall to discuss the game.

Geeks with Wives: Where did the idea for “The Swindle” originate?

Dan Marshall: It’s one of those things that’s been kicking around in the back of my head since I was a kid. … I had this idea for a little 2D thing about a guy breaking into a building and stealing data. It didn’t go very far but it’s one of those things that when I finished working out what I should be doing. It was in that that I thought I’ve done it. It was one of those ideas that just kept coming back to me, and it went from there. It suddenly went steampunk, stealing and that kind of thing.

GWW: Why steampunk?

DM: I always liked that aesthetic and wanted to turn my hand toward doing something steampunky. By the nature of the beast, the game was steampunk, it was set in London in 1849 and it had old dirty, grimy aesthetics but it also had all these concepts like hacking computers; AI singularities; and body modifications, which always to me feels cyberpunky. So I took to okay, I’m not going to make it pure steampunk or cyberpunk. I’m going to do something that melds the two worlds together. Everything down from the music, aesthetics, effects in “The Swindle” straddles these two worlds.

GWW: Is there a lore?

DM: At one point the old version of “The Swindle” had a load of plots. It wasn’t quite fully formed but it had a structure to the world. And I took it all out because it just didn’t work, it wasn’t that kind of game. It was annoying playing heists, having cutscenes pop-up and having you try to focus on something. I like the less is more approach to game’s storytelling. I drip little bits of information in text snippets, and you can discern a few things about the world’s background from them. I’d rather leave that to other people. That’s more interesting. I’m not going to say too much. It ruins it if you say too much.

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GWW: What are video game inspirations for “The Swindle?”

DM: One of the first influences was “Assassin’s Creed II” because I love having a bank account in games, so that I can afford having the new toy. It wasn’t really working as that game. “Spelunky” was one of those things. I was playing “Spelunky,” and I realized that if I do procedurally generated levels it would solve a lot of problems my old version of “The Swindle” had. I did a prototype, and in about a week or so it was really fun. So I stuck with it. It’s got little bits of loads of stuff in it: XCOM, with the base building, the concepts of losing thieves and feeling distraught when they die; Syndicate; etc.

GWW: Explain the progression system.

DM: The first few levels are designed to progress with you, a little bit. The game will add new elements if it feels you’re succeeding and capable of coping with them. … As time goes on, and you obviously start to get better at it and accrue more money, the difficulty ranks up really quickly because when you’re playing through for that second time, and I suppose most people wind up doing that once they’ve got the grips of the mechanics. You want that challenge in there as soon as possible. Apart from that, …how much money you can make from each heist in each of the districts that ranks up quite quickly. … It prices upgrades at a point where you aren’t able to afford it unless you’re doing level three heists, for example. All of that was a lot back and forth in beta testing, and there was a lot of tweaking those numbers up; down; left; and right until it felt really reasonable. … If you stick with it and you work at it then you can afford that kind of stuff.

GWW: Talk about the difficult learning curve.

DM: This is one of those things I’ve had a hard time communicating. The game to me feels very old school in its approach and it’s a game designed to appeal to people like me. I’m personally fed up to the fact that games are holding your hand through every step of the way to the point where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything and not letting you feel your way around the world. … It’s more interesting to me as a designer to let you be the burglar and work things out yourself, treating you like an adult. If I was to do the former, there’s no fun in that. There’s no discovery. It’s wearing me down about the games industry where if everyone isn’t having an amazing time, all the time, an A+, 10-out-of-10 experience the whole time. And if anyone is slightly confused about what’s going, they’re not enjoying themselves and we have to make sure they’re enjoying themselves. I actually find pleasure from games that turn off all tips and letting me work things out for myself, and that’s not to everyone’s taste. A lot of people have been very critical to me about this, and I don’t care because of the people that love it, love it. That’s who the game is for. I get more emails from people saying, “I’m so pleased there are no tutorials in ‘The Swindle.’ It’s so much more fun working things out for myself. Thank you for doing that.” Than the handful of people who are complaining about there not being any tutorials. It’s a difficult thing to do but it makes it a much more interesting game.

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Wrinkles

  • Some games Marshall has played recently are Rocksteady’s Arkham series. He said the trilogy is “brilliant…beautiful, tight, polished, well presented and interesting. Throughout they’re a joy.” The other is XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within, which he said he plays on a regular basis, but “stopped recently so I don’t burn myself out for ‘XCOM 2’ later in the year, which is the thing I’m most excited about.”
  • Expect patches for “The Swindle” in the form of tweaks and fixes. Other than that, Marshall said there are no plans for DLC but possibly the addition of endless and daily challenge modes for leaderboards based off player feedback. “I’m going to have to play around with that and see if I can make that finite. One of the reasons why it wasn’t in the game originally was because — it was there but I took it out — without the 100 days limit your motivation for staying and building disappears and it changes the game for the worse quite a lot. It’s something people have been requesting. I’m going to have to do a lot of design work to work out how to do it in a way that’s still entertaining.”
  • Marshall said he’d “love to do a sequel” to “The Swindle.” For now, he’s seeing how it does in terms of units sold and financially and what people think while also thinking about a new game idea.

Keep checking GWW for a review of “The Swindle.”

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