Overcooked: The Story of Ghost Town Games
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Overcooked: The Story of Ghost Town Games

August 25, 2019


Phil Duncan had his head in a pot. He was hard at work, washing out the cooking
equipment in a busy kitchen. His job in a restaurant was always stressful
and busy, but it also came with a great sense of camaraderie and friendship. The kitchen was hectic, chaotic, and busy. But there was an order to things; a structure,
with everyone taking on their own important roles to help get food ready. Whether Phil was washing pots or taking orders
from customers, he felt like a vital part of the team. Years later, when Phil and his friend Oli
Devine began working on their own co-operative video game, he would remember these stressful
but exciting experiences in the restaurant. This is the story of Overcooked, and how two
best friends made a game all about teamwork, organisation, and onion soup. Oli Devine and Phil Duncan loved playing games
together. The pair had been working together at the
game studio Frontier Developments for years. Oli was a programmer, while Phil worked as
a designer. In their spare time outside of work, they
would work on their own personal game projects together, creating demos and tests for the
kind of game they’d like to make together. But during the day, at lunchtime and at other
opportunities, Phil and Oli would play multiplayer games together with some of the other employees
at Frontier. It wasn’t always easy finding the right
game to play. The pair had fond memories of their youth,
playing games like Goldeneye and Mario Kart, but local multiplayer games now were in short
supply. The ideal game for the friends would be some
kind of co-operative game, where they could all work together instead of fighting competitively. But even a lot of co-op games had their limitations. A lot of multiplayer games suffered from what
the group started calling “first-to-fun”. It was a race to get the best equipment, or
additional points or currency, or to kill the next enemy. Yes, these games were technically cooperative,
but there was always an underlying sense of rivalry to their design. In the absence of an ideal multiplayer game,
Oli and Phil decided that they ought to make their own. Between the two of them, they had all the
skills they needed, so they got to work. Phil liked the idea of setting the game in
a kitchen. He remembered his own experiences working
in a restaurant, and this atmosphere perfectly matched the kind of fast-paced, teamwork-based
gameplay that the pair were looking for. The big challenge came from balance. At first, the newly conceived Overcooked featured
a lot of different ingredients, and no set order or structure to what could be thrown
into a burger, or other meal. But this made it too easy for players to make
small, frustrating mistakes, so the gameplay was simplified. Similarly, the pair axed mechanics that involved
food spoiling if left unattended on a counter. They added little signs over cooking pots
to let players know what was inside. They designed actions so that they required
the fewest possible button presses. The focus here wasn’t on gameplay, but on
cooperation. The challenge – the skill required – was
communication, rather than familiarity with a controller. But a game that focused so much on teamwork
needed lots of playtesters. Oli and Phil took their game to every available
venue just to watch people play. They showed off Overcooked in pubs, and museums,
and universities. They bribed their friends with pizza to come
round and try out every new iteration of the game. The pair studied the reactions they got from
players. What elements worked? What made communication easier, and what could
they do to force players to work together as a team? They needed to design the game so that no
one player could do everything by themselves. This meant throwing out a lot of game design
ideas regularly. It meant constant tweaks to the formula as
they tried to figure out how to build the game. When Phil and Oli’s friends finally started
wanting to play Overcooked without being bribed by pizza, they knew they were on to something. When it came time to find a publisher for
their game, Oli and Phil struggled at first. As experienced as they were at games design,
their tiny new indie studio, Ghost Town Games, didn’t exactly carry a lot of weight in
the industry. No developer seemed to see the merit in a
game built around a friendly local multiplayer experience. The pair received a lot of rejection letters,
including one from a publisher called Team 17. Then, a few months later, Team 17 got back
in contact again. While they’d initially been unsure about
Overcooked, they’d all been playing the demo non-stop ever since receiving it. They’d finally realised that actually, this
game had the potential to be a big hit! The best moment from the pair came from taking
Overcooked to an unusual game expo. The Norwich Games Festival offers free entry
for all attendees and exhibitors, and as such, it brings in a very diverse audience. Phil and Oli tensed up when they saw a little
redheaded girl, only around eight years old, making her way towards their booth. They hadn’t thought of this. The youngest playtester for Overcooked up
to that point had been around twenty five. How was someone this young going to handle
the game. Slowly and carefully, Phil and Oli talked
the little girl through what each of the buttons did. It was clear that she wasn’t particularly
familiar with a games controller. In no time at all, the girl’s face lit up,
as she experienced the “a-ha!” moment, and figured out what she needed to do. It was a testament to the simple, welcoming
game design that Oli and Phil had worked so hard to achieve. Soon, the girl was barking orders at the pair
as they all played together. She needed them to slice up vegetables or
bring over a cooked dish. Despite her inexperience, she had very quickly
figured out exactly how the game was supposed to work. Over the course of the expo, Phil and Oli
showed their game off to over a hundred attendees. But every now and then, this little girl kept
coming back to play more and more. She began showing other newcomers how the
controls worked, eager to help them get the most out of the game as well. This was incredibly gratifying to the pair
of designers. They’d achieved their goal with the game
– it was accessible, enjoyable, and completely dependant on players communicating with each
other. The moral of the story is that we can all
achieve more when we work together. Phil Duncan and Oli Devine were just two developers,
striving to fill a niche in the games market, more for themselves than for anyone else. Neither member of the team had all the skills
necessary to make Overcooked a reality, and it was only by working together – and with
publisher Team 17, as well as lots and lots of playtesters – that the game was completed. Don’t feel like you need to go it alone
as you work towards your goals. Find ways to help and support others, and
do your best to let other people help you. As we all work together, we’ll all have
a lot more fun.

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  1. The perfect game for Gordon Ramsay. Where's the lamb sause on here?!
    4:10 Chiaki The Ultimate Gamer from Danganronpa 2 on the right.

  2. Oh yeah, Overcooked! I knew it had to have been created by someone who had worked in a kitchen; as someone who has also worked in a variety of kitchens, I know the organized chaos all too well. Thank you so much for making this! ^_^

  3. I’ve always been curious about the story behind this one. I have fond memories of playing this game on a moving bus on one of our band trips. So much fun!

  4. I just adore the Chill atmosphere of these videos, I'm glad I found this channel and its relaxed little corner on the internet

  5. Thank you! Your Saturo Iwata video I watched in December is the main reason why to this day I have been working non stop in my spare time ,since Christmas to create my game.

    I am 17 and I was at a point where I thought I was not going to make it in game dev as it is such a small market in the UK to get into. However your channel gave me the inspiration boost I needed and luckily I had found your channel at a time where I most needed it.

    I just want to say. Don't stop what you are doing. Your channel is influential to others in the game dev community and I could tell you have helped hundreds/ thousands of people already.
    All the best for your channel 🙂

  6. You guys are one of my most favourite YouTubers.

    I have actually, started listening to your videos as bedtime stories, quite regularly now.

    (:

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