Interview: Titmouse Games is a bunch of psychopaths

You’re likely familiar with Titmouse Animation’s work. It’s the folks that bring Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse to life, and the slick animated cut-scenes in many of Activision’s Guitar Hero titles. Its slogan? “We make cartoons.”

But now that it’s getting into the realm of videogames as the newly-formed Titmouse Games, it have a new slogan, written boldly on the back of the grey t-shirt they handed me: “We make cool shit.” Or at least that’s the plan. Having just announced its first titles — the iPhone game Fistful of Blood and the unannounced-platform game Seven Haunted Seas — I was fortunate enough to sit down with them to get the scoop. 

Five minutes into the interview, we were talking about an inpending night of wild partying and soon after, stabbing things. When I suggested the headline of my article would be “Titmouse is a bunch of psychopaths,” the studio’s creative director Aaron Habibipour laughed with approval.

“That’s actually cool,” he said.

I knew where this was headed. And I kind of liked it.

DESTRUCTOID: Tell me a little bit about you guys as a company. You’ve been doing the animation thing for awhile, so how did you cross over into videogames?

Keith Fay, Vice President of Titmouse, Inc.:
The original company’s Titmouse Animation. We’ve been around for about five years now; we do Metalocalypse for Adult Swim, we’ve got a couple other series we’re doing right now, we do films. We actually met Aaron when he was running Guitar Hero over at Neversoft, [where] he did the cinematics for III, World Tour, and Metallica. Everybody in our studio plays games, everybody’s sort of in that world. As we’re getting more immersed with those guys we were thinking “Fuck, why don’t we just do this ourselves? We can make cool games!”

But we needed a dude, since we’re essentially just an animation studio. It was weird just as we were starting to ramp up and pull the trigger to start a games division, Aaron left Neversoft and it was just like “Bam!” So the ramp up as been pretty cool.

What are you guys working on? You just announced something… can you tell me a little bit about that?

Aaron Habibipour, Creative Director for Titmouse Games:
We announced two games between last week and this week. The first was Seven Haunted Seas which is our original title that we’re working on, and the second one is Fistful of Blood. We have a partnership now with Kevin Eastman who is the creator of the Ninja Turtles, and editor and publisher of Heavy Metal magazine. He did a graphic novel with [illustrator] Simon Bisley a few years back called Fistful of Blood. So we’re doing that, and we’re kind of aiming that for iPhones and digital distribution. Seven Haunted Seas is something we’re aiming as a much larger project for consoles.

Fistful of Blood

Are you talking specific platforms for Seven Haunted Seas?

Habibipour: We can’t legally say anything at this point, since we don’t have any specific console approvals from any manufacturers. We’re aiming for the 360, Wii… we’d love to do those two. Especially the Wii, since it lends itself really well to what we’re planning to do with the game.

Cool. In terms of Fistful of Blood, how closely are you working with Kevin Eastman?

Habibipour: Pretty close. He’s in the office all the time, we’re talking to him. Yeah, he and I worked together on Darkwatch a few years back, doing the graphic novel that went into Heavy Metal. So he and I have had a pretty close relationship these past few years, just back and forth talking to each other about what’s going on, keeping abreast on what we’re both doing.

When I sat down with these guys, we said we want to do some licensed stuff [and] we want to do some original stuff, I said “Hey, I know Kevin, let’s get him in here.” So I called him up, and he came in and brought a stack of ideas that him and Simon had been working on for awhile. In the back of my head, I always thought Fistful of Blood would make a fucking cool game. It was one of my favorite graphic novels when I was growing up. He sat down and was like “Dude, this is cool.” He had that and a couple of other ideas we’re going to pursue together. After the first meeting, he had the same sort of mentality that we do, that awesome kind of indie “fuck you” attitude. [We said] “Let’s do some cool shit,” and that’s what we’re gonna do.

He’s in the office all of the time, we’re talking over email, we’re going over creative ideas all of the time. It’s a very close relationship. It’s not like “Hey, I went through Kevin’s agent,” and all of this other stuff. It’s not like that. When you have bigger corporations and companies and there’s eight thousand people you have to go through, it’s not much of a creative relationship. Really, you’re going through somebody, somebody, somebody… but this is different.

I think between all of us, we have some relationships with other creators that we’d all love to work with. We have somewhat personal relationships with these guys, and we’re bringing them in and finding out that they all want to do cool stuff. Eliminating that middle road of agent stuff is cooler because then we can work together, really work together, which is what we’re doing with Kevin.

Seven Haunted Seas

Are you going to be self-publishing? How’s that going to work with the iPhone and the digital distribution stuff?

Habibipour: There’s a lot of things that are open and on the table. Seven Haunted Seas, obviously, we’re establishing a publisher relationship. You sort of have to in order to get something out to a console. Especially the scope of that project, it’s going to require backing and a partnership with a publisher.

For Fistful of Blood we’re sort of leaving that open. It’s really something that if a publisher wants to put their balls on the table and say “We really want to do this,” we’re totally looking to have a relationship with that publisher. Otherwise, it seems like something that we’re going to do on our own, and distribute on our own.

What kind of game is Fistful of Blood going to be?

Habibipour: It’s going to be sort of an over-the-should third-person shooter action game. The thing is that, what we’re doing — and this is some really cool tech that we’re coming up with for the iPhone — is that it’s going to be sort of a persistent western town. And you’re going to be able to go from one section of town, to another section of town and it’s going to have a dynamic time of day, where the time of day affects the zombies and the vampires. The vampires aren’t going to be out during they day; they’re going to be stronger at night, that sort of thing.

What we really want to do, above and beyond the shooter aspect of it, we want to give the player the ability to play one side against the other… the classic Yojimbo tale. So we want to allow [the lead character] Blondie to be able to play one side against the other. It’s going to have faction-based stuff to it, where you can run missions for the humans or the vampires or the zombies, or go against them. You’re going to have to play your relationship with all three sides to finish the game.

It sounds like the scope of the project is pretty big for an iPhone title.

Habibipour: In explanation it sounds bigger than it actually is. On the surface, it’s going to be way more simple than that. But the background technology is going to deal with factions and that sort of stuff, but it’s a little bit more simple than it’s coming across, I think. [Laughs]

Can you compare it to anything on the market currently, even another iPhone title?

Habibipour: I don’t know that anyone’s done anything third-person, and the couple of first-person things that I’ve seen have been pretty rudimentary. So I think this is going to be a little bit deeper; I’ve seen a lot of really great shit, but this is going to be more of a “game.” It’s going to be more substantial.

That’s kind of what I was getting at.

Habibipour: I mean, we put an app out there, too. We were basically like “We don’t know this technology, we don’t know the submission process. We don’t know how this all works.” So we gave ourselves a month and put together this little app. We wanted to say “How does the tech work? How’s the infrastructure set up? How we get something submitted through Apple?” So we gave ourselves a month to put an app out. So we’ve eliminated all of the big question marks in the process for ourselves, and now it’s just back down to developing and designing the game.

What was that app that you put out?

Habibipour: It’s called Dr. Zomba. It came out [recently]. It’s sort of a simple voodoo doll, first-person view whack-a-mole, with first-person-style weapons. You have a monkey wrench, a spray can, and a shotgun, and this little voodoo doll teleports around an altar and summons decoys of itself and talks shit to you. Teases you and stuff. It’s a cool, simple app. A toy. It’s not really a game, it’s more of a toy.

Dr. Zomba

How was the process of getting Dr. Zomba on the store?

Habibipour: It was cool. I think it was like six days. It was pretty painless. We signed up, submitted everything, sent it ot them and then in six days the app was approve and on the market. It was weird, because we were hearing horror stories. We were hearing six weeks and all this sort of stuff. Maybe in the beginning it was sort of like that, but it seems like they’ve ramped up and their submission process is actually pretty painless now.

So it was awesome. We LOVE developing for it. There’s so many possibilities. I think one of the coolest things about the media is it’s not for gamers. It’s more than just people who play games who use this phone. If you want an Xbox, if you want a Wii — even though the Wii is more casual — you’re a gamer if you’re buying those things. This is people who have phones… it’s an appliance. But it also does great stuff, and I think what you’re going to see, it’s going to further breakdown the lines in the industry. What is a gamer nowawdays? It’s almost everybody!

I think the thing is, you have this controller and it’s so abstract, that some people who don’t get it are just imtimidated by this controller. There’s so many buttons and knobs and all this kind of stuff. But you’re using your phone every day, and you’re doing this [puts phone up to ear] everyday, and you’ve trained yourself how to use it. So it’s not a leap to then apply that to a game.

It’s why the Guitar Hero controller is such a success. It’s why the [Wii Remote] is such a success. Because people know how to do these motions, because they associate them with real things as opposed to abstract knobs and buttons.

As a gamer, I don’t have an iPhone — I picked up the G1, which I got as a phone before a gaming device. But now, I kind of feel like I need to get an iPhone, or at least an iPod Touch. Because all of this shit is coming out that I’ve got to play.

[laughs]

So with that in mind, I feel like for developers — maybe even with you guys — maybe the games do need to be more substantial to also appeal to gamers who are picking these devices up with games in mind.

Sam Schoemann, Senior VP of Sales and Marketing: Yeah, as people get “trained” on the device, they’re naturally going to want more and different.

Habibipour: The thing is, a lot of the people who developed games for it have never developed games before. Because it’s such an open market, you have a lot of people who are goin gthrough their growing pains on the app store. Which is a little weird, because you get games out there that people are raving about that are ultra simple, which is cool. But it also means there’s a lot of noise.

So having something that’s going to be more substantial on the App Store is a little bit of a risk, because you’re like — “Wait a minute, if I have to sell it for $.99 cents because no one will see if I put it for anything more expensive, how much can I really afford to invest in making this thing?” Right? Because you have to sort of weigh your costs of producing it versus how much you’re going to sell.

Because now it gets to the point where there’s so much noise on the App Store that you have to market it, and marketing adds another whole line item to your development costs, which is substantial. Then it sort of becomes a thing about getting publishers and partnering with someone who is actually going to go out and push the game. So that’s sort of what’s going on in the industry.



We cover a lot of iPhone games, and people thank us, because there is — as you said — so much noise out there right now.  We love showing this stuff to people.

Habibipour [to Shuman]: Do we have a blacktop for him?

Schoemann: That’s code… for LSD.

Sweet.

Habibipour: And you thought your day was going to be boring! It’s a promotional code that you can use on iTunes and it unlocks Dr. Zomba.

Fay: And it opens beer bottles.

I just noticed that. This is the best shit… ever. I’m so glad I’m the one who came to this interview. I’m going to have to go out and buy an iPod Touch just so I can use the code. I’ll show this to my wife, tell her I simply must buy an iPod touch to use the code, and also… it’s a beer bottle opener.

Habibipour: As a gaming machine, the iPod Touch is probably better than the iPhone.

Really? How so?

Habibipour: It’s just running less processes on it, so the frame rate is going to be better.

I guess that makes sense. Let’s talk about the other game, Seven Haunted Seas.

Habibipour: Seven Haunted Seas, we’ve already talked to guys a lot about it. But we’re hoping to have somethign to show at E3 that we’re prototyping out. It’s going to focus 50-50 on sort of sea travel, and making sea travel fun and epic and dangerous. And exploring islands and finding all of these items that Pete has find in order to set things right for himself. We’re going to go for that sort of graphic novel look that we’ve shown. The trailer for us is sort of a mission statement on that.



So we can expect the game to maintain that animation and art style?

Fay: Certainly, our design sensibility… we’re not going to go for the super realism, sheen kind of look, you know? Much more stylized, much more graphic, much more fun. Sort of that graphic novel look, like we’d said. It’s just the stuff that attracts us as artists, so that’s the direction we’ll be pushing in a lot of projects, sure.

You guys working on some stuff you haven’t talked about yet? Can you at least hint at something?

Aaron: Yeah… there’s other stuff with Kevin that we’re talking about, stuff that him and Simon have done in the past and are working towards now. Yeah, there’s not really anything that we can sort of mention, but…

The animation that you guys work on, like the Metalocalypse stuff. Do you guys own that?

Fay: Adult Swim owns that. We [along with series creators Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha] pitched the show to them and they bought it. So, it’s sort of their IP, but they’re really really good about letting us steer the boat.

Have you had game ideas for that?

Yes. Well… it’s not really something we could get into right now. The network sort of makes those kind of decision.

The stuff that you’re working on right now, the Seven Seas… that’s an original IP?

Habibipour: It’s original. It’s ours. It was an idea that I had over drinking beers one weekend, I was sketching out Pete. And I had a stack of sketches of boats and pirates and creatures and weird stuff, that I promptly spilled a beer on. So when these guys were like “Hey, you want to develop this?”

Schoemann: We saw the beer stains!

“We want whatever THAT is!”

Schoemann: Right, whatever you’re doing with that.

Fay: That idea smells great!

Seven Haunted Seas

Habibipour: When we were talking about partnering up together, they were like “Hey, you can develop one of your own properties.” So I brought this stack of beer-stained sketches in. [Laughs] Pirates, zombies, and beer stains.

And ninjas?

Habibipour: And ninjas.

I know you gave us that little tiny clip with the ninja reference. Can you tell us a little bit about how the ninjas are going to play into it?

Habibipour: Yeah. It’s not going to be a super, major part of the game. But obviously, it has to be addressed; it’s kind of one of those things. Because the game is going to be a comedy, we’re going to find cool ways to work in little nods to sort of the Internet debate of pirates and zombies and ninjas and all of that sort of stuff. We really wnat to make sure the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. I think when you kind of do that — especially with a gaming medium — things tend to come off as hokey. So we want to make sure that, above all, it entertains people. I think taking yourself too seriously is kind of the first sign of the downward slope.

Schoemann: Could you call it a dark comedy?

Habibipour: Yeah, it’s a dark comedy. That’s what it is. There’s going to be serious undertones to it, but then we’re going to treat it with the animation style and the comedy part of it to add levity, and to make sure it doesn’t take itself too super-seriously. It’s the same thing with Fistful of Blood. It’s about vampires and zombies and this really hot chick with big boobs that is battling them.

For the kids.

For the kids

Habibipour: Yeah, it’s for the kids! But the thing is, the minute you start to take that too seriously, right? It becomes hokey. And the thing is that the graphic novel isn’t that way. The graphic novel pokes fun at itself, it’s sort of tongue in cheek. It’s a retelling of Yojimbo, except with vampires, zombies, and a chick with big boobs who is naked all of the time. It treats itself that way and it knows what it is, and we want to treat the game that way, too.

Speaking of which, does the ESRB even rate iPhone games? They don’t, right?

Habibipour: They do not. I think there is sort of self-regulating. Like when we rated Dr. Zomba, we sort of said what’s in it. They have a little form that you fill out online, and then their process sort of confirms your thing. And if it’s on par with what you said, that’s the way that they rate it. Right now it’s sort of the Wild West.

Wow, yeah. How long do you think that’s going to last?

Habibipour: I don’t know, but we’re going to have to make Fistful of Blood Quick! [laughs]

Yeah, seriously. Something like that, with the zombies, the chick with big boobs who’s naked all of the time…

Habibipour: I think that it’s going to have to be approached with a balance. OK, does it make sense for her to be naked all of the time in the game?

Yes. Of course it does.

Habibipour: [Laughs] Yeah, you know. I think we’re going to have to approach it with a little bit of care with how we present. Because if she’s nake all of the time time, because even though Apple has no set standards now, they’re going to say “She’s naked the whole time, you can’t do that.” Somebody is going to reject it somewhere up the chain. So we’re going to push it as far as we can push it,  and let other people censor us. Because we don’t want to deliver something that we censor ourselves on.

Do you guys do your writing in-house?

Well, Kevin wrote Fistful of Blood.

So is he writing the script and dialogue for the game?

I think what we’re going to do is take a pass at interpreting stuff, and I know Kevin is going to come in and break stories with us on side-quests and otherstuff that takes place off from the linear progression of the game. Kevin’s also offered up writing on some stuff for Seven Haunted Seas.

So, I think what we want to do is work with cool writers, and work with a lot of different people. Keith wrote some stuff on the original God of War

And that’s a good game! It’s one of my favorite games actually. High five.

Habibipour: And I’ve done some writing myself, so I think we’re gonna work together on that.



So you guys know what you’re doing. You guys have a pretty good background. So, personally I have high hopes for the games. When do you think we can see some more?

Schoemann: Lift up the skirt a little bit?

Show a little thigh.

Schoemann: Around E3, that’s the plan.

Will you have a booth?

Habibipour: No. I think the plan is to have some people by our place, doing a little junket right there.

Plans for a Blondie [from Fistful of Blood] booth babe?

Fay: Already casting!

Nick Chester