Calling all Landlubbers! Nelly Cootalot is a swashbuckling young pirate and saviour of small cuddly animals. She solves problems with wit, cunning and theft. She could definitely beat you in a fight, but her cutlass is at the dry cleaners right now. Any self-respecting point and click enthusiast should join Nelly in her new adventure game, and rescue birds hypnotised by the villainous Baron Widebeard assisted by her feathered friend Sebastian, voiced by Tom Baker. This charming, hand-drawn world is the brain child of award-winning comedian and filmmaker Alasdair Beckett-King.
The titular character first appeared in the 2007 freeware game Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! Alasdair created this short game as a birthday present for his girlfriend, and it quickly became a favourite on the indie adventure scene. In 2013 Alasdair ran a successful Kickstarter to fund a new stand-alone title, Nelly Cootlalot: The Fowl Fleet. With the support of over 1000 backers, Alasdair teamed up with Application Systems Heidelberg in 2014. With ASH on board, the project rapidly grew in scale, adding cross-platform support, text localisation, German voice acting and tons more animation in glorious High Definition. The budget grew from the modest Kickstarter haul to a six figure sum, with a team of 45+ people across 4 countries. No small feat. The game has just launched on Steam for Windows, Mac & Linux so to celebrate the launch we got in touch with Alasdair to talk about his epic tale of swash and buckle.
Tony Hipwell interviews Alasdair:
What made you decide to continue Nelly’s adventures? Did you imagine a sequel when making the first game? The first game ended with an oblique hint towards a sequel, which is picked up in the opening scene of The Fowl Fleet. Apart from that, they’re pretty much stand-alone stories. But, I knew when I was making Spoonbeaks that I wanted to make a bigger, better adventure. I just had no idea what an absurdly, ridiculously long time that would take.
How much changed between the Kickstarter and finished product? Loads and loads has changed since the Kickstarter. I teamed up with a German company called Application Systems (adventure games are still a thing over in Germany) and they co-developed and published the game. So I took the graphics I’d drawn at an awkward low resolution and remade them all in full HD. Application Systems added text localisation in French, Spanish and Italian, a full voice-over in German. We also managed to get a really strong cast for the English voice over including one of my child/adulthood heroes, Tom Baker.
Was the scale of the response to the Kickstarter encouraging or intimidating? The Kickstarter was really encouraging. I thought we had a chance of raising the money, but I didn’t realise that the Kickstarter backers were going to act as cheerleaders for the project, tweeting and blogging and posting about it all over the internet. That kind of support continued right up to the launch, but it also applied a (good) kind of pressure. I felt a really strong obligation to deliver a game that would make the backers happy. Fortunately, based on the feedback we’ve received, I think we did that.
How many people were on the team? Did that expand after the Kickstarter? Originally it was just me, Nikolas the composer and Sarah the Kickstarter & social media manager. Then Application Systems added Alex the programmer, who took all the technical stuff off my frankly ill-suited hands. By now, with play-testing, localisation and voice acting, over 45 people have contributed to the completed game.
Was there a point where you thought oh god what have we done? Almost constantly. Well, I’d choose a more agnostic exclamation, but there were lots of moments like that. When I decided to re-draw and re-animate everything in HD it was hard not to look at my TO DO list and think, “I’m never going to finish this!” I am still incapable of typing TO DO without capitalising it out of fear and terror.
How did your publisher get involved & what did they bring to the table? Application Systems were running a Kickstarter for another indie game of theirs called GhostControl Inc. at the same time as I ran Nelly’s. The company has been around since the Atari ST, either developing software, porting, localising or distributing. At the moment they’re building up a portfolio of games including Nelly and a cool VR game called Carpe Lucem.
I genuinely don't understand how Tom Baker came on board. For some reason he said yes!
How in the Gallifrey does one get a Time Lord to voice your game? I genuinely don’t understand how Tom Baker came on board. The VO director Liam just asked and for some reason he said yes! I didn’t believe it was really happening. We went out to a recording studio in the middle of nowhere (Kent) and he was an unalloyed delight. Baker plays Nelly’s pirate familiar Sebastian the Coot. Even though Sebastian is a tiny bird, he’s rather pompous and aloof. I thought it would be funny to give such a small bird a weighty and dramatic voice, and Tom Baker was just perfect.
How long has it taken from idea to release? I began to work seriously on the game about 6 months before the Kickstarter in 2013… but I wrote the first draft of the design document a few months after releasing Spoonbeaks in 2007. I refuse to do the maths out of shame.
Were there any other ideas you wanted to pursue before settling on more Nelly? I had other ideas I want to explore, and I still do. I did consider making Nelly a Viking rather than a pirate, which is why you will find quite a few Vikings in the latter part of The Fowl Fleet. I have been toying with an idea inspired by Edward Gorey for years. But fans of Spoonbeaks Ahoy! were asking for more, and I felt I had a lot more pirate wordplay in me. That is no longer the case!
How did you get into game development? Am I in game development? I don’t know. I’ve just fiddled away trying to make games since I was a teenager. Over the last 3 years it just gradually morphed from a pastime into a source of overpowering anxiety and fear / day job.
What is your approach to game development? What comes first? Story? Design? Gameplay? I haven’t made enough games to answer this. But I have learned a lot about storytelling and gameplay in the process of making this game. Adventure games are big on story and small on gameplay, but I’ve realised that if the two are well integrated there doesn’t have to be a clear distinction. Nelly Cootalot: The Fowl Fleet is a very traditional adventure game, albeit much more accessible than the user-unfriendly games I grew up with. But even working on a funny character-based point and click game has taught me things I want to put into practice next time round.
What software do you use? For the art a mixture of tools, mainly Photoshop, Blender. For development, I started out using the wonderful Adventure Game Studio. However we switched to Unity because (at that time) AGS was limited to low resolutions and wasn’t platform independent. A lot has changed with AGS since then, but Unity opened up a lot of options which hadn’t been available to me.
Any tips to aspiring designers hoping to one day launch a product on Steam? I don’t know if the Greenlight system will be around forever, but based on my experience running Greenlight and Kickstarter campaigns – the video is really important. I know the videos I made weren’t perfect, but they had good picture and sound, they didn’t look like the average video, and they were (moderately) funny. Even with the disadvantage of working in a ‘niche’ genre, I think that helped us gather support.
How has the release been? Tech and response wise? We’ve had a really good response to the game. The reviews have been pretty enthusiastic. People think the game is both funny and fun to play, which is what we were aiming for. Of course Application Systems are fixing teething technical issues as they appear, but I’m delighted to say I don’t have to handle that! I keep getting tweets and emails from people who are playing the game, and just knowing that people are out there enjoying it is great. What would you like to tackle next creatively? Is it another game? Any ideas? Mad aspirations? I’ve been performing stand up comedy for the last 3 years or so. This August I’ll be at the Edinburgh Fringe taking part in the prestigious Pleasance Reserve show. (Well, as prestigious as it can be bearing in mind I’m in it.) And after that I’m going to be working towards a solo show. So yes, mad aspirations.
Who is your favourite character in the game? (Nelly doesn’t count) My favourite character is Harbour Master Van Zandt. Nelly’s official nemesis is Baron Widebeard, but Van Zandt gives him a run for his money on the scheming villain front. I like Van Zandt because he’s conceited, greedy, and utterly transparently evil. He’s the perfect character for Nelly to humorously undermine.
Are you an avid gamer? I play a lot of games, but my interest is deep rather than broad. I only really find myself engaged with games where the characters, story or world interest me. Kinetic, dynamic gameplay is great, but it’s not what pulls me into a game.
What are you looking forward to playing or have been enjoying playing lately? I have been avoiding adventure games for the last few months. So I’m looking forward to finally playing Shardlight and Broken Age soon. But for the last few months I have been up to my neck in the Witcher 3. It’s really a lot less sexist than the first two. Bravo, lads!
You’re something of a renaissance man - game designer, filmmaker & stand up. Any other creative arenas you’d like to explore? Music? Comics? Literature? I have been called a renaissance man before, I assume because I look like a bad Botticelli painting. All I can say is that I’m going to keep doing things that interest me, in the order that they interest me. And one day it will all come together in a piece of work so spectacular it will shake the foundations of the earth and the great cities of man will melt into the boiling seas.
Nelly Cootalot is available to own now on Steam for Windows, Mac & Linux http://store.steampowered.com/app/317320/
If you have any comments or questions about Nelly, please email Alasdair at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or you could come round his house for a chat. Here is a map of how to get there: