To Create A Clown: Interview With Dropsy Developer Jay Tholen

Dropsy is anything but typical, even as adventure heroes are concerned. He's not terribly bright nor physically threatening, he looks more than a little grotesque, and he likely smells of a combination of unwashed feet, stale sweat, and old fish. He also has no concept of evil. Where other protagonists might swear vengeance, Dropsy will offer a hug. Where other heroes might make note of every single element of their environment, Dropsy will scribble down a clown face and happily plod off. 

Oddly enough, I think he's the most endearing character I've ever encountered.

As I detailed last month, such a curious clown wasn't born overnight, nor was he the product of any one single mind. Though his creator came up with the original concept; Dropsy as a character belongs to the Something Awful community just as much as anyone else.

Developer Jay Tholen acknowledges this. A young man with a head full of bright ideas, he's spent the past several years transforming Dropsy from forgotten game asset to beloved comic character to the star of his own video game. As I sit down for my interview with him, I can tell that he's brimming with enthusiasm, both for his project and his career. Here is a true inventor, someone who's found their calling. 

What kicked off your passion for game development initially?

Probably playing games, like usual. I think other than that, making them came from...I don't know when it was, I got my first computer when I was ten or eleven, and I got Sim Tower, and on that disc they had a demo for "Click And Play;" a little program you could use to make your own games without needing to know how to program. It was an event editor, you could just do "if this object collided with that object, destroy."

Click and Play is still around, as well - I know one recent game that was made with Multimedia Fusion (descendent of Click and Play) was Noitu Love 2 Devolution. They're still around, but they're kind of falling behind. Anyway, that's how I got started, got into the click and play community online, called it the click community. Derek Yu was from there, made Eternal Daughter. That's where I met the programmer for Dropsy.

You mentioned the art for Dropsy came from a zombie platformer you created a while back. Tell me about that - was that the first game you ever coded?

That was back in 2006 or 2005, I don't know. It was for a competition to make a Halloween game. He was going to be in a circus level, but I ran out of time. His sprite sort of laid dormant for a while, that sprite was just a quick thing, I never did anything more with it. I had that sprite laying around, and I decided in 2008 "Oh, maybe I should use this for something;" so I used it for that choose your own adventure. I made him slightly less scary looking - only slightly. If you look at any older artwork of Dropsy, you'll see that his crotch bulge is way bigger, I reduced it for the current version as well.

On to the Something Awful thread, what was the inspiration for its creation?

The character idea came from the fact that I had that artwork laying around, but it really started like a blank slate thing. I posted the beginning of a story - I didn't really know what was going to happen in the story- through the suggestions of the guys posting it started to develop, and he started getting new attributes based on what they wanted me to do like painting faces on everything and giving everyone unwanted hugs, stuff like that. His personality evolved from that, I didn't really plan it to begin with.

Did it actually start out as a "choose your own adventure"?

Actually, it started just as a comic, and people started making suggestions. The Awful forums were at the peak of their popularity when I posted the first Dropsy thread, so it had a ton of views and visitors, and it got a few blog posts. People just came in and said "Go left" or "hug the fire hydrant." I'd pick the ones I liked (or a few of them) and put together the next panel. It was a lot of fun - it was like a webcomic, but way more fast-paced and a lot more interactive. I think the thing that allowed me to do that was that I was unemployed at the time - I had a lot of time to just sit there and do this stupid choose your own adventure all day. If I had a job, that would've been impossible.

I've been freelancing for the past couple months. I worked for four years doing soldering, and that sort was alright, but it drained me. By the end of the day, I didn't want to do anything creative. Most recently, I worked at this website builder support line. It was the same thing with them. I just decided after leaving there to just go all-in and try to really do what I wanted to do. Really, because of my jobs, most progress on the game has happened in the last year, even though I've been working on it since 2011.

I remember back in the DOS days everyone was concerned with 16-bit games. It's forking off into so many directions now, it's really cool. It makes me think what of what happened to film. I think games have this cyclical thing about them as far as art styles and gameplay styles, but they haven't been around long enough for us to see that yet. Kind of like music. For example, in the 50s, everyhign was simple and stripped down, then moving into the 60s you had progressive rock as a reaction, where everything was super complex, then back to the stripped-down, simplistic aesthetic in the 80s.

Everything's cyclical, and I'm really interested in seeing how games do that.

One thing I'm curious about is the name of the character - is the idea related to the medical condition?

Jay: Actually, my sister Christine made it up

Christine: It's because of the disease. I heard it's where limbs fall off, Dropsy has nubs and looks really disfigured at the same time. I meant it as a really endearing thing.

So what about Dropsy's appearance? Why go for something so abnormal?

Dropsy's generally happy 99% of the time, and I play on his appearance with the game. That's made it really hard to market, too. I've had so many people saying "I'm scared of clowns, screw that game." That's kind of the point of the game, though - you're unattractive, everyone in the game world hates you.

That doesn't really happen very often in games.

Yeah, I're not a hero. I like the idea of taking things that are ‘low' in society, and making you face them and deal with them.

With Dropsy, while everyone's kind of scared of him or they think he looks like a creep - there's a lot of tall tales going along with him too. The people being mean to him are sort of low in society too. I wanted to have him defeat their jerkiness with kindness

With hugs and clown paint.

Yeah, exactly. I dunno, I like subverting the trends. What's funny is even if, as the player; if you think someone's worthy of getting punched in the face for screwing you over, Dropsy won't be consistent with that. He's just going to want to give them a hug. You're not going to be able to get revenge on anyone with this game.

It turns a lot of traditional tropes about gaming on their head.

Yeah, it's really fun to play with from a game design perspective, too. There's some points where you have to use Dropsy's reaction - his naiveté - to solve some light puzzles, as well.

When did you first decide to develop the thread into a game? Was that something that naturally evolved as well?

Yeah. I had a lot of guys who from that first thread told me I needed to make an adventure game; people said they felt like they were playing a Lucasarts game. That was before the big revival of adventure games, before Telltale and Double Fine came back and started doing it big-time.

That original thread, that's when I wanted to make a game, and I sort of kicked the idea around until 2011, and it was at that point that I sort of started cementing Dropsy's character, some ideas for the universe and everything. It wasn't until about the past year that this game started taking form into something tangible.

How closely is the game going to adhere to the Something Awful thread? Are there going to be similar narrative elements like the mob boss or the giant fish?

The aesthetic will be similar in a way - of course, my art is so much better than it was when I did that thread - but yeah, there'll be some similar things. I don't want to spoil anything, but there are some similar story elements, I guess. I don't know if you could say there's a mob boss this time around, but there is a snack company - a Snack Cake company - that has this sort of marching theme when you go into their factory; almost Nazi-esque. They own this sort of seedy interactive 3D theme park which is really gimmicky, and when you go in there it really sucks. That'll be a fun part of the game.

I always remember as a kid going to these 3D indoor attractions and they always just end up looking like garbage.

Anyway, this snack company sort of pulls strings, and there's this whole big conspiracy with them and Drops, and there's this really really big secret about Dropsy and the whole game that sort of happens in the last 10-15% of the game; I can't really talk about that. It's such a big thing, but the idea for it came in 2008, when I thought of making him a character.

But yeah, mechanically, even though I have all these heady concepts I want to shove in the game, a lot of things are very stripped down. The gameplay is going to be very, very simple as far as how you interact with the world. It's not gonna be as crazy as people are thinking as far as me fitting all these concepts into one game. The thing we might have a hard time with is the balance, since the game depends on you learning about the world to progress. There are these little revelations you'll find out about people. For example, there's this group of people who are deathly afraid of classic movie monsters.

They're actually based on Cargo Cults, these villagers observed planes and soldiers in the distance during World War II, and saw them dropping these care packages. They took it as a spiritual thing; they started dressing as soldiers, they'd carve sticks to look like the soldiers' guns, they'd make these little planes out of wood. They turned it into this spiritual thing because they got all these care packages.

So these people are a little more in-touch with the world, but they had this movie monster fear that sort of developed in the same way that the cargo cults developed their beliefs. You'll encounter them early in the game, and you'll just think that they're weird. You won't understand what the heck they're doing. Once you visit their area, and you see some of the precautions they've taken to defend themselves from stereotypical MGM mummies and vampires, it'll click in your mind.

So then you can go back and interact with them using that revelation you had to solve puzzles. The game is comprised of a lot of that, and it is very difficult to balance those revelations so it's not going to be annoying to find out. Mechanically, it's very simple, so that sort of places the emphasis on having your brain work harder.

On the plus side, it won't have to be like the older adventure games, where you'll have to think like a programmer who hasn't slept in two months. 

Oh god, I hated that. One of the things in Dropsy - and it sounds like buzz-wordy - is that I want everything mechanically to support the narrative and support what your purpose in the world is. I don't want any puzzles that don't make any sense. It's not as clever as a programmer thinks it is when he's putting it in. It's really something where you need to click a bunch of stuff.

I'm also not going to have any sliding puzzles where you have to re-angle things to get them to match. It honestly wouldn't fit Dropsy.

As far as Kickstarter's concerned, I've heard that you've one or two Kickstarters where you didn't manage to reach your goal. This time around, you've already exceeded it. What do you think changed?

Oh god, a lot. So the first Kickstarter in 2011 was successful, that one was for $225.00. That was for the software I told you about before, for Multimedia fusion. I was gonna get that because I grew up on it, and...just, what I had planned for the game was beyond my capability. Add that to the fact that I got that job, and it just made it a little bit of a slog.

That said, I've been doing artwork since then - that's why I have so much to show right now - and planning. Pretty much the entire game is planned out now. So during the summer, I decided to run this other Kickstarter because I wanted to have my friend Justin onboard to do the programming because he's super talented. I also wanted to hire another animator along with a composer. I'm a good artist, but I'm not the best animator; I'd rather have someone who has studied that.

I was going to do all this myself at first, but I eventually came to a point where I realized "okay, programming's not my thing. I tried."

I kind of feel like Kickstarter's on its way out a bit, it's starting to get a bit of a negative reputation because of how many people haven't pulled through or haven't done what they said they would. One of the things you have to do that I think is very important is to show some evidence that your project exists.


The thing I did last time was that I started my video with sixty seconds of hilarious joking. It started with a full minute of me doing a parody of Double Fine's Kickstarter video. I thought it was funny, some of my friends thought it was funny, but I didn't really show anyone the game.  It really just looked like an entertaining six minute video that had thirty seconds of some sort of slight gameplay footage in it.

This new video, I opened it up with some game footage, and ensured that at least half of the video was in-game graphics and stuff like that. I really just put the focus squarely on what they were going to get for backing the game itself. That was the biggest difference, I think.

I guess the other thing is having a community behind you helps a lot, too. I feel like I got lucky in that sense; that Dropsy already had something of a fan-base. I think the biggest difference is not being too much of a dorky, jokey person in your video without showing some game footage.

I think it's also really important that I set realistic goals. I've noticed some Kickstarters where you can tell the guys are really passionate about their game and really believe in it, but if their goal is something like $25,000 for an MMORPG or sandbox, that's not going to happen. Unless they already have a lot of the game developed, I'm always really wary of any MMO.

Thankfully, Dropsy's manageable. It's not super small, but I've managed to finish most of it.

Lastly, it's good for you to have one singular passion or idea to focus on with a game, I think it's really valuable to have that, rather than wanting to add every mechanic you can. I know for me, that's why I really haven't played many new games for the past year or so. I'm really scared to death of playing some game and being like "oh god this mechanic is so cool I've gotta put it in Dropsy." I think it's called feature creep, and I'm pretty sure I would do that if I played any newer adventure games, and I don't want to.

Fair enough. There are a lot of derivative games out there. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Yeah, and I have liked some of them. I mean, for example, I love Minecraft, I think it's a really well-made game, but I just wish that people making these other block-based games could sort of make their games less derivative. The gameplay in most of these games is basically Minecraft with a few additional features. Even the ones that are good aren't going to be able to leave as much of a mark because the graphics look so derivative.

I suppose there's just this perception in a lot of corners of game development where if something is successful, the best way to be successful is to imitate it.

Exactly. I'm not putting down any games taking an art style after Minecraft, but I feel like it's going to hurt them in the long run. In five or ten years when Minecraft isn't as big anymore, someone's going to look back at the game and go "oh yeah, that's one of those Minecraft games," and they'll ignore it. I'm just talking about visuals here - some of them are incredibly innovative, but visually, they're no different from Minecraft.

People could say that about pixel art too, but it's really just low resolution art. There's that cyclical idea showing up again...I dunno, all this stuff is really fun to think about. We've just got things going in so many directions right now; I can't wait to see where we are ten years down the line.

Currently, the Kickstarter for Dropsy has about five days left to go. You can back it here.