cash on the barrelhead: an interview with Todd Luke (24 Killers)
An interview with Todd Luke, the developer of adventure game 24 Killers
Todd Luke is a video game developer, musician, and multimedia artist from southern California. He started making games in 2011. In 2014, he started work on an adventure game called 24 Killers, expanding the concept from a flash game of the same name he created the year before. Development was originally funded via Kickstarter. The game is now available on Steam. I talked to Todd on March 11th, 2023 on Zoom to discuss his development process, influences, and more.
Shy Clara Thompson: First off, congrats on the launch!
Todd Luke: Thank you!
How has that experience been? More busy than you expected? Fielding bug reports and stuff like that.
It was a lot quieter than I expected. The first part, maybe the first half of the launch day, I was just kind of sitting and watching the Discord and the Steam communities and there was nothing coming in about bugs. I was kind of shocked by that.
Were you expecting a lot?
Oh yeah, especially with an increased volume of players. I was expecting a lot more.
So it’s been pretty chill, then?
Yeah. As people have played more of the game, there have been reports coming in, but nothing super major. I guess my fear was that everybody would start playing on launch day and just get a black screen and not be able to play the game at all, but luckily that wasn’t the case.
You’ve been working on this game for a long time. The Kickstarter was put up in 2014, right?
And even before that, you had the flash game. I’m curious how your philosophy of designing the game changed over this period of time, because it looks really different from the old mockups. Has your goal of what you wanted to accomplish changed?
I wanted to expand on the flash game and make it a bigger town. It was sort of like a whodunnit murder mystery. Then, as I started making it, it turned into this adventure game where there’s different things to do around the town and different characters to talk to. It kept growing, and I think the biggest change, for me, is when a friend introduced me to Love-de-lic—the creators of Chulip and moon: Remix RPG Adventure. After seeing those games I’m like “these are the kinds of games I’ve always wanted to make,” and maybe I didn’t even know it. That changed my design philosophy a lot.
The other thing was that I switched from pixel art to rendered 3D graphics. That was kind of out of necessity because I wasn’t really happy with the pixel art, and it was hard for me to do a large volume of it and be consistent. With the 3D I found it was easier for me to produce a lot more art.
So more that it was easier to get your ideas out than a conscious stylistic change?
Probably a little bit of both. I do love the old pre-rendered look of PS1 games and earlier stuff on the Super Nintendo or Genesis.
Is there a particular visual influence you had in mind? I’m sure the main callback is moon, but are there others?
Also Digimon World for the PS1.
Oh, that’s so cool! I love that game.
The background art in that game is just amazing. And of course, Final Fantasy VII had beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds.
How deep in development were you when you got introduced to Love-de-lic and changed your direction?
I thought I was pretty deep (laughs), but then the game just kept growing. I thought “okay, this game’s pretty much done and I’m happy with it.” I felt like it was pretty constrained, but after I got introduced to Love-de-lic my idea about what I wanted to make started expanding. I’d have to look back, but it was probably a year or two after the Kickstarter.
Has all of the time since then been, I guess, recalibrating? Because you realized that you made a game that wasn’t exactly the one you wanted to make. So you basically had to start over and make a new game?
That’s what it felt like. It’s pretty much an entirely new game from what was on Kickstarter.
Do you like the comparisons to Love-de-lic? Do you invite that sort of thing, or would you rather people examine 24 Killers on its own terms?
I’m flattered that people would compare it to those games. [Yoshiro] Kimura is amazing. I love watching the “indie game uncle” videos he puts up on YouTube. What’s neat is that a lot of people have been saying “this is clearly inspired by Love-de-lic and Onion Games, but stands up on its own.”
I love Kimura’s videos too! Do you feel like you’ve learned anything about game design from them? Have you internalized anything?
I think so. In general, his whole attitude is very humble. He’s curious about things and the way he looks at the world is really cool. It seems like he does a lot of traveling around the world—which I haven’t really done—but I just like his curiosity. His games are influenced a lot by his life experience.
Like, for me, a lot of the dialogue in 24 Killers is influenced by people I’ve met in jobs I’ve had over the years—customers, coworkers, conversations I’ve had where I’m like “what?” Weird conversations, you know, that would stick with me and I’d go right home at the end of the day.
You were working at a gas station, right?
Yeah, I worked at a gas station from 2015 to the end of 2021—so close to seven years.
And you got all kinds of weird people coming in?
Oh yeah, all the time.
Is there a specific interaction that directly correlates to something you put into the game?
So Gunther, the parakeet in the game, he’s kind of like a cowboy. At one point he says “cash on the barrelhead.” That was directly from this really gruff cowboy guy that came into the store and came up to me to pay for his stuff, and that’s what he said to me. “Cash on the barrelhead!” (laughs). That just stuck with me and I thought “I gotta put that in the game somewhere.”
There are a lot of silly little lines in the game that make me curious how you came up with them. I’ve tried writing game dialogue myself, and it’s hard to strike that balance between something natural and something fun and unusual. The best shortcut to that, I think, is to draw from life experience. So it’s really cool that yours has been useful.
Do you consider yourself much of a writer?
I don’t think so. Really, a lot of the dialogue in the game—I had a text file on my computer just called “24K writing ideas” and if I had an idea or a weird interaction or a weird thought or something funny or anything I felt would be interesting for a character to say, I just popped it into there. If I was writing a character, then I would draw on that and form a personality around one of those little phrases or ideas.
Do you feel like next time you make a game, writing it would be easier now that you have a process. Does it get any easier?
I don’t think so! There were times that it was so tough to sit down and write things, and it’s just gotta be done, you know? I really don’t enjoy that part of it, but that’s how I approached it.
Is that the part you enjoy doing the least?
In terms of actually making the game, probably. I guess when I got into it I would start enjoying it, but to actually start—to sit down and get into that mode of writing—it was really difficult for me.
The other thing I really don’t enjoy is marketing stuff. That is just tough.
I totally understand why somebody would rather have somebody else do it for them. As a writer, sometimes I have to sell myself, and I hate doing it! I just wanna put it out there and hope the people that need it find it (laughs). With a game, there’s that financial aspect that requires you to stay on top of it.
Yeah. With Steam, they made it pretty easy with the Curator Connect system where you can search curators and add them to a list and send your game to them through that. That made it somewhat easier. I also had a good friend helping me with marketing, and giving me advice from the sidelines about stuff. I have no clue when it comes to that kind of thing.
For me, the way I heard about 24 Killers was through the Love-de-lic Lounge Discord server. I noticed you’re in there! They’ve been excited for it for quite a while, so I was sort of passively aware of the game. I’m curious how being part of these communities might have influenced your approach to making the game or marketing the game.
It’s been cool seeing all these communities interested in these types of games. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even known there was a market for it. I wish I was a little more involved in them; I lurk most of the time in Discord servers and forums. I was kind of thinking about how increased interest in Love-de-lic has opened the door to release games like this. I think a lot of people are enjoying these types of games now that wouldn’t have in the past, and they gave them a shot, maybe, after trying moon or other stuff from Onion Games like Dandy Dungeon.
It blows me away constantly how—I don’t know if you follow romhacking or fan translation scenes—but there’s really cool stuff happening almost every day. It feels like more people are into obscure games than there used to be years ago. In the communities I’m in, we were excited for 24 Killers. There’s definitely an appetite for this stuff.
Do you think COVID had anything to do with that? People being at home and digging more into online communities?
Yes, absolutely! People had more time to spend in communities, a lot of people spent that time learning new languages and programming. I think it’s definitely a factor. I spent a lot of my COVID time studying Japanese so I could enjoy this stuff more.
So you did pretty much all the work on 24 Killers yourself. Is it hard to find the time to develop all these skills and keep them sharp?
Yeah. You might go months in programming mode without touching Blender, and then you have to go back to that and have a refresher. That was probably the hardest thing. More infrequently, releasing trailers and doing video editing was really hard to get back into. Or web design stuff for sites, there’s just so much stuff to switch back to. I would need a refresher almost every time.
Did you ever wanna ask someone else for help?
I have asked people for help and tried to bring people on board, but it never really worked out. I always felt kind of guilty, too—I don’t have any resources to pay people for their help. I didn’t want to have somebody come and do a ton of art or programming or music and not be able to compensate them for their time.
That’s rough. I have to imagine the Kickstarter margins were very slim, especially with how long the development time has been.
So it was just a financial thing, choosing to do everything solo?
Yeah, it was mostly financial. I released the beta of the game almost exactly a year ago. I was looking at the changelog and I released the changelog when I started the beta and it was like March 12th or something like that, and that’s the first time I had people try the game. That's been the most collaborative experience I’ve had—working on this, getting feedback from people, that’s been awesome. It made me think that I don’t wanna do this again without a team.
Did you get a lot of creative feedback, or mostly just bug reporting? Do you ask for advice on the story or art direction?
It was everything; pacing, bug fixes, things that were unclear about the story. The amount the game has changed in the past year was huge because of the help that I’ve had.
One of my favorite things about the game, personally, is the music. How long have you been making music?
I think I picked up guitar when I was 14. I started doing home recording on the computer and found FruityLoops, or FL Studio, and started making pop music and electronic music with it. I started making a lot of music when I started making games in 2011. Games are mostly what I make music for.
What are your main influences?
My favorite band of all time is Prefab Sprout.
Oh, heck yes!
You know who they are? Awesome! As far as guitar and lyrics, they’re my biggest influence. I listen to video game music a lot. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dreamcast soundtracks lately. I’ve been listening to the Shenmue soundtracks. I like Natalie Merchant. She’s from the ‘90s, but she still plays shows and records. I like a lot of classic ‘80s stuff too.
I see on your website that you make little resin figures. When did you get into doing that?
I started getting into this YouTube channel called CraftsMan. Have you heard of that one?
No, I haven’t!
It’s cool. I was watching him make little figures and thought “man, I gotta try that.” I just followed what he was doing and started messing around with little Shabby heads for the Happy Shabby Games logo as practice. I made a figure of Oyaji—I made a bunch of those and hand painted them. I started making the Whisper charms too. Resin stuff’s fun!
I love the Sleepy Puppy. It’s so cute. So did you know that Yoshiro Kimura does little hand-painted clay figures?
I did not know what.
Yeah, there’s a really cool interview—it’s up on YouTube somewhere—and he’s explaining this board game he made with little potato figures. Your resin art reminded me a lot of them, so it’s cool that there’s this other little parallel you have!
When I was a kid I made this game, it was called Drop Cards, and my dad still has them at his house somewhere. You had this little arena—like a cardboard box—and there was this papier-mâché egg with little feet so it could stand up. And what you would do was blow up a balloon and put it inside of this egg, then you get these little cards, and each card would have a little sharp pointy object on them. You would take turns, each player would draw cards, and then you would use your card and drop them onto your opponent’s egg and try to pop their balloon.
Wow. And how old were you when you made this?
I was super young, maybe in middle school.
What do you think of Drop Cards now? Are you still proud of that?
(laughter) Yeah, I mean, I think my dad is the only person who ever played it with me. I wasn’t asking my friends to come over and play it or anything.
So were you really into board games?
We didn’t play a whole lot of board games. I think I just like being creative and making stuff. I was really into Pokémon cards back then, too. I thought making my own trading card game would be fun.
Getting back to 24 Killers. Playing the game, I thought it was interesting how it’s clearly got the moon and Chulip inspiration, but the difficulty is a lot more manageable. There’s just the right amount of cryptic puzzle solving that doesn’t make things too obvious, but it doesn’t leave you stumped for a super long time. Was the difficulty of those games on your mind at all?
I found Chulip very difficult, and a lot of times I had no idea what to do. The sniper that you encounter—I had to look up a guide for that. There is just no way I would have figured out how to get near it.
Yeah, me too. The guide stayed open while I played Chulip.
Yeah (laughs). I didn’t necessarily want people to have to do that. I’m enjoying seeing people talk with each other and ask questions about what to do next. That’s been kind of a battle. There’s a balance of something being too difficult, like Chulip, or too easy. For a long time, I’ve wanted to put some kind of item in the game that points players to what their next objective is, but at the same time trying to maybe insert a cutscene that gives players a hint instead of... like in modern game design where you always have that pointer to the next objective.
I think the use of Mole giving you hints and the letters that tell you what you need to do—where you still need to remember and internalize what they say—that’s a good balance. It reminds me of Link’s Awakening. Have you played it?
Very little. I’ve only played the older games on an emulator.
I think it’s cool the way it only vaguely gestures what you need to do. The information is there, but it’s up to you how to parse it out. I feel a little bit of that in 24 Killers.
Are there times in Link’s Awakening where you maybe only hear something once that you need to progress?
I was curious about that, because there’s some stuff like that in 24 Killers where if you skip through a dialogue you might have a hard time remembering what’s next.
If there’s something I feel like I might forget, I actually write it down. I keep a little journal when I’m playing through games. It’s fun to go back and see what your thought process was. You see what you thought was important at the time. Sometimes you might have been right, sometimes it’s not so important. It’s fun not being sure! 24 Killers has the right amount of that mystery, I think.
One thing we added recently. Wait, how far are you in the game?
Maybe about halfway, based on how much time some people have said it took them.
I don’t wanna spoil anything, but there’s a point in the game a lot of people get stuck at, and I’ve added so many things to help people try to get over that hump. It’s been a constant battle. I added a cutscene, I think yesterday or the night before, just to give one more little push for players to make it over that without taking all of the mystery out of it.
Did you run into that much in beta testing?
There were some things that were so specific, like not getting a cutscene unless you land something at a perfect angle. Really ridiculous stuff that at the time I’m like “man, this is awesome.” The reality of having other people play it that aren’t making the game is very different.
Right. You have the hindsight. Does it bother you having to compromise on those ideas that you thought were really cool?
I think it’s pretty fun. It’s kind of a challenge. My friend Mike, who’s helping with marketing, gave me advice on receiving feedback. A lot of times when people give feedback they’ll let you know their idea of how to fix the thing. He told me “you don’t have to listen to their suggestion, but listen to why they’re suggesting it.” You want to make a change that’s in line with your vision but still addresses the root of the problem. I think it’s fun to figure stuff out like that.
And there are things that people suggest that are just straight-up good ideas, and I’ve used some of those!
I’m curious how you came up with the Foam dimensions with the different effects on save files. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like that in another game.
I listen to a lot of science and futurism podcasts on YouTube—things like Isaac Arthur or John Michael Godier or even PBS Space Time. A lot of the time what they’re talking about is so over my head, but I just enjoy listening to it. They talk a lot about the multiverse and different realities, and that influenced the 24 Killers story a lot, and also the save file system.
The idea of a Foam or bubble universe came from seeing images in these podcasts of universes in bubbles. To me, they looked like foam. That’s where I got the name for The Foam.
How do you feel like the save effects affect how people approach the game? Some of them make the game easier, but some can also make the game more challenging.
The Cursed Blessing limits your in-game days to 24, and it deletes your save file if you don’t complete it in that time.
The system was put in to provide an easy way to give the game replayability. I’d also love to see people speedrun the game. I think it would be really neat to see different categories based on what kinds of Blessings are used. Like, Cursed Blessing with Fast Forward and Claw, stuff like that.
I saw that somebody found a sequence break day one.
Gosh. Many people found that and were kind of confused and thought it was the intended route. I was happy it didn’t break their game more or halt their progress. It was confusing a lot of people, because I kind of hinted at there being a place in the game that a lot of people were getting stuck, and because of that sequence break it was compounding the issue—they maybe weren’t getting some dialogue they would have gotten or playing some necessary things for progressing the story.
You ended up having to take it out, right?
I did, yeah. Hopefully. We’ll see.
It’s interesting to see a developer’s perspective with regards to speedruns. Sometimes people like to leave bugs in because they’re cool, and other times you have to do something because it might be impacting too many of the casual players.
I would have liked to keep it in if it was maybe more obscure and not so many people were finding it.
Did you play many other games for research? Either for inspiration, or to see how other games deal with problems you were encountering?
I did. My style of playing games is that I finish very few. Most of them are too long for me, so I like to skim games for a few hours and get a feel for them until I’m satisfied and get the idea. Very recently I played Eastward, a longer adventure game kind of similar to 24 Killers. I played a lot of stuff on emulators, too. I think as far as playing games for inspiration, I’ll play a few hours and absorb it—maybe not specifically playing for “research,” but that’s how I’ve been influenced by games.
I think that’s a good approach. It’s alright to play games just enough that you understand what it’s going for. In that way, it’s really fun because the first few hours are where you get the bulk of a game’s presentation and see how they pace out their key ideas. It’s fun to start games, but not always fun to finish them.
Yeah (laughs). There are games like Final Fantasy Tactics, where I’ve restarted it so many times. The last time I played it, I really got into it and finally got past that surface level enjoyment of it and got really absorbed in the systems.
That’s a good feeling, when it finally clicks!
How do you feel about the way you developed the endgame of 24 Killers? You don’t have to get into specifics since I’m not there yet, but did it feel satisfying the way you wrapped it up?
That’s a tough question. I think the end of a game—in my case, it maybe didn’t get as much love as the beginning of the game. I think you meet more interesting characters at the end of the game, like Martin or Gunther, and I think the Blessings kind of pull it all together. The game ends a little abruptly. It felt a little overwhelming, like, how do I end an experience? It’s kind of daunting. In a lot of games, it’s this big climax, but 24 Killers is kind of quiet. I think there is definitely closure, but not a giant fanfare. I think it’s consistent with the theme of the game, where you’re participating in this giant project of expanding the Foam. It’s like, okay, you finished a save file; here’s a Blessing and now you help to fill out the Foam even more.
I’m definitely satisfied with how it turned out. I think what I’m feeling is pressure, comparing myself to other big adventure games. Feeling the need to have that in my own game, you know? Not that the end of the game isn’t special to me or that I didn’t put my heart into it, but comparing my game to other games, I think “did I do enough?”
So far, I haven’t heard anyone saying that they think the game falls off at the end, so that’s been encouraging!
What’s one thing that you love most about the game?
I like wandering around the island, and the spaces of the game. One thing that was inspiring to me about each map is that in town, between the downtown areas are these little alleyways. They’re open to the public. You can just walk down these alleyways and people have their little gardens, and it’s just kind of a neat space to walk through. It reminds me of that enjoyable feeling of wandering around in Chulip.
I think that’s probably my favorite part of the game. ✿
Thanks for reading the third installment of once bitten, twice shy. It was an absolute blast to chat with Todd about what is likely to be my favorite game of the year. Please give 24 Killers a look!
I plan to talk to plenty more people doing things that are interesting to me. If you’re on board, consider subscribing to the newsletter. It’s free, and always will be! However, if you wanna support me, donating via Ko-fi is an option. Just hit the button below. (There’s even an option to set up a recurring monthly donation, if you really love me!) Whether you do or don’t, you have my thanks for checking in.
Be safe. Love you, buddy. 💜
Thanks for reading once bitten, twice shy! Shove your email here on the way out. :3