Swarm: From Ph.D To PSN

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Swarm: From Ph.D To PSN

We’re super excited that Swarm is finally about to be released on PlayStation Network. The genesis of the original idea for the game stretches all the way back to 2006, shortly after we started Hothead. There was an indie video game developer contest we wanted to enter, so we brainstormed a ton of ideas on what to submit. Dr. Mike Hayward, Hothead’s resident Ph.D., brought forward a concept based on his doctoral research in artificial life. He called it Swarm and it had plenty of science cred. We thought this was our contest winner, so we came up with a cute adorable character to go with his tech, the swarmite, and got to work on a prototype.

In the end we did very well in that contest, placing in the final four, winning the people’s choice vote, and garnering $300,000 in winnings. Every time we wore a Swarm t-shirt in public, invariably someone would ask us about the character. People really seemed to like it. So we knew we were onto something. We just had one problem: what we created wasn’t really a game.

The prototype was cool. 50 pudgy, blue swarmites milled around and waited for you to act. You took control of a single swarmite and the rest watched attentively. You’d take some action, like picking up a rock, and the rest of them would frantically run around, trying to find rocks. There were never enough rocks to go around, and so the swarmites would absentmindedly pick up other items or even their fellow swarmites. Then you’d throw the rocks at a target and they would all follow. Every time you did something, they learned, and as you progressed through the level they used all their learning to move you forward. So the tech was very cool and the way the swarmites behaved was funny, but because you were teaching them, the further you progressed through the level, the more time you spent simply watching and the less time you spent playing.

Swarm: From Ph.D To PSN

Our response to this was to park the uber-smart Dr. Mike in a corner and let him play for three years or so. “Turn it into a game!” was our direction. He kept at it, finally hitting a big turning point when he started playing with the idea of directly controlling 50 swarmites at once. Suddenly Swarm started looking like an action game and a platformer. And there were cool examples of emergence that he kind of stumbled on. For example, if you huddle the swarm together and then jump repeatedly, they stack on each other’s heads and form a tall totem. That wasn’t planned in any design document, it just happened by accident in one of Mike’s prototypes.

Swarm: From Ph.D To PSN

Armed with some cool new control schemes, we put the game into production and set out to make the coolest PSN game ever. Then we hit our next obstacle. Turns out if you move 50 characters at once and put them in a ridiculously dangerous world with explosives, fans and other things that tend to blow them all over the place, it can get a tad confusing for the player just what is going on and where their swarm is when all hell is breaking loose. So to address this, we did what we always do: lots and lots of playtests. We’d bring in four or five fresh players that have never seen the game before, put a controller in their hand and let them give it a go. Certainly it can be a humbling experience when you watch players get frustrated with your game, but we persisted at iterating and improving it a little each week. It wasn’t long before we had something that users reported was intuitive and fun to play… no small feat for a brand new type of gameplay mechanic!

With our deadline quickly approaching, we turned our attention to replayability. What would give players a reason to want to go back and replay levels they’ve already completed? The epiphany here turned out to be our scoring system. Swarm has multipliers, multipliers on multipliers, checkpoint bonuses, time bonuses and lots and lots of shiny pickups. The upshot of all of it is that whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned player, you can always work to make your score better. There is no natural maximum score on any level. And the great benefit of that is it makes the leaderboards in the game naturally quite competitive. We put your results right in your face as frequently as we can so you always see how you’re measuring up against your friends on each level. We even have the game automatically facilitate a bit of smack talk.

We’re proud of what we’ve made in Swarm: it was wrought from our indie blood, sweat and tears. We’re confident you’ll like what you see when you play it.

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13 Author Replies

  • That video was terrible… worst game teaser I think I have ever seen haha.

  • so I know the thought’s been mentioned by a couple other reviews of Swarm but…can we expect DLC for Swarm? Bunch of new levels or like awesome lil mini-games or something?

    • No firm DLC plans at the moment. But we always like hearing from people that play our games. So after you give Swarm a try, jump on our forums and let us know what you think. If enough people want DLC, chances are we’ll do it!

  • A pass with a little epic fail added in…

  • funny video except at the end when the guy pukes

  • Game looks cool, but trailer is really bad. Very childish. But I am interested.

  • game looks really cool, can’t wait to check it out tomorrow

  • Oh gee I can’t wait. This looks like a great game…

  • I watched a gameplay video the other day I am liking the look of this game . More than likely gonna buy this game tomorrow . And apparently it’s gonna be $11.99 for ps plus members . $14.99 otherwise .

    Another day 1 discount for ps plus !

  • hothead stopped doing the awesome penny arcade game =(.

    I’m going to buy again from them, when they finished what it was started first =/

  • Hothead Games is making this?

    I hope they patch the game if there are any glitches/bugs because they didn’t bother to do so with Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue. Glad I spent money on that game….

  • If this is even a little bit as awesome as “Deathspank” I will gladly give you my money

  • EXTREMELY thrilled for this one. The prototype looked engaging, and then you added the score system and the PS+ discount to boot. Will be getting this ASAP tomorrow for sure. Happy to see devs just a ferry ride away doing great work!

  • Where can I buy some Swarmite plushies?

  • so these swarmites act as an Artificially intelligent collective , that needs to be taught and trained as one plays ? Sounds cool.

  • PSN demo tomorrow or soon???

  • The video was hilarious, going to go on youtube and add it to favs! Seems like you guys have a lot of fun with your swarmite co-workers. Will there be a demo for this?

    • I think we have as much fun making the videos as we do the game itself! :)

      Demo is available at launch.

  • Really looking forward to the demo, thanks for having one. This seems like it falls somewhere between Pikmin (which is awesome) and Monsteca Coral (which is the opposite of awesome). So now rather than trying to figure out what it is, I can just play it 8-)

  • Looking really nice, I might buy the game if I love the demo! =D

  • I thought the senstivity training video was halarious, was tempted to buy the game just from that. However, seeing as the demo comes out day one, i’d rather see how it plays first.

  • Oh cool, I love Pikmin.

  • So considering you changed the game mechanics around from teaching them shtuff and letting them will it still have that or are you in direct control of them?

    • There are still some aspects of the learning AI in the game. You’ll see it when you pickup bombs and they start throwing them every which way. :) Otherwise we kept the focus on the fast-paced platforming aspects.

  • Wow, that video was awesome by the way!

  • Is this like Nintendo PIKMIN. If it is, then its a must buy for me. I think I try out the demo before I waste my money on something I might not like.

  • Is this only a single player game?

    • Technically single player, but we put a huge focus on high score and on leaderboards. There is a leaderboard for every level in the game, and we’ll always list for you how you’re measuring up against your friends.

  • This looks like a lot of fun! I’m looking forward to trying it out and seeing it in action.
    It wasn’t mentioned, but will there be any sort of Move implementation in this game?

  • man, this is worse than nobi nobi boy!

  • they are adorable!!!!!!!!!

  • This title looks incredibly interesting. The first idea of A.I being stupid from the get go and learning as you progressed really peaked my interest. That fact that you then modified that to make it more game like made me raise an eyebrow and question why. Do you think that the original design could ever be included as perhaps… DLC which added a new mode in which we could experience this wacky way of playing? I would love that.

    Also, this is just me thinking out loud… but if I were tasked (I’m not a programmer, just a gamer) with having to come up with something for re-playability… I would of made a level creator. Honestly, how amazing would it be to put that kind of wacky A.I to work on levels fans build for their friends? It’d be LBP to a whole new level… I’d think.

    Just some ideas. Thanks for the post here on PSBlog… without it, I prob would of seen the title on PSN and not even given it a second look.

    • A level editor is a great idea, and something we’d love to look at for a sequel. And regarding the AI aspects of the swarm behavior, we have a ton of ideas in that area that would be perfect for DLC or a sequel.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • A sequel you say? Mmmmm, Swarmy goodness.

  • i loved the youtube videos lol, it probably would have been fun with the move

  • Can’t wait…

  • This is one of the games that I’ve been wanting to get from PSN. =D Good to see it’s finally coming out.

  • This is actually the first I’ve heard of the game. The teaser trailer looks interesting, I’ll definately grab the demo when it appears.

  • Any chance PSN users can enjoy the same rewards as XBLA users?

    I would like to see(and I know I am not alone), a little swarmite pet for Home. And that amazing hat that you are giving their less than awesome avatars.

    • We would never leave our PSN fans out in the cold. My suggestion would be to stay up-to-date on the latest in Home in the coming weeks…. :)

  • Aw, don’t you listen to ’em I loved the video. A good humorous romp for all ages. “Childish”? Well, who the hell wants to grow up anyway? The fact that there’s a demo means I’m totally fine with the lack of gameplay in the clip. Consider me interested. =)

  • No Day 1 PSN demo, Joel. :(

    What happened?!?

  • @36 Yeah, sup with that?

  • What happened to the demo for this? i thought you said that there would be one? i mean i plan to buy it anyways but would be nice to try it out 1st ya know?

  • We heard from Sony on the demo issue. Apparently the update of content on the PSN store is still underway. So the demo should be there within the next two hours. Thanks for your patience!

  • Sweet – can’t wait! :D

  • @Joel – FYI, Swarm wasn’t listed in The Drop (weekly new release announcement) or in the Playstation Store Update. That’s why I asked if there would be a demo soon! :)


  • Still no demo?

  • Still no demo? Not even in this week’s update?

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