This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine (opens in new tab) issue 353 in February 2021, as part of our 'Positive Influence' series, where every month we chat to a different developer about the inspirations and unexpected connections behind their work.
Like all British fairy tales, the story of Overcooked begins at Cambridge Wizard School. Or at least that's what Ghost Town Games programmer Oli DeVine calls it, with a knowing wink to the absurdity of the ancient UK education system. Officially known as Cambridge University, it taught him two things: first, that he didn't want to be an academic. And second, that local co-op wasn't dead.
"University can be quite an isolating experience," DeVine says. "The thing that got me through it was having people round and playing videogames in my room, or going home and playing with my brothers."
At the time, the games industry had largely turned its back on shared screen experiences, necessitating complex setups with multiple consoles and TVs connected via LAN. "That was such a pain in the butt," DeVine remembers, "but you'd still do that, because the experience of being in the same space was so much better."
DeVine stayed in Cambridge to work at Frontier, where he met his future creative partner, Phil Duncan. Today, Frontier is best known for its own evolving games, Elite Dangerous and Planet Coaster. But back then, it subsisted mainly on one-off projects that varied wildly in size.
On Disneyland Adventures, the 200+ team was so big that departments ended up cut off from each other, with no sense of the game in its entirety—a situation the pair says leads to the segmented feel of modern open world games like Assassin's Creed. But working on tighter projects, such as the Wii platformer LostWinds 2, opened their eyes to how much nimbler a small team could be. "Generally speaking, me and Oli have tried to avoid working with four multinational studios at once," Duncan jokes.
Inspired by the success of a former Frontier colleague, Lone Survivor's Jasper Byrne, the two set up Ghost Town Games as an independent. The plan was to sell 20,000 copies of their first game—a target that seemed manageable before handing in their resignations, and terribly daunting soon afterwards.
"I don't think either of us at the time were particularly big cooks," Duncan says. "I'd done my stint working as a barman and waiter, so I had some knowledge of how a kitchen operates—when a team is working seamlessly, and the orders are coming in and out at the same rate, and if someone's having a bad day, how it can ... fall apart."
Neither developer had a repertoire of impressive meals, however. That's apparent in the ‘naive' recipes of the original Overcooked, which had burgers, burritos, and an onion soup consisting of just three onions. "If we were making the game now from scratch, it would probably be a more diverse and interesting palette," DeVine says.
Overcooked became an enormous success—and for the sequel, Ghost Town worked alongside a full kitchen of Team17 staff. There's no other way to put it: the pair were worried they might have too many cooks. "It's something we were reticent about, because of the experience with a big team at Frontier," Duncan says. "Are decisions going to be slower and harder to make? But in actual fact, because we'd already made the first game, and the second one was building off that foundation, it wasn't slowing us down."
If Overcooked lends itself to easy metaphor, that's because it captures something essential about the nature of cooperation. Its primary lesson, that you need to keep lines of communication open to work effectively with others, proved useful when collaborating with Team17. And the back and forth of two effective co-op partners—one hurling a sausage across a ravine, the other catching it—is clearly reflected in DeVine and Duncan's dynamic.
"I'm a 'measure four, five, 300 times before you cut' kind of guy," Duncan says, "And Oli's a 'just cut it' kind of guy. He makes me a little less cautious."
"Good," DeVine replies. "You probably make me think that there are consequences to actions. What we get from working together is similar to playing a level of Overcooked. We've got this optimisation to our work now. We try stuff, mix it up, and pick up where the other person stops."