Interview: World of Goo’s triumphant return will feature flowing gloopy oozy goo

By John Walker, Contributor

In 2008, the gaming world changed. With the release of a single game, all the parameters shifted, and the lines between indie and AAA gaming began their inexorable blur. The game was 2D Boy’s World of Goo, one of the greatest puzzle games ever made. Now, over 15 years later, the two original creators are joined by a small team to make a sequel, which is coming to the Epic Games Store. How come?! Why now?! Well, we tracked down Ron Carmel, Kyle Gabler, and their new teammates to demand answers.

World of Goo was unlike anything seen before (apart from prototype Tower of Goo, but let’s not get pedantic). It stood out, not just for its unique mechanic—where animated blobs formed rigid bonds when placed near one another, creating structures along which other blobs could move—but for its astonishing presentation, combining bold, cartoon graphics with an exquisite score and (perhaps most importantly) a fascinating storyline that unfolded across four distinct chapters.

This was a game that began with a brilliant, compelling idea, and then threw it aside to introduce another—which then would be abandoned because an even better idea was coming along. Each mechanic was good enough to be its own game, but World of Goo had the confidence to incessantly iterate and surprise. It was also a game that grew its own legends, like how the two people who made it used a Starbucks as their office, their laptops as their studio.

Of course, this wasn’t a singular moment, but rather a confluence of events that kicked off a seismic shift. Only a year prior, Valve started allowing third-party games to be sold through Steam—2008 saw just 179 games released on the platform—so visibility for new releases was enormous.

This also meant that it was, for the first time, realistic to launch a game without the support of a publisher, and possible to have a hit without relying on retail shelves. Games like Peggle had opened doors, creating an appetite in players for imaginative, low-budget puzzle games, and a very few brave indies had left breadcrumbs for others to follow—games like Vigil, Aquaria, and Gish.
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And yet World of Goo felt revolutionary. It was a literal overnight success. The game raked in a fortune, and this essentially tiny indie game received mass coverage across all the big-name gaming sites that at the time routinely ignored games they didn’t hear about via a PR company. It made waves by shipping with no DRM, and then again when its developers posted that they weren’t at all bothered by an estimated 90% piracy rate. They even ran an amnesty sale a year later that allowed people who’d pirated to pay what they thought the game was worth, and brought in a further $100,000 in a week.

So you might wonder, what game did 2D Boy make next? Well…they didn’t. That was it. Kyle Gabler went on to release games with his new studio, Tomorrow Corporation, and Ron Carmel co-launched the Indie Fund. But until now, 2D Boy has been a one-hit wonder, and it seemed like that would be it, forever. Until now.

So why now?

“My knee makes a noise when I bend it,” explains Gabler. “If old age doesn’t destroy us first, AI is coming for us next. Soon, nobody will ever need to make games ever again, since computers will build custom pleasure palaces for us all.” Ahhhh. Should have guessed. “So,” continues Gabler, “before we become totally obsolete, we knew that if we ever wanted to visit World of Goo again—in that broken, hand-crafted, rickety, junkyard, human way we build stuff—this is our last chance.”

Of course, in reality, Gabler has kept his hand in. Tomorrow Corporation released Little Inferno, Human Resource Machine, and 7 Billion Humans. It’s Tomorrow Corporation that’s joining 2D Boy for the World of Goo sequel, although it sounds like the team’s expanding. “In those 15 years, each of us has become a parent,” says Gabler, “which has dramatically multiplied our productivity by 0.2 times! ‘I’m going to work!’ says my 4-year-old, as he shoves peanut butter fingers into my keyboard.”

Ron Carmel, meanwhile, went in some other directions. “I’ve been gradually moving away from the games industry,” he tells us. “After co-founding Indie Fund with a bunch of friends, I also became a dad, made [mobile strategy game] Subterfuge with Noel Llopis (who is now part of the World of Goo 2 team), trained and volunteered as a mediator, co-facilitated a men’s group in San Quentin prison, did a couple of years of somatic psychotherapy training, and then started seeing clients in private practice.”

All of which, you might imagine, could leave little time for games development. “It was during that training that Kyle and I started feeling out the idea of World of Goo 2,” Carmel explains, “So now I’m on the World of Goo 2 team part-time, and seeing clients part-time.”
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I wondered if Kyle and Ron had any theories for why—aside from being a genuinely wonderful game—World of Goo was such a phenomenon. It deserved its success, but it’s fair to say the reaction was unlike anything a similar game would receive today.

“We were so lucky with the timing of World of Goo,” says Carmel. “Digital distribution was taking off, and I think there was hunger for weird and wonderful games that were different from the ‘hardcore games’ and ‘casual games’ that were available at the time.”

Carmel lists other games that were a part of the same movement, games that “didn’t fit into the incumbent market” as he puts it: Gish, Darwinia, Braid, Audiosurf, Fl0w, Spelunky, and Super Meat Boy. “Many of us proto-indies knew each other, or at least knew of each other. We were inspired by one another, hung out together at GDC and other events. There was a strong feeling of community. We had a feeling that something was happening and we were a part of it, but we really didn’t know what it was.”

“I remember getting together at Steve [Swink] and Matthew [Wegner]’s Flashbang office in Arizona,” Gabler interjects, “and Derek Yu was there—having already released Aquaria—and he was working on this new 2D platformer with procedural elements. None of us, even him, knew it was the beginning of the Spelunky phenomenon.”

This sense of camaraderie and change became so powerful that Carmel remembers getting carried away by it all. “I remember at some point thinking that AAA games were as good as dead, because now that making indie games was sustainable, everybody was going to quit their job and make indie games. Cute, right? I gave two or three talks around that time that were naive in different ways.”
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The legend of World of Goo was that Gabler and Carmel made the game on their crappy laptops, sitting on either side of a small table in their local Starbucks. I wondered, now they’re bajillionaires, whether they were approaching the sequel in a similarly scrappy way.

“Well,” says Kyle, “this bajillionaire buys breakfast cereal based on maximizing ounces per dollar, and I never get the ‘extra avocado’ at Subway because it’s a really inefficient avocado delivery mechanism.” Ah. “I’ve also switched to using only free and open-source software, running Linux on a laptop where the ‘e’ and ‘9’ keys don’t work. So when it comes to whether or not to build World of Goo 2 in a scrappy way, it’s not really much of a decision. Scrappiness is how we do everything.”

“I use a Mac,” adds Ron.

“I don’t have a computer,” interrupts the game’s mysterious PR rep, Dandy Wheeler.

Carmel continues, “We knew that since we’re both old and have families, it would take forever to make a game, so we knew we needed to bring in help.”

“Even with a team, though,” adds Gabler, “World of Goo 2 wouldn’t work if we made it in a slick or expensive way. I think part of the fun of the game is its hand-crafted ‘Oh my god it could fall apart at any moment’ aesthetic. It’s all kind of duct-taped together, and I hope players enjoy that.”

Wheeler interrupts again, “This is why we don’t let developers talk to the press. What they mean to say is that World of Goo 2 is a stunning work of technological and artistic achievement."
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Coming back to a game like World of Goo must be incredibly daunting. Its iterative nature, the endlessly changing conceits, suggest that they must have exhausted all their best ideas when making it. I wondered if this was off-putting, this need to at least match their best.

“We decided that if we revisited World of Goo, time should have passed there too, and we should revisit that world in a way that is more how we remember it, not how it actually was.” Which leads to the notion of, rather than trying to pick up where the old game left off, instead considering what World of Goo can be in 2024. “What can we do now that we couldn’t do before?” says Gabler.

The first big change in this regard is that World of Goo 2 will—for the first time—contain actual goo. “World of Goo had Goo Balls, and it had roughly simulated regions of water,” says Gabler. “But there was no flowing gloopy oozy goo. Computers are much faster now, so we’re able to create actual flowing, splashing, simulated goo.”

This led to experimentations with liquid physics, which the team decided should form a core part of the sequel. “And along the way,” Gabler adds, “we kept discovering other neat things we could do, and new species of Goo Balls, with new abilities, often interacting with liquid in some way. With a physics simulation, there’s always neat new stuff to discover.”
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Given that there are more than two people making the game this time, that presumably means a lot of fresh ideas are also being introduced via fresh brains. So who are they? Alongside Ron and Kyle are programmers Noel Llopis, Aleš Mlakar, Miguel Ángel Pérez Martínez, and Allan Blomquist, artists Peter Hedin and Jay Epperson, designer Kyle Gray, and musician Jonny Trengrove. And, of course, Dandy Wheeler doing PR.

I wondered, given that the original game had everything from its programming, art, design and music created by Gabler and Carmel, whether they struggle with delegating now that there’s an extended team to work with.

“There’s not much delegation needed,” says Carmel. “People tend to just take stuff on and do amazing things. My opinion of myself as a programmer has taken a hit seeing what this team makes happen. It makes me feel even better about my personal transition.”

If anything, the pair are trying to bring in as much as they can from their crew. Carmel adds, “I love the way Kyle invites other people’s talents into the game. For example, Aleš plays flamenco guitar on one of the tracks!”
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The side of World of Goo that perhaps gets mentioned less is that underpinning its cute puzzles and brilliant mechanics is a pretty furious commentary on capitalism. Given how well that’s been going over the last 15 years, I asked if they would pick up on that beef, or if there were other things they were angry about.

“We have so many beefs,” says Gabler. “I have to say, though, as a game designer I wish I could design something so clever as capitalism. It’s the reason cool stuff gets built cheaper over time. If no one bought stuff, we wouldn’t be able to get better and faster stuff all the time. And I love stuff! I think about this clip often.”

But yes, World of Goo 2 pokes some fun. “Sometimes they’re big themes in the game,” Gabler adds, “sometimes just passive-aggressive little swipes at things that annoy us, or silly things we love.”

So, does this mean the band’s back together? Can we expect a third and fourth album? Or is this a reunion tour?”

“I’m never making another game again,” says Ron, “so this one better be good.”

“This is Cher’s farewell tour,” offers Kyle. “I’m hoping we wring out all possible ideas into this game so we can’t possibly ever make another one.”

But the final word goes to PR rep Dandy Wheeler: “OK, you maudlin little indie developers. We all know you’ll come crawling back for more.”