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Lair of the Clockwork God Dan Marshall Interview Lair of the Clockwork God Dan Marshall Interview

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That’s time gentlemen, please: Lair of the Clockwork God ‘a nice swansong’ for Ben and Dan

We caught up with Dan Marshall to ask about expectations for Lair of the Clockwork God, designing games in the pub, and the end of the road for Ben and Dan.

Size Five Games

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We caught up with Dan Marshall to ask about expectations for Lair of the Clockwork God, designing games in the pub, and the end of the road for Ben and Dan.

Lair of the Clockwork God is one of the first games on the list for our inevitable “best games of 2020” article later this year, and let me tell you now, there’s no shifting it. It’s indelible.

There are only a handful of games this year – yes, even big AAA behemoths – that I would consider as good as Lair of the Clockwork God. You can count the games that might be “better” on one hand. (With strong emphasis on the “might” depending on the mood I’m in.)

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The critical consensus would tend to agree with me. It’s “mighty” on OpenCritic, with 100% of critics recommending it, has a Metascore of 84, 99% positive reviews on Steam, and has been the one of the top “undiscovered gems” on Steam for months now. But for some reason, Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t have the sales to match its critical reception.

The working theory at Thumbsticks, incidentally, is that people have been “waiting for it to come to Nintendo Switch”. Yes, even though the Switch version of the game – which releases September 4, 2020, alongside the Xbox One version – wasn’t announced until last month. (Switch port begging is wild, huh? And if you were doing that, you’d better buy it. We don’t like looking foolish.)

So with the console release right around the corner, I caught up with Dan Marshall of Size Five Games to ask about the reception to Lair of the Clockwork God, the joys of designing a game in the pub, and what’s next for Ben and Dan.

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Lair of the Clockwork God lazy dev

Thumbsticks: I am aware that Lair of the Clockwork God hasn’t sold as well as you’d hoped – I follow you, I see the tweets – so I’d like to home in on the commercial success/failure aspect a little bit, if that’s OK?

Dan Marshall: I mean, look. By any realistic measure of success, Clockwork God is doing well. It’s selling well enough to prop the company up and should do enough to make another game. I think the problem is that when you’re self-funded you need to be making that “next game” with some idea of what your budget’s going to be like, and that’s where things have gone tricky.

So, ideally, Clockwork God would have immediately made £100k and I can go, “you know what, that’s fab, I can hire an artist for the next game and we can do X, Y and Z,” and the reality is in 2020 games don’t sell like that. They sell when they’re on sale, they sell when they’re on Switch… So it’s way harder to work out what I do going forward. Which sucks.

I think a lot of my “waaah this hasn’t sold as well as I’d hoped” also comes from the critical reaction to the game, y’know? In that it got ace reviews, both from critics and users, and was in mid-year GOTY lists and stuff and… I mean I had assumed if I’d ever made a game that was that well-received, the money would flow along with it. That I’d be actually rich, and that side of things definitely hasn’t happened.

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But, it’s not like I’ve made a stinker of a game, so career-wise it’s been brilliant. It’s a near-universally liked game, and that’s a huge boost for me personally, even if I’m not typing this from my own personal yacht.

The critical reception to the game has indeed been fantastic, but the number of critic reviews seems – I’ll be honest – absurdly low. Are you hoping the console releases will give the game a second shot at generating some sort of buzz?

Yeah, I mean, I get it. I think the big outlets will only really review games that are proven to bring in clicks? Stuff that’s already popular and successful? I don’t know how it works; I’m guessing. But it felt like that. Even when we had the 84 Metacritic under our belt, and I was taking the game to big outlets and going “LOOK. SEE? GOOD GAME, OF INTEREST TO YOUR READERS.” it was getting nowhere. And you know, Clockwork God was never a viral-y sort of game. Great puzzles and funny dialogue don’t gif well, so it has an at-best modest following, so I understand how it bounced off those big sites.

Even now, I don’t know how many outlets will take it “seriously” for the console launch. I don’t think it’s a game that brings in clicks. Lesson learned. But it’s certainly a second opportunity to talk about the game, to thrust it in peoples’ faces, and get a second wave (sorry, poor choice of words) of buzz.

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Lair of the Clockwork God dinosaur

Is there anything you might’ve done differently, then?

No, I mean by this point Ben and I have been designing the game in pubs for a decade. It needed making, we’d had too much fun talking about it and throwing ideas around. It needed to come out of my brain and into a computer, really. Short of suddenly changing it into a Roguelike, there’s not much that can be done.

I mean, when I started development on it, narrative games like Night in the Woods/Thimbleweed Park were getting great buzz and good numbers, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to be taking on. So, I guess you just can’t tell.

I’m talking like it’s done badly. It hasn’t! I’m just slightly bitter that it hasn’t done as well as the reception would suggest!

Down the pub, though, with your best mate – you did have a lot of fun making it?

Oh, it was the best time. Just, the absolute best bit of the job, sitting around, throwing ideas back and forth. I wish I could do that forever and not have to worry about all the messy practicalities of actually making the game afterwards.

But yeah, amazing. We laughed so long and so hard it was just magical. We’re going to have to find something else to design when we meet up, because I think I’m just addicted to that specific part of game development, now.

So, what’s next, then? Is it the dinosaur game or, dare I say it, Behold the Clipmen, or something else? 

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Yeah, the Dinosaur Game next. It was something I was tinkering around with and having learned my lesson from Clockwork God I was like, “I’ll put this up on Twitter, see if I can gauge if there’s an appetite for it,” and it did really well, so it’s a strong direction to go in, I think. It feels unique, it feels like there’s nothing quite like it. I can’t believe there aren’t many games where you get to play as a dinosaur out there, it seems so…. obvious?

Behold the Clipmen came to a crashing halt because it just didn’t hang together very well – I wanted to make something quick and easy, but Clipmen required a depth of mechanic I wasn’t willing to invest for such a gamble of a game.

And will Ben and Dan be back?

Dan and Ben probably won’t be back, to be honest. I’d love to, because it means Ben and I can do some more “design meetings” but I think it’d only happen if the console versions do so astronomically well it’d be daft not to. We’ll see, but for now I think this is a nice swansong for the characters, a well-received lovely little game that’s funny and unique and a bit clever, and doesn’t sully the good names of Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please! It feels like an apt “out” for them.

Lair of the Clockwork God Ben and Dan

Oh man, well that’s bummed me out for the day ahead! You’re right, though – it is a lovely swansong and a fitting place for their story to end. Speaking of endings, then: I remember you saying that you tried to get a licensed bit of music for the end of Clockwork God but it didn’t come off. What’s the story there, and what was the song?

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Hah, at first I wanted I Think We’re Alone Now by Tiffany, which I thought would be hilarious, and then briefly looked into Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship, but there’s a Beach Boys song called That’s Why God Made the Radio and some of the lyrics fit how the game ended, and it’s a beautiful track. It has this washy, free, relaxed, happy feel to it and it just felt “right”. The entire end sequence was written and designed with that song in mind.

So I set about trying to clear it, and the lady I was dealing with was… I mean, I assume if you’re not some big movie studio she felt like you’re wasting her time? That’s how it came across, anyway, as if I was a nuisance because I wanted to give her money. Like, some tiny indie game wasn’t even worth the effort of typing a reply.

So I chased and I chased and I chased and eventually after many weeks the quote came in as about £2-3k which was… I mean, it’s manageable but a lot. But the license expired after 5 years so I sent her an email saying, “what’s the quote if it’s forever because I’m not interested in changing the game 5 years down the road because of a song,” and as I recall she didn’t even bother replying, so I thought, “fuck it, I’m not chasing this again, I’ll just write my own damned song,” which, actually, I think worked out better.

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I love that Beach Boys song, but that’s a good call, I reckon. If even Microsoft and Remedy fell foul of expiring music licensing rights (and it pulled Alan Wake off sale for the best part of a year while they sorted it out) then that’s not the sort of headache you need as an indie developer.

And you’re right, you know? The ending worked out pretty much perfect the way it is.


Lair of the Clockwork God releases on Nintendo Switch and Xbox One on September 4, 2020. It’s also available on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam and GOG.

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Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.