Pistol Whip Smoke & Thunder Marks New Era For Cloudhead

Cloudhead Games released Pistol Whip’s new narrative campaign Smoke & Thunder alongside a complete rebuild of the game’s modifiers system.

The release marks a key moment in Canada-based Cloudhead’s journey as its hit rhythm shooter expands in scope from the original 10-scene debut in late 2019 honed around an incredibly satisfying auto-aim system. Today’s release on PC VR, PSVR, and Quest grows the scene collection to 28 tracks and two tight campaigns with new weapons like BoomStick unleashing splash damage on baddies alongside a new modifiers and leaderboard system. Instead of a game that encourages players to get the highest scores by picking the hardest modifiers, now every combination of scene difficulty, modifier, and weapon choice carries its own leaderboard. So players can practice sharpshooting by making threatless targets who can only be hit in the head, or change a few modifiers to turn it into an intense bullet hell that’s kind of like a rhythmic Expert+++ mode.

On August 15th, three days after release, Cloudhead is also increasing the price of Pistol Whip to $29.99 from its original debut of $24.99. The move echoes a strategy employed recently by Aldin Dynamics with its Natural Magic update to Waltz Of The Wizard, reflecting the hope of long-time VR developers growing their teams to build deeper VR games. There’s no paid downloadable content in Pistol Whip, at least not yet, so the price increase is a bit like an exit from early access that rewards early-in supporters with a dramatically expanded game while those jumping in from August 15 support Cloudhead’s growing team and Pistol Whip’s expanding scope.

In the 15-minute video interview below with Game Director Joel Green we covered Pistol Whip’s latest changes and Cloudhead’s overall path to release. There’s chapter markers to jump to whichever section interests you — we talked about the size of the team, the new play styles and how they select music for the game — and we’ve transcribed the whole thing below if you want to read along below.

How Does The Styles System Change Pistol Whip?

[00:00:00] Ian: Hello everyone and welcome. We’ve got Joel Green in our studio today. He is the game director for Pistol Whip and the new update for Pistol Whip is out now you can go and play it. Joel, tell us what is in this latest update and how it changes the game.

[00:00:15] Joel: Yeah, sure. Thanks for having me. The new update is, you know we always say this but it is so far always been true, it’s the biggest thing we’ve done yet. It’s kind of a two-part update. There’s two huge new things in it. We’ve got of course our brand new campaign Smoke & Thunder, if you played 2089, it’s basically the same kind of format with five linked scenes that tell a story with cut scenes and voice acting and all that. And this time we went to the wild west, but it’s a bit of a weird west type of story with was some cool tech in there. It’s a really cool story about two sisters. I don’t want to spoil too much more than that but it’s super fun, a little more of a lighthearted adventure vibe than 2089 was, which was more of like a Terminator / Blade Runner kind of vibe. That’s the big story campaign. That’s five new scenes and whole bunch of new mechanics and all that. The second part of it is Styles system. So this is something we’ve been working on for a really long time. Basically what it is, is a revamp of our whole modifier and leaderboard system. And it’s designed to let players play the game how they want to play. We’ve always had modifiers in the game but we were never really happy with how they functioned in the game and we noticed that they really kind of pushed people towards just playing with the modifiers that let them score the highest. It’s basically a complete overhaul of our modifier and leaderboard system that lets you create crazy combinations of modifiers combined with weapon types and then kind of save them as these preset styles and remember them and use them in the future. And we also have ways to find the most popular styles. So it really opens up the game to a whole bunch of replayability. And then on top of that, every single style has its own set of leaderboards. So it’s a complete overhaul how we’re doing that and it’s really cool because instead of having one score on each scene, you can have a different score for each way to play and there’s so many leaderboards, there’s literally millions of leaderboards. So you can actually find new ways to play a new places to go and kind of bring your friends to those boards and discover different things every day. So it’s really just like all about replayability and making the game into this sandbox remix mode.

How Has Pistol Whip Grown From Start To Now?

[00:02:36] Ian: Recap for me sort of the story here for making Pistol Whip. Were you always the game director? How has the game sort of grown from start to now?

[00:02:45] Joel: Yeah, Pistol Whip was originally developed with a very small team, I think there was only seven or eight of us on the dev team. And it was quite a short, small project and we made it quite quickly and then started kind of showing it to people, showing it to Oculus, bringing it to conventions and things. And it was clear that people really latched onto the core gameplay. So we put a bit more time into it and a bit more effort and managed to get it out within that year. And the response was so amazing that we very quickly realized that we wanted to grow the team and figure out a long-term plan for the game. Cause we just had so many ideas for what we wanted to do with it. So we basically kind of restructured the team and hired a whole bunch of new people we now have, Cloudhead is over 30 people now. And the dev team for Pistol Whip I think is around 20, so I became the director around right after we launched. So the whole kind of post content plan has been something that I’ve developed with the rest of the team.

Why Are You Raising Pistol Whip’s Price?

[00:03:46] Ian: And the price is changing at this point, right? You’re going from $24.99 to $29.99 shortly after release. You’re actually giving a couple of days to get even all this new content at the lower price. Can you explain the thinking there and what you’re trying to go for?

[00:04:01] Joel: Yeah, totally. We wrestled for a long time with whether or not we should get into paid DLC. Like we have to be able to continue to fund the dev team as it gets bigger and as the game kind of gets more ambitious in scope. So of course paid DLC is kind of the obvious choice. And we wrestled with doing that for a long time. We weren’t sure if the campaigns were going to end up being paid DLC. But eventually we had a suggestion from one of our lead developers that like, what if we just keep it really simple and as we continue to add tons of content to the game, let’s just raise the price a little bit. And that way everybody who’s kind of bought in and is already fans of the game in our community, our loyal kind of base, t hey don’t have to pay any extra, but if you’re getting in now to the game and you’re getting all this extra content, then we think it’s still a super super good price and fair price for the game. So it just seemed like a really good way to make that leap and it really keeps our community together too. So you’re not like, ‘I want to play on the scene, compete with my friend,’ but I don’t have the DLC that they have. So it just felt really good to kind of keep it all really simple still.

[00:05:09] Ian: That’s a really interesting strategy and I saw it being done by Aldin Dynamics with the Natural Magic update for Waltz of the Wizard. They did the same thing, they upped the price, and it kind of reflects sort of an experienced developer’s attempts to grow an indie small team into something larger and increase the scope of their projects and keep people coming back, not divide the community, give them kind of an alert that this is going to happen. It’s like the reverse of a sale.

[00:05:40] Joel: That was super important part of it was that we give people time to get in at the current price, obviously we feel like the game is totally worth the new price, but we didn’t want to just like spring that on people right before the new update. So yeah, right now you basically have until I think three days after the game launches, like on the 15th is when the price goes up, you can get in and get Smoke & Thunder and all that. And then after that, it’ll go up and we’ll continue to keep updating the game.

[00:06:08] Ian: I’m really curious to see if this catches on with more devs, cause it’s such a unique experience of the VR ecosystem where you do have dev teams that were so small. It’s so important that we express to our audience out there how small these teams are and how that $5 difference really has a dramatic impact on the number of people being able to develop these things.

[00:06:30] Joel: You’re right, the industry is still growing, we’ve been very lucky and we’ve done really well with Pistol Whip and we’re super happy with that, but at the same time, when you’re talking about having a proper team of developers that isn’t working tons of overtime constantly, and is actually being paid the way they all deserve to be paid, it costs a lot of money and it’s super important that we find business models that work for the gamers as well as for the studio. So this one, after a lot of thought, just felt like the right thing to do cause, like I said, it keeps it simple, still lets people get in at the lower price. But also kind of acknowledges all of the work that we’ve done over the last year and a half. We started with 10 scenes and we’re going to be at 28 after this one. We have tons of modifiers that have been added. We now have five weapon types that have been added. There was one weapon type before, and now there’s five different weapon types that all feel different and play different. So yeah, we’re very confident that the game is totally worth that asking price at this point. And yeah, we’re happy, the community seems to have responded really well to it as well.

What Is Your Favorite Style Of Play And Why Is It The BoomStick?

[00:07:34] Ian: So let’s talk about this update. What is your favorite way to play?

[00:07:39] Joel: I have a few. We haven’t really talked much about the BoomStick yet, but I’ll talk a little bit about it here, I guess, cause this is Launch Day. So the BoomStick is a splash damage weapon. It is super fun, if you’re into rag dolls, it’s like the fun thing to do, when you have groups of enemies, you can blast them and you’ll get an AOE and kind of like throw the rag dolls all around. One thing I love about it is that you don’t actually have to hit the enemies, right? Like any good splash damage weapon, you can hit the ground or environment, and near enemies, and it’ll still take them out. So I actually love combining BoomStick with Deadeye because that way, like the auto aim isn’t sucking the bullet towards the enemies. And you can kind of like pick spots on the ground to initiate the splash damage. And sometimes you can even hit like more enemies than you could by hitting an actual enemy directly because you’re kind of like maximizing the AOE. So I’m a super big fan of that one. I’ve been enjoying playing through scenes- just like sometimes when I get surrounded by enemies- I’ll just point straight down and shoot the BoomStick and have it take out anyone around me, like stuff like that you just couldn’t do before that’s super fun. Another one that I really like which surprised me, cuz I’m not usually super crazy about deadeye, but I started playing deadeye with headshots, which is called head hunter is one of the new mods and that one makes it super tough to hit anybody because you basically have to hit them in the head and there’s no auto-aim, which sounds really painful, but it’s really cool. Maybe if you combine it with threatless, which stops the enemies from firing, so it’s almost more like a target practice and then you get these really small targets, but they’re not threatening you, so it almost becomes like kind of a sniper mode or you’re really focused on just taking them out without dodging too much. So it’s like just feels totally different than anything we’ve done before. And the cool thing is those are all leaderboards, right? Like previously in Pistol Whip, if you put on modifiers like that there’s probably no way you were going to be able to beat your high score or really get anywhere on the boards with a weird combination of modifiers like that. But the cool thing about the Style System is that now, even that kind of strange way of playing still has its own set of leaderboards. So anyone who enjoys that and thinks that’s cool and unique, they can still compete in that exact style.

How Do You Select New Music For Pistol Whip?

[00:09:59] Ian: So I did the campaign and, no spoilers here, but I was pretty hooked on the new music, incredible stuff in there, really, really fun to hear that different style. I’m curious, how are you going about getting new music for the game? How does that selection process go?

[00:10:17] Joel: Good question, Ian. It’s not easy. I’ll say that, as the person who has to do the music licensing, for the most part of course there’s other people helping, it’s tricky, music licensing is really, it’s a tricky world of lawyers and contracts and terms, you know, a lot of different parties involved, but it’s also the beating heart of this game. We know that, it always has been. As the audio lead, I’ve always known that the music in Pistol Whip was by far my most important job, like getting the right music for the game was really the most important thing I could focus on as an audio lead. So I put a lot of time and effort into it. We always wanted to kind of push into different genres, right? Like with each update and just get some variety and see what else we can do. The whole team actually spent like a week just listening to stuff on YouTube and Spotify and wherever, trying to find stuff that might fit. And they just were kind of spewing it all into a slack channel, just constant links and all this stuff. And I kind of went through it all and, and took all of those suggestions and found the ones that seemed like they were really good for the game and also were going to be like possibilities for licensing. And then we just start emailing and calling people and making deals. It takes a while and we managed to get pretty much everything we wanted with this one and I’m super happy with it because finding rock music that fits Pistol Whip is tricky. Because you need a strong beat in Pistol Whip, for the gameplay to really know when you’re supposed to shoot. You have to have just the right kind of music, but I think we really nailed it with this one. I hope people love it.

Are There Dream Songs You’d Love To Have?

[00:11:51] Ian: I’ve asked the licensing question from some other devs and it’s such a hard thing. You’ve got to be a certain size to be able to bring those people to the table and talk. Do you have this list of dream songs you would love to see in Pistol Whip? You just haven’t been able to bring them to the table yet?

[00:12:06] Joel: Of course there’s a world music that would be amazing for this game, absolutely. Our kind of philosophy around music and Pistol Whip is that the game requires really great music for everything to work well, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like top 40, stuff that you totally recognize. For us, it’s just about the music tracks being great and being right for the game. So we try not to focus too much on like whether or not it’s some huge artist that everyone’s gonna recognize and more just about really getting the right track. And when we’re building these campaigns, it’s even more important than just five good tracks. Like we actually have this story kind of planned out in advance, and then we go and look for the music that’s going to help tell that story. So every track is picked specifically for the tone that it sets and making sure that lines up with that moment in the campaign. So, yeah, it’s about a lot more than just kind of the overall popularity of the song for us. It’s almost a little more like traditional game music licensing and scoring where it’s about: how does this serve the game rather than just like it being a cool song that everybody knows?

Is Paid DLC In Pistol Whip’s Future?

[00:13:15] Ian: It feels like this game as it is now is starting to resemble so much of what you kind of set out to do at the start. And you found this incredible way of evolving it and still keeping this audience, like the community together, like you talked about earlier, not doing the DLC packs, even though I think we have talked in the past and I knew that it was kind of an open possibility. Are you going to be able to keep from doing DLC or are you going to go to the DLC route? What does that look like for you?

[00:13:45] Joel: It’s a great question, the truth is we don’t know. We’re basically taking it one step at a time. This was the decision this time to up the price a bit, but down the road, I think my take on it personally, is a paid DLC can be done really well and it can be done really badly. I think we all, as gamers have seen examples of both. So if we do it, we would do it really well so that people felt like they were getting what they wanted out of it for a great price. We would do our best to adjust the game systems to make sure that it wasn’t too much of a hindrance in the game itself. But there are zero plans to do that right now. We’re just pretty much focused on getting this update out, and obviously we have some plans for the future too, but we’re not really making any decisions.

Is There Anything Else You Want To Add?

[00:14:30] Ian: Is there anything else you want to add about this update today and where you’re going with Pistol Whip next?

[00:14:36] Joel: I would mostly just like to say thank you to the team. I’m super proud of what we’ve built and this stuff comes out and it just kind of feels like, yeah, those are cool ideas, but really a lot of this stuff has been like a year and a half in the making and it was really difficult to pull off. And the team knows how hard it was to do. Everybody’s really proud of it and really happy with where we ended up so I just want to mainly give a shout out to them and then huge shout out to all of our community and fans. We have a really loyal fan base that loves the game and gives us tons of good suggestions and we really listened to that. So thank you to everybody who loves the game and everybody who’s been making it.

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