How a dark vision of Robin Hood inspired a competitive heist game

“I’m gonna cut your heart out with a spoon!” Ahh, Robin Hood, ahh, Alan Rickman. This is a legend we’ve seen reinterpreted time and time again for the small and big screens. And now, Robin Hood is the inspiration for Sumo Digital’s new game.

Hood: Outlaws & Legends is bang on trend as far as games like Hunt: Showdown are concerned. It’s a PvPvE game which, in this case, means two teams of legendary outlaws try to break into a castle guarded by computer-controlled guards – and a monstrous-sounding Sheriff of Nottingham – and liberate the big chest of gold there. And all while competing with each other.

It’s like Hitman meets For Honour. Or, to use the team’s own inspirational touchstone, ‘What would it look like if Game of Thrones did Payday in a Robin Hood universe?’ Hence the grittiness, hence the violence, hence the dour look. But it sounds exciting to hear game director Andrew Willans talk about it – he who designed Grow Home and Eve Valkyrie, and helped make Watch_Dogs, The Crew, The Division and Driver: San Francisco. So do as I did, and sit back and listen.

To begin, let’s rewind back a bit and talk about where the idea comes from. Were you watching Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman? Who wakes up and goes, ‘Got it: Robin Hood.’?

Andrew Willans: Bizarrely this started as a concept in Sumo Sheffield that had been hanging around for ages, and they basically wanted to do a dark version of Robin Hood. And maybe that’s because they’re nearer Sherwood Forest than we are. So they’d put this concept deck together with these really cool images of Robin Hood, looking almost like a Ringwraith from Lord of the Rings, and the idea was more of a co-op [game], it was a little bit more PvE in terms of its structure. But the idea is you put your Merry Men together and do missions against the State.

And when we joined Sumo, we went down to Sheffield […] and we were looking at projects. We had work on at the time but we were like, ‘Okay, are there any concepts that we could take and make our own?’ And this was one that was on the shelf where we just went, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ Just that image, the original image we saw of Robin looking almost Wraith-like just immediately captured it. Like, ‘Wow, there’s a cool game here.’ So we took that concept because no one was doing it.

The image that started it all. The one on the left was what they saw. The one on the right is what Robin Hood became for their game.

For us, our pedigree is in multiplayer games. So what we were really interested in is how can we take this and do a twist where it becomes more PvP? So we started off with a number of different concepts that we thought, ‘Well this is the outlaws, the gang of Merry Men, basically trying to steal the treasure from the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil powers that be. So what about if the players controlled the state?’ So it was like the state had the riches, versus the outlaws, and one team’s trying to protect the gold, the other team’s trying to steal it. So a very traditional set-up.

And then, quite quickly, conversations went to something a little bit more innovative. We were playing a lot of games like Hunt: Showdown, a lot of PvPvE games, and there was a lot of interesting mechanics and interesting features about those games where we thought we could do something even better with it. We could put another twist on this. What about if it was two outlaw teams and they were both trying to steal the treasure?

And then you’ve got the environment. You’ve got the Sheriff, who then becomes like Mr. X from Resident Evil: a big-ass kind of tank that’s stomping around that will instakill you, and this castle which is just full of AI. So you’ve got this kind of swarm AI, where you can get lots and lots of kills; doesn’t have to be players but you’re getting the good feels from getting headshots, right? And so that just started to take shape.

Then when we started really digging into the actual legends of Robin Hood, there were, bizarrely, two kinds of competing legends, which is Robin of Locksley, and Robin the Earl of Huntingdon. And that was just great. It was just written for us really. Like, ‘Well there’s our teams right there, Locksley and Huntington.’

When we dug into it, what was immediately obvious was [the mystery of] who was behind the hood was far more interesting than defining [it]. And that’s where we ended up with the fantasy for the game. It was like the hood became a symbol to the people, a symbol of the people rising up against the power, almost like Anonymous, you know? So it was this idea that you’ll never reveal the identity.

So we ended up using the themes of Locksley and Huntingdon just as team names, reds versus blue. We thought that was a nice fantasy. But what was most compelling about it was the idea that you’d have these two outlaw factions that were basically trying to steal the same gold. And one of the other things as a narrative touch-point for us was, you know how you always hear Robin Hood robbed from the rich to give to the poor? That’s not actually true.

Oh no! You’ve just ruined my childhood.

Andrew Willans: [laughs] We thought we’d twist that a little bit, and it was actually Robin Hood robs from the rich to hurt the rich. And suddenly when you go out with a statement like that, you have a little bit more player agency. So we give you a decision. You rob from the rich, you have a pile of gold, what do you do with it? And that’s why an important mechanic within the game is what we call the Scales of Justice where, after every heist, you’ll have this scale and two pots, and one’s for the people and one’s for your pocket, and you distribute the gold between them.

So on the one side, if you’re giving to the people, and you’re generous Robin […] then more stuff will become available in your Hideouts. You’ll get better perks, you’ll get more weapons and costumes within your forest hideout. [But] you need the money in your pocket to buy them. So mechanically it’s the meta, in the short-term. And we thought, ‘Well, that’s just really interesting. We’ll give that to the hands of the players.’ So actually how you control the progression is a little bit more in your control, you know?

Thematically and mechanically, things worked out quite well.

So how true to the actual legends of Robin Hood are you? Presumably you’ve done a lot of research around it. What did you find out? Did anything surprise you?

Andrew Willans: Yeah: Maid Marian, when we dug around, just never existed.

You can’t say that, it’s Pancake Day! [It was Pancake Day in the UK when we spoke. Please don’t make me explain why this reminds me of a British TV show called Maid Marian.]

Andrew Willans: We couldn’t find anything like… There wasn’t really a historic case. It seemed to be more like a lot of the other characters that we associate with the legend were made up. They were actually tales in themselves that were just slotted in.

Is that true for all of the people, like Little John…?

Andrew Willans: I think there were references to a John, a John Nailer/Naylor, but most of those, it wasn’t particularly steeped in history. It was [that] over the years people had embellished the legends, and it just made for a better story, and for better movies as well.

We knew early on that we didn’t want to do your typical damsel in distress, so we knew when it came to Marianne [loosely based around Maid Marian, the Hunter in the game], we wanted a character that was really empowering to play. Marianne is a badass Hunter. She’s a brutal assassin really, but she’s very streamlined.

She’s the lady with the thing on her wrist [note my technicality here]?

Andrew Willans: Yes, yeah. So she’s got a wrist-mounted crossbow, which is like a triple-shot crossbow, which has also got the blade on. She is incredibly agile. So with her it’s all about getting in there and doing stealth takedowns, slitting throats in the dark. And John [based on Little John obviously] was a little bit easier because there’s been a few different versions of John, but for our version-

John is the big guy?

Andrew Willans: Yeah, he’s effectively our tank. We call him the Brawler, because they all have their classes. And our inspiration for that was really Mad Sweeney from American Gods.

I’ve never seen it!

Andrew Willans: Right! So Mad’s a massive leprechaun, [with] ginger hair and a ginger beard. You can even see it in the character design. But it was that attitude of like, ‘let’s have some’. The guy who stood outside the pub and smashes the beer glass over his own head and then goes, ‘Right, come on!’ So that was beautiful, it just fit the character of John Nailer perfectly, this blacksmith who was really rebelling against the State.

Game of Thrones provided as much inspiration as castles and environments from around the UK, which is probably not a surprise, given how the UK influenced A Game of Thrones. The wonderful Battle of the Bastards episode inspired this foggy Marshlands map.

And then for Tuck [Friar Tuck obviously], we went a little bit further. Friar Tuck was always this religious figure, and there were a few different versions of him. We really liked the idea that he’d been an inquisitor within the State, so he’s actually part of the system. So he was doing the bidding of the evil State. And then he had this realisation, this moment where he thought, ‘Well fuck this, this is really corrupt. I want out,’ and then disappeared. And then travelled the world, spent time with different religions and cultures, maybe spent a bit long in the forests and took too many mushrooms… And that gives him these kinds of ethereal powers, where he can put his hand into the soil and almost become one with the mycelial network – connect to the earth and get these interesting gifts. But at the same time, he’s still a brutal melee character,…

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