Yooka Laylee Interview - Mark Stevenson - Playtonic Games
Yooka Laylee broke the Kickstarter record for the fastest game to hit a million dollars of funding back in 2015. Since then, the team at Playtonic have been working tirelessly to polish and refine the game ahead of release - The Digital Fix caught up with Mark Stevenson, the Technical Art Director at EGX 2016 to try and uncover a few more nuggets of information about the upcoming 3D platformer.
The Digital Fix: Firstly – the question that everyone wants the answer to: do you have a release date yet?
Mark Stevenson: There’s no set in stone date yet, but we are aiming for Q1 2017.
TDF: And is that a cross-platform or staggered release?
MS: No, that should be on every platform simultaneously.
TDF: The delay to 2017 has meant that you’re going to be launching potentially close to the release of the Nintendo NX, meaning that Yooka Laylee may be one of the last games to hit the Wii U. Is there any plan to relaunch the game on the NX at a later date?
MS: At this stage we’re aiming to just release on what we promised on Kickstarter - which is a lot for us as a team of twenty people!
TDF: Yooka Laylee was – at the time [before Shenmue 3] - the fastest Kickstarter campaign to hit a million dollars’ worth of support. How much pressure does that put on a small development team like Playtonic?
MS: A lot, I guess. There’s a lot of expectation around us achieving what we said we were going to achieve, putting out a 3D platformer in the spirit of the Banjo games, and the spirit of that era. There’s a lot of pressure; we had something like 80,000 backers, so the game will have one of the longest credit sequences you’re ever likely to watch! At the same time we put a lot of pressure on ourselves as well. I think we’re perfectionists, which is one of the reasons we delayed the release - to make sure we get the quality that we want to achieve.
TDF: What kind of hours are you putting in each day, and how has the delay affected you?
MS: The hours aren’t insane - we like to think that we’re work-smart, and we have a lot of very experienced people. There’s no micro-management going on, everyone knows what they’re doing and gets on, so I wouldn’t say we are “crunchy”!
TDF: Yooka Laylee takes many of its graphical and gameplay cues primarily from Banjo-Kazooie; is there a temptation to simply dish up more of what people want, rather than to innovate the 3D platformer? How much do Kickstarter and people’s expectations inform your design choices?
MS: We’ve made a concerted effort to make this a game for the modern age. It’s a very sandboxy, very open-worldy approach; you can go in and how you tackle challenges is up to you. The order you buy your moves in is up to you. You can expand worlds as well as open new worlds - so you can go back to previous worlds and expand them with the pages you’ve collected. We’ve made a big effort to make it a modern game. A lot of cues we’ve taken from a nostalgia perspective are often visual and audible, in terms of the gobbledygook speak and the big chunky text and hub graphics; a lot of the cues are high-res and we’ve been very careful in what we’ve picked and what we’ve tried to advance.
TDF: There are a number of similar gameplay tenets – for instance, jigsaw pieces have been replaced by Pagies. You’ve made a big deal about the sound effects emulating the grunts and squeaks of Banjo, and so on. If you strip away the similarities in look, feel and sound, what would you say are the biggest differences between Yooka Laylee and Banjo-Kazooie?
MS: The freeform structure - allowing people to play the way they want to. Some players want a golden path and want to get to the end as fast as they can. Others want to collect everything and see absolutely everything. As well as buying moves in certain orders, we have these things called Tonics which you unlock by achieving certain things in the game, such as collecting a certain amount of Pagies and killing a certain amount of baddies. They act like modifiers on the game so if you’re struggling with things such as the energy meter which affects certain moves, you can unlock a Tonic that will expand that meter, or make certain moves cost less energy. There’s a lot that’s happened in game design in the years since Banjo was released, and we’ve tried to embrace as much of it as we can.
TDF: What’s the technical foundation for the game, and what challenges did you face while working on it?
MS: We’re using Unity, which has allowed us to go multi-platform, and we have a team of twenty in-house at present so using a middleware engine allows to keep the team small and agile without the need for building or supporting our own engine. There’s always a challenge with any middleware, a learning curve. You have to work out the best way, for example, to use light, the best way to keep things running optimally, and so on. At the same time, it’s massively popular and there’s so much information out there on forums about it - anything you want to know, you can find.
TDF: From an artistic point of view, you have some seriously experienced artists working on the game, all of whom have created very different, very recognisable icons. When you’re working together to create characters, how do you decide on a specific art style? What are the challenges of everyone normalising their work – and in particular, maybe moving out of their comfort zone - to fit into this game?
MS: We’re generally pretty free on that. I can go through the game and see characters done by me or Steve [Mayles] or Kev [Bayliss], and that was the same with Banjo. I can personally go back and tell you which characters were created by which artist; there’s a cohesiveness to them but there’s still individuality. A lot of us worked together in the past on games, so you tend to take a very similar approach. Back then we shared a lot of techniques and ideas so we have this synergy in how we work.
TDF: Dixie Kong’s character development – namely, the ponytail - influenced a number of the mechanics in Donkey Kong Country 2, almost by accident. Were there any similar instances in Yooka Laylee when you came to developing the lead characters?
MS: One of the big things we set out to do initially was to pick main characters which had moves representative of them. So, we have a chameleon who can turn invisible, and he can use his tongue to spit out things which also change colour - for instance, spitting ice and fire - and these physical attributes change. Laylee is a bat, so we picked up on the sonar aspect of the bat. There are a lot of moves around sonar - revealing invisible things, and so on. It was a very conscious thing to pick characters in the first place that made sense. We looked back on some of the stuff we did previously and thought it didn’t really matter if this character was a monkey or a tiger or whatever, as the moves were irrelevant. We wanted to avoid that this time around.
TDF: Finally, you have arcade games hidden away in each level which contain Pagies – can you give us some hints as to what kind of games these are?
MS: Not really...a real challenge with the Kickstarter is balancing the demonstration of our progress whilst also retaining some surprises for people. What we can say is that they’re all local multiplayer, up to four players, there’s eight of them which you can find in the world and they’re accessible from the front end, so once discovered you can go in and have a bit of a party play. In terms of what they are, I’m going to leave that as a surprise!
Yooka Laylee is currently scheduled for release in Q1 2017 - check back in with The Digital Fix for a full review nearer the time!