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Playtonic Games Talk About Project Ukulele and More

by Nicholas Bray - April 22, 2015, 6:50 pm EDT
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We talk Project Ukulele with Playtonic Games.

We recently had the opportunity to ask Playtonic Games some questions about their in-development spiritual successor to Banjo Kazooie, Project Ukulele. The team is made up of a number of ex-Rareware developers, many of whom helped to shape and create the Banjo games.

Creative Lead Gavin Price from Playtonic was kind enough to answer our questions. Read on and get excited because some of that N64 Rare magic seems to be on its way back.

Nintendo World Report: Is there a story or meaning behind the naming of you company, Playtonic? Obviously the logo incorporates a tonic bottle with "play" logo looking bubbles....

Gavin Price: We love gaming and chose to modify the word platonic (meaning love) in to playtonic – a mix of ‘love’ and ‘play’. We then saw the extra scope it gave us in having a second meaning around ‘play’ and ‘tonics’ so we went with the tonic theme for the logo and ‘play’ bubbles. This has had a tertiary bonus effect and created more scope within our titles themselves as now we plan to inject all sorts of ‘play-tonics’ with many different effects and powers in to our future games to be discovered and used!

NWR: When and how did the original plans for a spiritual successor come about?

GP: A couple of years ago, it’s just taken a while to create the right team and circumstances to set us up ‘the right way’ – we always said when we do this, we do it ‘right!’

NWR: Was a new take on Banjo-Kazooie the only type of game that was considered?

GP: For our first project, yes…dun-dun-dah!!!

NWR: Are all the people working on the game currently full-time employees?

GP: Yep, there’re 7 of us so far and soon to be more!

NWR: Since the core group is made up of a lot of Ex-Rare people, are you actively trying to reach out to even more Rare employees? How much bigger do you expect the team to get?

GP: The team will grow soon and it’s probably not best to aim for a number but the right mix of multiple skills (as depending on who the person is, you may cover more skills and so we think of the team in that regard rather than as a numeric value). For a project of this nature it will certainly help our cause if we take on folks who have proven ability and passion for this type of project!

NWR: Can you tell us anything about the overall game design or the main characters? Will the game be using some sort of musical instruments for the names? Are there definitely two main characters like in Banjo-Kazooie?

GP: There are definitely two main characters we look forward to introducing to fans soon!

NWR: What design elements are you considering? People became frustrated at the amount of collectables in some of Rare's later games. Are you keeping that in mind? Will you modernize the game design to tone some of that down or make easier?

GP: I had to play DK64 a lot as a QA back then, and I think we spread out collectibles too much (I had to 101% the game, twice a day for a couple of weeks at a time by the end!). Our take is that collectibles should be vital to the gameplay and feel rewarding, we won’t be using them to stretch the game out for collecting’s sake.

NWR: In your recent presentation at EGX Rezzed you spoke about how big and non-linear the game could potentially be. This being related to my previous question, is the team being mindful of the players that ended up finding Banjo-Tooie too large and sometimes too non-linear in regards to finding secrets and collectables?

GP: To elaborate further on this, we’re not currently planning to make the game “open world” but we will give players more choice such as on unlocking moves. We want all levels to have more challenges related to each move for example. In previous works, the moves unlocked later on in the game were only leveraged late on, but now all moves will have a fairer spread adding diversity to the gameplay on every level.

NWR: Why do you think the 3D platformer, especially of the style you're making, became less popular amongst developers after the N64 era?

GP: I think 2D platforming games were the predominant genre in the previous generation and so seeing them translate to 3D so well created an instantly familiar-but new genre and it became very popular by extension. As people experimented more with 3D worlds it naturally spread to more genres and evened out until 1st person games became incredibly popular and others took a back seat….but not anymore, especially in the indie scene!

NWR: Nintendo is one of the few companies that has continued to make 3D platformers over the years. However, those games have become increasingly linear. What does the Playtonic team think about where EAD Tokyo has taken the genre, and what lessons have you gleaned from this shift in game design?

GP: We think their approach works magnificently for the Mario formula of challenging the player in many different ways from getting Mario from start to flagpole and we enjoy their games very much. The more free-roaming, challenge driven platforming we’re known for is the other side of the coin, we let the players set more of their own goals and targets in each play session and must approach the design to allow players of different paces feel rewarded for their efforts. However, from DKC and onwards, we’ve always shared a similar approach with regards to mechanics and that is how to introduce players to them, test them further and then twist the mechanic somehow to keep players on their toes and Nintendo are masters at this.

NWR: In regards to helping players that are finding progression frustrating, would the team consider implementing something like the super guides from Nintendo games? Be it in the form of some videos, or a ghost character helper showing the path?

GP: If progression becomes frustrating, I’d see that as a failure of the design! This traditionally occurs within rigid game designs that follow the designer’s pre-set path, but we’ll be allowing the players to progress their own way and doing so will help prevent moments where progression seems to stall as whatever the player finds themselves doing will be helping them progress.

NWR: You mentioned that you did some QA in the past for DK64. Many aspiring game developers have taken QA jobs to get a foothold in the industry. Do you think that is an effective means of starting a game dev career? Do you have any advice for QA-ers?

GP: It can be an effective way of getting experience but depending on the company – at Rare during the N64 era, the QA’s were very much focused on gameplay bugs and having eyes on the game early allowed us to see levels and designs evolve teaching you what works and how things that may seem ok at first, get polished to an even higher standard. Sadly, not many companies still operate their QA departments like this anymore, which I feel is a great shame as many of Rare’s well known developers and ex-developers begun their careers in QA. My advice for QA-ers is find a company that has a reputation for hiring from within QA and failing that (or alongside that), write a variety of designs be it for entire games, smaller games, individual puzzles or objectives within a game or game systems. Ask for feedback, listen to it and respond to it and show you’re learning. It’s very tough as junior roles come up infrequently and there’s lots of QA’s and design graduates all going for those roles…

NWR: You seem confident in your ability to crank out a game on a predictable schedule. Obviously working on a familiar genre helps, but what project management skills have you found key to remaining on schedule without sacrificing quality?

GP: Embrace the team’s strengths and don’t put round pegs in square holes. For much of our work, when something needs figuring out we don’t have a person pre-set for answering questions in a set area, the solution is allowed to come from anyone on the team. Because we have worked with each other for so long, it sounds a bit cheesy, but it really is a dream team to be a part of when you collectively have so much experience in all areas and trust existing between the whole group. Trust and experience takes years to build and maintain - You can’t buy either of those things!

NWR: What has been the method in creating levels? How has the design process changed since the days of Banjo?

GP: The level creation formula is pretty consistent with all our work; it’s the variables that change from game to game. We always build the levels around abilities first and foremost and trust the artists to make them visually interesting too. Early design is a mixture of 2D planning and 3D building (either in Unity or Sketchup) to get them mechanically correct – distances, way-pointing, variety are focused on and then our environment artist enhances it thematically and visually resulting in a cohesive level that plays and looks great.

NWR: Because Banjo-Kazooie was a Nintendo exclusive and many fans still play on Nintendo hardware, are you going to aim to make a Wii U version?

GP: Of course we’d love to, but let’s wait and see…

NWR: If there is a Wii U version, do you have any ideas for incorporating the GamePad at all? Banjo-Tooie for example had the characters split up, I could see a similar mechanic working well with two screens at your disposal.

GP: Again let’s wait and see! But if any of your readers have ideas for Gamepad functionality we’d love for them to share over on our new forums! (Playtonic Forums)

NWR: Some of the team showed enthusiasm for Amiibo's, has the team already thrown around some fun and interesting ways in which an Amiibo could be incorporated? Even if not as a serious consideration for this game yet.

GP: Yes :) All will become clear soon, we hope.

NWR: While it's still obviously early days, do you have a rough time frame or goal for having the game completed?

GP: We have a window in mind and fans controlling the Kickstarter will have a say on the final game scope so we have to remain flexible. We really value polish in games and this harks back to our Rare days – we’d rather release a polished experience than an early but unpolished title.

NWR: It was mentioned that the team hopes to use various characters that appear in this game in their own games in the future. Can you clarify how this is to be approached? It was explained as being a universe of characters, will the characters always be the same personality wise or will the characters be treated more like actors in which they can take on wildly different roles and names from game to game?

GP: A bit of both! We’re really looking forward to pouring our hearts in to every character and creating IP’s with potential to take on different genres and roles! Characters are a key focus of our games and they’re such an important part of our future.

NWR: Playtonic is going to be launching a Kickstarter for the game soon. One of the stated reasons was to get the fans more involved and to possibly have more funds at the teams disposal to make the game bigger and better. What sort of input from fans will be considered? Both in general and for various Kickstarter rewards. Are you worried trying to please the voices of too many fans will end up making the creation process more difficult?

GP: Creatively, I don’t think the fans are after influencing the design – that’s something they thankfully trust us with and I know from my own backer experience that I’m buying in to “the creator’s vision” for their game, not a committee decision between fans and creators. Our Kickstarter will help us focus on extending the breadth and depth of our existing design as well as ensuring we hit the right platforms and could include possible platform specific features.

NWR: Can you reveal how much longer we will have to wait until the main characters are unveiled? It was said that showing the designs will give away too many gameplay uses. That being said, the designs will have to be shown well before the game comes out. Is the team waiting until they can show off the gameplay in video form?

GP: Soon…It’s true if you met them now, you’d guess at a lot of gameplay and right now they already feel fun to control and they complement each other very well. Just by looking at them you can read their personalities so much and we’re already having fun writing for them too. I’m hoping we can do a really unique character introduction!

Thanks again to Playtonic Games and Gavin.

Special Thanks to Michael "TYP" Cole


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