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Clive 'N' Wrench Interview with Developer Rob Wass

by Willem Hilhorst - May 6, 2020, 10:00 am EDT
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One man’s quest to revive the 3D Platformer.

Rob Wass began working on his first game back in 2011, when he set his eyes on reviving a nearly dead genre, the 3D platformer. Now, almost ten years later, this project has evolved into Clive ‘N Wrench. A love-letter to the 3D platforming collect-a-thon titles from the N64 and original PlayStation. We’ve talked with Rob about reviving this dead genre, what Clive ‘N Wrench offers for players, and the challenges of working for nine years as a solo indie developer on a project.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself: how did you get started in game development?

My name is Rob Wass. I'm a largely solo indie dev based in the UK. Getting involved in development was a fairly smooth transition from modding games as a teenager. I started making maps for Unreal Tournament, then moved into creating entire towns for the GTA games. Eventually I felt I'd hit a ceiling as far as scope goes and started to take an interest in developing something from scratch. The final push was around 2011 with a growing frustration that my favourite genre, 3D platformers, was almost non-existent! So, it seemed as if perhaps instead of complaining about it endlessly, I should take some steps to filling that gap myself! Of course, I had no idea how big of a task that would be at the time!

Let's talk a bit more about Clive ‘N’ Wrench itself. The gameplay looks like a classic 3D collect-a-thon. Can you tell me a bit more about the story? What worlds will players be traversing and what are the collectibles?

Clive 'N' Wrench's story starts with an industrialist and scientist named Dr. Daucus having his right-hand woman, Olga Chestycough, steal Professor Nancy's plans for time travel. Upon realising what happened, and that they will almost certainly be using their newly-created time machine to cause unimaginable damage to the time-space continuum, Nancy enlists the help of her gymnastic cousin, Clive, and her apprentice, Wrench. The three then use their own time machine prototypes to pursue the evil pair; with the hope of undoing the mess they are causing and stopping them once and for all. Along their journey they end up venturing to eleven different worlds, each taking place within a different time period. Along the way they also meet several bosses, who are all important figures within their respective eras. There are all manner of time periods, from 'The Great Wen's' Victorian London, to “Iceceratops” (an ice age/holiday mashup), and plenty in between!

As for the collectibles, there are four main types in the game. Watches are visual representations of time-space rips, which need to be collected in order to repair the continuum. These are required for progressing to new sections of the 'Space Between Time' hub world. Ancient Stones are mysterious and powerful medallions that Daucus is trying to collect; they also are the progress barrier to meeting each world's boss. Keys appear five times in each world and are required to unlock an Ancient Stone safe within its respective world. Era Relics are protected by each era's boss and must be acquired in order to unlock the next time period.

Sounds like a fun outline for a collect-a-thon adventure. And it seems there's plenty to collect as well. What would you describe as the 'twist' to the 3D-platformer gameplay of Clive ‘N’ Wrench? (For example, the cap throw in Mario Odyssey or how you control the Snake in Snake Pass.) What makes it stand out aside from the world and characters?

Clive ‘N’ Wrench's "twists" tend to happen on a level-by-level basis, as opposed to as a game wide thing. So, for example 'Ancient Greece Trap' features a labyrinth that upon reaching its centre flips 180 degrees in real time, introducing a whole second map as well as a specially reversed version of its soundtrack. Similarly, 'Middle Age Crisis' introduces a dungeon area with a set of rising and rotating stairs which have to be manually manipulated in order to find a way out. The actual moment-to-moment gameplay is more focused on tight, responsive controls that feature all my favourite "classic" 3D platformer moves: double jumping, hovering, sideflips, crouch jumps, sprint jumps, spinning attacks, etc. This, to me and this game at least, is more important than trying to find a specific new gimmick!

What were your main design goals when you started creating Clive ‘N’ Wrench back in 2011? How would you go about 'reviving' a dead genre?

Initially, I wanted to create something that looked and felt like a PS1 game, complete with all the limitations on polygon count and texture size that the 5th generation of consoles had. My game-plan was to pick and choose whichever parts of each game I liked and try and find a way to unify them into a single experience. As for the actual 'revival' itself, it was just a step at a time, firstly with a character that could run and jump, then some rudimentary environments, etc. It was a very naturally evolving project from the start.

Did that factor into the character designs of Clive and Wrench as well? Harkening back to mascot platforming duo's like Banjo and Kazooie and Ratchet and Clank?

Indeed, it did. At least with Clive, as Wrench wouldn't exist for a number of years. And he and his moves/equipment evolved as new features were added, too.

Ever since you started on the project back in 2011 there have been a few new 3D platformers like Yooka-Laylee, A Hat in Time, Snake Pass, and some others that have also tried to fill the void left by the N64/PS1 3D platformers. Has that influenced the development of Clive ‘N’ Wrench in any sort of way? Maybe those games affirmed that there is a market looking for people that want to play those 3D platformers?

Indeed, it's been great to see happen (finally)! There has no doubt been some influence for sure; plenty of reviews and think-pieces have helped either affirm or correct my beliefs about what a modern player wants out of a 3D platformer. As well as proving once and for all that indeed a market exists! I very much hope that this will show in Clive ‘N’ Wrench's final release, too.

Nowadays there are many more tools available for developers. A lot of the original 3D platformers were also based on limitations set forth by the developers in order to keep their worlds running smoothly and use the limited space they've had available (Super Mario 64 booting players out of a level after collecting a star for example). For these new revivals of 3D platformers, it seems that sometimes the limitless possibilities of modern development tend to impact the playstyle of the genre. A lot of the criticism when Yooka-Laylee launched in 2017 was focused on how the game had a large open world, with very little to do in it. How do you as a developer keep this balance between the tools at your disposal and wanting to recreate an experience from about twenty years ago? Are there certain restrictions you've placed upon yourself?

As the game has evolved, I've shifted from PS1 era aesthetics and am leaning more toward late PS2 now. So, my limitations also tend to be geared toward that as well. When it comes to level design, I've been careful to reduce the amount of "empty space" as much as possible. Some of the levels can have larger sections, but I make sure that they're filled with both plenty to do and several unique landmarks so that players shouldn't get lost or bored! There's also the inherent limitation that as a largely solo dev, and the only level designer, I can only realistically do so much anyway! I like to think, and so far Patreon supporters playing the alphas seem to agree, that I've found a fair balance. And in fact, I've even scaled some things back based on specific feedback. In fact, that specific criticism you speak of also had a similar effect on a couple of levels, alerting me to the fact I had unnecessary space that I could either repurpose or remove entirely, to better serve the gameplay experience

What are some of the challenges of working on such a project as a singular developer, especially since you've worked on the game in most of your spare time while working a day job?

I have collaborated with multiple people over the years including Luigi Lucarelli as a designer and artist for the 2D key character art, and with Wyshwood Studio for the music. As far as challenges go, it's definitely a mixed bag. I'd say the biggest one is simply time. It's finding the time to work on every piece of the puzzle. For example, if I want an NPC to interact with it means I have to spend time modelling, texturing, rigging, animating and programming them instead of anything else! There's also plenty of times where I hit an issue or roadblock that means seeking the help of others and without a consistent/present team that's often a difficult task! As you surmise, throughout most of development it has been a "spare time" type deal. Thankfully though, for the last year I have had the privilege of being able to work on Clive ‘N’ Wrench full time. I spent several years building up a savings pot in my day job and that, combined with a modestly successful Patreon, has afforded me the time required to give the game that final push!

You've been partly funded thanks to that Patreon, but you've also been looking for a publisher to help you out with aspects of the game's development. What were some of the hurdles in finding a publisher and why didn't you try kickstarter to get the funds? I can imagine that finding a publisher when you've been working for nine years on a project might be a challenge, since creators tend to get really protective over their creations.

A publisher was never something I felt I needed per se, but it was something I started looking into once I started dealing with daily requests for console ports and merch! There weren't really many hurdles at that point thankfully, I did a fair amount of research and reached out to a handful of publishers that I thought would make for good mutual partners. I contacted those and I think largely due to how late of a stage into development Clive ‘N’ Wrench was at the time, I had a positive response from most!

I deliberately went into it looking for somebody that could help out with specific aspects like localisation, marketing, porting, etc, but never funding. I realised early on that the best chance I had at retaining full creative control and ownership was to remain self/Patreon funded; thankfully that's exactly where I've ended up with Numskull! Clive ‘N’ Wrench had two less than successful Kickstarters over its lifetime. After the second disappointment, I decided that self-funding was the only way forward for me!

The game is releasing on Steam and the Nintendo Switch first. The Switch really seems like a natural fit for the game. Was it always your ambition to launch the game on a (specific) console? And can you tell us anything about the Switch port regarding performance or development? Are you developing these ports as well?

Early on, it seemed like the Switch was not only the perfect fit for a 3D platformer, given its audience, but it was also by a wide margin my most requested! My ambition has always been to have the game available for as wide an audience as possible, but as I'm handling the port myself, having PC and Switch to contend with is already a mammoth mountain to climb, without any other peaks springing up on the horizon! As such, for now, these two are my focus. Switch is a fantastic platform and thanks to having Unity as Clive ‘N’ Wrench’s engine, the job of porting isn't nearly as difficult as it may have been. But the console is not a powerhouse by any means, so I am having to work very carefully in order to make sure performance is comparable across the board!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

The only thing I'd add is that I'm incredibly grateful for all the support I've had thus far, and that I hope I can deliver a game they will love!

Clive ‘N’ Wrench is set to launch on the Nintendo Switch this Winter. You can check out more on the game over on:

Clive 'N' Wrench Official website

Rob Wass’s twitter account

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