Yooka-Laylee creator Playtonic Games talks about losing that Rare spirit – and then bringing it back
The answer comes almost before the question has left our lips. There are many different possible catalysts for leaving behind the comfort and safety of a position at a large developer to start afresh as an independent studio; Playtonic Games founder and creative director Gavin Price need only state a year: 2002. He smiles as he says it, and it turns out that he’s half-joking: Microsoft’s takeover of Rare may have been the point at which the first seeds of doubt were planted, but it wasn’t until six years later that he seriously began to explore the notion of going it alone. For Price, it was 2008’s vehicle-heavy Banjo
Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts that represented the tipping point. Not because it was bad, but he was disappointed not to be making the kind of game he felt played to the studio’s strengths. “It’s always exciting to try to do something new with a franchise, but it was a few too many steps away from what people loved,” he tells us. “It’s a good concept, and would have been great as a new IP, but any time publishers can de-risk [a game], they will. Attaching a licence that is already loved is their way of de-risking it.”
It dawned on Price that, as a firstparty studio, Rare would always have to align itself to its owner’s needs. The 3D platformer might have been Rare’s speciality, but the format holder no longer considered that genre viable. “I thought, ‘This is crazy,‘” Price says. “We had guys who were experts at making games like Jet Force
Gemini and Perfect Dark. We were comfortable in those genres, and loved making games that way. As soon as I realised that we weren’t going to be able to [make] them any more within that kind of company, I thought it might be best to start thinking of ways to move on. It’s just taken a long time to get the right mix of people.”
In the meantime, Price had looked on enviously at smaller studios that were creating labours of love and enjoying commercial success. The sudden and sharp rise in the popularity of indie games saw the likes of Braid and Super
Meat Boy receive the kind of coverage once reserved for games from larger studios. It reminded Price how he had felt when he first started in game development, and made him realise just how much he missed that sensation. “Every time I read a news story online or in a magazine, it’d be like, ‘These guys are in it just for themselves.’ I remember seeing Joe Danger by Hello Games. Now, they’ve done it perfectly. They’ve gone from making a great game, made some money from it, and now they’re scaling up and doing No Man’s Sky, which is fantastic. Every story I read like that was another nudge in my back pushing me out of the door.”
It took a little longer for others to come around to a similar way of thinking. Little by little, and with increasing encouragement from his peers, Price gained confidence in the idea of forming a new company to make the kind of games Rare used to make. He formulated detailed business plans, knowing it would take a persuasive argument to get his experienced colleagues to leave a studio some of them had been working at for decades. Even so, he was confident he could convince people to jump ship. “I always thought it was a case of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ But even then, it was quite a brave step for people like Steve Mayles to decide to join us. I just said, ‘Trust me. It’ll be fine.’” First to follow Price was veteran programmer Chris Sutherland, whose credits include coding and design work on some of Rare’s best-loved games, such as Battletoads and Banjo-Kazooie. He was also responsible for Rare’s trademark gobbledygook voice acting, and has assumed a similar role at Playtonic, voicing both Yooka and Laylee. Behind him is technical director Jens Restemeier, who sits next to character art director
Steve Mayles. They’re joined by environment artist Steven Hurst and technical art director Mark Stevenson – again, both ex-Rare – and since the Kickstarter campaign ended, Playtonic has recruited artist Dean Wilson, who worked on
Kameo and Kinect Sports. One of Price’s original aims was to recreate the kind of environment that birthed games such as Donkey Kong 64 and
Banjo-Kazooie, but it’s doubtful he expected quite such a close match. It may, in fact, be too close. Playtonic is soon to move to larger premises on a higher floor of its current building, but for several months everyone has been crammed into a tiny, boxy office – the kind where moving your chair back a foot or so may well see you bump into someone sitting behind you.
Any discomfort, however, has been tempered by the ability to work with trusted colleagues. Mayles hints at an initial rustiness on his part (“but now I’m back in the groove”), but otherwise the transition has been a smooth one. With a crowdfunding campaign planned to launch so early in Playtonic’s life, it had to be. “We don’t want to be this [documentation]-heavy, processdriven studio,” Price explains. “When you have guys you can trust, you don’t need to have massive design docs written up or anything like that – you can just have a conversation with any one of them and agree to do things [a certain] way. And whatever it is, it turns up in the game a short time later and it’s already looking fantastic and feeling great. We’ve got people with the talent to almost pull this off in their sleep.”
Those experienced hands do no harm from a marketability point of view, either. Yooka-Laylee’s Kickstarter campaign was an attractive one for many reasons, but the knowledge that this 3D platformer was being made by several fanfavourite developers would undoubtedly have been a factor in those 73,000-odd backers committing £2m to part-fund development. “It’s not something we were necessarily trying to
“WHEN YOU HAVE GUYS YOU CAN
TRUST, YOU DON’T NEED TO HAVE
MASSIVE DESIGN DOCS WRITTEN UP”
achieve,” Price admits, “but you can’t avoid it with the games we’ve made.” He suggests, however, that even a failed campaign wouldn’t have changed much. The studio still wanted to make a game like Yooka-Laylee: the extra money has simply given Playtonic room to scale up.
Yet even with some private funding already in place, there must surely have been a touch of concern about the viability of this style of game in the modern market. Price, however, says he was always confident the audience was there for
Yooka-Laylee. “Big publishers, especially over the past five or six years, [have become] so risk averse. They’ll just follow the genres or licences that guarantee them a big return. And so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: when no one’s making 3D platformers, no one will come along and make another one. Except Nintendo.”
The campaign took around three months of hard work to assemble, and Playtonic studied a variety of other crowdfunded success stories for tips, discovering that there were no guarantees, no hard-and-fast rules to follow to succeed. Initially, there was even concern that the funding targets were in sterling rather than dollars. “When you listen to [advice] like that, it’s easy to get fixated on it,” Price tells us. “Then someone pointed out to us that the biggest Kickstarter success of the previous year was Kingdom
Come: Deliverance, and that was in pounds.” Though Price believes the big-name publishers have left enough of a gap in the market for Playtonic to exploit, he concedes that Kickstarter was the only realistic route to make a game of this nature in a reasonable time frame. “It just means we can get it done so much faster,” he explains. “We didn’t have to go through massive committees and greenlight meetings. It was just us and a community of backers, and that’s exactly what we wanted it to be.”
Indeed, it seems those who’ve dipped into their pockets have been an uncommonly supportive bunch from the start, giving Playtonic the confidence that it was on the right track. The studio was subsequently able to capitalise on the early buzz that preceded the Kickstarter, setting up forums and regularly responding to feedback on Facebook and Twitter. “The message from fans was: ‘This is great. Don’t listen to anyone else, just make the game you want to make, because we want in on that,” Price says.
Which isn’t to say the community isn’t vocal about ideas it doesn’t agree with, as Sutherland recounts. “After that initial interview with Edge, when Early Access was mentioned, as soon as we launched the forums [people said], ‘Please, please do not do Early Access!’”
Still, having tens of thousands of voices firing ideas at Playtonic must present quite a challenge. What do you listen to, and what do you tune out? And yet it seems, thus far, that the studio and its backers have been on the same page. “We’re strangely, mystically aligned already!” Price laughs. “We’re saying we want a game that is like the old classic 3D mascot platformers we used to make, and they’re saying, ‘We want that too!’ They’ll say things like ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it had transformations?’ And we’re like, ‘Well, yeah, of course!’”
The validation of its plans is an obvious plus, but Playtonic has found an ancillary benefit to its community’s creativity. Price admits that team members will trawl forums and social media for the best ideas. “Our little corner of the Internet is the happiest place I’ve seen in a long time,” he adds. “And long may it continue, touch wood.”
The studio has set itself a tight deadline to complete Yooka-Laylee, and isn’t ruling out the possibility of further recruitment. But for the time being, it’s happy to stay as what Price describes as “an N64-sized team of people”. He’s keen that Playtonic is diligent in the money it spends (“I’m a bit of a bean counter anyway!” he laughs) with so many stories of indie expansion ending disastrously. The key, he says, is not to fix what isn’t broken, though he also suggests that the studio can handle bringing a secondary, smaller team on board to work on additional projects – naturally after development of Yooka-Laylee has concluded. In other words, there’s no danger that Playtonic is about to get too big too soon. “I don’t want to get in the position I’ve seen several other people get into. I hate the fear of thinking how I might feel if we stretch too far.”
If it seems a little premature to be considering longterm plans before you’ve even released your first game, that speaks volumes about how much and for how long Price has invested in Playtonic. And while some would argue it’s playing things a little too safe for its debut, a pragmatic approach is understandable. ”I couldn’t tell everyone to leave [Rare] and then risk it all on doing some weird experimental game that could go either way,” Price says. “It has to be something that makes business sense as well, because we want to be in this for the long run.”
“THE MESSAGE FROM FANS WAS: ‘THIS IS GREAT. DON’T LISTEN TO ANYONE, JUST MAKE THE GAME YOU WANT TO MAKE’”
1 These are the Ghost Writers, responsible for Yooka-Laylee’s storybook worlds. You’ll earn a reward for freeing their spirits.
2 Yooka and Laylee speak in that distinctive brand of gibberish that many associate with Rare games. Lead programmer Chris Sutherland voices both stars.
3 Trowzer is a shopkeeper who’ll l teach the duo some new moves.
4 This lead character concept was s scrapped for more of an underdog. g.
5 An early NPC created by Kev Bayliss, the ex-Rare artist behind
Killer Instinct and Battletoads. 6 This enemy has the tentative name of ‘burly minion’. He’ll need more than a swipe to defeat
Playtonic’s offices might be cramped, but its staff are comfy with each another. From left: Mark Stevenson, Steve Mayles, Steven Hurst, Chris Sutherland, Gavin Price, Jens Restemeier
Playtonic has partnered with Team 17, which Price says helps his staff focus on making the game while the label handles support tasks. “This isn’t a traditional publisher deal,” he clarifies. David Wise (above) is working with Grant Kirkhope on Yooka-Laylee’s soundtrack