Stu­dio Pro­file

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




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.”


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

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