Rare In Deed
Inside Playtonic’s mission to fuse the best of classic and contemporary in Yooka-Laylee
Likening any modern videogame to a title from the N64 era is rarely complimentary. It’s the kind of comment that crops up semi-frequently around the Internet, usually as a derogatory way of exaggerating a game’s visual failings. One look at Yooka-Laylee is enough to see that this particular criticism doesn’t stand up here. But anyone listening in from the other side of Playtonic’s large, open-plan office could be forgiven for thinking that their colleagues had dipped into creative director Gavin
Price’s extensive retro collection. From Grant Kirkhope’s bouncy, upbeat theme to the gibberish babbling of its cast, Yooka-Laylee consciously evokes the games its creators were making 20 years ago. To say it’s like an N64 game isn’t entirely accurate, but it’s the kind of observation the studio would welcome rather than reject.
It’s been a year since we previously visited the studio, and quite a lot has changed. The eighth employee had just walked through the doors 12 months ago; now, Playtonic has 20 full-time staff. It no longer finds itself confined to a tiny office with barely enough space to recline without risking butting heads with a co-worker, having relocated to a much roomier headquarters. Its expansion has been so rapid that there have been murmurs of complaint from its neighbours at how many walls it has knocked down to accommodate its extra personnel. Those should, however, die down soon; the team is now, in Price’s words, “about N64 size”.
His choice of phrase is further evidence of a desire to recapture the spirit of an era with which most of his workmates will be familiar. Price welcomed a number of his former colleagues on board when founding Playtonic, including project director Chris Sutherland, character art director Steve Mayles, and technical art director Mark Stevenson. Within the past year, the likes of creative art director Dean Wilson, character artist Kevin Bayliss and engineer Karn Bianco have made a similar leap – just three of a host of Rare exports. Animator Gary Talbot, who worked on Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie among others, explains the appeal of working on a smaller team, summing up why so many have been prepared to jump ship. “From a creative point of view it’s fantastic,” he says. “One of the reasons I came here was because I wanted to get more work done and have more of an influence. I get to do a bit of everything. I’m not just doing animation; I get to use some Unity tools, and do a bit of scripting as well. And it’s great to be able to turn around and have a quick little meeting. If I’m stuck on something, it takes me five minutes to walk [across the office], discuss it, get it in the schedule, and within the day it’s fixed. In a bigger company, that decision’s got to go through another meeting and another meeting.”
Even those who haven’t made the trip from Twycross have an affinity for the company’s N64 heyday. Following an internship at 22Cans (surely the best possible introduction to the emotional rollercoaster of game development), engineer Becky Lavender landed her ideal job after Price attended an expo where she was showcasing her university dissertation project: procedural dungeons in the style of A Link To The Past, coincidentally Price’s favourite Zelda game. “It was really good timing because I won an award in front of him,” she recalls. “I grew up with my box of N64 carts, and my whole childhood was Rare games. So to work with them and to sit next to the guy who did the DK Rap every day, that’s just a dream come true.”
It soon becomes apparent that Yooka-Laylee isn’t just a dream project for Lavender, but for everyone at Playtonic. The excitement within the studio is palpable, even though this is the kind of game that most people here have made before. The circumstances, however, are different this time around. It’s a year on from Yooka
Laylee’s Kickstarter campaign, during which it hit its funding goal within 40 minutes, eventually attracting over 80,000 backers (including those who’d contributed via PayPal) and £2.1 million in total. “Kickstarter didn’t just fund Yooka-Laylee,” Price says, “it helped us become a proper studio, rather than a team of guys trying to do something on the cheap purely for themselves, [living off] tins of beans. I mean, I’m not saying we’ve transitioned to lobster just yet, but it helped us to expand more quickly than we’d ever anticipated.”
Such an unprecedented level of support has, he says, allowed Playtonic to increase the scope and the polish of the game. “We always had some core ideas, but for some of them we’d think, ‘Let’s get our first game done and then maybe have them in the sequel,’” Price explains. “Then, when the campaign went like it did, we saw there was an opportunity to improve certain areas of the game because we now had the resources to do it. We can focus on the stuff that really matters to people, and now it’ll be even better than it would’ve been.”
When it’s finally time to sit down with the game, it’s almost unrecognisable from the footage that convinced so many to part with their money. Its two protagonists (an easygoing chameleon and his mischievous bat partner) haven’t changed much, but their world is a very pleasant surprise – significantly more substantial than we’d anticipated, with a scale and a level of detail belying the size of the team making it. We begin in a large hub area, aboard a pirate ship that has become Yooka and Laylee’s adopted home, with the legend ‘Bat Ship Crazy’ painted across it, the first in an almost unrelenting
“I’M NOT SAYING WE’VE TRANSITIONED TO EATING LOBSTER, BUT KICKSTARTER HELPED US EXPAND MORE QUICKLY”
assault of puns that extends to just about every NPC the two encounter, from Trowzer, a sneering snake salesman, to insectoid entrepreneur – and chief antagonist – Capital B, resident of Hivory Towers.
If you weren’t previously aware that this was from the people who brought you Banjo-Kazooie, less than a minute in it’s already obvious. This is a 3D platformer straight from the old school in tone and feel – and if its vibrant, richly detailed setting couldn’t have been possible in the N64 era, a number of presentational quirks will take you back. The delivery of its dialogue is the clearest nod to the studio’s past work, with custom sprites rather than in-game models used for the talking heads, and a bespoke font that’s sharper than its inspirations but still reminiscent of a late-’90s typeface. And while there’s internal debate over whether it should be pronounced with a soft or hard ‘g’, the spoken gibberish for which Rare became known is back – though it took Chris Sutherland and composer Grant Kirkhope a while to remember just how those sounds were achieved back in the day. They were, it seems, left out of the original Kickstarter pitch for a reason. “It seems quite simple,” Sutherland tells us, “but it’s actually lots of little sounds playing with slightly different variations. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the timing and iterating regularly until it sounded just right.”
Playtonic has taken a similar approach to the way Yooka and Laylee control. As creative lead, Price’s keenness to return to more old-fashioned development methodology has eschewed the need for design documents. Instead, a basic concept is quickly thrashed out within a small group, and then it’s a matter of tweaking parameters until the feel is right. As Sutherland explains, the character movement came before the graphics. “Before we knew it was going to star a chameleon and a bat, I started with a cube, to see what that would look like.” He demonstrates the process, with the cube mimicking Yooka’s moveset, which includes a double jump, a glide and a ground-pound. “It sounds like it should be trivial, but it’s [a challenge] getting the deceleration and acceleration just so. We tried it with basic Unity physics and weren’t quite happy with that, and so we then tried to recreate the feel of the games we’ve done in the past.”
Responsiveness is key, of course, and Sutherland believes that the animation should always serve the movement rather than vice versa – though there are complicating factors where fluidity must be considered. Take Yooka’s roll, for example. “The animation where he comes out of it and lands only plays if you’re not pressing any direction. If you are, we have an early ‘out’, so as soon as he’s about to hit the ground, he’ll go into his run. But if you insert the animations as is, which seems like the obvious thing to do, then you’ll get pauses and stutters in the movement, so it feels less smooth. We try to keep all the motion as fluid as possible, but sometimes the animation goes against that. In the end, you just have to go with what feels right.” It’s still early days, but there’s little to complain about in that regard. There’s real character in the animation – Yooka gently tilts his head as he leans into turns, for example – but it’s never at the cost of control.
Yet it isn’t simply a matter of old dogs relearning old tricks; rather, Playtonic is hoping to draw upon 20 years of progress in game design to refine the formulae upon which it used to rely. Price notes Rare’s collectible-centric platformers were often accused of having too much fluff. “With the old games, it used to be that every individual move had its own resource, and they almost became like resource-management sims. For me, that detracted from the gameplay.” Every collectible, he says, will have a tangible benefit; a reason for being beyond achieving 100 per cent completion. The only thing you’ll have to worry about maintaining is your health and power meter: the latter is refilled by collecting butterflies, the former by using Yooka’s prehensile tongue to eat them.
Which isn’t to say Yooka-Laylee lacks for objects to hunt down and pocket. Ghosts reside within each world: one hides, another attacks you, while a more elusive spirit requires you to chase and catch it. Elsewhere, there are 200 quills scattered across the world, spread across race circuits and along vast, undulating minecart tracks. Tokens unlock the eight multiplayer arcade games
EVERY COLLECTIBLE, ACCORDING TO PRICE, WILL HAVE A TANGIBLE BENEFIT; A REASON FOR BEING
hosted by a low-poly dinosaur named Rextro. A final pickup triggers a transformation exclusive to that particular world: in the lush jungle of the opening area, Yooka and Laylee merge into a sentient plant, which allows them to communicate with flora that would otherwise refuse to converse with them.
You’ll be able to transform the world itself, too. At first, your impact is relatively small: spitting out a Splash Berry to feed a raincloud sees it generate a waterfall that fills a dry riverbed, opening up new areas to explore. Choose a Frost Berry instead, and the river will freeze over, giving you access to a harder race across a slippier surface. But while you can move onto the next area once you’ve collected enough Pagies – the equivalent to
Banjo-Kazooie’s Jiggies – you can also spend them on expanding the environment. This bolts on a huge extra chunk of level furniture, with a towering monument that dwarfs what was there before (and which begs to be scaled), and opens up a broader range of activities, this time set at a higher difficulty to test the platforming pluck of more thorough explorers.
While the concept of simple levels developing into larger, more elaborate environments was there from the beginning, Price says the idea has become even more vital to the game’s success as the scope of Yooka-Laylee has broadened. “We knew the fans were divided,” he tells us. “When people [compare] Banjo-Kazooie against
Banjo-Tooie, you’ve got 50 per cent who love Banjo’s more focused, cute levels and 50 per cent saying they preferred Tooie’s more complex levels where navigating them was a puzzle within itself.” The question was, could Playtonic have its cake and eat it? Its solution might not seem elegant, but it works. “It’s natural to let the player opt in to do that, to say, ‘OK, I’m ready now to expand this world and make it more challenging.’ Whether we get that balance right, who knows? Fingers crossed.”
With 80,000 backers to consider, no wonder Playtonic feels the need to give its players plenty of
FEEDING A RAINCLOUD SEES IT GENERATE A WATERFALL THAT FILLS A DRY RIVERBED
choice. That extends to Yooka and Laylee’s move sets, which can be expanded by spending Quills. Laylee, for example, has a sonar shot that fires out translucent waves, triggering invisible platforms that allow the two to reach a previously inaccessible temple area. Similarly, without Yooka’s roll move, you’ll find yourself sliding down metal ramps. This gentle gating is designed to encourage players to earn enough Quills to purchase additional powers, though many of them can be ignored by those in a hurry to get to the next area: unlock a new world and Trowzer will grant you a freebie as thanks for letting him expand his business. “The 3D platformer is traditionally a linear genre,” Price says. “You go through a world, milk it, forget about it, and [move] on. We wanted to empower players to go through it their own way. And another consideration is people like myself and the other old farts on the team – you don’t always have the same time to budget for playing games these days, so you have to make sure that whatever spare time players have got, they feel they can dip in and achieve something.”
Our time with the game isn’t long enough to effectively glean whether it will successfully appeal to both camps, but the signs are extremely promising. The aim is clearly to combine traditional 3D platformer mechanics with contemporary looks and refinements to create a rose-tinted version of the N64 favourites it so overtly references. Sutherland hopes Yooka-Laylee will be “the best of both worlds” in that respect and, on first impression at least, it looks like he and his team might have cracked it. From simple but tactile brawls with marauding enemies to circuit races and interludes of what Price calls “proper platforming”, it certainly isn’t short on variety, and Price insists that challenges won’t simply be repeated across each world. “We want to surprise the player all the time,” he explains, “so you never know what’s around the next corner, what your next challenge is going to be, who you’re going to meet. One of the best things about exploration and adventurethemed games is that element of surprise. The moment it starts feeling formulaic, you’ll think, ‘What’s the point of going into the next world if it’s just doing version 2.0 of what I did before?’ Each new [setting] should have new surprises, new delights.”
Indeed, a frustratingly limited glimpse at the game’s second world suggests that’s no exaggeration. If the first was, as Price puts it, “like putting a nice pair of slippers back on, a warmup to ease you back into the 3D platformer”, the wintry climes of World 2 are where the challenge ramps up. For art director Dean Wilson, the design brief couldn’t have been simpler. “It was basically, ‘Go away and make us an ice level!’” he laughs. Lit by a low-hanging sun, it’s exceptionally pretty, with a hint of Disney in its designs that might be more than a happy accident. “I’ve just had a daughter, so I’ve watched Frozen about 16 times now, to the point where it’s embedded in my brain,” he concedes. “I think that’s why I was so well-suited to doing an ice level.” Price agrees – to a point, citing a certain tension between artist and designer. “Why do you think he’s sat next to me? We call him ‘best artist ever, worst dev ever’,” he says, grinning affectionately. “He’d put so much stuff in there that you wouldn’t know where to look. At one stage, he put a lip on every platform and you couldn’t jump to it.” But working alongside someone with an artist’s eye has had its benefits. “We’ve learned from one another,” Price says. “He might say, ‘Gav, this looks shit,’ and I’ll tell him he needs to streamline things. Sometimes we’re at loggerheads but the relationship works. And it’ll make the game look better.”
Price’s perfectionist streak means he’s unwilling to let us spend much longer with a world that he doesn’t yet deem fit for wider scrutiny. But there’s another reason for his reluctance to give more away than that. Yooka
Laylee’s crowdfunding campaign is, he’s happy to admit, at odds with his long-term plan for how Playtonic manages the release of information about its games in the future. It is, again, about preserving the element of surprise. “One thing I loved about Rare back in the day, and in general when there was no Internet, was how precious every little bit of information was,” he tells us. “You didn’t have to basically market and PR the game every month; you could do it on your own terms. I just remember really valuing information more back then and I didn’t feel fatigued by the time a game came out. As an experiment, when Nintendo announced Skyward
Sword, I didn’t read a single thing about that game at all. I then played it and it was the most fun I’d had playing a modern game in years. And I swear that was down to not having read anything about it.
“Entertainment should be at the core of everything we do. Not just the games we make, but how we talk about them, how we put information out there. Everything is an opportunity to put a smile on someone’s face.”
Or, indeed, 80,000 faces. While Playtonic deals with the very pleasant problem of Yooka-Laylee’s credits potentially running longer than those of any Assassin’s
Creed game, chances are that a healthy percentage of those backers will have plenty to smile about. Paying affectionate homage to its past without being a slave to it, Yooka-Laylee could well be the best N64 game you’ve never played. And those who funded it surely wouldn’t want it any other way.
“WE WANT TO SURPRISE THE PLAYER ALL THE TIME, SO YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT’S AROUND THE NEXT CORNER”
FROM TOP Creative lead Gavin Price co-founded Playtonic; engineer Becky Lavender joined the team in August of last year
ABOVE Laylee can’t carry Yooka too far, though gliding down from higher platforms is essential – the damage you’ll take is proportional to the distance of your fall.
LEFT No 3D platformer is complete without an ice slide, and Yooka-Laylee isn’t bucking tradition