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


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


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


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.



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

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