In this chapter we cover 2017, in which released an unusually small number of titles. But, boy oh booy, were they some big ones! Read below, for developer interviews for all four 2017 games…
When a group of ex-Rare developers behind the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country, among many other classics, split off to form Playtonic Games there was one clear idea they knew they had to develop… “We wanted to go back to our roots as a starting point for our new endeavour, and working on an old-school 3D platformer had been something we’ve been itching to do for years,” says creative lead Gavin Price, who had spent his latter years at Rare working on the motion controlled Kinect Sports series.
On May 1st 2015, Playtonic announced Yooka-Laylee, a 3D platformer and spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, via a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. What happened next was nothing short of phenomenal – 73,206 backers and over £2 million pledged – reaching its initial goal of £175,000 in just 40 minutes and soon breaking Kickstarter’s record as the fastest game to reach $1 million.
This incredible success helped make Playtonic’s dream a reality, but also massively changed the scope of the project. “The original concepts were for a much smaller, more niche game,” says Price, “but the crowdfunding revenues and expectation levels were raised and we ended up crafting a much larger game than we originally planned. Characters, larger worlds, a higher level of variety in move-set and challenges all grew in scope.”
Here at Team17 we’re all huge fans of classic Rare games (we’ve also published Raging Justice, from ex-Rare devs Makin Games) and the prospect of teaming up on Yooka-Laylee was hard to resist and we quickly entered talks with Playtonic to assist in development and marketing. Price (or at least his belly) remembers the partnership coming together… “Debbie Bestwick kept buying us sandwiches and bringing cake! Good, rich, sweet, sticky, light and fluffy cake that… where were we…? Oh yes. It became clear that everything we wanted in a partner to help us fulfil our indie dream, existed at Team17. They’re incredibly experienced, so they were in a great position to help us steer around trouble and bring their publishing prowess to the table.”
With funding, a publishing partner, a passionate audience and a talented team all on board, Yooka-Laylee was off to a great start, but wasn’t without its challenges. With the move from a second party studio to an indie developer, the Playtonic team now found themselves having to manage so many elements of the business that parent companies had taken care of before, and Price admits there was a bit of a learning curve involved. “When we started Playtonic, we had to start running a business, use unfamiliar tools and processes, build a team, manage a crowdfunding campaign, and ship on four platforms with unique challenges. It’ll be why we’ve aged 10 years in the past 4 years!”
In short, Playtonic had to not just create a great game but also build a successful company in the process, something we’re sure the team’s legion of fans will attest they’ve managed to make look easy! As for the game itself, while the mixed reception suggests that the retro “Rare-vival” wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, there are Donkey Kong 64 collectibles volume of fans who love the game for exactly what it set out to do – a 3D platformer in a 90s style that few other companies offer any more!
Price reflects on the design choices he and the team knew would be key for both themselves and the fans… “The humour of the games was a reflection of the people on the team at Rare, and naturally, that came with us. The presentation, whimsical music and ‘core-character-control’ are also factors we’ve long-strived to have as key elements of Playtonic experiences. We wanted to build on this with worlds that were larger, expandable and less linear than before, not only within levels but on a level by level basis too. With all of that in mind, we also wanted to make a game that could be finished by everyone – not just the hardcore completists.”
“Seeing how Yooka-Laylee has been enjoyed is immensely rewarding,” concludes Price. “We’ve had a ton of great fan experiences, but to this day the thing we appreciate most are the emails, drawings and letters we receive from fans young and old alike.”
For more behind the scenes details on Yooka-Laylee, be sure to check out Playtonic Games’ new Developer Commentary series.
“I’d always wanted to do a city builder on an alien planet,” says Paul Tozour, who founded his own development studio, Mothership Entertainment, after many years in the games industry, including programming duties on the brilliant Metroid Prime series.
“We had very well-defined design goals with Aven Colony,” he says of the Unreal Engine powered sim. “Give the player a sense of wonder, first at the alien world they find themselves in, then at being able to take a tiny, vulnerable colony and build it into an epic, sprawling sci-fi metropolis. Help players appreciate the dangers of human habitation in space, with enough threats to keep the player on his toes… “
While most indie games in the Team17 story follow a similar path to the games label, Aven Colony had to go around the proverbial houses before finding its eventual home. Originally signed with a completely different publisher, Mothership found themselves parting ways with their original partner over creative differences before joining up with Team17. “Debbie Bestwick called me out of the blue at the end of 2016,” recalls Tozour. “The team had seen Aven Colony and was impressed and wanted to bring it to console. It was really wonderful to find myself in a position where a publisher was calling me and making an offer like that.”
“We had a lot of discussions internally, and not everyone was convinced we should do console. We weren’t sure a city builder would sell on console. But I just couldn’t avoid the sense that it was a risk worth taking, and even though the math didn’t seem to work out, I uncharacteristically acted on emotion and greenlighted the deal. I’m glad I did!”
In fact, Aven Colony found a fanbase all of its own on console, where city builders are scarcer to find, and enjoys a passionate following to this day. It even gained a significantly higher Metacritic rating on console than it did on PC, with Xbox Addict calling it “one of the premier city simulation games that you can find on the Xbox platform.”
“Our sales on Xbox One and PS4 were well ahead of expectations, and Team17 produced a console version that was stunningly high-quality,” says Tozour. “We couldn’t be happier with how the console port turned out.”
“At the end of the day, the thing that matters the most to me is the smile I put on my customer’s face,” Tozour summarises when asked what he’s most proud of. “We’ve been through some incredibly hellish and stressful moments in development, but at the end of the day, we made a game that’s ridiculously high quality, and that it shouldn’t have been possible to make with a team of just four. And more importantly, looking back at all the 80+ YouTube videos by Slim Gaming and hundreds of others by countless more streamers, and all of the die-hard fans who deeply connected with the game, it was time very well spent. Watching someone play the game for the first time, and seeing how they perceive the game and make decisions, is deeply gratifying.”
Interplanetary: Enhanced Edition
Year: 2017 | Developer: Team Jolly Roger | Publisher: Team17 | Format: PC
Buy on: Steam
While this highly technical science fiction strategy game might seem like one of the most unlikely titles to come from the Team17 games label, it actually has a lot in common with our most famous series. Both Worms and Interplanetary are multiplayer artillery games. Yet while Worms asks the player to take into account power, angle and wind direction when flinging bananas and exploding sheep at one another, Interplanetary demands a few more complicated factors be taken into account…
“The very first idea of Interplanetary revolved around the concept of space artillery,” explains creator Niklas Saari. “We were actually still studying at uni and making a simple, traditional artillery game for network communication class. We sat at the cafe and started wondering how it would affect the gameplay if the cannons were so far apart that one could see the curvature of the earth between them, and pretty soon we were discussing space ballistics. This remained the core concept for a long time, but when we started pre-production, we wanted to beef it up with some progression and add some variation to the mechanics, so we added new weapon types, defenses, tech tree, spying and so on.”
For a more detailed overview of Interplanetary: Enhanced Edition, check out this let’s play video from OfficialStuffPlus…
“I think we’re most proud of the very core of the game, the space artillery,” says Saari. “We were not the first ones to do it by any means, but I think the variation we added there came together nicely and the game is very playable. My favorite memory is probably from the launch. We had finally finished the game, we pressed the button and positive reviews started coming in. Players were happy and nearly everything went as planned. Those were some long days, but the atmosphere at the office was awesome.”
The Escapists 2
After the breakout success of the original Escapists, we knew that we wanted The Escapists 2 to be bigger and better in every possible way. Enhanced visuals were added, elevating the style from 8-bit to 16-bit, but the most important and most requested change was co-operative multiplayer…
“Multiplayer just felt like a natural addition so that was in the bag from the start,” says lead designer Grant Towell. Both local and online co-op was integrated into the design before any development work had even begun, which meant that not only could friends tackle each prison together but new escapes could also be designed that specifically required inmates to team up in order to break out.
As well as broad design features like new visuals and multiplayer, the sequel created an opportunity to address some of the criticisms of the first game, as Towell explains. “The main thing that stood out from the first Escapists was the brutality of how quickly an escape attempt could be thwarted with what became known as the ‘instabust’. With this in mind, we came up with the whole idea of prison alertness and a picture-in-picture to alert the player to guard activity, so the player could react and rectify the problem if they had the nerve to do so.”
Another addition was Transport Prisons, moving jailhouses on land, air and sea that featured smaller level designs and escapes that could be completed in a more digestible period of time. “In the early designs, the thinking behind them was that, canonically, they represented the moments before you as an inmate would reach your final destination in life – so to speak. Ultimately though, this was deemed a little too dark to be woven into the general fabric of the more playful, pixel art cutesy road which The Escapists as a brand walked along. With that though we took many inspirations from film references; Con Air, Escape Plan, The Great Escape and so on…”
When asked what element of The Escapists 2 Towell is most proud of, he answers, “The resounding vibe across the board that reviewers said the sequel improved upon every element of the original. Because that was the mantra we started out with during design and aimed to retain throughout.”
In fact, that dedication to improvement continued long after release. Even though The Escapists 2 wasn’t an Early Access release like the first game, the “early access” philosophy carried over, with several improvements added including Steam Workshop support for user-created prisons, and an in-prison tutorial character called Robinson to help ease in newcomers to their brutal prison sentence.
The Escapists 2 was also supported post release with paid and free DLC prisons, six in total, including two Christmas themed jails and a Halloween one. “The DLC prisons introduced some even crazier scenarios than the base game,” says designer James Witcomb, “with each introducing something unique; from the zombie guards of Wicked Ward to the showtime routine in Big Top Breakout, where inmates had to perform feats such as riding a unicycle or breathing fire in front of the paying crowds every night! Dungeons And Duct Tape included an improvement to the grappling system, and was designed with grappling in mind to make for new scenarios to put the most experienced escapists grappling skills to the test!”
Over a year after release, we’re still working on The Escapists 2. The long requested mobile version, The Escapists 2: Pocket Breakout, was just released, and new prison updates will be rolling out for that throughout 2019! As for the future of The Escapists in general… If you all exhibit some good behaviour then maybe we’ll tell you!
That’s your lot for 2017! In the next and final instalment (*cries*) we’ll be looking at the games of 2018, featuring a whopping eight releases including Overcooked! 2, Yoku’s Island Express and the 100th game itself, PLANET ALPHA.