A Rare Event: Talking ‘Yooka-Laylee’ with the Team at Playtonic
We go behind the scenes of the Kickstarter record-breaker bringing platforming magic back to gaming.
It is, after too many years, a good time to be a Rare fan. E3 2015 brought news of Sea of Thieves, a new online pirate adventure that looks like the first proper Rare title in ages, not to mention a new compilation, Rare Replay, collecting several of the developer's greatest hits (notably including a good chunk of their N64 heyday) released later this summer.
In the middle of everything going on in LA for E3, though, something maybe even more exciting to gamers who can fondly recall Rare's glory years of Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007 and Conker's Bad Fur Day happened online, away from all the glittery press conferences. The Kickstarter for Playtonic's new 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee ended, netting its small team a little over £2 million in crowd-funded finance. That's not a small bit of change – Playtonic's success is huge, with Yooka now holding the record for the most successful British game on Kickstarter.
Playtonic is a team made up of creative sorts who once worked for Rare. The company's project director Chris Sutherland was lead engineer for the Leicestershire legends, character art director Steve Mayles designed both the stars of Banjo-Kazooie and the Kong family for the Country series, and MD and creative lead Gavin Price was a designer on titles including Viva Piñata and, again, Banjo-Kazooie. It's no surprise whatsoever, really, that the forthcoming Yooka-Laylee bears more than a passing similarity to the N64 classic that VICE Gaming's already claimed was more important than Mario 64.
The reaction from the team when the Kickstarter countdown hit zero? "Easy," says Playtonic writer and editor Andy Robinson. "We should do another one."
Despite their success, the through-line in my conversations with Playtonic is their small team mentality. Price repeatedly points out to me the virtues of working outside a massive corporate environment, a sentiment echoed by the rest of the office. Appropriately, when I meet Robinson and veteran ex-Rare composer Grant Kirkhope at the LA Convention Center, home to E3, we sit out in the open, on the cement floor in a small pocket of hall space not dominated by massive booming publisher booths.
Robinson is kind enough to let me take a very early build of Yooka for a spin, the result of three months' work. What I'm shown isn't nearly complete, at a stage that would never have been seen at the Sony or Microsoft presentations. Enemy detection is yet to be implemented, the move sets for the two characters – the chameleon Yooka and bat Laylee – are not fully programmed, and "win" and "lose" states are entirely absent.
"I don't even think this one in particular is a real environment," Robinson tells me, as I'm zooming around a jungle setting that will look familiar to anyone who's been seeking out news on this release since its campaign began in May. "It's just something I asked for to get some nice screenshots, really."
The honesty is refreshing. More importantly, the lack of completion shown here isn't anything to worry about, since the game has only been in development for a short time. Still, while I've only barely played Yooka-Laylee, it's already looking and feeling incredibly promising. That combination of snap, fluidity and responsiveness that Rare perfected in the 1990s is evident, even in just a few months' work, and everything points to us being on a receiving end of a real treat when the game comes out in, hopefully, October 2016.
That quirky Rare humour is already present as well. Despite the short lead up time to Yooka's first public US showing, Robinson points out a cheeky idle animation added for the bat and lizard duo, and the audio is already stuffed with plenty of the requisite "eek"s and "rurr-rurr"s you'd expect from a jaunty game about a couple of gibberish-speaking animals.
So Yooka isn't really a game yet, and it already feels fun. That's the whole appeal of a platformer in the first place, right?
"You can give a six year old a controller for a Mario game or a Rare platformer," says Robinson, "and you'll see them have fun even though they're not completing the objectives, and are probably just running into a wall. They might not leave the first area, but they'll be having a brilliant time because they'll be jumping around doing moves, picking up stuff, hitting things. [These games are] like the 'riding a bike' of video games. Anyone can have fun riding a bike."
For Price and the rest of the team, this is a natural way of operating that dates back through 15-plus years of work at Rare. In the days of N64 development, teams were much smaller than today's monster triple-A projects, and imaginative ideas more commonplace – a basic tenet that Playtonic is returning to.
"I think it's creative ownership," Price tells me. "We don't have to suggest something and discuss it with two other guys, then they go away and discuss it with their two managers – none of this elongated chain of command or Chinese whispers."
That is, obviously, a huge advantage of independent game development. If anyone on the team is interested in adding anything to Yooka – whether big or small – they easily can.
"When you see like the kind of things we devote high production values to, it's sometimes totally at odds with what people are doing in the triple-A industry where people are all, 'Oh no, these box-ticking features have to be made'," Price says. "We spend time, ages, pouring love and into a particular character or animation or a dialogue which, you know, once players get into, they sometimes remember for their whole lives. You can remember some of the best bits from those games you used to love when you were a kid."
The various ingredients of Yooka have been slow cooked over the years, says Price, "so all the best ones come through". Each bit has gradually come together through casual conversations the team has continuously had, even before they'd decided to form Playtonic.
Very early gameplay footage of 'Yooka-Laylee'
The first whiff of this happened in 2012, when something called "Mingy Jongo" burbled up online. Banjo-Kazooie fans were quick to jump to conclusions, for fairly obvious reasons, but as it turned out the would-be project was really just the first inkling – Robinson says it was never more than a conversation – for what would eventually evolve into Yooka-Laylee.
"We don't have any plans or designs now, that have come through from that time," Price says. "But it was the message that fans were giving us at that time which we've carried forward, and was the driver for us in the background while we were doing our other jobs to come together and do Yooka-Laylee formally."
Playtonic sounds like a fun place to work – a bit reminiscent of that episode of The Simpsons where Bart gets a glimpse of Mad Magazine's office in New York. (And the team makes frequent reference to said cartoon, using it as a sort of guiding star.) Regardless, given their small office space, everyone at the studio gets their own sense of ownership over every aspect of the game, and the team as a whole spends a lot of time joking around while in the process of coming up with new ideas.
Trowzer, Yooka's slithering, pants-wearing equivalent to Banjo's mole Bottles, is one example. Price shows me a picture of the character as he was originally envisioned, drawn on a Post-it note: silly hat (fez, optional), wearing one pant leg, sock inexplicably on the end of his tail. The drawing itself is pretty funny, and indicative of the kind of quirkiness you'd expect to see in a classic Rare game.
"[Banjo] games are remembered for having a lot of personality," Robinson explains. "I have no doubt that working the way that we do, you know, bounding off of each other and everyone being very open, that that's the way to bring more personality into this project. And if you can have a whole cast of characters like that, and the game's fun to move about in, you've won half the battle."
Yooka's gibberish voice acting is good for a laugh, too. Project director Sutherland – who also voiced several of Banjo's nonsensically-spoken cast, a duty he's reprising on Yooka – tells me that coming up with different sounds for each character results in the team sitting around the office squawking and making weird noises at each other, until something sticks.
"It's a bit different from conventional voiceover work, but you're trying to capture the feel of the characters from just a few noises – into a fraction of a second," Sutherland explains. "You're trying to sum up a character in just one noise that you make, so it's 'Guh-ah!' or 'Ree!' or something like that. Just trying to compact it all into a little space. So that's kind of a challenge, actually."
Just like in the Rare days, Playtonic has created a game for themselves to see what jokes they can sneak past censors. (I mean, come on: Trowzer the snake?) Pulling out Banjo on the N64 again, I'm quite surprised to see a gag about Grunty's favourite party trick being a strip-tease, so these guys have a long history of this sort of thing.
"We'd rather do a kind of a multi-layered, clever kind of humour which can appeal to people on different levels, and see what we can get away with," Price says. "It used to be a challenge, like: 'What can we get past censor's eyes?' We always wanted to be the one that got the team told off. It's so much fun trying to get that stuff past them – we had a reputation when Microsoft bought Rare [in 2002]."
"It's like, two different generations of a family can watch The Simpsons, or watch a Pixar movie or something like that," Robinson adds. "The adults will get some jokes and find it funny, and it'll be the same for the kids."
Sutherland mentions the team had even considered originally announcing Yooka-Laylee as a match-3 puzzle game before they officially debuted the actual game at EGX Rezzed in April. "We decided not to do that, you know, just because we thought we probably wouldn't get out of it alive," he laughs. "Fifty percent of people would get the joke, and the other 50 percent of people would've stabbed us," adds Price.
Compared to Playtonic, the final days at Rare under Microsoft's direction sound grim. Price mentions that Yooka's character artist Mayles was stuck making Xbox avatar shirts before leaving the company. While the team acknowledges that triple-A development is the way that it is for a reason, everyone involved with Yooka is thankful to be where they are today.
"I think we all feel like game developers again, for the first time in many years," Sutherland says. "In our previous job we'd just been pigeonholed into these kind of almost minute tasks of being in a small part of a really big thing, and the fun was just going out of it, really."
But what makes a platform game, specifically, so appealing to work on? Mayles explains that, maybe more than any other type of game, the genre is just about using your imagination.
"They're just so much fun to do, there's so much variety. And no idea's too crazy to work – it's limitless," he tells me. "You just have so much fun creating those games. We really enjoyed playing those games ourselves, and that's it really."
Price adds that platformers also have a certain essence that people gravitate toward: "They're very accessible, but they're difficult to master. So it's like everyone can pick up a pad and start playing with it and start doing something productive. And then it gets its hooks into you and you have to go and find everything that's collectable, you have to ace every single level. It really gets under your skin, a platform game does."
Unlike other third-person games, you don't have to conform to reality either, Robinson reflects. "If Playtonic was working on an Uncharted series game, they couldn't have [Nathan Drake] have a trouser-wearing snake as some friend, no matter how fun that is." Kirkhope is in agreement: "That's the best thing about this – you don't have to ask [about anything]. You don't have to fly it up on the chain to some adminisphere – that's what we used to call it."
Having taken a good long break from Banjo-style compositions, Kirkhope is having fun composing tunes for Yooka, splitting the workload with Rare's other legendary composer, David Wise (you might've heard this one of his). Kirkhope's method hasn't changed in the years since the N64, though. "I still plunk around on the piano keyboard until I find something – it's no different now," he laughs.
On Motherboard: Unbeatable 2D Platformers Are All the Rage
Yooka-Laylee is certainly Banjo in spirit, an answer to so many fans wanting more of that essential Rare magic. But what if Rare themselves were to reboot a series last seen in 2008 with the Xbox-exclusive Nuts & Bolts. Kirkhope isn't sure that a new Banjo game 'proper' is something he'd want to see. "I almost feel like, with Banjo-Kazooie, you already know the moves. What can you do that's new with them? We'll have to see. If it ever happens."
Rare actually did show a new Banjo of sorts earlier this year when they demoed a Kinect-controlled flying game at SXSW in March, though its basic design makes it unclear whether it's something actually in production (particularly given the assuredly studio-wide effort for Sea of Thieves).
Either way, Playtonic is hitting all the right buttons already. "It's got all the Banjo-Kazooie feel," Kirkhope says of Yooka-Laylee, and I can only agree with him. Your move, Microsoft.
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