"We started as just six guys, thinking how nice it'd be to go indie, and do this for the rest of our lives. If a few people took notice, that was enough. We didn't realize there'd be this massive wave of support, and for this type of game."
Gavin Price, managing director at British studio Playtonic (now 22-strong, plus a handful of additional contributors) and creative lead on the team's first game, Yooka-Laylee, is feeling reflective, with just a few weeks to go until release day. It's been a long time coming, the best part of five years, and the relief is written right across his face, as brightly as the pride.
It was in 2012 that a group of former Rare employees, Price included, issued their intent to create a spiritual successor to that studio's much-loved 1998 Nintendo 64 platformer, Banjo-Kazooie. What was Mingy Jongo became Project Ukulele, which in turn transformed into Yooka-Laylee. A Kickstarter was launched on May 1 st, 2015, and 24 hours later it'd raised over a million pounds, six times its target. Come the end of the crowd-funding campaign, Playtonic had a budget of over £2m, pledged by 73,000 backers.
"We've purely used the Kickstarter money to make this game," Price tells me. "We've not had to seek other investment. We've watched that money carefully, but our eyes are always bigger than our bellies, of course. But we're really happy with what we've got in the game, and how it meets the promises we made during the crowd-funding period."
Which was, essentially, a 3D platformer that summoned the spirit of the Rare days, a throwback of sorts to fifth-generation console gaming using the most modern hardware. Fitter, happier, more production polish. Copies of the final game will go for £10, for a Steam download—this isn't a wannabe triple-A affair—Playtonic understands that it needs to reach as many people as possible, not just nostalgic types ready for a return to Banjo-like bouncing about. It has to get people interested who weren't even born when Mario bounded into the third dimension.
Having played a previous preview build of Yooka-Laylee, however, I'm still not certain of its place in the contemporary gaming landscape. I understand that, in a way, it emerging with relevance to the here and now is almost beside the point—it's supposed to be an echo of the past, rendered more brightly, running more smoothly, than any game could be in the 1990s.
"We've been very conscious of having challenges in the game that you can do in a 20-minute session." — Gavin Price, Playtonic managing director
But just as some retro games feel ungainly experienced today, muddy with their explanations of collectibles and abilities, and capable of tossing too much the player's way in too short a space of time, so Yooka-Laylee's opening hour or so is deliriously busy. For me, damagingly so.
There are in-game-currency feathers to pick up, and power-up plants and butterflies for the chameleon of the pair, Yooka, to gobble, producing various buffs and boosts. New skills are bought with feathers by speaking to a Del Boy-alike snake character in a pair of shorts, brandishing a classically 1980s mobile phone. In the first stage proper, Tribalstack Tropics, there is a phenomenal amount of stuff to do—NPCs to converse with (in Banjo gibberish) and challenge to races or set off on treasure hunts for; secret areas to unlock and puzzles to solve; environment-altering and expanding situations to discover; and just an avalanche of more.
It all arrives in a rush, with the potential to leave you totally lost as to what you should be doing, to properly move the game on. There was something said about finding golden pages, and opening books to dive into, but, oh, here's a talking cloud that needs me to do something for them, and apparently a new tonic's just unlocked, too. Ach, now there's a pig in armor that needs me to go somewhere else entirely. I'll be right back… to wherever it was that I was heading. These games don't just go left to right anymore, huh?
"I'm a time poor person, and I don't have much time to play things anymore," Price tells me. "So when I do, I don't want to just do the same thing, over and over again. So, we've been very conscious of having challenges in the game that you can do in a 20-minute session. The thresholds for advancing through the game aren't as restrictive as they used to be—back in the day we'd say, 'If you want to finish the game, you have to collect 99% of these collectibles, to unlock the final boss.' Now, we're more inclusive, albeit without losing the edge of the core platforming mechanics, which will appeal to those older fans."
And I get all of that, I really do, and as someone with a busy work life and two buzzing-about-the-place children, I respect any developer that sets out to make their game digestible on a bite-size level. But I don't yet feel that Yooka-Laylee is delivering what Price claims it's capable of.
Above: 'Yooka-Laylee': Glitterglaze Glacier trailer
You can simply charge around its bright landscapes, leaping and rolling, dashing and bashing, and you'll have a good time—but without direction, it can all seem a bit weightless, meaningless in regard to a grander scheme (something something, nasty villain sort, something else, looks a bit like The Penguin in Batman Returns crossed with that Despicable Me fellow). I want to know that I'm making significant progress in those 20-minute sit-downs, and with so many potential objectives open to you at any time, it's confusing what is going to matter the most, in order to maximize that play time.
While I'm often quick to complain about drawn-out tutorials, a slightly more streamlined introduction, keeping the countless extras on the side a while longer, might well have given me a deeper connection to the characters, their companionships and conflicts. They can all deliver a fairly funny line or two—I laugh a good few times during my preview, as Yooka-Laylee's full of appealing puns—but everything's so disconnected, adrift in the stream of #content.
"We loved it in older games, when they'd make you learn the hard way, but in a way that was never not enjoyable," Price comments. "If a game's core mechanics are fun enough, then even messing around, learning the ropes will be good, and you'll absorb the game as you play. You don't have to have all this handholding, loads of UI waypointing, or the game constantly telling you what to do with a voice over."
But a total of two hours in the company of any game is rarely—no pun intended—enough to truly get a handle on it. The Kickstarter success is illustrative of an appetite for 3D platformers of this style, with this heritage, on modern platforms, and 2016's Ratchet & Clank reboot showed that historic franchises can return in glorious ways.
Yooka-Laylee is a Banjo sequel in all but name and rights, so there's no reason why people who loved that game won't also find a place in their heart for this one. Myself, I didn't play Banjo-Kazooie until several years into the 360 and PS3 era, which could explain my reservations for Yooka-Laylee. There's probably something in that.
But it's going to be fascinating to see how Yooka-Laylee—and Thimbleweed Park for that matter, another crowd-funding hit that's reviving a 90s genre—fare commercially beyond their backers. If Playtonic has indeed kept to within the confines of the Kickstarter pot, then any extra on top will presumably be all profit, minus whatever publishers Team17 are due—and Price makes noises to the tune of potential DLC, highlighting Yacht Club's Shovel Knight and its various campaign expansions as "the right way to support a game, after its release".
Related, on Waypoint: Ron Gilbert Talks 'Thimbleweed Park', Crowd Funding and Funny Bones
The budgeting is pretty savvy on the studio's part, and when Price adds that they'd "like to take more creative risks going forward", as it's "for the benefit of the industry", I believe him. I'm not sure this is the project that will see those risks, those wider ambitions, truly materialize, given the genre and Playtonic's commitment to its money-up-front supporters. But it's absolutely thrilling to see respected industry figures embarking on new adventures, without the pressure of meeting publisher-enforced deadlines, potentially compromising ideal end results.
For better or worse, Yooka-Laylee is exactly the game that Playtonic wanted to make—for the studio itself, and for the many thousands of backers. Does it need to be any bigger than that pre-release imprint of support? Arguably not. But even while I'm not completely clicking with it, personally, I can't deny the beauty of seeing creators work without too many restrictions, ultimately putting out something that's grown beyond the ambitions they had when planting its seeds.
'Yooka-Laylee' is released for Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on April 11th. A Nintendo Switch version is planned for later in 2017.