From game jam to full product: The story of Sumo Digital's Snake Pass

From game jam to full product: The story of Sumo Digital's Snake Pass
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 31st 2016 at 3:27PM

The UK developer talks us through the origins of its upcoming physics-based puzzle platformer

Studios around the world are increasingly making time for internal game jams. Not only do these give teams the chance to flex their creative muscles and try new things, it also helps to identify potential mechanics and IP that could be included in future projects.

Sumo Digital has since taken this one step further by committing resources to transforming the winner of its inaugural game jam into a full game that can later be released to the public. The result is Snake Pass: a cartoony 3D puzzle platformer in which players control a slithering serpent.

Created by the studio's Sebastien Liese, who originally joined the team from Holland to work on LittleBigPlanet 3, the Unreal-powered title centres around the physics of the snake itself. Gamers are challenged to curl, twist and stretch the creature to reach golden eggs littered throughout each level.

We caught up with some of the team at Sumo to find out how this charming title went from game jam prototype to the studio's next potential hit.

Why does Sumo Digital hold internal game jams? What’s the benefit? Does this not take away from time that should be spend on your commercial projects?
Paul Porter, COO: We hold internal game jams to help foster the creativity of our staff and gather concepts that can possibly be used in our triple-A third projects or moved to production as our own IP. From a studio culture standpoint, these game jams can help bring camaraderie, giving staff across different projects opportunities to work together.

We ensure this process does not divert time and attention away from our core business. If anything, it helps cultivate our staff’s talent that is ultimately applied to the triple-A titles we’re known for. Depending on project requirements, not all staff can take part in every game jam but generally throughout the year we hope that everyone who wants to take part is able to.

Where did the idea for Snake Pass originate? How much were you able to develop during the jam?
Sebastian Liese, creator: When I was learning the Unreal Engine for a new project, I focused on using the blueprint system to create an 'interactive rope'. When I noticed how the rope interacted with its environment both visually and mechanically and rather enjoyed it, I became curious to see if I could control the rope as a character. Once I got that working, I popped a head onto it and created the first version of the snake.

As I used to be a biology teacher and had a pet snake when I was younger, I was familiar with a snake’s anatomy and mobility. That knowledge and experience really helped in identifying the core snake mechanics I was looking for. So aside from the work I put into concepting prior to the game jam, I spent as much time as I could refining the physics and controls, while building a playground in Unreal to showcase its abilities. Thankfully, all of that work paid off in the end.

When I noticed how an interactive rope interacted with its environment both visually and mechanically and rather enjoyed it, I became curious to see if I could control the rope as a character.

Why did Sumo choose Snake Pass over all the other jam projects to turn into a fully-fledged title? How many people are working on the full game?
Porter: At the end of the game jam, we had an internal vote within the company to choose an overall winner. There were loads of strong entrants, but we felt Snake Pass was so unique and had loads of untapped potential. We have a small, but dedicated team working on the game and are well into full production.

What was the biggest challenge of getting the snake’s movement working, both in terms of the animation and the physics?
Liese: The biggest challenge was to balance two main forces: friction and muscle power. Making the friction too high means the snake will get stuck. Make it too low and you’re all over the place.

Similarly, making the muscles too strong will allow the snake to fly, whereas being too weak can make the head too heavy to move. This issue is further complicated when we have to dynamically change the strength of these forces depending on how much contact the body has on surfaces and its angle.

As for the animation, it was a pretty huge task in creating a seamless connection between the logic-driven physical body and the highly expressive face rig. 

How did you hone the control system to ensure it was accessible but not over simplified, allowing players to experiment with the angles and way the snake travels?
Liese: After many, many hours of tweaking and play testing at the studio and public events, the team has found the right balance between accessibility and depth for the control scheme. We’ve done our best to make the controls easy to learn, but hard to master. It will definitely require a good amount of patience and dexterity to complete the harder challenges in Snake Pass.

David Dino, designer: But if you can think like a snake, you should be able to grasp the controls rather intuitively. We’ve seen lots of first time players at EGX Rezzed and Develop:Brighton harness their inner snake and move in ways that surprised us.

Why choose Unreal Engine?
Liese: I was familiarising myself with Unreal with a view to moving onto another project within the studio. I found the Blueprints system immensely powerful, and it enabled me to create a prototype without any programming knowledge whatsoever.

Lots of people who have played it said Snake Pass reminded them of old N64 and PlayStation 1 platformers like Banjo-Kazooie or Crash Bandicoot.

Where did the idea for the structure of the game – i.e. open environments with non-linear egg collection – come from? Did you discuss other potential structures?
Liese: The demo we showed at EGX Rezzed and Develop:Brighton had a rather open-ended 'playground' to showcase the platforming possibilities that Snake Pass has. The team made sure the demo provided lots of freedom in learning how the snake worked without too much pressure on the player. Lots of people who have played it said Snake Pass reminded them of old N64 and PlayStation 1 platformers like Banjo-Kazooie or Crash Bandicoot.

While it provided an idea of what to expect in terms of core gameplay, it does not completely represent what the final game will be like. We still have lots of surprises for everyone in the near future.

How did you decide on and develop the art style for the game?
Liese: The art style is mostly inspired by the classic '90s platform games I grew up with. It also stems from a desire to make a bright and colourful game in response to all the dark, serious games that have been released lately. The team is going for an interesting combination of cartoony and realistic graphics, similar to modern animated movies, while trying to re-imagine what classic game elements would look like using current gen tech.

You showed off Snake Pass at Rezzed. What was the reaction like?
Dino: We were completely overwhelmed at the buzz around Snake Pass. Our initial goal for the show was to test out control schemes and get some user feedback from the general public, but we ended up getting the lovely side-effect of extremely positive exposure from everyone.

We had so many people come up to us mention that the game gave them a sense of old-school familiarity but with a brand-new approach in its gameplay and visuals. I don’t think we could have been any happier with the reception.

We’re always looking for ideas and concepts that have the potential to be exciting and interesting in some form or fashion, and we definitely want something that’s distinctly Sumo.

Did the reaction differ from showing it to fellow devs at Develop:Brighton? Do devs look at games in a different way?
Dino: The common theme that I’ve experienced with both public and dev-focused events is that there is an excitement for games of this ilk returning to the forefront once again, and Sumo is definitely happy to be a part of it.

It was great receiving insight from fellow developers on top of questions regarding how the idea came about and discussing development processes, especially with indie devs. We definitely had lots of questions as to how the control scheme was concocted and about how our game jams are run as well.

What will you be looking for from the next internal game jam?
Porter: We’re always looking for ideas and concepts that have the potential to be exciting and interesting in some form or fashion, and we definitely want something that’s distinctly Sumo. It can be another puzzle-platformer, first-person shooter, some kind of hybrid driving/fighting game, something in VR– who knows?

The key part is that the staff have the freedom to work on what they want and with whom they want. Sumo Digital is comprised of talented individuals from all over the UK and the world, so allowing them to bring their ideas to life via the game jams and possibly making a full blown title from them is something we continue to look forward to from here on out.