As the studio’s platforming throwback Yooka-Laylee continues to take form, Playtonic Games’ Gavin Price tells James Batchelor why making retro-style video games is tougher than you might think
As the titular duo of Yooka-Laylee hop, roll and glide around the game’s opening level, it’s almost impossible not to be drawn back to the days of Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon and, yes, Banjo-Kazooie.
Of course, nostalgia for these early 3D platformers is part of the driving force behind Yooka-Laylee and its record-breaking Kickstarter – not just that of the gamers that backed it, but also the ex-Rare devs at Playtonic Games.
Much of the title’s presentation and gameplay feels particularly evocative of a certain bear-and-bird series, but studio director Gavin Price insists the team has drawn inspiration from more than their back catalogue. There are elements, such as the garbled vocal noises in the place of full dialogue, that can be found throughout the genre.
“Because of our background, people are just assuming that’s like-for-like from Banjo,” Price explains. “But I’m actually a big fan of things like the gobbledygook speech. Even if I’d never worked at Rare, I’d like to think I’d be doing stuff like that.
“When you do things like speech in modern games, everything’s spoken out and blasted out at you – you don’t really get the chance to impose your own thoughts and feelings on the characters. I always remember when I was playing SNES games, particularly RPGs, the characters never spoke so you’d be reading the text but imagining their personalities and what they might sound like when they were talking.
“Gobbledygook speak is kind of a halfway house – you get a hint of what the character sounds like and what their personality is but it’s up to you as the player to fill in the gaps.”
Price reveals that this jumbled up dialogue is much more difficult to implement in 2016: “It was easier to do gobbledygook back in the day because of the way audio and speech were created and produced in games. Now, you have all these third-party tools – to get them to do what one programmer used to do in a day takes ages.”
There are now multiple sub-systems and all sorts of stuff working with each other in the background; you can’t ‘write it cowboy’ like you could back in the day.
A new form of nostalgia is taking hold at Playtonic: the team reflecting affectionately on processes that were far simpler back in the days of the Nintendo 64. While countless independent titles mimic retro styles – most often those of the 8-bit and 16-bit era – Playtonic has found that harking back to the earliest 3D games is not as pleasant a trip down memory lane as they’d hoped.
“Games today are more complex,” Price says. “Back in the day, we had one processor for doing everything. Now you have the graphics processor talking to the CPU, which is talking to something else.
“There are now multiple sub-systems and all sorts of stuff working with each other in the background; you can’t ‘write it cowboy’ like you could back in the day. Now, everything can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the game, so it has to be written to a much better standard. Every asset has to be produced to a higher level of quality.”
Simple things like conversations between characters can be tricky. Even without the speech involved, the process of having cartoon heads appearing alongside the text is more complicated that it once was – not to mention simple UI effects such as transparency.
“Every game ever has managed to fade an object in,” says Price. “But the way we’re doing it now, it might not be working on one object, so we’d have to look at the material and the shader and the way it was made.
“An object these days has its top-level texture, bitmap, colour map, depth map, bump map – all these things on one object. Before, you only had to fade one texture on and off on an N64 title. Now you’re doing it for all these different layers of materials that make an object up. It’s actually a lot harder.”
Larger processes such as level design have also become more involved thanks to the dramatic rise in graphical fidelity over the past two decades. Conflicts between what each team wants to accomplish can cause problems.
“The artists want to make everything look amazing and pretty,” Price says. “Back in the day on Banjo, you’d know everything in-game that looked interesting was there because that’s what they had the budget for. Anything that didn’t look interesting you knew not to bother with.
“Now you have all these intricate shapes, so it’s really difficult to define gameplay areas and establish what will attract players over, to get them to easily get their bearings. Even though the artists are trying to put in as many triangles as possible because all their life they’ve been dreaming of massive polygonal budgets for their games and they want to make everything look as nice as possible.”
Fortunately, Price observes, members of the team that have founded their career on modern development tools are helping the old dogs learn new tricks.
“Becky [Lavender] and Karn [Bianco], a couple of our younger engineers, found a way of visually scripting challenges so it’s more like piecing together a flowchart for the designers,” he says.
“Before this, we’d often write a design doc, give it to a programmer and there would be a lot of back and forth. But now they’ve created this tool that lets the designers sort things out themselves. If we want to script a camera to appear and trigger here, or an animation to pop up and play a sound effect, or set an objective, we now have the tools to do it ourselves.
“It’s a godsend for designers because we get to iterate, try to see what works and what doesn’t, find out what’s rubbish and chuck it away – all without bothering other people or wasting their time.”
I’ve always said to the team that this game technically should be our most difficult and worst-critiqued game that we make – even though I want it to be fantastic.
For every complication advanced toolsets have created, there is often a solution. The flexibility of the Unity engine, on which Yooka-Laylee is built, and the plethora of handy plug-ins found in the Unity Asset Store have been invaluable to the veterans at Playtonic.
“We don’t want to be bogged down with technical issues,” Price says. “We want to be a creative firm where if we come up with an idea, we can just pursue it, not worry about the technology that’s behind it.
“We know we’re always going to be doing these character-driven, creative, comedic and fun games. They’ll be in different genres but the skills we learn from one project can transfer straight to the next one. It gives us confidence that we can go and do more genres in the future.”
MORE TO LEARN
Yooka-Laylee has represented new ground for a lot of Playtonic’s founding members; it’s the first multi-format release they have worked on and, with an initially smaller team, a lot more work has to be put into polishing the final product. But it’s an experience Price and his colleagues have welcomed.
“As we’ve gone along, we’ve learned to become better developers,” he says. “We’re currently in this big phase of performance optimising.
“The first level is one of the more technically challenging to render and keep the performance up. You have to think about what level of detail will appear at what distances, what meshes will combine – all sorts of things we’d never imagined we’d need to be doing.
“At least with future games we know more about this and can think about it from the start. This time, it’s more luck than judgment.”
It’s these future games Price is thinking of as work progresses on Yooka-Laylee.
“I’ve always said to the team that this game technically should be our most difficult and worst-critiqued game that we make – even though I want it to be fantastic,” he reveals.
“This is the first time we’ve used most of these tools, so we’ll be better at using them in future and able to take on more daring creative risks without risking the commercial side of the business. Who knows what we’ll do in the future?”