In the middle of a bitterly fought general election in the UK, one candidate beat many odds. Sean Cleaver speaks to Roll7’s Simon Bennett and John Ribbins about BunnyLord’s journey
In January 2013, PC Gamer picked up an article from IndieGames.com looking at a 2D cover based shooter called Ur Not A Hero, posted up on The Daily Click. Created by a developer called Peanut Butter Fingers, they said of the game: “This is obviously a rough draft, but the fundamentals appear to be in place: quick, stylish, satisfying combat, with superb animation, and a killer hook in the form of the slide move.”
Peanut Butter Fingers is John Ribbins, who created the game during the time amid Sony’s negotiations for OlliOlli, which became Roll7’s BAFTA winning sports game. “I kind of went off and did a side project which was about going in to buildings and shooting people – just a silly arcade game,” Ribbins says. “That was kind of the core of what Not a Hero was, but we took a year off Not a Hero to do OlliOlli.”
Not a Hero was released in May 2015, featuring a purple anthropomorphic rabbit that had travelled from the future to rule the world benevolently.
In his future, the world is totally destroyed and has been invaded by aliens, so in order for BunnyLord to be elected and prevent this from happening, he recruits anti-heroes to clean up the cities’ crime. The players are the anti-heroes, shooting through fast paced, procedurally generated isometric levels, utilising wall cover to avoid being hit.
The elements were a combination of various different projects that Ribbins had done in the downtime before OlliOlli started development.
“During that period in hobby project time I played around with a bunch of other things. I did a random conversation generator and was also building a dungeon generator too.
“So when we came back to Not a Hero we threw out side projects that had a cool element to them but the rest of the game didn’t work. We kind of frankensteined some functionality that was in these other failed prototypes that was perfect for Not a Hero, but didn’t work in the project they were in.”
TOO MANY (ADJECTIVE)
With the combination of many different elements and the team spread across multiple projects, construction of the game quickly became confusing for all involved as elements were fused together. “I’m sure Simon will agree, as he was producing it and asking me what the hell was going on,” says Ribbins but the ideas quickly began to flow to make sure the game wasn’t ‘just a level-by-level murder simulator.’
“The random story generator initially was that ‘[BunnyLord] can just change adjectives and verbs as he’s talking,’ so it will mean he’s a bit different every time. But Not a Hero to a degree with us was like Feature Creep: the video game.
“BunnyLord would say ‘Oh, we need to go to this bear factory,’ and then next he’d say, ‘Oh, we need to go to this xylophone factory,’ or whatever, and it became that thing where really the stuff that he says randomly in the cutscene should be reality in the level you play. So if he says ‘a xylophone factory,’ there should be xylophones in the level. So that kind of helped inform some of the game design on the levels.”
Simon Bennett, who was also working on OlliOlli’s sequel by this stage, came on board as a producer in July 2014. “Originally, I remember a version of the game where BunnyLord’s head would actually pop up in the level itself, like a little speech bubble type thing,” he tells me.
“So he was actually going to update on you objectives while you were playing,” Ribbins explains. “But the code that we were using to generate the random text was reading a lot of text files and doing a lot of text passing in order to throw the right words in the right gaps. In the end we just couldn’t use it in the game because it slowed everything down every time BunnyLord wanted to talk.”
We kind of frankensteined some functionality that was perfrect for Not a Hero, but didn’t work in the project they were in.
John Ribbins, game director, Roll7
As the game became more complex, the delays started to creep in. “The game itself was originally scheduled for June 2014. We got to April/May 2014 and we were like ‘What is this game?’ and ‘shall we bring on an artist to help John because he’s kind of busy doing it’. We fundamentally misunderstood how tough it would be to do two games at the same time. Not a Hero was pushed back and suddenly we realised, ‘Wow, the launch date seems to be coinciding with the General Election. Let’s launch on election day.’”
The accidental timing of the game hit the cultural zeitgeist of Britain, between bacon sandwiches being eaten, promises committed to stone tablet and wildly inaccurate polling. “It’s one of those things that it just looked like too good an opportunity on a marketing front to miss,” says Bennett. “It was just a really fun way of tying it in. We did go pretty overboard with the marketing stuff but we had a great time putting it together.
All the while BunnyLord’s colouring became an amusing point for those wearing promotional material. “BunnyLord’s always been purple,” explains Ribbins. “There were some people that wore the BunnyLord rosette on the train home and, obviously, it’s purple and yellow. So people on the train mistook them for UKIP supporters.”
Development of the game became a mix of great joy and utter exhaustion for the team at times, as they took on another member of staff, Jake Hollands, to help with the workload. Part of this was down to the freedom of creativity that Roll7 enjoys.
“The project is full of moments of joy,” Bennett recalls. “And when core decisions of how the game actually works probably should have been happening, that time was taken around those moments of joy, detail and fun. It was only in December that we managed to sit down, the three of us, and actually lock down what the meta-game was going to be, That was such a late day part of the process.”
Bennett recalls one particular accidental revelation with the possibility of bullet time in the game. “I got a call from John at some point while I was at the office. John had put this thing in, I think it was a menu feature, but it accidentally made the game run at half speed and slowed everything down, and basically gave you the ability to have bullet time.
“My immediate response to that was ‘let’s not be silly here’. John had obviously fallen in love with it and I had to be the voice of reason.
“On the other hand, there were occasions where I myself got way too excited, probably after too many drinks, about elements of the game where, at that stage of production, we shouldn’t have been touching it.
“I think that’s the sort of two sides. Doing it ‘right’ and doing it ‘indie’, as it were,” Bennett remarks. “You always need a bit of a mix of both in order to actually finish a game. I think that you can only probably build one game like that before you just start losing your grip on reality.”
Ribbins recalls the words of Tom Hegarty, the other director on Not a Hero. “A phrase that came out of this period of time – ‘let’s take it to its logical conclusion,’ which is one of those terrible phrases when you’re a designer and you have a cool idea. Tom’s like ‘take it to its logical conclusion’ and you have to say ‘yeah, you’re right’.
“There’s an awful lot to do for it to actually come around. The cool idea we can do in two hours, but the knock on effects of the cool idea and the other people that need to work on the cool idea and the QA and all the other stuff, suddenly that’s not two hours. That’s three weeks.
“With Not a Hero, the biggest lesson we learned with that was, basically, every element of the game has to be taken to its logical conclusion if you say ‘we’re going to do it,’” recalls Ribbins, although there was still one more delay to be had.
It did lead to the most tense discussion between the two of us from across the Atlantic.
Simon Bennett, producer, Roll7
EIGHT FRAMES A DAY
Just before the release date, Roll7 launched a small demo of the game on Steam leading to many comments on the forums, which Ribbins recalls as, “’it only runs on 30fps. Won’t buy,’ which is just something we hadn’t thought of.” Weirdly you don’t notice that much of a difference when it runs in 60fps because a lot of the animations are only three frames long, but clearly that was important to people. So we had this awful decision just before launch.”
“Funny how my memory of this is totally different to that,” Bennett jokes. “When we were looking for a company that could work out how we could port the game, we came in to contact with the people who build multimedia fusion. We started a dialogue far too late in the development process with the technical people and then, suddenly, that 60fps option became open and available.
"I got an email or call from John at half 11 at night about three days before I was going to San Francisco to do a small press talk and John said, ‘you’re not going to like this but I’ve got the game running at 60fps. The whole game’s a lot faster and it’s totally different. But it’s way better and we’re going to build this.’
At this point the game had completed QA and was practically ready to go, and this led to a delay of a further week, past the election release date. “I’m glad because we have a much smoother game as a result,” says Bennett. “But it did lead to probably the most tense discussion between the two of us from across the Atlantic at crazy times in the night.” In typical fashion, the marketing was changed to reflect that the studio was adding eight frames a day.
The game is finished now. All of the additions and patches have been made to all of the versions and it’s finally a time for the team at Roll7 to reflect. “I think you can only do one project like Not a Hero, but it was a game that I think by the end was absolutely kind of a labour of love,” Ribbins concludes.
Bennett also thanks Devolver Digital, the publisher for the game, for seeing the potential in the project and “for accepting our three or four different extensions to the deadline and bearing with us during our crazy period, as we should call it, where we got too far involved in the game’s marketing.”
Bennett finishes by saying “it’s an odd game that’s very much based, predominately on John’s humour, but it definitely came from the kind of conversations we have as work partners, but also friends.”