Yooka-Laylee – How fan and developer passion is making an amazing game

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This is a game born of passion. That much is clear after only a few minutes playing Playtonic’s revival of classic 3D platforming. If you didn’t already know the team was started by former-Rare staffers looking to tap into a Banjo-Kazooie sensibility, then you would be able to work it out pretty fast. The scent of the N64 era is all over this game and a love for that period of gaming is evident. But the passion behind Yooka-Laylee exists outside the development team as much, if not more, than it does within.

“It’s just been amazing, every step of the way,” Playtonic’s technical art director Mark Stevenson tells us. “As Playtonic when we did the Kickstarter [campaign], it’s all just been an overwhelming response.”

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Yooka-Laylee currently stands as the seventh most funded videogame on Kickstarter, with 73,206 backers pledging an impressive £2,090,104. It was an amazing campaign given that the team had only really needed £175,000 to get things going. Since then, Team17 has stepped in to help with promotion, allowing the Playtonic crew to concentrate on expanding the team, honing the game and keeping followers informed of its progress.

“It’s been another interesting challenge,” admits Stevenson. “I’ve been in the industry a long time and I think the way it has changed, there’s an absolute need there to be more transparent and communicate with fans in the community. Back in the day we used to build this stuff in secrecy and say ‘here it is everybody’. Nobody can do that anymore, it’s just not possible. The games industry is so much bigger than it was back then. There are so many more people invested and interested in it.

“Our biggest problem with it is finding the right balance of not spoiling it. A lot of feedback we’ve had from fans is ‘don’t do early access, don’t show us too much’. They want to see stuff, but they obviously don’t want to spoil the whole experience for themselves. I don’t know if you saw we released something called the Toybox experience for the backers. I was trying to do a demo that was as spoiler free as possible. So it’s a really neutral background that’s not from the game. It gives you a flavour of the characters and the moves. We’ve had loads of really cool feedback from people who have played that, too. That’s helped us improve the game.”

And much as fans have been helpful in telling Playtonic to keep some things under wraps and out of sight so as to save the surprises for later, Stevenson tells us they’ve also been helpful in giving the team permission to take the time to get things right.

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“The response to us saying we need a little bit more time because we want to make it as good as we can was great. People were going ‘yeah, please make it the best you can’.”

“I’m hugely proud of what we’ve achieved and the scope of the game that we’ve done in [18 months],” he adds. “We just need that little bit of extra time to make it shine.”

But as we mentioned, the other side of this passionate coin is from people on the team, such as Stevenson, who left Rare in order to pursue this project. “When I started out I would be building characters, building backgrounds and animations, doing promo art,” he reflects. “As the teams got bigger and bigger people generally tend to have to specialise more and you either just model characters or you just do animations or you just do backgrounds or just do concept. That wasn’t really for me and now I’m back again to doing what I consider my sweet spot of getting my hands dirty in all manner of things. Every day is different and exciting. I love it.”

Now he has the chance to get his hands dirty again and try out a little of everything, which seems to be how everyone at Playtonic prefers things. “Everybody in the company has to wear multiple hats basically,” he adds. “Andy [Robinson, writer and communications director] does a fair bit of that, but everybody mucks in and does whatever they need to do.” And that’s showing up in the game too.

You can tell this is a team that’s having fun and enjoying the process. Just as with Banjo and Kazooie, Yooka and Laylee often make jokes and quips at the expense of clichés in the games industry, but where the off-the-cuff remarks of Kazooie in Nuts & Bolts sometimes felt a little bitter, Laylee’s barbs feel lighter and more mischievous. It might just have been our intepretation or projection onto the game, but it feels as if the joy of making this uncompromised homage to classic 3D platforming is seeping through into the characters and dialogue.

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The team itself, made up of about 75 per cent ex-Rare developers and the rest relatively new game-makers, has been growing gradually from its Kickstarter success until now, expanding on key departments and establishing itself as a studio that’s ready to stick around once this project is done. As the team has grown, so has the game. With an increased budget thanks to Kickstarter and the support of Team17, Playtonic has become more and more ambitious with what Yooka-Laylee can become.

“The funny thing is that it has obviously allowed us to expand on our original plans, to go multiplatform,” says Stevenson. “We’ve grown the company from six people at that point to 20 now in house. It’s allowed us to expand a lot quicker. The game is probably going to be a lot bigger than it was originally intended as well. It just allowed everything to happen a lot faster. To make it better.”

But this was more or less exactly where the studio founders wanted to be eventually in terms of team size. “We kind of had an idea of ‘this is the company size, this is the company split’. Based on past experience really. A lot of us work from very small teams back in the Super Nintendo days through to massive teams in the Kinect Sports days with products that not only used the whole of that company, but other companies as well. We all had this idea of this being our sweet spot of where we wanted to be in terms of team size.”

And of course the game has grown just as the development team has, becoming a larger and more diverse experience with each passing month. As we entered the demo area of Yooka-Laylee we were a little overwhelmed by the wealth of content and options available to us in terms of directions we could head in and challenges we could face. Stevenson assured us this was purely for the demo experience, but is reflective of the broader scale the team is after. “You will start in a hub world, which will be a little bit more guided. Initially, for the sake of the demo, we’ve thrown people in at the deep end. We’ve unlocked a lot of the moves that wouldn’t have by that point. We’ve unlocked a lot of challenges you won’t see at that point.”

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Wandering around we got to see so much of the classic Banjo-Kazooie flavour writ large across a new canvas. There’s all the youthful energy that these two new characters bring and an interesting balance of new and old being carved out. “I guess it’s been an interesting line to walk,” Stevenson tells us. “It was kind of sold on that nostalgia of the return to 3D platformers that don’t really seem to get made much these days. But it’s important to us that it’s its own thing, that it’s not a clone of what was in the past, that it’s current, that it’s relevant. In terms of how things have moved on, in terms of technology and game design. It’s 15 [or] 16 years since that kind of period of N64 games.”

So Yooka-Laylee is combining many modern structures and models to enhance and embellish its classically inspired gameplay, while simultaneously throwing in a few visual and situational nods to the past. “We’ve got a very freeform approach to how you play it in terms of when you go into a level, it’s pretty open to wander around, look for stuff to do,” Stevenson informs us. “The moves that you can get in a level, you can choose to buy them in any order you like or not at all. The worlds – as well as opening new worlds, it’s possible to go back and expand each world once, which adds in new challenges that will make use of later moves and offer harder challenges. You don’t have to go to the next level, you can add more onto the previous levels. So as much as possible we’ve kind of got this open world, player choice, freedom experience. That kind of makes it feel more current. We’ve got stuff that’s clearly nostalgic in terms of the gibberish voices, the little character heads. Even the UI design – we’ve got purposely enlarged text, purposely chunky graphics, all rendered in that classic style from that period.”

One great example of this is that the conversation boxes are really rather large compared to most modern games. It’s a small nod to the days of CRT TVs when large text was necessary for the small screens we were playing on. Similarly, the gibberish language everyone in the game speaks could probably have been replaced with voice acting if Playtonic had wanted to, but it is a nice homage to the days of limited cartridge space when large audio files would have been a drain on resources.

In some ways these self-imposed limitations must also be allowing the Playtonic team to explore other, more resource-demanding ideas in the game. But still, getting that balance right is always a key concern. “It’s a 3D platformer from that N64 era, there are certain expectations,” Stevenson insists. “The people who played those games can pick it up and get to grips with the basics like it’s an old friend. But then there’s tonnes of new stuff, in terms of new moves and different moves that obviously are new because of the characters we’ve chosen. We’ve purposefully played on the kind of characters they are. Yooka has his tongue which he can grab stuff with. His ability to change colour like a chameleon so he can become invisible. And the tongue means he can eat stuff and change his colour, imbuing you with different attributes. Laylee on your back has sonar moves. As much as possible we’ve gone for things that seem relevant to the creatures that they are. Like I said earlier, it’s been a fine line. What we definitely don’t want to do is make a game that’s exactly like it was back then. Because sometimes nostalgia is just that. I want people to play the game and have that kind of feeling of the game that they played back then when they were younger, without having to literally play that game. If they go back and play that game, maybe it doesn’t stand up anymore.”

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We suggested that in some ways we had a little taste of that with the release of the Rare Replay collection, chronicling some of the best of Rare’s titles over the last 30 years, but even these retro titles had the benefit of new hardware behind them, as Stevenson reminds us. “You see a lot of advantages because of the technology and the steady frame rate and stuff. We were always trying to do so much on the N64 that frame rate was challenging.”

Playtonic has tried hard to recapture as much of the magic of N64-era platformers as possible, and that comes with upsides and downsides. It’s more expansive than anything this team could have achieved in the Nineties, with nods to carting levels from Donkey Kong, the collection of jiggies and so much more. Sometimes it shows up in the controls too, which still feel a little jittery at times. But with a game so packed full of fun mechanics and references, it’s really quite something for anyone who grew up on titles like this.

We asked Stevenson, given everything he’s been able to get his hands into and work on with this game, what he was most proud of? “Oh, God, I don’t know, I hate questions like that,” he laughs. “I feel blessed and fortunate that I get to do something like this and get paid for it. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s a tough question.”

So what of his colleagues? Perhaps there’s something of theirs that’s really blown him away. “I kind of get that all the time. It’s not like we have this amazing thing where everything is managed to a minute work schedule. We have broad tasks of ‘you go off and do this, you go off and do that’. And people just manage themselves and do stuff for themselves, so you’re constantly seeing stuff that you don’t know about and are impressed by. It’s kind of weird; I work with Steve Mayles who is the character artist that did some of the Donkey Kong guys and Banjo and Kazooie. I actually started my job sharing an office with Steve and 20-odd years later I’m back. I loved his character stuff and I still do and I’ve always aspired to make characters as good as he does. It’s the same with all the guys. They’re all really talented. I don’t know what to say.”

Once again, the passion of this team, the love it has for its creation and for the work it is doing, shines through in Yooka-Laylee. It might be a throwback to an older era of gaming, but it looks ready to be so much more for players next year.

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Yooka-Laylee – How fan and developer passion is making an amazing game