Industry commentators have taken to calling Playtonic ‘the new Rare’.
But really, it’s more like the old Rare.
The majority of the 20-strong team is made up of former Rare employees, and the game it’s making looks, sounds, and plays just like the 1998 Rare classic Banjo-Kazooie.
And according to MD and creative lead Gavin Price, that’s not the only thing ‘Rare-like’ about the studio.
We’re trying to create an environment that has been largely pushed aside in today’s risk averse, triple-A development,” he tells us.
Our setup gives us creative freedom to not only make the games that we want, but make it in such a way that we control the whole process. It’s very reminiscent of how I witnessed [Rare founders] Tim and Chris Stamper get the most out of the many teams at Rare in the past and fuel passion for the game being created throughout every individual.
Our approach spreads trust and empowers every member of the team to do their best work in contrast to the often over-managed production methods elsewhere, that can slow down or even break development.
The game Playtonic is making is Yooka-Laylee. It’s an open-world 3D platformer that will be immediately recognisable to anyone that played 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie or its 2000 sequel, Banjo-Tooie.
The garbled speech of the characters, the playful music, the visuals… all of it conjures memories of those N64 classics.
That’s good news to the 73,000-odd who backed the game on Kickstarter, and who pledged a record-breaking 2.1m to fund it. These people were promised a ‘new Banjo-Kazooie’ and that’s exactly what they’re getting.
Well, almost exactly.
Banjo was a long time ago and a lot has changed in terms of hardware capabilities and how game design has evolved,” says Mark Stevenson, the technical art director. We call this a spiritual successor of Banjo, but it still has to feel relevant.”
However, says writer and communications director Andy Robinson, the fact there hasn’t been a game like this for 16 years means that, for younger gamers, this will feel like something new.
"We wanted to impress our backers with the first look rather drip-feeding them months of underwhelming concept scribbles."
Andy Robinson, Playtonic
These games haven’t been around for a long time, even though people might point to Mario or Ratchet… they’re still very different to what we’re making,” he says. It is an open world platform adventure game that you can take at your own pace. This is a unique prospect on the market right now.
I see every day on our social channels that there are thousands of people who couldn’t have been old enough to remember Banjo first time around. There are probably as many young people looking forward to this as there are 30-somethings who played these games in the 1990s.”
The most notable difference with Yooka-Laylee compared with its spiritual predecessors is in the choice that it offers players.
Unlike previous platformers, gamers can now buy new moves whenever they like (from a snake called Trowzer, which is an example of that old-school Rare sense of humour).
The level progression has changed, too. Gamers no-longer have to move from one level to the next, they can instead choose to expand previous levels and unlock new challenges.
It’s all about choice,” adds Stevenson. Some people might want to see as much as they can as fast as they can, while others want to open it up and see everything. Wherever possible we have tried to introduce choice and move away from that linear experience.
Theoretically you could get through this game without seeing all the worlds.”
The Kickstarter campaign changed everything for Playtonic. The last time anyone saw Yooka-Laylee was 12 months ago, when the game was just a basic demo that had been created by seven people crammed into a small office.
I’ve become a little bit numb to just how mental the whole thing has been,” says Robinson. We’ve gone from seven guys in an office where, if you turned around, you’d bang into the person behind you, to 20 guys. We’ve tripled in size. And we’ve literally been knocking down walls to make our office bigger.”
Bar the occasional character design or piece of music, Playtonic has shown almost nothing of Yooka-Laylee in 12 months (until now). It’s an unusual strategy compared with other Kickstarter projects, where backers will receive regular updates filled with concept art and early screenshots.
Robinson says: Over the past year we’ve been focused on making a great game. But the quiet period is also another way in which we’ve attempted to channel the spirit of classic gaming – the drama of opening a games mag and seeing those screenshots for the first time. We wanted to impress our backers with the first look, rather than drip-feeding them months of underwhelming concept scribbles.”
Playtonic is very much a mini version of the iconic UK developer Rare, which is something that’s delighted Nintendo fans.
Rare is successful today as an Xbox first party studio, but during the 1990s and very early 2000s, it was a Nintendo fan favourite, having created Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye and Banjo-Kazooie.
Nintendo followers clearly haven’t forgotten. When Playtonic completed its Kickstarter campaign for Yooka-Laylee, the studio asked its backers what platforms they would like their copy of the game on, and the most requested console was Nintendo’s Wii U.
And that’s impressive, as Wii U is a minnow compared to the other consoles on the market. PS4 has just shot past 40m units in just over two years, whereas Wii U has taken more than three years to sell 12m.
That’s why Playtonic is internally handling the Wii U and PC versions of Yooka-Laylee, while its partner Team17 is working on the Xbox One and PS4 ports.
We naturally have so many backers who opted for Wii U,” says Robinson. Because of the size of the team, we couldn’t take on all the consoles. You can imagine, from a developer stand-point, that porting from PC to PS4 and Xbox One is slightly more straightforward than porting to Wii U.”
Stevenson adds: We wanted to make sure that Wii U gets the right attention. There is a lot of nostalgia around Banjo, which heralds from Rare’s Nintendo’s days, and we are all massive Nintendo fans as well.”
Robinson again: I also think it feels right playing it on a Nintendo system to some people.
But the other versions will be fantastic as well.”
Based on what we’ve seen, Yooka-Laylee will be worth every penny of that 2.1m.
Yet what excites us the most is just how fast Playtonic has grown.
In recent months, we’ve endured a number of negative headlines about UK studios: Sony abandoned Evolution before Codemasters re