The N64 era is back: Rare veterans on Wii U, triple-A development and its successor to Banjo Kazooie

Gavin Price is feeling nervous.

The creative director and studio head at Playtonic Games is about to debut his first project on Kickstarter. He and five other senior veterans from acclaimed UK developer Rare have banded together to launch a new studio which aims to take gamers back to 1996, when 3D platformers were all the rage and Rare was the jewel in the UK’s games development crown.

It’s so unpredictable,” says Price, referring to the crowd-funding platform that has made names of Oculus Rift, Broken Age and Star Citizen, but all-but-killed The Black Glove and Shadows of the Eternals.

We have been discussing with people that have done Kickstarter before, and despite everyone saying ‘this

works for us, and this didn’t’, there doesn’t seem to be any magic formulae that guarantees you anything or puts your mind at rest. So yes, massively nervous.

We have done as much as we can do to give us the best boost possible, but it’s like the old phrase at Nintendo: ‘work hard, but in the end it’s in heaven’s hands.’”

The name of their game is Yooka-Laylee. It is, to all intents and purposes, the third game in the Banjo Kazooie series – which pretty much the entire Playtonic team worked on. Even the logo looks the same. Rather than a bear and bird, players this time will control a chameleon and bat duo, who must jump around 3D worlds and collect items.

"There doesn’t seem to be any magic formulae
that guarantees you anything on
Kickstarter, or puts your mind at rest."

– Gavin Price, Playtonic

It doesn’t look as if Price has anything to worry about. The game reached 100,000 of its 175,000 total in minutes. When it first announced the game with a single piece of concept art, it was enough to get the game onto the websites of pretty much every specialist games site, while it has already attracted serious attention from publishers, not to mention the likes of Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo.

We have had some discussions with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo,” says Price. But at this point in time, we haven’t taken it any further. We are concentrating on ourselves and the game itself, rather than the business side of things for now. I think if we can do the best we can do with the game and the Kickstarter, that will lead to even more interesting conversations.”

"We have had some discussions with
the likes of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo."

– Gavin Price, Playtonic

At this point in our interview, we would usually question the logic of making a game in a genre that is all-but-dead. But the truth is, what happened to the 3D platformer is a bit of a mystery. Because 3D platform games remained popular, right up until the end of the N64’s life.

I can have a guess. I think the trends just changed, and when there’s a product with triple-A production values, all publishers and big developers just want to take the risk out of that because they’re spending so much money, so they go with whatever is popular,” suggests Price. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because when they see lots of shooters and more mature games selling well, they become scared of doing anything else. Just because they stopped making them, doesn’t mean that people don’t want to play [3D platformers], and we think there’s now a space for us to make as big as splash as possible.”

He continues: "We love this type of concept, where the game doesn’t come to you with any kind of agenda. Today, it’s all about hitting certain features and demographic groups. I think those games end up getting appreciated by lots, but not loved to the degree as games were back in the day. The passion and love people had for games back in the 1990s was so much stronger than it is today.”

Creating a successor to Banjo Kazooie was a no-brainer” for Playtonic. This was the genre that got them into the industry and they had longed to get back to it.

But it wasn’t just the genre they wanted to return to. Price and his team were desperate to return to the old way of making games. Much has been made of how Rare has ‘lost its way’ since its N64 heyday, but that’s not strictly fair. Rare was a triple-A studio, and the complexity of triple-A game development has increased exponentially. Rare’s output reduced and how it made games changed.

Over the past five or six years, each one of us has had a very narrow remit because we are working on a massive project with hundreds of people on it,” he explains. We were just focused on doing a very specific part of a game.

Now everyone can do a little bit of everything, and you are not pigeonholed into doing a certain task for the lifetime of the project. We are all doing lots of different stuff, it’s creatively freeing.

We embraced that culture back in the old days of Rare. But as the industry evolved, especially in the triple-A space, it didn’t work like that anymore. It’s a shame because when you are brought up as a developer that way, you love it that way, it becomes a misalignment when you can’t do that anymore.”

He continues: There’s no heavy documentation process or anything. With our kind of approach and working with [game engine] Unity, by the time it takes to write a doc these days, we can just build it, test it and discard it. It’s really fun, just like it used to be when we were making N64 titles. We have loads of creative freedom, that’s the best thing.”

And much like the N64 days, Playtonic is making its game fast. It has only been in development for three months – with just seven full-time staff – but already it has a level, two lead characters and a number of moves.

"What we are showing people is what seven guys in
three months have done, imagine what it will
look like further down the line.”

– Gavin Price, Playtonic

It’s looking pretty good as well, and with Kickstarter backers able to acquire the game for just 10, it makes you wonder how come Playtonic can pull together something so good so quickly (and on a small budget), when games such as Call of Duty take three years, 100-man teams and end up costing the consumer 50 for the game and a further 35 for the DLC.

It is easier to punch above your weight when you are a smaller team,” explains Price. Just throwing more people at something doesn’t keep multiplying the production value, there is a lot of diminishing returns there. We love that challenge and pushing the bar. It was something we always used to do at Rare during the N64 era, and that is something we would like to continue. We want to surprise and delight people when they see the game. What we are showing people is what seven guys in three months have done, imagine what it will look like further down the line.”

Yooka-Laylee is by no means a small game. The platformer could be even bigger than Banjo Tooie, which was bigger than Banjo Kazooie,” says Price. Although he’s wary of saying such things, because he just doesn’t know. It will be jammed packed with stuff,” he says. It could surprise people.”

It is also learning the lessons of some later N64 platformers, such as Donkey Kong 64, which suffered from too many characters and things to collect.

I tested that game,” reveals Price. I had to 101 per cent that game at l

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