What’s old is new again. For proof, look no further than Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee, a throwback 3D platformer in the vein of titles like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Playtonic is well-suited to the project -- many members of the team are ex-Rare devs who worked on those 1990s classics.
With Yooka-Laylee, the Platonic team is attempting to show what a classically styled 3D platformer can look like in today’s game market. Following a successful Kickstarter, Yooka-Laylee will release in April, after a delay pushed it from its original planned release date last year. [Disclosure: I was a backer of the game.]
Needless to say, a lot has changed in video games since the days of the Nintendo 64. We asked some of the Playtonic staff to tell us about how technological improvements have impacted different areas of game development, and what that means for the designers, artists, composers, and directors involved throughout the process.
Developers used to have to craft their own tools for each title. Now, however, the advent of pre-built engines has changed that need.
“One big difference is that in [the] N64 era, most of our in-game tools were custom made per project, whereas now not only do engines like Unity exist, but also they themselves are a platform allowing a community of tools to be built on top of the engine,” says Chris Sutherland, project lead on Yooka-Laylee (previously lead programmer, Banjo-Kazooie).
This ends up being good news for both fixing bugs, and all-around team productivity.
“With such toolsets being more sophisticated, stable and easier to use, it means that whereas on N64 most bugfixes might be left to engineering to complete, nowadays we’re seeing a large volume of bugs actually fixed by non-engineers," Sutherland says. "This also applies to final stages of polish too, where it’s not just restricted to one discipline. This leads to a more effective use of persons on a development team overall.”
Sometimes the sky being the limit can be its own problem. Mark Stevenson, technical art director on Yooka-Laylee (previously art director on Donkey Kong 64), shared his thoughts on how advances in technology mean that artists now need to consciously reel themselves in, instead of relying on the technical limitations imposed by hardware.
“Most of the differences revolve around having vastly more powerful hardware to work with and massively improved tools and technology," Stevenson says. "Whilst these are good things in terms of opening up your options and improving productivity and work flows, the flip side to this is you also need to make sure you’re exercising restraint and making smart decisions so that you can achieve the results and quality you want, without things spiraling out of control.”
“Back in the N64 days you were always looking for the edge and ways to push the boundaries of what you could achieve with very limited tech,” Stevenson says. “Now it’s incredibly easy to be like a kid in a candy store and go nuts, so, certainly with a team the size we have at Playtonic, you need to be very mindful of the limits. But the difference is that you have to set those limits yourself rather than having those limits set for you by the tech.”
Think back to the character design in Banjo-Kazooie. Banjo in particular. Do you remember the big bear with the blue backpack having fingers?
If so, you're wrong. It wasn’t actually like that on Nintendo 64. Character detail and animation is another area that has come a long way since Banjo first set out to stop a witch.
“We can now do so much more in terms of animation,” says Steve Mayles, character art director on Yooka-Laylee (previously character artist, Banjo-Kazooie) . “On N64, we had to work with minimal joints --every extra joint to animate was a performance hit--so poor old Banjo didn’t even have eyes that could look around, no way of moving his mouth, not even fingers to pick up his Jiggies!”
“Now we add as many joints as we like – very occasionally time constraints might mean certain joints don’t even get animated, but they are there if needed,” Mayles says. “Also the way the geometry is bound to the skeleton now allows for much more realistic animation rather than the rigid-bound vertices we worked with on the N64.”
But, this also means that technology gives artists an opportunity to keep working on things that perhaps players might not even consider, and that may only end up being a drain on time.
“For characters, there is stuff we can now do around layering animations (a basic example would be to give characters a lean as they run) but with all things, you have to keep perspective whether what you are adding is worth it. Will people notice, or is it more for your personal satisfaction? Sometimes you just need to draw a line and move on to the next task.”
Not all technological progress simplifies things. The 3D landscapes and terrain that players roam have only gotten bigger, and that means more hands are needed to digitally sculpt and bring said worlds to life.
“Environment art creation has become much harder,” says Steven Hurst, environment art director on Yooka-Laylee (previously environment artist, Banjo-Kazooie). “Although the creation tools are much more sophisticated and models are easier to produce, the detail and size of the worlds has increased dramatically. As a result, the production time is now much greater than it used to be and requires more people.”
Multi-platform development also has its own share of challenges. Unlike the Banjo games, which was designed solely for the N64, Yooka-Laylee is being shipped across multiple consoles.
“Assets have to be more scalable when developing for multiple platforms with more emphasis on things such as Level of Detail to ensure that the game runs smoothly on different hardware – it was far easier developing for a single platform when you knew it`s limits and capabilities,” Hurst says.
No matter how much game technology continues to advance, it doesn’t change how many hours are in a day or how much can be gotten done in a week. And some processes – like character development – actually take longer now to complete than they did decades ago.
“N64 characters could be concepted, modeled and animated in a week (if you worked as hard as me, anyway,)” says Steve Mayles, character art director on Yooka-Laylee (previously character artist, Banjo-Kazooie) says. “We were working with around 500 polygons, as opposed to the 10,000 we use now. Sure, tools have improved, but even with 1997 tools you can see how 500 polygons is going to be much quicker to produce than 10,000. Think a month for the same process today and you won’t be far off.”
Give the much longer timeframe, there’s less time for error, or going back and changing direction.
“It’s of greater importance now to make sure a character is going down the right path from inception,” Mayles says. “Being a relatively small team, the last thing we need is to have to re-do work. ‘Going down the right path’ might involve several people if necessary – questions need to be asked such as ‘Does it fit the style of the game? Does it fulfill all design requirements?’ etc. Sometimes the look of a character will spark new ideas around design, so it works both ways.”
Bigger 3D worlds means more places to go and more paths to take, but it also means there’s more area in which a player can find themselves lost.
“Planning and designing worlds can happen in 3D a lot sooner to get a better feel for space, way-pointing, creating key points of interest etc,” says Gavin Price, creative lead (previously designer, Grabbed by the Ghoulies). “However, creating a design language to subliminally guide the player around and focus their attention without hand-holding has become more difficult.”
And now, designers can’t simply rely on technical limits to help players figure out what parts of a level are important.
“As the power of modern systems can now be used to fill and decorate a world with more details, so all of a sudden everywhere can look interesting and important which can blindly lead the player around an environment for no achievement creating a feeling of being ‘un-rewarded,’ Price says. “In many ways the limitations of old systems made life easier for a level designer as only important bits could afford to have eye-catching detail!”
While the composition process for his music hasn’t changed much, Grant Kirkhope, composer on Yooka-Laylee (previously composer, Banjo-Kazooie) says the jumps in available memory have allowed him to include higher quality music in Yooka-Laylee.
"My process for actually writing music hasn’t really changed at all," Kirkhope says. "I still sit down at the keyboard and try to come up with something like I always used to do, but it’s the quality of what I can do now that has changed dramatically,”
The amount of memory used to be a huge issue, with composers having to strip music down to get it to fit inside a N64 cartridge.
"Back in the N64 days I had to sample instruments to use, resample them lower and lower in quality until they were just bearable, then compress them and only then add them into my little MIDI soundset that was in the cartridge on the N64,” Kirkhope says. “I had a finite amount of memory that I could use and that was for everything including sound effects. I think on Banjo-Kazooie, it was 2 mega bit!”
And while there are still restrictions, game music has come a long way in terms of what it can offer listeners.
"These days, I can use super high quality sample libraries that can sound so authentic it’s sometimes difficult to tell if it’s real,” Kirkhope says. “The memory restrictions are way less than they used to be, they’re still there but there’s no comparison. Obviously it all has to still fit on the disc and it’s compressed so you’re still not getting full CD quality but it really is night and day compared to what it sounds like on Banjo-Kazooie or GoldenEye!"