Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Several game development veterans walk into a bar. After a few drinks, they come up with the idea to create a game inspired by one of their previous successes. A kind witch hears their wish and grants them millions of dollars to create said game. The bewildered-but-grateful development team skip out into the night to dive into their newfound wealth, Scrooge McDuck-style.
Okay, so that’s not quite how Yooka-Laylee was conceived. While a trip to the pub may have been involved, it took years of hard work, the formation of a new company, some revised concepts, and eventually a hugely successful Kickstarter funded by 80,000 eager backers before their open-world 3D platformer became a reality.
Ironically, after all that, it only took 38 minutes for Yooka-Laylee to hit its crowdfunding target, flying past £1 million in under a day, and amassing a total of £2.1 million by the campaign’s crescendo.
“It’s still a shock,” says composer Grant Kirkhope. “None of us for a second thought that it would get that far. We never actually saw the funding counter at zero — we thought it was broken!”
Now 20 people strong, the modest Playtonic team are using this inspirational feat to drive them in making a game that feels like a spiritual successor to the bygone Banjo-Kazooie era. Which means big environments, wacky characters, a colorful art style… and collectibles. Wait! Come back!
“We want to capture the good things about collect-athons from the past and avoid the tedium,” explains writer Andy Robinson.
“Every collectible has meaningful impact on gameplay. For example, quills can be used to pay for special moves, butterflies refill the health and power meters, and Pagies unlock new areas and environments, which in turn open up fresh challenges and secrets.”
Playtonic is confident in its approach, showing an example where Nimbo the cloud (lamenting his ex-wife… don’t ask) can be filled up with water. This causes the lush world to be drenched with rain, filling up riverbeds and unlocking new areas. Shoot him up with ice blasts instead and the world becomes snow covered, opening up different challenges — so a once surefooted race mini-game seamlessly becomes a slippery ice skate.
Refreshing the genre also extends to the titular duo. Yooka the chameleon can use his powers to blend with environments and tongue-lash enemies, while Laylee the bat has the ability to fire sonar blasts and fly. Both can swallow fruit to imbue them with special powers, but it’s the mischievous character design which really brings them alive — leave the controller alone and Laylee will gnaw at Yooka’s shoulder, resulting in a comedic tussle between the two.
The game’s playful sense of humor really shines when talking with the Playtonic crew about the additional members of the eclectic cast.
“We wanted the characters to live on beyond just this game so that we can build our own universe,” says Andy. “So when we designed them, we thought about whether they could be in a different genre, or star in their own game.
“Big baddie Capital B was fun to write — we gave him a lot of business-style taunts, like ‘Just you wait until Q4 of the game! Did you know world-on-world, you’re down on your forecasts?’ My background is in the media, so I’ve spent so much time sat in conference calls, listening to all of this stuff!”
And then there’s Trowzer, the snake “salesman.” “Gavin [Price, Creative Lead] suggested a snake in shorts, and I thought that sounded ridiculous,” smiles Steve. “But after going away to think about it and coming up with a concept, it worked really well.”
“We thought that the humour behind Trowzer was really subtle…” says Andy.
“I thought it was terrible!” laughs Steve.
“I think Steve was one of the guys who didn’t get the joke the first time around, half the team didn’t until afterwards!” jabs Andy, prompting a howl of derision from Steve.
“We want to create a family game for everyone, but get in fun jokes for an older audience — like in The Simpsons or Pixar films.
All jokes aside, the team takes their responsibility to their fans — and backers — seriously.
“It would be easy for us to just go into autopilot when making the game, so we’re very conscious about that,” says Grant. “That said, there’s not much out there that looks like Yooka-Laylee right now, which is weird because back in the ’90s there were tons of 3D platformers.”
“And anyone can do nice graphics these days because the technology is there,” says Steve.
“You really need something to stand out,” adds Steve. “We’ve played many games recently where you feel exhausted when you finished them because it wasn’t as enjoyable an experience as you wanted. But every time you pick up the controller for Yooka Laylee we just want you to have a good time.”
And it’s that sentiment which is at the heart of Yooka-Laylee. Because no matter how the game was initially devised, the toothy grin of its titular heroes sums up Playtonic’s gratitude.
“It’s been amazing to have the support of Sony and be on magazine covers… the whole process has been pretty wild, especially for such a small team,” says Andy.
“And we’ll never forget the backers who essentially started Playtonic off,” says Steve. “We’ll be forever grateful to those people. It’s been wonderful.”