Monday, 21 September 2015

Tearaway Unfolded: Developer interview

Tearaway Unfolded: Developer interview

To celebrate the release of Tearaway Unfolded, I got some time to chat to Rex Crowie, the creative lead at Media Molecule on Tearaway. We talked about the re-imagining of the game and the fun of unfolding it on the PS4 platform.

What made you want to re-envisage Tearaway on the PS4 - and has it turned out the way you wanted (it does look wonderfully colourful and a rich paper world that teems with life)?

Mostly because we could! It was an experiment to begin with - I knew that the art style would translate well to the big screen, because although its bold and colourful, it's actually all about the details: the torn edging on the paper, the way it squashes slightly as you walk over it, the tiny imperfections where the paper has started to unpeel and unstick. So visually it felt like it would translate well and look better than ever at 1080p, especially if we could rewrite all the lighting engine, and rebuild all the content, which we did!

The gameplay and the unusual bond that Tearaway forms between the player and the game was the more unknown question, and that was something we were only able to answer with a lot of fresh experiments.

But yes, I’m very happy with how it turned out, and the way the Tearaway team, spread across Mm & Tarsier Studios, have been able to create something that sits alongside the Vita original game. Each title has its own personality and its own special features that wouldn’t have been possible on the other platform - so I hope players will enjoy them both in different ways.

The VITA incarnation of the game was so inherently structured around the interactivity of the platform, did that put you off at all with the PS4 version or did it spur you on?

All the games we’ve made have been in part inspired by the hardware they are on, whether that was the new online connectivity of the PS3 inspiring us to create LittleBigPlanet, or all the new input methods on the Vita giving birth to Tearaway. So when we started to think about doing Tearaway Unfolded we needed to focus on the new hardware, and experiment and prototype as if we were totally starting from scratch. So we tasked ourselves with coming up with totally new ways of interacting with the paper-world using the Dualshock4 as even if that meant making the game would be a much harder, longer process than just porting it, because ultimately we’d have more fun challenging ourselves and staying creative, and its what the Tearaway universe deserved as well!

Talk us through how you decided to proceed with the revamp and while you've tweaked and expanded elements of the story, you've not really strayed from the original's innate charm, have you?

In some ways it's hard, because you are balancing what to change to improve on the original, what just needs to change due to the hardware changing so much, and what’s important to keep the same - especially as what makes a game special can be very different for each player. But that's the kind of pressure that a sequel to any successful game has, introducing it to new players while also bringing existing fans with you.

I think the key is always that everything has to make sense in the logic of the paper-world, and the world and characters have to react to it in interesting and characterful ways. And we’ve been able to have fun during development with different ways to achieve this, particularly focussing on the Dualshock4 and trying to make it feel like its a little part of the game world coming to life in your hands.

Kenny (Tearaway audio lead) and myself completely tore up the script for the Vita version and re-wrote all of it, and I think the script is about three times longer now, because we felt we knew a lot more about the characters and their relationships with each other. It was a fun process to go back to a world that we knew very well, and work on new narration that would give some knowing winks to long-term Tearaway fans, as well as expressing the games own surprise at finding itself expanded and reworked!

The game is so cleverly structured that it really does feel like it's been tapered for the format rather than shoehorned in (it feels fluid and natural)- was that something that was easy to grasp in theory but hard to execute in practice?

I’m glad you feel that! Again, I think that comes down to just taking the big decision of rebuilding everything from scratch in order to make it feel natural, because ultimately the majority of time in development is spent working out what you are trying to do, rather than just doing it.

So although it was a big task to remake the whole world, it's a world we knew very well, so we could put a lot of our focus into creating the new areas and gameplay, thinking up new twists and turns and making sure it all sat together well.

I'm interested to know what the creative process for a game like this is - both this and Little Big Planet would suggest imagination and the sky are the limit, but what are the practical concerns in bringing it to life?

It comes out of us having a strongly experimental game-jam culture at Media Molecule, we really enjoy playing around with the new hardware toys that Sony gives us!

But for a good game-jam to happen you need a good theme and set of limitations to push up against. So we try to have a strong metaphor or theme for everyone to jam with, to keep it focussed and to keep everyone inspired.

These game-jam sessions tend to happen a few times during a project, but they can’t be something that happens constantly, otherwise we’d never ship a game! Plus there is a huge amount of work that comes after an original prototype to integrate it into the game, how its explained, how it looks, sounds, and how the characters interact with that element, how it fits in to the story etc. So we tend to have cycles of experimentation, and then iteration and integration, to both keep things fresh, but also to keep the quality high as well.

Was there ever a moment when you thought you had gone too far?

Sometimes experiments don’t quite work as something you can release in a polished console game, but they might influence other features. One of my favourite features that we had to cut on the Vita version of Tearaway was some facial-recognition work done by Omar (Tearaway gameplay programmer) where the hardware’s camea was used to detect the players facial expression, and certain doors would only open if you, the player, was smiling or wearing glasses, or had a beard (basically every door opened for me ;) But that was a little bit too glitchy to ship with, if you had bad lighting conditions while playing you could get completely stuck.

But using our faces (and the video feed) while playing was something that had a interesting outcome - instead of creating gameplay we used it to create the face-in-the-sun feature, where the players own face was projected into the game, and making them part of the narrative and cut-scenes.

And as well as the sun feature, some of that facial-recognition experimentation still lives on in a new form in Tearaway Unfolded. If you smile while decorating the main character, they will smile back at you!

Conversely, was there ever a moment when you wished the format would allow you to do more?

In the ideal world (although probably just for me!) the PS4 would have a built in printer, so the paper-craft that you collect in game could magically spool out of the PS4 while playing. But I think using the website to view your progress and print out your collectables is a pretty good compromise, as I’m not sure many other games would find a use for a built-in hardware printer!

Like the VITA, I think you appear to have seamlessly utilised the possibilities offered by the DUALShock controller - from the light bar to the touch pad, the camera to the PS App, what's your favourite moment when the controller breaks that fourth wall and why?

I think the Thrown-Forth, where objects or characters can be thrown out of the game, and “caught” in your pad, and shot back into the game-world. Because it really represents a lot of things we were tying to do not just with breaking the forth wall, but with bringing the hardware to life. As the Dualshock4 has the speaker and the light-bar we were able to make it really feel like a character has just landed in your pad, you can hear them in there, feel them bouncing around as you shake it. And my ultimate favourite moment of using that mechanic is when you throw a squirrel into the controller and you hear it singing along to the music that's playing in the game.

How hard is it to follow up a universally loved title like Tearaway, Unfolded and LBP - do you know what you want to work on next? Also, will there be DLC for this game?

It’s pretty stressful actually! We all take a lot of pride in our games, but we are also their harshest critics, so we really put ourselves through it, trying to make sure they are the very best they can be. But ultimately we are making games to our tastes, we’re making the things we want to play, and staying truthful to that is the most important thing.

As for what's next, there’s going to be lots to show soon from our other title Dreams, and I think that’s going to keep us pretty busy as we are still a very tiny studio for the ambitious games we make!

What's the one moment that stands alone for you as a developer for Tearaway Unfolded during the game - and why does it feel special?

In the game, it's always going to be the ending of the game, and the conclusion to the journey you’ve been on with your little Messenger, particularly seeing how customised they, and the world, have become, based on all the little moments of customisation you’ve done through the game.

And as a developer I’d really have to say our wrap party, in a bar that we completely paper-crafted to look like the tavern from the game. It's so special to be together with everyone you made a game with, and all the external collaborators that have flown in, and be able to celebrate together.

It's an extremely busy time for games at the moment, what are you finding time to play, what are you enjoying and what are you looking forward to getting your hands on?

What I’m really enjoying is the wide range of games its possible to play at the moment, so the cross-section of games I’m actively playing at the moment are: MGSV, Super-Time-Force, Pillars of Eternity and Lara Croft Go. So thats pretty wide selection, one huge open-world triple-A, a innovative indie title, a crowd-funded old-school RPG and a mobile puzzler. It's a great time for good games, if you manage to find the time to play them all!

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