Platformers come in all shapes and sizes, but the genre is always open to new spins. From turning a pink puff ball into an literal ball too having your character controlled through gusts of wind; the genre plays around with a lot of elements. Pinball and Platformers aren’t distant strangers, with many franchises like Sonic or Mario toying with the genre using platforming elements.
Developer Villa Gorilla is playing with pinball and platforming through the upcoming title Yoku’s Island Express. I am honored to have artist Mattias Snygg with me today to answer a few questions I had about the game. Hope you enjoy the interview!
1) Can you introduce yourselves?
My name is Mattias Snygg, and I do most of the art for Yoku’s Island Express. I founded Villa Gorilla together with Jens Andersson, who handles the programming. I’ve known him since working together at Starbreeze Studios. We’ve got Linus Larsson who is our level designer and Johanna Stålberg who helps me out with the art as an intern. We’re a small studio, currently just the four of us working on-site in Stockholm and with two more (sound effect artist and a musician) working remotely.
2) What was your history in game development? Can you share an experience that you are the most proud of?
I started out as a concept artist and illustrator, first freelance but soon in-house at Starbreeze in Uppsala, Sweden. My first AAA game I worked on was The Darkness for the PS3 and XBOX360. On the next game I moved up to art director, then later game director, so I’ve done lots of different things and seen game development from very different angles.
Being more of a self-deprecating sort of guy I rarely define anything in terms of pride, so I’m struggling to come up with an example! There have been a couple of times though when people have reached out to tell me that I’ve inspired them to pursue their art and that they have me to thank for it. While it makes me feel old, it also really nice hearing things like that.
3) When did the idea behind Yoku’s Island Express come about? It seems like a refreshing take on the 2D platformer.
We started about 3 years ago, with just the raw idea of combining pinball with an open-world/metroidvania game structure. It seemed a bit crazy, but we felt we should be able to get it to work. We decided early on that all the art should have a hand painted feel to it, and that it should be painted like a big canvas where everything is a huge unique texture to provide the most amount of freedom to go nuts with the art. We did a lot of prototyping to work out things like navigation, game play objectives, and pacing, there’s an awful lot of content we’ve cut along the way just to make sure we’re not moving down a path that’s not right for the game!
4) Considering the game’s pinball elements, what games are you taking inspiration from when making the title?
I think the one game franchise that gets mentioned the most in game play discussions around here is probably Zelda, but that doesn’t say all that much about the actual content of our game! We face a different scenario than straight-up platformers like Rayman or Ori, with a character that the player is constantly in direct control of. We have a lot of platforming in our game, but also a big part that is fundamentally physics driven as you manipulate Yoku through bumpers and flippers. There’s really no blueprint for the game we’re making, so we look at all sorts of different games for reference and on how to solve particular details.
5) The art style of the game looks striking, remind me of beautiful hand-drawn games like Ori & the Blind Forest and Rayman Origins. Can you share what helped create the ‘look’ for Yoku’s Island Express?
I wanted to make something that felt positive, light and adventurous, but with a distinct element of darkness and mystery simmering just beneath the surface. It’s a balancing act to get right, you don’t want to screw up the general tone of the experience by having too disparate moods or the whole thing will feel disjointed. I think a movie like Spirited away manages to strike that balance beautifully, and maybe The Secret of NIMH to a lesser degree. I have a very big fondness of art that leaves a bit of the human element in the final product, and that informs some of the actual execution of the art. Still, this is a game first and foremost, and not my private art exhibition, so the art has to support game play most of all.
6) One interesting element behind your title is that you are bringing it to the Nintendo Switch. What was it like working with the console thus far? Was it easy to develop for? Or a bigger challenge compared to the Xbox One/PS4 builds you are currently working on?
Our own proprietary engine (which Jens has dubbed “Underware”), is largely platform-agnostic at its core, so right now we don’t see any major challenges working on any of the consoles. The Switch being the youngest of the bunch means that fewer games have gone through certification, but with our previous experience working on Nintendo platforms, and the fact that over the years all consoles have matured and made life easier for the developer, we don’t expect any major hick-ups!
7) One game I thought of when watching the announcement trailer was a Genesis/Mega Drive classic Sonic Spinball as that blended platforming with pinball mechanics. Did you ever play that title or do you see the game as an inspiration?
We looked at a whole bunch of games, including Sonic at some point, that do pinball differently or with some sort of twist. We were also careful not to follow any one inspiration too closely since we wanted to stay true to our initial focus on creating a more open experience, with plenty of adventure in addition to the more twitchy, reflex driven pinball sections of the game. This took quite a bit of experimentation to get right!
8) Making a platformer is challenging but also blending pinball mechanics into the mix adds to level complexity. Can you share any challenges when designing the large world of Yoku’s Island Express?
We had plenty of challenges along the way, and we explored countless of alternatives to reach the right blend of the different components. One thing that became very clear from early play-tests was how important it is to build trust with the player, so that you’re not hesitant to throw yourself off a cliff in fear of being punished by the game. We want people to experiment with it, that’s how you get to the good bits. We’ve had more mundane challenges in how to solve going from a flipper/bumper driven area to an adventure area where the player has more or less direct control of the motion. We didn’t want it to feel like two different modes, but variation within a coherent game world. It’s that kind of stuff that’s been keeping us busy, removing annoyances, and it’s also the things we believe will create a strong core experience.
9) Can you share a possible release date for the title? Or is this a question that’s a bit to early to ask?
Right now we don’t have an exact release date, but we expect to release sometime during winter 2017/18
10) For the Switch version of the Yoku’s Island Express, are you using the system’s unique features like HD Rumble? I could see the feedback of hitting bumpers being quite satisfying for the player.
As a developer, those kinds of features present quite a bit of dilemma for us! We believe that the game should be equally enjoyable on all platforms, and I wouldn’t want anyone to worry that the version they’re getting for their favorite system isn’t as good as the one on another platform. That being said, we try to make the most out of each platform, and we’re looking closely at unique features such as the HD rumble to see what that can bring to the experience.
11) Platformers can have interesting stories and the dialog present in the trailer is quite charming. Can you describe the process your writing team goes through when making dialog for the game?
Finding the right tone is very important for us, and it’s a delicate art to hit the right notes for each encounter. If you know what needs to be said, it’s usually better not to overthink it, add too much flavor or oversell it. Dialogue needs troubleshooting like anything else, you have to check if it’s too short (almost never), too on-the-nose (often), or too long (almost always). I have a pathological dislike for dialogue that overstays its welcome, but different games have different allowances for that. There’s a sort of rhythm to it that comes from the general pace of the game, and the writing has to be in sync with that rhythm.
12) My last question would be what is your favorite pinball game? I personally enjoyed pinball game hybrids like Sonic Spinball or Metroid Prime Pinball. Always creative seeing established brands/IP’s converted into the realm of pinball.
Out of more recent games I’ve had a few bouts with Pinball FX, but none of the more experimental titles have really stuck with me to be honest. The one computer pinball game I’ve spent the most hours playing has to be Pinball Dreams on the Amiga. So many hours wasted.
13) Thank you so much for this interview and I hope you & your team continue doing great work with Yoku’s Island Express.