[Interview] ‘A Hat in Time’ developer talks the decline of 3D “collectathon” platforming, whether his game will come to Wii U, moreFebruary 8th, 2013 Posted in Features, Interviews, Podcast Stories, Posted by Austin, Wii U, Wii U eShop
Earlier this week I learned of a game.
I was scouring the internet for any sign of the dead 3D exploration platforming genre to no avail, and I turned to reddit to have a discussion on the topic, asking for any games people knew of that fit the bill. The response was pretty sizeable.
I was recommended games from Cave Story to Shadow Complex, Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts to Prince of Persia; none of these games quite scratched the itch I had though. There was always something “off” about them, either gameplay-wise or artistically. Perhaps they were too linear, or didn’t feature enough backtracking; maybe the atmosphere was closer to a Saturday morning cartoon than a charming game of the N64 era– each one had some different “flaw”. The point is that after ten hours, I figured that maybe the genre was dead, and I was looking for something that wasn’t there. Apparently developers had simply abandoned the genre overnight, and now a former industry staple was nowhere to be found.
“I don’t think any developer consciously decided ‘we won’t make adventure / point and click / exploration games anymore’,” said our mystery guest, “the choice was made based on the decline in sales.”
And he would be right.
Super Mario 64– one of the only N64 launch titles– sold nearly 12 million units. Arguably a better game called Banjo Kazooie sold nearly 4 million, and the other big Rare platformer of the day (Donkey Kong 64) moved over 5 million units. When the time came for the sequel to Banjo to come out, only 1.3 million games made it to the hands of gamers. The numbers for future (and generally less well-known) 3D platformers continue the downward trend into the early 2000s, until they all just disappeared.
“It’s something that is happening all-around; Psychonauts, which is in the same genre, also had considerably worse sales than it deserved.” our guest said, “I don’t know why. I suppose it’s a global shift in mentality as games became a more casual media.”
So what was I supposed to do? Give up and keep re-playing the same eight games for all of eternity? Well, that’s what I was resigned to do, until a reddit user by the name of Poye_Polomi pointed me towards Steam, where a little game called “A Hat in Time” was chugging along, trying to get enough votes in a Greenlight campaign to see a release on that platform. I was skeptical at first given the route my search had taken thus far, but I caved watched the most recent “trailer” for the game. After about 30 seconds of beautiful environments and downright charming gameplay, I was on board.
The game follows “Hat Kid” as she tries to stop the evil “Moustache Girl” from wreaking havoc across the land, utilizing her trusty umbrella in a variety of ways to complete objectives. As the name would imply, time travel is an important part of the game that lets players explore each location in three different periods of time, differentiated by “Past”, “Present”, and “Future”.
At least, that’s what we’ve seen so far.
But this begged the question: Why is this guy making an older-school “collectathon” platformer when no one else is? What drives him to the genre?
“From a developer perspective, it is much easier for me to focus on enriching a small environment rather than making huge impressive landscapes. From a player perspective, I’ve just really enjoyed that genre through the years.” said our no-longer-mysterious guest, Jonas Kaerlev, “More so Banjo Kazooie / Conker’s Bad Fur Day / Mario Sunshine than Mario 64 or Mario Galaxy, as 64 and Galaxy often focus on getting from point A to B, while the other games focus on smaller areas where you interact with your environments.”
Kaerlev has been working on A Hat in Time for some time now, and it’s gone from goofy-looking alpha version to gorgeous 3D platformer in just a few months. The art style he started out with was undeniably Wind Waker-esque, but as time went on he adopted something a little less flat– ironically (and unintentionally I’m sure) similar to the art style that preliminary screenshots of Wind Waker HD showcase.
“Initially the game had a very grey palette,” he said, “I couldn’t figure out how to turn that off and it turned out it was a feature turned on by default in Unreal Development Kit (which is used to develop the game). It had some post-processing going on that by default washed out the colors by what I think was 10%.”
“Once I found the root of the problem, I decided to boost the mid-tone instead to enable more contrast. I think this very strong contrast is what you mean by color.”
Why is color contrast a good thing? Well, Kaerlev says it “emphasizes the warmer color schemes” which fits the game’s cheerful and bright atmosphere. Having something gorgeous to look at is also wonderfully helpful when you’re exploring locations extensively and re-visiting certain areas multiple times.
“As the game progressed, I started experimenting with improving that style, both for legal and artistic reasons. What I have now deviates quite a bit from its roots in the same way that Wind Waker HD does– and whether any of the two games did a good job is your call,” he laughed.
So is A Hat in Time trying to be the sole 3D exploration platformer out there? Maybe, but not intentionally.
“There are actually a lot of 3D collectathon platformers out there – just not a lot that allow players to move freely in all three dimensions.” he countered when I asked him why there were no more games of that type.
“I don’t know why developers are so afraid to let players move in that last plane.
He considered it for a second, and then came to an interesting conclusion:
“I think it might have something to do with mobile gaming becoming popular despite the fact that it restricts the player’s ability to interact.
“You can only have so many fingers on your iPhone before you’re covering the entire screen. This is also why I don’t have any plans to release on iPhone or iPad; the devices just aren’t built for this sort of genre.”
It’s a thought I think a lot of us didn’t consider, but he’s right: It’s remarkably difficult to succeed with a deep and rich 3D experience on a touchscreen device. Not only are the controls far too imprecise for any sort of intricate level design, but you also– like he said– cover parts of the screen that may quickly become important as you play. It’s a take on the matter I certainly hadn’t considered, but that’s why we bring in people who know about this sort of thing, eh?
So what’s next for A Hat in Time? Well, it’s not finished yet, but when it is Jonas is hoping that the game is approved for sale on Steam via Valve’s “Greenlight” campaign, which requires the public to vote and decide which games are worthy of consideration for sale.
“While I can’t say I’m there yet, the game is in the top 90! Although what that means exactly is hard to tell because we are left in the dark about the internal selection process. I assume they just pick the top 10 games.”
So he’s got a ways to go, but there’s still time– and Steam isn’t the only platform that games can come out on. Charming platformers like this tend to sit remarkably well with the Nintendo audience, so when I posed the concept of releasing the game on Wii U to him…
“Without making any promises, I think it will be likely that the game ends up on the Wii U.”
“ I have been in touch with a publisher that is interested in putting it on that console, and I’d be more than interested in seeing that happen!”
And with that, you all have permission to be cautiously- or recklessly- excited for the game. I know I am.
Recklessly excited, that is.