An impossible platformer, 10 years in the making

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Today we're thrilled to have @RaiganBurns & @MareSheppard from Metanet Software. They'll be here, answering questions about N++ and beyond, starting at 1pm PT today! Feel free to get your questions in now. I'll start: 1) Where was the original N idea born? Were the big identifying characteristics (difficulty, the art style and the physics) a major part, or did the evolve from something else? 2) You've made seemingly thousands of N levels over the years. How did you manage to not drive yourselves insane with N++? What keeps the creativity tap flowing for you? 3) What's your testing process like? How do you know when a level is too hard or too easy? 4) The soundtrack in N++ is stellar and fits the gameplay perfectly. How did that come together? 5) Any plans to bring N++ to other platforms?
@russfrushtick 1. When we made N, we had been playing with a lot of little experiments based on papers and algorithms we liked the ideas behind, eg Jakobsen's Advanced Character Physics. We cobbled together a ragdoll simulation, collision detection, some movement physics and some basic AI, and set out to make a stealth game -- but then we discovered it was so much more fun to run around at top speed pulling off acrobatic moves, and N was born. The minimalist art style came from an appreciation of that aesthetic, and also as a reaction to the developing trend towards realistic graphics over stylized ones, and heavily decorated over functional. We cut back, to highlight the gameplay and really let it take centre stage, which is what we found most appealing. We love games in which the controls feel really GOOD. The difficulty was similarly a reaction: back in 2002-4 casual games were really becoming popular, and we longed for the days where to win a game you needed to be skilled, rather than good at clicking a mouse fast. So that's what N is: a little reactionary time capsule ;) But it turned out to be pretty fun, and we're glad we kept pursuing the more refined design and aesthetic that is N++.
@russfrushtick 2. well, to be honest, we've definitely been burnt out on N and N+ for a while -- that's why it took so long to make N++: for a while we wanted nothing else to do with the series. But we knew we could do it better, and Nick Suttner from Sony really loved N+ and wanted a version for PlayStation, and one day we found ourselves making levels again for fun and enjoying it, and then we knew what we had to do. It was 2010, and after 6 years, much of the low-hanging fruit (eg easy ideas) was gone, so we had to really try to be inventive. Coming up with a handful of new enemies for N++ helped -- lots of the new ones like the Boost Pads and Shove Thwumps have opportunities for use in multiplayer, as well as Solo, which burgeoning level designers should love -- we forced ourselves to think about the game in a different way to figure out new enemies that didn't feel gimmicky, and then to use them creatively and in interesting ways. The Evil Ninja is my fave, a glitchy parallel world version of you that copies your every move, 2s after you make it, and will kill you if you touch it. Psychologically thrilling! And we had some fun designing Race levels -- Race existed in N+, but like the rest of the game we basically rewrote it from the ground up, trying to make the rules make sense, for both party-game-players and for serious competition. If you get to the exit before other players, you get to become a rocket and fly around taking out the others, which is probably the most fun new thing N++ has to offer: it's amazing. So satisfying when you succeed in blowing someone up! Anyway that caused us to design levels around the idea that players could be controlling rockets at some point, which is something brand new we'd never considered. So there were lots of ways we were able to keep things interesting.
@russfrushtick whoops, sorry, I replied to #5 in the main thread.. oh, noobs. Anyway, #4: Thank you! The soundtrack, like most of the rest of the game, was the result of a long and arduous process of gradually figuring out what we should do, and then struggling to do it :) For the first 2 years of development, we didn't really know what we would do music-wise: we thought maybe we wouldn't have any (to make it as minimal as possible), or it might be just ambient sound, etc. Unfortunately, when we tried ambient music, it was too boring -- it really undercut the tension and ruined the fun of the game. So we tried more intense music.. but that was too intense, and made the stress unbearably and not fun at all! Eventually we realized we had to stop navigating based on genre and evaluate each song individually; so, we spent a lot of our free time for a few months going through soundcloud to find new interesting music. Then we took those hundreds of songs and listened to them while playing the game, and decided which we thought could work. Then, we spent about 3 months emailing and preparing contracts and doing all of the other stuff required to license the music.. that wasn't very fun. Thankfully we had some great advice from other developers who we reached out to -- Alex from Loud On Planet X and Simon from Olli Olli both graciously answered our noob questions about music licensing, and that really helped us to plan the logistics. (example: each transaction has a certain overhead in terms of admin work, so for maximum efficiency always try to license more than 1 song from a given artist/label)
@russfrushtick 3. you kind of get a sense for when a level is too hard or too easy, just like you get a sense for whether or not a certain jump is possible. You get to know your and your ninja's limits. But that said, as we've gotten better at the game, it's harder to know how new players will react to levels, and it's harder for us to be challenged or inspired by easier levels. The hardest thing to do is to make an easy level that is still interesting. We really tried to do a good job of it this time though, because teaching players the skills they need to really get good at N++ is so important -- so we made 125 levels in the Intro section specifically focusing on one small skill or one enemy, to help players focus. Playtesting has been instrumental -- it's always great to see people get their hands on the game, and they always have trouble with or really love things we never expect, so even though we really make games for our own palates, it's crucial to see the game through someone else's eyes, since we hope that others like it as well :) Hopefully N++ has enough for players of all skill levels to get into -- we tried to design it so that even with pretty basic skills, you'll be able to play through at least 500 levels, which means you'll definitely get your money's worth, and hopefully will have a good sense of what this game is. If Solo is too hard, you can play with 2 players, as well -- you're ineligible for highscores, but you'll have a good time playing, and either way for us that's a win. We ultimately tried to build N++ so that players have the flexibility to choose their own experience. they can take it slow, or move quickly. They can play Solo or with friends, or they can make their own levels. We tried to support noobs, speedrunners, eSports players, N fans, N+ fans, design fans, and fans of platformers in general. And us, of course :) and we're very happy with how it came out! It's a niche game, and not for everyone, but we really tried to make N++ as approachable and rewarding as possible.
We'll answer Russ' questions in between other ones.. one sec! :)
Oi! awesome stuff Any chance of the game ever coming to iphone? Or is it too graphical intense for mobile?
@jacqvon thank you! the UI is something we spent a lot of time on (probably about a year total), honestly it was the result of struggling with our first design for 6 months, realizing that it was doomed, then stealing the best bits and building something new out of them :) We were helped by inspiring concept work from graphic designer MASA and a beautiful font by Fabrizio Schiavi ;)
Any design elements (obstacles/enemies) that were cut that you can talk about?
@gravicle sure! There were a bunch of things that just didn't work at all as soon as we added them, but one thing that we kept trying was "tiny deathball", sort of a micro version of the deathball that's in the game. The normal deathball follows your position slowly, so it's always sort of trailing behind you; for the small one, we wanted it to be scary, so we made it follow your *future* position -- i.e it predicts where you'll be in a second or two and moves there. The problem was.. it was too good. It was pretty uncanny really, no matter how we tuned it, it would either be ineffectual, or insanely terminator-like in its ability to kill you. I'm still hoping we can play around with that idea in future games, but we couldn't get it working in time for N++.