Autodesk had a chat with the Sumo Digital team about bringing Snake Pass on to the Nintendo Switch, getting around ‘not jumping’, and what it’s like to release their own self-published IP after 14 years of working on AAA titles such as Sony’s LittleBigPlanet 3 and Sega’s Sonic & All-Stars Racing.
Interview with: Bradley Davey (Lead Designer), David Dino (Designer and PR Analyst), Andy Ritson (Art Director), Griffin Warner (Animator) and Rebecca Sweetmore (Marketing Manager)
Why the name Snake Pass?
David: Well, Snake Pass is an actual road between Sheffield and Manchester. Considering this is Sumo Digital’s first original title, we felt it would be apt to keep it close to our roots. Plus it had “snake” in the name, so that made it extremely qualified!
So, how does it feel releasing your first self-published IP?
Bradley: It feels really good. Normally, we do a lot of work-for-hire stuff.
Griffin: The sense of accomplishment and ownership is huge. I feel really close to this game. It’s personal. I think it’s special for everybody.
Andy: Well, the difference has been that we were only responsible to ourselves for most of the way that they game turned out, rather than having to work to somebody else’s idea of what the game should be. It was all our idea. There’s a responsibility that goes with that freedom. But, it’s been quite nice to have the freedom to actually let the public in on the process before it’s even out there.
Bradley: We’ve let people in on the process in a way that we’ve never done before. We’ve run live streams every week, for about 12 weeks. We pulled the veneer back and showed how the snake works and how the arc was generated. You don’t get to do that when you’re working with a publisher because that’s their message to control.
Bradley: Even coming from a marketing perspective, I’ve worked on other publisher titles too, like the LittleBigPlanet franchise for Sony. With Snake Pass, we can definitely talk to about pretty much everything without having to say “is that okay?”
Andy: Making our own IP was not something that was ever going to be forced. It needed to be the right thing at the right time. And then that game jam came about- which is where Snake Pass came from. So it was all a bit of serendipity, and now we’re here and it’s out.
What was the inspiration for this art style?
Andy: Well, it’s hard to just say because it’s almost universally said on the internet that we’ve chosen Rare games as our inspiration. That’s kind of true, but actually, I hadn’t played many of Rare’s games and my inspiration has mostly come from the Sega stuff which I’ve worked on. When working on these Sega games, which were “mash-ups” of many different Sega games, I needed to make them look like they belong with each other in this new universe that we created. That was my main influence, the Sonic stuff. I can’t deny we ended up with something that looks quite Rare- like, but it actually played less of a role in my own personal direction than how it looks.
David : Sometimes it’s hard for us to break away from projects. The game jam is not only a way to bring people together, but it’s also to see what can be done and give our creative staff the ability to flex those muscles and see what they can come up with. We are purposefully and continually letting it be free form. We give it a two-week period. We’ve had some really cool ideas come out of these game jams. The cool thing is about the game jam too is that we don’t necessarily have to go forward with any of the projects that we have – that isn’t the main intention of the Game Jam. But if we do see something very cool in it, we’ll put it in a project phase. If it’s great, we’ll move forward with it.
Griffin: For a lot of people here, I think the Game Jam was a really nice creative outlet. It also gave that chance for people to test out their skills in new area.
David: You get free pizza as well.
Andy: And cookies.
What did you use to create the levels and environments?
Andy: The assets were all built in Maya. Then of course, it’s exported from Maya and taken into Unreal and it’s shaded in specific shaders built using what we created in Maya. We built them in a modular fashion, so the designers could work with them in the engine to actually build up the environment. This was a lot less like other projects I’ve ever worked on. What we’ve been doing in Snake Pass was we built some generic blocks and gave them the ability to be more unique within Unreal with paints or textures based on text, colors, and things like that. We’ve prepared everything in Maya, imported it into Unreal, and then it was the designers that created the actual islands and the levels. It’s really great that we were able to empower the designers to build the levels exactly the way they want rather than in the past, it’s always been the artists build a thing and then you go and see how the designers like it. On Snake Pass, the designers were pretty much responsible for the way that the environment worked. It meant that all the gameplay was all just in the designers’ control.
Andy: The platform element had sort of been added a bit later on. It was never intended for it to fit into the platform category per se. That sort of happened organically.
David: It’s difficult to explain the game to someone without giving them a genre. So if you say it’s a puzzle platform, people already have an idea that it’s not necessarily about jumping.
Bradley: You also don’t want to shoot upon yourself by saying it’s also a snake simulator as well, which it really isn’t.
David: It’s a strange mix because if you call it a platform, that puts certain expectations in your mind like speed and jumping, and it’s definitely not that. It’s sort of genre broken in many respects. It’s been a difficult thing to actually describe accurately. I’m reading a lot of comments by people, saying this it’s not the game I expected it to be. Once the control message clicks, it’s just wonderful and relaxing and nice.
How has the community responded to the slithering aspect?
Bradley: It’s been great.
David: But, it’s a tough thing to …
Bradley: Wrap around.
Andy: There’s a steep learning curve. The controls are unlike anything you’ve played before, so there’s no familiarity or muscle memory. It’s not like anything you’ve played before, so you got to master the controls of it. Everybody can snake around at first- that part’s easy. It gets less easy when it comes to wrapping around things and getting a grip.
People have taken what we’ve done and used the snake in ways that we hadn’t seen to get from A to B quickly. We created a fairly open world. You can go anywhere, if you can get there, that’s okay.
Andy: Seeing the imagination of people to get through some of those things is surprising. It’s quite an accessible game. From our perspective, it’s quite charming and endearing, and that goes a long way to selling people and being relaxed with it, even despite the new controls.
Bradley: Yeah. It was a very good decision to make sure that it was a play at your own pace right from the get go.
Andy: We chose specifically to not put in any timed levels. It’s fun to just adventure around and find the little nooks and crannies that are being put in. As an artist, we didn’t develop the levels. We created the assets. As I was testing the game out and looking for places in which to put new art, I found little surprise things that I saw for the first time myself. There are many wonderful little touches that I had no idea existed.
Andy: Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Stop. (laughs) Trust the people you put in charge to make your products. Don’t pile everybody in.
Bradley: Once you start doing that, it ends up being the same thing as you’re doing with the other projects too.
David: Track your players well. I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but we put a lot of trust in players to figure it out, and we didn’t tutorialize it, we didn’t over evangelize. There was very little on screen. Take a risk on something that’s ridiculous on paper. A snake game on paper is ridiculous. It’s a crazy idea that should never have worked, but it does work.
David: We made something fun that we wanted to play. I think if we didn’t trust the players to join us on this journey, then I don’t think we’d be here.
Bradley: You have to believe in what you doing. It’s corny, but it really is important. If you have just a little bit of doubt, then you probably shouldn’t be doing the project to begin with.
Recent winners of the best British Game BAFTA for Overcooked, Ghost Town Games, are featured in this fantastic GameDev podcast from Autodesk. Overcooked is a brilliantly funny co-op cooking game, which is also published by Game Republic member Team17. Ghost Town Games have now been confirmed as a speaker guest at the Yorkshire Games Festival 2017, 8-12 November, National Science & Media Museum in Bradford.