Every few years, Cartoon Network gives the Ben 10 series an overhaul so it grows with audience that grew up with the characters. The latest series, Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, starts by revealing Ben’s identity as a hero to the public. Long running video games series, on the other hand, target a specific demographic and use spin-offs to attract new users. Mega Man, for example, has the Mega Man X characters which are aimed at one age group and the Mega Man Battle Network series, which tends to have younger fans than the Mega Man X series.
Since developer Papaya Studios is working with the Ben 10 license they have to follow Cartoon Network and target their game with the (chronologically) growing target audience, just like the Ben 10 franchise. We spoke with Richard Robledo, Senior Producer at Papaya Studios, to find out, as a game developer, how is the team evolving the game mechanics and story to fit the age of its players.
Cartoon Network changes the look of Ben 10 every few years with Ben maturing. Some kids that started watching the series back in 2005 are teenagers now. As a game designer, how does this affect you and have the Ben 10 games evolved in terms of gameplay?
Richard Robledo, Senior Producer at Papaya Studios: Cartoon Network has done a great job of showing Ben mature throughout the series. Papaya Studio worked very closely with D3Publisher and CNi to ensure that Ben’s growth on the TV screen also translated over to the interactive screen: this resulted in a game that is a very competitive title for fans of the show and the action/adventure genre.
The latest title, Ben 10 Ultimate Alien: Cosmic Destruction, does represent an evolution in the game series. First and foremost, players can now use more alien forms than in any other Ben 10 title to date – the greatest of these forms being the five new Ultimate Aliens; from which the latest TV season get its name. The Ultimate Aliens are awesome, and give players the opportunity to control extremely powerful characters, each with their own unique set of abilities, who can plow through dozens and dozens of enemies. Ultimate forms come as a result of Ben’s new device, called The Ultimatrix, which lets Humungousaur, Spidermonkey, Big Chill, Swampfire, and Echo Echo transform into ultimate aliens. The game’s level designs have evolved; offering larger puzzles to solve, and platforming sequences to traverse. The alien forms themselves also evolve as the game progresses, which is a new feature we added specifically for this game.
Most sequels tend to be more challenging than the preceding game, but since Ben 10 is a franchise for a younger crowd did you try to keep the difficulty about the same?
Knowing that the Ben 10 audience is now a mix of new younger viewers and teen viewers who have followed the show over the years, our goal was to design a very well-balanced gameplay experience. How do you design a game that both a 7-year old and a 14-year old can have fun playing from beginning to end? The difference in skill level between the two age groups is enormous. So we didn’t ask ourselves, “Do we want to make this game harder than Vilgax Attacks?” What we declared was, “Let’s make a great game with a variety of elements that players can choose to use as they see fit.”
Ben 10 is perfect for designing a balanced action/adventure title. With so many alien forms, players will learn which forms work best in different scenarios. At the same time, players will become attached to a small number of forms that they’ll want to use as much as possible (this is what we found in our focus testing). All we had to do was design our puzzles, combat encounters, and miniboss and boss fights to cater to all alien forms. In certain cases, you’ll have to use a particular alien to solve a puzzle, but, in most cases, it’s the players who decide, on their own, which alien form to use. If a player wants to use a favorite alien in a situation not best suited for that form, they can, and they might interpret that as a “challenging” puzzle or enemy encounter.
In combat, we designed a system for both the button-mashers of the world and strategists. Button-mashers benefit from the system’s combat priority structure, which intelligently targets enemies and breakable objects, and then selects the appropriate type of attack and animation. This creates fast-action fighting sequences with big visual payoffs and rewards. On the other hand, seasoned combatants can utilize the combo and free-flow attack system: this allows players to insert their special attacks during combinations, and even switch forms between attacks, to achieve extremely high combo multipliers, resulting in huge exp payoffs.
We are very happy with the game’s overall design, and believe our fans will feel challenged and victorious all throughout the story.
When developing Ben 10 Ultimate Alien: Cosmic Destruction did you take inspiration from different games, perhaps T or M rated titles?
Taking into consideration our genre, demographic, and release date, we know Ben 10 fans and gamers are expecting a title that can deliver the goods in all areas of game design, art, and technology. We researched other games, and respect what they’ve done, and even learned a few things. We’re committed to developing the best Ben 10 title to date. Players may find similarities to other titles, but the similarities are unique to Ben 10, and are there to provide an exclusive gameplay experience that fits with the brand.
We were most inspired by the Ultimate Alien episodes. This is where many of the ideas for combat and special attacks were discovered. Boss fights and miniboss fights (there are 8 and 6, respectively) feature popular characters from the TV show: the things these characters do in the game were inspired by what the show creators conceived. By looking closely at the television series, and pulling the right elements from the show and putting them into game, we were able to produce a genuine Ben 10-inspired title.
What elements of the Ben 10 video game series are the same and which ones had to grow with the audience?
In any Ben 10 game, players will always find: cool alien forms with cool abilities; favorite characters from the TV series, like Gwen and Kevin; great gameplay; beautiful graphics; cutting-edge technology; and an opportunity to save the world!
In Ben 10 Ultimate Alien: Cosmic Destruction, players will definitely see how the game series has evolved. We have a total of 17 playable characters, each with their own combat style, special moves, and puzzle-solving abilities. This includes five brand new alien forms that were introduced in the latest season of the show. All alien forms can be upgraded with the new experience system. Players can choose to upgrade their favorite aliens, and increase certain attributes that make them even more destructive when encountering enemies. Not only are the aliens upgraded, but all of the special effects associated with their special moves are upgraded too! As an example, NRG’s (a new alien form) area of effect attack evolves from a small explosion into a nuclear blast.
To really grow with our audience, Ben 10 Ultimate Alien: Cosmic Destruction will be the first PlayStation 3 title for the series. In fact, the game comes out in October for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS2, PSP, and DS. Developing for PS3 and 360 allowed us to push the visuals to new heights; Ben and his alien forms are looking better than ever!
While the past Ben 10 games had cartoon-like art, Cosmic Destruction uses 3D models. Why did you change the game’s style?
Papaya’s proprietary game engine is extremely powerful and versatile across all game consoles. Our artists and animators are comprised of folks who have worked on triple-A titles and one-on-one with Pixar and their famous properties. Bringing Ben 10 to a 3D world gives players and fans a new perspective on the brand, and allows us to utilize our collective development strengths to make the game shine.
Players will see how we pushed each console to their limits in order to create a great-looking game. On PS3 and 360, we’re using high-poly, high-res characters and environments complete with normal mapping, and reflection and specular maps. All of our 8 levels benefit from our many screen effects (like bloom, glow, and motion blur), are beautifully lit with pre-pass lighting, and use dynamic faceted shadows to help bring the world to life. Everyone has worked extremely hard to make Cosmic Destruction an unforgettable 3D experience.
He has a world to save from an unknown threat, so he has his game face on – great puns like this, and a few others can be found in the latest title. Seriously, though, and this is my personal opinion, the cover shows a more mature Ben who is ready for action, and I believe players are going to enjoy the adventure that has been prepared for them.
When planning the plot for Cosmic Destruction, did you draft a story for an older audience?
Cosmic Destruction features an original story by, Charlotte Fullerton, a great writer who wrote many of the Ultimate Alien TV episodes. For the game, she crafted an original story for the Ultimate Alien audience. The story is loaded with elements that appeal to the older audience while entertaining the younger crowd. The relationships between Ben, Gwen, and Kevin are in line with the show, the humor is spot on with the show, and all of the 30+ plus characters from the show, who are featured in the game, all come with their familiar personalities and are voiced by the original cast. Players will visit famous locations from all over the world: Rome, Paris, Tokyo, The Amazon, Devils Tower, The Great Wall, and will be treated to a big twist at the game’s finale!
Do you have any advice for developers with a long running franchise – should they try to grow with the audience or keep the series targeted at the original age group?
This can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, but the initial advice is pretty straightforward: Create games that ignite a burning passion and childlike excitement within your key team members. If this holds true to a team that develops for the same age group year after year, then great! If a team hears the requests of its aging audience, and chooses to answer them with a title that evolves year after year, wonderful!