Metanet’s gold collecting, robot smashing, jumping ninja game is about to leap into retail stores with help from Atari. Confusingly, there are two versions of N+, one for Xbox Live Arcade and a handheld adaptation from Silverbirch Studios. In this group interview we’re focusing on N+ for the Nintendo DS/PSP. David Geudelekian, the Producer of N+ from Atari, and Mare Sheppard & Raigan Burns, cofounders of Metanet, field the questions.
N+ is being made for the PSP and the DS. What is different between the two releases?
David Geudelekian (Producer, Atari): Mainly, the hardware defined the differences. On the DS version we had to split the players’ view between the two screens and so one screen shows a complete level map while the other is a zoomed in view that tracks the ninja so that players can still have the minutiae and precision of control that they are used to in the flash version of the game. On the PSP we were able to play to the screens full resolution and thus there are some levels that were specifically designed for the PSP’s aspect ratio and resolution. Graphics look a sight sharper on the PSP whereas the player can use the touch screen functionality of the DS on the built-in level editor.
Mare Sheppard & Raigan Burns (Metanet Cofounders): The biggest difference is the aspect ratio of the levels — each handheld has levels that are made specifically for that platform.
Aside from that there are a few small platform-related differences, for instance the ninja animations in the PSP version are smoother, the DS version uses the stylus for level-editing, etc.
How does the Nintendo DS version of N+ utilize the touch screen and the second LCD?
M&R: One of the screens shows a single-screen zoomed-out view, so that you can see the entire level at once — this is important since many of the levels are somewhat puzzle-y and require you to plan ahead.
The other screen shows a scrolling zoomed-in view which is the same scale as the flash version, this lets you see positions in more detail for precision maneuvering. Which screen is which is configurable by the user.
Did Silverbirch Studios alter the physics from the original version when they developed N+?
M&R: Silverbirch used the original source code as a starting point, and we invested a lot of time in making sure the feel of the game was as close as possible to the original. However, the handhelds do feel somewhat different. It's not drastic, the actual difference in terms of feel is hard to describe, hardcore N fans will probably notice it.
The handhelds feel slightly "faster" and less like a viscous fluid than the flash version. Possibly it's simply the result of using a D-pad rather than a keyboard, and/or the lower resolution of the handhelds — a tiny sub-pixel movement in the original turns into a totally imperceptible movement, which makes things feel a bit "looser."
DG: Silverbirch did encounter many hardware differences between the handheld portables and the original PC based flash game. Mare and Raigan really constructed a work of art in terms of the physics and collision systems in the original N and I really think that Silverbirch has come a long way to meet the spirit and playability of the original title. As a fervent fan of the original N I feel as though the slight tweaks that were necessary to bring the titles over to the portables are negligible.
How many new levels were created specifically for N+?
DG: Hundreds. The final cut of levels were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of designs provided by both Silverbirch and Metanet. So much of a game like N or N+ relies on good level design, so that was one part of the package we absolutely could not skim through. The levels that did make the final cut are an exciting and brand new collection designed by Mare and Raigan themselves; guaranteeing the level of quality gameplay that the internet has already come to love.
M&R: In total across all three versions (XBLA, DS, PSP) we made over 1000 new levels. It was quite a summer!
There are actually even more than that, since on the handhelds we only had time to make the single player levels — Silverbirch made several hundred multiplayer levels as well.
Downloadable content is one of the most appealing features of N+. Does Silverbirch Studios or Metanet plan to release new levels over a set period of time? Perhaps, a new level a week?
M&R: That's a good idea! With the various versions in development and a couple other projects on the go, we haven't had much time lately to think about this, as we speak we’re just putting the finishing touches on downloadable content for the XBLA version.
Once the handhelds are being manufactured there will hopefully be a week or two to work on something like this.
DG: There are definitely discussions in progress for additional content to be provided during the launch window of the titles. Also, I can’t go into details just yet but there’s definitely a bunch of bonus content hidden throughout the game (and by a bunch I do mean a whole bunch), so expect to be rewarded for the time you spend collecting gold on your DS or PSP.
Players can create their own levels too, right? How can players wade through the content to find quality levels? Is there going to be a voting system?
M&R: There's a ranking system — realistically, the only way to effectively regulate user-created maps is to have the community regulate itself.
DG: There will certainly be a voting system; as the servers become populated with user-made levels it will be more and more difficult to tell which levels are quality and so we’ve incorporated a 5-star rating system. Simply download and play a level and then you will be given the option to rate it out of 5 stars. Those votes are tallied and visually represented the next time you refresh your connection to the server… Power to the people.
Is user created content cross platform? Can I create a level on my NDS and share it with a friend who has the PS version?
DG: Because of the hardware limitations and vastly different screen resolutions, cross-platform sharing will not be possible; so we thought we would make up for that limitation by linking all the global SKUs of the title onto a central server. When Europe gets their hands on the game they will be greeted by a fully populated server of American user-made levels and of course begin to upload their own levels. A small perk of working for a global publisher; now we can see which country produces the best ninjas…
What other community features are being designed for N+?
DG: Global level sharing + rating system = infinite game
While the PSP has a Memory Stick to hold plenty of replays and user designed levels the Nintendo DS cartridge must have limited storage space. How many extra stages can the DS cartridge hold?
DG: Yeah, that’s the sad thing about the limited memory of the DS; currently we have 8 save slots for additional content so between trips to the central server you can hold a good number of your favorite levels or replays.
M&R: Sadly, only 8 levels can fit on a card at once — and that's after lots of optimization trying to compress every last bit!
However, you can use the level database as bulk storage, moving maps onto your cartridge when you want to play or edit them, so hopefully this won't be a huge problem.
If only the DS had some sort of built-in memory slot!
One of the challenges N+ faces is it's competing against a freeware game. How do you think you can convince gamers to spend $20 or $30 on a handheld version?
M&R: This is something that we keep getting asked about, however we don't think it's necessarily a justifiable concern. For one thing, the free version has been downloaded 1.5 million times — which is a lot for a freeware game, but it's only a small fraction of the install base for either handheld console. So even if everyone who has played the free version boycotts N+, there is still a considerably large audience.
More importantly, the question itself contains the unspoken assumption that a player who enjoyed N is going to be less interested in purchasing N+ than someone who's never played the game. Even if N+ was identical to N but featured a new set of levels, I think anyone who's addicted to N would be interested in having those new levels in a portable format. Beyond the hundreds of new levels, we think enough new bits have been added — most importantly the multiplayer modes — to justify the "+" sign.
Basically, if Super Mario Bros 3 was available for free, would gamers be willing to buy Super Mario World or The New Super Mario Bros?
For us at least, the answer is "yes." Hopefully other gamers will feel the same. ;)
DG: I feel as though this game works perfectly on the handheld consoles with its quick bursts of gameplay spread over 5 levels per episode. I’ve been lucky enough to “focus test” the product myself on the subway to work each morning and the action divides up perfectly for on the go gaming. The game includes hundreds of new levels that are not available in the latest iteration of the freeware title, designed by Mare and Raigan. Ad hoc multiplayer modes that never existed in the flash version are actually proving to be more fun than we ever expected. Playing tag in the N+ engine is a joy and that’s just one of the many multiplayer game modes we’ve included in both the PSP and DS versions.
What about the Xbox Live Arcade version? How does the presumably more expensive N+ compare to it?
DG: There’s definitely some solid differences between the PSP, DS and XBLA version. I’m a big fan of the XBLA version (again, lucky enough to get early hands on) and Mare and Raigan had a lot more creative control over that version. The art is different and due to the powerful hardware of the 360, the physics and collision systems are a bit closer to the original flash version.
M&R: In order to add to the confusion, the XBLA version and the portable versions are all called N+. :)
We actually just wrote a pretty detailed comparison of the two versions of N+ (XBLA and handheld) on our blog: https://www.metanetsoftware.com/blog/?p=36
One thing that we didn't mention there, which deserves some attention, is that the price of the two versions is pretty much identical IF you factor out the overhead associated with selling physical goods (manufacturing, distribution, retailing).
From that perspective you could say that we're charging the same amount for the _content_ of all versions (the games themselves), and that the customer is covering the additional production cost associated with the cartridges, in return for the additional freedoms associated with owning a physical copy — freedoms which anyone who has had a RRoD will know are not insignificant!
From our perspective, there's not much added value in delivering software physically, it just costs more for the consumer, and typically the developer doesn't see any more money — it all gets sucked up by the overhead of production and the retailer.
Still, the current set of downloadable channels are far from ideal — for instance, we can't play any of our XBLA games if our internet is down! That's not cool, and it's plausible that some people are going to avoid digital distribution until buying downloadable games is more like buying physical games and less like an extended rental.
Hopefully in the next few years all the kinks will be worked out. The whole issue of digital property and ownership seems like a pretty fundamental problem looking forward to the coming decades, hopefully our legal systems will figure something out eventually.