This Fall, WayForward Technologies will release Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse for the Nintendo 3DS. While Shantae has been around for a while, Pirate’s Curse will be the first game in the series that is heavily inspired by Metroid, in that it will focus on interconnected areas and allow players to discover new items and abilities as they go along, opening up more of the world.
Siliconera caught up with Shantae director Matt Bozon to find out just what goes into making a game so heavily inspired by Metroid, and how the team at WayForward brought that design to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse.
This is the first time you’re going to be using a Metroid-style design for a Shantae game, which sounds like a very ambitious undertaking. What’s early development or pre-production like on a game like this? How do you start out?
Matt Bozon, Shantae series Director: We began by creating several zoomed out maps on the equivalent of digital graph paper… just small tiled cells to lay out the world. We knew which abilities Shantae would collect and in which order, so we were able to think of what players were likely to do with say, a digging tool or flying tool. Would they remember a flying area that was deep underground? How about an impassable wall on the far edge of the world? It was important to plant ideas in the player’s heads from the beginning to aid their memory and help trigger ideas and ways to solve problems in the world.
We also laid out favorite concepts that would be repeating throughout the adventure, ramping in complexity as new abilities were added to the player’s arsenal. Ability A, then Ability B, then A+B, then C, then A+C, then C+B, and so on. I’ve usually held to the design philosophy that once the tutorial is done, it’s time to roll the credits. That’s why Shantae games have been about discovery and experimentation, not telling the player where to go and what to do. All of our initial world designs went out the window as we allowed the game to breathe and grow. New abilities replaced old ones, and world structure had to adapt and change for the entire two-year development cycle.
Once you begin creating your levels and areas, how does that process go? In 3D games, one normally creates a very basic 3D model of the environment without any textures, but 2D platformers are so reliant on precision and collision, and the art and sprites are an integral part of that. How do you start envisioning and creating 2D levels without having art assets in place?
This was a challenge because we were developing on technology different from previous Shantae games. Collision maps and background art were completely separate for the first time in a Shantae game. Early on, we decided that players would interact with pixels, and that paintings would be used for non-interactive layers designed to add beauty. Players would be able to interact only with elements they could physically stand on. This created three completely different needs: to build fun collision rooms, build tilesets on top which would form the “visual vocabulary” of the levels, and foreground and background paintings that would encapsulate these play spaces.
This meant that to keep the integrity of WayForward’s signature pixel style, only pixel elements could be animated. So, only pixel objects could be involved in puzzles… a room with a puzzle on the back wall could not be painted…. pixels and paintings had to get along elegantly.
In addition to this, the game was designed with other rules in mind. Each room was build out of several layers of stereoscopic 3D, meaning nothing could be faked without risk of exposing the illusion of depth. But we were also determined to have generated maps a la Metroid or Symphony of the Night… meaning every room in the game had to be spatially sound. No abstract “warp doors” or the like. I can see why Metroid titles do this, because it aids player intuition. After climbing shafts and corridors, players can feel like they’re several rooms above a key location and might start looking for secrets to carve their way back down. Eventually, we decided to break the game world into Islands. This allows players to sequence break anything within a single island, but still lets us tell a story that is roughly 75% linear.
What kinds of areas we going to see in Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse? What makes them distinct from one another? For example, are we going to see a fire area, a grass area, underwater and so on?
The game is enormous, being roughly the size of the previous Shantae games combined. We have a miniaturized representation of Sequin Land, and multiple islands. Each island is themed, but a few of them contain themed areas of their own. We cover just about every kind of popular fantasy area in Pirate’s Curse, but skip themes like undersea, since we just did that in Risky’s Revenge. The adventure moves through deserts, swamps, ice fields, tropics, torture chambers, forests, factories… through caves, rainstorms, graveyards, captivity and even drool.
How do you design the different areas that will be in the game? Do you flesh out the design for one area and then move on the next, or do you have people building different areas simultaneously, with a separate designer in charge of each one?
I like to outline how the player will feel in each section of the game. Temperature, color scheme, musical tone, and which characters will be present really affect the design of each area. But more importantly are the game play considerations… which ability will be found, and how is a particular boss and labyrinth personified by this ability? What puzzles and platforms could be manipulated by this new ability, or the combinations possible when thinking back on existing abilities and previously learned lessons?
For about half of production we had two directors working on different areas of the game, with me overseeing and explaining how the pieces were meant to fit, and how the player was intended to feel at each point. It’s hard to create a game like this out of order but eventually the pieces all came together. We also insert completely new gameplay concepts at key points in the adventure to keep the player guessing. At one point in the game Shantae must carry Rottytops in her arms through a slew of hazards. This is one example of a few change-ups waiting for you as you delve deeper into the game!
You can acquire new abilities by finding Pirate Gear in the game, which let you access new areas and open new pathways. Since abilities and the areas you use them in need to be thought of simultaneously, how do you work out the number of abilities and what will be used where?
We tried to keep about four unsolved mysteries in the player’s head at any given moment. All of these need to overlap slightly so that players can discover them… have a hunch about something and go back and check it out. We have keys and locked doors already. There’s no reason that abilities should be used to overcome something just as obvious as a key, like using a high jump to get up on a high ledge. Sure, we do use this to route the player, but that’s not the standard. Once the player gains an ability, it becomes the new way they play the entire game from that point onward.
You can upgrade Pirate Gear abilities at shops. Where are these shops located and is upgrading your gear required in order to make progress, or is it more of an optional thing for bonuses?
We tried something new here. Upgrading in Scuttle Town’s shop is not required in a mechanical sense, but players will need to upgrade in order to adapt to the rise in challenge. Some players will enjoy skipping the upgrades just to show the stuff they’re made of. But most players will be spending their hard earned Gems on hair speed, hair damage, pistol upgrades, Fighter’s Moves, Potions, Pike Balls, and the like. We also added Loot. Players can farm items from their favorite enemies and stockpile them. They can also sell them to Mayor Scuttlebutt and earn cash. Heart Squids can also be collected and taken to the Squidsmith to be forged into more health. The shopping aspect of the game isn’t too heavy… it’s still an action/adventure game at heart. But there are plenty of ways to upgrade and every replay will be somewhat different.
Which is the first ability you thought up? And Is there anything that serves as this game’s “Morph Ball” or “Speed Booster”—ie; an ability that just becomes a natural part of traversal, as opposed to something used in specific situations?
The dagger was the first ability, and surprisingly it was cut after about a year of development. We also dropped the grappling hook and mines. The reason for this was that moves were beginning to become keys. Each move had to pass a test… if there was an ability in the player’s arsenal already that could be creatively applied to solve a puzzle, then there was no need for a new ability. Introducing a new puzzle object that reacts to combinations of abilities would serve the game better. This is more like a Mario mindset in a way. Mario only jumps, but he can do more than Samus because his world is littered with toys that respond to him. We tried this approach with Shantae’s abilities. I supposed the Pistol is the player’s mainstay ability, but really every ability stacks on the former until the player has the ultimate move set.
How is the world layed out in the game? Is there a central hub area that connects to all of the others or do they all interconnect without any kind of hub?
After a couple of initial adventures, Risky Boots makes her pirate ship available for travel. Players might compare this to Wind Waker, but it’s really just a restful view from the deck, with islands laid out on the horizon for the player to choose. The ship is a place to stop and think, form a plan, then move on. Excellent pacing was a very important goal of Pirate’s Curse, so we wanted this to be thematic only, and not a gameplay concept. The ship is important though, since players can warp back there using items, allowing for fast travel.
Does the stereoscopic 3D effect allow you to do anything with world design and objects that you couldn’t do before with other 2D games?
Pirate’s Curse was designed to be viewed in 3D. A massive amount of work and a significant amount of development time went to making the most beautiful 3D game possible. It can be played without 3D, but there is amazing attention to detail that cannot be appreciated on a flat screen. For players who prefer to keep the 3D slider in the off position, we took extra care to add movement to every 3D layer in the game as well. If it pops in stereoscopic view, then it also has to demonstrate deep layers of parallax in a flat view. The 2D and 3D requirements amplified each other greatly, and that’s why viewing it in 3D is so much fun. Regardless of how it’s played, the game runs smooth as silk at 60fps.
Our team has also found a very cool way of adding 3D volume to 2D images. You’ll see this in the character art as well as some of the background elements. It really does have to be seen to be believed—get ready to be blown away!
As part of the story, 30 of Risky’s Tinkerbats have gone rogue and you need to hunt all 30 of them down. Are the 30 Tinkerbats bosses in the game, or are they items? How are they spread out?
Our plan back when we revealed the game via Nintendo Power was to have 30… but in practice it was better for balance to reduce the number to 20. They are kind of like micro-bosses… special encounters that can be difficult to locate, sometimes requiring players to solve a minor puzzle or coax them into the open. Finding all 20 isn’t a requirement, but it will affect the outcome of the story. Completionists will have a lot to do after the game concludes on their first run.
Your previous eShop title, Mighty Switch Force, is focused very heavily on speedrunning, but speedrunning is also part of the Metroid design’s appeal. Are you considering throwing in speedrunning or sequence breaking tricks for more advanced players that like that kind of thing?
Pirate’s Curse should keep speed runners busy for the next several years. Risky’s Revenge still contains ways to in increase play time that have yet to be discovered (yep!), and Pirate’s Curse contains a vast many more shortcuts. It is possible to beat Pirate’s Curse to some extent without any major backtracking, but it requires mad skills. Initial playthroughs should take players around 7-10 hours, and several more to unlock all content. Speedruns have been clocking in at around 3 hours, and that’s testers who have had several months with the game.
How do you playtest a Metroid-style game? There are so many things that could need fixing once playtesters begin to play it. How many playtesters do you throw at a game like this and how do you keep track of feedback?
It’s a monumental task. We have a tireless testing group at WayForward. Pirate’s Curse has required that they play the game in a variety of ways. Unlike previous Shantae games, this one can be played somewhat out of order, and we’ve gone to great lengths to allow for certain sequence breaks. We also unlock something called Pirate Mode after beating the game, which is an entire second run of the game with weapons enabled from the start.
This allows for wide open exploration, and players can really rattle the cage of our resident bosses. We also included more secrets than we usually do, and a few times I forgot to tell our testing group until they came marching in with accusations like, “What is THIS??!!”. Like the previous Shantae game, there are four win conditions with unlocks, but this time there are actually completely different endings for the storyline, too.