Tak-kin' 'bout a revolution
11th Mar 2004 | 14:38
Tak is a shaman's apprentice who needs to recover a quintet of swiped moonstones in THQ's latest title, thereby restoring peace to his world of shamanic weirdness.
Yep, it's another platformer, but don't push out your bottom lip in right browned off fashion just yet; with a partnership with Nickelodeon that promises a bunch of TV shows, and a title that's been inspired in equal measures by both Bugs Bunny and Mario 64, Tak's gotta be worth a look...
We caught up with the President of Avalanche Software John Blackburn, who very graciously waxed lyrical on the title...
Can you give us some background on Tak, where we might know him from and the actual background to the game?
Blackburn: The idea came from Looney Tunes. I don't know if you watched that much when you were a kid, but there was an episode with a little Witch Doctor guy who was trying to eat Bugs Bunny, and I dreamed about him.
At the time I was working on Mortal Kombat: Subzero, and at that point the idea to me was to have this guy who mixes up all these potions; that didn't make it into the final game. It was much more voodoo-based, almost like Voodoo Vince when the idea first started coming together.
So we just kept the idea kicking around, voodoo magic always seemed kind of cool. For about two years we sat on it, just talking about it at lunchtime, you know?
So then when we started up our own company we obviously had the freedom to try something, we had the artists put together some sketches, and it was one of the concept guys who drew this little cartoon strip; and he drew the Witch Doctor design that looked pretty close to what Tak looks like now. We were like, that's the one.
So how did the character develop from there?
Blackburn: We kept on refining that character with more sketches, and then the TV company Nickelodeon came in; we went through a series of animation tests that they put the characters through to make sure that they work as they should. That was the last stage of change in Tak's character.
We had the idea sitting around for so long, I think that was the biggest strengths when we went to Nickelodeon to pitch the idea to them. Originally there were 30 games companies up for the game/show crossover, and we got narrowed down, I think in part, because we knew the character so well.
But the real core idea was to make a funny game. We started doing this before Conker's Bad Fur Day came out, and you know up until then so many videogames are always like this bad-ass, very serious kind of thing, and we were starting to see games as an more of an entertainment medium, we wanted to add some humour into it.
At that point our artists were able to do things with facial animation and stuff that you really weren't seeing in a lot of the other N64 and PlayStation games. And so for us that was really important, we felt like we had the technological advantage at that point to do that.
So that was the motivation, to bring something funny to entertain as opposed to something that was always like a serious thing. So that was what the Looney Tunes thing meant to me; little kids like it but adults like it too, it works on different levels.
There was also something at the time - not really a moral backlash, but just the fact we'd been doing the Mortal Kombat games for four years, and so we were thinking we want to make games that our kids can play. So we designed puzzles that adults can play.
I guess one of our design philosophies was to try to get a real satisfaction and sense of accomplishment when you figure something out, so you feel smart when you figure out how a puzzle works.
We wanted the game to be accessible to children early on; the game we compared it to a lot in the design stages was Mario 64. I had young relatives who would play that game and they were just happy running round and collecting coins.
We wanted to reach that same level of accessibility, but then on the high end we really wanted to make the adult feel good when he figured out how puzzles actually worked, and we thought the humour did a good job of appealing to both the younger and older player.
THQ was always saying "design the game for an older audience". If there was a difficulty for us as the developer of the game, it was that we had Nickelodeon on one side, which is a very strong brand for children, needs to be kid and parent friendly, but also wanting to make the game appeal to more seasoned gamers with upscale puzzles.
We feel like we've got a pretty good balancing act as far as that goes.
So what input did the TV script guys have on the game?
Blackburn: It wasn't enough for us to have just enough story to develop a game, they wanted back story, so we really had to feel out why this person does what he does, what his role is in the world. And more or less it came down to the fact that the TV guys wanted a world that was believable, and that the game was just a window into that world.
We actually have a really large backstory that we've never really told. What the TV guys hope to do is that we're developing a world and a place that needs to exist; this is the equivalent of one episode of the TV series, and they've got to do twenty episodes a year. They were very aware of needing a strong character.
The show's in development with Nickelodeon in the US, but it hasn't been shown in the states yet. Their take on things was that they can't develop a TV series on the same kind of schedule as a videogame, and so, they always knew that the series would come later.
Okay, so what's the appeal of the game?
Blackburn: We wanted the world to be really natural, we didn't want it to "feel" like a videogame in a way. So we didn't want pick-ups, we just wanted you to find the stuff you needed very naturally.
We feel we've filled a niche where Spyro the Dragon used to be, it's a platformer that might appeal more to kids, but as an adult you pick it up and even though it's cutesy there's still a good game in there.
We'd assume the game is aimed at the younger gamer - so how challenging can we expect the gameplay to be?
Blackburn: That's a tough question for me to answer. The first focus groups, they played through the first main puzzle and that actually took the kids about 45 minutes to play through.
What we really did was go through and kind of give you a hint at what you're supposed to do and make that an introductory puzzle. It depends on people's frustration level in a lot of places. There are certain levels that are very challenging; we tried to make it accessible, but adults can expect a certain level of challenge.
What are your favourite things in the game?
Blackburn: I enjoy the chicken suit. It's really one of those things... We had a completely separate idea, and then a gun that turns people into chickens turns up in Ratchet and Clank. We thought about changing it, but we thought, no, it's been here for a long time, we're gonna stick with it.
I also really liked the area where Tak journeys to the spirit world, the contrast between the humans and the spirits. Plus there's the mummies, they're some of my favourite things in the game.
You talked about focus testing; can you tell us what good things came out of that?
Blackburn: Back when we first put the game through testing we found that most people didn't really grasp what we were trying to do with the puzzles that we'd created, so we realised we needed to keep it simpler.
Probably one of the best things that the focus testing did is that it made us aware of so many things that we just thought were obvious, and it turned out that to a lot of gamers they weren't!
The help system we put into the game came about because of the focus testing to, the tutorial levels and all the kind of introductions to new ideas in the game, we had a deeper understanding of how to get that stuff across to the gamer.
It was kind of funny, we're sat behind this one-way mirror watching these kids reactions, we're soundproofed back there. And there was this one 12-year old kid he just goes round going nuts, it was like a two hour session and this kid just gave himself pretty much an entire commentary while he was playing.
We thought "this kid's pretty cool". We didn't have the voice clips in there at this stage, so we actually thought we'd take some of his catchphrases and include them in the game, they became Tak's catchphrases. You'll have to play the game to hear them!
Tak and the Power of JuJu is published by THQ on GameCube, PS2 and GBA from March 12.