Interview: Dakko Dakko on Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails, Clever Cats and Utilising the Wii U
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"We’re making an interesting hybrid of some of our favourite games"
While the Wii U eShop has a fair number of download-only projects on the way, it's a relatively modest number that are exclusive to the platform. That's unsurprising, as development tool such as Unity — combined with supportive low cost-of-entry platforms — allow smaller developers to spread their games out across multiple platforms. When you can release on a few consoles and PC with relatively minor investment, with tablets and smartphones also thrown in, the concept of exclusivity will likely seem less appealing.
Yet, of course, not all projects have a one-size-fits-all approach, and concepts and the skill-set in a small team may make a single-platform release appealing. That seems to be the case with Cardiff-based Dakko Dakko, which is bringing its top-down arcade-shooter / genre hybrid Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails exclusively to the Wii U eShop. The studio previously released The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character and Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims on the PlayStation Network, the latter as a 'Mini" — critical acclaim followed both.
Although a small team, Dakko Dakko has talent with experience throughout the industry, with lead designed Rhodri Broadbent working for the well-known Q-Games in the past. We spoke to Broadbent and producer Dan Croucher about Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails and the move to Nintendo, and its clear that there's great passion in the team for the project and the big N. In the interview below we learn a lot more about the game — most recently given a tentative Q4 2013 release window — and how it aims to honour retro classics while utilising current-day hardware fully.
Nintendo Life: First off, can you introduce yourselves and explain your roles within Dakko Dakko?
Rhodri Broadbent: Sure, my name’s Rhod Broadbent and I’m the designer of Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails.
Dan Croucher: I’m Dan Croucher and I’m the producer.
NL: Can you tell us about the background of the studio? We’re aware you’ve previously done a lot of work on Sony systems, for example?
RB: Yeah that’s right, I left Q-Games — where I was working in Japan — in 2010 to start my own studio, and the first projects we did were PlayStation Minis which we chose because we wanted to do fun little games. After a few years of doing that we saw the Wii U coming along and thought… the Wii U and the 3DS both looked like platforms where our games would fit in quite nicely, so after our first two games we switched to a game for Nintendo. And then to make this project — it’s a little bit bigger than previous projects, more ambitious with a bigger scope — we took on some more staff. So Dan joined us and a programmer Thomas joined us. So we levelled up production and technology to accommodate Scram Kitty.
NL: When did you start development on Scram Kitty, has it been quite a long project?
RB: We stated November 2012, so it’s been about a year now. Real, full on production started in February / March this year. It’s bigger than our previous projects but it’s by no means a long development period.
NL: Did it start with Wii U in mind, or did it begin on PC and you weren’t sure on a platform?
RB: Oh no, it started with Wii U in mind. It was when we learnt about the hardware and I started thinking about two screens, and wanted to have an idea of a second screen showing something slightly secondary, that’s not necessarily part of the core gameplay but showing you something that others can watch that’s extra fun. So, it was the idea of having a sports-style presentation, and Scram Kitty came out of that idea. It was all built around Wii U.
NL: We’ve seen some screens and details before now, but can you give a crash course in what this game is? For example, would you say it’s an action/arcade experience?
DC: It’s a top-down, half-shooter half-platformer. The primary concept of the game is that you’re looking down and are attached to these rails; each surface is like a platform in any direction. Then there’s shooting as well, so there’s lots of enemies; it’s very similar to traditional shooters but with platforming and exploration, upgrading of weapons and so on. So it’s an arcade game really, and it’s got a lot of retro elements in the style of the game. Not just graphically but also in the ethos of how it plays — it’s very arcade-like, very quick, fast and runs really smoothly, it’s all about the input. It’s like a game of old done in a modern way, using the power of the Wii U and the extra screen.
It’s a top-down, half-shooter half-platformer... It’s like a game of old done in a modern way, using the power of the Wii U and the extra screen.
NL: Are there any specific retro games that inspired it? You can give a long list if you want!
RB: (laughs) The thing is, it’s a little bit dangerous for us to say this sort of thing, because the games we use for our influence and inspiration are incredibly brilliant games, so then we get hit with counterpoints. But we are big lovers of Gunstar Heroes, we love Ikaruga, we use Smash TV as a reference because we have a lot of hordeing enemies that come swarming towards you.
The way the gameplay works, because you’re attached to rails in everything you do, it depends on the current rail you’re on, it means that you really have to think about where you are in the room to efficiently dispatch the enemies. So it has parallels to Smash TV, which I loved playing when I was a kid, and Bangai-O as well, because you have a lot of missiles flying around. So those are our main influences and great games, and hopefully we can have a piece of that.
NL: So, is this a game for experienced gamers, then, or will it also accommodate less-skilled players?
RB: There won’t be different difficulties. The way we handle that is that we do have layered objectives in each stage. So there’s an exploring objective which you achieve by simply surviving and collecting the keys that you see, and there’s a speed key objective where you have to really race through the stage, with them disappearing all the time and you have to get to them first. You might breeze past some really hard enemies and find a quicker way to get somewhere to grab these keys in time. And then there’s the “Soul” key, in which you have to destroy these certain enemies.
So there’s a difficulty ‘staging’, based upon the objective you choose, rather than selecting settings.
DC: You can still play it even if you’re not an experienced gamer, my son has a go on it and he can stay alive long enough to have some fun! It’s not super-punishing, but there are layers beyond that for more advanced players; being really good at it is different from just playing it.
NL: Is this setup as a campaign, or a set of stages where you chase unlocking the next one and achieve high scores? Could a less experienced gamer get through and see everything?
RB: We encourage people to get better at it, so to unlock stages in the map you have to free a certain number of cats. Also, you might need to have completed three objectives for the first unlock, but maybe only a total of four for the next after that. So, it’s somewhat Mario 64 inspired — so as a fresh player you might get to the end but might not see everything, you’ll need to go back and collect every single cat for the proper ending.
NL: So are the stages quite lengthy, or relatively quickfire?
RB: That depends on the depth of the stages. At the moment with the demo we have some fairly small experiences that are there to show the core gameplay, but if you’ve got a level in the game that’s setup to be a challenge, the room might not be so big in terms of space, but will have a lot to it. Other stages might be quite long and sprawling but you just run through them.
DC: I wouldn’t say you’ll sit down with a stage for a long time, it’s quite an immediate thing. If you die you’re back at the beginning at the moment.
RB: It’s arcade-like.
DC: Yeah, it’s arcade-like, there are bits in the stage where you can find a health-replenishing area and hang out there, before attacking the level again.
NL: Can you tell us about the control scheme, as the GamePad and its screen serve as the primary display, right?
RB: Yeah, we let you swap if you want to, if you want to play on the TV that’s one of the strengths of the Wii U that you can change it. But the game is designed for the intimate immediacy of having it right in front of you on the GamePad. So, you control with the left stick and you can shoot as much as you like with infinite ammo. You also have a charged slash attack that you hold down and then release to spin around, and there’s a special jump that you have to experience to understand, as you have to jump and get pulled back in by gravity, a sort of magnetic leash.
And yet the whole time the player is looking at the GamePad, the TV is freed up to display extra information and might help or just be fun to watch.
NL: Is the TV primarily there to entertain others in the room?
DC: The TV shows the gameplay as well, so you can follow what’s going on and be excited about things, but then it cuts away to useful info or things you need to collect, just cool stuff. It’s designed for other people in the room, primarily, to entertain / bring extra commentary / give a sports broadcast. You can’t really look at it when you’re playing because it’s so fast, it’s not really possible apart from those key points where it gives extra information.
RB: With the sort of games we make you’re always going to have to be focused on the main screen. When I used to play games with my brother growing up, he used to say “why didn’t you go over there”, so we decided to feed into that and really play it up as we have the second screen, let’s encourage people to get involved with the game.
DC: When I used to play games like this on the Amiga there’d be a quick turnaround, throwing the controller around and waiting for your turn. With this it’s something you can be involved in while you’re waiting for your go.
NL: Aside from that level of interaction with others in the room, is this single-player only?
RB: Yes, it’s a single player game.
NL: Are players able to use the likes of the Wii U Pro Controller, Classic Controller Pro and so on?
RB: There’s no technical reason why not, so we’ll support the Pro Controller and… I don’t know if our controls will stretch to a Wii Remote but we’ll try. We’d love it to be as successful as possible and, seeing as you can play on the TV that’s something we can look at. But we haven’t currently done it.
NL: Moving onto a less important topic, what inspired the use of cats as prominent characters?
RB: It’s a strange evolution that brought cats into the game, apart from the fact that we like cats! The story came from… actually the second part “Buddy on Rails” came first, we had this funny idea of playing down the main character’s name in the title, it made us laugh talking about it, like “what if we called it ‘Some Guy on Rails’. So we went on from there and Dan was like, “yeah, but come on, you’ve got to have some kind of emotional attachment”.
NL: So the player is the Buddy?
RB: Yeah, you play as “Buddy on Rails” (laughs). We had internal arguments, such as “well there’s a whole series called The Legend of Zelda that’s based on a secondary character, so we can go with that too”!.
DC: And we had the idea for a while of the cat being a second co-op player that you can bring in. We’re not doing that now but the cat stayed around, afterwards we added all these cats and they looked amazing. We had a Professor character that was on the TV, he was the guy telling you what to do back in the base. Then the cat replaced him because we decided it was so awesome.
Whenever we come to conferences etc we usually meet with eShop people, and it’s amazing how united everybody is in making really good games. There’s obviously a commercial aspect, but primarily they’re thinking about making awesome games.
NL: It’s a talking cat?
RB: Well, it’s an interpreted cat.
DC: You can’t tell if he’s talking yet, he’s using computers to tell you stuff.
RB: He’s a very intelligent cat! So the story is that they’re on a space science lab somewhere in the future, and all the mice have been experimented on but taken over the lab, and they’re stealing all the cats from Earth. So you’ve gone up there to get all of the cats back. It made sense because obviously they’re the natural enemy, intelligent mice; the only thing that’s stopping the intelligent mice from colonising the earth is the number of cats living there.
NL: So… it’s intelligent mice…
RB: Intelligent mice versus you and the cats. You have to go through freeing the cats, and the cats you get form your ‘cat army’, and you can use them in stages to get more cats, until you free all of the cats.
NL: I never thought I’d ask this, but do the cats power up your ship?
RB: In a manner of speaking, there’s a way that you can get better stats as you go through, related to how you do.
NL: There are secondary weapons, then? Are these limited in ammo, or are they all unlimited like the primary weapon mentioned earlier?
DC: All the guns are unlimited ammo, at the moment there’s four different types and you collect them in each stage; you start each stage fresh with nothing but the most basic gun. You collect them throughout the stage and once you get it you can select and switch to it, so part of the strategy in a level is considering what you have, what gun is good against certain enemies, you might need this gun to get past a certain area. It’s sort of pared down, a simple but strategic way of using weapons.
RB: I guess at the end of the stage you’re all excited that you’ve freed this cat, and kind of throw your hands in the air, but all your guns go away (laughs).
NL: So even though there are cumulative targets to hit in order to unlock levels, each stage feels standalone in nature? Are there themed worlds, for example?
RB: There are clusters of stages that have the same themes.
DC: Graphically there are tile-sets for worlds that are different, and that’ll relate to similar objects; there are a lot of different rail types and special objects, that do things with doors etc. We’ll group them in stages so that you can learn how to use them in that area.
RB: For example there are some rails that you can’t jump from, like super magnets, so you’re stuck to them and have to find another way off. So there’ll be a group of stages that use that in small ways, and then a whole stage full of these rails.
NL: Will there be online leaderboards in this game?
RB: With Miiverse sharing, people sharing their progress, we don’t see that it’s a necessary requirement; it’s nice having built-in Miiverse support. We figured as we have a nice results screen that shows how you’ve done, people will post that.
DC: At the moment we don’t have scoring. It’s all about completing the level and freeing the cats.
RB: The results screen will show the ‘completeness’ of how well you’ve done.
NL: That gives us a neat segway into the topic of Miiverse, what have you made of that service so far? Would you look to make use of it as developers with an official account in the community?
RB: We have nothing to announce at this stage! We love Miiverse and will support it as much as we can. It’s great, and lovely to see what the fans think, their progress and the funny things they get up to and, yeah, we’re excited to be able to talk to people directly through it.
NL: The Wii U eShop has evolved a lot since the system launch. What do you think of the library so far and, perhaps more importantly, the lineup of games still to come?
RB: It’s a great place to be, there are an awful lot of people that we’d like to be their peers. I think most of my own personal Wii U collection is a 50/50 split between eShop games and others, and looking at the show floor here at EGX there’s really great games. Another nice thing about eShop developers is, whenever we meet up we always have such similar mindsets and get on really well.
DC: Whenever we come to conferences etc we usually meet with eShop people, and it’s amazing how united everybody is in making really good games. There’s obviously a commercial aspect, but primarily they’re thinking about making awesome games, and it’s great that they’ve got this channel that’s really working for them.
NL: Do you think there’s something about Nintendo as a platform holder, or perhaps the eShop, that attracts a certain kind of developer?
DC: I think that’s true. We were chatting to some people that are iOS developers moving over to 3DS, and a lot of people just want to get back to making games that are games. iOS is great for a lot of things but it’s a complicated world to make games for these days. Some want to get back onto consoles, still make games the same sort of size but get straight to games players, while dedicated hardware has so many features available.
NL: With the company previously working on PS Minis. How’ve you found the “boring stuff” in terms of the practicalities of getting the game towards launch on the eShop?
RB: It’s been a breeze, comparable, I’d say. Before Minis I worked on PS3 years ago; they all have their quirks, I’d say, there’s this really positive thing with Nintendo as they’re so gameplay focused. They just want to get your game out as you want it to be; it’s incredibly encouraging and you get amazing feedback. That’s been great, we haven’t hit any hurdles or any of the famous barriers that everyone’s always talking about. It’s been baffling to us actually, because when we contacted Nintendo to see about bringing some of our games to 3DS, which was the initial message I sent, they’ve been nothing but supportive since the first email. And I had no previous relationship with them.
NL: Have you considered the 3DS yet?
RB: We do consider the 3DS, I love it!
NL: Have you tested anything or messed around with ideas on it?
RB: We’re not developing for 3DS at the moment, but we certainly consider it as a great platform and with the eShop on there at the moment it’s very inviting. But we’re only a small company, there are four of us, so there’s not the bandwidth for us to make a 3DS game at the same time as a Wii U game.
NL: As it’s all the rage right now, can we get your thoughts on the Kickstarter craze? So many games seem to be coming through crowdfunding now.
RB: I don’t really have any strong opinion on it, but any way that people can get their games made is fine. I love seeing the enthusiasm that people have for projects, like the Mighty No.9 campaign; it’s been lovely to watch. It’s nice to know that people want to make and play Mega Man-style games, and that’s really encouraging to us as that’s the sort of market we’re aiming at.
You see the odd controversy but I don’t really look into it. To be honest we’re so busy keeping Scram Kitty going that we don’t have time to think about other projects.
DC: Kickstarter’s interesting because, if you make a normal person into a publisher and they decide where the money goes that’s what you get. People spend with their heart. When games get overfunded quite a lot I worry about them, because they have the money they want to make the game, get really popular for that reason and get all this extra money, so they’ve got all this responsibility. I think it’s a positive thing, though, and great that people have such a connection with developers.
NL: To finish off, what would you say as your big pitch to Wii U owners for Scram Kitty and His Buddy on Rails?
DC: If you want to play the games that you used to play when you were 15, nowadays, this is the game for you.
NL: If you were 15 in the mid-’90s, right?
DC: Well, just think to summer Holidays when you’d hang out with your friend to play games all day, and didn’t have a job to go to, this is that game!
RB: We’re making an interesting hybrid of some of our favourite games, and hopefully Wii U fans will enjoy it!
We'd like to thank Rhodri Broadbent and Dan Croucher for their time, as well as Nintendo UK for arranging the interview. We've also posted the latest trailer for Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails below — are you excited about this one?