They say that the apple never falls far from the tree, and that's certainly true of UK startup Playtonic Games. Based on an industrial estate in the middle of the rolling English countryside, this team of former Rare developers is but a stone's throw away from the historic town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where Rare founders Chris and Tim Stamper founded Ultimate Play the Game back in the 1980s. Just a little further down the road you'll find Twycross, where Rare relocated during its Nintendo years - first to a converted farmhouse and later to a state-of-the-art, purpose-built office complex, where it remains to this day under the ownership of Microsoft.
All companies change over time, and the Rare of today is a very different beast to the one which created titles like Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie. That is partly down to the change of ownership, but another factor is the migration of key staffers; over the years the likes of Martin Hollis, Steve Ellis, Mark Betteridge, Phil Tossell, David Wise, Chris Seavor and - of course - the Stampers themselves - have all moved on.
We've seen the likes of Nyamyam, Gory Detail and FortuneFish all appear in recent times, but few Rare off-shoots can boast the sheer volume of former talent that Playtonic can; with the exception of the company's PR expert and resident word-smith Andy Robinson - who is a former video game journalist and the ex-editor of CVG - every single Playtonic member is an ex-Rare employee. Project Director & Software Engineer Chris Sutherland was at Rare for 25 years and worked on the likes of Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie, while Managing Director & Creative Lead Gavin Price had his feet under a desk at Twycross for 15 years, and oversaw titles like Grabbed by the Ghoulies, Viva Piñata and Kinect Sports. Character Art Director Steve Mayles is the brother of Rare's current Creative Director Gregg Mayles, and spent 22 years at Rare creating characters for games like Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie and Viva Piñata.
Technical Director & Software Engineer Jen Restmeier worked on Nintendo's portables before helping to create the internal tech which would power Perfect Dark Zero, while Environmental Art Director Steven Hurst and Technical Art Director Mark Stevenson come with 18 and 20 years of experience at Rare respectively, having contributed to games like Kameo and Kinect Sports, amongst others. Add in the audio contributions of David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke - music-making legends as far as Rare fans are concerned - and it's clear that Playtonic has assembled a formidable selection of talent at its Burton Upon Trent offices.
"Having a studio that went back to making games like we used to at Rare back during the N64 days is something I've wanted to do for a good four or five years," says Price. "It was just about waiting for the right pieces of the puzzle to come together." Mayles adds that Playtonic is very much set-up like the Rare of the past, with each staff member encouraged to chip in with feedback or comments. "We're not precious about our own personal ideas," he says. "People feel they can say anything about any aspect of the game. That's kind of how it used to be in the N64 days really, with the small team size."
There's a real sense of camaraderie within this fledgling company, and listening to the interplay between the staff members it's clear that the friendships and bonds nurtured during their days at Rare are still going strong. There's an understanding here which transfers directly into the game Playtonic is creating: Yooka-Laylee, a spiritual successor to Banjo Kazooie which will be partly-funded by a Kickstarter campaign and is being constructed using Unity. Creating a game with an off-the-shelf game engine was important for Playtonic, given the small size of the team - but Restmeier doesn't feel that it will be detrimental to the end result. "In the past we've worked with a lot of our own engines that we wrote from scratch and we've seen all the things that can wrong," he says. "Unity is small enough that you can build whatever you want, but big enough that you don't have to start with the tedious work of writing an animation system, writing a particle engine, writing AI, and stuff like that. All that comes already in. Unity is the sweet spot between an engine where you basically plug in your data and an engine where you can build anything you want."
If you said Yooka-Laylee was Rare's next title, there would be little reason to doubt it. It has all the hallmarks of the developer's best work; large, explorable environments, engaging characters, infectious music and tight controls. We played a very early build of the game and came away suitably impressed; this is only three months of work, yet it already feels more complete than many fully-developed titles. Playtonic's Steve Mayles explains that the team is able to work so quickly and effectively because it has been structured in a way which apes how Rare operated back in the '90s; everyone has total trust in each other's abilities and no one is afraid to interject with feedback or suggestions. Another element which has been effectively carried over is the trademark British sense of humour; as you'll no doubt have noticed from the Kickstarter video, Playtonic wants to make people laugh as well as entertain them.
When you comes to Kickstarter projects, people tend to be sceptical when industry veterans - like the team assembled at Playtonic - choose to turn to crowdfunding rather than seek out cash themselves. In this case, the Kickstarter isn't the be-all and end-all, as Price explains. "We're not reliant on the Kickstarter. The Kickstarter really helps us 'level up' the game. I like crowdfunding - it enables creators such as ourselves to retain full creative control and ownership of IP rights, which especially important for us, with Yooka-Laylee also containing lots of characters that we want to define lots of our future games to, we can't do a deal with any publisher - we'd lose the rights to those characters." That seems to suggest that Playtonic wouldn't be open to the kind of relationship that Rare enjoyed with Nintendo and currently has with its current owner, Microsoft - but that's not to say that something couldn't be worked out in the future. "There could be chances that we might work with a partner, if it makes sense at the time," explains Price. One of those instances could be giving the game a physical release - something Price is very keen on. "My inner child would love to see [Yooka-Laylee] on as shelf and in a physical box, maybe a special edition."
Looking at Yooka-Laylee in action, it's clear that this kind of game is going to be of massive interest to Nintendo fans, who are arguably more accepting of this kind of cute platformer than their Xbox One and PlayStation 4-owning counterparts. "I think it certainly could be the case that there will be a lot of Nintendo fans in what we're doing," Sutherland says. "In fact, of all the emails and communications we get, a high percentage of them are asking us about Nintendo-related features. It's quite exciting for us because of where we've come from and our history."
When we departed the Playtonic offices - taking a moment to grab a snap of us wearing a massive Donkey Kong jacket handed out during the days of the SNES - we did so with a renewed sense of optimism. We'd rolled up to the door expecting to see little more than concept artwork, yet by the time we left we'd had the chance to not only see Yooka-Laylee in motion, but to actually get to play it, too. Playtonic insist that the game isn't reliant on the success of its Kickstarter campaign, but the fact that so much work has already taken place will bode well for the team. It proves that these guys mean business, and that they're not simply dragging up some old memories in order to fund their next venture. There's so much of that classic Rare magic within the walls of the Playtonic office that it's impossible to enter without taking a bit of it home with you - and from what we've seen of Yooka-Laylee, it's obvious that the company has been successful in embedding its work with that same unmistakable quality.
You can see the full interview, with a look at the game and Playtonic's development studio, in the video below.