James Hoag

Earlier this year we reported on the announcement of Mekazoo, a forthcoming title with gameplay that harkens back to the glory days of speed-based platformers. As exemplified by Nintendo's recent Nindie crusade, the Wii U eShop is no stranger to independent games, making it the perfect home for this flagship title from developer The Good Mood Creators.

To find out more, we took the opportunity to sit down with James Hoag of The Good Mood Creators at PAX Prime this year to discuss what exactly makes Mekazoo the indie platformer to keep an eye on.

Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

James Hoag: Hi readers! I'm James Hoag from The Good Mood Creators!

How did The Good Mood Creators come about? What's your background and how did you come up with the name?

The Good Mood Creators started forming while we were at DigiPen. Jarrett Slaven, the creative director, and I met and worked on his project that he had started with a friend, and it was Mekazoo. I saw it early on and I kind of got what they were going for, and at that time it was a very different game. It had similar animals, but it was just a completely different thing. During the two years we spent developing that, we kind of grew a simultaneous vision of what it could be and a vision of what the company could be. Like, what if we found people at our school that we know are talented developers that could be great professionals and offer them an opportunity to have a lot of control in something, and a lot of say in what it could be if they shared our vision?

We started approaching people we knew were available and had the talents to fill in the gaps and we just kind of went forward with this philosophy of making quality products we wanted to play when we were kids. That's what made us want to make games. So, The Good Mood Creators are a group of people that want to put other people in a great mood and make them enjoy our products and just inspire them to do the same sort of thing. Go out and have a dream and achieve it! We're really happy to have a bunch of people that don't have much industry experience except for their education and really give them an opportunity to show their vision is interesting and worth having a lot of expression. We're a pretty open company. We're like a family.


Tell us a little about your upcoming game Mekazoo. It's obviously a platformer, but what makes it unique in the genre?

Mekazoo is unique in the genre because in Mekazoo you have five unique abilities that are separated out into each of the five main animal characters. The only way to access each one's ability is to rapidly be switching between those on the fly and the levels are designed to compliment one pair at a time. Players get to go through that section and explore that specific set of abilities. We think that's unique to the genre because oftentimes those abilities are all piled into one character.

We're able to focus our attention on these ten unique sets of abilities and really make that moment shine for fast and explorative play. I think we bring a lot to the genre that's similar to Donkey Kong Country, Sonic, and Mario, but we're also separating ourselves from the puzzle-platformers that are coming out too because we like more flowy gameplay. I believe that exists already in a lot of those IPs, but we're trying to bring the twist of the animals and the abilities shifting out into that. Part of the action is rapidly switching between your abilities and having what you want most for what's coming up next.

Do players select their two animals before the stage starts, or is each world specific to a grouping?

Each world is specifically setup for a combination of animals, but we do have backtracking and finding new switches in those areas that will give you another set. The player choice to switch between animals is something that would make level design very difficult because we would have to design levels that work for all ten possible combinations. I think what we discovered early on is that it's just not going to make the best section design, so we look at the set of animals that are going to take it on, then we explore that with other sets to see if any others make that moment interesting as well.

As you unlock abilities by fighting bosses, coming back through the content to get all of the possible rewards out of these levels, you'll be able to explore and find new areas and revisit these levels with a new set of animals. It's definitely controlled, but it's controlled because we feel that makes the most powerful section design. Each moment can be crafted really well.

You touched a little on being inspired by Donkey Kong and Sonic, but were there any other games that helped inspire Mekazoo?

I think Mega Man had a big inspiration on our design as well with the idea of the bosses you fight giving you abilities. Our narrative though is a little more linear because in Mega Man you could pick whatever boss you wanted to fight, but even then they had a kind of built-in structure. We're kind of taking out the explorative nuance of Mega Man and in this we're just going to put you through the levels and at the end of each world you fight a boss, then the next world kind of focuses on that animal and how it works with all of the other ones you had prior to it. You also get to retrace and go back and find new things that you couldn't have found before, or maybe not have found as easily. It's just a cool way for us to explore that and we always made the analogy to Mega Man


Going beyond the gameplay, even the music in Mekazoo sounds like it was inspired by Donkey Kong and Sonic.

I think that has to do with M.J. Quigley, our really talented sound composer. He loves David Wise, who is the writer of the music in Donkey Kong Country, and this game does have its ties to that. I think his goals with it were to bring that video game sound to it while also matching the creative direction from Jarrett Slaven who essentially came up with the whole idea of Mekazoo having a really eclectic soundtrack. It's something that he doesn't necessarily hear in games. There's a little bit of hip-hop, a little electro-swing, even some rock and roll. It was M.J. saying that for people to attach to this as gamers and see the inspirations, these songs should have a little bit of that history of video-gameness. The soundtrack should be nostalgic because the game is supposed to be nostalgic. He kind of added into that eclectic sound to tie to the roots of what fans of Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Mario really would hear. I think we got a really cool balance and I'm really excited about the music in this.

Is the soundtrack going to be available for download at any point?

Absolutely! We have had a five track EP release, but we are going to do another print I think of that before we launch. After launch, we definitely plan on releasing the full soundtrack. Something that we've always wanted was a soundtrack that we wanted enough to make into an album. We've always strove for that and M.J. is going to be cutting all of the tracks from their dynamic in-game use to an actual album cut.

How has it been working with Nintendo and developing on the Wii U?

We're still really early on in development on the Wii U and I'm not able to say too much at this point. We are in Unity 5, so we will be putting it on the Wii U, but everything is so early in that. We're not really able to announce for any of our consoles yet, but all of that should be finalized around the end of this year.

With the simultaneous launch desire that we have, we want to hit all of the consoles, but we have to make sure everything is in line before we start making announcements. Unfortunately, I can't give you guys good information, but we're definitely targeting the platform and we really love the audience and know that you guys are gonna be huge fans of the game, so it's an absolute that we will be on the Wii U.


Can you talk about any GamePad specific functionality?

We're going to keep it focused on the single-stick controls, then as we're developing we're going to look into stuff. We know the GamePad has some uses for it. Just being able to play Mekazoo on the GamePad screen is nice, but the touch sensitivity could work really well and it may be just another control scheme option that we can give people.

One idea is to clean up the Wii U's display a little by allowing the HUD to be on the GamePad so you can just look down and see what set of animals you have. We will be doing a lot of exploration into that and maybe how that even helps out in co-op multiplayer. But, until we get some of that stuff lined out, we can't make any official announcements. We love the GamePad for its extra functionality, and really for me I play most of my games on the Wii U while my wife is watching Netflix, so I can still be connected and playing EarthBound while she's trying to use the TV. We're looking into all of those functionalities to make sure we have it resolved by the time we launch.

Have you faced any significant challenges in the development process?

[laughs] Absolutely! I mean, it wouldn't be good development if you weren't running into problems, and our philosophy at The Good Mood Creators, and something that we were taught while we were getting our education in game design, is that the best thing for a game company to do is fail faster. So, get your idea done, put it out, and try it, test it, see what's wrong with it, and iterate on it. We've been doing that since the beginning and it means we've had a ton of failures, we've learned a ton of hard lessons along the way, but that really is what I feel makes our game as good as it can be. If we had just assumed it would be amazing and focused on just building it internally without letting people try, then we wouldn't have what we have right now. We got it up and running as fast as we could, we got people's hands on it as fast as we could, and we weren't afraid to change things drastically.

Our frog has gone through five serious new revisions just to get the swing feeling just right. That's important! And it feels really good and really satisfying and we've been iterating on how it targets different posts and watching testers and watching them fail and revisiting it. We're going to keep doing that until the very end. That's just our approach. We run into failures all the time and we appreciate the failures!


Is there a release date or window for Mekazoo at this time?

Our announcement right now is early 2016. We were aiming to launch it this year but it's getting delayed for development reasons. Internally we just want to make it as good as it can be. We're still young in the industry so we feel like we kinda mis-stepped there a bit and got ahead of ourselves, but we're keeping it at early 2016. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we'll have a firm release date. That's our goal: to be so close to done with it by the end of this year that we can say 'for sure, this is the month, this is the day,' but working with all of these new companies we want to make sure everything is lined out right. We want to be able to say 'it's coming out on this day, thanks so much for waiting, we hope you love it.'

And you're aiming to release on all platforms at the same time?

That would be our goal! If that doesn't happen, it'll be a very big disappointment for us, and it's why we're tentatively waiting on a release date.

Is there anything else that you wanted to add for the readers?

It's just been really nice. Caring about the project like we do and working so hard on it for three years and putting it out in front of people and getting people to see, understand, and appreciate what we're trying to do has been really rewarding. If anything, I just want to say thank you to everybody that's been involving themselves with us and excited and really looking forward to our game; we hope we don't let you guys down.

Our goal is to make the best platformer ever. We know that's a lofty goal, but that really is our goal! We want to aim for that. If people say that it's not, then we're going to be listening to those people about why they don't think it is and try to make it better. So, 1. thank you for coming on board and 2. know that our goal is to give you the best product we can.

We would like to thank James again for taking the time to speak with us.