Interview | Playtonic’s Mark Stevenson on Project Ukulele & Rare Days

By Michael Whittaker 19.04.2015 18

With the announcement of Playtonic Games' Project Ukulele being not only a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie but also a game being worked on by former members of UK outfit Rare, the Internet was set ablaze with fans desperate to learn more. Cubed3 caught up with Mark Stevenson to discuss the Rare days and learn a bit more about the exciting Project Ukulele.
Image for Interview | Playtonic’s Mark Stevenson on Project Ukulele & Rare Days
Cubed3: Nintendo fans have an enduring love for Rare, and perhaps reminisce most about the incredible games produced during the N64 era. What are your stand out memories from that time?

Mark Stevenson, Technical Art Director at Playtonic: So many it's hard to choose, it was just such an exciting time to be in game development with the transition from predominantly 2D into 3D. I think seeing and playing Super Mario 64 for the first time was an incredible revelation. In fact, Nintendo produced so many amazing revolutionary games during that period, a lot of which remain personal favourites of mine to this day - Ocarina of Time, Pilotwings and WaveRace 64 particularly standout. Working on the N64 was probably one of my favourite times in my career. It was incredibly hard work but the creativity and camaraderie on the teams and sense of opportunity to blaze a trail was utterly mind blowing and I think we produced some amazing games in that period that I feel immensely proud of and fortunate to have been involved with.

Cubed3: Going back further, to 1994, PlayStation was on the horizon and creating a lot of excitement with its next generation machine, but with Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, there was worldwide astonishment at what was created on that hardware. Were you aware just how special a game you were making?

Mark: DKC was actually the first game I worked on. I'd been at Rare only a couple of weeks when through a chance encounter with Tim Stamper, where he saw my interest in character development, I found myself on the Donkey Kong Team. I was totally blown away by what I saw, so I'd have to say that I knew there and then how special this game was potentially going to be. For the rest of the team that had already been working with the tech and the game for a while I'm not so sure that they realised quite how special it was until the game was shown at the CES (a precursor to E3). Some of the team got to go along to the show and got to witness first-hand the response and disbelief that this was on the Super Nintendo and not a new console.

Cubed3: GoldenEye is perhaps the game - along with Super Mario 64 - that most defines the N64. When was the last time you played it, and what was that like?

Mark: Honestly, it was a long time ago. I've still got it somewhere along with my N64 and a whole host of consoles and computers and games I've collected over the years, dating right back to the Atari 2600 (VCS). I should probably find it out and play it, although I keep hoping we'll see a re-release or a re-master of the game one day.

Image for Interview | Playtonic’s Mark Stevenson on Project Ukulele & Rare Days

Cubed3: Comparisons are forever drawn between Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. Which one is better and why?

Mark: I think despite the comparisons, they were quite distinct games at their heart. I can't really say that one is better than the other, but if I had to choose a personal favourite then I'd have to stay loyal to my roots and go with Banjo. I loved the exploration of Banjo and all the amazing and humorous worlds and characters of Banjo. It's a really massive challenge to create a new IP in what was pretty much a new genre and then have such success with it from the start, so I have to tip my hat to the team for the amazing job they did. I know a lot of it was inspirational to the work we did on DK64.

Cubed3: There was universal heartbreak amongst Rare and Nintendo fans when news of the acquisition to Microsoft first surfaced. What were the reasons behind the move?

Mark: I can't really speak as to the reasons why - that's a question for Tim and Chris Stamper. The industry was definitely going through a lot of changes at this time. Teams were getting bigger, development budgets were getting bigger, and I think acquisitions of development studios by large well-funded publishers were just very much a part of those times.

Cubed3: Having been with Nintendo for so long, it must have been strange to move to Microsoft. What did that feel like and what were the differences you noticed working with both, Nintendo and Microsoft?

Mark: I don't think there were any real differences, generally. Rare has always been run by Rare and developed the games it chose to. I think any changes that occurred over time were more down to changes in the industry - bigger teams, bigger budgets, new tech, and so on.

Image for Interview | Playtonic’s Mark Stevenson on Project Ukulele & Rare Days

Cubed3: You left Rare in 2014 and went on to form part of Playtonic, subsequently going on to announce the exciting Project Ukulele. Can you tell us the challenges behind creating a new studio and also the story behind Project Ukulele's conception and your hopes for it?

Mark: We just wanted to replicate an environment matching our development experience at Rare during the SNES and N64 era that matches our personalities and creative strengths - it's that simple, and we think the games will reflect that process like they did before. It's now easier than ever to set up an independent studio, so we can concentrate on the important bit - making a great game!

Cubed3: Can you tell us what former Rare staff are working on the project? And how about other staff - is there anyone else involved that has an equally illustrious background?

Mark: At the minute all the staff working on actually developing the game are former Rare and all worked there during the Nintendo era of Rare - Gavin Price, Chris Sutherland, Jens Restemeier, Steve Mayles and Steven Hurst. We've also more recently added Andy Robinson to the company, who was previously a games journalist and the former editor of the CVG site. After such an overwhelming response since we went public, and the fact we want to involve our fans and community as much as possible in what we're doing, we felt it absolutely necessary to bring someone on board that can help deal with this level of community response and engagement. You can get more info on everyone and the games they've worked on by visiting our website http://www.playtonicgames.com.

Image for Interview | Playtonic’s Mark Stevenson on Project Ukulele & Rare Days

Cubed3: There is obvious inspiration for the project, but other than Banjo-Kazooie, what games have helped shape the project so far, and can you tell us how long it's been in-progress?

Mark: Inspiration comes from all over the place. We're calling it a spiritual successor, but we're not looking to make a clone. A lot has happened in the time since Banjo originally launched - advances in hardware, tools, and so on. We've been working on it full-time for a few months and we'll be building Ukulele exactly how we built all our games at Rare - to be the best game it can be on current hardware.

Cubed3: Do you have plans to bring Project Ukulele to Nintendo formats, either as a port or system specific version (for 3DS, for instance)?

Mark: We'd like to bring Project Ukulele to as many gamers as possible, and on as many platforms as possible, which is a big part of why we're launching a Kickstarter campaign in May to try and make this a reality and, hopefully, launch on as many platforms as possible, Day One. We're developing the game in Unity, so this also makes it easier to port to different consoles and ideally we'd love to add platform specific features as well. Let's see how the Kickstarter goes!

Cubed: Are you still in contact with other ex-Rare staff? And what are your thoughts on the idea of FortuneFish's projects?

Mark: Yes, most definitely. We're all still in contact with both ex- and current Rare staff. I've worked with a lot of amazing and talented people over the years and it's great to see them all working across everything from mobile to console. I love to see what people are working on and I'd like to think that there's still that sense of intense friendly competition we had across the teams at Rare. Always trying to outdo each other, but always encouraged and inspired by each other, as well. Unfortunately, or fortunately from a fan's perspective, I'm not finding much time to actually play games at the minute as we're incredibly busy with Project Ukulele.

Image for Interview | Playtonic’s Mark Stevenson on Project Ukulele & Rare Days

Cubed3: Would you ever team up with your former staff members to work on a future Rare Alumni project?

Mark: Wouldn't it amazing to get some of the original minds together? Those who made games like Jet Force Gemini and DKC and have an opportunity to make spiritual successors to those titles? I would love to see some of those games from the N64 days of Rare have another chance to shine and, even better, do so with the original masterminds behind them, giving the love and care that they deserve.

Cubed3: Finally, which Games on the Wii U are you most looking forward to this year?

Mark: It was Zelda, although recent news suggests this has been pushed to 2016 now! If we just said 'What upcoming games am I most looking forward to on Wii U' then It would definitely be Zelda and Project Ukulele, of course *winks*

Box art for Yooka-Laylee
Developer

Playtonic Games

Publisher

Team17

Genre

3D Platformer

Players

1

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European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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Zelda (guest) 19.04.2015#1

Amazing interview,probably the most interesting interview I've ever readSmilie

thank you for the kind words Smilie very interesting guy and talented team. Here's hoping we see Project Ukulele on Wii U!

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day

My only real experiences of Rare are the Donkey Kong, Star Fox and Killer Instinct games. Never really got the change to play Banjo or Kameo.

Can't wait to see how this turns out. Great interview. Smilie

Thank you for the kind words Smilie definitely check out banjo, its a incredible game and has aged amazingly. In fact i will stick my neck out and say that it is a better game than Mario 64!

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day

I played Mario 64 after Sunshine and I didn't really think much of it on both the DS and Wii Virtual Console. Will download the Banjo trial on 360 and see what it's like. Smilie

I can't wait to see what they come up with! I still have pristine boxed copies of Banjo one and two as well as jet force and an unboxed dk 64. I love old rare games hopefully that talent and feeling will come through in project ukulele

I play games... sometimes.

If this will be anything like the Rare of the times long lost so will this basically be the rebirth of the gaming industry as a whole...

...Well, maybe overreacted a little bit, but you get my point. XD It's gonna be HUGE!

The difference between illusion and reality is vague to the one who suffers from the former and questionable for the one suffering form the later.
RikuKH (guest) 19.04.2015#8

Thanks for asking about the 3DS version!

Cubed3: Finally, which games on the Wii U are you most looking forward to this year?
Mark: It was Zelda, although recent news suggests this has been pushed to 2016 now! If we just said 'What upcoming games am I most looking forward to on Wii U' then It would definitely be Zelda and Project Ukulele, of course *winks*

Official confirmation of it coming to Wii U there?? Smilie

( Edited 19.04.2015 23:29 by Adam Riley )

Adam Riley [ Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited ]
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter

No problem! Hopefully it happens Smilie i would imagine it would have similar features to those on the wii u version, having the method of two screens in common. I hope it becomes a reality!

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day

I think you're right Adam!!! i cannot wait for this. Now if Nintendo would just acquire playtonic...

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day

Utterly fantastic interview, I'll be keeping a close eye on this.

And, imho, I always preferred Banjo to M64 and DKR to MK64.
Unquestionably Nintendos games are more "important" and laid the groundwork for others.
But in terms of fun, Rare's got me won over hands down.

To this day I still want another racing game with a adventure mode!

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Last update; Mice,Plumbers,Animatronics and Airbenders. We also have the socials; Facebook & G+

Diddy Kong Racing was incredible! i too preferred it to Mario kart and the music was awesome too Smilie

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day
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Link2thefuture83 said:
Now if Nintendo would just acquire playtonic...

I don't think it's what Playtonic games would want though. They left Rare and made their own studio so they could make the games they want to make for the platforms they want to make them, I don't think they'd want to tie themselves to a company that would have a say on what they can create or not, or limit themselves to being tied to just one platform, I believe those guys had enough of being restrained.


On a totally different note, after just replaying DK64... and liking it but also being reminded of how frustrating a game it was, I seriously hope those guys won't make the same mistakes. Please. Not too many objects to collect that can only be picked up by one character, no bonus stages so frustrating they make you want to throw your controller, console and TV out the window... I managed to beat DK64 101% back on the N64 without having all the save states and stuff, but this time around, maybe because of the lack of slowdown on the VC in fact, which was present more on the N64, certain bonus stages were pretty much downright impossible for me. Or maybe I'm a worse player now than I was at the age of 20 or something Smilie, maybe age is what it is, but even back then, I did find it frustrating. So please, make it hard if you must but not frustratingly so.

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

Hi Rudy Smilie Nah I don't actually think Playtonic would want that either, for the reasons you stated. I was just referencing the old Nintendo/Rare days. I did love DK64, i think it had one of my favorite boss fights in a game, with King K Rool. classic! 

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day

RudyC3 said:
Link2thefuture83 said:
Now if Nintendo would just acquire playtonic...

I don't think it's what Playtonic games would want though. They left Rare and made their own studio so they could make the games they want to make for the platforms they want to make them, I don't think they'd want to tie themselves to a company that would have a say on what they can create or not, or limit themselves to being tied to just one platform, I believe those guys had enough of being restrained.
Yeah, was gonna reply pretty much the same thing. Indies are created to free themselves from the shackles of huge publishers. The beauty is in being able to get their games to as many people as possible, and the only way to do that is to launch on as many platforms as possible. If you want Nintendo to help Playtonic in any way, it should be to provide as much help and perhaps funds/extra staff as possible in order to get their game on Nintendo's platforms, as well as to ensure they get to grips with developing on their hardware to finish the game quicker and with less bugs. That's a much more useful and popular method these days from the big console developers, and it would certainly make sense for Nintendo to offer help given the game Playtonic is trying to create here.

Buying out teams/games for no reason than to get exclusive rights is shameful, imo. Should only happen if devs are on the brink of going out of business and need saving, or a game needs funds to actually get made (Bayonetta 2).

But I digress :p Great interview. Really interested to see how it turns out, but hope it's more Banjo 1 and less Banjo Tooie. Tooie got too frustrating and difficult.

Yes first off I agree great interview Sir. I am really loving all the old school 90s love. I was a full fledge gamer at that time before the wife and kids and life was different. I remember when DKC first came out it shocked me and my friends.....We had to have this title ......it seem like nintendo was pulling out all the stops to stay in the game againts the new consoles back then. Now adays so much has changed.....ive lost all my hair my kids are all teenagers and im middle adged....oh yes on the gaming front everything is 1000 gigs, HD, super expensive and very advanced. I really glad Nintendo still is around unlike some other companies like Atari THQ that did not make it......(heard Sega was having trouble I wish Nintendo would by them LOL) I wonder if RARE is next...... I do also feel they should stay independant as well that would allow them to truly make the games they want and not be tied down or dealyed in real creation. Yes Sir Link2thefuture83 I will be the the first to contribute to the kickstarter next month. I cannot wait for the title they are realeasing and all of the possible next tiles as well ( funny  think the should do a kick starter for each game lol.) Plus in the future i fell they should let nintendo borrow there ips.....we might be able to see there characters in a new Smash or Mario Kart like Sonic, Mega Man or Pacman....Keep A brotha in the know and we gon be alright Smilie !!!!
Thanks again HOOLA !!Smilie

thanks man! i will definitely be on kickstarter day one. My wii u needs this game, which i would buy on the reputation of those involved in the development alone! I would also certainly trust the talented team at Playtonic to breath new life into some of Ninty's franchises. Its far too early to tell what will happen in the future, but i bet Nintendo is keeping a very close eye on things and one thing is for sure: Project Ukulele is only going to gather up more hype the closer it gets to a release date. 

Michael is a freelance writer and camera operator He longs for the day he can finally buy a hover board and is intent on one day finding all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 One day

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