Friday, 31 July 2009

[219] Simon Viklund Interview (GRIN)

Even though my feature on remakes re-envisioned for digital distribution finally found a home on Gamasutra (as Classics Live Again: The Art of Downloadable Remakes), there was much material from the initial interviews that couldn't be shoe-horned into a 'mere' 3000 word feature. I'll start by reposting my chat with Simon Viklund, from GRIN, who served as Creative Director on the hit remake Bionic Commando Rearmed. He was eloquent, bold, and offered great insight into the design (and thought) processes behind remaking such a fan-favourite.

-- To start with, I would like some background context to how the project began. Of course, GRIN are also working on the fully-rebooted console version of Bionic Commando, but was Rearmed planned simultaneously? How did the idea to rebuild the game come about - why not just port across the NES or Arcade original, like so many other XBLA games?

BC3D was prototyped and approved for full production before the idea of a sidescroller remake of the original game came up. The initial intention was to have it be just a “port” or a low budget version made by some other development studio – it was and still is primarily a marketing release. The more we discussed it between the companies though, Capcom saw the potential in the game and eventually decided to put more effort into it. As we, GRIN, did both the 3D sequel and the 2D remake we could tie the two titles together not only through story but also visually and technically to make the sum of the two greater than each title by itself.

-- Bionic Commando is now over 20 years old. Rearmed, at its heart, is a re-vamped port. Did you approach the project from the point-of-view of remaking the game for a new audience? Or is it satisfying a niche?

We wanted to both please old fans and appeal to those who hadn’t played the original. Detailed references to the original were put into the game in order to make it a truly “worthy” remake – you know, the 8-bit style music, the 80’s aesthetics, the pixelated icons, make “Haley” and her Hyper Bazooka a reference to “Hal”, etc. The graphics were updated to make it visually appealing to everyone. I do, however, feel that a remake – any remake – should do more than just update the graphics; it should update the gameplay as well, because it’s not only graphics that age – gameplay does too. The challenges of games back in the day are not the kind of challenges that today’s gamers enjoy – they see it as purely frustrating. I can feel that today’s games are leading the player by the hand a little too much, but we wanted Rearmed to at least be a little more accessible in terms of difficulty. Hence the difficulty options and infinite “continues”. Still, Rearmed is a tricky game but that’s all part of the legacy.

-- The original Bionic Commando was created at a time when the vocabulary of game design was still being created. One of its major innovations is the grappling arm. However, now that conventions are more solid, how do you think 'an action platformer where you can't jump' will go down with those more used to Halo, or God of War?

I think that anyone who thinks that a platform game requires a jumping ability is narrow minded. I really do. Bionic Commando is not just an action game – it has a fairly prominent puzzle dimension too. By trading the ability to jump for the ability to swing you are forced to think in new ways: Suddenly you need to look at ceilings and overhead platforms for the way forward. The inability to jump makes you completely dependent on the bionic arm. It highlights the bionic arm, the core mechanic of the game, and it is therefore a brilliant design choice – whether it was made because of a shortage of buttons on the NES controller or not. In the “jump or no jump” issue alone, I honestly couldn’t care less about what the so-called “modern gamers” would say.

Ok, I’m going to go into a rant here - even if this interview isn’t really focused on this question – but I have to get this off my chest so bear with me…

Rearmed consists of block-by-block remakes of the original levels and a jump ability would completely mess up the level design, forcing us to make fundamental changes to the layout to accommodate this new movement mechanic… but let’s assume for a moment that Rearmed wasn’t a remake, that we had created entirely new levels from the get go and that we therefore had the possibility to add a jump mechanic. The game would actually be even harder: First off you would have more core mechanics to juggle (and more buttons to move your thumb between) – jumping, grappling and shooting. Then, the levels would suddenly demand that you jump off the very edge of platforms in order to reach something with your bionic arm, resulting in even more occasions where you fall past the block that you need to grapple – which we know is one of the trickiest things to pull off in Rearmed.

Then someone says “well just because one gives the player the ability to jump doesn’t mean that one needs to design the game around combining the jump ability with the bionic arm” but what that person fails to realize is that by giving the player a certain ability you also give the player a pretty good reason to believe that this ability is needed. Either the player will jump towards grappling points that one can reach from the ground and thereby make things unnecessarily hard for himself – or he will start jumping off ledges left and right thinking that there are platforms “out there” that you can reach if you just jump towards them. Visually, the game would be more difficult to get an overview of because all distances would increase. More often than now the player would hesitate and ask himself “can I make it across this pit?”

The game would just be vaguer because you would have these mechanics at your disposal that you wouldn’t know when you needed to combine – and even if you never actually needed to combine them you would think that you needed to, and you’d try to combine them and in the process make things overly complex. In the end, if one added a jump ability that wasn’t really required to complete the game – why add it in the first place? People don’t realize that limitations and simplicity create freedom, because you can look at a situation and know exactly how to solve it – because you know what you can and can’t do. Piling capabilities on top of each other doesn’t create freedom – it only creates and abundance of choices and in the wake of that: Confusion. The same goes for making the player able to shoot the arm out in any direction with the analog stick – I recall some reviewer bringing up that idea too. It wouldn’t float for a minute.

-- Rearmed adds a lot of presentation flourishes, extra modes, new features, as well as the HD graphics and your new score. However, the central gameplay and unforgiving difficulty are still very faithful to the NES game. Since release it has been branded as a 'hardcore' game for nostalgics - what's your take on that?

It’s not what we aimed for, but I don’t mind that the game has that kind of reputation. Novice gamers can play the game on the “easy” difficulty setting – that should be a breeze to pretty much anyone. In these modern times we have long games that are so forgiving that you run through without a hitch, while in the olden days we had short games of which you played every little part over and over again (because of unforgiving demands on perfect timing and eye-to-hand coordination) and that was what made these old games long.

That’s one way to categorize new vs. old games: Long and easy vs. short and difficult. Rearmed is a block-by-block remake of the original game – we couldn’t make it easier or it would have been a 45 minute experience, despite the fact that we added like three levels. I realize that this sounds like a defense speech but what I really want to say is that some gamers should muster up some persistence and stop being such crybabies. It’s a game dammit – it’s supposed to be challenging!

-- Equally, some would argue that talented developers and inspired designers should invest time in their own, original work, as opposed to rehashing classics. Even with all of the new aspects in Rearmed, it is still tied to its source in the late 80s. How would you respond to that?

First off, if I’m considered an “inspired designer” then thanks for the compliment – but the fact that I am one surely hadn’t been proven before I made Rearmed anyway. Secondly, it’s impossible to determine how many original concepts fail to be made because the publishers or developers would rather create remakes, so it’s kind of a strange argument. I don’t think innovation is rewarded with high enough sales figures for publishers and developers to dare put all their efforts into that. Remakes, reused concepts and sequels are still the sure ways to a steady cash flow. If consumers want innovation they need to vote with their money – but I’m not sure innovation is what they want. If it was, Halo 3 wouldn’t outsell Mirror’s Edge.

People don’t want new IPs and new concepts. They just want good games – regardless if it’s a remake, a reused concept, a sequel or something entirely new – and that makes the argument in question pointless. Lastly, I think you (or the people you claim have these opinions) formulate the argument in their favor by using the negative word “rehash”. Rehashes we can all live without, but ambitious remakes of deserving classics that both celebrate and update the original are always welcome. Tell me if I’m wrong.

-- Did you have much communication with Capcom Japan about the game? I see that Tokuro Fujiwara is credited as a 'consultant'. Were you given freedom to indulge your ambitions, or were there certain rules you had to abide to?

I had full freedom to indulge my ambitions, but needless to say I had to run every major idea by Capcom and have it approved. Rearmed is very much a display of Japanese and Swedish forces combined. We had Capcom’s original concept, my ideas on how to improve that concept, Shinkiro’s comic style art and GRIN’s brilliant technology and effective development pipeline. There was a constant exchange of ideas regarding difficulty, trailer scripts, logotype design and so on – almost no decision was made by one company or one person alone. It was a great collaboration.

-- Rearmed may be an exception, because GRIN's work has been championed in reviews around the 'net, but do you think that working on these remakes and ports is a thankless task? Many of these developers put time and money into these games, but the finished product only re-affirms the quality of the original game, and boosts the reputation of the original designers. Do you think there is scope for creativity and recognition in making games like Rearmed?

As you say it hasn’t been a thankless task for us, but there are probably other developers who beg to differ. I went into this project because it was a chance to work on the remake of one of my favorite games – not to make a name for myself – so I don’t know if I would claim the task was “thankless” even if we would not have gotten any recognition as creators of the remake. It so happens that we did get quite some recognition and that’s of course a huge bonus – and it also answers your last question: Yes I do think there’s a scope for creativity and recognition in making remakes. You just have to put your heart into it, and the gamers will sense it.

-- What are you thoughts about download services like Xbox Live Arcade, the Virtual Console/Wii Ware and PSN? At the moment they seem divided between new, small-scale games and ports of classics (either revamped or otherwise).

I think it’s very much a growing – and improving – business. Download services are becoming less and less a platform for mere “cell phone style” games and half-assed ports and more and more a platform for quality titles. Braid and Castle Crashers are of course excellent examples of this – and they were both very successful so we’ll see more of that in the future without a doubt. Hopefully these lower-risk projects with smaller budgets dare to be truly innovative so that developers of big budget games dare to follow suit. In other words – downloadable games are a force to be reckoned with in themselves, but I think they can pave a few roads and let a breeze of fresh air into other parts of the business as well.

-- There are many Western developers behind these remakes of Japanese of properties - of course, GRIN are based in Sweden. Do you think there is anything typically Western/European/Swedish about Rearmed? Do you think that the North American and European 'gamer subculture' is more nostalgic than the Japanese? Or is there anything fundamentally unique with how the NA/EU subculture views classics like Bionic Commando?

Bionic Commando was a cult hit in the West, but Capcom themselves had a hard time understanding its success because back home – in Japan – it flopped, so I think it was a Western concept from the very beginning. The fact that it has a military theme alone makes it very un-Japanese. Furthermore, I don’t think that anything we did with the concept in Rearmed is typically Swedish – maybe typically Western. The design of the weapons is very Western I guess; you have the shotgun, the rocket launcher, the machine gun, etc. It’s quite cliché. Also, some of the new features, such as the ability to grapple barrels and throw them at enemies, are mostly very Western – we’re all about offensive force and destruction here in the West. If Rearmed was made in Japan they’d probably focus on other things. What that would be, I’m afraid we’ll never know.

Thanks to Simon Viklund for taking the time to talk with me. Visit GRIN's site here.

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