2017 felt a lot like the year of the 3D platformer. It was certainly a resurgence for a genre that for years prior found itself stranded in a desert. The year saw the releases of AAA hits Super Mario Odyssey and Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, as well as indie platformers A Hat in Time, Snake Pass, and Yooka-Laylee to name only three. Microsoft even got in the game by making Super Lucky’s Tale the poster child for the Xbox One X, and releasing Voodoo Vince Remastered.
All of a sudden 3D platformers went from being on life support to thriving. Even the future is a little brighter, with Spyro: Reignited Trilogy coming later this year. But beyond that, there’s not much for fans of the genre to sink their teeth into. Other than Spyro, the AAA space seems to have lost its interest in 3D platformers once again. The only other confirmed 2018 releases in the genre are the Kickstarter-funded Funk Unplugged and Happy Hell, and the little-known Flynn & Freckles from Spanish developer Rookie Hero Games.
Other promising entries have no release date at all. In the indie gaming scene, that could mean any one of these will be out in a matter of months or years, or never at all. The big ticket game is Psychonauts 2, which Double Fine pushed back “past 2018.” There’s also Lobodestroyo, Clive ‘n’ Wrench, Billie Bust Up, and Nytro which are all at various stages of development, but none of them have any kind of public release date attached.
While the future is a little brighter than the past, the genre still feels like it’s on shaky ground. To waylay those fears, we spoke to four different indie developers of 3D platformers about the genre, their experiences, and on the future of the genre. Those developers are Marcus Horn, the creator of Macbat 64, Rob Wass, lead developer of Clive ‘n’ Wrench, OhiraKyou, creator of Nytro, and Rookie Hero Games, creators of Flynn & Freckles.
The 3D platforming genre has been dormant for many years, since the days of the PlayStation 2 and Gamecube when they were dominant. But as the industry “matured,” and shifted to generic, brown-tinged military shooters, the days of the colorful, kid-friendly mascot platformer vanished seemingly overnight. At least, that’s the prevailing theory. Almost all four of the developers we spoke to instead offered a more nuanced take.
“3D platformers were more or less a stepping stone for developers, a sort of first step into 3D game development,” says MacBat 64 creator Marcus Horn. “A game where you can explore the world in any direction by running and jumping is a perfect starting point to tackle the new characteristics of the third dimensions. So I think that many developers turned to other ideas and evolved their designs beyond the traditional platforming once they improved on or even perfected the basics.”
“3D was once a novelty. So, simply building a 3D world and giving players a reason to explore it was enough to produce a novel product,” says Nytro developer OhiraKyou. “These ideas were also novel from a development perspective. Therefore, many developers wanted to see what they could do with the basic ideas of 3D movement. However, after the novelty wore off, developers likely wanted to apply what they had learned to more complex ideas.”
No matter how the genre died or why, there’s no denying its death (or evolution) was fueled by AAA developers moving away from the genre. Today, it’s up to indies by and large to revive platformers, but why is that the case?
“Indie devs tend to work on passion projects,” says Clive ‘n’ Wrench creator Rob Wass. “Their work comes from a place of “what I want to play” as opposed to “what will sell”. It feels to me like a generational thing too; we’ve gone from 8bit styled indie games, to 16bit and now finally we’re up to the PS1/PS2 era 3D games. I’d wager this is simply because up and coming indies are making games inspired by those they grew up with.”
Rookie Hero Games, the folks behind Flynn & Freckles share a similar idea why. “For the AAA developers is somewhat of a safe choice, they are certain people will surely buy them and they already have a base from which to reconstruct, which is also making players want to play new IPs. Super Mario Odyssey is a great example of a renewed AAA platformer, maintaining the classical essence of the character but also delivering a fresh and modern approach to the genre.”
Many indie developers have the freedom to work on whatever strikes their fancy. So what was it that made these indies work on 3D platformers in particular? They all shared the same sentiment: nostalgia.
“I’d been tinkering with modding games since childhood, the ability to change things and make a game different from what I’d purchased always fascinated me,” said Wass. “Growing up, my favorite games we’re almost always 3D platformers. As an adult though, I became increasingly frustrated that my favorite genre was all but dead. I’d spend hours complaining on message boards, to friends etc., until one day I realized that perhaps instead of whining, I could actually be the change I wanted to see!”
“Creating 3D platformers is probably the most fun I ever had in terms of game development,” Marcus Horn said. “Reliving all of these nostalgic feelings and all those happy thoughts materialize in your own work in a cartoony way is really a magical moment.”
OhiraKyou had a slightly sadder story. “In addition to Spyro, [Nytro] also serves as a spiritual successor to my cat Nitro. I started work on Nytro during the last of the many years she spent with me, and Nytro has inherited some of the behavior for which she was named.”
The best way to talk about the future of the genre is by talking specifically about upcoming games. Flynn & Freckles released recently on the European PlayStation store, and will be out soon around the globe on both PS4 and Steam, so let’s start there.
“Flynn & Freckles is a classical 3D platforming game (such as Spyro or Crash Bandicoot), but we’ve added also elements of exploration, combat, and puzzle resolving, all revolved around a fantastic pirate setting,” says Rookie Hero. “We wanted to achieve balance between levels so that you can encounter your hardcore platforming parts but also more open environments which you need to explore to beat the game and find certain secrets, as well as helping some of the townsfolk and other creatures in our adventure in order to proceed. We wanted the game to have a humorous tone, nothing too serious, a funny pirate adventure, and that is mostly represented in the game by its characters.”
The pirate setting and the story of having to steal a treasure is one unique to these types of games, but a no-brainer for Rookie Hero. “We liked platform games and we liked pirate-themed stories so, why not mix them together? That’s pretty much it, we thought it would make a very interesting starting point.”
Clive ‘n’ Wrench has had a rough time since its first Kickstarter campaign in 2014, when it was titled Clive and the Stones. The campaign raised only £537 of its £25,000 goal. Creator Rob Wass tried again with a second Kickstarter a year later, and while the game was much improved, it too fell well short of its goal.
Kickstarter hasn’t been kind to 3D platformers. A handful of succeeded, most famously Playtonic’s Yooka-Laylee and Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time, but for the most part, they don’t do well on the crowdfunding site. With so many failed campaigns, including two of his own, does that indicate a lack of an appetite for 3D platformers in general?
“I’m under no illusions on this one. Clive ‘n’ Wrench has had some “awkward teenage years”, both of the Kickstarter campaigns happened during this phase. I can completely understand why so few wanted to back it, because it was very bare bones and amateurish at the time. For a while I wanted to blame the industry, or people for being too harshly judgmental; but ultimately the game just wasn’t very good back then!
“I would also like to add though, that the public opinion on crowd funding does seem to have shifted from cautious optimism, to pessimism – once bitten, twice shy I suppose!”
Still, despite Wass’ optimism, he has no plans for a third crack at Kickstarter. “I’ve considered it on a few occasions,” he says, “and as much as I’d love the ability to work on Clive ‘N’ Wrench full time (should a campaign be successful), I just can’t justify the amount of time and effort that running such a campaign demands. This is only further solidified by the fact that I now have a Patreon page for the game, and so, therefore, I feel I owe those supporters my full attention!”
Currently, there is no timetable for release, though Wass does say he can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Obviously, four developers does not an industry make, and this interview only scratched the surface of the many issues facing 3D platformers today. There are countless developers, indie, and AAA, currently working on 3D platformers right now. Full games, prototypes, and demos for games are out there if you’re willing to look hard enough.
To hear directly from some of those developers, and hear how optimistic they are, gives much-needed perspective on things, and great insight. The genre isn’t exactly thriving like it once was, but it’s far from dead. These small creators are keeping the memories of the past alive because they’re passionate, love creating these games, and want to share them with the world.