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Mediatonic: behind the scenes with minis dev

Submitted by on Sunday, 14 November 20107 Comments

Positioned in the heart of London, just off Oxford St, with a headcount of around 25, Mediatonic are one of the larger mini developers. PS3 Attitude is here to learn more about them, to see what makes them tick and to investigate their true thoughts on Sony’s mini programme. We’re also getting hands-on with their soon-to-be-released game  – Who’s That Flying? – and contemplating whether they have done the impossible; that is: make something more addictive than Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess.

We’re chatting to Paul Croft (director of games) and Jim Griffith (game producer), and we’re struck by how far this company has come in such a short period of time. It was founded five years ago by Paul alongside his business partner David Bailey (general manager), while they were still working through their final year of studies at Brunel University London.

It started with Paul and David developing flash games on the internet for any client who would pay for them, and it wasn’t long before more clients were knocking on their door asking for their services. The team grew as more work came in. Today, they have worked on more than 100 projects together, and they have developed for a number of clients ranging from SEGA to the Cartoon Network.

They gained a reputation for being a reliable studio with a knack for making small but highly addictive games. Poppit! – which they developed for EA – receives over 1m users per month, who stick around for 12 minutes on average, and on their website they claim that their games have been played over 150m times across the world – this figure is actually out of date, it’s now over 300m times. It’s not unfair to suggest that these games should come with a health warning;

Their next step was to branch out to the iPhone market, and the team has had success there with a number of games, especially so with Must.Eat.Birds – a colourful game about monsters, birds and cake.

Cake + monsters + birds = addiction

Their success on the iPhone prompted Sony to approach them; to ask if they would be interested in being one of the first developers to contribute to the minis programme – Sony’s range of bitesize pick-up-and-play games. The prospect of working on an unexplored platform really excited the team, and naturally they jumped at the chance.

They also felt ready for the challenge. The recent move from flash to iPhone gave them a lot of preparation for the things that they were about to face, and getting an experienced PSP coder on board early made a massive difference. It alleviated any fears they had about working with unfamiliar hardware.

Their first mini, Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess, shows that it didn’t take them long to adjust to the platform. The upward-scrolling platformer is slick and has a level of polish that far exceeds that which most people thought possible with the minis.

Monsters has gamers play as the Duke, a vampirish aristocrat, who is searching for his missing princess; this missing princess is (probably) kidnapped by a monster but there are (most definitely other explanations. Monsters is your typical Mediatonic game: it’s title is quirky, the story is ridiculous and the gameplay is supremely addictive.

It was warmly received by most critics, but it did receive some criticisms for being too short. This criticism is unfair because the minis are meant to be short. The focus of the game appears to have been misunderstood.

Monsters has a simple concept; a player has to hit the monster three times with a double-jump before it reaches the top of the level. That’s the game in its simplest form. You will find it too easy and short if your sole aim is to complete the story; however, it’s not a story-focused game; it is a score-focused game. The emphasis is on re-playability. People are expected to replay the levels over and over again until they achieve a perfect combo.

The combo system is interesting. Combos grow with every platform the player lands on, but if they land on the same platform twice their combo will be reset to zero. This adds complexity and excitement to the gameplay.

It’s difficult to land on all of the platforms, while trying to avoid landing on the same one twice, and only  hitting the monster twice – that is, leaving the finisher until every platform has been landed on. All of this while the clock is running down. Yet, when you do succeed, it is hugely rewarding. You receive trophies and artwork, and you witnessed a spectacular cutscene finisher.

Getting a perfect score on all of the story levels is hard enough, but the real challenges are found in the score attack mode. Here players find several carefully crafted levels designed to challenge their skills. They are made with devilish precision, and they test the brain and not just reflexes. Crucially, the player has to plan their route through the level. They can’t hit every platform just by jumping up, so sometimes they have to drop a level, run down a descending staircase, double-jump off a wall (up to a higher platform) before jumping again – this time across the screen.

The team put a lot of effort into designing these score attack levels, but sadly a lot of gamers dismissed them as being mere add-ons; thinking they were only there to give the impression that the game was bigger than it actually was. The truth was that the score-attack mode was probably considered by the team to be more important than the main story.

The game lives on a knife-edge, somewhere between frustrating the player and making them feel good about themselves. Every mistake made is frustrating – you will repeatedly restart levels – but the levels were short enough to stop it feeling like a chore.

Don't mess with the Duke

Mediatonic cram an extraordinary amount of stuff into this game , considering it’s under 100MB (the maximum file size for a mini), but what’s more remarkable is that Who’s That Flying (their next mini) has even more stuff going on in it. They’ve taken the criticisms of Monsters on board, and have made Who’s That Flying bigger in every department.

The story arc is deeper for a start. It tells the story of the Guardian of Earth, a superhero who was caught napping while intergalactic enemies invaded Earth; he’s forced to defend himself in front of the Galactic council. Mediatonic utilise a frame narrative. The stories which the Guardian of Earth tells the council to defend his awesome name make up the levels you play.

There are 15 levels in total. They see the Guardian travel across the world, defending famous cities (such as Tokyo and New York) from invasion. It’s already a much lengthier game than  Monsters, and that’s without taking into considering the fact that players will hopefully revisit the levels to unlock artwork, character profiles and newspaper clippings. These awards add depth to the story.

The score attack mode is also back, kind of: they’re called challenges. There are 24 challenges in total. Each challenge gives you a different objective. Some have endless waves of enemies coming at you, while others have puzzle elements. You can’t let any enemies get past you for the puzzle challenges. They come at you in numbers so you have to prioritise your attacks and formulate a strategy (hence the ‘puzzle’ aspect).

Mediatonic do  not strike us as being a studio who’s happy to stick to a tried and tested formula. The team managed to make the platforming genre feel fresh with Monsters, and we are curious to see their take on the side-scrolling shooter genre. “There weren’t any side-scrolling shooters amongst the minis when we started”, says Jim, before adding, “more arrived during our development.” We ask if this made Who’s That Flying any less appealing to the public: “You can always do something different, even if you’re working in a familiar genre. You have to mix it up.”

This is true, and Mediatonic practise what they preach. Jim previously described the game as being a “side-scrolling shooter meets tower defence (with courtroom drama and intrigue!) doused in sheer awesomeness… AND THEN SET ON FIRE.” Even after taking into consideration the wonderful hyperbole, it’s still an accurate description of the game. It’s a side-scrolling shooter with a twist: the Guardian of Earth cannot be hurt, but the city can. You cannot let any enemies get past you otherwise they will damage the city. This explains the tower defence part.

Each stage ends with a boss battle. These are quite generic – wear down the boss and aim for its weak spots – but they do have a large-scale feel about them. Mediatonic create this sense of scale by zooming the camera out so to emphasis the sheer size of the boss, and to also make the Guardian feel smaller in comparison. It works.

The gameplay isn’t just simple blasting either. The Guardian likes to get up-close-and-personal with enemies and grab them. Power-ups add to the interest as well. If the player plays well they will be rewarded with power-ups that supercharge the Guardian’s laser arm. You shouldn’t waste these power ups as they are essential to getting by on harder levels. So, there is more than enough variety here to stop Who’s That Flying being labelled a tedious R-Type clone; especially after factoring in the humour and distinctive art style.

At its hardest, Who’s That Flying is crushing. Paul made us play through the game’s hardest challenge – it has tens of enemies come at us at once and we weren’t allowed to let any through. Only once has a member of the development team completed this level, and that was just before they were about to drop it for being impossible to complete. It does feel impossible, but that didn’t stop us hitting the ‘retry’ button again and again,  and generally forgetting to speak to our interviewees.

Who’s That Flying shows a team setting the standards for other minis. “We didn’t know what a mini was”, says Paul, discussing their thoughts as they started working on Monsters. He adds, “there was nothing to compare it to.” They had come from a background of pick-up-and-play flash games to now catering for an audience that demands depth and even a progressive story – even when talking about a range of games designed to be bitesize. Nevertheless, they are determined to give the player all of this in Who’s That Flying.

It’s remarkable that they’ve put as much as they have done into this game; it’s much bigger than Monsters, and Paul tells us that they had to strip content away from Monsters to that it could fit into the 100MB limit. What have they done differently this time?

Press the right trigger and the Guardian will grapple this ugly brute

For starters, they code smarter now: “We’re getting used to how the memory process works”, says Jim. They’re also cutting out any excess baggage. “Monsters had a lot of cutscenes: there was a big intro and we had three different cutscenes for each finishing move [the bigger the score, the more extravagant theses scenes were] and this used up a lot of memory.”  Who’s That Flying does have cutscenes but they’re kept under control.

Mediatonic work on a principle of less is more. “We start by having a round-table discussion to come up with ideas”, Jim explains: “If we have an idea that we need to keep adding to in order to make it work it’s generally considered a bad sign. We like to strip things away to get right to the heart of what makes things fun.”

Mediatonic put a lot of thought into everything they do, even the names are carefully chosen. Guardian of Earth may sound like a generic superhero name but it wasn’t lazily chosen. “It’s his role, and that’s how all the Guardians refer to each other –by the planet they are responsible for; so it makes sense in the context of the game. Also, for players, it gives them information – you play as the Guardian of Earth, so what are you going to be doing? Guarding Earth. It helps explain the core concept of the game right from the start, and things like that are really important when you’re trying to help players engage with the game as quickly as possible.” Humour is also at the heart of everything Mediatonic do.

The animation team hold everything together. The world is vivid, appealing and everything screams personality. The way the Guardian moves, as he fires his supercharged laser and grapples  enemies,makes him an enjoyable character to play with. Everything feels sharp.  “We wanted attacks to feel satisfying,” says Paul while praising the work of his animation team.

The subtle touches may seem small and to be expected, but, in the smaller mini format, every small detail is noticed. It takes us back to when we first experienced games, when it was actually a great experience to see a character move to pick up an item. The sort of things we take for granted these days.

That’s what the minis, at their best, can do well. They take us back to when these subtle effects were game-changers and make us appreciate them again. They also take us back to when gameplay was central to everything. It’s a game you can happily pick up for five to ten minutes with the sole aim of outdoing your highest scores.

It’s just a shame it doesn’t have online leaderboards. Paul explains: “We would have loved that, but it’s not possible because of the way the minis are set up.” One of the rules that Sony impose on minis is that they cannot have online connectivity. It’s something that Sony may want to reconsider because it would make these titles much more compelling if we could challenge our mates. As the minis are focussed on skill, the players want to compare their achievements. It adds to the excitement.

There are other drawbacks with the minis: Monsters is available in HD on Xbox Live but that’s not possible with the minis, as much as Paul would like PlayStation 3 owners to experience their games in HD. The PlayStation 3 version is just the PSP version running through emulation software. HD graphics would knock the file to over 100MBs, therefore it would have to be resubmitted as a full game and this would require a lot of work, cost and time.

It may sound like Mediatonic are frustrated by the limits of Sony’s mini platform but this couldn’t be further from the case. “It’s a great platform” says Paul, “it’s given us great opportunities.” It’s also given the studio a lot of exposure – their console games get more attention from the media than their flash and iPhone games – and they appreciate the recognition they receive.

However, making a full-fledges PSN title is something that appeals to Paul: “We would like to, but we would need to consider the costs and the extended development time.” At the moment he likes where the company is at; he says that the company has grown “organically.” They usually have three to four projects on the go at all times, and they have a dedicated PSP team of four to five employees. He wouldn’t want the team to get much bigger that that: “This format allows everyone to contribute and it keeps things flexible.”

Paul is also open to the idea of adding games from their back-catalogue to the minis, but that isn’t in their hands, it’s in the hands of publishers such as Adult Swim. However, there are practical obstacles as well: “Many of our games require a mouse.” Still, it’s something they would look at if the opportunity arose.

Ultimately their main focus is on getting Who’s That Flying released. It should already be out now, but for a last minute bug relating to how the game emulates onto the PS3. They were expecting to be celebrating so it’s a big blow for them, but they’re also relieved: “We’re just glad it was brought to our attention before it went live”, says a thankful Jim.

They’ve had to resubmit the game again to the EU and US stores, and this takes a few weeks to get processed. In the meantime, business goes on as usual. After this interview they plan to get together around a table to discuss ideas for their next project. We will be keen to hear what genre they plan to tackle next.

It has now been confirmed that Who’s That Flying will be released on the store this week. PS3 Attitude will be bringing you a review on Wednesday, so keep an eye out for that. Who’s That Flying is an exciting mini from a promising young team. Sure, it’s no Castlevania, but that again it’s going for a fraction of the price.