Ninja Style: Interview with the Developers of N and N+
If you were lucky enough to ever play Lode Runner, N and N+ will hit you with a warm rush of nostalgia. And then you’ll die, and your ninja body will splatter all over the place in entertaining ways. Like some old-school platformers, N is fearsomely hard; unlike those old-school games, the modern physics (more on that in the interview below) make your movements challenging yet thrlling, and your frequent deaths mightily entertaining.
N+ features new levels and a tweaked look for the console, but without losing the pixelated style of the original. It includes a level editor, too.
Here’s the trailer, although it looks like the footage is from the DS version.
We spoke to creators Mare Sheppard and Reigan Burns about the real-life inspiration for the game, the advantages of small teams, what it’s like being indie developers in Canada, and their next project.
AR: Let’s just start off with who you are and what is Metanet software.
Mare Sheppard: Metanet software is an indie company based in Toronto. It’s just the two of us. We divide it down the middle, we basically both do everything – programming, art, sound, whatever it takes. We have one game on PC and Mac, called N, and tonight we’re at the launch party for N+ which is going on Xbox Live Arcade.
Reigan Burns: February 20th!
MS: We might be biased but we think it’s amazing.
Angry Robot: Let’s talk about the inspiration for N and N+.
MR: Well, it all sort of started when we realized that one of our friends was actually a ninja. It was such a surprise to us that we knew it would be just as much a surprise to everyone else…
RB: We didn’t know he went out and..
MR: We had no idea what he did, so as we found out, we knew we had to tell this story. That was sort of the inspiration for N, was to get out to the world what the plight of the modern day ninja is really like, what it’s all about.
RB: People think ninjas are just feudal Japan, but the 21st century ninja has to content with robots when they go to collect the gold. It makes it so much harder, it’s changed their lives. It’s had a big impact. The tragic effects of modernization on the ninja. And so it’s sort of a public service thing – we wanted to get the word out.
AR: They’re out of work, they need to find jobs?
RB: Well, their average lifespan is about 15 seconds so…
MR: It’s a tough life.
RB: It’s a dying, dying breed.
AR: We know all about that, we’re so robot-centric here..
MR: Exactly. You have the other perspective.
AR: When Daragh first saw [N] he said, “that’s like Lode Runner and Pac Man in a wonderful mixture.”
AR: The whole concept of being indie game designers… how much is reinventing old forms from gaming history and how much is your own, “okay this is totally new”?
MR: Well, with N…
RB: It’s mostly old.
MR: We’re clearly inspired by Pac Man, Lode Runner, Jumpman, and all of those games, but we felt that… we were playing around with modern physics, modern collision, and we just felt that a mashup of them would make the game we really wanted to play. We felt it would make a great game, but no had made it yet.
RB: We took modern, late 90s collision detection like in the original Halo, and applied it to games that were made before that sort of technology existed. So it was pretty easy. I mean, we didn’t do shit, really. We just took an existing game, and sort of put some new technology in it, and it ended up being crazy fun.
It was supposed to be a stealth game. That’s how we planned it, with sneaking around and stuff. But once we had it working, we were like “oh it’s way too much fun to just run like hell and jump and go crazy.” So we kind of just went with that. Which I think is the strength of small teams. Like if you have a big team, you can’t just change direction in the middle of a project.
MR: Because it’s so hard to get everyone else on track… it’s virtually impossible.
RB: With two people it takes like a minute, like “okay, let’s not do that and let’s do this other thing.”
MR: Yeah, let’s try this.
RB: Way better.
AR: Is Canada a good place to be an indie game developer?
RB: For sure we would have never been able to do this if we hadn’t lived in Canada. It’s mostly support from the OMDC [Ontario Media Development Corporation], which gives you travel grants that give you 50% of the costs to attend industry functions. For instance, N was in the IGF [Independent Games Festival] for 2005, and we couldn’t really afford to fly to San Fransisco and stay there for a week. So the OMDC put up half of the cost, which made it possible for us to go there, and then we won the audience award, and that’s how Microsoft heard about it.
MR: That was amazing.
RB: So in that sense, it only would have happened because of that, but then from there, the only way we could afford to do N+, including this launch party, was that we got a loan from Telefilm – that’s a federal instead of provincial government thing – they’re basically film producers, but they do video games as well.
MR: It’s the fact we have access to all of this stuff, including tax credits, and of course the Canada, Ontario and Toronto Council for the Arts grants. All of this opportunity is amazing for small developers.
RB: We’d be broke if we didn’t live in Canada.
MR: Two years ago.
RB: Because you can’t really make a $200,000 game without getting a loan. And no bank is going to give you a loan if you’re just two people who say you make video games.
MR: Well, you can always go through a publisher as well…
RB: But then they own the IP.
MR: And you lose a chunk of the royalties, so it’s not really the best deal if you want to be making any money at all so you can move on to your next project. You’ve got to be able to get funding from another source. So that’s why Canada’s amazing.
RB: Go Canada!
AR: Nice. It’s wonderful to know that. OK so finally, what’s your next project?
MR: Well, we’re working on Robotology. As soon as all this N+ stuff wraps up, which should be probably after we get back from the GDC, which should be next week. That’s gonna be another 2D, side-scrolling physics-based platformer, just like N, but with a grappling hook. The world is much more dynamic, all the animation is physics-driven, so you’ll also be able to interact more with the enemies… it will be much more interesting and subversive.
RB: Yeah, N was based on Lode Runner, and Robotology is sort of based on XXXXXX, which was a Super Nintendo and PlayStation game, and it’s just a platformer with a grappling hook. The whole idea is that you take the physics-based movement of N, and instead of just applying it to the player, making it two ways, so that everything responds to everything else. You can land on people and crush them. Like in Mario you jump on people to kill them, but in this you’ll actually be CRUSHING them, you know shoving them, pulling their legs and they slip. We don’t know, maybe the banana peel is gonna be an object..
AR: Great. Thank you!
BTW, don’t forget to read Metanet’s blog, it’s definitely an entertaining read.