Our lovely new office was looking a bit sparse this month, so we sent Gavin down the shops and he came back with a loaf of bread, a six-pack of lager and a pair of programmers! Please welcome Karn Bianco and Becky Lavender – the nutters in that photo – to the Playtonic team.
Young programmer Karn joins from the planet Ceti Alpha V Rare, having worked on the recently-released Rare Replay, Sea of Thieves and the Kinect Sports series. Karn has built a reputation as a Banjo-Kazooie fanatic, and has already moved his desk to be closer to Steve Mayles’ smooth burgundy aroma. Chris Sutherland was last seen tied up in the boot of his car.
Meanwhile programming graduate Becky is one of the midlands’ most exciting young coders, having had her independent work showcased at the Foundations of Digital Games conference in California. She joins fresh from her internship at Peter Molyneux’s 22Cans, which means she’ll bring a plethora of useful free-to-play feature tips (we’re joking, we’re *joking* – put down your pitchforks).
Both Becky and Karn will contribute significantly to the team dynamic, not least because they’ll bring a fans’ view to proceedings and they don’t drink tea so, y’ know, that’s less cups to tidy.
Ahead of their first official day on Monday, we tracked down Becky and Karn for a pre-employment Q&A…
Right then. What do your CVs look like?
Karn: I did a year-long internship at Rare back in 2011 working on Kinect Sports: Season Two (KS2) and Kinect Sports Gems. After that I spent a short time at Lionhead Studios helping out on Fable: The Journey. Then I popped back to University, graduated, and returned to Rare where I worked on Kinect Sports Rivals, Sea of Thieves and Rare Replay.
Players of Rare Replay might have had some contact with my work in the form of the infinitely looping version of Battletoad’s Turbo Tunnel level, and the “new and improved” modern control scheme in Jet Force Gemini. I was also responsible for instrumenting all the retro titles to support milestones, achievements, and snapshots (bite-size challenges pulled from the main games). Basically my life was assembly code for several months.
Becky: I recently graduated in Computer Games Programming at the University of Derby, where I managed the rather arduous (and now I think about it, largely pointless) task of getting a First in every module, and hence one overall! Over the course of my degree I undertook several projects involving Graphics, Physics and AI and team modules designed to mimic industry conditions.
Gavin and Jens came to an expo at my uni where my classmates and I were demoing our work, and Gavin loved my dissertation game as it was based on Link to the Past, which he has a particular soft spot for. This was also an example of extraordinarily good timing, as my team then proceeded to win an award for Technical Achievement in our final project. All in front of Gavin and Jens.
I’ve also had a year’s experience working at 22cans as my internship. I was lucky enough to work in lots of different areas of development, learnt more than I thought possible in a year and was very happy with the feedback on my work I received from those around me.
Why have you ended up here then?
Becky: Playtonic is a dream come true for so many reasons. I’ve often said I wish I could go back in time and work on N64 style games in N64 style teams. I think this is the closest to that I’m going to get within the laws of space/time, it may even be better. On top of that, I can’t believe I have the opportunity to learn from some of the guys who helped fill the beloved box of game carts I’ve taken with me everywhere since childhood.
Yooka-Laylee looks incredible, and it’ll be great to work on one of my favourite genres. I feel privileged to join a project with so much amazing fan support and love, even this early in. Speaking of time-travel, I’d love to go back and tell little me that I was going to have lines in a new version of the DK rap. Amazing stuff.
Karn: I’ve been a fan of Rare games since I was tiny, and I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the talented Playtonic chaps during my time there. I was having a blast at Rare, but ultimately couldn’t say no to the chance to work so closely with some of the brains behind my favourite games.
“I’ve chosen to work on Yooka-Laylee because it’s exactly the kind of game I want to play.”
I’m also a massive fan of the 3D platformer genre, and Banjo-Kazooie specifically. I absolutely love the direction of Yooka-Laylee already, and I firmly believe we need new, bright, vibrant, exciting platformer worlds to explore. The genre’s fallen out of fashion somewhat of late, but I’ve been thinking for a while that it’s well due for a comeback. This is the perfect chance to make that happen with some of the folks that breathed life into the genre in the first place!
I also love the idea of getting back to an N64-esque development style, with a smaller team delivering a game that they can have a significant and meaningful impact on. Prototyping Sea of Thieves within a smaller team at Rare had a similar vibe, and I’m really looking forward to working closely with industry legends to bring their ideas (and mine!) to life.
I like to imagine that there might be a kid out there somewhere who’s going to have the same life-altering (no, really) experience playing Yooka-Laylee that I did playing Banjo-Kazooie 17 years ago. Except this time I get to be on the other side of that experience.
Did you back the Kickstarter? Do you now get refunds? How does that work?
Karn: We both did, and we’ve both been trying to work out what brilliantly witty thing we can put in the backer credits seeing as we’ll now be in the regular credits too. So far we’ve been bested by the character limit. Suggestions welcome.
As young engineers, do you feel you possess the confidence to tell Steve Mayles when he’s well wrong?
Karn: Well a lot of these old codgers are old enough to be our dads, so there will probably be an initial hesitance to challenge the parental authority figures. But assuming our game development relationships follow those of a real parent and child, we’ll eventually hit our rebellious teenage phase and start insisting that they’re all out of touch, and their demands are totally unfair, and the world’s a different place now, and Steve’s wrong.
But in all honesty one of the things we’re most looking forward to is being able to learn from masters of the craft in an environment where everyone’s ideas are valid, and everyone’s open to discussion about everything. Even Steve Mayles (we hope).
Becky: I think there are unique perspectives we can bring to the company as younger fans. For instance, I was four when Diddy Kong Racing came out and too young/unpractised to do very well with the main gist of the game. Queue hours and hours spent just enjoying the hubworld, imagining I was picking up other characters from different locations and dropping them off elsewhere. I called it Pipsy’s taxi service. I’d love for Yooka-Laylee to enable that kind of loose emergent gameplay for the next generation.
As the youngest members of the team by like, 50 years, on top of our development work we will have other duties to perform such as: reading any small text, shouting loudly across the room for those who can’t hear, and holding the fort while everyone goes for their afternoon naps.
Karn: you were known internally as Rare’s biggest Banjo fanboy. How did you build such a rep?
Karn: So… In many ways Banjo is the reason I ended up at Rare (and subsequently at Playtonic) in the first place. Banjo-Kazooie is one of those games that really defines the entire medium for me. I applied to Rare because of my love for those characters and worlds, and once they let me in I made no secret of my love. I think a lot of people join Rare because of their love for the company’s games, but I was probably just a bit more vocal about it on a regular basis.
Also, when I discovered that there was a full Banjo costume tucked away in the warehouse I was first in line to try it on (I don’t know how the real Banjo does it, but moving with feet that large is ruddy tricky). Chris Sutherland and I also worked together to create a little demo for an internal creative game jam last year, for which we were awarded the ‘Rare Nostalgia Award’ and a whole bunch of legit Banjo (and Diddy Kong Racing) swag from back in the day.
My fanboy rep had become so ingrained that Gregg Mayles himself kindly bequeathed me some of his original design sketches when I parted from the company! And a talented artist (Adam Lobacz) immortalised me in pixel art form as Banjo with Kazooie on my back.
How do you feel that your Banjo ‘expertise’ will benefit Yooka-Laylee?
Karn: I think, as with most of the Playtonic team, I’ve chosen to work on Yooka-Laylee because it’s exactly the kind of game I want to go home and play when it’s done. I can flit across that developer/fan boundary and appreciate the game from both sides.
I know what I loved about Banjo-Kazooie (and other 3D platformers) and I’ll be trying to make sure Yooka-Laylee has all of those things (as well as lots of new and interesting things). I think fans can take some comfort in the fact they’ve got one of their own on the inside! There’s a lot of pressure on us now to live up to everyone’s nostalgia-fueled expectations (mine included) for this game, but I’m trying to look at that as a very exciting opportunity, rather than a terrifying one.
Becky: You’ve built a reputation with your innovative solo projects
Becky: The project of which I’m most proud is my Zelda Dungeon Generator. It creates procedurally generated dungeon layouts and applies them to a Link to the Past style game, and was created for my dissertation. I carried on working on it as a research project for a short time after uni and it came to be presented and published at the Foundations of Digital Games conference 2015 in California. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the conference but apparently it went down well: my supervisor said that there were a few Zelda projects at the conference but mine was the only one playable (that’s probably less impressive than it sounds – I’m sure the others were doing much more complicated things!)
Would you say the UK midlands is a good place for young game developers in 2015?
Becky: Definitely. We both went to university up the road in Derby, which has games programming and art courses that have built up great reputations over the years. Rare takes on a whole bunch of interns every year, plus you’ve got the likes of Codemasters and others just down the road. And, of course, it’s great to see smaller companies like Playtonic taking on graduates and other younger devs, too.
Finally, which of you is best at making tea?
Karn: It’s probably best to get this out there now – neither of us drink tea (or coffee) and we are therefore completely useless at making tea (or coffee). So if anyone was hoping to palm off beverage-making duties on the newbies, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.