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A Sideways Glance: Playbrains has a new take on a platformer

[Republished from the World Gaming Executives Magazine Issue #2]

Playbrains’ innovative new platformer ‘Sideways: New York’ has won rave reviews since being released in October.On a normal day, strolling across the rooftops of New york City, graffiti artist Nox notices that someone has tagged over one of his pieces. When going in for a closer look, Nox gets sucked into a vortex and enters into the unique realm of Sideway. So begins your great adventure in Playbrains’ new Playstation 3 game ‘Sideway: New York’.

Disclaimer: Playbrains is a subsidiary of bitHeads

Launched on October 11th to critical acclaim, and live on Steam now, Sideway takes you on a unique adventure merging a 2D platformer experience into a 3D world. Trapped on the walls in paint form, Nox must navigate through a world that brings a new perspective around each corner. There were over 25 people involved in the production of Sideway and Jeff Bacon for WGE:MAG’s sat down with a few key members of the Playbrains team to talk about their experiences working on this unique title.

Where did the concept of navigating a 3D world in a 2D platformer come from?

Adam Pilkington (Content Lead): The core concept came from our friends at Fuel Industries, and it was our job to immediately identify what’s cool and unique about the concept and present this to the player as soon and as often as possible. We wanted to hit the player with our visual hook immediately, within seconds of starting the first level, the player wraps his character around a corner and enters our world. Within a minute or two, he’s introduced to the rooftop mechanics, and how orientation affects gravity. The goal was to set the tone early, to show the player that we can do things most other games can’t.

“While at its core, Sideway is a platformer, we challenge players to think about 2D and 3D space at once and to take advantage of limits in one space to achieve progress inthe other.” – John Harley, Game Designer

John Harley (Senior Game Designer): “When Fuel approached us with the character and concept i was really excited. in modern development there are too many pressures to reduce risk which flatten creativity to standard formulas. The opportunity to twist the norms and challenge the player’s sense of space and gravity was instantly obvious. Nevertheless we invested a solid chunk of time in preproduction into discovering how much puzzle and combat we would be able to mix into the parkour platformer Sideway came to be.

Wrapping gameplay around walls and rooftops gave us a lot of room to explore different game styles, but we really wanted to challenge the player with kinetic feel. While at its core, Sideway is a platformer, we challenge players to think about 2D and 3D space at once and to take advantage of limits in one space to achieve progress in the other.”

How have the previous games you’ve developedinfluenced Sideway?

AP: On ‘Madballs in Babo: Invasion’ I learned the value of gameplay rhythm; it’s important to give the player time to breathe between the key situations of a level, whether it be encountering an enemy or finding a new power. The moments in between are just as important as the marquee events, and the former can be leveraged to add more impact to the latter. Hopefully Sideway’s level design reflects this.

“If we were to repeat the project, I would spend more time upfront, analyzing the capabilities of the 3rd party engine, and giving level designers and artists better parameters within which to work.” – Preston Jennings, Producer

JH: In our last console title, we went a little overboard with design and depth; for example having multiple experience bars for every character and weapon in the game. in Sideway, we were more judicious about where to spend time enriching features so that we could spend more time on the features that everyone sees – Sideway powers are unlocked with pickups instead of using a currency system. Another example would be co-op support; in the previous game we supported 4 players over the network, whereas in Sideway it’s been tightened to 2 players and same screen only. This let us apply a lot more dev time to the single player experience, and it shows.

Preston Jennings (Producer): Sideway uses a large assortment of 2D graphics to display anything from signs posted on the wall to fully animated 2D characters moving around the world. To do this effectively, we employed an art pipeline that had been established on a previous iPhone gaming project, ‘Zoo Toss’. The art team would create their 2D assets in Flash and through careful use of metadata tags, the animation frames would be exported and packaged using our custom built tool. We also chose to use Scaleform for the Ui system, this was because in ‘Madballs in Babo: invasion’, we had created the entire Ui system from scratch. Ui screens would tie up a developer for quite a bit of time and often the art team would require changes to get the sort of pixel precision they needed in the game. Using Scaleform for Sideway helped us to speed up some of this process and the pipeline from source art to in-game screens became more accurate.

What’s the biggest change you would make to the game if you had to do it all over again?

AP: With Sideway’s unique hook, it took the level design team a little while to get the hang of the mechanics and find ways to employ them; given a second chance, I think we could explore the 2D/3D relationship even further.

PJ: Near the end of the project, we spent quite a bit of time optimizing the frame rate of the game. Unfortunately at this point the levels had been mostly completed and so the development team was left with finding creative ways to squeeze out as much performance as possible. if we were to repeat the project, I would spend more time upfront, analyzing the capabilities of the 3rd party engine, and giving level designers and artists better parameters within which to work.

How has the game been received?

Paul Winterhalder (Executive Producer): It’s been awesome! From the first reveal at Comic Con and all the reviews since, it’s been amazing to hear all the great feedback from people. I especially like that we often hear from people that they were walking by the display at Comic Con and the art style really caught their eye. Once they played it, they just had a blast and their expectations for a typical 2D platformer were turned on their heads as they explored the game. One editor at IGN called it a “hip-hop Mario game” which is a great, quirky, description. The whole team here is really proud of what we’ve accomplished and looking forward to our next big project… after a well deserved vacation of course.

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