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Snake Pass Interview: Sumo Digital Discuss Physics-Based Gameplay and Classic Platformer Influences

Snake Pass Logo

Sumo Digital are a developer you’ll likely have heard of for their work on one of many triple-A titles including LittleBigPlanet 3 and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Recently, however, the studio decided it wanted a crack at its own IP, and held an internal game jam in an attempt to find the next great game concept.

The winner of that Game Jam was Seb Liese’s Snake Pass, a 3D physics-based platformer that requires players to think and move just like a real-life snake. While the game was initially given a limited budget and timeframe, executives at Sumo were so impressed with Liese’s initial work on the game that they afforded it with additional funding and a fully fledged team made up of 18 developers.

Inspired by classic 3D platformers such as Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon, Snake Pass sees players emulate the curvature and flexibility of an actual serpent to gain momentum and collect items from hard-to-reach places as progress through the game’s vibrant, lush worlds. It makes for a warm game that feels instantly familiar to fans of such titles – though not overly so; its core mechanics are mostly fresh and unique.

Having had hands-on time with the title at EGX 2016, I sat down with Seb to learn more about his initial concept and the development of Snake Pass.

Chris Mawson: Seb, you could you please tell us a little bit about the history of Snake Pass, and how it came to be?

Seb Liese: Snake Pass is the first independent title from Sumo Digital. Sumo is traditionally a triple-A studio, and for the longest time we’ve been wanting to make a little game of our own. So in October of last year, we held an internal game jam, and everybody in the company was allowed to try to come up with a new game idea. Right around that time, I was learning the Unreal Engine, and I was trying to make a rope that interacted with the player. After I saw how that looked in the engine, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like that; I wonder if I can make a controllable rope.’ So, the initial prototype was a controllable rope, but coming from a biology background and owning two snakes during university, I was very familiar with the way snakes actually move around.

I tried to turn the rope into a snake, and added a lot of mass on top to try to match the realistic movement of a snake, and that’s what turned into Snake Pass. It’s a physics-based platforming game, completely revolving around thinking and moving like a snake; that’s the core mechanic of the game. That means when you move in a straight line, just like a real snake, it’s almost impossible; you have to generate curves in your body and use those to push you forwards. The best way to move around is to constantly keep curves in your body that go all the way down your tail.

The same thing applies to climbing: you can get away with some holding buttons and pushing up against things, but if you want to climb some more complicated structures, you really have to start thinking and moving like a snake; using the full flexibility of your body to try to grab around things and create extra grip points to help yourself up. It turns into a little game between you and gravity and friction; gravity is your biggest enemy and biggest ally in this game.

Snake Pass Screen 01

CM: In terms of the aesthetic, we were discussing before that it instantly brought back memories to me of early 3D platformers. Not necessarily in terms of the detail of the models, but more the vibrancy and lushness of the worlds. I’m guessing that was a major source of inspiration for you?

SL: Absolutely – that’s been the intention from the start. I personally really miss the colourful, happy games from the ’90s that I grew up with, like Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon and Donkey Kong Country; it’s those sort of games that really made me love gaming in the first place. And I felt that in the current market, there weren’t really many of those games anymore. So my intention was definitely to recapture that feeling of happiness, really. The main challenge of some of the levels is to get to the end and the curiosity of what the next level will have in store for me; trying to recapture that feeling. It’s been really fun to try to reimagine old-school looks and old-school mechanics with the current technology; it’s been really challenging and fun to do.

CM: You mentioned that Snake Pass is a throwback to the happier platformers of old, if you will. In the demo we’re playing at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a threat to the player. Is that a deliberate choice, or are minor threats introduced as you progress?

SL: Your biggest threat is, like I said before, gravity. This is one of the earlier levels, and throughout most of it you’ll have safe floor underneath you, so it doesn’t really matter if you fall. But in the later levels, you’ll have less and less floor below you, so if you do fall, you will die and have to respawn a little earlier – so it becomes a bit more punishing in that sense. There are also different environmental hazards, like wind that will try to blow you in a certain direction; hot coals that will not instantly kill you but will bounce you up; spikes that will instantly kill you. So most of the hazards come from the environment, that will punish you for falling in some way. There are no enemies in the typical sense.

CM: How have you gone forward from the internal game jam at Sumo? I believe the team has now expanded to 18 people?

SL: After the game jam, the plan was to quickly make a rough version of the game that we could put on Steam, so Sumo initially gave me a very small team to get it as far as we could within a month. But after we presented what we achieved in that month, everybody started seeing the real potential of the game, and we started seeing that it was really worth putting in more time, and more people.

Snake Pass Screen 05

They ended up putting more people into the team, which led to us bringing it to EGX Rezzed earlier this year, which was actually the first time we showed it to the public. Before then, we had all been sat in our little studio, thinking, ‘we’re onto something here’, but we never expected to get that much of a positive reaction from the public, which was just an amazing boost for the whole team to try to push it even further. And I think we totally did that: if you compare the current state of the game to the demo that we were super proud of a couple of months ago, we’ve made it so much better, and we can hopefully maintain that quality through the entire game.

CM: In terms of your own background, you mentioned your own roots are in biology. That’s quite an unconventional way into the industry; how have you managed to make the transition into game design?

SL: I’d like to think that the main reason is that I wanted it so much that I was willing to do pretty much anything to get in! Being from a biology background, at some point I heard about the PC game Spore, which allows you to make content for other players, and that actually got me into making stuff for games. I did a lot of that and got quite good at it; I managed to get a lot of subscribers.

After Spore, I did the same in LittleBigPlanet 2, and managed to get a lot of subscribers there, too. Eventually I got noticed by Sumo Digital and they offered me a job to work on the sequel to LBP 2, which was LittleBigPlanet 3. So I quit my biology teaching job, moved to England and turned into a game designer. So I pretty much rolled in from being a biology teacher to working on my favourite game for two years, and working now my own game – it’s been a bit of a crazy ride!

CM: Finally, when is Snake Pass coming out and which platforms will it be available on?

SL: Snake Pass will come out on all of the major consoles, as well as Steam. It’s going to release in the quarter of next year; hopefully February or March.

Did you get chance to play Snake Pass at EGX 2016? Let us know if you share our optimism for the upcoming platformer by sounding off in the comments below.

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