What happens when you have exactly nine friends and a Wii U? Your choices to get absolutely everyone playing is a bit small. Thankfully we have Runbow, a 9 player platformer developed by 13AM Games. They're also working on an upcoming game called Double Cross, which will be out for both the Nintendo Switch and PC very soon. So I reached out to them, and got a chance to talk with CFO and lead designer Thomas McCall.
TechRaptor: Hello Tom!
Thomas McCall: Hey!
TechRaptor: You're part of 13AM Games, so why don't we just start there? Tell me a bit about 13AM Games and how it got started.
Thomas: So we are a Toronto indie studio founded by a class full of graduates from George Brown's game design program back in... I think we were the class of 2013 to 2014. We kind of formed the studio around our first title, Runbow, which kind of got surprise support from Nintendo originally, and we've kind of, since that point, carried on. It was a semi-success, enough to keep us going, so now we've kind of worked through porting and all that stuff and we're soon to launch our second game, Double Cross.
TechRaptor: So tell me a bit about Runbow. So basically it's this color based platformer, correct?
Thomas: We like to call it an "action party platforming game" where the background changes color constantly and the objects in the game itself that are the same color as the changing backgrounds, and when those two things match up, so if there's a blue background and you're about to jump on a blue platform, that platform will actually just disappear and you'll fall through. So it's pretty frantic. It's a simple race platformer to get to the end, for the most part. Its major hook was that you could do up to nine players locally on the Wii U.
TechRaptor: Speaking of, why the Wii U? Why did you guys start with that?
Thomas: So back when we were college students in the post-grad program, we participated in... was it Toe Jam or Global Game Jam? I think it was the Global Game Jam. We made what would become Runbow in that first weekend, 48 hours to make a game sort of thing. We got some positive feedback from people at the event that were coming around and playing it. That kind of emboldened us to basically cold call Nintendo with a version of the game after that weekend and a little more time polishing it, and the reason we did Wii U specifically was because one of my classmates had already got a dev kit because he was going to do his thesis project as a Wii U game, so he already had it and he had already started that communication.
So when we made the beginning of Runbow and kind of got all this positive reinforcement we kind of decided "well why not send it off" and I think we managed to get onto Nintendo's radar because they were looking to increase their third party support through their Nindies program, which was just starting. So we kind of hit at the right time with the cold call and from then they just... they liked the game and they helped us take it from that early prototype to what it would eventually become. So Wii U wasn't necessarily like a choice, more of like a happenstance I guess you could say. Also the game, in our heads at least, kind of resembled something that Nintendo-- would be more popular on Nintendo consoles than on like Xbox or PlayStation or even Steam at the time. Does that make sense?
TechRaptor: That makes sense. So how was it working with Nintendo?
Thomas: Oh it's great. They're a really great group of people. They were very supportive of us, they took us to IndieCade I think was the first event they actually took us to, and then when Runbow started to get some traction we were part of all the Nindies programs, like the Nindies Showcase. There were some special events around PAX and GDC that they made sure we were showing up at. We also did a lunch and learn at the NOA office, which was the first time a game had done that. We were basically just putting our hands up for everything and they were super on board with having us do whatever they could think of. So it was a really good relationship. We still have a good relationship with them, with Double Cross they've been echoing all of our launch trailers and what not which has been really nice to see. I mean they obviously got a little busier now that the Switch has taken off in the way it has, but they're still a really good group of people that are really easy to get a hold of. So it's really nice working with them.
TechRaptor: Have you guys ever met Reggie?
Thomas: I have, actually! When we were visiting the NOA office to do that lunch and learn thing about Runbow we met Reggie and we actually filmed what would be... I'm not sure if it got into a trailer, it probably did, but we filmed a little bit of a video involving the employees at Nintendo kind of day dreaming off at the conference and then waking up playing Runbow in real life, and we ran around Nintendo's halls recording this video. At the end Reggie was at the end and he was pretending to grab a virtual trophy we'd have in the game, like an imaginary one that was going to get shopped in after. Then he did the taunt dance. The chicken dance. So we actually have... Someone created a meme about it and it was just Reggie doing the taunt dance and that was kind of a personal highlight of the adventure there.
TechRaptor: So what you're saying is you have blackmail on Reggie.
Thomas: Basically, yeah. I mean it would be blackmail if it wasn't so... here, actually, I'm going to send it to you over Skype in case you ever want add it, because it is sort of hilarious.
TechRaptor: Yeah, I'm hanging onto that. Yeah that's going in the interview. Okay, so, back to Runbow. So how did the whole idea come around for this color platformer that 9 different people could play?
Thomas: So have you ever been to a game jam? Or know what they are?
TechRaptor: I have not attended one, no.
Thomas: Okay, so, basic premise is you have 48 hours to make a game and submit it to whatever organized party is responsible for the jam, and you usually do that and going to... I think George Brown was hosting them here but they're also hosted at other kind of meet-up spots I guess you could say, or office buildings. Just a whole bunch of game developers show up and you trap yourself in a room for a weekend and try to make a game. You usually don't sleep that much and you don't eat well. You eat a lot of pizza, and it's usually gross, but you do it. So in that environment we knew that we wanted to make something quick, something you can do in a weekend, so it had to be simple and something, while simple, something people hadn't really seen before. So the idea kind of came from two different ideas that we merged together.
One idea was this kind of Gauntlet styled running game where-- basically if you could play Super Meat Boy competitively against each other, and it was a little more simplistic in its level design. There's a whole bunch of hazards, and whoever makes it to the end wins, and making it to the end while beating somebody else is part of the challenge. Then another idea we came up with was this kind of color mechanic where a colored background would change and platforms would disappear and reappear.
There were some other mechanics originally too, where all the players would have color representation in the background, so if you were the blue player and the blue background came then you had a mini speed burst or you could walk through things that other players couldn't. But when we realized we wanted to make it this kind of larger, local multiplayer experience, having nine colors that the background could swap through made it so that it really watered down the color mechanic because there's only a one in nine chance that a platform is going to disappear or be your color. So it felt kind of bad, I guess you could say. So we trimmed it down to four, and most of the time it's actually at three to actually make it more impactful. But that's kind of how it started, with those two ideas coming together and then some 48 hour crunching.
TechRaptor: Did you guys have any, since you only had 48 hours to work on it, was there anything that ended up on the cutting room floor that you had to go back to later?
Thomas: We... I think the game originally had a one time per round, at least, you could do a dash. We used it as this kind of skill mechanic where people that knew when and where to use this straight linear... basically it could just grab the player and drag them across the screen X amount of units. We had that as this kind of mechanic where, if you knew what you were doing, you'd use it at the right time at the right point in the level and you'd actually get an advantage. But it'd became a little too frantic and a little too confusing and it kind of made it so that, in a party game-- say you're at a party and you want all your friends to come play it. If you start crushing them because you know what you're doing, it sort of waters down the experience for everyone else. So we wanted to kind of minimize how many drastic skill abilities there were, so that got cut, and we did look at it again afterwards and had the same feeling. It doesn't really fit.
TechRaptor: Was it difficult to get... nine is a weird number of players for a game. Was it difficult to get that working?
Thomas: We thought... Well originally we were doing four players and the gamepad, because it was the Wii U, so we had five and we felt pretty good about that. Then one of our coders, I think during that weekend, said "oh, the Nunchuck and the Wiimote, they actually read in as unique controls when they're plugged in, they can be identified as unique controllers." We're like "really?" and he was like "yeah, let me just do this" and all of a sudden you could plug in the Nunchuck to the Wiimote and those would be two different controllers so you could have four pairs of those, that's eight, and then the gamepad makes nine. So it actually wasn't too hard to do. No one had really done it before because you needed a really simplistic game and a reason to have nine people, but we've kind of embraced this as something that would make our game stand out.
TechRaptor: Well it certainly seems to have done the job. Now before we get to Double Cross, lets say Reggie shows up again, says Runbow gets to be in Smash.
Thomas: Oh boy.
TechRaptor: How does Runbow get in Smash? What would you do with it?
Thomas: Like as a playable character? Or like the Shovel Knight treatment where it's a trophy or something?
TechRaptor: Character, trophy, stage, whatever you think works best. What would you do with it?
Thomas: Personally, I think a character would be the highest level of honor you could get with that kind of thing. So playing as Hue or Val would be really cool. Or probably Satura actually, she seems to be the most popular out of all of our characters. That would be really cool, a playable character like that. I have no idea what the abilities would be, something about platforms that are disappearing it would have to be.
But I also think a stage would be really cool. A stage where this kind of color mechanic is in play, I think would be really interesting. But we've been... I forget how many cameos Runbow has made in other games. There was Indie Karts I believe, or I'm getting that name wrong, but it was an indie Mario Kart kind of game and they asked us to be in it and we did the same thing where we had a stage where the actual map would disappear when matching the colors. So I think, for something like Super Smash Bros, a character would be sweet but a stage makes a little more sense, if that makes sense.
TechRaptor: It does. I think it was... Super Indie Karts?
Thomas: Super Indie Karts sounds familiar.
TechRaptor: I remember reading about the game at one point, so I know what you're talking about.
Thomas: Yeah, it is Super Indie Karts, you got that right.
TechRaptor: Yay! Alright, so, you guys put out Runbow and now you're working on Double Cross.
TechRaptor: So how did you guys decide to go to this action-adventure almost... I think it's a brawler sort of game?
Thomas: Yeah, uh, so we knew what we wanted to... not necessarily for any reason other than... well we knew we wanted to stay in the platforming genre, or at least we knew we had developed a bunch of skills making platforming games, a bunch of little tricks, a bunch of shortcuts. Things that we've learned throughout making Runbow that we could apply directly to another platformer if we wanted to, versus going out and making something different. So we knew we wanted to stick kind of to 2D sidescrolling action if we could, it didn't have to be a platformer but it had to kind of leverage some of the things we've learned.
From there we knew that we also, because of the experiences we had with online and the focus on local multiplayer, we kind of wanted to stay away from that stuff a little bit because online, for a studio of our size and our experience, so to speak, because Runbow being our first title most of us only have now I think maybe four or five years in the industry. When we started Double Cross it was three. Doing online again was kind of like doubled our development time for stuff and took up 90% of our QA time. It was just something where we looked at that and said "well if we didn't do that, what can we do with the extra time? If we focused on a single player component how much better can we make that?"
So we started pitching ideas to each other with these kind of constraints or ideas behind it, and we ended up settling on Double Cross, but not the Double Cross that you see now. It was actually a game centered around a magnet mechanic, where you could change the polarity of things and kind of pull yourself towards stuff or push yourself away from things and the same with enemies and obstacles and what not. We worked on that for a bit before we realized we were ending up with something similar to games we've seen already, and we didn't want to do that again, we didn't want to tread that territory. So we pivoted on some things, kind of distilled the magnet mechanic down to what is now the Proton Slinger mechanic where you grapple one thing and it kind of pulls you towards it, or you can grab enemies or grab their projectiles or what have you. That was a more interesting part, and you can throw them back, and then we kind of slowly just iterated and fleshed this out.
We knew we didn't want to have a linear campaign, so Double Cross you can actually play any of the nine initial levels in any order, kind of like a Mega Man styled thing, and we knew that was something we wanted to do pretty early on. So yeah, and then from that... non-linear, these basic kind of actioney slinging mechanics, what makes sense story-wise or narratively to kind of justify this stuff. We said "well if you can do it in any order and we want them to all be different and unique then why not dimensions? Why not make that?" So that's kind of where the idea to make it this game about an agent that's doing an inter-dimensional sort of investigation kind of started to grow. That's the long winded version at least.
TechRaptor: It's okay. So you guys started working on Double Cross, you made this whole dimension thing. What games did you kind of get inspired by for this?
Tom: I think there's a lot of different titles that we looked at. I think a couple major ones that stuck out were Gunstar Heroes, was one of the bigger things that we looked at early on because it has a similar kind of non-linarity to it. It has a mixture of combat and platforming. We looked at games like... Ugh, I'm forgetting. Ace Combat, or something like that, for fluidity and combat stuff. We looked at games like Guacamelee, Sonic, Rayman, basically any platformers that we collectively had played together or played as a group, and most of us have played a pretty wide spread of games. So we actually pulled from quite a few. Which is good, I think.
TechRaptor: Is it tough working from Runbow, which is like an arcadey racey platformer, to Double Cross, which has basically a big overarching story with all these characters and situations that you guys have to write?
Tom: I mean, I think one of the hardest challenges for me at least, personally, being one of the people that makes the levels for the game. In Runbow it was me, my coworker Justin, and Alex sometimes, would just sit and just make levels. In Runbow those levels are like 30 seconds to a minute long each, so you could just be like "I'm going to do this one thing" and you just make a level about that one thing and then you carry on. That obviously became a much more complicated process when you started introducing narrative and you're only going to have nine levels so each of them has to be a little longer and each of them now has their own unique mechanic that you need to teach and incorporate and use just in this one kind of isolated level from each other. So that was a big challenge.
I think caring about the narrative more than we did with Runbow was not necessarily a challenge with something that everybody on the team was really looking forward to and I think our narrative director, who coded on Runbow, I think he did a great job with that kind of stuff, and I think in general we were kind of more excited to work on something like this because I think it's closer to what a lot of people in the office actually play, if that makes sense.
TechRaptor: Yeah. Now you guys are releasing Double Cross in January.
TechRaptor: On the Nintendo Switch and PC, right?
TechRaptor: Do you guys have plans to put it on the PlayStation and Xbox later?
Tom: I think what we're doing is... looking at Runbow for example, we put it on everything at this point. It's on Xbox, it's on PlayStation, it's on Switch, it's on 3DS, it's on Wii U, and it's on Steam. I think that's everything. So I think with Double Cross it's definitely a possibility. We have the dev kits, we have all the tools we'd need to do so, we're just kind of waiting to see how it does. If it does anything but bomb I think we would. So we're kind of just waiting, we're ready to do it, and as soon as the game goes if it's a success or if it starts moving some numbers then yeah we'll definitely start porting. I don't want to commit to anything hard, but that's just kind of the attitude. If it makes sense to do it we'll definitely do it.
TechRaptor: I just want you to know when you said "I think that's everything" I sort of just glanced right and looked at my poor dusty Vita sitting in a corner.
Tom: [Laughter]. We actually have Vita dev kits and we were going to put Runbow on Vita, because one of the guys who used to work here was a very big Vita fan. The only one that we knew. But it just... I think they started discontinuing stuff right when we were actually approaching it, and we kind of went "ehhh..." Then the 3DS became a thing again. Which was a challenge of its own, because shrinking Runbow down to play on the portable when it wasn't designed to do so was an experience.
TechRaptor: It's a good handheld, just no one bought it.
Tom: Yeah, that's what I've heard, and I played his briefly and I was like "oh this is quite nice" and it makes... it actually felt kind of like an in-between, like what a Switch is now, like it actually kind of worked from that sense. But I don't know how it didn't do what it was supposed to.
TechRaptor: Actually, that's interesting though, how do you bring Runbow to a handheld suddenly, considering that it's a big local multiplayer game?
Tom: Through a lot of hard work and hitting your head against the wall, actually. A lot of it was optimizing the game more so than it already was, which meant going into everything we could and making sure that nothing was doing something it didn't need to be doing at the time. What we'd already do, but a more extreme version of it. Cutting things where we could, reoptimizing shaders, or sprites, or assets. Scaling everything down. The local multiplayer and stuff, we actually had to use their ad hoc system, which was... I think we were one of the first Unity developers to actually bring a Unity game to the 3DS, and definitely the first to do so with this kind of scale of local multiplayer or online multiplayer.
So there was a lot of treading through territory that no one had treaded before. Which was good because Unity-- we had a direct line to Unity and they were helping us out with a lot of things. So was Nintendo, which was nice. It was just a bit of a slog. It took us... I think we announced June of 2016 that we were going to launch it, and I don't think we launched it until July of 2017. It was a journey.
TechRaptor: That's okay. I guess that means there's no plans to put Double Cross on the 3DS?
Tom: Uh, I mean, I'm not even sure how. Like I'm wondering how much of the 3DS fan base is being cannibalized by the Switch. But, I mean, again, if it makes sense to do it, we have the tools. I think I have to bring in cake when I deliver the news that we're doing it to our programming team, because they're probably going to want to hurt me afterwords, but if it makes sense to do it we're always game.
TechRaptor: Besides Runbow and Double Cross, 13AM Games also played a role with the game Pirate Pop Plus, where you helped publish it.
TechRaptor: How'd that happen?
Tom: So I think it was... I'm never great with these events because there's so many, but I think during Tokyo Game Show we were there doing smoozing and networking and things like that, and showing off Runbow for Japan at the time. Our CEO Alex was sent over to do all that, and I think he met Hawken, who is the creator of Pirate Pop. He's a solo developer. He saw there's a game basically almost ready, he just needed help with the marketing and the publishing and what not. He knew that we had a pretty good relationship with Nintendo, so we kind of talking about "well what can we do for you", kind of, if we were going to pursue this how could that kind of shape out. Which eventually led to us signing on as the publisher, where we just marketing PR kind of thing, and we did some QA and some gameplay testing and got back to him with a couple of things. It started just from that kind of showing at Tokyo Game Show and meeting Hawken and seeing the game, which we just thought was really cool.
TechRaptor: Would you guys publish something again?
Tom: I think it depends on, because again... it's always just a matter of "does it make sense" at the time. If we, for instance, had some freed up resources and people that could oversee something like that and do something, because it was more work work than we originally thought it was going to be. As most things turn out to be. So if we had the capacity to do so, and we found the game really interesting and the person really wanted to work with us, I think we would definitely entertain the idea. I don't think we're ultimately seeking those things like we were back then, but if something were to come up it would kind of be a case by case.
TechRaptor: So you guys are launching Double Cross on January 10th, 2019, for the Switch and PC. After it's done, what are your plans, besides porting it? What's the next game?
Tom: Well we're currently working on, I think we have a couple projects in the pipe we're waiting on some yeses, and we're also developing our next game as we speak. I don't think I'm allowed to say what though.
TechRaptor: It's okay, your secret is safe with me.
TechRaptor: Nah, don't tell me, I'll put it in the interview.
Tom: It's... there should be some news about that fairly soon, I think. I'm not entirely sure when we're going to go live with that, but we're working on something else already.
TechRaptor: So you're saying you won't double cross the team?
Tom: Mmm... I won't do it. [Laughter.] Jeeze.
TechRaptor: I'm sorry. I had to get one in.
Tom: I appreciate puns, to the chagrin of the people I work with.
TechRaptor: Well sneak some puns into Double Cross. You probably already have.
Tom: Oh there are. There are tons. There are quite a few, yes.
TechRaptor: Alright, good. Is there any last statements or anything you want to say about Double Cross?
Tom: No, I mean, we're excited, we think it's a pretty fun game, I'm excited to see how people see it, how people enjoy it. I think it's something really special, and I'm proud of what we've done.
TechRaptor: I'm glad to hear! Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me and I wish you guys the best of luck with the release of the game. It seems really cool and I'm actually excited to check it out.
Tom: Thank you!
We'd like to once again thank Tom for taking the time to talk with us.