Tak and the Power of Juju Q&A

We talk to John Blackburn of Avalanche Software about the recently released platformer.

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Tak and the Power of Juju is the recently released platformer from THQ for the GameCube and PlayStation 2. The game was developed by Avalanche Software and marks the multimedia debut of an original character named Tak, who will also star in an upcoming licensed Nickelodeon cartoon show. The diminutive tribesman is a shaman-in-training whose entire village has fallen under an evil curse. To save the day, the pint-size hero must run, jump, and fight through a sizable adventure. We talked to John Blackburn of Avalanche Studios, producer of the game, to find out how the original platformer came together.

GameSpot: Could you tell us a bit about how the character of Tak came about?

John Blackburn: Tak was actually conceived several years ago. One of the guys at the company had a dream about playing a game where the main character was a witch doctor. A few of the guys in the company always kept this in mind and talked about it off and on over the next couple of years. When we had some downtime after finishing a project, some of the artists began concept drawings of the character. When we had the chance to pitch the game to THQ and Nickelodeon, there was actually quite a bit of work already done on the characters and the world. We first pitched the game to THQ, who narrowed the field down to a few proposals to give to Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon liked the concept, and we were asked to refine some of the elements and pitch the concept again. After two more rounds of this, Tak was selected. The whole process ended up taking around nine months.

GS: How did that affect the game's development?

JB: The involvement of Nickelodeon definitely changed the direction of the game. They brought a ton of experience to the table as far as how to develop characters and stories. They gave us advice on everything from how to select scriptwriters to helping audition voices for the characters in the game. The really cool aspect was that they gave us help but did not act like they were the experts on how the game should play. They always were very respectful of their role and allowed us to do our job of designing and making the game.

GS: Could you tell us a bit about the team working on the game?

JB: Avalanche is a development company based in Salt Lake City. We have been in business for eight years. The games that our team members have worked on include the ports of the Mortal Kombat series, the ports of NFL Blitz, the wrestling games for Acclaim (from WrestleMania SNES to WWF: War Zone and Attitude), the Rugrats titles for THQ, and the NCAA Football titles for Sega.

GS: When developing the game, why did you decide to go with humor? Where did you look to for inspiration?

JB: We went with humor because we wanted to entertain the player. We felt like so many games forget that there are more ways to entertain people than by shear brute force and ignorance. We also thought that by making the characters in the game funny that they would be more easily likable. In many ways we really looked to the characters that we really liked growing up for inspiration. The answer to all of us was Looney Tunes. We all loved Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck when we were kids, and we still watch these cartoons now. We hoped that if we actually did a good job with the humor that we could open up the age range of people who would like the game.

GS: Given how subjective humor is, were you worried about trying to be funny?

JB: Oh, yeah. Of course. We had always joked around a lot at the office and thought that we were funny, but we knew that making comedy work on the screen is another issue entirely. We had some pretty good ideas early on, but they weren't really going anywhere until Nickelodeon hooked us up with a writer named Randolph Heard. Randolph had a great ability to actually make our ideas read well. Then, after he understood the concept a little better, he began adding ideas of his own, and I think that we came up with a pretty funny result.

GS: Could you fill us in on the various aspects of Tak's gameplay and how they came about?

JB: Aside from the normal running and jumping, the two more unique aspects of Tak's gameplay are the magic (juju) and animals. The juju that Tak gains throughout the game comes in a couple of different forms. There are powers that Tak can find that act like a fairly standard upgrade path in the game, but the more interesting juju comes in the form of the juju gods. These gods show up to help Tak out and hopefully give the player a laugh. A good example of this is when the two-headed juju shows up and unexpectedly gives Tak the power to fly and create explosives. The only twist here is that Tak has to wear a quirky-looking chicken suit to use the powers.

The animals in the game are the puzzle system. They create a really cool interactive puzzle set for the player to explore and discover. The animals all interact with each other as well as with Tak, so the player needs to figure out how to use or avoid the animals to successfully complete the game. One of the best examples of this is the orangutan. The idea for the orangutan's behavior came about while we were in a design meeting. Our art director, Jeff Bunker, was absolutely against having a catapult sitting in the middle of a forest. There was no reason for it to be there. After some heated debate about art direction versus gameplay necessities, he said he would rather have anything in the level than a catapult. "Why can't we do something that would fit, like have a gorilla that pulls down a tree to eat a banana! The tree could fling the player!" That was really a pivotal moment in the design of this game. Everyone knew that he was right, and that really shaped the way we designed the rest of the game. The animals became the elements that we needed, but in a much more natural way. I think it actually makes the player have a better experience because when they discover how these different elements of the game work, they feel a greater sense of accomplishment than if we would have put a catapult in the path.

GS: What do you think are some of the best platformers around and why? Did they influence Tak's development at all?

JB: The recent platformers that I like best are Jak and Daxter, Rachet & Clank, and Sly Cooper. My personal favorite is Sly Cooper. I think that the developers of Sly had a really great feel for the pacing of the game. That game had a great rhythm that is created while playing it that is hard to beat. All of these games had an influence on us because we knew they (or their sequels) would be our competition! We really felt like these games had set the bar that we would be measured by. I felt like all three were great executions of good game designs. As far as earlier platformers, I think that Mario 64, Yoshi's Island, and the Lost Vikings were all games that we looked to for good examples of game design.

GS: What do you think are the most important elements in a platformer?

JB: I think that the basic concept and character control are the two most important factors. You really need a concept that people are attracted to. With Tak, we came up with a concept that had several unique elements, like organic environmental interactions, that make the game special. The great part about working on platformers is that there is a ton of room for creative freedom. Once you have nailed down a good concept, the character control becomes the most important issue, because it is what the player interacts with at all times in the game. If the basic control is not good, the player becomes frustrated with the entire experience.   GS: What's the most challenging aspect of working on a platformer?

JB: I would say the design. It is extremely challenging to create a game that is both innovative and comfortable for the player. In the design of Tak, we had to modify the design of the puzzle system to make it more accessible to all players. By focus-testing the game, we were able to deliver a system that was cool and pretty fresh, challenging yet fun. It's all about balance.    GS: What can you tell us about Tak's graphics engine?

JB: It is a proprietary engine that Avalanche created.   GS: How is the game taking advantage of the PlayStation 2's graphical strengths?

JB: The engine is highly tuned to the PS2 strengths of drawing a large number of polygons, particularly transparent objects. We used a lot of transparent texture blends and particles systems to enhance the look of the game. This is most apparent in the special effects for the waterfalls and anything that uses juju magic, especially the appearances of the juju gods. GS: What kind of replay value will the game have?

JB: The game has four phases of gameplay. Each one of these phases has a collectible item that allows you to get to the next phase. If you get 100 percent of each of these collectible items, you unlock a secret from the game. We spent a lot of time adding in bonus materials to reward advanced gamers. GS: What do you think sets Tak apart from other platformers?

JB: Primarily the humor, but also the interaction with the animals. We tried to create a unique puzzle system that fit into the environment that Tak lives in. We didn't want the puzzles to seem contrived. As far as the humor goes, we tried to use it throughout the game. We were always looking for ways to make the player laugh. We put a great deal of effort into making the cinematic sequences with the juju gods funny and enjoyable to watch, but we didn't stop there. We tried to make every motion and action in the world interesting, from the way the orangutan laughs at Tak to the way Tak splats into a wall when he gets thrown.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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