I have a thing for spinoffs of twitchy action games that take a slower, turn-based aesthetic. One-offs like Metal Gear Acid and R-Type Command can provide a transparency, showing how the original concept was potentially pieced together, and teach valuable, fundamental lessons about fast-paced play design.
What those lessons are, well, Antoine Routon of Square Enix Montreal and I contemplated that. Routon and the crew in Montreal just released Lara Croft Go, the spiritual offspring of Hitman Go, for Android and iOS. On the day of Lara Croft Go’s launch, he dropped by and had a chat about the formation of the Go concept and the detailed decision-making that went into both Hitman and Lara Croft’s board game-like mobile outings.
GamesBeat: How many people are on your development team?
Antoine Routon: We’re at about 10. We’re a very small team. When we’re in production, everything is very tight.
GamesBeat: How did this team come together?
Routon: Well, you see, Square Enix Montreal was created three years ago. At first it was created to develop a triple-A Hitman game, and after a few months [of development], the top management [at Square Enix] looked at all the development studios in Square Enix West and they noticed no studios working on mobile, even though it was such a booming market.
So it was decided to repurpose us for mobile. A lot of people at the studio were unhappy with that decision, because that wasn’t really their “thing.” Two people stayed, counting myself.
For me, [moving to mobile] was kind of a revelation. For a month, we were all asked to just pitch ideas. The game director and I formed a two-man team, where he sold me on the idea that we had to do a turn-based Hitman game.
And I was already raising eyebrows, but after a while, [a turn-based Hitman] started to make sense.
GamesBeat: [Laughs] That’s understandable. …
Routon: So we are working really hard on this [Hitman Go concept], and before launch I remember some people on NeoGAF being like, “WTF is this?!?”
And, “We never asked for something like this!”
And we were like, “Did we go too far? Are we crazy? Did we ruin the license?”
GamesBeat: Right …
Routon: … and then we released and we were super-happy, because people were really happy … and some of the best compliments we received were along the lines of, “Oh, man, this feels like a true Hitman game.”
And I was like, “Yes!”
GamesBeat: So before Hitman Go actually happened, what was the creative spark that ignited the idea?
Routon: Daniel Lutz, the game director, was working at Square Enix, but at night he was really an indie developer on mobile. And he thought at the time, probably wrongly, that there are only two things that work on a mobile game: endless runners and games with a very short play session.
So … an endless runner Hitman? We discovered that idea wouldn’t work pretty fast.
So then we started thinking about a Hitman concept with very short gameplay. So we thought of this very short, turn-based system where it would be more of a puzzle game than anything.
Dan is really good at picking things and pulling them together, almost like forming a bouquet … a little bit of this and a little bit of that … so there was that.
And then looking at the franchise … when we worked on the triple-A console game … the art director on the project would talk about how the Hitman series should be elegant and classy. Like a classic James Bond movie, where things are made with nice expensive materials, and gun handles with hand crafted wood. So we were really sensitive to this visual aesthetic.
So we started thinking of Hitman as this really nice, elegant board game. The sort of object you’d put on a shelf [for display]. And I think this visual concept works very well within the Agent 47 universe.
GamesBeat: When I look at the Go idea, it reminds me very much of old-school prototyping. With the availability of engines like Unity now, you can prototype a playable idea quickly. But there was a time where you had to bust out the trusty shoe box of dice, blocks, and chunks of paper to see if the idea could work. And that’s kind of what I see playing Hitman Go. It feels like, let’s layout this Hitman level on this table and see what we can do with it.
Routon: Yes! You know, I think it’s really interesting, because it is that. Where we prototype with little pieces of paper — which got boring really fast for the guy doing A.I., because he had to keep moving each piece of paper for every turn. [Laughs]
But it also shows the idea’s constraints and [how we] use it as a creative driver for your product. You know what I mean?
Routon: It’s really … yes, we are working under this super tight constraint, but let’s really shine this simplified style. And I really feel that these creative constraints is something that really drives us.
Routon: And I guess I also feel that we have that indie ideal, where it’s a super-small team and we have to work on this tightly scoped idea, but we can make it really well crafted.
GamesBeat: Why do you think some of your former team didn’t gel with this Go idea? You mentioned some of the team working on the cancelled triple-A title didn’t want to work on something like this.
Routon: The art director I mentioned, who brought up the elegance idea, is a good friend of mine. The thing is, he wanted to do large vistas and massive universes. And that’s fair enough. [As an artist that wants to work on large universes] you don’t want to work on something small like this. It doesn’t make sense. So for him, the best medium is a console game.
For other people who have a different type of interest, it [smaller mobile concepts] works for us. It’s totally fair. It’s not as if one [preference] is good and one is bad. It’s just that there are two different things and you have to pick which one you like the most.
And I think this is part of the reason why it’s interesting to do these mobile games with big licenses, because to do them well you have to work within this space that is bit sized with this iconic character.
I mean, for sure, there have been a few slot machines with a big [recognizable] character on it, but what if you want to do it well? What if you really want to embrace the platform and at the same time embrace the brand that you’re working with?
This is the intersection where we’re working.
GamesBeat: Do you feel the vision … the original idea … for Hitman Go wound up coming through in the end?
Routon: I don’t think there was a vision from the very beginning. There were, like, ideas. It’s not that there isn’t this picture of what the game will be, but that image shifts a little bit.
It’s more of an iteration. We believe in iteration like crazy. We try so many things on so many elements, until things just make sense. Such as U.I. being very user-friendly.
Like, we don’t like tutorials or hand holding, so we spent a lot of time to make sure the player doesn’t need a tutorial. So everything is so obvious that you can’t miss it.
So we’re sitting here just working and working and working on it, which forces everything to start shifting. So in the end, it’s more like we discovered the product. It’s almost like unearthing the final product.
GamesBeat: I definitely know what you mean.
Routon: Yeah, and I mean, in full honesty I think it is harder to work with executives who make the financial decisions and you present an idea like, “Well … we dunno! We think this game will work like this, but who knows!”
Like, you have to have a general idea of where the project is going. Right? But at the same time, it’s really cool to just reveal the product by all of this working and reiterating … and seeing what works and what’s not.
GamesBeat: Right …
Routon: You know, on both games [Hitman Go and Lara Croft Go], we didn’t have a lot of concept art. We made a lot of things as we went along. The thing is, it is very important to not get stuck in limbo. As in, you need to have a super playable version of the game. Like, always push to have the best version of the playable game at all times. That way it forces you to have a product you can always, potentially, show.
GamesBeat: How many major iterations do you think the original Go idea went through before reaching the final version?
It’s really difficult to say, because we went through so many iterations for every little thing. Like, I remember in this game … [Routon motions to Lara Croft Go playing on a mobile device on the table ] … there’s a mechanic where you pull a lever, and every time you move Lara the lever goes back one bit. So you need to time getting to the door and sliding underneath it before the door shuts.
And we really wanted the U.I. … the visualization of that [door and lever] turn counter to be very clear.
I remember this guy, he took this Photoshop file, and I kid you not … it’s this 10-by-10 matrix, with a hundred possible visualizations on how we can make this concept clear. So we pick one and try it out. Then give the game to someone and they don’t understand something [such as the door and lever counter], so it’s back to the drawing board again.
GamesBeat: So you’re at this point where you’ve released Hitman Go. Where does the idea of Lara Croft Go enter your minds?
Routon: The thing is, when we showed the Hitman Go concept, which distilled [the original action game] down to its basic elements. We thought, “OK, come on. Lara Croft. She’s right there. We can do this. It will be so amazing.”
Everyone was like, “it’s a go-brainer” … which is some saying they came up with internally.
So we got started and we put Lara in the Hitman Go gameplay setting … and we realized that there were so many things we were going to have to change. This is not Lara Croft. This is Hitman Go with a Tomb Raider skin over it.
So we started to discard stuff. We decided, “OK, no goons to go around and assassinate.”
That may be something that appeared in Tomb Raider, but that’s not nostalgic Lara Croft.
She had to be animated. No more board game aesthetic … it didn’t make sense for Lara Croft.
Then we didn’t necessarily want the newer Tomb Raider [look]. We also had to do mobile, which meant lower polys. So we looked at the old Tomb Raider and thought, “What if we went with a 2015 version of the original Tomb Raider low poly look for this game?”
But, instead of looking at footage of the first Tomb Raider … [Routon leans back and closes his eyes] … we tried to capture what you see when you close your eyes and think about the original Tomb Raider. So it’s not an exact replica … not a literal take on the old game. It’s like trying to capture what you think you remember playing the game as a child, and putting that into the game.
Routon: So we kept discarding stuff and trying to shape it … and then adding other things … and then lead us to eventually ask, “You know. What is a Go game?”
So we would look at what we did with Hitman Go and what we were doing with Lara Croft Go, and I think it came down to a process. Like, taking something complex and building a super lean version of it.
GamesBeat: Did you happen to take some of the classic Tomb Raider levels and say, “You know, this could work as a Go layout. …”
Routon: Not literally.
But, looking at some of the elements and screenshots you can see mechanics or older traps that could. Like in the original Tomb Raider there is almost no human enemies. It’s mainly Lara dealing with a hostile environment.
Or like if you remember the giant T-rex coming out of the cave in the first game. It’s this big Samson vs. Goliath moment where we’re like, “We need that! That’s so Lara Croft!”
[We start playing Lara Croft Go together. I run into a simple push lever mechanic early in the game.]
Routon: We introduce every mechanic in a super simple way. So the context is very simple and easy to understand. We also want the process of figuring out the mechanic to be part of the fun.
And the other thing from Hitman Go is that we had these sort of screens in the background, telling the story. Here we wanted to go strongly with non-verbal storytelling. So you can see as you move, something happens in the background. [I move Lara up a few spots on a long path. The silhouette of a giant serpent like creature rumbles through the level a little at a time as Lara takes each step.]
So there’s no long cutscene or anything that interrupts your gameplay.
GamesBeat: Yeah! Yeah. I like that. It’s … it’s just my opinion here, but it shows a strength, a confidence, at using the medium. You’re using what the medium does well, or unique, to express context. As opposed to not knowing how to use the medium to say what you want, so you’re going to throw in a bunch of. …
Routon: … like a million lines for cutscenes or …
GamesBeat: … yeah! Just let the gameplay narratively speak for itself. You know what I mean?
Routon: It’s the old l show, don’t tell.
Routon: But it’s much harder. Because you have to make sure the story can be understood by itself. Your story has to be much simpler and more visual.
Routon: And the story here, we didn’t want to just do another chapter in the Lara Croft series. It’s like a symbolic representation of all of the adventures she has had. It’s really trying to embrace the tropes and then turning those into puzzles.
GamesBeat: I notice you can’t look around with the camera like you could in Hitman Go.
Routon: No, you can’t. It’s because that’s part of the exploration. You know, there are pillars for every big franchise. I’d say for Lara, I don’t know them all by heart … but I’d say they are exploration, combat, and traversal.
And you can’t really have exploration if Lara can look everywhere you want.
Routon: So we fixed the camera and created this silhouette in the foreground that can block [hidden] stuff [in the middle and background]. And also, we can make sure that every screen has a nice composition.
GamesBeat: I notice there are a lot of points, or spots, that Lara has to be manually moved in some sections. Like, we’ll run into a long straight path with three or four points to move her through. How did you come to the decision to put in as many points as you did?
Routon: It depends. Like, the game is an equation. You run into this puzzle, and you want everything to be as tight as possible. So sometimes, every point is tied to that puzzle and sometimes it’s just giving the user time to [think and uncover the upcoming problems].
There’s also a story element. Like, right here … [Routon points at the screen, where I am leading Lara down a long pathway towards some gates.] … I may not want to show off that big gate right away. So for this section there may be a few more nodes [to traverse].
Now, we know it seems like extra swiping, but this is what I was talking about when it comes to storytelling. This [extra moving points] is often the exception, not the norm.
[I eventually reach a big, Indiana Jones-style boulder trap.]
Routon: So, do you remember that big boulder from the first game that follows you? So, we wanted to capture that, but we didn’t want any time pressure. Time is not a resource in our game. Just turns. So we needed to translate this [high-action moment] with a turn-based boulder. I step in one spot, the boulder moves forward one spot.
I really want to show you something [related to this concept]. Let me show you a boss fight. I won’t show you the whole boss fight, but I just want you to see … I’ll just show you the first part. [Routon takes control and skips the game ahead to a boss fight. Routon begins playing the boss fight for me. Don’t worry, there are no major spoilers ahead.]
So I want to be up on this platform to taunt her. So you see, she is ready to strike. Then I move down to this platform and she misses. Then I am safe and I can hit this lever.
So you see, even though it is turn based, we wanted the action to be very responsive.
GamesBeat: It’s also … you know, when you’re trying to design a boss fight, you don’t think in real-time. You slow the action down to key moments and think, OK, I want the player to do A. Then B. Then C.
GamesBeat: And then X, Y, and Z. The game design … it still translates no matter how fast or slow the end product is intended. Time is almost irrelevant.
Routon: Yes! It’s a little like rational design, where now there needs to be a decision moment. And now there needs to be a timing moment.
It’s an Ubisoft thing, but I believe the most basic concept is that you boil all of your actions down to words, from your game design. So those words form a sentence, and that translates no matter what you’re working on.
Here, this is like rational design taken to an extreme, where we’ve taken this traditionally high action concept and made the structure very visible.
I play through the boss fight a bit more, then put the mobile device down.
GamesBeat: So … there’s one question that’s been in the back of my mind this entire conversation. You’ve gone from Hitman Go to Lara Croft Go. Was there anything from Hitman Go that you looked back on and felt like you had to change, or take out, that’s in Lara Croft Go?
So, by that time we were one year older, one year wiser. I think in Hitman Go, the last puzzles wound up being very big and difficult. There were, like, no checkpoints. Sometimes it felt like there were a lot of elements, almost too much, going on.
Some people really loved that. Even some said it was really easy. Others said it was too difficult.
But for Lara Croft Go, we really wanted it just as challenging, but have the puzzles fit on one screen.
Sort of like a giant lock, and you just need to find the right combination.