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I love this game. Aside from being a fantastic 3D platformer, it’s also brilliant showcase for the DualSense controller and its new features, like the adaptive triggers and haptic feedback. Astro’s Playroom is also a love letter to the PlayStation brand, featuring cameos, collectibles, and Easter eggs celebrating notable games, characters, and even accessories.
I talked with Nico Doucet, Astro’s Playroom’s creative director and producer. I learned about the creation and development of the game, and how Team Asobi was able to inject so much PlayStation love into one title.
A platformer for the senses
GamesBeat: When did production of Astro’s Playroom start? Was it always meant to be a PS5 launch experience?
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Nico Doucet: Yes. Our previous title was a PS4 game, PSVR, called Astro Bot: Rescue Mission. As we were into production of that game, that was throughout 2018, we already had a small team on the side looking at DualSense, the prototypes for what would be the next controller. We knew at that point that the controller was going to be next-generation. It wasn’t necessarily planned to be for the launch at the time, the next game. But later one, once we gathered enough of these tests and tech demos, that’s when we thought, well, we have Astro. We were attached to the character. We were experienced with him. Let’s bring that over to the PS5 and use this new experience we’ve gained around the controller to build something together that feels fresh.
GamesBeat: What is it about Astro that makes him so well-suited for showing off new technologies like VR and DualSense?
Doucet: I suppose the genre of game makes it easier. Of course we could have made a collection of minigames with all the tech demos we created. But I think doing that around a familiar genre, this has several benefits. The first one is it gives you something richer and more cohesive. Everything independent and detached, it’s kind of good, but you soon try it and it really just feels like a bunch of tech demos. But once you integrate it inside something like a platformer, first, you have something that’s spread more evenly, in a more interesting manner. It jells better.
Platformers go back so many years. It’s a kind of nice way to link the classic and the modern. It was the same for VR. It was something that came at the end of the project, but this time it feels the same. I see this in some of the comments we’ve received recently. It’s a celebration of the classic and the latest. Perhaps that’s a good way to introduce new tech, using something that people are familiar with. Maybe reinventing that for the new tech.
GamesBeat: Do you think 3D platformers are making a comeback ? We saw the success of the new Crash games. Sackboy and Ratchet & Clank are getting new games, too.
Doucet: It’s interesting. For me, they’ve never gone away. They have something nice, which is they touch a large audience. You can create pieces that are really skill-based for gamers. Because of the experience they have from the last 15, 20, 30 years, they’ve built an affinity with the genre. But at the same time it’s something that lends itself to kids today. Perhaps because we’ve gone a full cycle, 30 years with it, those who grew up playing platformers are keen to introduce their children. I’m just speculating, but that could be a reason why it’s coming back in fashion.
GamesBeat: Why was the decision made to make Astro’s Playroom come free with the PS5?
Doucet: That’s something that we were not really specifically asked to do. Team Asobi is in Japan, and the hardware engineering is also in Japan. That makes it easy for us to bounce back with the controller. When we get a prototype of the controller, it doesn’t look anything like this. It’s big and chunky, with boards and cables and stuff. But the essential technology that you see in the final product, the haptic triggers, the feedback, all of that was there in the beginning. By going back and forth and bouncing off each other, we were able to improve the controller and the use cases for it. The engineers are amazing, those guys. They’re mechanical engineers, but they have a hunch for what’s going to be good in a game. But they’re not sure. Once it gets to us, then we take it in new directions that perhaps they had not anticipated. Then we feed that back in, show it to them, and they get excited. If we make this stronger, if we make this like that, we can improve this bit. It’s a real collaborative loop.
At the end of all that, we had about 80 tech demos. The tech demos could be really simple stuff. We had one that was a weather demo. There was a character in the middle of the screen, and then you get loads of weather. You could go through different types of weather and feel them through the controller. Another one might be a first-person shooting range. Each one would be really focused around striking one particular point, or two points combined together. Once we had all these set, the idea was, what do we do? Do we do a preinstalled game again? We need to show all this cool stuff to consumers. The discussion came up, and we raised our hand. We wanted to do it. We had some experience with making the PS4 and PSVR pack-ins. We didn’t want to make a minigame collection. We’d done that before. We wanted to challenge and go one step further. Through the project, there were times where we were thinking, are we overdoing it? When you look at the production side of things, now we had full production, just like another game. But in the end it turned out to be the right amount of volume for an introductory title.
Playing with PlayStation
GamesBeat: One of the coolest things about the experience is how you can collect all these Sony controllers and accessories. They’re really realistic. How did you create those for the game?
Doucet: That was interesting too. The idea of putting those in was, we needed collectibles. Since Astro lives inside the controller, we needed a place for him to go around. We thought, OK, let’s do it inside the console. We really loved our brand. It’s fan service, but for us there’s also a general love. I’m a massive collector of video games and old examples, really going back. There’s something cool about these older systems, seeing the evolution. The first one we made was the original PlayStation. We also wanted to convince everyone in the company, let’s go and do this. You still have to make a strong case. We planned out a little cutscene showing the level of fidelity we could do. That was a big deal, being on PS5 with 4K graphics. We had to make sure we met that expectation of everything looking good.
The first one was built entirely from just looking at the box and modeling it. Depending on how far you go in the timeline, we were able to use industrial data later on. But still, there’s a lot of work that goes in. It has to be modified to be fitting for a game in terms of size and the file system we use, stuff like that. There was quite a lot of work. There was somebody full time on that for about nine months, I think. But he was loving it, looking at all the details. Especially all of the little stickers, serial numbers, all of that. I was amazed sometimes. I was expecting the numbers and labels to be incorrect, but you’d look and it would be perfect. It really made me think. Those guys, 3D artists, they really are magicians. They use their eyes and look at details, and they just get it. When they do it in 3D, you look and it’s all exactly the same. To me it’s magic.
GamesBeat: You also have all of these character cameos, where you see the other Astro Bots dressed up as famous game stars. Was it difficult to get the rights for all of those cameos?
Doucet: That was the next step in the process. It’s great to have all the hardware, but what’s PlayStation without all the games? We started with the ones that were very close to us. Just as a test. We made a few tests. And then we went out and — actually, no, to answer your question, it’s surprisingly a great process. I learned a lot from going around and talking to people. We went to the rest of Worldwide Studios, some of the big guys, like Santa Monica with Kratos, or Guerrilla Games, and everybody, once they saw the stuff in the game, they were really keen to be part of it. And then we had about maybe about 15 of these Sony IPs.
But then we felt like, hold on, if this is going to be the whole thing … I remember my PS1 experience. Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Ridge Racer, all these things are important. We have to go further. Everybody we spoke to, the other publishers, every single one we submitted got approved. I was expecting to have some difficulties — perhaps because of timelines. We might be talking about an IP that was kind of old, but right now they’re trying to promote the latest version. Perhaps there might be some disconnect. But in the end, everybody said yes, let’s do this. That was really cool. It was great. Surprisingly easy. That made me realize how much love there is for the brand. Even outside of Sony.
GamesBeat: The soundtrack is amazing, just like it was in Rescue Mission. But that GPU song in the level with the giant chip singing, that’s still stuck in my head. And then later I found the lyrics for that song in a hidden cave.
Doucet: The composer is Kenneth Young. He used to be at Media Molecule, [developers of] LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway. We worked with him on Rescue Mission and again on this game. That’s all credit to him, really. One thing we talked about with Kenny early on was, if we’re going to do something crazy. Normally we challenge quite a bit. We tend to feel a bit like outsiders. I hope we continue having this kind of mindset. We felt like every time we could take some risks. But this time, even writing a song, it was one step further. We were discussing it together and thinking, if we’re going to do it, it has to be with this game. There’s no strings attached. Of course there’s a big responsibility, but on the music front, perhaps we can take some risks.
First, I got a version of it where it was him singing. He’s actually the one singing. Kenny’s Scottish. One thing I noticed first of all is that when he sings, you don’t recognize his voice at all. He sings pretty well. But then he said, don’t judge on that. Tomorrow I’ll be back with the proper version. And then the following day, the robotic version came through. We worked on that a bit more, and then it just stayed in there. We had a discussion halfway through the project as to whether it was too much. But then we thought, no, this is right. And then for the GPU chip mountain, we wanted a landmark for each space. That one existed. That was something we worked on for a previous game. We did a prototype where, whenever you stopped moving, Astro would sing the music. He would sing along, or sound like he was humming, making mistakes, putting his own beats in there. But in the end we didn’t do that, because there was too much music in the game. It was quite a fine-tuned process. We worked on one track, and then we left it behind. We took that idea back and made it.
Actually, Kenny wrote the lyrics. He did everything himself. He really did some research. He’s a musician. He’s quite technical as well. But he was concerned about writing stuff that was inaccurate or out of context. He did some research and really used GPI terms and words, even though it’s a love song, based on the GPU doing lots of tricks. Which is kind of creating this magic look. It was such a nice set of lyrics that we thought we needed to hide them somewhere in the game. Which is a little strange, because in Astro’s world we never use any text. But on this occasion we hid them somewhere, like old runes, to make sure that people had a chance to read them somewhere.
More Astro for more people
GamesBeat: Astro Bot: Rescue Mission is a critical hit, but the audience was a bit limited just because you had to have PSVR. Now everybody who gets a PS5 is going to have this Astro game, and presumably PS5 is going to sell well. Is it exciting to know the character is going to get so much more exposure?
Doucet: Totally. We’ll have to see. We’re going to be paying a lot of attention. We see what the media is saying, and so far it’s going over really well. It’ll be interesting to see how that translates to the public and the various types of audience. Tech lovers and gamers will have a reaction, but also, over the years — the day one experience — today, on day one, it’s about the new hardware and the new generation. There’s a lot of technology innovation and things like that. But over time, the day one experience is going to have different meanings for different people. As the audience gets bigger, and perhaps down the line families connect the PS5 for the first time, they’ll have their day one experience too. It’ll be interesting to see the reaction. Of course, from our point of view, it’s a massive privilege to be able to experience our little Astro to all the players. We’ll just take it from there and see what happens. So far, so good, I’d say.
GamesBeat: You’re among the first to develop an exclusive for PS5. Was it different developing for PS5 compared to some of your past projects?
Doucet: We do have experience, but it’s not an AR or VR game. We call it a TV game. It’s our first traditional TV game. There’s a lot of classic stuff that any team would have sorted out 10 years ago, like getting a camera system in, this classic stuff. But talking about the more specific things to PS5 — probably the haptic system, actually working out how we could use it to best effect. Given that it’s linked to the audio design in a way, because of the waveform — bringing the audio guys into the mix sooner was an important differentiator. Before, all your guys would have come to a point where something was running on the screen. At first, on the project, that wasn’t the case. We were making all the haptic feedback. Our gameplay programmers were the ones making the controls and setting the feel of the game. But on top of that, they would also use whatever sounds they could get their hands on to create the sound waves, create the haptic feedback. They thought, okay, this is good, but it could be done better by sound professionals. So we brought in the audio team. It was a bit of a learning curve for them, because it’s another stream for them to be involved in. They do all the sound of the game, but then they also do the vibration system, effectively. That was a difference.
I suppose, like everything, it’s just a new process. It’s like taking graphics from HD to 4K, or getting a new animation or AI system or whatever. It’s something that you do once, and once you understand how it works, then it’s in place, and from now on I think it’s going to be quite smooth. I wouldn’t say it was particularly more difficult. It’s just a new way of working. For the other guys, it was an interesting experience to be into the mix so early, especially with the play feel of the character, getting that right. That was something quite big. Outside of that, it’s still more traditional stuff. The SSD was an interesting one too. We didn’t design around the SSD this time. It’s a classically built game that happens to be very fast at passing information. But it’ll be interesting in the future to imagine, okay, can we actually design around the SSD? Like what Ratchet and Clank is doing. That’s really interesting. When we saw that, we said, what are we not thinking about? Having this instant switch between game worlds.
GamesBeat: Speaking of the future here, if Astro’s Playroom is received well, do you think you’d work on a full-length sequel?
Doucet: We’ll have to see. There’s lots of things we want to do at Team Asobi. Especially with the controller. It has so much stuff packed in that it lends itself to many other ways to play and game genres. It’s one avenue we could take. But we’re still exploring and taking more time to see what can be done, what should be our next move. We’re still a small team, quite a small team. It’s not like we can do 10 things at the same time.
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