Interview: Snake Pass

Interview: Snake Pass

by March 14, 2017

Snake Pass crafts a tricky and engaging game out of a very unique idea. After spending some time with the game at Sumo Digital’s booth on the show floor, we had the fortune to speak to the game’s creator, Seb Liese, about where the idea came from and how it all came together.

TSSZ: The idea for Snake Pass came from an internal game jam at Sumo, correct? Can you tell us more about that process and how you decided to spin the idea off into a full game?

Liese: Right. So at the point of the game jam happening, I was just between projects – I had just finished LittleBigPlanet 3 and I was moving on to Crackdown 3. Then, Sumo gave me two weeks to get to grips with Unreal Engine 4, because I had never used it before. I did a bunch of tutorials initially, and after about three days, I started making some stuff and experimenting a bit. One of the goals I set for myself was to try and make a rope that would swing when the player ran into it. While I was making this rope, at some point I forgot to attach it to the ceiling, and when I saw it collapse on the floor in this really smooth shape, I thought there was something there and I would try to make a game out of that.

Initially, the very first version I made at home was a controllable rope. I’ve got a background in biology and I have two pet snakes, so the step of turning the rope into a snake was very logical for me. I started putting a lot of the biology of snakes, like real muscles, in there. The initial prototype was a sort of a “snake simulator,” and all of this happened in a few days time, just around the time of the game jam.

Sumo is a big studio, as you know; we make triple-A games, but we has never done anything of our own, so we had one day where everybody in the company could work on whatever they wanted, hoping that it would lead to some kind of idea that we could make our own game out of. I submitted it not expecting to win – I just thought it was a nice, quirky idea and it was interesting enough to show off. That led to me getting three guys and three months to try and make something small that we could quickly put out on Steam – a sort of promotional thing. After three months, when we presented what we’d done to the bosses, they were so amazed by what we achieved in that short amount of time that they gave me a full team, proper development time, and a real budget! We’ve worked on it for about a year with an amazing team of between ten to twenty people, depending on what we need, and it’s turned into Snake Pass!

TSSZ: Can you talk about any of the challenges you faced in implementing the game’s unique movement mechanics?

Liese: Again, a lot of it comes from me approaching it from a biologist’s point of view. When I decided I wanted to make it into a snake, I really started to make the code work to mimic a real muscle. When I set out, I never thought I would want it to climb this time of object or to do this type of motion. I just really tried to make it work like a real snake. Then, the more I approached how a real snake worked, the more it was able to do these things that a real snake can do, and the gameplay just sort of emerged naturally from the design.

The big challenges were mostly getting these realistic snake physics controllable in a really fun way. One of the things we did to try to achieve that was during the first time we showed the game to the public in London at EGX in early April of last year. We actually had two versions of the game with two completely different control schemes, and we didn’t tell anyone about that! We just let them play, and after that we asked them to rate what they thought about the game. Afterwards, we looked at which version had the best rating, we developed that control scheme further. Over the last couple of months, every now and then, when the team agrees we’d make tiny little changed to what it is. I think the controls are very easy to pick up, but are also very deep with a lot of subtleties and little tricks.

TSSZ: Because the gameplay is so unique, how did you go about striking a good balance in the puzzle design between offering a good challenge and frustrating players, especially with regard to level progression and difficulty?

Liese: A lot of that is done by the separation of the different kinds of collectibles. In each level, the main objective is to collect three keystones, which are relatively easy to get to, especially in the early levels. While you’re trying to get to them, we constantly try to lure you in the corners of the UI into trying something a little bit more difficult, and that’s the main initial purpose of the blue collectibles, the Wisps. As you play the game naturally and go for the gems, you will get tempted to try and go for that one Wisp that looks a little bit more difficult. As you do that, you’ll notice that you’ll start picking up the little subtleties of the game, and before you know it, you’ll be snaking like a pro!

TSSZ: This is Sumo’s first self-published effort. How does that process differ from working with an external publisher?

Liese: Obviously, we have full creative control over it. Whenever you work on a big franchise, the Sumo staff becomes a safe pair of hands, in a sense – we won’t make dramatic changes to it, we’ll just try to improve on what’s there, and you always have this big party you’ll need to answer to for all kinds of decisions. In this case, it’s our thing! We can decide whatever we want to do with it, so that’s a big difference.

As a self-publishing company now…when you work on these big games, you always have someone like Sony or Microsoft behind you with almost-infinite money for marketing. That’s been one of the more difficult things for us – to get our game out there and get it noticed without these big machines behind us. We had to do it all ourselves. We have a fantastic team here who all love the game and want to see it succeed, and because of all their hard work, we’ve been able to finally get it noticed, especially here at PAX this weekend. The response has been amazing.

TSSZ: You mentioned that the game runs on Unreal Engine 4. It’s also playable on the Switch here, and you’re fully supporting that platform alongside all the others. Can you talk about the process of developing for the Switch with the third-party tools in UE4 and whether that posed any challenges by itself?

Liese: If I’m honest, I’m more involved with the game design – when it comes to porting it, that’s mostly coders and the more technically-oriented people. They’ve told me that they managed to get the full PC version playable on the Switch within four working days, with is amazing. That is also thanks to the insane support we’ve been getting from both Nintendo and Unreal to make this work. Obviously, it’s in both of their interests to make this process as easy as possible. It kind of sold me on the Switch completely as well, realizing that these awesome Unreal games that are coming out in the near future will probably all be playable on the Switch. The fact that the conversion was so easily done is great.

TSSZ: People are concerned about the Switch being underpowered relative to other consoles, but we saw here today that Snake Pass has no issues running on the console. You’ve seen, generally, that the Switch is working out for the game?

Liese: Yeah. Obviously, it is the least powerful out of the current consoles, so you do have to sacrifice some visuals here and there, but we tried to be picky and find what we could sacrifice without people really noticing it. If you’re good with that and creative with what you sacrifice, you can definitely create a really good-looking game on the Switch.

TSSZ: When is Snake Pass coming out, and where can we play it?

Liese: It comes out March 28th in the US and March 29th in Europe. It will be available on all the platforms, including Switch, for $19.99, and you can currently pre-order it on PlayStation for $15.99.