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Joystiq interviews Metanet's Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns


After we played the excellent pre-alpha DS version of N+, we were asked by the game's producer, David Geudelekian, if we wanted to meet Metanet, the creators of the original N. It's sort of a strange feeling, to play a game and then be escorted directly to the people responsible for it, by another person responsible for it. Or, at least, it would have been, had Metanet's Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns, as well as David, not been so genial. Metanet was at PAX promoting the Xbox Live Arcade N+, which they are developing along with Slick Entertainment.

Metanet's N+ booth, hidden behind Atari's in the corner of the exhibition hall, was as indie as the game, featuring a custom-built 360 display unit accessible only after a series of wall jumps and guarded by automated machine gun turrets; Mare and Raigan took a break from challenging convention-goers to multiplayer N+ (victors got t-shirts) to take part in an impromptu chat about the new multiplatform adaptation of their Independent Games Festival Audience Award-winning Flash game, its platforming influences, and even about their mysterious new game, Robotology. The interview continued via email afterward, when we weren't in one of the world's loudest places.

Could you tell me again about the genesis of Metanet and the N project?

Metanet began when Mare and Raigan met in first year Java class in University. They quickly discovered that they shared a love of video games, programming and the arts, and decided to combine their talents and efforts into a game-developing powerhouse. We're still working on that powerhouse part ;) N was a game we wanted to play, but which did not yet exist -- a classic, old-school 2D platformer with an injection of modern physics. We started playing around with physics and collision, and eventually developed the NinjaEngine, from which N soon blossomed.

Do you think N is well-suited to handheld play?

Yes, absolutely. We've always wanted to play N while travelling, on something more convenient than a laptop. We were concerned for a while that the graphics wouldn't scale down well, and we still don't think it would work on cell phones, but for the DS and PSP it should be fine.

Do the mechanics feel the same to you in all the versions? Obviously DS and PSP are early. But if anyone could spot the differences, it would be you.

The Xbox Live Arcade version is, as you say, much farther along in development than the DS and PSP versions. And it's fantastic -- it's absolutely spot on. It required many tweaks along the way, to really perfect the collision and physics, but N+ XBLA is at a point we feel is very N.

The DS and PSP versions are definitely harder to gauge -- actually, we haven't played a PSP build at all yet. It's our understanding that it's even less developed than the DS version, which is currently pre-Alpha. At this point, it's too hard to say... we do know that the gameplay on handhelds is intended to be identical to that of the PC version, so while they don't currently, the mechanics will eventually feel the same.

I read on the Metanet blog that each version of N+ has its own levels. Is there overlap? Are the contest winners included in any or all versions? Were there differences in the level designs based on the strengths of the display or interface for any of the systems?

Yep, each platform has it's own unique levels. Metanet Software designed all the single player levels (with only a few exceptions other than the SUBLiME levels) and the multiplayer levels for the XBLA version. The multiplayer levels for the DS/PSP versions are being handled by the developer.

The entrants of SUBLiME, the Submit Unique and Brilliant Levels in to Metanet Event, each submitted levels designed for specific platforms. So the winning levels will only appear on the platform for which they were originally intended.

The interface of each platform is the same -- the only difference between each platform is the dimensions of the level. The PSP is wide but short, DS is more square, and the amazing XBLA version can handle maps of just about any dimension. It's phenomenal for level design, because that gives us so much freedom!

Both of you are obviously steeped in tile-based level design; what are your favorite tile-based games? Do you feel that they've influenced N?

We're huge fans of the Mario games, of course, but what gamer isn't ;) Lode Runner is the most obvious of N's influences, but we also took inspiration from more modern freeware games, like Super Bubble Blob, Zone Runner and Puchi. We love the simplicity and engaging gameplay of Studio Pixel's games, but those weren't so much inspirational as they were motivational: easy examples of awesome 2D platformers.

Was N designed with user-created levels in mind, or did that come later?

Many of our favourite classic games came with level editors, so it seemed fairly obvious -- it's something we've always enjoyed.

As soon as we'd developed the level editor (and there were many long days hand-coding levels before that -- ouch!), we knew it should be released with the game. We didn't think it would be as popular as it is, though!

Any details about release estimates or platform for Robotology (Metanet's second game)?

Ah, Robotology. It's taking forever, and has been delayed by N+, which has required more time and work than we thought. But we should be able to get back to it shortly, and are planning to enter it in next year's IGF.

It'll be released on Mac/PC first, but we're not sure where it'll go from there.

Robotology uses a grappling hook. Generally, platform games involving grappling have been awesome (Bionic Commando, Super Castlevania 4, etc.) What do you think it is about the grapple mechanic that elevates a game?

Games with a grappling hook enable the player to move with a certain fluidity we've always enjoyed... but then again, we've never been quite satisfied with the mechanics. They still feel a little too clunky, which is what we're trying to avoid in Robotology.

Grappling is just another way of interacting, but in a physics-based setting they make perfect sense: it's like an extension of pushing and pulling, and it works really well .

Are you done done done with N after this, or do you foresee a return to the project after Robotology?

Well, we're planning on releasing an official web-playable version of N in the near future, and there's still an update to N for PC that needs to be done... and when we're done those, it'll probably be just about time to get started on N^2, or NN, or whatever the sequel will be called... so yes, probably, but first we have a few other game ideas we need to get finished!

Since you challenged me to N+ (and I chickened out), what kinds of multiplayer options will be available in the Xbox version? And do you feel that this changes the experience of the game beyond, you know, having another person there?

There are three flavours of multiplayer: one cooperative and two competitive (survival and race). Multiplayer mode isn't *too* different from sinleplayer mode, gameplay-wise, but it certainly has some interesting new gameplay mechanics. For example, cooperative mode: in some levels your "roles" are not identical. You can either distract the enemies while your friend unlocks the exit, or you can make the treacherous journey to the exit yourself, while your friend holds off the robot hordes. You have to have flexible skills, and be ready to change direction immediately if necessary.

How many people did end up beating one of you?

Well, we sort of lost count. ;) They were long and well-played battles though, on both sides.

What are some of the things that you have been able to do on the XBLA version that haven't been implemented in the others?

We're hoping that, aside from the differences in level dimension and rich HD goodness of XBLA, the answer to this question is "nothing". There are trivial differences such as interface design, modes of multiplayer and enemy types, but the core gameplay will be identical across platforms.

Have you had contact with the other console companies?

We've been in touch with other console companies, yeah. We're still considering the future of Robotology, after all.

Are your games aimed at hardcore N lovers or new players? Or was N+ designed with both in mind?

N+ was definitely designed with both in mind. First we leveled out the learning curve and added a bunch of very easy/tutorial levels so new players wouldn't feel so intimidated. For the hardcore N fans we made some creative levels that can be traversed using either beginner or advanced methods, so they won't be completely bored by the easier levels. We also added a "hardcore" unlockable for those that want more, and more difficult levels, once they've beaten the game.

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