Interview: Delivering the Messenger To Old-School Fans With Sabotage Studios
The Messenger, which debuts this week for Nintendo Switch and PC, is a wondrous throwback to the [...]
The Messenger, which debuts this week for Nintendo Switch and PC, is a wondrous throwback to the good ol' days of platform gaming, in which split-second timing and unique abilities can make all the difference.
We're still in the midst of working on our review for the game, which should drop sometime this week. But in the meantime, we snuck into the quarters of Sabotage Studios, the developers behind the game, to speak with Thierry Boulanger, who serves as game designer/director/writer for The Messenger.
Using our ninja capabilities (and an email address provided by PR, as a back-up plan), we got some answers from Boulanger about the game, including its difficult set-up, its reception at trade shows and, of course, whether the game will see the light of day on other platforms.
Getting Off On the Right (Ninja) Foot
First off, at what point did Sabotage decide to work on a ninja game? Were you guys inspired by Ninja Gaiden, or was it just something different?
There's no way I could overstate the impact Ninja Gaiden had on me as a child. I still think the Ninja is the perfect hero for a game; just a function, selfless and without a clearly defined personality, so you can just project yourself into the adventure and become the shadow. I have been wanting to make this game since I was in elementary school!
On Sabotage deciding to work on a ninja game, it's the other way around! I had been working evenings and weekends with Phil (our level designer) for almost a year, and the prototype was clearly meant to become a thing, so working on it full time and putting a proper team together was just the natural next step. Since I know nothing about finances or marketing, I reached out to Martin and he promptly decided to quit his job so we could co-found Sabotage.
How did you come up with the idea of mixing up 8 and 16-bit styles? Were you looking to pay homage to both genres, or just felt that it was a proper fit for the game?
The core game design ingredient with The Messenger is players expectations, so everything we put into the game is meant to take you as far as possible from the simple cliché'd premise of the linear 8bit action side-scroller where a ninja carries a scroll. Amongst other things, that means time travel! Roughly at the halfway point, our hero is sent 500 years into the future; that's why the shift to 16bit occurs.
Later on in the adventure the frame falls completely and the previously linear experience becomes a Metroidvania, with full blown areas to discover, all in both 8 and 16-bit to represent the past and future worlds. Shifting between both worlds also affects the level layouts, which is our addition to the exploration layer of the game.prevnext
Challenges and Reception, The Ninja Way
How tough was it to find the right level of balance for the game? So not too easy, but also not too hard? Is there a New Game + that players can venture into if they want more of a challenge?
By doing constant iterations during production! It really comes down to getting a feel for the game and letting it emerge as what it's trying to be. So we started from this idea of the Cloudstep, where hitting something in the air gives you an extra jump, which you can chain as long as you find targets, and then before worrying about levels (duration, flow, difficulty), we worked with a screen by screen approach, looking for satisfying little moments and Cloudstep opportunities. Once we had hundreds of these, we ranked them by difficulty and began the process of sprinkling them across the whole game.
We did talk about making something like a New Game + (which we'd call New Game -), but in the end we decided to release the game sooner, and to present it in its leanest form. We'll see how it's received, but we'd love to add content for sure! For players looking for the additional challenge, there 45 "Power Seals" to destroy at the end of hard but optional rooms hidden throughout the game.
How has the reception been for the game thus far? Did you get any suggestions that you applied to the final game, or did you stay on your general course?
So far we've been blessed with a pretty unanimous response! One thing we always hear is that the controls are tight, and that the music getting muffled when you go underwater is a neat polish point. We had a big presence in shows like PAX and E3 since the game was announced, and the feedback has been invaluable. While we didn't overhaul anything major, seeing fresh hands play the game helped us a lot in finding the proper difficulty and duration for levels.prevnext
Gameplay, More Platforms, and Messenger 2?
Tell us how you were able to implement all these different abilities for your character within the game. He's capable of quite a bit as you get it all unlocked.
By taking them one at a time! The core of the game has always been the Cloudstep. Everything in the game, whether it be level design or enemy behaviors, are built around giving you opportunities to use the Cloudstep, which never seems to stop feeling satisfying. The goal was then to double down on that dance with gravity, so giving the players more tools to remain airborne, so our ninja can use a wingsuit to glide, and also has a rope dart, which is essentially a horizontal grappling hook.
With added reach, and all attacks kicking into an extra jump, into gliding, into reaching with the rope dart, into yet another jump, into gliding again, then into hooking to the wall, the player becomes a ninja that looks the part. And since we're very much looking at speedrunners with this title, letting the player show off in a way that's easy to read for someone watching was mandatory.
The game will finally come out for Nintendo Switch and PC this week. Are you excited? Is there the possibility that we'll see it for other platforms as well, or are those even in the works?
For other platforms, of course we'd love to get the game in the hands of everyone that would like to play it, but being indie (and still technically a start-up), we first need to see how the game is received, as we went completely all in just to get it out, so our future is in the public's hands.
On the game coming out, while there are no words for how it feels to see your childhood dream project come to life, yes, I can very much say that I'm excited (laughs).
Finally, if success is met with the title, would you like to do a Messenger II? And if so, what steps would you take to make it stand out even more?
The big question! Sabotage will always be about mixing retro aesthetics with modern game design. Whether we apply this to side-scrollers or another genre next has yet to be announced...
The Messenger arrives on August 30 for Nintendo Switch and PC! Want more goodness from the game? Check out the creators behind Ninja Gaiden giving it a run for its money!prev