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Interview: MetaNet Software Talks N++, Delays, and the future of the N series

10 years ago MetaNet Software released a free game on the internet known as N. At the time, nobody thought it would be played over 27 million times, let alone be published by Atari on the PSP, Nintendo DS, and even the Xbox Live Arcade. Tomorrow the third installment in the series will be released: N++.  We had the opportunity to chat with Mare Sheppard, the Co-Founder of MetaNet Software about N++, its delays, and what the future holds for the the N series.

Gaming Conviction: Will The N series end as a trilogy with N++, or is it too soon to know what the future holds?
Mare Sheppard: When we started down the road that is now N++, we set out determined to make the last, and the best, version of this game that could ever be. We are confident that we’ve achieved that goal: N++ is a better game than we even imagined, we’re so proud of it. And with 2360 levels, 50+ colour schemes, 6+ hours of music, 3 game modes and countless other suprises, we built it to last a lifetime. We put everything we had into this game so we would feel good about what it is, and so we would never have to make another one.

GC: Did everyone at Metanet Software expect that the N series would come this far after the first game was released?
MS: When we released N in 2004, we never expected it to become so popular! We knew we liked to play it (because that’s how we make games: we make things that we want to play, and we know they’re good when we’re happy with them), but of course you never know how others will feel. So the amount of love for the game has really been surprising, and wonderful. We had always felt that it was missing something, and needed more refinement, and we’re so pleased with N++: we feel very lucky to have finally been able to make the game we always wanted to make.

GC: What was the reason to only releasing the game on Playstation 4 as previous games have been released on multiple units?
MS: For N, we used Flash, so we built for PC/Mac. Back in those days, all console games required a publisher, and digital distribution didn’t really exist. It was all retail, which was prohibitively expensive. You could download and share games on PC pretty easily in comparison though, so as we played a lot of freeware and shareware — often made by small teams — it was one of those eye-opening moments for us: not only could we, a small team of two, make games ourselves, but we could also publish them ourselves, too. That was relatively easy and immediate, and the perfect way for us to get started.

N got popular and someone who worked at Microsoft got in touch to ask about an Xbox 360 version, so that’s why we made N+ for XBLA. The handheld versions arose because we think N is a great game to play on the road or in transit, since the play-sessions are so bite-sized.

And for N++, Nick Suttner had reviewed and loved N+ before he started working for Sony, and he bugged us for years to make a version for PlayStation, so that was an easy decision. If N++ sells well enough on PS4, we hope to be able to port it, especially to Steam, and if possible, Vita. We want to bring the game to lots of players. But we’re a tiny team with limited resources, and that means we have to make some tough decisions.

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GC: N++ had a beta that lasted for several weeks. What kind of feedback did you receive from testers?
MS: Doing the Beta to test the server was fantastic — we found lots of little bugs and glitches we were able to fix for launch day. Testers gave us feedback on the editor, the highscore systems and the game itself. We are happy to have received nothing but positive feedback on how the game feels to play, which is great since we spent 11 years fine-tuning it 🙂

We’ve made tons of improvements since the Beta, including optimizing the size of the save file. We tweaked levels, we tweaked colours, we put the finishing touches on the animations and got the server running beautifully. It’s ready for launch, and it’s magnificent.

GC: What kind of new features will players of the previous N games notice in N++?
MS: Of course N++ has a built-in level editor, but this time around the global level sharing works brilliantly, so players will definitely notice some improvements there. Aside from the predominant Solo gameplay, there is also Co-op and Competitive Multiplayer (Race mode) for 2-4 players. Race in particular has some new additions and really great rules that players will love — and the player-controlled rocket might be our favourite new addition! There are several new enemies and objects, and several have a multiplayer focus to keep things interesting and allow for lots of inspiration in level design.

As we designed the 2360 levels in the game, we invented and polished several new and fun mechanics. We added tons of colour (50+ colour schemes, including the classic grays) and over 6 hours of stellar electronic music. And then there are the layers of new ways to interact with the game, including the all-gold badges and interesting trophy challenges. There is so much in this game, it’s bursting at the seams. But like we said, we intend to make it last a lifetime.

GC: You have noted in previous interviews that the size of the game will double after the first update. What all will be added with that update?
MS: It may not be the first update, but we’re planning plenty of new levels, some new colours and music, and even some new game modes. It’ll be like another entire game. We also plan on increasing the price when that happens — whenever you buy the game, you’re also buying a “lifetime pass” to any content we release in the future. And we don’t plan on putting N++ on sale much, so if you want it cheaper, your best bet is to buy early.

GC: What kind of emotions do you hope players will feel after playing N++?
MS: The major thing that sets N++ apart as a platformer is that the physics allow you as a player to have some degree of control while in the air — there’s a moon-gravity that some call “floatiness” that gives you the opportunity to improv: when you play, you formulate a plan and then execute it. If during execution your plan starts to fail, you have a few split seconds to try to come up with a new one on the fly, to rescue yourself from a deadly situation. It’s really satisfying when you pull it off, and in any case you know where you went wrong, so you have a chance to rethink it and try a different strategy. Also, the lack of any load times at all makes retrying levels and strategies immediate and responsive, which keeps the game from being too frustrating. A lot of the design was intended to support that idea: that “you’ll fail, maybe a lot, but that’s ok”, and to encourage players through the satisfaction of knowing that when they succeed, it’s because of their own skill and determination. Very rewarding!

GC: Where do you get your inspirations from?
MS: Everything around us! For N++, Graphic design, especially print, was a big inspiration.

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(Ironically, it was a game that originally made us pay attention to graphic design: The Designers Republic’s work in Wipeout 3 was really inspirational and started our obsession with graphic design — it opened our eyes and led us to discover all sorts of amazing work. Wipeout 3 was also an inspiration in terms of the soundtrack)

Our level design is inspired by architecture and our love of geometry, but at a meta level I think we draw a lot from music — mostly just the idea of pacing and dynamics, of different parts and movements working together. When we arrange levels we try to make sure that there are calm moments in between the stressful ones, which lets the player rest and recover a bit (and which also makes the intense parts feel more intense).

There is also an element of dance in the levels, traversing each level is a sort of ballet — timing, rhythms, patterns of movement — and we’ve tried to think about it like this when analyzing the level designs. Especially in levels with rockets, the movement of the player becomes very much like a dance.

GC: What kind of things have you, as a team, had to overcome during the development of N++?
MS: Too many issues to name! It was announced early, which we regret given the amount of time it took to actually finish the game. There were hordes of horrible bugs to find. Shawn said the TRCs (compliance with Sony’s system) took 6 entire months, which is a gigantic amount of time to have to invest after the game part is actually finished. Polishing the vast number of levels and colours took much more time than we anticipated, and the server backend is insanely complex — that it works so well and so seamlessly is truly an awesome thing. So many things went wrong: but we persevered because we knew this game would be worth the effort: it just feels so GOOD to play. Hopefully people will buy N++, and we can continue to make games!

GC: What was the reasoning behind the game being delayed for so long, as N++ was originally slated for release during Winter 2014?
MS: We at Metanet tried very hard to not announce a release date we didn’t think we could hit, and if we were pressured into personally saying N++ would be out in Winter 2014, then it must have been early on, when we were aiming at PS4 launch and thought there was NO WAY we’d be in development for longer. But when that statement was made, we were working on basically an upgrade to N+. What we ended up making in N++ is SO much more than that, the lengthened development time is more than worth it: it’s a much better game, and one that we believe truly can last a lifetime.

GC: Will there be any kind of Easter Eggs that fans of the series can find while progressing through the game?
MS: So many. So, so many. We won’t spoil them, but aside from the level names, keep an eye on the trophies and fun-lockable ™ Options!

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