Est. April 2016. III Version 2.0. III
KNIGHTS AND BIKES
Our exclusive interview with Artist Rex Crowle.
By JAY TEE
Knights and Bikes is a game that charms and fascinates in equal measure. It has an almost undefinable secret sauce that makes it impossible to dismiss. Whether it’s the obvious reverence for the late 1980’s English countryside, the delightful character design, or the doubling down on optional co-
After a very successful Kickstarter campaign, developers Rex Crowle and
Moo Yu, a two man crew who have worked on LittleBigPlanet, Tearaway, and Ratchet & Clank, now lead the way as Foam Sword Games -
They have forged a bold and clear vision, and I was very fortunate to be able to interrogate both gents at a recent ‘backer event’ in London. We covered everything, from initial concepts, an average working day, to the nature of Goose companions. SIDE NOTE: I missed, and therefore did not back, the Kickstarter.
THE BASICS -
CENTRE STAGE KEY:
Big Picture -
Warp Speed -
There is joy and playfulness at the heart of every pixel in Knights and Bikes.
It’s the game the world needs!
JTGA: How long have you had the concept for Knights and Bikes?
Rex: It’s something that we talked about for quite a long time. Moo [Yu, Programmer at Foam Sword Games] and I would chat about collaborating on something. We were both interested in making a kind of ‘Goonies’ RPG. Something that would really allow you to play as a gang of kids; get on your bikes, cycle around, and have your first taste of the adult world. Those first steps of independence.
It took us a while to actually turn that into something real. We’d play around and do little prototypes. Once we felt that it had some legs, we asked ourselves: what can we do with this? That’s when we started to think about “maybe we can bring this to Kickstarter?” It was a good option at the time.
But in order to do that, you need to have a really strong pitch, a really strong video, and also have confidence in the game yourself. We needed to make as much of the game as we could, in order to prove to ourselves that it has legs, or it has wheels… that’s like a terrible marketing pun…
JTGA: [laughs] That is a great Knights and Bikes ‘Dad joke’…
Rex: [laughs] We had to prove to ourselves that it could exist. And that we had enough visual content, story, and the setting for me to start editing a trailer out of it.
JTGA: You’ve had this vision for a long time. I feel like co-
Rex: Definitely. The fact that it’s a game about friendship between kids… we’re trying to mirror that in the way you experience the game. It’s a particularly big deal for Moo, because he played a lot of games together with friends as a kid. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, so I didn’t have anyone to play with… but I would of! Had they… been there…
JTGA: [laughs] But in a way that’s good, because it has affected your art and influenced what you’ve created…
Rex: Yeah exactly.
JTGA: You guys are a very small team, and an independent developer. What is a typical day in terms of man hours at the desk?
Rex: So I don’t sleep very well. That’s how the games get made I guess! I get up very early. I go for a walk at about 7.30am, for about an hour. Afterwards I feel like I’m ready to start making stuff. I sit at my kitchen table, or my desk. I try not to work super late, because if you do you’re just tired the next day.
JTGA: That has a knock on effect.
Rex: It’s about creating a sustainable flow. It’s not like either of us can take our feet off the pedal. There’s no-
JTGA: Can you tell us about any further stretch goals that you had planned for the Kickstarter?
Rex: It would have been nice to have had voice acting. That was the next stretch goal up. But it can have a huge knock on effect on the entire process. Previously, on Tearaway, we had to lock the script down relatively early on. All the games I’ve worked on have been quite experimental and ad-
At the same time, it would have been cool to hear the characters [in Knights and Bikes]. But that too can be a scary thing! When you’ve created a character and inhabited their world for a bunch of years, you ask yourself: what do they actually sound like?
I remember when I first saw a Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon on TV, and I was like: “He doesn’t sound like that!”. So that would be an interesting one… figuring out which Hollywood star we would have had…
JTGA: [laughs] Maybe Stephen Fry again? From LittleBigPlanet?
Rex: [laughs] Ultimately, we wanted to keep the project at a scale where we could really remain very hands on. We’ve both worked with much bigger teams in the past, so this [Knights and Bikes] was an opportunity for us both to take some time out. To have a project to really tinker on, be close to, and do personal stuff.
Expanding the team to 50 people doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be 50 times better. Don’t get me wrong… we’ve both worked with incredibly talented people in the past, and sometimes you really miss the skills they bring. But it’s also a fun ride of being able to figure it out yourself.
JTGA: You’ve mentioned already that Knights and Bikes is a very personal project. Are any of the quests / events in the game based on your own, or Moo’s, childhood experiences?
Rex: There’s a bunch of stuff. A lot of the locations, like the scrapyard which is all piled up with junk, rusting cars… It’s definitely the kind of place I’d try and sneak into when I was a kid.
There’s a sequence in our demo which is an office building, where you go in and there’s a load of really early computers. And that’s very much based on my first experience when I went to work with a neighbour for the day. He had a computer with a mouse, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a mouse. I tried to use it… I had it upside down. I didn’t know how it worked.
There’s a lot of specific Cornish stuff as well, because the game is based on a fictionalised version of Cornwall. There’s things about Cornish pasties, the correct ordering of jam and cream on a scone… It’s kind of fascinating to think how the rest of the world is going to perceive that. There’s some very specifically rural Cornish influences on the game.
JTGA: In a previous demo, you've shown [the protagonists] Nessa and Demelza taking part in a spontaneous race. Can you tell us about any other activities or side quests in the game?
Rex: Yeah so there’s collection challenges… ‘Who can find the most stuff?’ One of the fun things we do with treasure is it’s not classic treasure. It’s more the kind of stuff that kids hoard in their pockets, like worms, buttons, owl pellets and all sorts of weird shit.
At one point, they get to use some magnetised cranes in the scrapyard, to try and sort the most amount of metal items and build the biggest piles. None of them are particularly complex, but it’s this idea of wanting to challenge your friend all the time. A ‘King of the Castle’ sort of feeling.
Those little moments are very short, because in that time you’re incredibly focused on being the best. You’re suddenly super competitive, but then as soon as that moment is over, you’re just back to hanging out.
JTGA: Is Knights and Bikes going to tell a self-
Rex: The way I always see these sort of things is you want to have your story that’s very clear to everyone. They’re really invested in the story, and they enjoy that adventure. But also the world has enough personality and characters that there’s a lot to dig into and potential for doing other stuff.
I can’t really talk about it in a lot of detail, but there may be some things that aren’t the Knights and Bikes videogame also underway as well…
JTGA: Nice! The response from gamers to what you have, as a concept, has been really positive, and I think there would be a huge amount of interest in seeing the IP expand into other creative mediums...
Rex: I think that’s the fun thing about creating characters and worlds. It’s like puppet theatre; you’ve built them, so now what else can you do with them?
JTGA: How do you handle QA and testing with such a small team? Is it something you outsource?
Rex: Not currently, no. The majority is just me and Moo playing it together. It’s helpful that it is a two player game. There’s more opportunities for things to go wrong, in a good way, because you learn the bugs. If you have a single player game, you just play it on your own, the same way, every single time. One of the brilliant things about making a game with co-
I am in awe of bug testers, because any QA department are like incredible machines. They’re taking a medium that is so enjoyable and fun, and they are trying so hard to break it. They are so good at it! It’s so much better that they do it, than thousands of people after you’ve released. They’re one of my favourite teams to work with on a game.
On this project, we don’t have our own QA team. But we have some help from Double Fine, who are publishing us. Getting friends to play it, putting out an Alpha build to some of our high tier [Kickstarter] backers… Which terrifies me, because I don’t want anyone to play anything until it’s finished! [Laughs]. It’s always good to have that feedback though.
JTGA: You have an incredible CV, with years working for big developers like Lionhead and Media Molecule. Can you describe your experience of 'crunch time'?
Rex: You’ve all been together for a long time, as a team. You all know how each other work. You all know how you can support and help each other. I’ve never worked anywhere where its been a really aggressive crunch. At Media Molecule, it’s a very flat company, where everyone knows each other very well, with a real family atmosphere.
It isn’t like you get some e-
A big part of the job for the production folks is making sure people aren’t working too hard. Like I was saying earlier, you don’t want to burn yourself out too early on. I’ve probably had more e-
JTGA: [laughs] That family atmosphere you mentioned… what’s your favourite memory of Media Molecule?
Rex: Oh man, that’s tough! I guess it tends to be the launch parties. Everyone is in such an amazing mood. I remember for the LittleBigPlanet 2 launch party, a friend of mine Rich, who is a drag queen, dressed up as one of my character designs. And this design is quite out there… it’s a nurse with a bird cage for a head, and then inside the bird cage is an apple with a bite taken out of it, and that bite has exposed the face of the character. It’s a bit Silent Hill but with more fruit involved.
And then for Tearaway, some of the team customised this bar so that every single surface was covered in paper craft. The place looked beautiful, and so colourful. It was great to share the moment with everyone… and try and give a rousing speech when you’ve already had way too many drinks... That moment of all being there together, all the way through it, and then being able to celebrate it at the end… with people that are some of your best friends.
JTGA: Is there a ‘Dennis the Menace’ style slingshot weapon in the game?
Rex: There are several things that are sort of similar. We’ve got Frisbees, a sink plunger on a string that you can throw and pull things towards you…
JTGA: Ah cool! Can your bikes be upgraded?
Rex: Yes! There’s cosmetic things, like different flags you can put on the back, custom spokes… and then you have practical upgrades that allow you to get to new parts of the island.
JTGA: Is there a chance you'll port this to Switch after the PS4 / PC launch?
Rex: Ah… you sound like the Internet!
Rex: We’ll see what happens. There’s only two of us. Moo is very busy getting it running on our platforms at the moment. So we’ll see what happens in the future. We’re coming to Linux! For those three people…
JTGA: [laughs] Can you throw conkers at enemies?
Rex: Wow. That’s an interesting one. No, I hadn’t thought of that! I think because of the size of the characters on screen, conkers are going to be fairly small. Maybe we could have a character that has a prize giant conker… I might add that. The kids collect these treasures… conkers could be one of those!
JTGA: Even though you didn’t hit the stretch goal, can I audition to be a voice actor in this game?
Rex: [laughs] Of course! You just need to talk authentically about good pasty recipes.
JTGA: [laughs] I’ll start working on my demo tape. Are there secret areas in Knights and Bikes?
Rex: Yes! I think with this particular sort of top down, 2D / 3D perspective, it’s quite easy to hide things. A recent game that I really loved was Hyper Light Drifter. They hid stuff so well, everywhere. So there’s some fun for us in hiding things away. It doesn’t matter what upgrades you’ve got. It’s just how much you’re willing to poke at the edges of the scenery.
The structure of the game is having various levels, with a more open environment that you explore on your bikes. So there’s a whole bunch of things we can dot around. The island itself is a giant hub, with various levels. You can’t get to all of those until you’ve upgraded your bikes. This is tied to the progression of the story.
JTGA: Who came up with the name ‘Captain Honkers’?
Rex: That was me! I don’t know why…
JTGA: It’s genius! He’s a duck, right?
Rex: A goose. It’s lucky that he can’t hear you right now…
JTGA: [laughs] Captain Honkers and The Pickled Knight… they’re supporting characters in the game. Do you have any direct control over either of them?
Rex: No. They’re very much accompanying you on the adventure. In early prototypes, we had more of a gang of kids, and you swapped between them. But we felt you didn’t connect enough with any one kid, and they become more stereotypical. That’s the ‘geeky’ one, that’s the ‘sporty’ one… we wanted to hone it down to just two characters. If you’re playing co-
It’s the same thing with the side characters; they’re there to help and support you as the player, rather than you’re suddenly, for some reason, controlling a Goose.
JTGA: And now the final question. Is there a yo-
Rex: No. Sorry! Although the Frisbee definitely acts a bit like a yo-
I want to thank Rex Crowle for the absurdly generous amount of time he spent answering all of my questions… before, during, and after the interview, and for being so candid about the process of creating Knights and Bikes. A huge shout out and thanks to Lead Programmer Moo Yu as well, for guiding me through the demo when I was being too thick to figure out a painfully obvious puzzle, and for our epic discussions throughout the afternoon. He was equally candid and generous with his time.
Look out for more JTGA coverage, in the days and weeks ahead. Knights and Bikes is due for release in 2018, for PC and PS4.
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Even though the characters aren’t voiced, their endearing expressions and delightful hand drawn world help convey emotion and narrative.
Could this game be any more charming?
Here’s my prequel pitch… Knights and Bikes: The Origin of Captain Honkers. That project would Kickstart itself.
Both characters have unique abilities that can be combined together. Which is awesome.