In-depth Interview with Snake Pass Creator Seb Liese

At GDC 2017, I sat down with Snake Pass creator Seb Liese to discuss the game, which just came out yesterday. Snake Pass was developed and published by Sumo Digital, and is available on Switch, PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

Can you tell me a bit about your development process? How long did it take? How large was the team? You mentioned to me the other day that [Snake Pass] became a pet project for the entire studio: can you expand on that?

The original concept for the game came from a game jam that we did in October of 2015. Sumo is a big studio: we make games for companies like Microsoft and Sony, and we’re currently working on big games like Crackdown 3 and Dead Island 2. We’ve done Little Big Planet 3 and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing: so all these big games, but we take pride in the fact that no-one knows Sumo made these games. We let other people take the credit, essentially. That’s what work for hire comes down to in the end.

Sumo always desired to create “our own” game – I’d always desired to do that – and finally in 2015 when [Ian] Livingstone came on board with us, he really pushed to make game jams happen, because we’d been talking about it for ages. Finally, we got to the point where we were allowed to work for one day on whatever we wanted. We had about twenty teams who entered something into this game jam, and one of them was “Snake Simulator” which was by a one-man team (me). That got voted as the winner!

Initially, the idea was to give me a few guys (they gave me three guys initially, and three months) to try to make something that we could quickly put on Steam as sort of a promotional thing (we are Sumo, and we make games). After three months, we presented what we had done to our bosses, and what we were planning to put on Steam. They were so impressed by the potential of the idea and how far we were able to take it in a short amount of time that they were like, “OK, have some more people, have some more time, and let’s try to make a real demo for EGX Rezzed.”

My team size got doubled, we got some extra time, and we worked really hard to make an awesome-looking demo for EGX Rezzed which we showed in London in April of last year. That was also the first time that we showed it to the public and showed it to the outside world. We got just an overwhelming response from not only the public, but also from all kinds of interested parties who wanted to make deals with us for it. That was really the moment when we realized, “oh, we’re on to something special here!”

The Monday after EGX Rezzed, we went into full production: a full team was summoned.

Noodle, the player-character, and his hummingbird companion.

That must have felt awesome!

Yeah, it was. Well, the best moment was seeing the reaction at EGX Rezzed, because I’d literally locked myself (pretty much) behind my computer for three months straight. It was fourteen hours a day on average (or something like that), and to then finally see people having fun with what I’d created was just the best feeling. Getting a full team on it, at least initially, was a bit difficult, because you’re so close to it with a few people and you’re so clear on what you want to do with it. Then suddenly, your team size triples, you get a proper producer on it and role divisions. Things that you thought you were able to do suddenly belong to someone else’s job.

There was quite a bit of struggle, but everybody really saw the potential, and really wanted to make the best thing possible out of it. After the initial wrinkles were ironed out, everybody had the same vision for the game and really just loved working on it. It was easy going all the time, and easy getting pretty much anyone’s opinion about things. I almost had to be careful during coffee breaks to not ask people, or talk too much about the game, because they would just instantly jump on it. They’d spend their time – rather than on their own project – and help out with this. It was very much a passion project.

How did that vision come about? It’s a really unique core gameplay loop that you have in Snake Pass. Obviously it involves climbing over obstacles and traps in search of collectibles, and it’s really elegant in its simplicity. What was your process to even think of something like that? Did you think of a “snake platformer” first, or did you just happen to have a mechanic and then iterate on it?

It actually happened for me sort of by accident. I worked on Little Big Planet 3 before this, and after that was done I was supposed to move on to Crackdown 3, which is an Unreal [Engine] game. Sumo gave me two weeks time to try to familiarize myself with Unreal, so I’d have a running start moving on to Crackdown 3. During those two weeks, I did what I always do when I learn new software, which is just set a goal for myself, like “I want to make that!” Then I’ll just figure out how to do it, and I’ll just learn a lot while working like that.

The goal I set myself for those two weeks (or one of the goals) was, “I want to make a rope that moves when the player touches it.” The very first prototype for the snake was actually a rope, because when I forgot to attach this rope to the ceiling and I saw it collide with the floor in this really interesting smooth shape… the moment I saw that, I thought, “I’ve never seen that before, and there’s a game there.”

I tried to make the rope into a character initially, and then because of my biology background (I studied biology in university, and had two pet snakes as well) I knew a lot about muscles and about how snakes work. It seemed the logical step to try to make the rope into a snake. At that point, I still had no idea what the actual gameplay for the game was going to be, and I never set out thinking, “I want him to be able to climb this type of construct, or I want him to be able to do a certain type of thing.” I really approached this from the biology side: how does a snake work? I sort of trimmed it down into a long muscle and really started making it work like a snake. The closer I got to that, the more things he was able to do, and the more he was able to do things that a snake would do. It just all felt and looked so good that the gameplay just emerged out of approaching it from a biological point of view.

Noodle wraps himself around bamboo scaffolding.

That’s what first attracted me to the game when I saw it: the snake character was just so well done. The facial animations and the movements were all very snake-like and natural.

For that, it was actually quite a challenge in the end, because the body movement is so realistic, and most humans have an inherent fear of snakes. Initially, with the first few iterations we had of the game, we had quite a few people giving feedback that they were sort of creeped out by the game, and by the motion of the snake. So we tried whatever we could to try to make the snake as darn cute as humanly possible!

And you succeeded; he’s very cute!

Yeah, he really looks amazing now. Our animator an absolutely stunning job on the animations as well.

Absolutely. It’s a very relaxing game. There’s this entrancing experience that happens when you’re playing Snake Pass. Did you intentionally set out to create a game like that? Did you specifically say, “I want to create something that’s really chill, with a relaxed vibe,” or did that just happen naturally as you built the game up?

I always wanted to make happy, colorful games that sort of break away from the norm of blue, brown, dark green, and blood. I do play that type of game, but whenever I go to the store to buy a game for myself, I’m looking for happy, colorful games that relax me after a day’s work.

I do also play hardcore games like Overwatch a lot, but my real passion is for the smaller happy and colorful games. Since the 90’s, when I grew up with these games, they don’t really get made anymore. You’ve got Yooka-Laylee coming up… in recent years, the only thing that comes close is Ori and the Blind Forest: I absolutely love that game. I think, to some extent, Ori and the Blind Forest re-invoked for me that urge to play that type of game, and just have a relaxed and fun little game.

I remember, one of the first things I noticed when I was playing Snake Pass was the nostalgia that it gave me for Playstation and Playstation 2 games. The art style seems really reminiscent of that era of gaming.

That’s absolutely intentional. It’s almost an homage to those games. It’s not like we were looking at that source material a lot. It’s not like we had any screenshots of Banjo Kazooie, or Spyro, or Donkey Kong lying around: it’s more based on our memory of these games, and the feeling they used to invoke.

Noodle slides down a tube into the pool below. This is just as much fun as it sounds.

I just played Snake Pass on the Switch, and the first time I played it was on the PC. It was a bit of a different experience. Can you tell me what it was like developing on the Switch, as opposed to the other platforms you’re releasing on?

Especially for me as a designer, the development for any platform (as long as I’m working in Unreal) is exactly the same. I just make the game in Unreal on a powerful PC, then it just gets exported by my co-team in different formats essentially. For me, it doesn’t make any difference which platform I develop for in that respect.

And like you said to me earlier, it seemed that the Switch took really well to Unreal, and it was a smooth process for you. There weren’t any hitches at all?

No. We only got our dev-kits for the Switch around the end of November last year. In December, lots of people had to take holidays (because they never do), so it was only in January that we really started looking at the port. The coders were saying that within seven days’ work approximately, they had it fully running on the Switch.

After that, of course, there were some tweaks. You’d notice that certain things didn’t work well enough on the Switch, so you’d have to make a couple of tweaks here and there. But yes, the initial process from it being purely PC to having it on a handheld was about seven days from what I’ve heard. I think in the future, that will be even quicker, because essentially, Unreal has an “export as Switch” button now, and because both Unreal and Nintendo have worked closely with us to smooth all this out. I think in the future it will be even simpler for other companies, and for ourselves as well.

That’s good to hear.

Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing a ton of awesome Unreal games in the next two years on my new Switch.

…which I’m so jealous about.

You had your chance!

I had my chance, and I didn’t do it! What about the hummingbird mechanic? Can you tell me about how that came to fruition? Was that something you knew was going to be there from the beginning, or was it something you found that you needed when you were testing the game during the development process?

The hummingbird actually came really early on in my mind. For the longest time, it was just a sphere with two wing-like things protruding. I always felt that the flow of the game got a little bit broken whenever you were stuck with your neck on a ledge, and your tail was dragging you down. That always bothered me, and I couldn’t find a good solution within the snake itself to solve that. So I think that initially, the main reason to introduce something that lifted your tail was to smooth out that situation.

Once we saw it as a bird, we started thinking, “what else can a bird do?” We just started making it into a real hummingbird.

Noodle’s friend rarely leaves his side, but water is simply too much for the little bird.

I thought it was a really interesting mechanic, and something that would only come up if you were playing the game and realized “there is a need for this thing!”

It’s that, but also initially I felt that the snake alone in the world felt kind of lonely. Like you said, it’s a very relaxing and calm experience. It’s slow paced, and for some reason I felt like the experience without the hummingbird was not as cheerful and happy as I wanted it to be. It felt kind of lonely and sad in a way. The hummingbird solved both of these problems.

Even when you increase the difficulty, you maintain that atmosphere, that really relaxed vibe. How do you make it challenging without compromising the atmosphere and the relaxation aspect of the game? Even when I was playing one of the harder stages, I still felt like I was in that zone, like I was in a trance. What did you do to make the game more challenging, but still Snake Pass?

In Snake Pass, the basic maneuvers are quite simple. Everybody, within five minutes, can perform the most basic moves of the snake. The cool thing is that using the exact same buttons, but using your brain, gravity, friction, and balance, you can do all kinds of “advanced moves” that we don’t really explain. They are not on a button, they’re just specific ways to use the environment or gravity. Those are the most satisfying things to do once you get the hang of it, and you run into them by accident.

We’ve created the early levels for you to run into these mechanics by accident. Slowly, (because that’s how our brains work, when something works you start repeating it) before you know it, you’ll be using all these little tricks and nuances that you didn’t know of before. That’s when the game really opens up, and you feel like you can tackle anything. The big difference between the early levels and the late levels is that in the early levels, using these tricks is essentially optional, in the sense that you can follow the main path without using any of these main tricks. Slowly, as you go through the levels, we become more and more confident that you know some of these tricks, and they become part of the main path as well. The difficulty slowly creeps up while you’re still learning new things.

It’s been one of the most challenging things to do, to be honest.

The difficulty curve?

Yeah: especially with a really small team, people replay it all the time, so we’re all really good at the game. At some point, you lose touch with how difficult it was when you started. We had to look back quite a few times and make some massive tweaks to the earlier levels specifically, to really make sure that they really ease you into it.

With that potential, with that ceiling for difficulty, do you expect this game to be interesting for speed runners? Do you expect that crowd to take a liking to it?

We’re very curious to see what kinds of crazy moves we haven’t even thought of. A lot of the levels are not linear in the way you have to finish them. You always have to get the three gems, but a lot of the levels you can do that in any order. And even though I know the quickest way to get to all of them…

There’s all these shortcuts!

Yeah, and if you use the hummingbird at just the right time, from just the right corner, you can probably cut off various sections of levels. We were really curious to see that. After you complete a level, you unlock a time trial mode which also supports global leaderboards. We really hope to create a sort of “Snake Pass competition” where people are trying to get the number one spot on the global leaderboards as well.

And you don’t view that as getting in the way of being a really happy and relaxing game?

Initially, to be honest, I was very much against the idea of having speed running stuff. For me, it’s a relaxing game, it’s calm, it’s about taking your time. But then, you do it after you complete all the levels. You initially get the chance to play every level at a calm pace, and if you’re interested in it you can do it as a speed run as well. In a lot of the shows where we brought the game, we had speed runs to attract people to look at the game, and they were just immensely popular. People are really into speed running nowadays. For us, it’s a relatively small feature to add, so we said, “why not?”

And in some ways it’s the perfect game for it…

It does seem to work quite well for it.

Noodle’s expression of terror as he falls never fails to amuse.

The thing is, the core concept of Snake Pass is so polished that I feel like there’s potential to expand in the future.

I’d love to do that, yeah.

Do you see any of that in the game’s future? New levels, new modes… different snakes?

We in the team have loads of awesome ideas of things that we would still like to do. So hopefully, if this does well, we’ll get a chance to do some DLC, or maybe even a sequel. There would be a ton of awesome stuff in there. Especially the idea of DLC really appeals to me because we don’t have to worry anymore about players learning in the beginning. We can make the game a ton harder than we ended up doing at the moment. We don’t want to scare people off, but when people buy DLC… now you asked for it, so now you’re going to get it!

That’s awesome to hear, because I really would like to see more expansion on this. Personally, I just want to see the rest of the levels, because I’ve only seen three of them. What’s next for Sumo Digital as a studio? Do you have any games in the pipeline? Are you doing very different stuff from Snake Pass, or working on similar ideas?

We have a few big projects at the moment: Dead Island 2 and Crackdown 3, and a few other big projects that I’m not allowed to say anything about. We’ll keep doing game jams as well. Since the game jam that produced Snake Pass we’ve had two more, and both produced very nice ideas which we might work on after Snake Pass. It sort of blew up: a large chunk of the company is now constantly busy with Snake Pass, which was unplanned to some extent. We have these cool ideas from the other game jams that are still in the fridge, so we might do something with that. In July, there’s another game jam coming up, so we’re definitely going to try to continue making creative games like we just did.

I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on you guys, because I absolutely love Snake Pass from what I’ve tried of it so far.

Thank you!

Thank you so much for doing this interview, it’s been awesome.

You’re very welcome.

For more on Snake Pass, check out our review here.

Published by John Sands - Managing Editor

John is a writer based out of Phoenix, Arizona and formerly LA. He is proud to be a part of the Gamer Professionals team as Managing Editor. Though Dota 2 is his main game, he plays everything he can get his hands on. His favorite franchises include Dark Souls, Warcraft, Elder Scrolls, and Starcraft, though he also plays less well-known games. He loves cooking, good music, lifting, and reading history books in his spare time. If you have a question about one of his articles or just want to talk games, feel free to hit him up on Twitter @porqpineGG.