Interview: Metroid Prime’s Head Level Designer, Founder of Sunbreak Games, Jason Behr
Veteran game designer, Jason Behr, created his own small independent studio in the Pacific Northwest so he could work on smaller titles that move the craft of interactive entertainment forward, with a focus on charming, emotionally-evocative, and accessible content for wide audiences. When sending out a press release about his new game, Buddy & Me, he prefers not to focus on his past experience in the industry: Designer at Acclaim (Turok: Rage Wars, etc), Lead Level Designer at Retro Studios (Metroid Prime 1, 2, and 3), Senior Designer at Nintendo Software Technology, Senior Designer at Monolith Productions, and Senior Mission Designer at 343 Industries (Halo 4).
Many large gaming publications wouldn’t even notice the charm and personality inherent in his newest game if they heard he left aside the world of First-Person-Shooters for games that appeal to a wider audience. But, as a Nintendo fan, I immediately saw the creative design inspiration he drew from his Nintendo past in his latest creative endeavor, Buddy & Me. Jason Behr is still a “Nintendo” developer, only now he added his own “indie” flavor to the mix and chooses his own projects to work on.
The games he chooses to focus on will still be filled with charm and wonder. His appreciation of nature and his hobby as a photographer are both common themes you can discern in his games: his world design in the Metroid Prime series and his level design in Buddy & Me.
Starting a small studio such as Sunbreak Games with little-to-no outside funding means that Jason must start small, with his bigger ideas on hold for later. The endless runner genre is a perfect one to get his studio’s feet wet, but he still intends to make this one something special.
The press release describes the game as such:
“In the beautiful world of Buddy & Me, play as a young boy running through the enchanted forest of his dreams, alongside his best friend, a magical creature named Buddy. Buddy & Me combines the high-quality painted backgrounds and cel-shaded characters of an animated film, with the unique gameplay experience of a giant flying companion’s loyal assistance when in need. Run, jump, bounce, glide, and fly together through an infinite treehouse filled with interactive obstacles, curious creatures, and breathtaking natural landmarks inspired by the Pacific Northwest.”
I reached out to Jason a few weeks ago when his Kickstarter campaign had just begun. He was very interested in exploring his options together with Nintendo and hopefully the funds will come in from the game’s sales to allow him to port to a Nintendo system.
We had the chance to ask Jason about his time while at Retro and he was gracious enough to share with us what he’s learned in the design process from Nintendo:
1. What design philosophies or wisdom did you learn from your time at Retro/Nintendo (NST) that shapes the way you make games today?
Jason: I count myself very, very lucky to have had a chance to work at Nintendo, and to learn directly from some of the most talented game developers in the world. I really appreciated how much deliberate thought went into each and every design decision. Nothing was left to luck, no wrinkle left unsmoothed, assumptions are challenged, and each addition to the game was meaningful and measured. It wasn’t always easy to live up to, but there’s something very satisfying about going to work each day with the confidence that no matter how hard the journey might be, when your project shipped it would be something special.
One of the more important lessons I learned is that every game should strive for something that sets it apart, that defines it. That could be the art style, the technology, an emotional theme, an interesting game mechanic, something new for the franchise or genre (and you’ll know you’re really onto something when it’s all of the above)… but at the end of the day, every game should seek to creatively move things a little further forward, to craft an identity that stands out in a crowd, and a fresh experience that lives on in players’ memories.
2. How do you begin formulating your next game to work on independently? What is the creative process that helped you decide to make a game like Buddy & Me?
Jason: When we started off we had a few very important objectives… to find a game design that was feasible for a small self-funded group, something that reflected the studio’s long-term values of family-friendly games with positive impact, but that still catered to our need for originality. The endless runner genre caught our eye early on, as a great way to get replay value out of a limited set of assets, but we certainly didn’t take it for granted. We approached it with skepticism, and were determined to answer the “another endless runner?” challenge. So we took our time to study not just the genre’s strengths, but also look for opportunities for moving it forward. Among other things, it stood out to me that endless runners are typically played alone. When we applied that realization to the theme of childhood adventure, the idea of a loyal companion “clicked” into place. From there, we looked at ways to express companionship, and how to articulate that as a central mechanic.
3. What are the most important characteristics that you want to be conveyed through your game? What do you want players to feel when playing Buddy & Me?
Jason: First and foremost, I want people to fall in love with these characters over time, to genuinely feel the friendship and cooperation between them. If we can make gamers smile and maybe even feel a little nostalgic about their own childhood memories, we’ve done our jobs.
But I also want players to enjoy exploring the great outdoors… we’ve put a lot of work not just into creating a beautiful-looking environment, but to tailor the gameplay experience to allow opportunities to relax, discover, and enjoy the view.
4. What video games have inspired you and the way you want to design your own games?
Jason: There’s a long list of games and life experiences that have influenced the way I want to approach design. In the past few years I’ve been particularly inspired by the large number of high-quality, unique indie and experimental titles in recent years that prove that “less is more” and that there’s a market for those that think differently. The diversity is fantastic, and it opens so many doors for developers, young and veteran alike, a reassurance that there’s more than one way to approach game development.
If I had to call out something in particular, I’d have to say Journey. I really applaud their team for having the courage to focus on emotional themes rather than more tangible marketing bullet-points, the skill to rethink and strip down assumed mechanics to get what they need to properly express those themes, and the patience to see the vision all the way through until they got it right. It’s rare for a game’s value to go beyond the time spent engaged in gameplay, and even rarer when it opens up deep conversations with friends about its meaning, or personal reflections on our own lives. Those guys are role models for devs interested in experiential design with positive impact.
5. Will we see Buddy & Me on a Nintendo system?
Jason: It would be great to eventually see Buddy & Me on a Nintendo system in one form or another, I think the characters and world are a great fit. That being said, that would probably have to wait until we have the proper time & resources to make it happen. Buddy & Me is our studio’s first game, so we had to make some disciplined choices about which platforms to target first. As a former Nintendo developer, I’m also a big fan of how Nintendo makes new experiences possible with their controllers and interfaces… if we were to end up on a Nintendo system, we might want to take some time to see how we could better take advantage of those features in the game’s design.
Visit the Buddy & Me Kickstarter page to learn more about the game.
Visit Sunbreak Games website to learn more about the development studio.