On the GO - An Interview with KO_OP

By Mark Robinson 03 Aug 2017 1

We here at Pocket Tactics are big fans of the GO series, with Deus Ex GO receiving 4 stars, and the final expansion for Lara Croft GO, Mirror of Spirits also garnering four stars with its recent port to iOS and Android. Personally, we were curious about Square Enix Montreal handing out one of their IPs to KO_OP, a small indie studio also based out of Montreal. We sent in Mark to find out more about the relationship, working on a pre-existing game, and the challenges that come with working in partnership with a bigger development studio.

We spoke to Studio Director and Co-Founder, Saleem Dabbous to find out more.

Pocket Tactics: Can you tell me about how the relationship between KO_OP and Square Enix Montreal was formed?

Saleem Dabbous: So we’re both based in Montreal but we actually met in Boston during PAX. I think Antoine [Routon - technical lead for Lara Croft GO] was just wondering around. There was an indie section from Canada that was made up of a lot of Montreal developers, and I think our game [GNOG - coming soon to iOS] struck a chord with him. What he said to me was that it had that same style of intricate, hand-crafted details in it, where it was clear we paid a lot of attention to detail, and that it we didn’t just make some where we used a lot of parts -  it was really specifically made for each individual situation in the game. So he met up with me during PAX and said hey when we’re back in Montreal do you want to talk. We have some stuff that we’re interested in talking to you about.We met up a month or two later, had some drinks, and he pitched the idea of us working on Lara Croft Go.

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PT: At the time was anything pitched to you in regards to what specific content they were looking for?

SD: The one thing is that it was the 20th anniversary of the Tomb Raider franchise, and so they had been planning to do something for that. But I think at the studio, because of the various projects, they felt like they didn’t have the resources to do it themselves, and they also felt it would be a really cool thing for the 20th anniversary to do something a bit different. What they pitched to us is that we had full creative freedom, we could play with their tools, just know that it is under the umbrella of the 20th anniversary.

PT: Were you a fan of the GO series before working on Mirror of Spirits?

SD: Yeah, actually, I think we were all fans of Hitman GO. We hadn’t all played Lara Croft GO before we had started on the project, but we had played Hitman GO specifically. It was kind of a big deal at the time it came out and especially in Montreal with the development community being like oh, Square Enix Montreal is pivoting to doing these really high quality mobile games - and it was just a really good example of that. It showed a high level of creativity and design. Everyone was big fans of the studio and their games, so it was a really easy ‘yes’ for us to work with them. We get a lot of offers to work with people and we don’t always take them as it’s not always necessarily in our best interests or we don’t align with them philosophically, but with Square Enix Montreal it was a super easy answer to do it.

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PT: I’m guessing that the boardgame-focused style of the GO series and its puzzle mechanics were appealing to work on?

SD: Yeah, I think what was interesting to us was there was already an established game, so a lot of the hard things had been figured out. As a developer with very few resources (we are a small indie studio of six people) when you go in to create a project like GNOG, there’s so much groundwork that ends up happening that you don’t end up with as much time as you wish you had to explore all your ideas as deeply as you could. With LC GO, because the base game was already there, we could play through it all, and their tools were already there and they were fantastic because they have awesome programmers and more resources. It was kind of like this package delivered to us where we could just play with creativity 100%. There wasn’t zero technical work, but it wasn’t challenging in the way that creating a game from scratch is. That was what was super appealing that we could just flex our creative muscles and take what we learned from making GNOG, which is a very different kind of puzzle game, but there’s still lessons to be learned in terms of what feels good, what beats do you want your player to experience throughout a level, and we applied those to Mirror of Spirits.

PT: You mentioned this briefly, but did Square Enix Montreal have a general idea of what they wanted, did both sides work together as collaborative effort or did they simply gift you the tools and leave you to make the game?

SD: It was a little bit of both. We ended up working out of their office for a majority of the development - especially at the start and the end, just so that it was really easy to talk to anybody, to get immediate feedback. In our first week our designer (Bronson Zgeb) made something like a hundred puzzles just to wrap his brain around the tools, but it was also to learn the lessons that they learned across the year they made the game, as we had to do it in a much more concentrated period of time. Being there made it a lot easier. They simply said to pitch us ideas: come up with stories, ideas, mechanics, and when we could up with something that doesn’t necessarily fit, it wasn’t like “oh, we don’t think you should do that”, it was more “we tried something similar and it didn’t work for this reason, but you can try it if you want, we’re just letting you know what our lessons were.”

It was really a freeing experience and there was no real plan beyond the five month timeline. As much as we were given freedom, we also knew what the production schedule was, meaning we had to make decisions quickly. That kind of constrained things really - in a good way actually.

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PT: Yeah, I’ve always felt that having a deadline or technical restraint really challenges you to hone down on the ideas you throw at a wall - kind of similar to weekend game jams, and someone has to be the one to say “we like this but it’s too ambitious for the time we have” - was this a similar situation?

SD: It was mostly us making those decisions. They left it wide open for us to decide as long as they felt that everything was reasonable. At first when we were talking and we weren’t sure what the timeline was, we were thinking of doing a completely different take on the art, but as soon as we saw what the schedule was going to be, both sides agreed that a radical art reinvention wouldn’t make sense in the time that we had. What’s great about working with Square Enix Montreal is that we approach problems from the same philosophy, we just have different resources, so we never had much friction over what the right decision was.

PT: One of the key features of Mirror of Spirits is the mirrored version of Lara. Can you tell me where that idea came about and any technical challenges you faced implementing it?

SD: The idea was something we honed in on really early. For whatever reason we were really obsessed with ghosts at the time, and we were trying to come up with scenarios that would allow for the idea of ghosts or spirits to exist in our chapter. We were coming up with different stories, but they didn’t really click with the world of LC GO, but we kept zeroing in on spirits. We then thought about what if there was a spirit of Lara and it was a double? And it just kind of organically grew from there. Once we saw how well that mechanic worked, we built our how narrative and aesthetic around that. It was cool because we had the resources of Square Enix we could go to them and ask what sort of thing in Lara’s history touches on this sort of thing?

I don’t know if you have heard of ‘Bacon Lara’ from the first game, her evil doppelganger? There were parallels that we were inspired by. We didn’t want it to feel like it was a direct callback or anything, but we felt thematically to make it more ‘KO_OP’ - we wanted to shatter the world to have some weirdness to it with the abstract visuals, chasms, the voids, crystals,  and it worked really well with the idea of her spirit being separated from her body. 

In terms of technical challenges I don’t think were many for us to implement that. It was mostly design issues, like where we tried to move things synchronously and asynchronously, like where if Lara went down her mirrored self went up and vice versa. The biggest issue was de-synchronising: if one is blocked, should the other one be able to move? Originally we had it so that you could block spirit Lara and move real Lara so they would get really de-synchronised on the play field. We do a little bit of that in the final build but reigned that back a lot after realising it wasn’t much fun due to getting really complicated. That was the biggest challenge with spirit Lara: keeping it accessible enough that you could wrap your head around the puzzle and not too complicated, because it’s really easy to make a super hard puzzle game, but it’s all about finding that balance.

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PT: I was going to ask if you find it difficult trying to find that balance of making an expansion and creating a challenging experience for players familiar with both Hitman GO and Lara Croft GO, but not too difficult that it could potentially alienate new players.

SD: We spoke about that early on. We didn’t consider Hitman GO to be part of our difficulty curve, so we just looked at what Square Enix created and what the difficulty curve was, so it kind of goes by the base game and then spikes towards the end. Then they released this super difficult DLC [The Shard of Life] for people who found the base game to easy. So we felt like we didn’t want to make something as hard as their initial DLC - I mean, we all solved it, but it was really challenging and we wanted to find something that would fit in the middle of these two. Though it was coming in later, we still felt some fans were served well by the DLC, but others who were happy with the base felt it was too difficult, so we wanted to find that nice, sweet middle ground to serve both sides.

PT: Was there anything put forth that you wanted to use but just couldn’t make it work within the timeframe?

SD: Yeah, I think one of the big ones was we were planning to do a lot of outdoor environment stuff, because if you noticed the game takes place in the Croft Manor, and the manor shatters - allowing you to go deeper inside. But we really wanted to do some courtyard and outdoor stuff that we could never fit into the schedule. It just made sense to stick with one visual motive and take it to its extreme.

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PT: I’m guessing the mobile port was handled by Square Enix?

SD: Yes, we just built the content, but the actual porting to the different platforms was handled by Square Enix and a third party I believe.

PT: Is there anything in the game of the GO series, such as the mechanics that you would like to explore in a future release?

SD: I think something that’s really interesting about the GO games is just how systems/rule driven they are, whereas something like GNOG it’s really the opposite. It’s hand-crafted and it’s more of that classical ‘point and click’ puzzle where the designers have a path and they are leading you down the path, instead of you being able to look at a chessboard and plot out your moves ahead of time. And we have been playing around with more experiential driven game design. I think what was cool about working on LC GO is that it was very rule driven, very systematic, and I think we’d love to incorporate some of that and try to work on it going forward.

Many thanks to Saleem for taking the time to answer our questions. As noted, GNOG is slated for an iOS release later this year.



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