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Unknown Pleasures 2009: Gridrunner+++

LLamasoft's last - Space Giraffe - was a gloriously misunderstood classic. Llamasoft's next move is to return to the scene of a previous triumph. Despite being a Pocket-PC-Port, Gridrunner++ was one of my favourite shooters of this decade. For one of the greatest all-time arcades creators to want to expand upon it is the sort of thing which makes me order in a new set of adrenaline glands from my developing-world meat-banks. I suspect I'm going need them. We talk to ungulate-in-chief Jeff Minter about it, and its PC-first release in April...

RPS: Top level stuff, first. After Space Giraffe, why did you decide it would be the right time to return to Gridrunner?

Jeff Minter: Well, Gridrunner was one of my first and most successful games back in the day, simple though it was. I figure some people might remember the old thing and that might help awareness of the release (we've included simulations of the original Vic-20 and C64 versions in the game for people to indulge their nostalgia). I've revisited the theme a couple of times over the years, most recently in 2002 with Gridrunner++, which was technically pretty simple (it started out as being a Pocket PC game and was just kinda hack-ported to the PC so it would work, but used nothing of a modern PC's capabilities). People really liked the gameplay, though, and I thought one day it'd be nice to do that game "properly". Of course the gameplay has evolved along with the graphics and I can't really say it's the same game now; the core mechanic of each game is quite different. The main thing that's remained between the two games is the sheepies and the concept of the Sheepie Save, which was one of my favourite things in that 2002 design.

RPS: What's the key part of Gridrunner+++ for you? Mechanically, what combines to make the thrill?
Jeff Minter: I really like how as you power the ship up you get an insane amount of bullets firing from your ship - rather than dodging through bullet hell you become bullet hell. It's a glorious inversion of the kind of constraint you had in early games (such as those around at the time of the original Vic-20 Gridrunner) where - often due to hardware limitations - the player often only had one shot on screen at a time, and the game's difficulty derived from that. In GR+++ you can build up great streams of bullets, and there are gravity sources present too around which you can bend and curve the bullet streams to great effect. You can arc shots around behind you, form protective coccoons of bullets orbiting a gravity source, all kinds of neat, graceful-looking stuff. I want to reward play that looks graceful and beautiful above play that simply aims to wipe stuff out as fast and as easily as possible. For me some of the nicest things about the game are those prolific bullet streams and the way in which you can use the gravity sources to construct all these beautiful nonlinear projectile paths. In a way it's the complete antithesis of how the original Gridrunner was, with its single projectile that always fired straight ahead. It's an interesting challenge to provide the player with so much firepower but still make the game a challenge, and to incorporate things so diametrically opposite to how things were in the original design, yet still retain some of its essence.

Waitasec... where are the camels?

RPS: What have you taken from your experience with Space Giraffe which you've tried to work into Gridrunner+++?

Jeff Minter: Well obviously I've turned down the mad psychedelia a bit (although the backdrops are still Neon-generated) - this time I've gone more for abstract beauty rather than full-on sensory overload. I still think it was a valid experiment to implement game difficulty via deliberate strategic sensory overload, and some players did get the idea and enjoyed SG, but others were unprepared to learn to deal with that and complained, so we're not doing that this time around (which isn't to say that I couldn't release a level pack done in overload style later on if there is demand for it). GR+++ is quite a busy game nonetheless with all those shots flying around, and in fact we've gone to the opposite extreme and I'm using a shader which outlines certain key game elements in black, lifting them visually above the abstract backgrounds; it makes them look almost cel-shaded. It gives a nice visual style to the game and nobody will be able to complain that they didn't see what killed them.

In SG there was a "key move" which you had to learn to get high scores (the bulling attack) and if you didn't learn it not only did you not score well, you wouldn't get extra lives and wouldn't last long. I think a mistake with SG was that it looked too much like what it wasn't - a pure shooter. If you played it just as what it appeared to be then you wouldn't do well and in fact the game would seem too difficult. The key technique was something that had to be explained (once learned it's easy and obvious, but people casually approaching a game often don't look at tutorials and explanations) so I guess many people missed it.

In GR+++ - yes, there are "key moves" as well, and a player knowing them will always be able to maximise his score and make better progress than someone who doesn't. However even if you just play the game as what it appears to be - a game in which you shoot baddies, avoid getting hit yourself, and rescue sheepies - then you'll still do just fine. Such special moves as there are should hopefully suggest themselves as the player observes what happens in normal gameplay, rather than needing to be taught via a separate tutorial mode. They can be used to improve your score but aren't essential to being able to enjoy the game. I think this should make the game more accessible and easier for people to pick up and have a satisfying game right from the start.

There's a sheepy-save though.

RPS: Unless I'm mistaken, Gridrunner+++ is hitting the PC first, before the 360 version. Care to explain your thinking for this? Many devs release the other way around.

Jeff Minter: Well, there are a few advantages to prioritising PC development. We can be much more thorough in testing and tweaking gameplay, since we can run a closed beta with a reasonable sized bunch of testers since everybody's already got a PC, you're not stuck with trying to find people with devkits and time (unusual that those two things go together). There's unavoidable slack in the console development cycle that simply isn't there when you're running PC dev with a bunch of testers you can get in immediate contact with and who are happy to pound on your game. Not having to go through such rigorous vetting, scrutiny and rating means that you can get a PC title completed a good few months ahead of a console title.

RPS: Looking at 2009, what do you think is going to go right? What do you think is going to go wrong?

Jeff Minter: Hopefully we'll get a couple of good releases in and build up a bit of a buffer financially, we're running too close to the wire at the moment for comfort. Mind you with all the economic crisis bollocks around at the moment who the hell knows, everything could go wrong :D. Time will tell I suppose :).

Which fulfils the ungulate quota.

RPS: Are you really going to lose some of the pluses in the name? I'd be tempted to add more.

Jeff Minter: Hehe, well, we'll see. That 2002 version was GR++, and I want to make the point that this game is really quite considerably different than people might think is warranted by the addition of just a single plus. So I think either giving it some completely new and ridiculously grandiose name, like Scientologists call their E-meters - "Mark Super Quantum Ultra Gridrunner: Revelation Edition" - or, as you say, adding a load more plusses. I'll continue to think about it and hopefully arrive at that perfect balance of silliness and distinctiveness ;).

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Gridrunner+++ will be out on the PC in April.

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