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  • Writer's pictureAurora Verdejo

From Game™ to Game Creator - An interview with Gavin Price of Playtonic Games

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Introduction


Gavin Price is known for his contributions to Rare Limited and games such as Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie, and Perfect Dark. But lately, you may recognize him as the Managing Director & Creative Lead of Playtonic Games, having worked on their flagship franchise Yooka-Laylee. Price provided the pleasure of interviewing him not only on some questions on the company but also about himself and his experiences in the industry. The interview took place on February 9, 2021.


Finding His Footing


In the late 90s, Price was a college student attending Burton Upon Trent Technical College and was working part-time at his local Game store (for US readers, think the UK equivalent to GameStop), which happened to be the closest one to Rare Limited headquarters. Because of this, members of the Rare team would often stop by to purchase video games. During their visits, Price would talk to them and often try to ask what the studio was up to, but of course, they couldn't share much. One member of the Rare team took note of Price's interest and recommended he apply for a position as a Quality Assurance Tester, which Price gladly went for.

He was called in for a job interview and was more than happy to accept the position when it was offered to him. Rare Limited was known for helping develop those who started as QA testers;, Price's two interviewers, the head of Production as well as Greg Mayles, both started as QA testers themselves. Price unenrolled from college and took up the position at Rare, although he doesn't recommend others do the same.


Some Words of Wisdom


Before continuing with pre-planned questions, Price asked about my personal preferences when it came to video games and my interest in the industry. When I mentioned my lean towards specific genres/franchises and how I wanted to branch out, he had this to say: When it comes to playing video games, someone in the gaming industry or wishing to enter the industry needs "a balanced diet" of video games.

He recommends obtaining an Xbox Game Pass or a subscription to Apple Arcade for access to a variety of AAA games as well as independent games. He personally uses those, as it helps him to easily find new games while balancing his work and his home life with his spouse and his two-year-old daughter.


Thoughts on Battle Royales


Knowing that the battle royale genre is the zeitgeist of the industry, I asked Mr. Price his thoughts on the genre. He finds it to be an exciting theme that brings people together. He feels that with games in that genre "It's all about a big social space" and "what you give players" to work with. He noted that with a large number of FPS battle royale games, "Combat and shooting ultimately will turn out to be such a narrow subgenre [of] battle royale". He acknowledged that Fortnite takes a more creative stance in the genre by not only shooting but also crafting. He also referred to Fall Guys for its unexpected presence as a new subgenre of the battle royale in which players race and platform rather than directly fight.

When asked if Playtonic has any plans of developing its own battle royale game, Price shared that the creative side of the studio usually leads the business side of the studio. If a game idea seems to be innovative, fun, and marketable, then it's worth trying to put together. And while the studio does have an idea in mind, he didn't provide many details. He did describe the ideal concept as giving only a few game laws but providing a system that allows players to essentially build the game they want. He even posed an idea of one style of battle royale being almost like Pikmin; two large teams would be competing against each other rather than the traditional free-for-all/team shooters.


The Resurgence of 3D Platformers


When asked if Playtonic Games has any plans for new 3D platformers, Price responded by saying "I can't disclose company secrets. Let's just say we're big fans of making and playing 3D platformers." He went on to say he is very happy to see 3D platformers doing well and believes that the Playtonic team played a part in that. He thinks that inevitably the genre will make a full comeback.


Did Brexit affect Playtonic?


"Not really; we didn't let it affect us." "No matter what kind of challenge anything beyond your control gives you, it's how you respond to it and make it work for you."

After dropping some serious wisdom, Price explained how the company is still able to hire employees from the EU. The company even has a license to allow the hiring of employees from other countries, such as one team member from Australia. He's grateful that they can continue employment procedures just as well as pre-Brexit. Surprisingly, the motion of the pound dollar concerning Brexit went in the company's favor.

Other than that, all else was fairly on par as before Brexit. The company pays VATs just as other businesses housed in the United Kingdom do. There are also international trade agreements that affect the company but they haven't changed much since Brexit. Most of those policies are handled by the distributors, as Playtonic's work is very business-to-business, says Price.


The Struggles of Working with Distributors


Price taught that the dependency on major companies to handle the distribution of games has a larger impact than expected, concerning both finances and development. He informed me that after the distribution platform takes their fees, and after any necessary taxes are paid regarding game sales, the studio only grosses 58% of the sales price. Next time you see an independent company selling a game for $40, just remember that the company is really only asking for $23.

More troublesome than the financial impact is the difficulty in programming caused by developing a game for multiple consoles. Price told of how uninformed gamers think there's some sort of instantaneous process of taking a game made for PC and creating a version for Xbox or PlayStation. In reality, a game can be working perfectly on one system but then it won't even load on another. His team experienced this issue with Yooka-Laylee but learned their lesson and when working on Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair had a much smoother process. Of the major consoles, the Nintendo Switch has the weakest processing power and for that reason, they began with that port of the game. It avoids the issue of creating the game for Xbox for example, and then the Switch not having enough memory to handle it.

Price mentioned that middleware such as Unity and Unreal Engine is very helpful in creating the various versions of a game, but technical issues such as a shader being incompatible or the game not making it past the start screen must be handled manually. This, coupled with the process of obtaining a dev kit for consoles explains the lengthy process. He elaborated on how there is an approval process to receive a dev kit, and that companies are often in short supply of dev kits during the launch of new consoles.


Team Sizes and Memes: Rare vs Playtonic


Price said that the Rare team, presently, is about 200 members strong -- compared to the roughly 120-member peak when he was there and only 100 members when he began. This number doesn't include the contracted companies that would be called in to work with Rare Ltd. The scope of team sizes changed over time, as well; when he was there 100 people made up six or seven teams, but by the time he left "100 people were 80% of a single team".

In contrast, Playtonic has 30 members; 25 of whom are development and five of whom are staff, with positions such as community manager. At this point, I couldn't hold back a laugh and Price thought I was laughing at his daughter yelling in the background. I told him how I've seen the shenanigans the community manager posts on Twitter and "the legacy of feet jokes", to which he responds "that, and pregnant Kazooie as well". We both needed a good laugh in between all of the business talk.


Does Size Matter?


Contrary to my prior assumptions, having a small company provides more benefits than challenges according to Price. He acknowledged that progress takes longer because there are fewer people, but he chooses to focus more on the positives such as how getting everyone together and general communication is easier. As he put it, "Some bits are easier some are more difficult", but it's important to find what's easier and double down on it.


Impact of Awards


When asked if awards and nominations affected sales, he simply replied with "I don't think so, no." Price went on to explain how while it's nice for the brand, once a game is out and there was the initial launch period, the company has already hit its peak with their core following and core audience buying early. After that, it's about trying to share the game to continue sales. In his experience, while brand awareness helps a bit, things like discounts do much more for sales. The accolades do have other benefits to the business, such as a morale boost for the team.


Benefits of TIGA


Playtonic Games is a proud member of TIGA, The Independent Game Developers' Association. And that's not just because they awarded Playtonic Games the award for 'Best Startup' in 2015. The benefits provided by TIGA are not specific to Playtonic, but benefit the industry as a whole within the UK. Price described TIGA as an "industry buddy" that lobbies and works on the behalf of the gaming industry and its members. TIGA has helped to push the government and lobby to get VGTR(The Video Games Tax Relief) passed. The organization also assists in educating members of the government who don't fully understand the video game industry, which in turn allows for more informed legislation regarding the industry.


The Origins of Playtonic Games


Price delighted in the tale of Playtonic's origins. Initially, it was a small group idea, and it was more of the company's veterans that came up with the idea to put together Playtonic.

Price said that both Rare and Microsoft are great companies, and he was grateful for the risks they would take on games like Sea of Thieves that other companies would never think of taking on. His reasons for leaving were nothing personal, it just came down to the types of games he and the others who left had wanted to make. To him, Price described development at Rare/Microsoft as factory-like, and the scale of the company made for a large chain of command which created a tedious process of communication. Having a small studio that emphasized creativity and a more free-flowing nature better suited his and the other members' wants.

What it came down to was Playtonic Games is a passion project, and while Price was sad to leave behind Rare and his friends at the company, they still stay in touch. Over the years, more people left Rare and went on to other companies. Price would reach out and tell them about Playtonic, followed by offering them a position with the studio; they would tell him that Playtonic is exactly the kind of studio they'd been wanting to work for.


Favorite Game You've Worked On?


"There's definitely two. The very first and the very last. Jet Force Gemini and Yooka Laylee and the impossible lair." Price described Jet Force Gemini as more special and more forward-thinking than he gave it credit for back when he was one of the QA testers for the game. He recalled playing the first Halo game and realizing how similar it was to Jet Force Gemini, and how it likely drew inspiration from that game. Despite having to constantly play through Jet Force Gemini in his QA position, he found himself still playing the game in his free time because it was so fun.

Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair was a type of game he wanted to make since before he was in the industry. He was greatly inspired by Super Mario World and the way the overworld and the levels were integrated and influenced each other. This is apparent in Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair as not only are levels themed similarly to their locations in the overworld, but also changes made in the overworld create alternate versions of levels such as flooding or freezing.


Would you want to see Yooka & Laylee in Smash Bros.?


"Oh yeah, definitely, 100%." Price said that he's definitely not the best player, but there are a few members at the studio that are really good. He went on to mention his thrill that some of the characters that members had worked such as King K Rool and Banjo & Kazooie made it into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Price believes that having your original video game character make it into Super Smash Bros. is "one of the top honors you could ever get."




A major thank you to Gavin Price for allowing me the honor of interviewing him both for a college assignment as well as a personal interview, as well as for his permission to record our interview and write this article.


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