Building Your Own Banjo
Advance warning: there’s a fair chance that Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts may live to be one of the most cruelly misinterpreted games in history. This is because, at first glance, it’s easy to dismiss this as a potentially desperate attempt to revive a flagging platform genre by turning it into a GTA clone for the stuffed-toy crowd. But what Nuts & Bolts is really about is putting things together. And why not? With the ideas behind LittleBigPlanet and Spore already firmly established in the gaming firmament it only seems appropriate that a major Microsoft Game Studios release might go that way as well.
It’s only when you step out of the missions themselves that you realise Nuts & Bolts is far from conventional. Banjo, it turns out, is a Trojan Bear. Beneath the recognisable characters, Nuts & Bolts is actually a physics toy and a construction set as much as a platformer. Vehicles are not a desperate addition, but the carefully crafted hinge on which the entire experience turns: this is a game that encourages you to make things. After that, it encourages you to try them out, share them, and fiddle around with things other players have made.
It’s the kind of creativity some players will find intoxicating, but it requires a reliable and intuitive editor, and Mumbo’s Motors, where all your construction will take place, is something the developers have spent a long time working on. “There’s no secret to making a good editor,” sighs Gregg Mayles, Rare’s head of design, and the lead on Nuts & Bolts. “It’s just iteration. When I started this job, I thought the editor would be six months, and that was being pessimistic. It turned out to be a whole project. An editor is just a barrier between what the player wants and the finished item. Our job is to try and make that barrier as small as possible, so the player can go from a thought to seeing it in the game as quickly as possible.”
“The most daunting thing for people is the very first time,” says Rich Cousins, the game’s producer. “All these bits, this big empty area – what do I do?” A selection of pre-built chassis are there for players who feel overwhelmed, but Rare has done its work well, and, sitting down with the level editor, even with a dizzying assortment of potential parts unlocked, it’s far more tempting to select a set of wheels and work from scratch.
All the vehicles truly require is a seat for Banjo, wheels, an engine and fuel – and even the last part’s negotiable, with balloon-based propulsion systems available. All items are located on menus, ready to be dragged into place, and the journey between build and test is a button press. Starting by spacing out four wheels, it’s a simple matter to bolt blocks together connecting them into a frame, add a seat, stick three or four engines on (each engine will give you more power, but will make you heavier) and then stick on incidentals – some pointless, like fluffy dice, some vehicle-definingly brilliant, like wings or flotation devices, which allow you to take to the skies or explore the game’s lakes and rivers.
And the variety that you can produce quickly becomes evident. Our first effort was an ugly, boomerang-framed quad bike with monster-truck wheels, and a cockpit that hung dangerously low under the chassis. For our second attempt we were more experimental, creating a long, straight frame and bunching balloons at one end of it. When they were inflated in the test arena, it rose into the air and dangled there uselessly, until we discovered we could coax it gently around the space by inflating and deflating the balloons quickly.
Once a vehicle’s built, it’s stored in the form of a blueprint, and can be brought out whenever an objective requires it. Blueprints are generated automatically, and can be exchanged online. You can even take pictures of other people’s vehicles and, providing they haven’t locked the blueprint to prevent theft, you’ll be able to recreate it at the push of a button, and then get to work tinkering with it yourself.
The complexity of the vehicles requires reliable physics, as the pleasure of making something is only equal to how believably it handles in the gameworld. “We got real physics in early,” says lead programmer Salvatore Fileccia. “But you needed a degree in engineering to build anything. So the most difficult part is getting that cartoon physics working. You want people to build failures and have fun, but you also want people who don’t understand the laws of physics to build something that doesn’t fall over.”
“It’s fun physics,” suggests Cousins. “There’s layers of fun, so people can quickly build a vehicle or strip it down for weight, add four-wheel drive, and add propellers that suck or blow.”