The design and influences behind N++

For Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, the masterminds behind Toronto indie studio Metanet Software, N++ represents the culmination of over a decade of hard work. It all started in 2004 with a freeware Flash game. Stylistically trim, with a focus on movement and flow, N showed players how it felt to be a ninja. Its popularity demanded two sequels, with the latest incarnation launching on PlayStation 4 this week.

As hinted by the titles, N+ and N++ are not so much true sequels as they are refinements on a successful formula. From concept to design to implementation, N++ is the fulfillment of N’s promise.

We had an idea back in 2004 for N, but we weren’t able to get it to where we thought it needed to be until now, eleven years later. We didn’t have the experience, the time, the resources or the knowledge to make it happen until now, and we feel very lucky that we have been able to survive this long as a business and have had the opportunity to make N++ happen.

Shawn McGrath, perhaps best known for the stylish Dyad, ported the existing code for N and fine-tuned the user interface to the point that it has no latency. The team then added new mechanics and refined the game until they were satisfied with the whole package.

With a relatively stable core design, N was able to undergo gradual refinements as it flitted, like its titular hero, from platform to platform.

For N, we used Flash, so we built for PC/Mac. Back in those days, all console games required a publisher, and digital distribution didn’t really exist. [As] we played a lot of freeware and shareware—often made by small teams—it was one of those eye-opening moments for us: not only could we […] make games ourselves, but we could also publish them ourselves, too.

The game generated enough interest to attract Microsoft’s attention during Xbox Live Arcade’s heyday, and N+ was released on Xbox 360 in early 2008. The game’s bite-sized play sessions also spurred the development of Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable versions that summer.

Most recently, a particularly vocal cheerleader is responsible for luring the ninja to Sony. “Nick Suttner had reviewed and loved N+ before he started working for Sony, and he bugged us for years to make a version for PlayStation, so that was an easy decision.”

N++ Screenshot

While N++ is the final entry in a series and the ultimate expression of a vision, Burns and Sheppard are hopeful that the ninja’s journey will continue. “If N++ sells well enough on PS4, we hope to be able to port it, especially to Steam, and if possible, Vita.” Don’t count Microsoft out, either. “We want to bring the game to lots of players.”

Precision Platforming

N++ belongs at the head of a class of hardcore neo-retro gems, with an aesthetic that evokes layer upon layer of neon nostalgia and tough-as-nails precision gameplay. Thanks to their history and experience with level design, Burns and Sheppard understand the importance of carefully managing player frustration.

The balance is definitely tricky to get right, and something that we worked on a lot in N++; we spent a lot of time revising and iterating on the levels, making sure that there wasn’t anything too mean or unfair. At the same time, we were careful to avoid making things too uniform—that gets boring, it’s nice to have some dynamics to play with.

One of those dynamics is the variety of enemies and obstacles. Toggle Mines are a new addition that are initially harmless, but transform into death traps when the player touches them, effectively changing the landscape of the stage. Accordingly, N++ cannot be mastered by relying solely on memorization or muscle memory.

You have to use your whole brain at the same time—half of playing N++ is planning your route, and the other half is executing that plan. Sort of like choreographing a dance, and then performing it, often rewriting and improvising on the fly.

A lot of platformers tend to emphasize only the performance half—[the] level designer has choreographed your movement before hand, which takes a lot of the joy of learning and play away from the player. To us this sort of design feels a bit too much like Guitar Hero, where the game is telling you exactly what to do, and the only way you can engage is to execute well. That can be satisfying too, but to us that’s only half the battle. We try to add ambiguity and space to our levels, so that the best route isn’t always obvious

The ability to allow different approaches to solving levels while maintaining some pressure of pace and performance is a key element of N++’s design. The game does not always immediately punish a player for failure, but provides opportunities for creativity.

There’s a “floatiness” that gives you the opportunity to improv: [if] your plan starts to fail, you have a few split seconds to try to come up with a new one on the fly, to rescue yourself from a deadly situation. It’s really satisfying when you pull it off, and in any case you know where you went wrong, so you have a chance to rethink it and try a different strategy.

The game’s mechanics work towards this goal as well. There are no loading screens. Players can restart levels instantaneously. Even navigating through the interface is instant. The game feels fast, smooth, and immediate. “The lack of any load times at all makes retrying levels and strategies immediate and responsive, which keeps the game from being too frustrating.”

Failure is inevitable in a game as difficult as N++, but Metanet wants that failure to feel less like a barrier and more like a learning experience.

A lot of the design was intended to support that idea: that “you’ll fail, maybe a lot, but that’s OK”, and to encourage players through the satisfaction of knowing that when they succeed, it’s because of their own skill and determination.

The measure of quality for a notoriously difficult game is not that it stymies players, but that it raises the stakes high enough that success feels truly rewarding. Besides, as Burns and Sheppard are quick to remind us, “we have to beat the levels several times while testing the game, so we already have an incentive to make sure the levels aren’t too hard.”

Precision Design

Sharon dances with a scarf

Sharon Harvey dancing for Motion++

In early July, Sheppard debuted Motion++. Equal parts dance, fashion design, and photography, the project seeks to describe the experience of being a ninja in the game—the feeling of freedom, movement, and speed—using media other than words.

I wanted to try to talk about N++, in an unusual way (well, for games), and to help people to see it the way that I do—as a stylish and multi-layered treasure trove of speed and beauty and fun. And I want to help encourage people to be able to think about and talk about games in a different way than is typically encouraged in games media. This is my idea of what an ad campaign for games could be.

Naturally, N++ reflects its creator’s interests and inspirations. Indeed, the creative impulse behind Motion++ is evident in the design of the game itself. Motion++ is not simply a side-project or creative offshoot. The ninja can be seen there as well.

[N++] features minimalist art and eschews the expected graphics in favour of [foregrounding] how it feels to play as a ninja. With Motion++, I want to show a diverse idea of what beauty is, to show speed and agility and inner ninjas externally manifested. I want to show the influence of dance and movement and art in our platformer…

I wanted to show how a diverse cross-section of inspiration can lead to something beautiful.

Sheppard goes on to explain the specific ways in which dance has influenced her level design: “traversing each level is a sort of ballet—timing, rhythms, patterns of movement—and we’ve tried to think about it like this when analyzing the level designs. Especially in levels with rockets, the movement of the player becomes very much like a dance.”

To further illustrate the tangled web of influence, Burns and Sheppard reveal that it was a video game, PlayStation’s Wipeout 3 (Psygnosis, 1999), that initially sparked their keen attention to graphic design. “The Designers Republic’s work […] opened our eyes and led us to discover all sorts of amazing work.” This obsession fed back into their own work.

Of course, Wipeout 3’s other claim to fame, music, is also a design inspiration:

I think we draw a lot from music—mostly just the idea of pacing and dynamics, of different parts and movements working together. When we arrange levels we try to make sure that there are calm moments in between the stressful ones, which lets the player rest and recover a bit (and which also makes the intense parts feel more intense).

It’s fair to say that music is a central component of N++. Compiling the soundtrack was one of Metanet’s primary concerns while making the game.

Music was actually something we worried about for 2 years, because we couldn’t figure out what worked with the game. We noticed that there was definitely a range of music that worked, but it was pretty narrow—if the music was too intense, that made the game totally un-fun, way too stressful. On the other hand, if the music is too relaxing, that totally diffuses the tension and really undercut the excitement.

So, we just worked through hundreds of songs and chose the ones we thought worked best; it ended up being a range across the whole spectrum from ambient to techno.

With 63 tracks totalling over 6 hours of music, the expansive soundtrack represents one of Metanet’s most significant investments. For a game that’s just as much about style and feel as it is about collecting gold and clearing levels, that’s money well spent.

Looking to the Future

The launch of a game like N++ is the end of a long road, but it is also the beginning of many potential new journeys. Burns and Sheppard have already confirmed that they’re not ready to put the ninja behind them quite yet:

We plan to effectively double the size of the game in terms of levels, and other fun stuff. We also plan on increasing the price when that happens—whenever you buy the game, you’re also buying a “lifetime pass” to any content we release in the future.

Doubling the size of the game is not a promise to be taken lightly, given the amount of content that’s already packed in:

2360 levels sounds like an ambitious but relatively sane goal, but it really was a lot more than we bargained for. We are extremely happy with the quality of the levels and the variety, but getting to that point for all 2360 of them took far more time than we had anticipated.

In light of their willingness to devote such a massive amount of time and energy to painstakingly crafting levels, it comes as no surprise that Burns and Sheppard put serious artistic value in a designer’s touch.

N++ Screenshot

When confronted with the idea of procedural generation, they are quick to defend their method:

There’s something beautiful and human about hand-crafted levels—you can see the designer in them and we think that’s important. Plus, we find our levels require a LOT of tuning until they feel right, and that’s part of what makes them so unique and so us. If N++ levels were procedurally generated, we think we’d be able to tell that was missing, and the experience would be missing something as well.

Now that the game is in the wild, they are beginning to think about future projects. While it’s too early to reveal specifics, some nascent ideas are taking shape.

We have a few ideas for platformers that we weren’t able to add to N (such as a grappling hook), so we may revisit the platformer genre in the future. We have lots of ideas outside of this genre too, and we’re excited to play around with them and see what works!

Sheppard looks forward to being able to start gaming again when she’s not as busy with launch concerns. For his part, Burns has been enjoying Snakebird and Serpentes, “both astoundingly original games that revisit old ideas and mechanics in amazingly fresh and interesting ways.”

The pair acknowledges that shipping is in some ways “the scariest, most difficult part of game development”, especially for a niche labour of love like N++. And they are prepared for a year of “updates, support, and DLC”. But while they fully expect some people to love the game, and a few to hate it, they are confident and happy that they have created something wonderful.

N++ Wallpaper

This Old Neon would like to thank Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard for agreeing to speak to us about their work. For further reading, check out our full review of the game.

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