Running, jumping and butt-sliding amount to an addictive experience in RageSquid’s Action Henk, the Dutch developer placing players in the well-trodden shoes of washed out action hero Henk.
It’s the next title that Curve Digital have stepped in to help bring to Wii U, spied after it released on Steam to a positive fanfare back in May. With a nostalgic hook as players race their way around a toy-filled world as 90s action figures, Action Henk looks to tap into your inner speedrunner as you shave seconds off the clock by mastering the game’s simple move set.
We sat down with RageSquid founder and programmer Roel Ezendam and environment artist Roan Albers at EGX 2015, talking through how the studio and game came to be!
Nintendo Insider: I didn’t know whether you’d mind starting off by introducing yourselves, and RageSquid itself?
Roel Ezendam: I’m Roel Ezendam from RageSquid, together with Roan Albers. I’m a programmer, Roan is an environment artist and we made Action Henk! It’s a speedrunning, platformer game about an action figure in a midlife crisis. It just launched a couple of months ago on Steam, and now we’re bringing it to consoles as well – working together with our publisher Curve Digital.
NI: You mentioned that RageSquid all met at school. How did you bring yourselves together to create a game?
RE: It’s that naive idea! ‘Let’s make video games! We can make money from video games?!’ [laughs] We met in school, we were on a game development course and started working together by doing all these small game jam – 48 hour projects. You have this team, people come and go, but after a while we had this group of people and we actually wanted to pursue it professionally by starting our own studio.
Then, of course, there’s a lot of stuff involved if you want to do that – mainly the financial side of things. It took a while before we actually took off. We had a name and the group already for a while, but it took about a year or two before we were in a position where people had graduated or weren’t really busy with school. We had some freelance assignments as a financial buffer, and that’s when we reached the point where we were like ‘Hey! I think we have enough time and money to start working!’ From there it was down the rabbit hole! [laughs]
Roan Albers: It’s been one heck of a rollercoaster ride! The train that doesn’t stop… [laughs]
NI: [laughs] What sort of ups and downs have you had to deal with?
RE: Everything’s just way more extreme, because you’re so much more involved with everything. The ups and downs are just way heavier, I guess. Some people like that, and some don’t. I really enjoy getting to choose what I do, and also being involved with a lot of parts of the project – not just doing this one programming thing, but game design as well for example. Also, going to events, I really love doing all of those things. This is a way for me to do that, it’s a slow process but you can really see that we’re just growing and growing.
NI: How has it felt to be a ‘Nindie,’ have you enjoyed it?
RA: Well, it’s been great to be at these events together with Nintendo. To see how Nintendo has been pushing quite a lot of indie games recently with the ‘Nindie’ program, and that’s definitely a nice way to pursue indies and to help us out. It’s been really nice to just be here, to be at all these great events and working together with Nintendo. Actually getting your own game on a console is something that I’ve been dreaming of ever since I wanted to make games, so seeing this actually happen with Nintendo has been great.
RE: There’s definitely a part of your childhood that goes ‘Oh! It’s really happening!’ I guess it’s nice up until now, that the Nintendo things that we’ve done have been very well organised. You get a nice booth, and there’s people to help you out. It’s really been great to get some support.
NI: We played Action Henk together yesterday, and I finally caught up with Betty after much jumping and butt-sliding! How did you settle on tying together that concept and genre?
RE: For me, my task on the team was doing the core gameplay, game design and physics. I really wanted to try and make a physics-based platformer, and it just sort of grew from there. And then for the art style, I was talking with the artists ‘This is what I really want to do, but you can put on top whatever you want!’ [laughs] It’s two separate things, but then the artists were like ‘Well, we like doing realistic art but we also like doing colourful stuff in making happy, colourful and fun games.’ That’s how we came up with the idea of toys, because they are realistic in a way but also out of proportion, colourful and happy. So, that’s how it all came together.
NI: I mentioned when we were playing about seeing some Toy Story influences, which I imagine others will see as well. Did you use anything like that as a point of reference?
RA: Definitely. One of the things that we looked at was Toy Story 3. You have Andy’s room when he’s grown up, and you see all these posters on the wall. That really inspired us to put a lot of posters everywhere on the walls, and we definitely looked at Toy Story as one of our main inspirations to create a game with toys. And we also used the nostalgic factor, like, for us, it’s all toys that we played with and old games we used to play – subtle references to that.
NI: I spotted a poster for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater… which, well, can’t literally be the logo for obvious reasons! [laughs]
RE: [laughs] Action Henk’s Pro Skater!
NI: [laughs] What others are hidden in there?
RA: I think it would be nice for people to actually spot them for themselves, rather than me naming a few!
RE: I guess the posters are the easiest ones because they’re really big, but there’s lots of smaller stuff. It also depends because each level is in a different area – sometimes you really have the time to look at all the stuff that’s there, whereas in other levels it’s way in the background so you can’t really see it. Throughout the game, you’ll start figuring out all of these small things.
NI: I’ll keep my eye out! As for gameplay, it all revolves around running, jumping and butt-sliding. How did you choose that move set?
RE: I would definitely say that Trials is a very big inspiration. I mean, it’s a very similar type of game – obviously it’s with a bike, as a difference. This whole idea of having a very simple set of rules that you learn in the first couple of levels, that immediately make sense what you need to do. However, throughout the game you encounter all these subtleties that increase your speed or score. That was the whole point, to have something that’s super easy to pick up but you can just keep on going for hours and hours.
The game progresses through that, it starts really easy and in the beginning you can’t really make mistakes – the levels built in a way that it will help you to get a nice flow. As you go further the levels start demanding more subtle tricks from you, and instead of making players pause the screen and read lines of text we really tried to explain all these subtle mechanics through the use of the ghosts that you race.
You can choose the Bronze, Silver and Gold Medal ghosts to race, and it’s funny because in general they teach you tricks you can do and the levels also work in your favour some times. They are set up to teach you certain mechanics that you’ll need further on in the game, and that way we make the game harder and harder. If you go back to the beginning, you’ll realise how good that you’ve become. That was really the idea behind not having stats that just go up, values increasing that let you jump higher and go faster. We want the player to learn for themselves, in actually learning how to control the game better.
NI: I could see that in the levels that were in the showfloor build. When I was racing against Betty, I noticed tricks that she was using to race ahead of me. After failing a few times, learning from those let me eventually take the lead. Was it a goal to help people in that way to improve their times?
RE: Definitely. The idea was to make it as obvious as possible, which is hard because as a designer you know what you are trying to teach. It took us a lot of testing to make sure that, for example, one of the most basic things you learn in the first couple of levels is that you should not slide upwards as you lose speed. You can really see in those levels that there are so many situations where we allow the player to slide upwards, and realise that it’s not working. It’s funny that if you know more about the gameplay mechanics, you can see in those levels how we’ve really obviously laid them out and there are these situations where players are forced to learn it.
NI: As for multiplayer, I think you mentioned that it was something that you were exploring but were wary because of technical limitations?
RE: For Steam, it is very easy to integrate all kinds of features and functionality because it’s an open platform. Obviously on consoles it’s a bit trickier, as there’s way more stuff involved. So, we’re just looking at how we can tackle it because we think it’s definitely a nice multiplayer game. We just have to see how we can sort that out, and still make sure that it’s a worthwhile investment so that it doesn’t cost too much time.
NI: Is it more a challenge around the number of consoles that you’re targeting, and how Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have different ways of approaching their online infrastructure?
RE: Yeah. It’s just that on consoles there’s a lot of rules that you have to be aware of, such as what happens when a player disconnects or if a controller gets unplugged. It’s a really big checklist basically, that you just need to take care of. Once you, for example, add multiplayer, it becomes a lot of work. It’s looking into how we can solve the problem, without it costing too much time.
NI: As for in-game characters there’s Henk, who’s clearly seen better days, and Betty. Are there more alongside that?
RA: We have a total of five characters, and there’s a lot of skins as well for those. During challenge or bonus levels, or by unlocking achievements, you can get those. There’s a lot of characters involved, and they all have their own quirks. Betty may not be the prettiest girl around, but we love her! [laughs] Henk is this out-of-shape midlife crisis action hero, and we’ve got more of that coming.
RE: We really wanted the characters to have their own personality, rather than just making this bland generic action figure. You can really see throughout the whole game, the characters really have their own quirks and flaws – that’s the idea.
NI: On to a more Nintendo-related question. Have you thought about how you will make use of the Wii U GamePad yet, or is there anything in particular that you’re looking to do?
RE: We have Off-TV Play in there already. Maybe we can do other stuff, but this is another one of those things where we have to see if there’s an easy way to implement something. Because, in the end, the game is sort of already done, so we can’t just suddenly throw things around. At least, we have Off-TV Play for now.
NI: As you’re nearing completion, does that mean that Action Henk’s release isn’t that far away?
RE: Curve Digital is basically doing all the work, but we’re helping out a bit as well. We’re helping to make certain decisions, and pushing really hard to aim for early next year. Although we haven’t announced a release date just yet.
NI: In terms of how your relationship with Curve Digital started, did they approach you? Or was it more that you were looking to release on console, and looked to them for support?
RE: We were already thinking about putting it on console, actually. From the very beginning, we designed the game in a way that it could be playable with a gamepad easily. As we were finishing up the PC version, Curve actually approached us and said ‘Hey, we think it’s a cool game!’ We were really surprised, and thought apparently there’s some potential here! That’s when we started looking around, and realised that you don’t necessarily have to do the porting yourselves. We figured out that there are a lot of studios that do porting, and that just seemed like a really great idea because that’s not our preferred thing to do – porting a game that’s already done.
It’s great that they’re doing it for us, and they are helping us out on the publishing side of things. It’s nice because we’re just a couple of people from school that got into this stuff, but we mainly have a background in development. Marketing has always been this sort of tricky thing for us, so working with a big, experienced party is very nice.
RA: It’s very helpful for us, this whole learning curve and experience. It’s really nice to work with an experienced publisher to get things done, and see how they do it – we can learn from that.
NI: Do you see Action Henk as a character, or IP, that you want to carry forward into other games?
RE: I think the concept and the whole world lends itself well to do other games, but we’re not sure yet. We’re in a position where we’re thinking about what kind of stuff we want to do next, and it may involve Action Henk but it may not. We’re not super attached to it, but we do see that there’s a certain potential there with a fun set of characters and a nice world.
RA: We’re thinking about the possibilities, but if there are other ideas in our minds during brainstorm sessions that we’d like to pursue more we may be able to do that. And, we may not involve Action Henk in them because it might not fit, so it depends on what kinds of concepts we come up with next.
NI: I normally challenge people to sell someone on their game in 30 seconds, in an effort to convince them to buy it…
RE: Action Henk is a game about an action figure in a midlife crisis. It’s this very rich world of toys and childhood nostaligia, and it’s a game about going as fast as you can by jumping and sliding on your butt. You just have to improve your time as much as you can, so it’s really a game about trial-and-error and sort of perfecting the motion that the game is about. It starts off super simple, but it gets way more complex as you progress and becomes super hardcore in the end!
NI: You had four seconds left!
RE: Oh, nice! [laughs]
NI: Thanks for your time!