What's With the Monkey With a Jetpack? Romino's Jasper Koning Explains 'Awesomenauts'

The indie team behind the upcoming XBLA and PSN release Awesomenauts is a pretty small group of designers, programmers, and artists, who've nonetheless made an impression with their previous release, the strategy game Swords and Soldiers (it picked up a couple of awards on release), and they're looking to duplicate that success with their still-in-development MOBA title) think of it as League of Legends in two dimensions). We spoke with Romino's co-founder and one of the designers on the upcoming game, Jasper Koning about building Ronimo's sophomore effort, going full-bore into console development, and just why that monkey has a jetpack strapped to his back.

MTV Multiplayer: Tell me a little about the guys behind Romino—you're still a pretty small team, right?

Jasper Koning: Yeah, our team only consists of 15 people. It feels pretty big for us though, seeing as we started out with only seven. We started out as seven classmates at a game design course and formed a company after graduating. The foundations for Ronimo were actually laid during our graduation year.

Since we started out in March 2007, we've hired four extra programmers (we started out with only one) and one producer/studio manager. We currently also have three interns, so that's how we end up with the current 15 people.

Multiplayer: What were some challenges you found developing a 2D MOBA game for consoles?

Koning: Well, changing the perspective to 2D made the picture a bit more crowded, since characters can overlap. So we spent a lot of time in making the graphics as clear as possible.

Another big challenge was to streamline the whole progression system for console use. We felt that MOBA games on PC often make this unnecessarily complicated, especially when it comes to the items you can purchase for characters. We've basically done two major things to remedy this: we've merged the traditional leveling with the item shop, and made the in-game shop character specific. The result is a shop that contains items that can give your Awesomenauts new skills as well as stat improvements, and only contains items that are useful for your current character. So there's no way to buy a “wrong” item as you can do in traditional MOBAs.

At the same time, this enabled us to design more viable builds, so that you can play each Awesomenaut in multiple different ways. For instance, we have a Russian, flying monkey called Yuri that can create a time-slowing field, which players can upgrade in very different ways. You can buy upgrades that increase the slowing power of the field, but you can focus on upgrades that allow the field to heal allies. Another example is the dynamite throwing skill [for] Lonestar. You can buy an upgrade that increases the explosion size, but you can also buy an upgrade that adds a flashbang effect.

Actually, you can even choose not to buy any skills at all and focus all you effort on improving your basic attack first. You won't be able to do anything fancy like casting time bubbles or turning into a whirlwind, but you will shoot bricks that can destroy most characters pretty quickly.

Multiplayer: This is your first console title, right? Was there any trepidation there coming off of PC development? Can we look forward to a PC version down the line?

Koning: Well, the console audience is used to a more polished experience. On PC you can release earlier and evolve parts of the game as long as you label it a “playable beta” or an “indie” game. You can’t do really do something like that on consoles, so that means that a lot more work has to go into the game before you can even release the first version. But we happily accepted that challenge, mainly because we wanted to play a quality MOBA from the comfort of our couch.

That said, we've been getting a lot of requests for the PC version and we're looking into it. There are a lot of challenges associated with translating this game to the PC, and right now, we're just focused on getting the console versions out the door.

Multiplayer: From the concept phase, was Awesomenauts one of those ideas that come out fully-formed or a series of design concepts that started coming together?

Koning: It was a bit of both. We always knew that the very core of the game was going to be a 2D team vs. team side-scrolling action game with an upgrade system, but the whole pacing, structure and progression systems have been formed during development. Compared to our previous game, Swords & Soldiers, we had to invent a lot more along the way.

A screen from Romino's previous effort, Swords and Soldiers

Multiplayer: What have you guys been playing while developing Awesomenauts?

Koning: We've been playing of lot of League of Legends during development. Actually, when we finished Swords & Soldiers we were knee-deep in the original DOTA. Soon afterwards, we got into the League of Legends beta. And we've played that extensively for about 1.5 years. Nowadays we're a bit burned out on it. But some of us have already been let into the DOTA2 beta, which apparently fixes a lot of the problems that made League of Legends become a bit stale. Also the League of Legends community became a bit too hardcore for our tastes.

Of course we've been playing lots of other games. I'm a great fan of the Assassin's Creed and Zelda series, but I've also enjoyed VVVVVV and lately Puzzle Juice on the iPad. We all have fairly diverse tastes. Some random examples include Diablo III, SWTOR, Super Meat Boy and even Burrito Bison.

Multiplayer: What was it that got the whole team to buy-in on the game?

Koning: The competitive platforming with RPG elements felt fresh and sounded like something we could have a lot of fun with, especially on console. And when we decided to adopt the ‘80s style, and the ideas for art and the theme song came along, we were all sold.

Multiplayer: Tell us a little about designing the characters and assigning abilities: what were some of the key elements you wanted each character to have?

Koning: There are a lot of things that need to be designed, tweaked, and balanced for each character before we feel they are finally complete. First of all, the base attack and the two skills that each character has should complement one another, and fit well with the character. At the same time, the skills should leave room for upgrades that allow players to develop their own playing styles.

Secondly, each Awesomenaut needs to feel unique with regards to the way they move across the playing field. For instance, we have characters that can jump, double jump, jet-thrust, float or even fly, and they all have different maximum speeds and acceleration values. Finally, they should have a visualization that makes sense—not simply regular sense, but I mean sense within the bizarre Awesomenauts universe. For example: it makes sense that Yuri is a jetpack riding monkey, because he is a flying character that drops mines. And we all know monkeys like to fling nasty stuff downwards from a high position.

All of these aspects evolve at the same time. With Leon, for example, we wanted a character that could become invisible, so we thought it'd make sense to visualize him as a chameleon. Then we felt it would make sense for him to be a melee character, since that would make his stealth ability more dramatic and useful. To complement his melee attack we designed a skill where he could throw a sort of boomerang that would pull enemies towards him. This later evolved into a long sticky tongue maneuver, because this would fit better with the character.

Then there are the upgrades, and in the case of Leon there are lots of interesting builds to consider. For instance, when he goes into stealth he leaves behind a little clone that looks just like him, to fool his enemies. Players can decide to buy upgrades that make this clone walk around and attack enemies, and if you play it right you can create a small army of clones. Other players might decide to buy upgrades that improve the damage they deal when coming out stealth, so they can do a powerful sure-fire hit. This combines especially well with the backstab upgrade on his base attack because it's easy getting behind someone when you're invisible. Then there is also this great upgrade that allows Leon to regenerate in stealth. And I haven't even begun considering upgrades for the tongue.

Another cool thing I should mention: you can only bring 12 items out of a maximum of 24 to each match. So you will have to think ahead about how you're going to play your character.

Multiplayer: How did you reach the 3 v 3 cap instead of say, 4 v 4?

Koning: Like I said earlier, we noticed that when playing this type of game in 2D, the screen can get crowded really quickly, and we found that having 3 players on each team hits the sweet spot between having frantic high-paced action, and simply losing track of what’s going on.

Also, it's a bit of a MOBA rule of thumb to always have a lane with one player, and two players on the other lanes. This helps in making the matches more dynamic, and seeing as most of our maps have two lanes, having 3 players per team made sense.

Multiplayer: Any plans for any kind of objective modes or anything along those lines for down the line?

Koning: We had lots of ideas for those: in the beginning we even had ideas for Quake Wars-style shifting bases and objectives. That became a bit problematic for certain characters or specific builds that simply weren't viable when it came to fulfilling certain objectives.

Then we decided to keep the core relatively simple and focus on making the characters and their battles as interesting and diverse as possible - and it really paid off. There are so many viable builds and counter-builds to explore that even losing a game feels good, because during our playtests many of our testers felt like they had learned something to bring to the table in their next match.

Multiplayer: Can you talk at all about how far along the DLC is?

Koning: Sure, we're working on expanding the character roster with downloadable content. Right now we’re working on two characters, and they’re almost done. We do the balancing in-house and we are still working on some tweaks, so they’re not ready to go just yet. They're very cool though, so it's a shame I can't talk about them in detail… yet. Apart from those, we've already started prototyping lots of new Awesomenauts, so we're really planning to support the game with fresh characters for a long time.

Awesomenauts is coming soon to XBLA and PSN. You can find out more about the game on the Awesomenauts site.

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