Backing Daxter

Didier Malenfant talks about what could be the PSP's best platformer.

Daxter was one of the surprises of the show on the PlayStation Portable. What with all the hullabaloo elsewhere we'd almost forgotten it existed until we stumbled upon the game and a couple of members of the development team in amongst the weird Perspex hummocks in Sony's PSP area.

Good thing we did. The demo promised a game that blends Jak & Daxter's humour, setting and controls with elements drawn from other classic platformers and delivered with enough of its own identity to really lead the way in the PSP's burgeoning platform genre. You can read what we made of it in more detail here.

Naturally though, having played it, we wanted to talk to some of the people responsible - and so we tracked down Ready At Dawn's Didier "Dids" Malenfant, president of the entire company. Although this may have been easier than we're letting on, given that we met him at E3 and then started pestering him via email until Sony reps leapt from a nearby tree and bellowed "You will not talk directly to developers!" at us whilst beating us round the head with children. Still, they must have been weak children, because here he is. Read on to find out more about Daxter.

[Editor's note: on the advice of our lawyers, we'd like to point out that Sony reps absolutely do not use children as melee weapons.]

Eurogamer: Tell us a little about Ready At Dawn. Who set the company up, and what did you do beforehand?

Didier Malenfant: Ready At Dawn was founded by Ru Weerasuriya, Andrea Pessino and myself. Our three initials is how the company name came about because we couldn't think of any names that we liked at the time. Both Ru and Andrea worked at Blizzard, most recently on Warcraft III, I worked at Naughty Dog finishing Jak II. All three of us were good friends, but funnily enough we never worked together before. But the idea of the company kind of grew out of our common passion for console games and wanting to push the envelope like our previous employers have been known to.

Eurogamer: How did the Daxter project come about?

Didier Malenfant: As soon as the PSP was announced, I started talking to Naughty Dog and then Sony about doing a Jak & Daxter game on it. But what I pitched them was, rather than a port of one of the existing games, to take the franchise into a whole new direction and give centre stage to, in my opinion, the best character in the series: Daxter. The project just snowballed from there as everyone, from Sony to Naughty Dog to the people we hired at Ready At Dawn was so enthusiastic about the ideas we were coming up with.

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Eurogamer: How much involvement does Naughty Dog have with the project, and what form does that involvement take?

Didier Malenfant: They are very involved. These guys are obviously very close friends of mine so this was the perfect collaboration from day one. It means we can have access to any asset we want from the previous game, but most importantly it means they keep a very close eye on how the game is evolving. They don't feel like they have to hold back if there is something in there they don't like or they don't think is up to the standard of the series. You could say they're our biggest fans and at the same time our biggest critics.

Eurogamer: Who's writing the script for the game, and can we expect cameos from any popular J&D characters? (Basically, is Pecker in the game? Because we love Pecker.)

Didier Malenfant: We've been very lucky to have Dan Arey, Naughty Dog's Creative Director, offer to write the script for our cut-scenes himself. This guarantees that fans of the series will find the same style, humour and witty-ness they've been used to in the past. The point in time at which the game takes places was a big headache for us as far as re-using characters. The problem being that most characters from Jak & Daxter are not in Haven City, and Daxter hasn't met characters from Jak II yet. We've come up with a couple of ways of solving that so expect some cameos, at the same time this lets us introduce cool new characters that you don't find in the Jak games. We tried to think of a way to integrate Pecker (we love Pecker too!) but don't expect to see him in this game, unfortunately.

Eurogamer: Given that you're dealing with the two years that Jak spent incarcerated, was it difficult to fit your story in to the Jak & Daxter trilogy?

Didier Malenfant: The setting for the story was put together by Ru, Andrea and myself when we were first pitching the project. It was the perfect time to place our game, with Daxter left on his own. The first thing we decided was that, being Daxter, he would probably wander around for a bit, maybe going from bar to bar or something. Then he would have to start finding a job because you can only survive for so long with no stable source of income. So we coupled that with the gameplay mechanics we wanted for the game and came up with the pest exterminator concept. This fit very nicely with the fact that the Metalheads were, at that point, scouting the city in search of the Heart of Mar. So that's how our Metalbugs came to be. It all kind of came together really easily.

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Eurogamer: The cut-scenes are very impressive, particularly the fur effect. Is it true there will be 20 minutes of cut-scenes in the final game? How long does it take you to make one of those?

Didier Malenfant: We've heard so much about the fur at E3, people were blown away by the effect and didn't believe it was done in real-time. I even heard that Daxter might end up getting fur in Jak-X... who knows? As far as the cut-scenes, we're probably going to be close to 20 minutes by the time the game ships. Cut-scenes are very time-consuming because they require a lot of modelling and animating time, plus we need to schedule the voice recordings and make sure we have all the actors lines in time to start animating a new scene. Ru, our art director, was directly involved with all the cinematics for the games he worked on at Blizzard so we've got a lot of experience there.

Eurogamer: Are you surprised by the lack of platform game competition on the PSP given the amount of PS2 platformers?

Didier Malenfant: I can't say I'm that surprised. 3D platform games are hard to do and even harder to do well. I think a lot of people got a bit worried about trying to do a full blown 3D platform game on a handheld and pulling it off visually, as well as technically. That's one of the thing I'm the most proud about our team here and what we've achieved with Daxter. This is the first time you'll be able to hold a true 3D platformer in the palm of your hand, no compromise were made on the graphics or the camera system. In fact, most people think it's a PS2 game when they see the game.

Eurogamer: Have you had any particular problems bringing Daxter to the PSP?

Didier Malenfant: The biggest challenge initially was of course the technology. We spent a lot of time making sure our engine would be able to push all the polygons we wanted to display on the screen. I can tell you there are a lot of times I wished we would have just done a puzzle game instead!

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Eurogamer: Obviously the last couple of Jak games have introduced more weapons and vehicles. Will you be taking a similar approach, or sticking to the spray-pack and Dax's various hand (or tail) to hand combat moves?

Didier Malenfant: Daxter will feature some vehicle sections where Daxter goes crop-dusting locations outside of Haven City. We also plan on upgrading his spray gun throughout the game giving players a more powerful weapon to go after the Metalbugs. And of course, Daxter being Daxter, it's not always about hard work and bug fighting. He will also be sometimes allowed to fall asleep on the job, which will allow players to find out what Daxter dreams about in special mini-games.

Eurogamer: Tell us a little about the combat system. It looks slightly more complex than a simple button-masher.

Didier Malenfant: The combat system allows you to link enemy-hits into combos, with Daxter pulling more and more acrobatic moves as the combo progresses. The finishing move, if you keep the combo going long enough, is a very satisfying downward 'splat' on the last bug, complete with loads of Metalbug-goo and such. It's a lot of fun to pull off.

Eurogamer: Mario Sunshine seems like an obvious influence for some of the level design, and Jak obviously. What else would you say influenced you?

Didier Malenfant: Actually, what influenced the gameplay mechanics early on was games like Luigi's Mansion, rather than Mario Sunshine. We wanted very simple mechanics that you kept throughout the game and that we could expand on via upgrades. I've always been a big fan of simple, tight mechanics with a small move set, rather than provide the players with dozens of moves or weapons that, for the most part, never ever get used.

Eurogamer: What would you say Daxter does that no other platform game does?

Didier Malenfant: Daxter has this 'Ottsel mode' which allows him to creep up on enemies and take them by surprise, but also climb up walls or wall-jump. Daxter, being an animal, is a lot more agile than regular platform character. This makes for super fast gameplay and very cool looking moves. Just take a look at Daxter crawling on the ground or climbing up a wall, it's the first time we've ever seen this done properly as a quadruped and not just as a biped character with special animations. What I mean by that is that Daxter moves and turns around properly on four legs, it's not just a hack. And visually, it's pretty stunning.

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Eurogamer: What sort of multiplayer options are you planning?

Didier Malenfant: There will be an ad-hoc multiplayer mode in Daxter. We're not quite ready to talk about which part of the game it will affect though.

Eurogamer: Will you be working in any PS2 or perhaps even PS3 connectivity?

Didier Malenfant: We are the first game to include PSP-PS2 connectivity by allowing players of Jak X on PS2 to connect their friend's PSP with Daxter and unlock things in both games. Given the close relationship we have with Naughty Dog, it was a great opportunity for us to give those extras to gamers and fans of the franchise. For example, you'll be able to unlock new drivers in Jak X who are in fact characters found in Daxter. It's going to be a lot of fun.

Eurogamer: The PS2 titles had a system of letting you unlock various cheats by collecting eggs. You've got the eggs in there, hidden away, so what sort of things will players be able to unlock?

Didier Malenfant: Yes, Precursor orbs are back in Daxter. We basically have two main things for players to collect - the orbs are used to unlock items, and the skull gems you collect when defeating enemies can be used as a currency in the game. I don't think we want to give away all the unlockable things in details, but I can tell you it will basically be a collection of mini-quests in the levels and secret items/features in the game.

Eurogamer: The game's E3 demo said it was 30 per cent complete. When do you anticipate launching the game? Any chance it'll be ready for the European PSP launch on September 1st?

Didier Malenfant: The game is coming out in spring 2006.

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Eurogamer: How representative was the E3 demo of the way the game will play and feel?

Didier Malenfant: Our core move set is locked down so I guess you could say it was exactly how the game will play and feel. We got some awesome feedback at E3 with people stopping by to check the game out and then getting 'stuck' until they saw everything that was in the demo. Everyone loved the game, and not just for how good it looks but also for how smooth and addictive the gameplay is.

Eurogamer: Finally, are you working on any other projects besides Daxter?

Didier Malenfant: We've got loads of ideas, things we'd like to do. But no, we only work on one game at a time so Daxter is all we have on our plate right now.

Eurogamer: Okay, really finally this time: assuming Daxter is a success, is a sequel something you would like to work on, and how do you think would you work that in to the Jak & Daxter series?

Didier Malenfant: Of course, assuming the game is well received, we'd love to keep on pushing Daxter in different directions. We've got some ideas but until then, we'll have to see if people love the final product as much as they loved the preview we showed at E3. It's a very ambitious game but with the team that we've managed to assemble here, I'm very confident we'll be able to pull it off. If E3 is any indication, this is going to be a major title on PSP.

Daxter is due out exclusively on PSP next spring.

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