The PSP seems to be working out quite well for Team 17. After heartless people like us had a go at them for their 3D Worms titles, they've come back with Worms and now Lemmings titles that opt for 2D instead - and seem to be mighty pleased to be doing so. With Lemmings due out in just under a month, we fired off some questions for producer Paul Kilburn, who talked us through some of the game's features, how the game works on the handheld and what makes it special in general.
Eurogamer: I understand that Lemmings on PSP is a mixture of old and new levels - around 100 in total. What sort of things have you done in the new areas to change the way the game works? Was there anything particular that you added?
Paul Kilburn: Yes, it's a mixture of original and brand new levels. In total there's 156 levels for the player to get their head around. We haven't done anything with the new levels to fundamentally change the way the game works, but there are fresh gameplay elements in our level designs that weren't used in the original. From the start, the PSP version has been built on the premise that the original game was the best revision of the game and that it wasn't broken - so why tinker with a winning gameplay formula? For the new levels, we analysed what were the best levels in the original game, what were the worst and what were good to play or just long winded. From there, we designed our new levels based on what made the best levels of the original version good, discarding elements that annoyed or frustrated the player. There are additions to the game to make it easier to play, an example being the ability to track a lemming with the cursor. This is really helpful when there's 100 of them marching back and forth within the space of an inch and you've only got one utility to assign and it must go in the right direction. The gameplay from the brilliant original remains totally intact.
Eurogamer: My memories of Lemmings are largely based on a mouse-based control system. How easy has it been to adapt the game to PSP? What sort of control adjustments did you make?
Paul Kilburn: It's been a fairly straightforward task to be honest. Initially I myself had concerns over the transition from mouse to PSP control, but looking at how console ports of the original handled it allayed these concerns. We tried various control methods on the PSP and settled on the best one. In a nutshell the analog stick controls the camera, the d-pad the cursor, the shoulder buttons the utilities; activation, speed up, tracking and zooming are on the four main buttons. It feels really intuitive now, for example - tracking a lemming is on the square button meaning that with your thumb you can both track and assign utilities at the same time. Speed up is also a toggle on the circle button meaning that when you've set a level up, you don't necessarily have to wait forever for the lemmings to get to the exit.
Eurogamer: That said, most people do have memories of Lemmings, and would've loved to create their own levels - an option you're providing. In terms of your own work though, could you talk us through a particularly fiendish level? How hard does it get?
Paul Kilburn: The difficulty curve of our levels is fairly steep - the idea being that you play these when you're familiar with the original levels and what you've got to do. With the original game, some levels were hard because of flaws in the control method - i.e. some levels relied on 'luck' and we've tried to tone this down by implementing the tracking and two camera zoom levels. Also, in the original, if you were stuck on a level that would be it' in the PSP version you get 'chances'. If you're stuck on a level within a section, you can move onto the next one and come back to the tricky one later (you get 5 of these chances within each section).
I'm not going to tell you how hard any particular level gets (that would be giving the game away!), but out of the new Team17 designed and built custom levels there are a certain number of extra puzzles we've managed to eke out of the nuances of Lemmings. For example, to complete some of the later levels you must time your 'exploders' to absolute perfection as they walk towards a cliff face - the goal is to have them explode mid-air in order to clear barricades.
Another one of the new levels is particularly tricky to work out but deceives with its simple looking layout: the player must begin digging in a number of key places and have all the Lemmings pour into the deepening holes. When the digger Lemming reaches daylight, all Lemmings must be facing in the right direction in order to avoid certain death. In order to beat this puzzle the player has to examine the landscape very closely, the puzzle really requires some torturous thinking and planning ahead!
Eurogamer: You're including a level editor - how will players use this, and how are you handling the distribution of user-created content? Will there be some sort of centralised resource?
Paul Kilburn: The level editor is really good. Players have a blank canvas on which they put down the entrance and exit, specify how many lemmings you get and how many you have to save, specify what utilities they get and how long they've got to complete the level and then build the level from a set of landscape blocks provided. The landscape can be anything you want, there's a load of chunks (both regular and irregular in shape) for you to place down and make whatever you want. Once you've done, you can play the level in the editor to check it works how you want it to and then save it. Once saved you can make more levels, creating a level pack or just have a level pack that has one level in it. Then you can swap manually with friends or upload it to the internet for other players to be able to download and play (and rating your levels in the process). Your levels and others that people upload are stored on a centralised resource.
Eurogamer: How do you think Lemmings compares to modern puzzle games? Has there really been much growth in the genre?
Paul Kilburn: The puzzle genre isn't really my bag, but Lemmings is and I think that's key. Lemmings is a classic and it broke away from simply being another good puzzle game into a bona fide classic due to a correct blend of elements that's very hard to achieve. There's been a lot of growth in the area since 1990, but it's very rare that a puzzle game rises above the crowd to become a must have title and one that's remembered fondly for years like Lemmings. This is highlighted fairly strongly in Lemmings' own path since the original game. Lemmings 2 for example, was a very good game but it was hard, and in my opinion it went too far away from what made the original so compelling and lost it's way. The Lemmings games after that were generally 'take them or leave them'
Eurogamer: You've stuck with the classic 2D approach. Why did you choose to do this instead of opting for a three-dimensional take like some of the latter Lemmings did? Is this a case of a game that simply works best this way? If so, why do you think that is?
Paul Kilburn: Yes, that's right, the game simply works best in this dimension. We added the 3D backgrounds to make it look stunning and are really happy with the visual results, but the game is still classic 2D. In my opinion, whilst 3D lemmings wasn't as bad as it's press made it seem, the gameplay of the original was far far better. Lemmings in 3D was more "3D for 3D's sake" and at the time publishers in the industry were all clamouring for 3D, 3D and more 3D (we know this through our experiences with Worms). As long ago as 1995, publishers were reluctant to take on 2D titles, seeing it as 'yesterday' and games like Lemmings were shoehorned into 3D when the result didn't come close to the original let alone surpass it. I think the reason has a lot to do with control method and information. In Lemmings, you need instant facts about what is going on in several places at the same time and the ability to quickly react to situations. 3D didn't afford you this.
Eurogamer: DMA Design have obviously gone on to do some pretty big things since they worked on Lemmings back in the day. Any idea what they make of the PSP version?
Paul Kilburn: I've no idea. I'd like to think they'll like it when they play it, it doesn't take anything away from the original or mess with the concept or gameplay in any way. I personally love playing it (as do various Team17 staff's family members) and that's very rare when you've worked on a game since its inception more than a year ago.
Lemmings is due out on PSP on February 24th.