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Building Runbow, the first nine-player Wii U platformer

13AM Games in Toronto has figured out how to make a 9-player competitive platformer for the Wii U. But how do they solve the design challenges of fitting that many players on a single screen?

Alex Wawro, Contributor

October 29, 2014

5 Min Read

A lot of good, weird stuff is born from game jams -- Hotline Trail, Superhot, and the like. But it's rare to see work as eye-catching as Runbow, a nine-player competitive footracing game being developed in Unity for the Wii U that -- if you squint -- looks a bit like a playable Saul Bass title sequence. It's the debut project of 13AM Games, a Toronto-based indie studio staffed by (coincidentally) nine developers who came up with the idea back in January while participating in the Global Game Jam. "We brainstormed the idea of having a multiplayer runner with this color-shifting background mechanic that disappears the platforms if they match; that’s kind of where this all started," says Tom McCall, a 13AM cofounder who serves as the game director and level designer on Runbow. He's referring to one of the core mechanics of Runbow -- the background of every stage is constantly shifting and when a platform or wall is the same color as the background, it temporarily ceases to exist. Once they had that worked out, the developers who would go on to found 13AM (they were still all students enrolled in game-related graduate programs at George Brown College) got to game jamming and managed to produce a crude 8-player PC prototype of Runbow in a single weekend -- you can still play it on the Global Game Jam website. "We wanted to put in as many players as we could, but it can be hard to tell them apart," says Lucas Takashi, who serves as 13AM's art director and is chiefly responsible for Runbow's iconic Saul Bass-meets-classic-Czechoslovakian-film-posters look. "That's why we went for a sort of '60s-ish, Saul Bass-inspired style; we saw the features we needed in his art." After completing the Global Game Jam, the developers of Runbow felt they had something special, something they could potentially publish -- with a bit of polish. So they took a step back and started researching all the available platforms they could put Runbow on with an eye towards getting as many players as possible in the same room. "We looked at Xbox, PlayStation, PC, all those things, and we just kind of did a tally of how many controllers we could link up," McCall tells me. "And when we got to Wii, we found out..." his voice trails off for a moment, then picks up again with renewed excitement. "We found out that if you tether a Wii Remote to a Wii controller four times, and then add in the Wii U tablet controller on top of it, you can get up to nine players. We’d never seen anything like that before." What's more, McCall and his fellow former student developers already had a good relationship with Nintendo -- one of them had started communicating with the company as part of his thesis project. "There was never a giant pitch; we just kept them in the loop from day one and they’ve been very supportive the whole way," says McCall. "I guess we’ve been very lucky!"

Sounds great, but how do you make it fun?

So the team set about building their prototype into something that could take advantage of the Wii U's tablet controller. They fleshed out the color-shifting mechanic, added extra levels and modes (including an asymmetrical multiplayer mode that sees the player with the tablet controller affecting level elements as the "ColourMaster") and ironed out the design challenges of having nine players on-screen at once. "We had some reservations when we first put nine players in because the beginning of the level became extremely frantic," says McCall. "All this mayhem breaks out! It’s been really challenging, but getting nine-player local multiplayer makes it all worth it." "And at the start we had a lot of challenges with the art style," chimes in Takashi. He remembers players having trouble identifying themselves during the game jam; adding in another player and a whole bunch of new levels just exacerbated the issue. "We had to totally readjust the size of the characters and a bunch of other things, and it’s hard because we have to always keep in mind ‘it’s a nine-player game, we need to have enough space for nine people to play in here.'" "Yeah, pretty much all our big problems come down to the challenges of putting nine people in a 2D environment," notes McCall, with a chuckle. "But also like, rubberbanding is still something we’re struggling with in the current version of the game; powerups are the one way we’ve figured out to make sure that if you’re last, you’re not just screwed." 13AM recently tried adding Mario Kart-esque powerups to Runbow, but there's a twist. "It’s sort of like Mario Kart, but we’ve actually gone one step further," says McCall. "If you’re in first place, you don’t just get useless items, you can actually get a power-up that kind of screws you over." They call it 'Swap' and when someone picks it up, they swap places with another player chosen at random. "If you get it while you're in first place, it could send you right to last - or vice versa," says McCall. "Yeah, deciding to add in powerups was like the worst," adds Takashi. "But these mechanics are what we’re using to kind of alleviate the headache of having nine players - by trying to keep it fun for all nine," responds McCall. 13AM has some time to get it right -- Runbow isn't expected to launch on Wii U until sometime next year. The developers have some spare time to work on it, too -- they finished school in August, and are planning to try and stick together as an indie studio of nine (or more) for the foreseeable future. "It’s been a very seat-of-the-pants, hold-on-and-here-we-go kind of deal," says McCall, with a laugh.

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