Interview: Sumo Digital On Snake Pass And Slithering Into Self-Publishing

With platformers having something of a comeback this year, Snake Pass shakes things up by giving its players a new way to get from platform to platform and reaching new heights. This isn’t a platformer with running and jumping, but rather a bit of slithering and sliding, as you control a snake and wind your way through the levels. It’s a very interesting concept to say the least.

The game’s out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows and Switch next week, but we had the pleasure of talking to David Dino, designer and snake charmer at Sumo Digital, who coached me in the ways of the snake while playing the game at an ID@Xbox event and answered a few of our questions.

TSA: What was the biggest challenge in developing an innovative new platformer like Snake Pass? It obviously tries new things while looking quite familiar.

David Dino: I think the mechanics of the game itself came first, as we wanted to make sure that felt good. Initially the game came from a game jam project, and that’s where we had the base mechanic of just moving around as a snake and that type of thing, but in order to make it a proper game – especially one that was like classic 3D platformers – we had to tailor these mechanics around the Snake, which was hard. We had little ideas, such as the bamboo and obstacles that we wanted the snake to climb, and that was pretty obvious, but we began thinking, “do we add powers?”

There was one point in the development where you could coil up and then pounce and spring up obstacles with the snake, but it almost took away from the player feeling like a snake. It’s like you mentioned, we’re building a world that’s different but feels familiar. When we were working with concept art, one of our artist’s suggested that we remove the floor. That was fine by us, because previously with the verticality issues we had to wonder what would happen if you fell down from a platform or obstacle? Would you have to do it again? We had to start thinking about what was punishing and what wasn’t, but the concept artist removed the floor and there was our solution.

TSA: Out of all the new mechanics and ideas introduced in this game, what is your favourite?

David: Well to be honest, it’s just moving around like a snake for the most part. The game mechanically tries to mimic a snake’s muscular actions, because its design is made up of thirty five independent collision spheres being connected. Each of the spheres are doing their own individual calculations as to what it’s touching, what it’s not touching and it also checks what the other spheres are doing in order to create the right amount of force needed to slide the player forward, just like real muscles. Of course, even though it’s mimicking a realistic function, it’s still a game, right? So there’s still pretty cool things you can do to manipulate the physics.

TSA: I could definitely see that as I was having a bit of fun and trying to wriggle my way onto higher platforms by using momentum, for instance.

David: That’s due to the mechanics trying to calculate the curvature so you can almost corkscrew your way up some obstacles. That’s one of my favourite things. I also like to speed run things, so that in itself has been really fun to do, because you can manipulate the physics and see what happens.

TSA: Well, it’s definitely speed run worthy, that’s for sure!

David: We have Time Trials too, so that’s something to look forward too!

TSA: That sounds fantastic. So what are some of Snake Pass’ inspirations that it’s taken from other games?

David: Well, I would think that was pretty obvious! A lot of Rare mainly. [laughs]

TSA: I felt a big Rare vibe almost instantly, I must say.

David: Definitely Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon and Donkey Kong are inspirations. I know I’m nearly saying Rare game after Rare game, but interestingly enough, David Wise who made the soundtrack for many of those titles also composed music for Snake Pass.

TSA: What are the puzzles like? Is there a balance between the types of puzzles featured in the game?

David: It’s actually interesting when we talk about puzzles in the game, because there are traditional puzzles which involve finding switches or dropping or moving objects, however, something as simple as traversing an obstacle can be a puzzle. As you saw in the windmill section of a level you played, the game can be difficult due to the physics playing a role on the snake.

3D platformers can be quite similar to each other, as you can run around, jump on objects and navigate freely. They’re generally easy to switch between because they’re so similar. I’m not criticising those games either. With Snake Pass however, it makes players think of how to get to those high places with different physics affecting the snake which gives it a continuous puzzling element.

TSA: I agree, platformer games often follow a similar formula, so it was quite fun finding new ways of traversing the environment as a snake. Physics based puzzles are my favourite, actually!

So what type of worlds can we expect to see and do they follow a theme?

David: You’ve had a taste of nearly every realm, actually. There’s a fire realm, a water one and a wind one, and each manipulates the physics a little. The water one is interesting because gravity gets taken away, the wind pushes you away and the fire obviously burns you. There are also 15 levels in total.

TSA: It’s quite neat that the worlds follow an element that affect physics progressively. How has the experience been developing the game, and why was this the right time for Sumo Digital to self-publish its games.

David: I think self-publishing is something Sumo Digital has always wanted to do, but our bread and butter is to work with publishers on AAA titles. People always say that we’re a “safe pair of hands” because we get the job done and I think we do a pretty good job with them. Obviously all the Sonic stuff like Sonic All-Star Racing and we’re working on Crackdown 3 at the moment. It’s not so much that we don’t like doing those things, as we have very creative teams, but being able to finally do our own project has been really nice. From a business perspective, it’s good to grow that portfolio. We are making our own stuff and you can see how creative we are and it’s not just applied to the other IPs that we’ve worked on.

It’s interesting that when I hear people talk about Sumo Digital, it sounds familiar but they can’t place it. I like to say, “We worked on the games that you play, but you didn’t realise it was us!” […] One of the reasons why we did the game jam was just to see. You never know what might come up, and we just came out of the game jam with lightning in a bottle. It helps get the rest of our team at Sumo thinking that if you have a great idea for a game, then why, right? You never know what could come out of it.

From a studio perspective, it’s cool that we can get that grass roots feeling as well. We’ve always worked with different publishers, such as Microsoft where we did the the Xbox fitness games, but to have this in our portfolio and the way we did it from such a small start, it does have that indie spirit and it’s been really fun.

Thanks again to David Dino for taking the time to speak to us, and all the efforts to fit me in during the game-filled event. Snake Pass is out on Xbox One, Windows 10, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch on the 28th if you’re in the United States, and 29th in Europe and Australia.

Written by
I am a gamer with a passion of all things relating to it. I co-develop a ROM Hacking project called Pokémon Liquid Crystal with a team of experienced developers and also have written for gaming and tech news outlets such as Neowin and Dashhacks. In my spare time, I wreck scrubs at Destiny and trophy hunt.