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Avoiding Co-op “Frictions And Frustrations” In Roguelite Restaurateur ‘PlateUp!’

Image: Yogscast

From the moment it launched in March 2017, Switch quickly carved itself a niche as the console for couch-co-op gaming. Crack off the Joy-Con and in mere moments you have a a multiplayer setup suitable for wherever you happen to be. Soon, a crowd of zany, co-op party games — many inspired by the success of Overcooked! — hit the eShop, and these days it can be tough to tell one colourful co-op caper from another.

At first blush, PlateUp! — the work of indie developer It’s happening — looks similar to other pleasant, four-player fare, but taking time to fork through its gameplay and sample its delights reveals a culinary co-op game with a very different flavour. Having launched on Steam in 2022, it’s built up over 11,000 ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ reviews — pretty tasty, we’re sure you’d agree.

We recently caught up with developer Alastair Janse van Rensburg to discuss that impressive fan response, the game’s slow-and-steady journey to Switch, and what sets PlateUp! apart from the many excellent co-op games already on Nintendo’s console…

Nintendo Life: First up, could you give a little history behind the PlateUp!’s journey to the Switch? When did the idea come along and how long was the game in development?

Alastair Janse van Rensburg: PlateUp! was originally designed while playing co-op games around a TV at New Year’s during the pandemic, and about a year and a half of development time later it was ready for PC. But given how it was always intended to be played, bringing it to consoles like the Switch was always going to be a natural fit. Sadly, budget (and ability!) limitations as a solo dev meant a PC-only launch first was necessary – but the amazing reception the game had meant moving it to Switch was a clear next step.

How big is the team at It’s Happening? Have things changed much since the success of the game on Steam?

I did the development of the game up until release solo – it’s my first full PC game but I’ve made a few smaller projects before. I was working in academia and decided I wanted to change things up, so I left my job and worked on the game part-time at first and then full-time in the run-up to launch. Since launch, I’ve bought on another developer to help us keep pace with our update schedule and maintain the game. I’m keen to keep to a small team because it means we can be more flexible, which helps us to bring out updates we think will be the most fun for players.

Let’s address the elephant in the room for people who are totally unfamiliar with the game. From the trailers, it’s very easy to see this and assume it’s just another one of the many whacky Overcooked-style co-op party games that have cropped up since 2016. So, in what ways is PlateUp! similar to Overcooked and, more importantly, how is it different? Do you think there are other more useful comparisons to be made?

PlateUp! is a roguelite. Every time you start a game of PlateUp!, you’re getting a new set of challenges, in a new location, with new tools to help you. That means experiencing different gameplay, innovating strategies, and a fresh experience each time. When you lose in a linear game, you’ve got to play the same level again and again until you beat it. You’re not allowed new content until you’ve beaten the bit you’re fed up with. That leads to frustration, and worse, in a co-op environment it leads to blame and conflict with your friends. In a roguelite like PlateUp!, when you lose the challenges you were facing are removed – your next run is going to be a whole different experience. It’s about working together as a team to choose and then overcome challenges, not getting angry as the least experienced player in your group makes a mistake and loses you the same level (again).

If the design is working as intended, you’re not going to be facing the same frictions and frustrations that you do in other games.

PlateUp! lets you have the freedom to completely design your restaurant as you go. If the layout isn’t working for you, you can just pick things up and move them somewhere else. Each run starts off with you picking one, relatively straightforward dish to make. Every few rounds, you need to choose a new challenge to add on; maybe a new dish, a side, starter, or dessert; or maybe you’ll choose to have all your customers turn up at lunchtime. You get to pick the things you most want to play with, and if they’re too much for you, it’s not a problem. You’ll get to start a new restaurant with what you’ve learned (which might be to never choose that challenge again!)

PlateUp! was actually inspired more by the amazing Unrailed! than other games – that was the game that had us staying up for hours to beat the next goal. I loved the way the players had real choices to make in the shop after each round, and how you could pick what tools you wanted to use to beat each stage. PlateUp! is all about working together and reacting to the challenges you’re faced with.

Balancing approachability with depth and keeping four players of differing abilities engaged must be a nightmare. From a design point of view, what have been the biggest headaches you’ve faced in this area? And the most satisfying solutions you’ve found?

Making the game approachable was really important from the beginning. One of the fundamental aims of PlateUp!’s design is to be playable by anyone. I didn’t want there to be an instance where someone would have to sit out. Lots of co-op games have situations where someone can’t play because they’re not at the right point in the story, or they don’t know the harder mechanics, or they’re not skilled enough, or even just that players can’t join halfway through a run. In PlateUp! none of these things should stop you from being able to jump in with your friends.

The game scales difficulty automatically, and there’s always a way that a new player can contribute to even the most advanced of runs. I never wanted there to be a situation where a player felt like they were a burden to their friends. Like, if you join a game with some experienced players as a new player, you often feel like you’re holding them back. Then there’s a social tension – people don’t really want you to join, even though they want to play with you.

In PlateUp!, this design goes right through from gameplay to way the UI works. There’s lots of things to do in the restaurant, and everyone can always benefit from another pair of hands. It’s entirely flexible, so a new player can just jump in and take on any role.

Beyond that, because the restaurant is entirely designed and upgraded by the players, more experienced players can shift the layout to be easier on the newer players. For instance, you might move the dish rack closer to the tables so the player bringing back the dishes doesn’t have to go as far. That might mean more work for one person, but less for another. Being able to dynamically shift your own difficulty means that it’s up to the group to accommodate each player, not just up to each player to meet an individual challenge.

I keep the link to the Steam reviews to hand and check new reviews posted pretty much every day.

Even further, I wanted new players to experience the game on their own terms, even when joining experienced players. The game’s main lobby allows the group to plan their next run by choosing dishes and starting equipment to bring along. But while that’s happening, a newly joined player can be customising their outfit, getting used to the controls and practising cooking in the test kitchen. This means there’s little downtime when you want to introduce a new player to the game – they can get themselves oriented while everyone else prepares the run.

More traditional ways to do level selection often involve a single player driving the menu, and selecting what to do while the other players wait. To me, this creates an immediate psychological role of that player being the ‘leader’ of the group. Then later, when it comes to buying upgrades, that player will be making the choices. In PlateUp!, there’s no leader. All the players are always treated equally by the game. It’s all about working as a group.

While it’s obviously a natural co-op game, one of the big challenges was making sure it was also a fun, fully enjoyable single-player experience as well. The game’s difficulty scales, but it’s important to make sure that players playing solo don’t feel like they’re missing out. The game’s mechanics let you adapt to playing with just one character rather than making you play two. One tip that the early playtesters found was that you can move your tables right up against the serving hatch, so you can run the whole restaurant without leaving the kitchen.

Image: Yogscast

Switch is a natural fit for local co-op games, yet you resisted rushing out a Switch port alongside the Steam version. That seems wise given the frequency of ‘launch-now-fix-later’ situations we see – could you talk a little about the process of bringing the game to consoles?

Getting a game out at all as a solo developer is a big undertaking. Working with Yogscast Games was a huge help, and they took a lot of the work away and let me focus directly on the game. Even then, I’d hoped to release the game for PC at the start of 2022 and it ended up releasing in August. There’s just so many things that add up without you realising, and without having any experience I didn’t know to factor them in.

Switch was always a great fit for the game, and I’m really glad that, with the PC launch out of the way, we were able to start bringing the game to console. We’ve worked with a porting company to handle the majority of the work, which has involved switching out the networking backend to one that works on all platforms, and doing lots of testing to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Are there any Switch-specific features in the Nintendo version?

There aren’t, unfortunately. But we’ve got a new dish, pasta, which will be available for everyone to celebrate the console launch. And players who purchase Switch physical editions will get a set of exclusive in-game hats as bonus.

11,775 ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ reviews on Steam (at the time of writing) must be helpful when it comes to team morale and motivation! Has feedback influenced your work on the game since launch at all? If so, how?

I keep the link to the Steam reviews to hand and check new reviews posted pretty much every day. It’s really moving to read the comments people write, from tiny snippets of their experience through to paragraphs of analysis. I never imagined I’d sell 10,000 copies, so to have that many positive comments to read is pretty mind-blowing. I appreciate the effort people go to when they write reviews. The “Most Helpful” review of all time is so on-point with how I feel about the game, it’s very validating to see the design choices I made being reflected in player experiences. They, and other reviews, have picked up on so many of the parts of the game I feel strongly about.

Reviews, and general feedback through channels like our Discord and subreddit, do a lot to inform how we design our updates. My favourite part of releasing a patch is watching the Discord channels for people’s initial feelings and reactions when we post the patch notes. I love seeing people discover and enjoy new content! We also have an amazing playtest team, made up of a variety of players, some of whom have been playing the game since the earliest pre-release tests. Their feedback and testing does a huge amount to shape the patches. I try to avoid talking directly in their channels because I want their thoughts to be as unbiased as possible, but I read everything!

Having played other cooking-based co-op games with our partner and, occasionally, getting antsy with each other, what advice would you offer couples looking to finish a PlateUp! session in a better mood than when they started?

This is a great question because it really gets to the heart of what I wanted to do with PlateUp!. Sadly the answer isn’t as great: just play! If the design is working as intended, you’re not going to be facing the same frictions and frustrations that you do in other games. Even if your partner isn’t as much of a gamer as you are, you’ll be given the tools to adapt and overcome the challenges. It’s not about beating external challenges, it’s about how you tackle them together.

One of the fundamental aims of PlateUp!’s design is to be playable by anyone. I didn’t want there to be an instance where someone would have to sit out.

The only tip I have is that you’re going to lose a lot. That’s part of the game. We’ve watched lots of players experience the game for the first time at shows, and it’s always the times when players lose that they’re having the most fun. That’s really satisfying for me – it’s easy for players to enjoy themselves when they’re winning, but seeing people come together to strategise when they’ve lost is much more rewarding.

And finally, what games have you and the team been playing recently, on Switch or elsewhere?

I think almost all of my Switch gameplay time is on the excellent roguelike deckbuilder Wildfrost. I love how it handles card upgrades throughout its runs, and how every run feels really different. It can be a very punishing game but it’s definitely worth getting into. It’s single-player, but we actually spent a lot of time playing it ‘co-op’ by working together on the choices as we played the game on the Switch. There’s a lot of depth!

Image: Yogscast

Many thanks to Alastair for taking the time to answer our questions.

PlateUp! is launching on Switch (and other consoles) on 15th February for $19.99 / £17.99. Keep an eye out for our review nearer the time, and let us know below if you’ve played the game on PC.

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