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Q&A: Getting To Know Ancients Of Ooga

The creator of Cloning Clyde tells all about his upcoming XBLA puzzle platformer, Ancients of Ooga.

Chew, puke, inhabit, solve; repeat. Ancients of Ooga is almost exactly what creators J Kenworthy Entertainment and NinjaBee are billing it as: a "spiritual successor" to Cloning Clyde. Like Clyde, Ancients of Ooga is a charming puzzle platformer that has you controlling characters that aren't directly tied to the protagonist. But in Ooga's case, you aren't jumping from clone to clone; instead, you'll hop to and from the bodies of the game's quirky troll-like characters, the Ooganini. When inside an Ooganini, you're free to explore the game's vibrant 3D levels and solve their respective logic-based puzzles. The not-so-subtle twist within Ancients of Ooga is that each Ooganini tribe you'll encounter has different powers,  all of which you'll need to navigate specific hazards. Also noteworthy? You can puke and chew items--the rough equivalent of carrying and throwing.

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What more is there to Ooga? How many different ways can we interact with the environments? And where exactly did that whole puking mechanic come from? These are just some of the questions I asked J Kenworthy's president John Nielson, because on top of being a big dog at J Kenworthy, he's also the dude who created Cloning Clyde and Ancients of Ooga. 
== TEASER == 
I've read a quote stating that Ancients of Ooga was a "spiritual successor" to Cloning Clyde because of its influence on Ooga's development. So, I have to ask: why not make a true sequel to Cloning Clyde?

Nielson: Mostly it was because we wanted to work on something different. Cloning Clyde has done GREAT for us and has recently entered the Arcade Hits, but when we had just finished Clyde, as fun as it had been to work on, we were ready to switch to something new. At the time, working on a direct sequel would have felt a little like drudgery, which I believe would have reflected in the title. Also, we wanted to stretch ourselves and try something artistically different that evolved our engine while still having enough similarities that we weren’t starting from scratch.

I see a lot of games in Ancients of Ooga. It seemingly has a touch of the
Oddworld series and maybe even a dab of Metroid. Did either of these franchises have an impact on the development?

Nielson: I am a fan of the Oddworld series and there’s no doubt that it had at least some influence on Ooga. Metroid impact may be more coincidental, but Ancients of Ooga is definitely a collage of a lot of the games that I have played and loved all through my life. Cloning Clyde by far had the most impact on Ooga, but here are some titles, that I love, where I think similarities to Ooga can hopefully be found: Lemmings, The Lost Vikings, Abe's Odysee and Abe's Exodus, Jak and Daxter, and Psychonauts.

In the game you control a great spirit named Ooga who can inject itself into its troll-like followers called Ooganis. At this point, players can then use the Ooganis how they please, most often in logic-puzzle situations. Can you tell me about the kinds of puzzles we'll see?

Nielson: Ancients of Ooga features a wide variety of puzzles most of them using multiple Ooganis in various ways.

Ladders are pretty common obstacles. 
Ladders are pretty common obstacles. 
We spent a LOT of time and effort on the puzzles and objectives throughout the game. They range in everything from sounding war drums to starting a rain dance or from out-smarting enemies to denouncing worshipped squawckens, Ooga’s version of chickens, by throwing them in Piranha-infested waters.

We worked relentlessly to make each objective unique, creative, clear and satisfying while not losing the balance and flow by making them too tedious or difficult. In the end, I’m extremely happy with where we landed.

Some Ooganis have different powers. Some for puzzle solving; others for attacks to beat back the Boolis and other evil crawlies. What kind of powers do the tribes have and how important was it to differentiate the Ooganis?

Nielson: Throughout the adventure, the player will come to befriend and embody seven distinct tribes. Each tribe has specific powers ranging from breathing fire and walking on lava to smashing around like an enormous wild pinball. On top of all this, you get to revive a Chief from each tribe who possesses uber-powers beyond his tribe-lings.  We worked painstakingly to deliver exciting twists and turn throughout the entire adventure.
Each tribe is visited in turn, and by their personalities, costumes and color-coding each is distinctly recognizable.

 Swallowing a torch gives you some hardcore dragon's breath.
 Swallowing a torch gives you some hardcore dragon's breath.
The Ooganis can hold items by "chewing" on them. They can release that item, then, by puking it out. How was that mechanic dreamed up?

Nielson: When we first discussed the tribal aspect of this new game, the idea of cannibalism was suggested pretty early on. We felt attached to the concept and from there it evolved into the game mechanic of being able to carry around Ooganis as well as other items via your mouth. This mechanic didn’t exist in Clyde but when it was implemented for Ooga, it opened up a lot of possibilities for gameplay and puzzles. I don’t remember who originally came up with the idea or when, but it has been with us almost as long as the game concept itself.

Are you worried about giving players too much? Transferring between characters to solve of puzzles is enough for most games, but to toss in the differentiated powers seems sort of overwhelming. How will you avoid player frustration?

Nielson: Good question. We feel that the puzzles and powers are meticulously delivered to the player in such a way that they will feel natural and not overwhelming or frustrating. All along the way, the player is given context-sensitive help to keep from having to remember too much all at once.  We tested, tested, tested and then tested some more to make sure things were received well by the player.  

 Sometimes, you'll need to collect Ooganini on these platforms.
 Sometimes, you'll need to collect Ooganini on these platforms.
The art is lovely, by the way. The characters, despite their monster-like appearance, still feel playful and give off a certain happy-go-lucky vibe. The environments are vibrant and playful as well. Can you take me behind the direction decision-making process? Why does the game look the way it does?

Nielson: Thanks!  It took this game a REALLY long time to find itself artistically. We created almost every art asset in the game multiple times to get it right. To let you in on a secret, when we started, the overall mood was a lot more somber, serious and dark. The game really found its heart when we began to lighten things up, but I feel like we were able to hold on to some of the original edginess we were going for.  This game challenged us and pushed us to the edge artistically way more than we could have predicted.  

Silly Question: On a five star scale, what would rate Ancients of Ooga? 

Nielson: Three sounds too modest and five sounds overconfident. Let’s go with a 4.9999.

Seriously though, Ancients of Ooga represents a LOT of passion, hard work and creativity from a relatively small team. We hope that people generally recognize the quality, attention to detail and heart that we put into it.

 Boolis are the game's central foes.
 Boolis are the game's central foes.
Will we ever see Ancients of Ooga on PSN or PC? 

Nielson: Who knows what the future holds. I never say “never”. 
What's it like working with Microsoft as an XBLA developer?

Nielson: We loved working with Microsoft. They really pushed us to develop the best possible product, offered valuable suggestions and yet allow us to retain almost complete control creatively. XBLA is a great forum where smaller studios like J. Kenworthy Entertainment can succeed while creating original and unique titles. Microsoft is generally very supportive in sustaining this type of environment, which is an incredible opportunity for us!

Could you explain to me the NinjaBee connection with Ooga?
Nielson: This is J. Kenworthy Entertainment’s second collaborative effort with NinjaBee. Cloning Clyde was the first. NinjaBee is Ancients of Ooga’s publisher--with benefits. They also step in and help us with development from time to time.

I read on the NinjaBee forums that NinjaBee was a bit worried about the game's release date. It hits, apparently, right in the middle of E3. Do you have plans to combat the frenzy that event creates?

Spices are the game's collectibles, but be wary when shooting for them. 
Spices are the game's collectibles, but be wary when shooting for them. 
Nielson: In my opinion there are pros and cons to releasing on June 16th, during E3. We’re definitely trying to do all we can to take advantage of the pros and fight against the cons. Mostly, we’re doing all we can to get word out before E3 hits to beat the rush of announcements and news that week. As far as the pros, I’ve heard that there is an increase in traffic on the dashboard that week which could be great for Ooga. Ultimately, we believe Ancients of Ooga is a great title that will speak or itself and even if it takes an extra week for everyone to hear about it, we are fairly confident in it’s ability to succeed.

If you could be any kind of pie, what kind of pie would you be? Why?

Nielson: I’d be a prison pie, with a hacksaw hidden beneath my crust so that I could help someone escape. That way I could be appreciated for more than just tasting good.

Lastly, what do you hope players will get out of Ancients of Ooga?
I hope people will have an awesome, unique, out-of-this-world experience. 
We thank John Nielson for his time and look forward to the June 16 release of Ancients of Ooga on Xbox Live Arcade.