Why a studio decided to make a sequel to a failed game
For a million reasons, much of it out of anyone’s control, the initial crop of games that launches with any brand new console is bound to have some duds. Normally, those unfortunate failures don’t warrant a sequel, and second chances are exceedingly rare. Knack is the exception.
System launch games are built on brand new hardware that developers are unfamiliar with. Deadlines are bound in steel because the game’s launch is tied to the console’s release. And, all while the, the pressure to make something innovative, a game that can show off the possibilities of a new generation of game consoles, is impossibly high. Like so many console launch games before it, Knack suffered as a result of this vicious process, and nevertheless, Knack 2 is happening.
“This is a very different game,” said Mark Cerny, director on both Knack and its sequel, Knack 2, which is scheduled to launch this year, four years after the original. The games follow Knack, a friendly golem made of swirling, flashing relics who aids humanity in a fight against goblins. They’re kid games in much the same way that Mario games are — designed to be enjoyed by a wide audience, young and old.
Cerny’s work with Sony goes back more than two decades to the original Crash Bandicoot on PlayStation. Since then he’s served as designer, programmer, producer, and/or consultant on many of PlayStation’s biggest franchises, including Spyro the Dragon, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Uncharted, Resistance, God of War, Killzone, and The Last Guardian. He clearly has the chops to get great games made; what went wrong with Knack isn’t a simple question to answer.
“Knack 1 I was trying to make something that anybody could play, even if they’d never picked up a controller before in their life,” Cerny said. But the resulting game, which was overly simplistic and lacked meaningful challenge, taught Cerny and the team at Sony’s SCE Japan Studio that a game that literally anyone is able to play can easily become a game that few actually want to play.
“I think that may have taken us off in a bit of a wrong direction, because we couldn’t support dual audiences with our team and also be a [PlayStation 4] launch title,” he said. Knack suffered greatly from the console launch curse; “The pressure’s quite different,” Cerny said.
Knack suffered greatly from the console launch curse.
With an otherwise pretty great PS4 launch lineup, the disappointing Knack became the butt of a joke, a footnote that most players quickly forgot. But Cerny and Sony’s Japan Studio never did, and they announced Knack 2 to a surprised audience at the 2016 PlayStation Experience event last December.
The team has had the intervening years to hone in on what went wrong with Knack and try to do better this time — although that doesn’t explain why they’re devoting more valuable time and resources to Knack in the first place. The larger game industry has become so risk-averse — big companies are quick to kill any project that doesn’t instantly meet expectations. Knack 2’s very existence is something of a puzzle.
“The team had a lot more that they felt they could do with Knack as a character,” Cerny said. “I would look at it in terms of the team having had about three years to get familiar with the character and the technology behind how you build the character out of parts — view that as groundwork, and then it’s great to have an opportunity to then see where you can go from there. There’s a certain amount of learning [that’s already gone into Knack] and it’s great to be able to use that learning. I think we’re beginning to show what can be done with the character.”
This kind of second chance is rare in the game industry, and it’s clear Cerny doesn’t want to blow it. He’s all humility when discussing the original Knack, while exuding quiet hopefulness for the sequel. “I think we listened to the feedback,” he said. “There’s a greatly expanded move set, there’s a lot of variety in the game, we’ve been focused on co-op from the very start of the project, we’ve been very careful to make all the cameras and combat work with that as well, we’ve added in platforming.”
Knack 2 already seems better in every way. It has challenging platform-jumping sections that change drastically depending on your difficulty level, and combat that tasks you with juggling a wide range of attacks for different situations. Checkpoint and health systems are less punishing, while some sections change drastically depending on your chosen difficulty. You can shrink Knack down to find secrets and squeeze through tight spaces, then press a button to return him instantly to his former size, from six feet tall to 30 (and maybe bigger) depending on the level. A friend with a second controller can jump in and join you at any time, and there are unique attacks and mechanics you can only pull off in co-op. There are fun vehicle and stealth sections that mix up the gameplay to provide much-needed variety the original lacked, and a skill tree menu where you unlock extra attacks and abilities.
None of that was present in the original. Even the writing and story have improved, according to Cerny, thanks to the new presence of writer Marianne Krawczyk, who won a BAFTA award for her work on Sony’s God of War series.
Sony has built up a lot of goodwill with gamers thanks to the PlayStation 4’s success. Knack 2 may have come as a surprise, but there’s hope that it will prove a pleasant one when it launches on PS4 later this year.
Mike Rougeau is a freelance journalist who lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs.