How Sonic Mania paved the way for Penny’s Big Breakaway

How Sonic Mania paved the way for Penny’s Big Breakaway

It’s been a fascinating journey for the developers behind indie game studio Evening Star. Much of the crew got their humble starts working together on Sonic the Hedgehog fan games. Their work was so highly regarded that they would eventually be recruited by Sega to develop Sonic Mania, a throwback to the franchise’s 2D heyday that would go on to become the highest rated Sonic game in over 25 years.

Of course, at that point Evening Star wasn’t a proper studio yet — more of a “loose federation of game developers,” as chief technology officer Hunter Bridges puts it. On wrapping up development of Mania, the team knew they had to become a bit more structured if they wanted to grow.

Hunter Bridges, Evening Star

“I think our experience working on Sonic Mania as independents led us to realize our limitations,” Bridges tells GamesIndustry.biz. “In the game industry, you can only go so far if you are self-employed, especially when you’re dealing with larger companies. Those companies want to deal with other companies, and it’s more difficult for them to deal with individuals. After that, we were like, all right, if we want to keep doing things together, it’s probably best to start a studio.”

And so, they did just that. Evening Star was formally unveiled to the world in early 2019, and in mid-2021, they revealed their first original game as a studio, which finally saw release earlier this year: Penny’s Big Breakaway.

This 3D platformer, set in the wacky world of Macaroon, stars the titular Penny, a young performer and expert yoyo-er looking for her big break. Unfortunately, her audition to become an entertainer at the royal palace goes horribly awry, leading to the emperor’s embarrassment and Penny being labeled an enemy of the state. Instead of a noble quest to find and defeat the villain, as is common for the genre, Penny instead spends the game being chased across the game’s 11 unique, colorful worlds, using her yoyo skills to flip, swing and dash around obstacles as she tries to elude the emperor’s penguin forces and clear her name.

For most new studios, having a development team scattered all over the world – with staff in Australia, UK, Netherlands, Brazil, Canada and the US – would be a daunting challenge, especially when factoring in the time zone differences. While it certainly wasn’t easy for Evening Star, their previous experiences as a team served them well.

“Even from the beginning, our team dynamic was born out of figuring out, how do we navigate time zones and make sure that people are getting the information they need and moving through their work at a good pace?” says Bridges, who also served as Penny’s Big Breakaway’s director.

“We didn’t want to be super straightforward. Our motivation was to take a lot of tropes and turn them on their heads, do something different while still maintaining aspects of them”

“We figured out ways that worked for us before we even started the company, so we carried some of those workflows with us. We knew that we already had to navigate people being in different time zones and not being in the office, so that was built into the company’s DNA from the beginning. It’s not without its challenges. But we figured it out .”

Despite the team’s distance from one another, they were quickly in agreement – ​​even before finalizing what type of game they wanted to make – that the central mechanic would involve a yoyo.

“Once we got to the point of starting to brainstorm ideas for a new title,” says Bridges, “the idea of ​​a character that uses a yoyo — specifically, a character that can throw their momentum around using the weight of the yoyo — was one of the ideas that bubbled up to the surface pretty quickly. Then, other people on the team started riffing on the idea: ‘Well, you have a yoyo, you could do this and this…’

“I would say the biggest reason that the yoyo is the central facet of the game is because there’s just so much potential that we were able to draw from it. Anytime you’re making a game, it’s always great if you can introduce elements that are constantly generating creative ideas for the team.”

Thankfully for the team, proper development of the yoyo mechanic didn’t hinge on the actual real-life yoyo skills of any of the crew.

“We did spend a lot of time watching pro yoyo videos on Instagram and gained an appreciation for the skill,” says Bridges. “I don’t think anybody on the team is a particularly skilled yoyo-er. A lot of us bought yoyos after we started development to learn how to do it. It’s really hard!”

Evening Star considered the typical 3D platformer environments and worked hard to put their own spin on the genre’s tropes | Image credit: Evening Star

But it was more than just fun and gameplay. The developers also researched the history of the yoyo itself, which ended up giving them inspiration for the style of the game’s world and characters.

“There are pictures of French nobility in the 17th century doodling around with yoyos,” says Bridges. “That’s part of the inspiration for some of the monarchical society in the game, and how people wear ridiculous outfits and have powdered wigs and stuff. Some of that plays into the historical discoveries that we uncovered when we were looking into the history of the yoyo .”

In addition to French nobility, the game is a pastiche of various other styles, from Sonic the Hedgehog to classic Western animation. “Tom [Fry]our art director, employed a lot of squash and stretch techniques similar to retro western animation,” says Bridges. “That definitely gives the characters in the game a very squishy and expressive feel, and also evokes some of that classic animation aesthetic.”

In keeping with the uniqueness of Penny’s world, Evening Star saw fit to craft level tropes not typically seen in platforming games while still maintaining a level of familiarity for fans of the genre.

“The yoyo is central to the game because there’s so much potential we were able to draw from it”

“We didn’t want to be super straightforward. Our motivation was to take a lot of tropes and turn them on their heads, do something different with them while still maintaining aspects of them.”

For example, why have a standard volcano world when you can have a volcano with a restaurant inside of it? Why do a standard water world when you can make it into a giant day spa? Sometimes, what started as a pretty standard idea for tweaking an often-seen level trope would snowball into something even more creative. Bridges uses the game’s desert world, Zaphara, as an example.

“Usually your idea of ​​the desert is yellow-orangish sands on the bottom half of the screen and a blue sky on the top half. Then maybe you have a quicksand gimmick and some cacti that hurts you – all the general stuff that comes with the desert level. Tom said, well, what if the sands were blue? We literally turned that trope on its head.

“From there, we went, why would the sand be blue? Instead of just regular sediment, that sand would be made of cobalt and copper oxide deposits. That would give it a blush hue. Those substances have conductive properties, so what if we made it the power plant the world of Macaroon is drawing its power from? Then we introduced electric gimmicks into that world. While it still is a desert, it gave us the opportunity to integrate electrical elements that also tied into the theming of the world and the lore as well.” This uniqueness extends to the game’s soundtrack, crafted by Sean Bialo and Sonic Mania composer Tee Lopes , who strove to avoid simply replicating the same sound as their previous works.

Before the game’s design has even been finalized, Evening Star knew it wanted a yoyo as its central mechanic | Image credit: Evening Star

“We’re creating a new world, and it needs to be a new soundscape,” says Bridges. “Playing into the aesthetic of the characters, [Creative director] Christian [Whitehead] really wanted a strong presence of Moog synthesizers and that kind of Jean-Jacques Perrey, mid-century early synthesizer where it almost sounds academic in a way. I think it brought an amount of levity to the soundscape that was a really strong anchor to the world building.

“Also, we brought in a lot of stuff from turn-of-the-millennium pop music. Midnight Vulture by Beck was a big influence. Recontextualizing that kind of stuff really started bringing out a unique overall sound. From there, it was integrating with the different world tropes that we were already being subversive with.

“Pengoville, for example, is our ice/snow level. Usually if you think of an ice/snow level soundtrack, you think of something like sleigh bells, ‘crystal-sounding’ synthesizers, and it just sounds very cold and icy. We didn’t want to play into the player’s usual idea, so we made it to where the penguins love listening to Ibiza club Balearic music. I think those sonic anchors, plus the subversive nature and fitting within the world building, were big motivators for the soundtrack.”

With game technology continuing to advance at a rapid space, 3D platformers are becoming more and more viable genres for indie developers like Evening Star to tackle. Bridges offers this advice to aspiring developers who might be interested in crafting a 3D platformer of their own: don’t be afraid to challenge conventions, but at the same time, be very deliberate about how you’re doing so and understand why the conventions are the way they are.

“With 3D platformers, it’s very easy for them to become same-y,” he says. “I think that there’s an element of being aware of the conventions of the genre. For example, Mario has done a lot of pioneering of the genre. There’s a lot that you can ‘download’ from that series, if you played through them all and have seen how they changed and adjusted things over the years. Then again, you aren’t going to make something that stands out if you are just imitating what’s already been successful.”

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