Our little company is 15 years old this year and we could not be more proud. Actually, technically, we’ve been around even longer: We founded Metanet Software in 2001, shortly after we met, when we discovered that we both loved games and wanted to take a chance and make them. We incorporated Metanet officially in 2004, though, so we’re going with that date 😉 A lot has changed in the past decade-and-a-half — 15 years is a long time! So Happy 15th Anniversary, Metanet Software Inc! <3 Please indulge us as we take a long, LONG, loving look back.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
As you know, dear readers, Metanet Software is composed of Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns, and part of why we’ve been able to stick around for so long is because we are multi-disciplined, creative and resourceful, and a great team. We met in 1998 in Java Programming 101 at University of Toronto, where we both were taking a variety of classes including Film, Visual Art, Philosophy, Sociology and of course, Computer Science. Back when we got started, there was no such thing as a game design course of study, and although we learned on forums and around the internet that there were other small teams and individuals making games, “Indie” wasn’t a term yet. We were filled with idealism, youthful arrogance and the exuberance that comes along with the ignition of passion, and we forged ahead, not knowing exactly what we wanted to do, but knowing that there were things we wanted to play that didn’t exist yet — and that we would have to make them ourselves.
We started by making interactive art and game projects for courses we were taking — the art department at U of T was far more open to games than the computer science department back then — and began voraciously reading papers on programming which featured algorithms that interested us; playing every game we could get our hands on (especially shareware and freeware); and thinking about what makes up the creative work around us, and how we responded to it. Our process is collaborative and iterative, and is built on having a dialogue together. We each do half of everything, and we pass things back and forth and iterate, merging our individual strengths into a powerhouse team.
Eventually, we combined some of the little experiments we’d been working on into N, which was released in 2004 and to this date has been played over 30 million times (probably many more; it’s hard to keep track). Equally inspired by great classic platformers and contemporary freeware (please check the credits page of the original version for a comprehensive list of inspirations (we really wish more games had similar liner-notes-style credits — shout out to Twinfold!)), N resembles a classic arcade platformer, but has a modern twist that feels like nothing made before or since. At the time, N was radical in its design — for example, these days walljumping is ubiquitous, but it used to be quite rare, invariably stiff and de-emphasized.
N replaced tedious ladders with a parkour-inspired acrobatic means of vertical movement that felt as fluid and expressive as horizontal platforming, emphasized inertia and gravity to create a palpable sense of physics-based acceleration and movement, added sub-pixel simulation and rendering to make this movement feel surreally smooth, and wrapped it all in a novel post-arcade “1 hit point/infinite lives/instant respawn” loop of tragedy, comedy, and catharsis. And also a lot of silly level names! People loved it, and we were amazed and excited.
The inclusion of a level editor attracted an enthusiastic community who constantly breathed new life into the framework by inventing new mapping concepts such as DDA (Don’t Do Anything: maps where the ninja reaches the exit automatically via Rube-Goldberg-style contraptions) and KRA (Keep Rocket Alive — self-explanatory, instead of evading them as usual you need to lead them such that they don’t run into the walls). We were overjoyed to see people taking what we’d made and running with it, so to speak 😉………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Our company motto is: Backward-looking, Forward-thinking. We refresh classic designs, styles, and genres we love, using a modern perspective towards things like gamefeel, controls, etc. N is the perfect example of this, since it has its roots in old-school platformers, but also has some new ideas that made it distinctive and fresh, and set it apart from its predecessors. We’re so glad that people liked what we created — it’s surprising and gratifying and awesome. Of course, because of its popularity, N has been a tough act to follow: the other games we worked on afterward didn’t feel as good or come together as well as N had, and (having extremely high standards) we didn’t want to release something less than stellar — this has been a constant source of stress for us.
So in between other projects over the years, we kept coming back to N. With the help of people who believed in us and what we wanted to do, like Warren Currell, Ross Ericson, Nick Waanders and Tavit Geudelekian, we were able to take our little game to new heights and new audiences with N+ (2008), and improve the original using the many lessons we’d learned, with Nv2.0 (2013).
If there’s one consistent thing over the past 15 years, it’s that we are always striving to correct our mistakes, and to learn from them. In this post, we’re glossing over a lot of very dark times, when we became utterly burned out with the series and making games in general, sure our failures meant we could never make anything interesting ever again, and scared to test that. We were close to ruin in every sense. Instead, here we are focusing on the positive: we found the strength to face our fears by creating one more addition to the series, making the game we’d wanted to make back in 2004 but didn’t have the skill, knowledge or maturity to: N++ (NPLUSPLUS) (2015). And then of course we perfected it with the Ultimate Edition update in 2017.
Although its development brought us to the lowest lows of our lives, in many ways, making N++ also saved us, and has allowed us to finally move forward. We’re so happy with N++, and you can see and feel that joy in N++’s explosion of colour, music, level design and the many new ideas that fit so well, they feel like they have been there the whole time — like the toggle mines, tense and delightful Race Mode, incredibly fun Co-operative mode, and entire deep layer of secrets hidden in plain sight.
N++ started out on PS4, but over a handful of years, with a handful of really excellent people like Tatham Johnson, Aaron Melcher, Kahlief Adams, the incredible team at Blitworks, Nick Wolfe and Stan Wiechers, we’ve been able to port it to Steam (Mac, PC and Linux), Xbox One, Kartridge, and Nintendo Switch, which is where in our opinion, it feels the best. Actually, we have reached the 1-year anniversary of N++ on Switch, one of our proudest achievements as lifelong Nintendo fans!
If you haven’t yet, you have to got to try N++: Buy it for your fave platform using the links at the top right: https://nplusplus.org/
We also made a ton of exuberant, stylish and beautiful merch to support the game, and if you want to buy some, please check out our Etsy shop! Anyway long story short, with N++, we finally feel we’ve done the N series justice, and now we’re ready for new adventures.
If you want to read more about our journey from N to N++, check out these detailed histories: https://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/1313/to_nfinity_and_.php?page=1
When we started making games, even though it is the most intensely difficult thing we have ever done, we instantly knew that this was the right thing for us. We’re interested in music, art, geometry, programming, problem solving and design, and creating our own small team has let us indulge all of those interests and figure out how to weave them in to various projects, and also to discover so many more things we’re excited about.
Of course, although it’s very freeing and creatively satisfying, working for our own company has a lot of difficult challenges as well — running a business is tough, and takes away from our creative time, and we only recently began to force ourselves to take actual time off (even just evenings and weekends), which is part of why we are still dealing with the harsh physical and mental stress involved in what we do.
There’s also an emotional toll; in a sense, our games are expressions of our personalities, and it’s really difficult to not let them define us, and to not take criticism of them to heart. We’ve gotten better at this over time, but our work still has a huge effect on our personal lives; it’s hard not to take stress home when everything is so tightly intertwined. It’s been a roller-coaster, to say the least — full of surprises, excited success, uncertainty and devastating heartbreak, but honestly, we still wouldn’t trade it for anything.
We’ve met so many amazing people in the game industry over the years who have contributed so much to our story — we wouldn’t be where we are today without people like Mathew Kumar, Nathan and Kris from Capy, Jess Mak, Jim Munroe, Kim Gibson, Sam Roberts, Nick Suttner, Alex Austin, the Hand Eye Society and Toronto games community in general, and so many more people who have been such great friends and have given us such excellent feedback and advice over the years. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the support of Ontario Creates (previously the OMDC) — we would not be here without them.
We’ve made many personal friends too, too many to name — thank you! We love all of you. We appreciate your support when times have been tough and your joy when things have been great. Along with family, these are the people that have really kept us going, and we appreciate the hell out of them.
We learned about game design by thinking, playing, and doing. We learned by trial and error, and by planning, executing and iterating. We have been very lucky over the years (luck and good timing are major factors in any success) — but it took a long time for us to acknowledge ourselves as skilled and talented developers who are not JUST lucky. Part of the reason we are where we are is because we are motivated to learn and no longer afraid to make mistakes — we’ve made many over the years, and have gained so much insight from them. There’s lots more to learn!
As we look back on the past 15 years (which to be honest have flown by, despite how much has happened in them!), we’re realizing how different we are now, and just how much we’ve grown and evolved over the years. But we’ve tried our best to be friendly and accessible, and to help and support other small developers as much as possible, and make games with integrity and heart — and whatever the future brings, that will always remain constant.
Here are some of our favourite moments from the past 15 years:
- When we knew we were getting somewhere. The first inkling that something was up came in 2005 when at a party, the drummer of a band who was friends of a friend randomly and excitedly called us over to the computer to see some game he thought we’d really like — and it turned out to be N!
And when articles in major or local press like this one from 2008 were printed, we got calls from family and friends saying “I read about you in the newspaper!!!” Those moments were pretty fantastic.
- The icing on the cake was that time that we visited 8bit Cafe in Tokyo, one of our favourite places in the world, and the owner was wearing an N+ t-shirt. He said it was his favourite shirt. It was SO cool! 🙂
And last year (2018), it brought a tear to our eyes to hear a ballad to N performed by our friend Ste at a Marioke event in London — seeing the little game that we made up alongside Grand Theft Auto and other mainstream fare made us realize that it was A Real Video Game.
- When we got an office. seen here in 2006 in prototypical form, and here in 2011 when we started to rent a dedicated space and filled it with our fabulous design library. It gives us space to collaborate, helps us separate our work and personal lives, and is an inspiring place to be. We are so lucky to have found a space that makes us feel motivated and excited about working, even when we’re up against really difficult problems. This space has seen some good times and some terrible times, and through it all it is bright and open and colourful, which has helped get us through those tough moments.
- The awesome N community. Without the support and encouragement of our fans, we never would have made it so far. From the first few emails in 2004 where random strangers let us know they liked our game (and made a few feature requests), to facing off against expert European players in online (via Parsec) Race matches last year, we’ve always felt proud to attract such an enthusiastic, dedicated, and creative group of people. Watching N++ streams on Twitch, and seeing players on Discord digging into the hardest challenges in the game, has been immensely gratifying for us.
- Similarly, Recognition from peers and the industry! Of course we don’t do what we do for awards or fame or whatever, but it sure is nice to know that you’re not the only one who thinks what you have created is relevant and/or awesome.
“N is a game that you feel, a game about flying, about always adding velocity, about never, ever, stopping, and wondering how to get to that bunch of gold that seems impossible to grab.” -Alex Wiltshire for Rock Paper Shotgun
“In an industry of perpetual reinvention, N++ has a sense of timelessness to it. By treating the game as a relatively fixed object, it feels substantially more intimate, a system whose simplicity makes it possible to read a little more into the pathos of the person playing.” -Michael Thomsen for Forbes
“N++ is almost balletic. When you nail a stage you’re rewarded with a flowing, almost sensual experience – pulling off a tricky run always feeling like an achievement.” -Dan Naylor for God is a Geek
“I’ve played plenty of crazy-difficult platformers that reduced my hands to arthritic claws and my vocabulary to four-letter soliloquies. Battletoads. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. Super Mario Sunshine. N++ trumps them all. It’s the Demon’s Souls of platformers multiplied by Sisyphus’s rock wrapped inside one of the torture traps from Saw.” -Matt Peckham for Wired
“N seems like a companion piece to the design the creators live within, their office, their city, their preferred schools of architecture. When I exited, facing west, looking at the CN Tower and the bank buildings that created a sharp profile as the setting sun turned them into shadows, I easily imagined how a ninja could bound over it all.” -Zack Kotzer for Vice
Here are a few of our favourite articles on our games — the ones where when we read them, we thought “YES, they really get it!”:
- Visiting Tokyo. We’ve been extremely lucky to have been able to visit Tokyo every couple of years for Tokyo Game Show and it’s always incredibly inspiring. We get so many ideas on these trips — not only about how to solve problems or what to work on next, but about how to make what we do more rich. We learn so much about culture, people, graphic design, symbolism and who we are, and that shines through in our games and our work.
- Mare’s fave memory: “It’s a really tough call, but I would have to say Motion++. Motion++ is an “ad campaign” I created for N++ to express what the game feels like to play, what it feels like to be a ninja: graceful, swift and acrobatic. It was a collaboration between me, Gabe Toth (a photographer friend who has a studio in the same building as Metanet), and several dancer friends that I met when I started to take ballet a few years ago.
This idea came about because dance was totally new to me, I had never done it before in my life, and as I started to learn the language a little bit, I was amazed at how dancers can express complex emotions and narrative through motion and rhythm and time. It started to change the way I think, and I was inspired to try to express how I felt about N++ using that medium.
Motion++ was also a reaction to typical video game advertising and the objectification of women — I believe that you can’t wait for the world to change, you have to step up and create what you want to see, and I want to change the way we talk about and think about games, as well as who games are for, and who they are by. I wanted to see more beautiful, powerful women depicted positively in the games media, and thoughtful, evocative, artistic marketing for games from a woman’s perspective. So this was my response to to what had come before, and my counterpoint.
So, there were a lot of feelings and ideas that became very important to me over the development of my work, and myself, and I finally understood where they fit, and how to express them.
I think it’s interesting that Motion++ could not have happened when we released N; all of these thoughts, inspirations, confidence, people and style had to come together at this specific moment to create this project. It’s the culmination of a lot of things, a little machine built from many moving parts.
That fascinates me — every game we each make work we create is a snapshot of who we are at a given moment, and what we believe in. I’m very proud of how this project turned out, and what it says about us.”
- Raigan’s fave memory: “When we invented the secret layers of N++. Ever since playing Super Mario World and discovering its multitude of hidden-in-plain-sight secrets, I’ve always wanted to continue that tradition: creating something exciting for players to discover organically as they play the game, which completely transforms their previous assumptions and understandings of what’s happening in each level. If — as the Arcane Kids claim — “the purpose of gameplay is to hide secrets”, then surely the most magical type of secrets are those which emerge directly from the gameplay itself: adding an entirely new dimension to the existing mechanics, enriching and expanding the game world in a way which changes the context of every element, instead of just slapping on some arbitrary Konami-codes and calling those “secrets”. I had always assumed that I would have to wait until our next game(s) before we could properly pay homage to SMW, but in early 2015 when we were designing the achievements for N++ we were suddenly struck by a crazy idea: what if, instead of being one-offs (the achievements were originally individual challenges such as “beat level X without collecting gold”, “beat level Y after touching every toggle mine”), we systematized things so that every single one of the 2000+ solo levels had its own specially-designed secret challenges? Much like when we first conceived of the monumental size of the game itself, the decision to add secret challenges to every solo level was both completely irresistible and tremendously daunting: we already had a full schedule for the remaining months of development, which meant we had to spend evenings and weekends poring over the levels and revising them as we developed ideas for hiding secret challenges in each one. This process of revising and re-mixing the existing levels (in order to add secret challenges) also gave rise to a second layer of secrets: hidden secret levels — much harder, weirder, and more baroque than anything seen in the regular game — which are unlocked as you discover and complete the secret challenges in the main game. Again, a very direct inspiration can be found in SMW’s Special Zone: we were incredibly excited when we realized we had managed to synthesize the magic we found in that game, not just as a chance to pay tribute to a masterpiece, but also because the result was that N++ felt very special in a way that it hadn’t before — now we had a way to challenge players who had already spent thousands of hours perfecting their ninja skills, and make the game feel fresh for even the most stalwart veteran.” If you’d like to get a sense of how intense and bizarre the secrets in N++ can get, here’s a great primer by Eric Weiss: The Secret World of N++. Also, two members of the community (@systeminspired on Twitter, and @Chebyshevrolet#9069 on Discord) have made a really awesome project you must check out: a comprehensive index of video clips showing every secret of every level! N++ Video Library
Let’s close out this post by taking a look at Mare and Raigan over the years — from 1998 when we met, all the way to 2019! There are some photos of our first time in Tokyo, from launch parties and awards ceremonies, from trips to GDC, Berlin, Tokyo, and Milan, and from get-togethers with friends. So many memories!
Aw 😀 So much has changed since those early days. You can see a few more lines on our faces than there used to be, but whatever was thrown at us, we’ve made our way through — and we’re still smiling.
So what does the future hold? A lot! We’re so proud of what we’ve accomplished and there’s so much more we’re excited about doing. Generally, we want to keep exploring ideas that are funny, stylish, intriguing, and that inject modernity into classic themes. For the next while our plan is to work on many small experiments (maybe including some non-game ideas as well), and also develop one or two of our bigger existing prototypes further. We’ll revisit Robotology and Office Yeti, too. We’re bursting with ideas, and we might show some in-progress experiments here, or make some more tutorials along the way, so keep an eye on this blog.
Making games is really hard to do, and we want to be sure we do things well, which takes time — so we’re going to keep making little experiments and developing small ideas until we hit on something we really want to keep playing, and to finish 😉 That’s the best way we know how to make games, and to feel confident that you might like them too — we promise that once we’ve got something we love, you’ll be the first to know!
Thanks for coming along for the ride, everyone — here’s to another 15 years 😀