The Lego Group’s official Bionicle line might be on hiatus, but that hasn’t stopped fans from continuing the series’s legacy. Team Kanohi, a game studio made up of volunteer developers, has spent the last six years building fan game Bionicle: Masks of Power, an open-world action-adventure Bionicle game. Made by fans for fans, the project recently saw a monumental increase in support following the release of its environmental teaser trailer. We spoke with development and programming lead Zachary “ASCII” Ledbetter about Team Kanohi’s ambitions, as well as what fans and non-fans can expect from an unofficial return to the world of Bionicle.
The Escapist: Tell me about yourself and your role at Team Kanohi.
Zachary “ASCII” Ledbetter: I’m the project lead and lead programmer on the project. My job is mostly to make sure everybody else has what they need and is focused on the most important tasks.
How will Bionicle: Masks of Power set itself apart from other Bionicle games in the past?
Zachary Ledbetter: A tried-and-true formula. Since we’ve already released (Masks of Power: Legacy), which is mostly a prototype, but a nicer, polished prototype, I’d say we already have a proof of concept that people like, and I think that’s plenty right there. Having a good Bionicle game will be more than enough. But I think, also, the love and the care that goes into it. We scoured every corner of this franchise and this universe and put a lot of detail and love into it. So, I think that it’ll be something that’ll be good for both fans and newcomers.
What is the core gameplay loop of Bionicle: Masks of Power?
Zachary Ledbetter: We’re still keeping a good amount under wraps. We will have some more to show soon, but as far as what you can expect for the gameplay loop, you’ll have the ability to, at certain points, switch between each of the six characters. Your goal as each of those characters is, of course, to gather your Masks of Power. You’ll run around the island, look for clues, talk to villagers, and look for masks. You’ll have to do platforming puzzles and combat challenges to, maybe, find those or get to them. That’s the majority of the game, and then you’ll want to be able to help the villagers with their own little problems. From there, once everybody has their masks, we’ll be tackling some bosses.
What can you tell me about the bosses? Are they going to be giant creatures? Are there going to be puzzles, or is there some variety in there?
Zachary Ledbetter: Well, I can’t say too much. Obviously, bosses are your big money shots, but you can expect the big bad — Makuta. We looked at the various representations of endings of that first year of Bionicle. I think we have a pretty solid plan for levels and arenas focused on him.
How is Team Kanohi keeping The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild influence in mind when making sure the game’s open world remains engaging?
Zachary Ledbetter: To go on a tangent here, there’s this idea that you can either do what a developer did or try to search for what that developer was searching for. When it comes to Breath of the Wild, I think we were searching for what the developers were searching for, rather than doing what they did, and what that was is very much in the name. I think they wanted to have a living, breathing world, and that’s very much what keeps the player engaged. We wanted to chase that same thing, where we felt the world was reactive and had this autonomy to it and these forces that affected each other. I think that was a big one, just having the world feel alive and reactive.
Will Bionicle: Masks of Power be similar to Breath of the Wild in that, after you get to a certain point, practically the entire open world is available to explore? Or is the island going to be segmented and blocked off by unlocks?
Zachary Ledbetter: I can’t really say on that. (laughs) I can say that we are sticking true to having (Bionicle: Masks of Power) be an open-world experience. The technology we’re using will definitely show that, but as far as progression, what’s open and what’s not open, there’s a variety of factors that determine which areas are available to you.
I know you already said that Nier: Automata is one of the game’s influences. Can you tell me if combat is going to be slow or fast-paced? How did NieR play a part in this game’s development?
Zachary Ledbetter: We wanted each of the characters to have their own unique play style, so there’s not really one answer for that. Some of the characters will play much faster; some of the characters will play much more slowly. In general, don’t expect something like Skyrim that’s a little slower. I think something along the lines of an action game, like Nier, is what to expect. Maybe not so crazy with, you know, the 1000 strikes, but you can expect something similar to that.
In what ways did Monster Hunter influence the development of Bionicle: Masks of Power?
Zachary Ledbetter: Largely with the Rahi. The animation lead and I, she and I really wanted to work together on making sure combat had solid inspirations and references. So, those main two were between Nier and Monster Hunter. … The Rahi characters tend to pull their influence more from Monster Hunter. We wanted to have these characters that weren’t quite like the tanks that you see in Monster Hunter but had some pretty ferocious animations and unique attack patterns and things that can keep you off guard. That was a big inspiration there.
It sounds like your relationship with the Lego Group has been positive so far. Is there any fear the project could be shut down at some point?
Zachary Ledbetter: Not really, no.
You guys have a demo coming soon. Do you have any timeline you can share regarding a release window?
Zachary Ledbetter: No, not yet. We try really hard to not put out release dates because we are strictly on a volunteer basis; you never know what’s going to come up in some crucial developer’s life that sets us back three or four weeks. I will say we wanted to have it out pretty soon, and after our big trailer went out, we had a huge influx of applications. That set us behind — not in a negative sense — but rather, it took a good amount of effort to sort through that and that response.
After the trailer released, we had to take a step back from the demo that we were working on to look at our new applications, look at our team as it was. We wanted to take on a lot of that new, amazing talent that came into apply. The demo was going to (release) a little sooner than later, but we decided it was more important to have the team composition that we needed.
The Bionicle: Masks of Power environmental teaser has more than 200,000 views. Can you talk about what it’s been like seeing that reception? It exploded out of nowhere and for good reason.
Zachary Ledbetter: The whole team has been very much blown away by the response. We had been working on this project and the predecessor for this project for, I think, nearly six years now — or at least it started with the project creator, (Jordan “Jocool1231” Willis). The game’s been well received among the people who’ve played it, but it never really made a big splash, so to see this response and see it just explode and become one of the biggest things in the community has been very humbling.
We definitely had to adapt to it. We weren’t expecting it to be so well received or so massively received. So, we were very hyper-focused on the response at first, and then, after a while, we had to step away because we’re like, “This is just going. It just keeps going.” We can’t look at everything everyone’s saying because it reached a threshold where there’s no reason to keep moderating this or keep seeing how people are responding. It’s been fun.
How big is the team right now?
Zachary Ledbetter: We do need to update (the website) soon because we have grown quite a bit. The development server has 47 members in it. They’re not all active, though, so I think we have about 38 active members right now. … People who will contribute on some regular basis, either every day, once a week, or once every couple of weeks.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Bionicle: Masks of Power, Lego, volunteer game development, or your studio in general?
Zachary Ledbetter: I think we were very grateful to the Lego Group for creating this franchise and having a company belief system, or charter, where the fans are important… We’re very grateful to the Lego Group for being good creators, but also allowing stewardship of their less active materials.
I want to just brag on my team. We’ve got an incredible team of people who ranged from Bionicle fans who have some creative skill to industry professionals, like myself, and some of my co-leads. We all really put a lot of passion and effort into the project, and I think that really showed in the trailer.
I’m grateful for the response as well. The fan response and the community response and people who have almost forgotten about this franchise entirely have just had an overwhelmingly positive reception to the project. That’s really encouraged us to keep going and do even cooler things. There are things we had as wishlist items that were like, “Oh, I don’t know if we’re going to get to that,” and this response has motivated us to say, “Well, maybe we could do all these cool things that we know people would appreciate.” That’s just motivated us to do even more, so this support means a lot.
If you want to check out the prototype project for Masks of Power, it’s called Masks of Power: Legacy. It doesn’t represent the final product. It really is a prototype, but it was a lot of fun to make. I think if you like that, you’ll definitely love what we have coming. Our website has a team page where you can check out all of our team members and their social medias. So, if there’s something about the project that you’ve liked and want to see more from that creator, you can do that by visiting our website.
This interview about Bionicle: Masks of Power has been edited for clarity and brevity.