Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020: In Search of Creativity


2020 was a mixed bag.  There were many good things that came from it, but also many bad things.  What should have been a milestone in my life became an ambiguous steppingstone.  It's a year which involved a lot of improvising as I sought to find solid ground.  Let's reflect on 2020 and what to expect next year.

When 2020 started, things seemed promising.  It was the five-year anniversary of GamerGuy's Reviews, the YouTube channel was gaining momentum, and I was on the road to graduation after five years of college.  I was still writing for the Student Printz, which allowed me to cover news and review games like Predator: Hunting Grounds, Terminator Resistance, and Doom Eternal.  Everything seemed well, until COVID hit.  I and many others were unprepared for what would unfold.

When March rolled in, so did COVID.  As cases rose, schools and colleges across the county closed down, including ours.  This threw me for a loop.  I had planned out what I was going to do post-graduation, but it became irrelevant when places closed and classes switched to online only.  I closed the chapter of my life in college not with a bang, but a fizzle.  Afterwards, I spent the summer thinking about what to do next, trying all viable options.

While I remained positive, deep down I was uncertain, and that uncertainty demotivated me from wanting to write or edit.  However, when I mustered the energy, the results were great.  2020 was lite on written content, but what was there was quite good.  Highlights included my first import review, where I covered the first two Earth Defense Force games for the PS2, as well as reviewing new releases like SpongeBob: Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated and Destroy All Humans.  This isn't accounting for the games I reviewed for the Student Printz and Cubed3.  That's right, I'm back to writing for the video game website, but now I'm an editor, meaning I have more responsibility versus when I was a contributing writer.

I also collaborated a lot.  I did my first video review covering the sixth-generation Godzilla games with YouTuber DarkLordJadow1.  It was a fun project and gave me a taste of what I'm capable of as a video creator.  I made multiple appearances on the Revival House podcast channel, doing things like commentaries for RoboCop and its sequel, as well as a discussion on The Thing films and video game.  I started a new show on their network called The Game Slice.  The show is on hiatus but will be back next year.

This was also the year of interviews.  In July, I interviewed the YouTuber GamerThumbTV for my channel.  Looking back, there are two things I wished I had done.  The first was transcribe the interview and release it in both print and audio form.  Second, I wished I had trimmed out a little more of the extra material I had left in the video.  Remember, the first cut is never the final cut.  Still, I enjoyed doing the interview and hope to collaborate with him on a future project.

On the subject of YouTube, Will and Matt's Excellent Podcast reached a milestone when it crossed 100 subscribers.  Currently, there are 115 subscribers.  This is good, but due to reasons I won't disclose, Will and Matt's Excellent Podcast has been canned, and the channel is undergoing a significant retooling.

This highlights how for every good thing that happened, there was just as much bad.  It was a year of missed opportunities.  Nearly all the reviews I planned were scrapped because of COVID and a lack of motivation.  The challenge to be creative led to one-off ideas like trying to go full-time as a content creator or write news articles.  One of the biggest missed opportunities was the result of my mishandling.

At the beginning of the year, I reached out to Rob Boor, creator of the channel Cinematic Venom.  Rob did movie reviews and since 2017 had been doing a series called the "Venomonth of Horrors," where he reviewed horror movies throughout October.  He had tweeted he was looking for collaborators for this year's special, so I contacted him.  We had some discussions before landing on Return to Oz as the movie to review.  Things seemed great, until I gave him the runaround about when I would watch the movie, take notes, etc.  I was busy finishing college, so I saw that as the priority and not the video.

Towards May, we finally settled upon a date to shoot the video, but the morning of the shoot, I had to run an errand.  This was the straw that broke Rob's back, and he refused to shoot the video.  A month later, I e-mailed him, apologizing for my behavior, but never heard back.  Rob, if you happen upon this, I'm sorry for my behavior.  My naivety led me to push the video aside in favor of other things, which was a mistake.  You're a talented individual whose work I admire, and I wish you the best of luck on your future endeavors.

I faced a lot of hurdles, but I didn't give up.  With 2021 on the horizon, it's time to throw away the old self, learn from my mistakes, and re-emerge as a determined individual.  I want 2021 to be the year where I right the wrong and accomplish my plans.

Reviews will be back in full force.  Starting January 15, GamerGuy's Reviews is back in action.  New reviews go up every Friday, and the focus will be on games and games only.  Doing movie and anime reviews was fun, but the name of the website is GamerGuy's Reviews, not EntertainmentGuy Reviews.  Reviews will go up on both the website and YouTube as video reviews.  Since November, I have been researching and figuring out what equipment I'll need.  Now that I have a job, I'll be saving up for equipment like a new computer, a clip-on mic, and a proper lighting system.  Expect to see the first video reviews in either February or March.  Updates and a channel trailer will be posted in the near future.

Readers might recall I started a project intended to chronicle the history of the Destroy All Humans series. So far, I have done four interviews (one has yet to be published) and I will be continuing this project in 2021.  The History of Destroy All Humans interviews will go up every two to three months, with the long-term goal to make a book.

There will be other interviews as well.  I have a list of people I want to potentially interview, not just people who make videos like James Rolfe, but folks in the gaming industry, people like Warren Spector or Tim Willits.  These are lofty goals, but they are possible.

2020 was like getting stuck on a rollercoaster.  It starts out fun, but the never-ending loops, twists, and turns make you wonder if they will ever fix the ride.  As we cross into 2021, my goal is to make it a great year, no matter what.  I have untapped potential that has yet to be realized, and if I don't do anything, then it's all for nothing.  I'm out of college, and now is time to get busy living, or busy doing nothing.

I choose the former.

See you in 2021, gamer guys and girls.

Friday, December 18, 2020

From LucasArts to THQ to Microsoft: An Interview With Game Designer Jon Knoles


Jon Knoles grew up with an interest in drawing.  He drew many things, one of which was a drawing of Indiana Jones, the rugged archaeologist who fought bad guys in pursuit of an ancient artifact.  Ironically, Jon Knoles wound up working on an "Indiana Jones" game as an artist, a job which eventually led to a 15-year career at LucasArts.

In this interview, I talked with Jon Knoles about his 30-plus year career in the gaming industry.  We discuss things like how the role of game designer has evolved from being the man behind the game to the man responsible for keeping the project afloat.

We also discuss various projects he's worked on.  From memorable titles like Super Star Wars to not-so-memorable games like Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon.  For Knoles, while some games were better than others, each one was a learning experience.

I want to thank Jon Knoles for taking time out of his schedule to do this interview.

1. What led you to pursue a career in the gaming industry?

It was mostly accidental and opportunistic.  I was an artist as a kid and after high school, I went to an art school up in Seattle and studied illustration and graphic design.  We had computers, but only a few, so we learned via airbrush.

I played games in the 80's.  I spent time in the arcades and spent a lot of my lawnmower money there, but I didn't bother with stuff like the Nintendo when it came out.  That was more what my younger brother was into.

In 1989, I came across an ad from a job placement office at the school I went to.  Taito was looking for inexperienced but creative artists, and they had two openings.  My friend and I applied and we both got the job.  The first title I ever worked on was "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," and that's how I got my start.

2. What were some of the earliest titles you worked on?

"Last Crusade" in '89 was the first one.  As soon as we finished that, we all got laid off.  Through some of the contacts we made at Lucasfilm Games, we learned of job openings.  I sent them a VHS tape with a reel highlighting my artwork and other things I had done.  They said, "Well, you can come down if you want to.  There's a lot of people in California looking at the job, so we can't promise you anything."

So, I loaded up my 1963 Beetle and drove down to the Bay Area, interviewed with them and tested for about a week.  Testing means they put me to work creating assets for "Defenders of Dynatron City," an 8-bit Nintendo game that was tied to a cartoon and comic.

While I was working at that at Skywalker Ranch, two other guys in the room I was in were working on an 8-bit "Star Wars" game.  I really wanted to work on that, so I'd stay late and work on it, even though I wasn't assigned to.  I did it to show them I was interested, and I ended up getting the job.

Jon Knoles also did work on "Star Wars" for the NES, a job that required him to travel to Australia to work with the developers on the game.

3. How did you go from being an artist to a game designer?

That was sort of a field promotion if nothing else.  In the early days, developers wore lots of "hats."  I worked a lot on character animations, backgrounds, and cinematic work, but while doing that I would work on levels, so I became kind of a level designer as well.

I focused on art, both 2D and 3D, until the mid 90's.  The two teams I had worked most closely with had left to form their own company, but I decided to stay.  At the time, LucasArts asked if I would like to lead a project, which ended up being "Shadows of the Empire" on the Nintendo 64.

4. How has the role of game designer evolved over the years?

In the early days, the game designer was like Moses going off in the desert and returning with the tablets saying, "These are the things we shall build."  That worked until the teams got bigger and bigger, then it just became untenable.

Over time, it went from being the "Game God" who came down with the big document to more of a consensus builder, where your job is to take all the great ideas from all the people on the team and make it work within the constraints of what you're given.

As a game designer, the job is now to understand the boundaries and how you can push those boundaries, as well as ensuring the team hits the pillars, those big ideas that make up the vision that you're trying to make.  The job isn't trying to preach the vision, but to sell the team on the vision and be its biggest champion.

If the team goes on a tangent and pursues a new, exciting vision while hitting those pillars, that's great.  If it's going out of line or conflicts with another vision, then you need to remind the team what it is you're trying to accomplish.

5. Of the titles you worked on while at LucasArts, which one was your favorite and why?

There are things about all of them that I loved and hated or loved and wished I could have done more with.  The time I was probably the happiest was doing the Super Nintendo "Star Wars" games and the "X-Wing" and "Tie Fighter" games simultaneously.

I was just cranking out work, the games were well-received, and we felt we were on the cutting edge of graphics, which I especially liked given my art background.  We pushed the genre of flight-sims with "X-Wing" and "Tie Fighter."

Those were the happiest times, it gets a lot harder when I took on more responsibility starting "Shadows of the Empire, and continuing with "Episode 1 Racer," then "Bounty Hunter" and "Revenge of the Sith."  Those projects went from being 15-20 people to 75-100 people, and everyone's looking to you since you're the one steering the ship.

"Star Wars: Bounty Hunter" was a project where Jon consulted with George Lucas on the game's story.  Reflecting on the game, Jon said Lucas' advice helped clear up things like Jango Fett's motivations or why Jango would want to be used as the basis for the clone troops.

6. What are your key takeaways from your career at LucasArts?

When LucasArts was started, they made everything except "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" games, but when the prequels were announced, it led to a shift in the company, and now it was all about "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones."

While it was fun, there was also burn-out.  Remember, there were a multitude of games made based on "The Phantom Menace" alone.  When Disney recently announced all those new shows in development, it made me wince a little and be like, "Guys, remember what happened last time?"

The prequels led to an over-saturation of "Star Wars" games during the early-to-mid 2000's.  I happened to be in the middle of working on a game based on "Revenge of the Sith" when I was laid off.  Though I have a lot of fond memories, I also realize some of the decisions they made led to their eventual fall.

7. How did you end up working at Cranky Pants Games?

About 80 to 90 people were laid off from LucasArts in 2004, including me.  Fortunately, a colleague of mine told me about a small studio in Seattle called Cranky Pants Games that was hiring.  At the time, they were working on "Evil Dead Regeneration" and I joined the team a little way into that game's development.

8. Compared to previous "Evil Dead" games, "Evil Dead Regeneration" is a streamlined, action-focused experience.  How did the team tackle combat in the game?

There were two teams, one focused on the combat, and the other was trying to figure out the mechanics behind the sidekick.  By the time I joined, they had the combat working and it was a really good fighting system, but it needed depth.

I suggested the idea of a rage mechanic for Ash that would boost his damage.  As for the sidekick, they were trying to figure out how he could help out Ash during combat.  There was a bit in the game where you kick him into an object, and it results in a gag.  I thought it would be better to take that and expand upon it.

For escorting, I thought that since he's undead, the player shouldn't have to worry about if he dies or not.  If he dies or gets too far from Ash, he immediately teleports back to him.

9. Were there any ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Originally, Ash's car, the Delta, was its own mechanic.  The player was able to drive it around and outfit it with weapons like in "Army of Darkness."  But it and all vehicle-related sections were cut.

The bosses were also scaled back.  We initially planned on them being elaborate encounters, but due to time constraints, we simplified them and relegated them to end-stage fights when Ash and Sam find a portal.

Also, the game was originally called "Evil Dead: Shocked and Reloaded," to reflect how Ash was in an asylum and being treated with shock therapy, but it got changed to the more generic "Evil Dead Regeneration."

Overall, it was a fun project, and it was great working with Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi.

"Evil Dead Regeneration" is regarded by "Evil Dead" fans as the best of the "Evil Dead" games.

10. Were there plans for a sequel?

We intentionally left it open-ended.  The films did it, so we figured we would do it as well.  After we finished "Evil Dead," there were talks of the team doing either a "Sopranos" game or a game based on the Showtime series "Rome."

We did some prototyping for the "Sopranos" one; fortunately we didn't end up making it.

11. How did Cranky Pants learn they would be developing the next "Destroy All Humans?"

Pandemic was the developer of the first two games.  When the studio began asking more from THQ regarding money and things of that nature, the publisher decided to take the series and hand it to one of their internal teams, in this case, Cranky Pants.

Because we weren't able to contact Pandemic, it meant we couldn't ask for access to their coding for the games or receive help from their designers or writers.

12. I understand "Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon" was a hassle to develop.  What challenges did the team face?

A lot.  Once we figured out we were making the next game, we started to figure out whether to set the game in the 70's or skip a decade and set it in the 80's.  The 80's was more recognizable and easier to spoof, whereas the 70's wasn't.

We settled on the 70's and the idea of lampooning kung-fu movies.  This led to a lot of concern amongst many staff members that some of the humor might come off as racist, and it took a lot of convincing to sell them on this idea.

We hired two writers whose background included a lot of television work for shows like "SpongeBob."  However, their writing style pulled no punches, so when it came to things like the Hong Kong and Paris levels, a lot of the humor involved stereotypes, plus we were hiring white actors to do Asian voices, which didn't help matters.

Because we didn't have access to the original coding, we had to design everything from scratch with Unreal.  You have to remember, Unreal Engine wasn't made to handle open-world games, it was for linear stuff like "Batman: Arkham Asylum," so we had to figure out how to get it to handle things like open-world gameplay, physics-based destruction, rag doll, multiplayer, etc.

We had contacted Volition about using their destruction system (Geo-Mod) for our game, but at the time, their physics were not meant for a project of our scope and size.

13. Were there ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Many.  We had planned on Crypto visiting more locations than he does in the final game.  The wanted system was initially a 6 to 8 level system that got scaled back to a 4-level one.

We had wanted to do away with Crypto's old weapons and give him a brand-new arsenal, but since THQ wanted consistency, we had to keep the original guns and only give him a handful of new ones.  It's a shame because we did a lot of brainstorming about weapons we'd like to see.

The building destruction was also a lot more dynamic.  Some buildings would do what I like to call a "pancake implosion," but it got taken out of the final game.

14. Would you say "Path of the Furon" was the most difficult game you worked on?

Yes.  While there were a few highlights, like the UFO combat, the project was more difficult than anticipated, due to a lot of factors I listed above.  The scope was too big for the time and money we had, plus there was the fact THQ wanted it to be a multi-platform title with both single-player and multiplayer content.

The game was never properly finished since most of the studio got laid off in the summer of 2008, with only a small crew of designers, programmers, and producers left to get it out the door.  Not long after I left, I saw a trailer, watched it, and was shocked to see that stuff like rag doll was missing.

We spent a lot of time on rag doll since things like using Crypto's mental powers or weapons needed to make an impact, but now humans just flailed around or T-posed when thrown or electrocuted.

It was the most difficult project I worked on, but it was also a learning experience.

"Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon" released to negative reviews and poor sales.  Knoles said that the game was a learning experience and a reminder that not every project a person works on turns out to be a success.

15. How did you end up working at Microsoft?

After I was laid off, I ended up at a studio called Nihilistic Software (now called instigate Games, ed.) and spent a couple of years working there.  I did work on a downloadable title called "Zombie Apocalypse" and spent a lot of time prototyping stuff for the PS Vita.

We were initially approached by Sony to do an "Uncharted" game for the system, which got us really excited and had us thinking about what we could do, but instead we ended up working on a "Resistance" game for the Vita.

Yet, the job required me to spend two hours commuting from home to work, and I got tired of the constant driving back and forth, so I left.  A former colleague from Cranky Pants mentioned Microsoft was hiring, so I returned to Seattle and since then have been the design director on most of the "Forza" games.

16. You've been the design director on every "Forza" game for almost 10 years now, what's the experience been like?

It's actually been over a decade now, and it's been a terrific experience.  Turn 10 Studios, developers of the "Forza Motorsport" series, and PlayGround Games, developers of the "Forza Horizon" series, are both world class studios filled with talented and passionate people I'm lucky to be surrounded by.

I've also learned a great deal about what it means to achieve quality, starting with the the critical design decisions early on that achieve success.  The end result are games that showcase a shared commitment to creativity, collaboration, innovation, and putting the player at the center of everything we do.

17. What aspect of creating a game do you enjoy the most?

The conceptual phase when everyone is coming up with and collaborating on ideas to help shape the game.  As development progresses, many of those ideas might not make it, so when the vision is alive and well even in the final product, then you know you've made a satisfying game.

18. Who came up with the idea to have a challenge where you race a train in "Forza Horizon 2?"

I assume you're referring to Showcase Events.  In previous "Forza" games, there were background elements like trains, planes, and boats to give the environments life.  When we were working on "Forza Horizon 2," an idea sprung up to have the player race against such vehicles.

This led to the creation of Showcase Events.  We had to make sure we didn't go too crazy with the in-game scenarios, but we're proud of how they turned out.

"Forza Horizon 4," the most recent entry in the "Forza" franchise, is the highest-selling game in the series to date.  It reached 10 million players in 2019, nearly a year after its release.

19. What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock?

I take a break and do something like go on a walk to clear my mind and figure out what to do next, or I ask someone else to help figure out the next step.

When I directed "Star Wars: Bounty Hunter," I isolated myself for two weeks to write the story and determine what I wanted to do with that game.

20. How have things changed in the gaming industry since you started?

Team size and team dynamic has changed.  In the old days, it took five to ten people to make a game, so it was easier to bounce ideas off one another and maintain a strong creative focus.  Now, teams consist of over 100 people, all of whom are counting on you to ensure everyone stays on track.

Budgets have gotten bigger.  At the start of the 2000's, games only costed a few million to make, but now they require millions of dollars to make, market, and ship, but the accessibility of technology means that while games are more expensive to produce, they are easier to develop because the technology is easier to work with.

21. You've been in the industry for 30 years now.  Are you surprised by how long you've been in the business?

Definitely.  30 years is a long time to be in game development, and I've worked on more than 30 games in that time.  Some great, some not so great, and one bona-fide flop.  But I've learned from each of them and have had the privilege of being part of some talented teams.

22. If you weren't making games, what do you think you'd be doing?

I would have remained an artist.  As time progressed, I stopped drawing because I became more involved with game development.  If I hadn't become a designer, I would have continued to pursue being an artist.

23. What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career in game design?

Great games start with great game design, which is less about coming up with great ideas and more about turning a hundred great ideas into ten that make sense, and which a team can fully develop to quality.  As with other disciplines, game design is also increasingly specialized today.

There are designers who focus on narrative, gameplay mechanics, player experience, world building, etc.  For anyone interested in game design, think of the games you are most passionate about, and try to understand the craft behind it.

When you play, take the time to analyze and deconstruct it.  What do you think the designers intended?  Write down what you think the key experience pillars or big ideas were.  Things like, "what design problem were they trying to solve by this feature or mechanic?  Were they successful?  Why or why not?

Friday, November 6, 2020

Aliens Stole My Wii! An Interview With Destroy All Humans: Big Willy Unleashed's Producer Ken Allen


Three months ago, I interviewed Bryan Lee, who worked on Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon as a concept artist.  This month, I resumed my journey through the history of the Destroy All Humans franchise by interviewing Ken Allen, who was a senior game producer on Destroy All Humans: Big Willy Unleashed.

Ken programmed games as a hobby, not a career.  During college, he thought he would be teaching a music class instead of composing music for video games.  Various circumstances led Ken to pursue a career in the gaming industry, first as a composer, then as a producer.  During the early 2000's, he worked as a producer for publishers Midway and Atari.  In 2006, Ken got hired by Locomotive Games, formerly known as Pacific Coast Power and Light.

Locomotive Games was owned by THQ, and its credentials included various MX motorsport games, as well as handheld titles based on Pixar films like Cars and Ratatouille.  In this interview, Ken discusses how he got in the industry, his time working on Destroy All Humans: Big Willy Unleashed, and the highs and lows of bringing Crypto's reign of terror to the Wii.

I want to thank Ken Allen for doing the interview, and I want to thank the Twitter account "Destroy All Humans Tribute" for providing the stills you see in this interview.

1. What led you to pursue a career in the gaming industry?

From the beginning of the computer age, I had a computer and was writing game program as a hobby and while doing that I was in college pursuing a music degree.

The purpose of my music degree was to become a teacher and after college I went to work for a private school since it was one of the quicker ways to gain employment.  I was promised the chance to build the school's music program and do things like build a choir, that kind of stuff.

That went away in the first semester because they didn't have the budget, so they decided to make me a math teacher.  While looking for something more meaningful I worked as a post office employee as well as designing games in my spare time.

2. What were your first jobs in the gaming industry?

I saw an ad from Sierra Online saying they were looking for musicians, and as you know, Sierra Online is best known for the "King's Quest" and "Space Quest" series.  I sent them a resume and a tape of music I had done.  I interviewed at Sierra and they hired me a couple of weeks later.

While I was there, I got to see the spaghetti factory that was how games are made.  At some point, I decided I would reach the peak of my potential as a musician and decided to look into shifting over into software or game design.  There was no such thing as game producers in those days.  The game designer was also the producer and the product manager, whereas today those roles are split up.

When the opportunity came up to be a game designer, I moved over to it, then became a game producer.  I realized I was more talented at scheduling the projects and followed my instincts from there.

Space Quest was one of many titles Ken Allen did the 
music for when working at Sierra Online.

3. How did you end up working at Locomotive Games?

I was at Atari and had been there for five to six years.  One of my biggest accomplishments working for them was the Rollercoaster Tycoon series.  Atari was going through some financial difficulties and I was one of the casualties.  I interviewed with Don Traeger, who was one of the heads of Locomotive at the time, and they decided to hire me and train me with working with internal teams, since I had more experience working with external teams.

I relocated to California and started work on my first project, which was Big Willy Unleashed.  What's funny is I used to follow the "Where the Hell is Matt?" series and in a special, Matt Harding (the creator of the series) explained, "I used to work with THQ in Australia and I was so sick of all the violence in games at the time that I decided to pitch 'Destroy All Humans,' not knowing management liked it."

Ironically, in joining Locomotive Games, the two worlds collided.

4. When you joined, had the studio begun work on Big Willy Unleashed?

They had started work on it in September 2006 and I had joined the month after.  They were originally developing it for the PSP and THQ learned quickly no one was making money through PSP games.  Upper management used to joke that PSP stood for "Please Stop Publishing." *

THQ then told us the Wii was coming out and asked if we could convert the PSP game into a Wii title.  I thought it was not a good idea since they wanted it out by Christmas '07 (Editor's Note: Big Willy Unleashed came out in Feb. '08), but I wasn't part of management.

I took a look at the originals on PS2 and was blown away by what they did.  They had the technology that allowed them to stream data from the CD-ROM, while Locomotive had a graphics engine made for the PSP that didn't have streaming capabilities.

We started taking what we had done for the PSP and converting it to the Wii.  We hired a designer to handle the missions, while Don oversaw the project and how it came out, especially with things like the humor and the setting.

Because I didn't have much experience with internal teams, I was following the lead of everyone else at the studio.  I supervised the art, the voice recording, the mission design, and getting the game packaged and ready to go.  I didn't have much influence over the game design itself, unfortunately.

*Ken clarified his remark in an e-mail: "They jumped in to support the PSP and Wii, and after spending millions on developing games, they discovered the only ones making money were Sony and Nintendo respectively.  By no means am I suggesting THQ execs were incompetent.

Prior to this, making games for Sony and Nintendo was not a bad business model, but for some reason during that time, it was."

5. You worked on the project as a senior game producer, what exactly does that role mean?

I was more like a product manager.  Producers mean different things depending on the company.  In the case of Locomotive Games, it was all over the place.  We had a designer, Sean Hoyden-Meyer, who came out of Boston from one of the other THQ studios.  He saw the limitations of the engine, the things we could do, and did the best he could.

In short, I kept team development in sync.

3D Models of Crypto, his prototype model, and Pox.

6. What were some of the high points in working on the project?

The voice actors.  We approached the original voice actors and they asked for percentages, something the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) had not negotiated when it came to video games.  We were going to give them a flat fee plus a bonus, but they declined, so we found other talent.

I was nervous at first given the trouble of negotiating but was relieved as the people we got stayed true to what the original actors sounded like.

The other highlight was the control scheme.  Because we were able to design it from scratch, I thought we were able to make really good use of the controller.

The one other thing I liked in making the game is that we broke the fourth wall in a few places, especially where Crypto talks about Metacritic scores and having a zombie gun "this time around."  For a while, I claimed bragging rights to this being the first game to feature zombie soccer players.

No one else laughed either.

7. On the flip side, what challenges did Locomotive Games face?

Since my time at Locomotive, I've become a good internal developer and know how to structure a team to make them work efficiently.  At Locomotive, we didn't have that.  We had an art director who had a lot of influence, we had Don, we had a designer who was fighting with him (Don), so there wasn't a clear vision for the project.

It slowed us down and created some compromises in the game design.  My biggest problem with the game was that we were not able to have enough time to do lip-syncing.  The game has a lot of cut-scenes, and the camera is always behind the person who is speaking.  I was pushing this from the beginning and always got pushed back.

I may have been inexperienced with game development, but I knew with cut-scenes you had to feature the person speaking with actual lip-sync.  We didn't have enough time due to the tight deadline and I think the game needed at least another year to make a quality product out of it.  We didn't have the time or resources to modify the engine to do proper CD-streaming and instead had to load everything from system memory.

Doing that compromised the amount of assets we could have, the quality of said assets, plus the videos.  There were a lot of constraints, which, for me, set us up to fail from the beginning, and it all stems from the fact it started as a PSP game, when it should have been a true Wii product from the get-go.

8. I understand there were PSP and PS2 ports planned, how far in development did those get until they were scrapped?

Marketing came to us and asked if we could do a PS2 version.   The PSP version had been scrapped shortly after I got there, about November of 2006.  When marketing asked we could do a PS2 version, I told them we couldn't because we didn't have the right technology, plus the PS2 had less memory, so it'd look worse than the Wii one.

They tried to find an external developer who didn't get very far.  The most they had done was a menu and a level that ran badly due to the tech it was on.

9. Did the studio working on Path of the Furon, the 360 one, provide any input?

We did get some assets from them.  We went up to their studio and got their assets, plus hired some of their voice actors which had been selected for their title.  We used their Crypto model and its animations.

Conceptual models for the "Willy Worker"outfit.

10. One of my favorite aspects of Big Willy Unleashed was the controls.  How did the team tackle the controls to ensure the game controlled well, especially with implementing motion controls?

We knew what the Wii controller could do and tested its limits.  We wrote a program which showed us how much of the player's actions could be detected with motion and in turn we devised a weapon roster and control scheme around it.

Early on, we tested how far the controller could be tilted before it stopped sending information, as well as how quickly we could press buttons, which was never a problem.  It was more about "Can we go right, left, up, or down?" and things like that.

At the end, we decided to focus on getting the motions and aiming down to just one controller instead of having to use two.

It was about three weeks of testing on the controls.

11. Do you recall any ideas the team had that ended up on the cutting room floor?

A lot.  I know our designer filtered through a lot of ideas, trying to figure out the ones that made the most sense.  Sean was a great guy.  He was never a gatekeeper and was incorporating everyone's ideas.  I had an idea that was adapted for the mission where the hologram (Pox) malfunctions and Crypto has to repair it.

Sean and I were at lunch and I asked, "Wouldn't it be funny if the device had the blue screen of death?"  I thought the idea of emulating the Windows blue screen of death was funny.  Going back to your question, I can't remember anything off the top of my head because we were struggling to have enough content.

Fortunately, with Sean, we were able to get in as good a game as we could in spite of the time constraints and other challenges.

12. Is there anything you wished the team had been able to do that time and money didn't allow?

Besides lip-synching, the other thing was shadows.  The originals had a great shadow system in which the position of the shadows changed depending on the location, time of day, etc.

And as I mentioned prior, getting the game to run via streaming from CD instead of having to load everything via the system memory.  I felt the color palette was less vibrant and flatter.

I wished we had been able to do more modes centered around the Wii's online system.  We had some local player vs. player modes, but I pitched the idea of doing online variations of these modes, which never happened.

Concept art of Big Willy.

13. How long did you work at Locomotive Games?

Not long after Big Willy shipped, they began shutting down the studio.  I was there for a year and a half from October '06 to April '08.  THQ had made some bad bets and they shut down the studios not producing AAA titles, including the studio working on the 3rd one.

From the time we finished Big Willy, we were creating prototypes based on what was popular at the time.  We developed a prototype based on the Stuntman franchise because THQ had picked that up from Atari.  We took over from what the studio who was working on Stuntman (Paradigm Entertainment) had been doing on the Wii.

We were working on a game inspired by Cooking Mama, only you were a hairstylist instead of cooking.  We looked at the Wii's audience and at a wide variety of ideas to bring to the system. 

14. I read Locomotive Games had started work on a Red Faction game for theWii when they were closed down.  Do you remember anything about that?

That was the game I was assigned to next.  We got a version of the game developed by another studio in the THQ family, and the head of development was trying to get a Red Faction game made exclusive to the Wii that centered around the sledgehammer as the principle weapon.

We were looking at ways to incorporate modular building destruction on the Wii console and using the sledgehammer as a gameplay mechanic.  Our team licensed a physics engine and we used it while prototyping the game.

15. What did you end up doing after you left Locomotive Games?

There was a start-up company called Trion Worlds trying to make an MMO.  The game was called Rift and was a competitor to World of Warcraft.  I came on as the producer and coordinated all the parts of the company to come together and work on the game at the same time.

We had all these teams working together and my job was to keep them coordinated.  After we launched, they asked me to be the producer of the first expansion pack, so I became a content producer.

It was a good run; unfortunately, we made commitments to make a game based on the show Defiance, with the crutch being it had to launch the same day as the show premiered.  There had been unfortunate mistakes made and they had to pull resources away to make the team bigger.

I had just finished the first expansion pack for Rift when they announced some of the staff got laid off, including me.

16. Looking back, what are your key takeaways from working on Big Willy Unleashed?

I think the humor was a little niche.  You had to have prior knowledge of the 70's to get most of the jokes. Plus, "Big Willy" is a double entendre and the game is one giant double-entendre.  There was also a lot of humor that was in bad taste, like the jokes poking fun at the Vietnam era.

You have to remember the emperor of Laos had people murdered because he thought those wearing glasses must be smarter than him, so hearing jokes like that made me wince.  We could have used some professional writers to make some of the content more palatable.

As far as lessons learned, I think you and I agree that almost no one who plays games will remember a game shipping on time but instead the memories of the experience.  I know THQ really wanted this game shipped by Christmas and most companies now are aware of the pitfalls of that, putting effort into a short-term game and trying to risk a long-term loss by doing so.

Companies need to resist shipping a game on time and sacrifice quality by doing so.  I've seen a lot of companies do that and they've destroyed players' faith in a franchise and taint the studio's reputation.

You look at the games which remain classics and you see they didn't worry about a shipping date, they focused on making a quality product.  When studios have the bandwidth and finances to work on a game till it's fully polished, you have a guaranteed success.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Drive-In of Terror V: Dead Space Extraction (Wii) Review


Depending on who you ask, the Nintendo Wii is either a great console or a one-trick pony.  It lacked the horsepower of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, plus the console's library was flooded with shovel-ware.  Many major 3rd party releases either skipped the system or had to be downgraded so it could run properly.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex Edition may have preserved the blockbuster action of its HD counterpart, but it looked like someone smeared Vaseline over the graphics.  The Wii's controller, while simple and intuitive, proved to be a challenge for many developers, resulting in games with unorthodox control schemes or unnecessary motion controls.

However, when developers were smart, the efforts paid off.  No More Heroes, MadWorld, A Boy and His Blob, and de Blob are just a few of the many gems on the system.  Give the emphasis on pointing and clicking, the Wii saw a lot of rail shooters.  From ports of classics like House of the Dead 2 to brand new titles like Dead Space Extraction.  Developed by Eurocom and Visceral Games, Extraction explores the collapse of Aegis VII after the colony discovered the red marker, and how a handful of people struggle to escape the never-ending nightmare unleashed on the colony and the USG Ishimura.

On the planet Aegis VII, researchers uncover a marker, an artifact they believe was left by an ancient species, when it is really a duplicate of the black marker found on Earth centuries before.  Its discovery triggers hallucinations and madness across the colony, before it turns into chaos.  People are dying left and right or are coming back as reanimated creatures called necromorphs.  Survivors, including detective Nathan McNeill, Sgt. Gabriel Weller, and Lexine Murdoch, escape the planet and head to the orbiting mining ship, the USG Ishimura.  Unfortunately, the outbreak has reached the ship's inhabitants.

You could say this game is "electrifying."

Rail shooters are the last place to look for a good story.  Games like Time Crisis or Ghost Squad use plot as an excuse to shoot first, ask questions never.  In stark contrast, Dead Space Extraction has an interesting plot and characters.  Series veterans will enjoy witnessing how it all began as well as get a kick out of how it bridges the gap between the two games.  For example, you help reinforce the barricade Isaac destroys to access the medical wing.  It has all the hallmarks the series is known for, including spooky corridors and people questioning reality, but the guided, first-person perspective further accentuates the haunted house feeling of the ship.  And, in a first for the series, the protagonists use the vents to reach parts of the Ishimura, a decision which sparked controversy amongst fans.

Jokes aside, it's an enjoyable science-fiction/horror tale made better by the storytelling.  The action is frequently broken up with downtime devoted to character development.  For as much time you spend slicing limbs off, you spend just as much hearing dialogue.  The steady pace means these sections don't overstay their welcome, and it allows you to gather your surroundings and prep for the next encounter.  While Visceral's name is on the box, much of the credit goes to developer Eurocom, who would take their storytelling expertise and apply it well to the Goldeneye remake.

This may be a rail shooter, but Dead Space's survival action gameplay has been faithfully translated to the Wii.  Aiming the remote to dismember necromorphs gives you more accuracy than a normal controller.  Abilities like stasis and kinesis require simple button presses to activate.  Motion controls are kept to a minimum.  Waggling to Wii remote to shake off enemies is a bit annoying, but other actions like keeping a glow stick active are painless.  As you progress through the story mode's ten chapters, you'll fight necromorphs and solve the occasional puzzle.

Show him some love...with a plasma cutter.

Dead Space's roster of guns and foes is present, though the rogues' gallery is missing a few faces.  Guardians, wheezers, and dividers are absent, but there is a new boss to fight in the sewers.  The default weapon is the rivet gun and remains in your arsenal at all times.  Weapons are acquired not by finding blueprints but by picking them up when they're found in a level.  The plasma cutter, pulse rifle, flamethrower, contact beam, ripper, and force gun are joined by the P-sec pistol and arc welder.  The P-sec pistol is self explanatory, whereas the arc welder fires off electricity.  Twisting the Wii remote sideways activates the alternate fire.

Weapon upgrades are picked up at random in each chapter.  Successfully beating a stage nets health and stasis upgrades in addition to other things like new levels for challenge mode or issues of the Dead Space prequel comic.  There are moments when the game slows down to let the player look around the level and gather supplies or find goodies.  It only lasts a few seconds, so if you miss something, you'll have to either restart the level or press on.  Checkpoints exist, but if you quit and pick up the game later, you start back at square one from the current chapter.

Besides shooting and watching the story unfold, there are puzzles.  Puzzles involve dragging a beam of energy from one point to the other.  It's nothing complicated, but it breaks up the combat, and there are times when you will fend off enemies will doing such tasks, which adds tension.  Other times there might be a barrier that needs to be reinforced by shooting heated rivet gun rounds at it.  These moments and bits where the characters go into zero-g keep the player involved and help prevent monotony from settling in.

The action may be on rails, but dismemberment remains unchanged.  In Dead Space, headshots don't kill necromorphs.  Shooting their head off turns makes them flail around aggressively like a headless chicken, so go for the limbs.  If things get too hectic, use stasis to slow down incoming enemies or obstacles.  Making use of explosives like fuel tanks or an exploder's severed glowing appendage are great ways to conserve ammo.  Yet, like its HD counterpart, the game isn't too challenging, even on higher difficulties.  Ammo is never in short supply and as long as you remain alert for secret rooms or containers, you'll never run out.  Since its an on-rails shooter, enemies tend to come from one area instead of all over the place like in Dead Space.  After the beating five-to-six hour campaign, there's challenge mode.

Like any other wave-based survival/challenge mode, killing enemies quickly and efficiently yields more points, and more points means a higher score.

Challenge mode is a score-attack event where players kill waves of necromorphs while trying to reach the end of the selected level.  You start with the rivet gun and one other weapon of choice, but are allowed to pick two other randomly selected weapons once you reach a specific point.  Challenge mode is fun and tests your skill with the combat.  Ammo isn't as plentiful compared to the campaign, so it pushes he or she to be conservative with their resources.  The randomized element adds a curveball to the gameplay since whatever weapons you end up with will require changing tactics.

With impressive camera work and motion capture performances, Dead Space Extraction is a prime example of making the most out of a console's limitations.  It goes for the cinematic approach, but it doesn't feel obtrusive, unlike Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, which went overboard with the approach.  Environments present in the first game are faithfully recreated, with new locations added when necessary.  Some locales look murky, but the overall presentation is solid and is backed by quality sound design.  From a technical perspective, it's one of the Wii's best.

Dead Space Extraction is how you create a game without compromising what the original pulled off.  This may be on the Wii, but what makes a Dead Space game has not been lost.  As a rail shooter, it takes the genre and expands upon what it's capable of.  This isn't a simple yet fun shooting gallery that lasts about 30 minutes to an hour, it's a full-fledged game with a well-crafted narrative backed by top-notch production values.  Dismembering necromorphs might be more fun on the Wii than on the 360 or PS3 since the pointer makes dismemberment a quick yet fun process.  The lack of a proper checkpoint system is irritating and the fact it's on-rails does mean it isn't as challenging as its HD cousin, which wasn't a difficult experience to begin with.  Its positives outweigh the negatives, and its ambition makes it one of the genre's best.

Final Score: 7/10 

Dead Space (PS3) Review:

Monday, October 5, 2020

Drive-In of Terror V: Dead Space (PS3) Review


When examining the games from the seventh generation of consoles, one notices how many a franchise came and went within the span of a few years.  Bioshock and Mass Effect come to mind, but one franchise that I think encapsulates the rise and fall of the seventh generation is Dead Space.  Conceived as the west's response to Capcom's Resident Evil, Dead Space roared onto the scene with not just a game, but a plethora of media designed to explore the series' universe.  Yet, two sequels in, and the series ends not with a bang, but a whimper.  At aa time when survival horror shifted away from the frights and to the action, Dead Space tried to strike a balance.

2508.  A team is sent to investigate the USG Ishimura, a mining ship last reported orbiting Aegis VII.  No one is there until the team gets ambushed by creatures called necromorphs.  The crew's engineer, Isaac Clarke, is cut off by the attack and has to make it on his own.  Isaac searches for his survivors, including his girlfriend Nicole, who works on the ship and had left him a video message before he departed.  Isaac reunites with the surviving members of his team and is sent out to get things in running order so they can get out.  As he ventures into the bowels of the ship, he learns more about what caused the outbreak and why.

Dead Space's tale of intergalactic horrors takes cues from many popular works, most notably Alien, The Thing, and Event Horizon, and though the plot is familiar fare, what carries the experience is the strong storytelling and unnerving atmosphere.  Dead Space is at its scariest not when monsters are bursting out, but when you are on your own, making your way through a rundown ship while feelings of dread and isolation slowly creep in.  While many people compare this game and its tone with Alien, it reminded me more of The Evil Dead.  The story set-up is similar and who we think survives doesn't and the one we think won't survive becomes the hero, plus it ends with the protagonist thinking the evil has been vanquished, or so it seems.

Isaac likes them extra crispy.

Isaac Clarke is Ash Williams, a normal guy forced into an unexpected situation, and what edges him on is his love Nicole, similar to Ash and Linda.  Much like Sam Raimi's horror flick, Dead Space doesn't shy away from the violence, which is brutal and shocking.  You'll see deranged doctors lobotomizing tied-down crewmen and people getting skewered by necromorphs.  By making Isaac a silent protagonist, it puts the player into his shoes and allows him or her to react to the situations as they unfold.  The only voice emanating from Isaac is his grunts when he's under attack or his heavy breathing when in the vacuum of space.

While the games does a great job at creating tension, it relies too much on jump scares.  When done right, jump scares are an effective way of frightening viewers when they least expect it.  Dallas' journey into the vents during Alien is a fine example, but most of the time it is used as a cheap thrill, and Dead Space is no exception.  See a necromorph lying in the middle of a hallway?  It's a trap.  Occasionally, it works, like when a necromorph jumps into a vent, only to suddenly burst out from another vent behind Isaac, but all other instances fall flat.

Where Dead Space falters in its horror, it shines in its storytelling.  The haunted house in space concept is nothing new, but what carries it is how the story is told.  Taking a cue from Bioshock, the environment tells the story that the dialogue doesn't.  Audio logs and text logs give insight into what happened on the Ishimura as people went mad, killed each other, or worse.  Blood-stained walls contain cryptic messages made even more confusing by the symbols they are written in.  Using this information, the player starts piecing together what went down and how things like the Marker connect in the grand scheme of things.

Dead Space is a third-person survival action game none too different from Resident Evil 4.  As Isaac completes objectives and explores the Ishimura, he fights off the terror that is necromorphs.  Necromorphs may be reanimated corpses, but they come in many grotesque shapes and sizes.  Some leap through the air like flying squirrels, some spew out swarms of tiny creatures if hit in the wrong spot, while others look like the "Return the Slab" guy from Courage the Cowardly Dog.  Yet, they share one thing in common: killing a necromorph requires dismemberment.

Seems obvious to me.

Tight controls make it a cinch to cut off limbs and move around to ensure enemies don't overwhelm you.  Isaac's HUD is tied to his RIG outfit.  The blue spinal column represents his health and changes color depending on his status.  Pressing Back or Select pulls up his monitor, allowing the player to manage inventory, view the map, or check any data collected along the way.  Unlike Resident Evil 4, the game doesn't pause when going into the sub-menus, so make sure the coast is clear before checking.

Isaac starts with the plasma cutter, a quick, precise device handy for shooting limbs off.  What sets the arsenal apart is most of the weapons aren't legit guns, just mining tools which so happen to double as handy monster slices, except for the pulse rifle.  New weapons are found by acquiring blueprints and unlocking them for purchase in the store.  Isaac can hold four weapons in his inventory, and the game encourages players to experiment with what's available.  Some guns are more situational than others, like the flamethrower, but the roster is nevertheless diverse.  To upgrade weapons and gear, you need nodes and a workbench.

Upgrades are split into branching paths that require inputting nodes to reach an upgrade.  Nodes are found in the environment or are purchased at the store.  Nodes also unlock certain doors which lead to rooms filled with various resources.  Strategy comes into play when deciding if you want to use nodes now or wait until you find more.  Upgrading equipment is a satisfying sense of progression.  You feel Isaac is getting stronger as his suit receives new layers of armor or guns sound meatier than before.  The sequel improves on this system by letting you undo all your upgrades to try a different approach, but that's for another time.

Isaac's journey takes him across the Ishimura and down to Aegis VII.  Isaac will need to step out into space to complete certain tasks, and the player must be mindful of how much oxygen is left in addition to any threats that may be out there.  The zero-g sections are fun, though having to leap from platform to platform is clunky.  Being an engineer is dandy and all, but with all of those guns at his disposal, you need something to shoot at.  As mentioned before, necromorphs vary in look and attack.  The most common type is the slasher, whose protruding arms with bony appendages indicate where the player must shoot.  Other types include the leaper, infector, exploder, and pregnant.  Tougher variants of some enemy types arrive in the second half.

As the game progresses, slashers become the least of your worries.

To slow down fast-moving enemies or hazards, Isaac uses stasis.  Stasis consumes energy but is refilled via stasis packs or recharge stations.  Telekinesis is used to move stuff or throw it at something, and he has a curb-stomp to finish off crawling enemies.  Combat is exciting and the enemy roster keeps the player alert for what lies ahead, but on Normal, it's a bit of a cakewalk thanks to plentiful resources.  Even the final boss, while a spectacle, is easy to kill since his orange pustules indicate where you need to shoot.  Playing on Hard is a must since enemies are more aggressive and resources aren't readily available.

Visually, the game looks great.  The Ishimura and its different sections clue the player in on what life was like on here before it went to hell.  The ship is as much a character as the characters are.  On PS3, I encountered a lot of lag during in-game action, and it's only on this version as the 360 and PC versions run well.  Dead Space relishes in its violence as much as it does scares, and nowhere is this made clearer than in the many ways Isaac can die if one is not careful.

Sound is just as good.  Monsters emanate a host of screams ranging from loud to ominous to creepy.  When entering space, all sounds become muffled, except for the deep breaths of Isaac as he tries to make it to an oxygen-filled zone.  Weapons sound powerful and rip through flesh like the tools of destruction they are.  The voice acting is equal parts solid and deranged to highlight how insane any surviving crew of the Ishimura has become, and the music is excellent, evoking the likes of Alien and Aliens with its calm but eerie ambience or its bombastic nature when the action heats up.

Dead Space is a remarkable game.  Though its story is familiar, its direction is superb, and its intriguing lore draws players into wanting to look for answers.  The monsters aren't the scary part, it's the feeling of being watched when nothing is there.  The emphasis on dismemberment sets the gameplay apart from its contemporaries, turning you into a master amputee.  Just make sure to play it on something higher than Normal to get the most out of the combat.  Dead Space isn't for the faint of heart, but is an exhilarating experience.

Final Score: 8/10

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Art of the Furon: An Interview with Artist Bryan Lee


Destroy All Humans is back.  Twelve years after Path of the Furon's release, the series returned via a remake of the 2005 game.  The remake has been a success, showing us that anal probing never goes out of style.  With Destroy All Humans in public eye, I figured it would be time to accomplish something I never did before: chronicle the series' history.  Destroy All Humans has an interesting yet untapped history.  While information on the first two games is plentiful, not much is known about the making of Big Willy Unleashed or Path of the Furon.  Through the power of e-mail, I reached out to Bryan Lee, whose first major industry job was working as a concept artist on Path of the Furon.

Bryan Lee was hired by Sandblast, then known as Cranky Pants Games, and tasked with creating artwork to flesh out the world of Path of the Furon, including designs for the Nexos, the civilians, and more.  Lee has fond memories of his time on the project, though working on the game showed him the good and bad sides of the gaming industry.  At the end of the day, he's proud of his work.  Like many others at Sandblast, Lee was laid off, but the boss of Sandblast helped him, and other employees find work.  Bryan Lee now lives in China with his fiancĂ© and teaches art via an online program.

This is the first of what I hope becomes a recurring series where I interview those involved with the making of the Destroy All Humans games.  Whether they were programmers, designers, artists, or voice actors, my goal is to gain insight into the games came to be.  Destroy All Humans is one of my favorite franchises, and to be able to explore its history is an opportunity I wouldn't want to pass up.  I want to thank Bryan Lee for taking the time to answer these questions.  Without further ado, here's the interview.

1. What inspired you to become an artist?
I've always liked drawing.  "TMNT" and "Dragon Ball" is what got me started.  It wasn't until I got into middle school and high school that I took drawing more seriously.  Seeing art by Scott Campbell, Arthur Adams, Jim Lee, Joe Mad, JC Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell (thank you "Hometown Buffet") really inspired me to get serious about art, which led me to teachers like Steve Huston, Mark Westmore, and Kevin Chen.

2. How did you get involved with Path of the Furon?
I was hired by Sandblast (at the time Cranky Pants Games), my last term at Art Center back in '06.  I remember flying to Washington for the interview and loving the studio and overall vibe of the place.

Artwork of Crypto using the Ion Detonator and Extract.

3. As a concept artist, what was the job like?  Did the artists frequently collaborate with the other staff at Sandblast?
The job was immensely fun!  I got to work with a lot of talented and dedicated people, and still miss all the epic Nerf wars.  Yeah, we had Nerf wars.  I feel the team worked well together and all kind of hung out.  We worked pretty well together even at things that were not work related.

I remember when we all got together to push each other's car up our parking lot hill in the snow so that everyone in the studio could go home.  Plus, there were some really fun team building exercises after a hard grind like whirly ball.  It involves bumper cars, scoops, a ball, and a basketball court.

4. What was the general mood at Sandblast while working on the game?
The mood was generally good from what I remember.  I'm sure there was drama here and there but what office doesn't?

5. Do you recall anything interesting that ended up on the cutting room floor?
There was a lot, but some stuff that never made it in the game I never really understood, like if humans can drive cars, why can't Crypto do the same when he possesses someone?  Our combat designer had really cool ideas for boss fights.  One of the issues was that you can beat the whole game by just shooting the disintegrator, making the other weapons feel like novelties and unnecessary.

I remember the combat designer wanted to go the Zelda route where each new weapon would be used on a boss, and a mission leading up to the boss fight would help the player familiarize themselves with said weapon.  Just like the "Zelda" games.  Sadly, that never really happened.

6. Any funny stories regarding glitches or bugs found?
Oh man.  The game was so much more fun with the glitches.  I remember one particular glitch where if you shot someone with the anal probe, wait for them to run, freeze time, and press the button to pop off their head, and then unfreeze time, we would see the civilian's head do like a "Tron" speed thing, that's the best way to explain it.  You know how a bike in "Tron" leaves a wall of color that eventually fades?  That's what would happen.

PK grab was so much more fun when it was overpowered, it was like playing "Katamari Damacy" but it killed the already finicky frame rate.  Honestly, there's too many.  I know the game did not do well, but I wonder if the glitchy version would have done a lot better.  I'd buy it.  I'd spend hours after work laughing my ass off at the glitches in the game and trying to duplicate them.  I remember somehow playing as Crypto's rocket pack and using the spaceship to blow up the whole level.  Seriously, the game was so much fun with glitches.

Concept art of Orthopox-14.

7. How long were you attached to the project?
I think I was on the game for about a year and some change?  When I was brought on, they were trying to figure out the look of the Nexo, which was fun to design.  I got to design the other Furons, a bunch of NPCs, bosses and even created the Furon alphabet.  I believe one of the artists wrote messages on anything that had Furon writing.  No idea what he wrote though.

8. There was a PS3 version planned that never released in America (e.d. It did release in Europe and Australia in early 2009).  Do you remember anything about that?
Yeah.  If I remember correctly, there were too many issues, it simply could not be released.  The game was made for the Xbox 360.  All the builds I played were on the Xbox 360, and I never got to see a PS3 build.  I know it was confusing for the fans, especially with the Wii version, "Big Willy Unleashed."  So sad because there was so much potential for "Path of the Furon."  I wonder what the game would be like if instead of making a separate Wii game, all the resources were directed at the Xbox 360 and PS3.

9. Was there ever talk of a "Destroy all Humans 4?"
There were definitely talks about it, and the concept team was excited about it because we were playing with the idea and what it would be like.  There was so much to work with from that decade.  We also discussed having the style be completely cartoony, since "Path of the Furon" was in the middle with cartoony or real (maybe leaning more towards cartoony I guess?).

I personally thought the references we could make in an 80s "Destroy All Humans" would be more well received and more relatable.  I always felt that some of the 70s references in "Path of the Furon" were a little esoteric and didn't know when it was supposed to be funny as there were only a couple of people laughing when the team would watch cut-scenes in meetings and the jokes/references had to be explained.

10. Looking back, what's your big takeaway from your time on the project?
I don't want to go on a rant.  I'll simply say it was an eye-opening experience, and I got to see the good and bad side of the industry.  Biggest take away is that artists have to stick together.

Concept art for alternate skins.

11. What did you end up doing after "Path of the Furon?"
We all got laid off.  Luckily, our boss asked game companies near us if they were hiring and a lot of us got scouted.  I worked in gaming for a few more years before branching off into some movie concept.  I was very fortunate to have tried my hand at many disciplines in concept, like toy design, story-boarding, amusement park design, movie poster design, basically anything that involved drawing and painting.  I found my passion in teaching and have been freelancing and teaching ever since.  Recently, I started an online art school in China with my fiancĂ©.

All artwork shown was provided by Bryan Lee.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Review: Destroy All Humans! (PS4)

Playing the Destroy All Humans remake is like reuniting with an old friend.  He's stayed the same, but he's changed for the better.  I first learned of Destroy All Humans as a teenager and loved the premise.  An open-world game where you play as the alien terrorizing the humans instead of the other way around?  Sign me up!  I adored the games during those awkward teenage years, even if the later entries weren't quite up to par with the first two.  Despite my fanaticism, I moved on as I got older.  It also didn't help I discovered the franchise two years after the last game Path of the Furon released and bombed, killing any chances of the series continuing.

Years passed and nothing was heard of the franchise, even after Nordic Games bought the rights.  That changed in 2019.  Nordic Games, now known as THQ Nordic, revealed three titles over the span of E3 2019, and with the final reveal, I almost fainted.  They showed a trailer featuring a grey alien hypnotizing throngs of humans through the power of Rammstein's "Ich Will" before vaporizing them.  Crypto was back, and I couldn't be happier.  While I told people my most anticipated game of 2020 was Doom Eternal, it was really Destroy All Humans.  With brand-new graphics and redone gameplay, the Destroy All Humans remake aims to re-introduce old and new players to the series starring an alien who sounds like the guy from The Shining.

Furons are in a predicament.  Eons of waging war with unregulated atomic weaponry has mutated their genes to the point they are not able to reproduce.  They resorted to cloning to keep their race alive, but the DNA used to do so is running low, making the threat of extinction larger than ever.  Orthopox-13 learns there is aa planet brimming with pure Furon DNA as a result of Furons stopping for R&R after the Martian War.  This planet is Earth.  A Furon scout named Cryptosporidium-136 is sent to survey the planet, but he gets captured after his saucer collides with a rocket.  Orthopox orders Crypto-137 to prepare the mothership for invasion.  As Crypto gather DNA, he discovers his predecessor's disappearance has connections to an agency called Majestic.

Join the IFP: Insane Furon Posse.

Destroy All Humans preserves the story, characters, and dialogue of the original game, and few titles make the Red Scare and cow abuse as funny as Destroy All Humans does.  The game is a tribute to 1950's science-fiction cinema and apes a lot of tropes from films of the time.  Locations include rural farmland, a quiet small town, a government research base, and a bustling metropolis, all settings one would find in movies of this kind.  The eerie theremin music on the title screen further accentuates the game's B-movie roots.  As much as Destroy All Humans pays tribute, it spends as much time poking fun at the decade it's set in.  The 1950's was the decade of Communist paranoia and the rise of the nuclear family.  Politicians like Joseph McCarthy spread false propaganda that the Red Menace could be right next door, and the game satirizes such paranoia.

Crypto's mayhem is perceived as the work of Communists by everyday civilians and military officials alike, and Majestic aims to use said paranoia as a tactic to help garner the public's trust.  Moments like this is what helped Destroy All Humans stand the test of time.  It may be funny, but it keeps one foot in reality and never becomes too absurd, unlike Big Willy Unleashed and Path of the Furon, which went too far into camp territory and relied on obvious references instead of clever send-ups.  At the heart of Destroy All Humans is Pox and Crypto.

Pox is a scheming mastermind, always coming up with plans to try and conquer the world, even if it means hijacking Majestic's plans for their own use.  On the flip side, Crypto is an anarchist who cares little for humans and would rather destroy everything than research it.  Crypto is more aggressive and temperamental than in the sequels, where his time on Earth softened his stance on humanity.  His short temper faux-Jack Nicholson voice are what make Crypto the character he is, and it's why he's remained one of my favorite characters after all these years.

While Destroy All Humans preserves the story, the gameplay and visuals received an overhaul.  It borrows ideas from the sequels and current gaming trends to create an experience that feels modern and up to date.  Over the course of 23 missions, Crypto probes and vaporizes humans, occasionally donning a disguise to blend in.  The controls are simplified to the Nth degree.  Taking a page from Path of the Furon, Crypto is able to use his mental abilities and weapons at the same time, but the remake goes further by assigning abilities to various places on the controller instead of having to rely on a lock-on followed by button presses to do so.

PK is activated by tapping the right bumper and to throw an item you hold and release the right bumper or tap it to drop whatever is in Crypto's grasp.  Other powers like mind-read, the holobob, and distraction are located on the d-pad or face buttons.  The amount of freedom with his arsenal and abilities seems daunting, but soon you will be lifting cops into the air with PK while zapping and extracting brains like it's no problem.  The game encourages experimentation and rewards creative players for doing so.  Abilities include PK, mind-read, holobob, extraction, distract, follow/protect, and forget, those particular two powers are pulled from Destroy All Humans 2.

Destroying humans has never looked so good.

The original Destroy All Humans was a weird mishmash of linear and open-world game design, while the environments were explorable, you progressed through the story in linear fashion.  The remake keeps this progression flow but makes quality-of-life adjustments where needed.  Once you beat the first mission of a new area, you are given the option to explore the place or continue the story.  There are no longer abrupt stopgaps where Crypto must collect a certain amount of DNA before continuing either, but there is incentive to collect DNA in the form of upgrades.  Missions are varied and range from simple to complicated.  One sees Crypto hypnotizing a beauty queen and luring her to the saucer for probing, and a later level involves escorting an atomic bomb to an airfield.

Missions now feature optional objectives to complete.  Doing them unlocks concept art and results in more DNA being rewarded at the end of a mission.  If you miss an objective, fear not, as the mission replay option lets you revisit previous missions.  Series veterans might recall the original Destroy All Humans had 22 missions.  In a surprise move, developer Black Forest Games resurrected a cut level called "The Wrong Stuff."  It bridges the gap between Missions 13 and 14 and explains how the flying saucer prototype shown off in the opening of the latter level went haywire.  Some missions even received new objectives.  For example, "It's a Wonderful Armageddon" now begins with Crypto protecting a surveyor probe before hopping in the saucer to level Santa Modesta.

Objectives are varied and contain a good mixture of action and stealth.  The stealth-oriented ones do show their age since if you are caught trying to holobob someone, it is an instant mission failure.  In the 2005 game, one of the troubling aspects was sneaking by Majestic agents.  If you got too close, the disguise glowed red before disabling.  For the remake, agents sport a radius to determine how close you are.  Using forget or distraction on them lets you get by without breaking disguise.  EMP mines will also disable the holobob and weapons, but Crypto can remotely detonate them without having to use PK or his weapons to attract attention.

This game is called Destroy All Humans, and destroying things is great fun.  Over the course of the campaign, Crypto gets the zap-o-matic, the disintegrator ray, the ion detonator, and the anal probe.  The zap-o-matic fires arcs of electricity which zap nearby humans.  The disintegrator ray fires bolts of hot plasma which reduce people to ash and makes destroying vehicles and emplacements easier to do than by using the zap-o-matic.  The ion detonator is a high-tech grenade launcher, and you are now able to PK launched ions at targets.  Then, there's the anal probe.  By holding the trigger and releasing it when the reticule glows white, a probe is launched, penetrating the butt of some poor sod before ripping their brains out through their butts.

Patriotic fellow, isn't he?

Weapons, abilities, and the shields are upgraded at the mothership.  That's right, there are shield upgrades for Crypto and the saucer, which makes withstanding punishment from tougher foes a lot easier knowing they are no longer glass cannons.  To buy upgrades, you need DNA.  DNA is earned from beating missions, challenges, collecting probes, or through humans via the extraction ability or the anal probe.  Upgrades include standard fare such as increased ammo capacity and damage, but each upgrade tree is capped off by a quirky perk, like adding a rapid-fire option to the disintegrator ray or modifying extraction to where humans affected by it defend Crypto before their brains are pulled out.

Alien invasions aren't complete without a flying saucer, and like Crypto it has received some tweaks.  Taking a page from the sequels, the saucer is able to change altitude, and it's outfitted with a deflector that deflects missiles and other projectiles when timed right.  The saucer comes with the death ray, sonic boom, and quantum deconstructor.  The abduction beam lets you hurl objects caught in its vortex and is a great alternative for destroying buildings when you run out of ammo for the sonic boom or quantum deconstructor.  Regarding the weapons, the death ray shoots a beam of energy which damages buildings and scars terrain.  The sonic boom fires spheres emitting shockwaves to damage stuff, and the quantum deconstructor is the BFG of the roster, capable of annihilating anything caught in the radius of its gigantic green sphere.

Crypto feels unstoppable, and little things like extracted brains speeding up the recharge rate of the shields or being able to drain energy from vehicles and humans to refill the saucer's shields highlight the combat's depth.  A rampaging alien will attract the law enforccement, and the cops, soldiers and agents Crypto encounters have some special tricks.  Soldiers will thrown grenades and use rocket launchers in addition to rifles.  Early on, Majestic agents wield pistols and Thompson machine guns, but as the story continues, they equip plasma pistols and rapid-firing energy rifles, plus they'll throw EMP grenades to temporarily disable Crypto's weapons.  Robots, once a comically easy enemy to defeat, are able to pack a puncch with their autocannons and grenade launchers.

With newer hardware, no longer are players able to evade foes by letting the PS2-era draw distance consume them.  They will search high and low for Crypto, which where the jetpack and dash come in.  The jetpack lets Crypto fly but doesn't run out of fuel within seconds like the original.  Dash lets him quickly side-step projectiles, but holding dash triggers SKATE, a virtual hoverboard which makes getting around a lot faster than with the jetpack.  If they add the ability to ollie and grind rails, then Crypto has a shot at being in the next Pro Skater.  Speaking of high scores, the challenges have been improved.  No longer are they disposable.  They're split into four categories and the better Crypto does, the higher the ranking and overall DNA reward.

Boss fights are much more challenging than before.  This is good.

When you know a game inside and out, the redone visuals are a wake-up call.  No longer is the world cut off by a short draw distance, nor are the environments populated with repeated character models.  The locations might be small by today's standards, but they pack a ton of detail and feel more lived in.  Civilians actually do stuff instead of walking around or driving aimlessly.  Suburbanites chill at the pool or paint their house, while homeless people sift through trash cans looking for something edible.  Little things like that give the world personality.  Plus, the visual effects for the weapons, abilities, and destruction look great.

Audio is another story.  Taking a page from the Battle from Bikini Bottom remake, Destroy All Humans utilizes the original voice recordings, with some new lines peppered in.  However, the quality is uneven.  The 2005 voices sound echoey and grainy, which is odd because I replayed the original a few weeks before release and the voices sounded fine.  Players will notice the discrepancy with how crisp the new voice lines sound.  Also, get ready to hear the same handful of lines over and over when reading minds.  There are some new lines peppered throughout, but not many.

I will say this, it felt great hearing new dialogue from Richard Horvitz and Grant Albrecht, the voices of Pox and Crypto, after all these years.  They didn't miss a single beat and it leaves me hopeful that one day we'll get a brand new adventure featuring the alien duo.  Whereas the re-used voice lines sound rough, the stellar soundtrack sounds amazing.  Garry Schyman's score captures the music of the movies Destroy All Humans homages perfectly and it remains a great soundtrack.

Let me just say I am glad THQ Nordic decided to resurrect the series and props to Black Forest Games for doing a stellar job.  Destroy All Humans' tale of alien havoc in the 1950's is funny, satirical, and surprisingly deep.  This isn't yet another alien race wanting to take over Earth just because.  Their race is dying and if they don't do something, they go kaput.  The gameplay is solid and though the missions show their age, they get the job done, but it's the combat that holds it together.  It's fast and flexible, letting players manage weapons and abilities on the fly without having to worry about obtrusive button inputs.  Probing humans and decimating cityscapes is satisfying, and one only wonders what way Black Forest Games might be able to expand upon it in a potential sequel.  I'm glad Crypto is back, and I hope here's to stay.

Final Score: 8/10