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.

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