It seems that you're using an outdated browser. Some things may not work as they should (or don't work at all).
We suggest you upgrade newer and better browser like: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer or Opera

×
more news
recently
  • gc_filtr_spinerrecently

Interview with Greg Zeschuk on MDK 2

Tom Ohle talks with his first boss in the gaming industry, Greg Zeschuk of BioWare, about the crazy and creative times when MDK 2 was in development.

I was just a clueless 17-year-old when I first visited BioWare’s offices in Edmonton. I was a “journalist” – you know, one of those kids that starts a website in hopes of supporting a rather horrendous gaming habit – and was thrilled that the only developer in town would actually entertain me with a demo of an upcoming game. I was there to check out some upcoming hit game by the name of Neverwinter Nights. Little did I know that a couple of years later I’d actually be the PR lead on that very game… yeah, it took a while to make!

by Tom Ohle



I was just a clueless 17-year-old when I first visited BioWare’s offices in Edmonton. I was a “journalist” – you know, one of those kids that starts a website in hopes of supporting a rather horrendous gaming habit – and was thrilled that the only developer in town would actually entertain me with a demo of an upcoming game. I was there to check out some upcoming hit game by the name of Neverwinter Nights. Little did I know that a couple of years later I’d actually be the PR lead on that very game… yeah, it took a while to make!



A side benefit was that I was invited to spend some time playing another upcoming BioWare game – MDK2. It stands as my personal favorite BioWare game… maybe because it’s just so much fun and oozes personality, but it was so inspiring for me to be invited to play it for most of a Saturday, with BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk sitting next to me, watching my every move. I was very fortunate to get my start in this business at BioWare, and so I thought it would be fitting if I’d give those little-known guys in Canada a bit more publicity as a sign of my appreciation. I sat down with Greg, now VP Development Operations at BioWare and VP at EA, to discuss MDK2.



1. MDK2 launched on Dreamcast first. How did that agreement come about? In more general terms, how did the game come to be?




We were big fans of MDK and we thought it would be fun to work on the sequel.


[GZ] We had been working with Interplay since the mid 1990s and we had finished Shattered Steel back in 1996 and we were considering next products. Interplay had successfully launched MDK (developed by Shiny) and we were offered the opportunity to do the sequel (I think Bryan Fargo offered it to Ray during a meeting discussing Baldur’s Gate as well as future products together). We were big fans of MDK and we thought it would be fun to work on the sequel. We had also reached the point where we thought BioWare was ready to pursue console development and we thought the Dreamcast would be a great system to start on – it was quite powerful for the time and very developer friendly.



2. Even before MDK2 was released – and even more so today – BioWare was known as one of the best RPG developers around. Why do an action game? Why MDK2 specifically?



[GZ] People tend to forget that BioWare’s first game, Shattered Steel, was an action game. We are a company comprised of fans of all games; action and RPG happened to be our two favorite genres and so we chose to work in both of them. People tend to know us for our RPGs, but frankly, our action games were also pretty good!



As mentioned before – we liked the MDK franchise; we liked the humor and we thought it would technically stretch the team in a good direction!



3. Okay, so I’m an idiot. Yeah, I worked at BW for almost four years… but age is not kind to my memory, and somehow Shattered Steel suffered its wrath… thankfully we have that game here, too, so I won’t look quite so dumb in the future.



Do you feel you introduced any groundbreaking/innovative elements to the genre in MDK2? Aside from kicking things off in Edmonton, of course. If not innovations, then more generally, what do you think BioWare brought to the table that others may not have?




[...] we didn’t know exactly how to progress beyond the original MDK formula. The challenge we were facing was that MDK itself was quite an innovative game [...]


[GZ] There are a few unique elements in the game that we are quite proud of: we added a funny and engaging story to the series and we added a character switching mechanic to the game (in the first MDK you could only play as Kurt while in MDK2 you could be Max, Kurt or Doctor Hawkins). The story was penned by Luke Kristjanson, one of our original writers and quite a hilarious fellow. He did great justice to the crazy characters and oddball villains; some we created and some we used from the original game.



From a design perspective we started in a bit of a rut where we didn’t know exactly how to progress beyond the original MDK formula. The challenge we were facing was that MDK itself was quite an innovative game with Kurt having multiple different powers: sniper scope, parachute and chain gun. Our choice, of course, was to make it more complicated by adding in full playability of Max the dog and Dr. Fluke Hawkins, the crazy inventor. The end result was that we added a jetpack to Max (for the infamous reactor level) and had the Doctor create items like the Atomic toaster out of seemingly innocuous elements. Overall it was a whole lot of fun to work on and design.



4. How big was the team? How has the scope of game development changed since those days?



[GZ] The Dreamcast team was probably about 20 to 25 people at its peak (it’s hard to remember precisely) – that included the QA folks, as we consider them part of the team at BioWare, and others that just helped out for a short period. We had a really great bunch of people on the team; many of them are still at BioWare and are now quite noteworthy in the industry. Some examples include Casey Hudson (now known for being the Project Director on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect), David Falkner (KotOR and ME lead programmer) and Derek Watts (KotOR and ME art director), Ryan “Hoyle’s book of Hoyle” Hoyle (key optimization and console programmer on practically everything BioWare has done since) and many others (Scott Horner, Rick Li, Tony de Waal, Steve Gilmour)! There are also some folks that have moved on like Russ Rice, Sean Smailes, Mike Sass, Dave Chan, Kalvin Lyle, Justin Smith, Tobyn Manthorpe, Rob Sugama, Larry Stevens, Cass Scott, Charles Randall, Derrick Collins, Stan Melax, Keith Soleski, Deo Perez, Henrik Vasquez, Karl Schreiner, Scott Rodrique and certainly last but not least Cameron Tofer (my co-Project Director, co-lead designer and the Lead Programmer!). We had some additional people like Marc Audy and Derek French join us late on the Dreamcast version, and they were crazy enough to stay for the entirety of the PS2 version. All in all MDK2 was spectacularly fun to build – we had some really great times – maybe I’ll even share some of the really crazy stories from that gang of crazy kids in this article!



Big-time console releases are much, much larger nowadays, though some of the creative stuff done in flash and online can be much smaller. Times have changed but the past is returning in some ways.



5. MDK2 was one of the hardest games around. Was the high difficult a conscious decision you made at the onset of the project? What are some of your favorite “m&#$!f!8k this game!!!” moments? The PC version received an oft-requested difficulty setting; do you think that affected the spirit of the game in a negative way?




[...] the first line read something like, “Hey kids, Ninja Gaiden is hard, but don’t fret, it’s not MDK2 hard!” I was shocked! I’m now afraid that Itagaki-San will kick our asses for making a game harder than his...:)


[GZ] People seem to give us a lot of stick about how hard the game was – I’m not sure why…:) Actually we did aim to recreate an “old skool” experience where the game was tough, but I don’t think we realized just how hard we made it. I remember near the end Ray telling me that he thought it was too tough – I didn’t listen to him, which was a pretty big mistake. Now I listen to him religiously…:)



I think we made one of the classic game development mistakes where we balanced the game to our skill, rather than to the skill of a new player. Live and learn! One of the levels I’ve heard the most comments about is actually Casey’s reactor level where you need to use Max to flawlessly fly up the exterior of this gigantic reactor. There is only one path up, and the platforms drop away on a complicated timing schedule, so yeah, it’s pretty tough. I think it wasn’t helped by [Quality Assurance master Scott] Horner’s l33t skillz – he could manipulate the controller to get more gas out of the jetpack than the average player. That didn’t help. Another pretty hard fight was the end, against Zizzy Balooba – he would suck you into his stomach after some exterior battling and you could only defeat him by shooting his external organs – the eyes were particularly hard to hit. Do I need to mention again the game was really, really fun?



One of my favorite “difficulty” stories was in a review of Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox – the first line read something like, “Hey kids, Ninja Gaiden is hard, but don’t fret, it’s not MDK2 hard!” I was shocked! I’m now afraid that Itagaki-San will kick our asses for making a game harder than his…:)



6. Ah, that damn reactor level. I remember coming in to play test MDK2 on the Dreamcast, and you sat in a room with me and watched me fall… and again… and… again… Somehow I managed to get through it on the first try in the retail game. I’d hate to think it was actually harder during testing.



What were some of the other decisions made early that guided the project’s direction? How did you hope to bring something fresh to MDK2 while maintaining the personality and soul of the original?



[GZ] To be clear, most people on the team were somewhat crazy – this drove a lot of the decision making on the game. Atomic toasters? Bosses like Schwang Schwing? Clearly from demented minds! Once we got on track (i.e. 3 characters, each with their own powers) we just put the pedal to the metal and started making the game. We got a lot of traction once we had an idea where we were going. One additional thing about the process that made it so crazy and creative was that we didn’t have a strict design doc or even a strict design process. We just started making cool stuff and guys started trying to one-up each other with unique and interesting ideas. Overall it was a wonderful creative morass.



7. Did the team face any major challenges during development?




It’s fair to say that MDK2 was the project on which I personally learned the most about game development.


[GZ] See the answer above – yes we faced challenges – we didn’t really have a clear design doc or dev process – we just made it. This leads to a lot of wasted effort and potential frustration when ideas just don’t work or they’re incompatible with other parts of the game. We spent quite a bit of time (maybe more than half the project) trying to figure out the general premise of the game; once we did we raced to completion quite successfully. It’s fair to say that MDK2 was the project on which I personally learned the most about game development. We do things a lot differently now at BioWare based on what we learned on MDK2 and all of the other games we’ve made. By balancing structure, process and creativity you get to a much better place much less painfully.



8. Where did the game’s humor come from? I know you like fart jokes (who doesn’t?) but were there any specific inspirations or key people on the team that really injected their own humor? What were some of your favorite funny moments in the game?



[GZ] I’m not joking when I say people on the team were pretty crazy. Imagine a team where you gathered a bunch of rebellious and kooky people then told them to make a game (even worse when you put me in charge). Then don’t give them any rules – that was MDK2. We were all young and foolish but it was really great fun. I still remember the physical layout of the office – having Derek Watts, Sean Smailes and Russ Rice all in the same office was simply a recipe for mayhem! [Tom note: having them in different parts of a big office was bad enough] Luke was great at writing humor (and quite funny in his own right) and Cam was also really notorious for his antics, not the least of which was his naming ability – I still think Chuckleberry Finn is the best name for an in-game playable fish ever.



In terms of the true decline to depravity I think it may have all started when Russ Rice found “the fart machine” website – many hours were spent testing out all of the variations. Dave Chan, the sound lead on the project, likely has some great stories about accurately sampling sound effects for the game. I’ll leave it at that.



9. What are some of your favorite characters in the game? Playable or not.




I still remember getting take after take of the BFB (Big *something* Brain) and laughing endlessly [...] It was a really good time.


[GZ] I’m not joking when I say all of them. But, if I had to pick one playable character, it would be Dr. Hawkins – he’s funny, quirky and had very creative levels. On the enemy side I had a soft spot for the Coneheads, perhaps because of the green clouds they left behind them. I also liked the bosses – one thing I haven’t called out is just how incredibly fun the voice work for the game was. We used some local comedy actors (Atomic Improv) to voice the characters in the game and they did a truly awesome job. I still remember getting take after take of the BFB (Big *something* Brain) and laughing endlessly at both the dialog Luke wrote and the voice done by the actor. It was a really good time.



10. The company has yet to return to a pure action game, despite the fact that MDK2 was very well received by fans and critics. Has BioWare learned any lessons from MDK2?



[GZ] We’ve spent the last few years adding increasing levels of action into our RPGs. Jade Empire had a pretty solid action-based combat system and Mass Effect was a great shooter, as well as a great RPG. We learned a ton from MDK2 and are super proud of the work the team did.



11. As you noted, BioWare has steadily been working on combat in its games – Jade Empire and Mass Effect featured real-time combat that has evolved from one product to the next. Have you guys thought about going back to a pure action game?



[GZ] We certainly have been adding more action to our games, but our main focus remains delivering great stories to our fans. If we move back into the action space it will be from a position of delivering a great story from within the context of an action game. This is something we’re extremely passionate about.



12. Any parting words?




I’ll always be proud of the game we made.


[GZ] I would like to say how proud I am of having had the chance to work with the team on MDK2 – they were a dedicated group that had a lot of passion and it showed in the game. I’m also really happy to see the continued success of the people on the team – some are still at BioWare, some have moved on – they were a great bunch to work with and I still remember working on MDK2 as one of the greatest periods in my life and I’ll always be proud of the game we made.



Thanks again!


Back to frontpage