Before Bioware became the RPG juggernaut it is today, it made a couple of action games - the mech combat sim Shattered Steel, and MDK2, the sequel to Shiny's surreal, phenomenally punishing shooter. A decade later, former Bioware man Trent Oster is returning to update the world of Max, Doctor Fluke Hawkins and Kurt... one of many backronyms created in those dark days when everyone thought games really could teach children to murder instead of merely making it look fricking awesome... and he's even started a brand new digital distribution service, Beamdog, to distribute it. Digitally!
I caught up with him to ask about both his two new companies - Overhaul Games and IdeaSpark - and why now is the time to bring MDK2's bizarre mix of comedy and shooting back to the world.
So, the obvious starter question - why do an MDK2 remake? Most of the time, these sorts of project are geared around bringing classic games back from the dead. With MDK2 though, the original is already easily available for a couple of quid on both GOG and Steam.
We had a long look at MDK2 and we felt it was a great game that a lot of people never played. It was our thought that a HD version of MDK2 would be a great reason for people to take another look at this fun game. As well, my business partner in Beamdog and Overhaul Games, Cameron Tofer, just happened to be the lead programmer on MDK2, giving us a clear understanding of the challenges we would face. Cam was pretty much Captain MDK2 during the original development and he took the same role this time.
Is MDK2 HD a complete remake, or an upgraded version of the original engine/assets?
We started with a rough plan for just doing a technology overhaul on the game, but it quickly grew out of control and we a couple artist from the original team to our effort. Russ Rice and Sean Smailes came in and re-worked almost every art asset in the game. The environments have been re-textured, with the addition of normal maps and specular maps. All the particle effects in the game were rebuilt. The major characters, monsters and weapons were rebuilt from scratch by Sean, and he did a really amazing job - I just love the detail on Hans (the first level boss monster). We've also modified some of the original level design, but for the most part we left what worked well alone.
Do you have any plans to do a similar remake for the original MDK?
We had a few discussions around an overhaul on MDK, but after some digging into it, the original code and assets could not be found, and so we would essentially be creating a new game. We're far from done with overhauling games, but it won't be the original MDK.
Is it difficult, going back to something you worked on so many years and games later?
It's a great deal of fun and nostalgia, yet frustrating at the same time. I love the fact we could bring such a sharp art look to the game, with bloom, normal/specular mapping, skinned characters and a ton of advanced shaders to enhance an already fun title. The downside is trying to walk a fine line between re-doing the entire game and staying remotely within our budget (which we blew past quite a while ago).
Given complete freedom and some kind of time machine powered by zinc lemon batteries, what's the one thing you really wish you could change about the original game's design in hindsight?
The design really starts to take off in the middle levels, with some frustrating bits early on that you have to power through. I think a number of people never got through the early, tough bits and missed some great fun in the later levels. So, I wish we would have spent more time on the early levels. I also would have rebalanced the doctor's content. The Doc is a lot of fun when you are trying out combinations and putting gizmos together, and I really wish we would have developed that angle a lot further.
Older games typically show their age as much, if not more, through their mechanics as their graphics. Were there any particularly big changes you had to make to get MDK2 playable for modern audiences who won't be looking at it through a nostalgia filter?
The big changes we made are mostly around the difficulty in the game. MDK2 was a damn hard game. When you picked the easy difficulty previously, the enemies had less health, but the puzzles were just as hard. We went through and re-worked the difficulty in those sections for the various skill settings. We've tweaked the Easy setting a great deal. We've touched the Normal setting a bit, but Hard and Jinkies! are just as they were. Anyone who can complete this game on Jinkies! difficulty is a pretty good gamer. We also reworked the control scheme so that it made more sense to the modern gamer.
MDK2's levels are split between three characters - sneaky sniper Kurt, combat dog Max and the invention-loving Doctor Fluke Hawkins. Which of their playstyles do you enjoy the most?
I'm 100% Max. Four Gatguns take me to my happy place. Max is all about bulldozing the opposition and that appeals to me on every level. As we progressed through development I also came to better appreciate the jetpack sections of the game. It takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of the jetpack, those sections are very satisfying when you complete them.