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.
MDK2 HD is the release likely to put your Beamdog digital distribution platform on the map... but why start yet another service instead of just using Steam, Origin etc?
We also hope MDK2 HD is going to put Beamdog on the map. We started developing Beamdog after getting angry at the out-of-game experience on the PC. As a game developer, I obsess about the user experience and the user interface and how the game feels. The PC user experience outside of the game was horrible. The user has to do a bunch of file browsing, accepting EULAs, choosing install paths and possibly spend hours tracking down and installing software patches. We wanted it to be simple, see a game, buy it, the download happens and you are ready to play, no hassle. As a guy who doesn't have as much time to mess around on the computer at home, Beamdog is great. I can buy a game at work and it is downloaded and ready to play when I get home.
Your first crack at an MDK2 revival came out on WiiWare, so: HERETIC! To make that a question though, how have you found indie development on console vs. The One True Platform? Are there any big advantages to doing so, or is the PC just plain better?
Heh, I started out as a PC developer with “Shattered Steel” and have done PC development for the last 15 years, so I'm pretty comfortable on the PC side. I always buy shooters on the PC because the controls are superior so I've got a lot of loyalty to the PC as a platform. During the last few years at Bioware I spent a lot of time working on the Xbox 360 and PS3 Platforms with an unannounced project that was killed, but my first love has always been the PC. We did the port of MDK2 to WiiWare as part of our agreement with Interplay. Our goal was always the production of the “HD” version for PC.
The first big gotcha with Nintendo was learning about the 40 MB size limit on Wiiware. We had to take a game which was 300MB and fit it down into 40 MB. We used a lot of advanced compression and hand coding of file formats and, at times, a machete, but we managed to make it fit. As a whole, we were pretty happy with Nintendo... right up to the certification process. We spent almost nine months in certification, from the time we submitted our first release candidate to the time the game was up for sale in the WiiWare store, mainly on tiny issues.
The joy of developing for any console is that it is a fixed target and all the hardware is the same. The downside is all the hassle that goes along with getting content to that platform. I'll always develop on the PC and port to other platforms, it just makes sense.
Which do you see your primary company, IdeaSpark Labs (of which Overhaul Games is a part) primarily focusing on in the next few years - making/remaking games, or selling them?
After Bioware and I parted ways, I planned on taking a year off to hang out and find myself. I lasted three days before I was going up the wall. I called Cameron, who was running an indie studio and we set up IdeaSpark Labs as an incubator. After a couple months we settled on Beamdog as our first project together and started development. Our goal was to fix the PC gaming experience and give credit where it is due. We don't want the attention, we want the developers to be the stars on Beamdog.
After launching Beamdog we looked at the best means to draw attention to our service and we looked at Valve and Half Life as an example. Steam was established with Half-Life 2. We felt that good quality games which were exclusive to our service could bring customers who would then hopefully fall in love with our ease of use and developer focus. Hopefully it'll work out!
And finally, that mysterious title. In your head, what do the initials MDK stand for?
I've put some "choice" words behind those three letters over the last year of work, stretching spelling to make some of them fit, but MDK was time-stamped for me by Demolition Man and Sandra Bullock: Murder Death Kill.
And there goes civilised society, just as the tabloids feared back in the 90s. Well, no matter. It had a pretty good run, all things considered. MDK2 HD is out soon, only on Beamdog .