Mike Levine

Crackpot Entertainment

Posted by Igor Hardy.
First posted on 07 November 2008. Last updated on 07 November 2008.
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Insecticide: Part 1

For many years, game companies such as LucasArts and Sierra had generously funded projects that brought them top quality, original IPs (Intellectual Properties) and landmark story driven titles. Since then, many of the talents behind those games had formed their own studios, in order to make games which they would retain ownership rights, though doing so without the previous benefits of large financial backing.

Among such companies is Crackpot Entertainment, currently enjoying its first release. The new title is filled to the brim with bugs and crime in a totally alternative vision of the future—a game which is simply called: Insecticide.

In the heat of production, Crackpot Entertainment thrives on the brilliant minds of individuals to the likes of Larry Ahern, Dave Grossman, Peter Chan, Peter McConnell, and Josh Mandel—all under the lead of the studio's founder, Mike Levine, who is personally involved in all of its development activities. Recently, we have been privileged to be given an opportunity to interview Levine about the challenges of designing Insecticide. In the interview, Levine also speaks to us about his longtime obsession with all things that are insects and the secrets behind his company's unorthodox game development model. Lastly, he drops us a few hints about the exciting potential of a more epic Insecticide sequel and maybe even a whole series of Insecticide games.

You had incorporated a distinctive film noir element when crafting the unique style of Insecticide. What were the less obvious inspirations for the game's atmosphere and story? How did the insect theme sneak into the midst of an otherwise classic detective thriller?

To be honest, the film noir stuff came after the initial inspirations, which were more classic detective films and TV shows that we grew up with and I was watching at the time, like HBO's "The Wire" or "Homicide", The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Sin City – the last one being where a lot of the over-the-top stuff came from and the original bent towards Film Noir came into it. Then Dave Grossman came on to help and made us watch a lot of old great Philip Marlowe pictures, and that also had a lot of influence.

As for the insects – we were tossing around a lot of crazy ideas at the time, for example, one idea was to have a "clown" detective living in a city of retired or out of work circus freaks. That also would have been pretty weird, but we didn't want to come off as the next "Shakes The Clown" so that died a fast death. But insects have always been something that amazed me, and being a fly fisherman, something I often think about. This seemed like a great way to explore the concept of them evolving and taking over the planet as the dominant species.

Insecticide features the story of a rookie cop named Chrys Liszt and a veteran cop named Roachy Caruthers working together as partners. What kind of relationship have you wanted to achieve between these characters? In terms of storytelling and gameplay, what are the potentials of a well-crafted sidekick in a game such as Insecticide?

Chrys and Roachy are the classic "mentor/veteran" cop takes on the new "rookie" on the force. But their relationship is deep and complicated. Roachy discovered Chrys living on the streets of Troi, and took her in under his wing. He taught her a lot, but Chrys has a sixth sense about things, and Roachy realizes sometimes he needs to sit back and let her do her thing. For this game, we used Roachy to provide you with information as you played the game, sometimes showing up in a mission, or being on the com-link to help you out. In the Detective levels, Roachy is often there, where you can walk up and talk to him for advice. Because of time and budget reasons we were not able to make Roachy a playable character, but if there is ever a sequel this is something we would like to do.

What inspired the design of the city of Troi? What particular locations from the game ended up impressing you the most from an artistic perspective?

Peter Chan, who I cannot praise enough, had so much to do with the overall look to the environments in Troi. Peter is a dear friend and one of a kind – no one does research like he does, and he dove fully into this as we knew he would. We spoke at length at the beginning, where we came up with many ideas on how the environments look like – he knew taking it too far in the insect direction would be a mistake – people need something human to latch onto ... then go from there. So we went after a look where the insects really built their new world "on top" of the old, decaying human civilization. I am impressed with a lot of the locations and how our artists brought them to life. The game begins in the bowels of the city, but by Episode 2 it opens up and the player gets to see some big impressive locations that are very different from the urban environments they begin.

How much did you study about the insect kingdom to gather source materials to use for jokes, plot points, and gameplay mechanics in Insecticide?

In short – a lot! As I mentioned, while by no means an entomologist, because of my fly fishing background, I tend to think about bugs more than the average person. But beyond that we all surrounded ourselves with books on bugs and insects. The characters and story points were heavily influenced by this. For example, Grubbs is based on a Rhino beetle which can lift 850 times its own weight! Quinbee, Roachy – it all came from initial research on insects.

An interesting aspect of Insecticide is that the game does not simply reflect some imagined alternate insect reality but also a twisted distant future of our own world. Through mutations, the human species has been reduced to a population of mean, degenerated critters. How do you feel gamers will react to the human characters in the game? Do they pity the remnants of their once great species?

That will ultimately be up the individual playing the game. For me, and I would like to think others, I take humor in our species, and the idea here was to play with the concept that humans are doing some dumb things right now to the environment, and the thought was if that continues, we would only continue to de-volve and get dumber and more pathetic. But the humans, or "Hominids" as the insects call them in Troi, while clearly up to no good in the story, are very much there for comic relief as well. They have been breathing toxic pollen for years in the story, and it has made them all a bit delusional. So hopefully most people will get a chuckle out of them, if not wonder if a duct-taped, vacuum breathing future is in store for us all!

LucasArts adventure games are known for off-beat puzzle solutions and imaginative combinations of inventory items. How similar or different in design are the adventure elements in Insecticide?

Well, I think in tone and execution they bare a lot of similarities, but we made a conscious effort to make our puzzles "fun" and not the type where a walkthrough would be required for 80% of the players. This was often the case at LucasArts (that's why they made official handbooks, they sold a lot of them!). So we wanted a lot of the quirkiness of those old games, without the headaches. At least that was the goal.

When designing the action elements in Insecticide, did you try to make them more appealing to gamers who are more accustomed to playing adventure games? How did you make the transition between action and adventure elements to blend into a single fluid gaming experience?

The idea for the action levels was to make them fun and challenging, but definitely more fun, and to appeal to people who weren't hardcore action gamers. We think those people will like the story and many aspects of Insecticide, but we don't want to fool anyone that this is the next Bioshock in terms of action – it's not. It's supposed to be fun, that was the goal.

With a company name like Crackpot Entertainment, were there any "crackpot" ideas that came up during the development of Insecticide which you said to yourself, "No! That is just going too far..."? If so, what were some of these ideas?

I am not sure if they were too far out there, or we just realized we didn't have the time or budget to do some of the things we hoped. We wanted entire levels or car chases, and other different types of gameplay every level, but we learned early on we had to hold on some of those and keep them for the sequel if we ever get a chance to make it!

How did you collaborate with Larry Ahern on the design of Insecticide? Did you prefer a lot of group brainstorming to perfect each other's ideas, or did you prefer to work in isolation from each other first to focus on different aspects of the game and then combine them later?

It was definitely a little of both. Larry and I are 3000 miles apart, so there was plenty of time to go off and think about it ourselves, but that was padded and structured around us having many long calls about the project and world. We spent years (literally) on the phone developing the world and story to get it to where it was. There is tons of stuff left on the cutting room floor that didn't make it into the game, that we hope to get to someday in another game, a film or comic book.

To what extent did you discuss with the game's artists Peter Chan and Peter McConnell on how the style and atmosphere should be like? How much did you feel that the game project had grown from its initial concepts through their imaginations?

I already mentioned Peter Chan, and the same goes for Peter McConnell – both bring SO much to table for their respective mediums and beyond that. Peter Chan came on board earlier than McConnell, so he had more influence on the early world and story of the game, but Peter McConnell worked very closely with us to come up with the right sound and vibe to bring Troi and the seedy characters who live there to life. I can't praise both of them enough for their contributions!

The Nintendo DS version of Insecticide has been released months ago and the PC version has also started distribution recently. What are the most interesting pieces of feedback you have received for the game so far?

We listened to what people said about the DS and have tried to put that to good use on the PC. I think the main thing we heard again and again on the DS was that people loved the Detective (adventure) levels, but were frustrated by the controls on the Action levels. They weren't saying they didn't like the action levels, just that the controls frustrated them. So with the PC we did a lot to make sure the Action levels had fluid controls. This is by no means an excuse, but the DS is not exactly a high powered machine, and we pushed it to its limits. Because we made a realtime 3d game that looked like a PSP or PS2 game, a lot of people expected it to play like those games, but that is just not possible on the DS.

Crackpot Entertainment had chosen to complete much of the development work for Insecticide through outsourcing, often hiring old acquaintances. Which parts of the game's development were outsourced? How successful has this development model proven to be? What were the challenges you faced working with outsourced personnel?

We feel our model is the wave of the future in games. For the most part it went great. I have another company, Pileated Pictures, and we have been doing projects like this for 9 years, without hitches. So this prepared me for Insecticide. Certainly having a large chunk of the team in Russia (Creat Studios), presented language and time barrier challenges, but we have worked through them. We did learn a lot and know we could do it even more efficiently if we had to do it again.

With Insecticide, it seems that you are only warming up to further mix-ups of different genres for fuller gaming experiences. Do you think gamers need additional encouragement to try out new hybrid types of games, or do you think gamers can embrace them equally well as the traditional genres?

I personally think there are millions of people out there who love video games, but for the most part stopped playing them. They may try out a GTA or Half-Life when it comes out – playing the biggest the medium has to offer, but for the most part, they have less time in their lives, and most games bore them and are repetitive. Humans crave new things. We love new music, new idea in films, art, anything. But games have gotten SO stagnant. We wanted to mix this up. We learned a lot. And yes, we have many ideas how to keep doing this as we move forward. We just need the budgets and time to be able to achieve these things.

You had worked on many classic LucasArts adventure games. Which game was the most fun and instructive to work on? Why?

Great question. I would be lying if I didn't say I learned something from every project I was on there. I was lucky to work on more projects than most people due to the nature of what I did, and it was all pretty educational for me. There was just so much talent packed in those Kerner buildings then, that no matter who you were working with, you were learning something. I started in QA in the "testpit" on Monkey Island 2 and quickly learned about pizza orgies and that breaking things were good. QA is a GREAT place for people to start in this industry, or at least it was at Lucas at the time, as it lets you learn it from the ground up. When I moved over to the art department soon after to work on Nintendo game levels, that was thrilling and a big moment, but I think for me working on the original Sam & Max and getting to touch every piece of art that went into the game and to sit next to Steve Purcell every day and learn from him (and laugh at and with him) was an experience hard to match. That project still had more all nighters pulled by me and others than any I can think of. But it was also more fun than most I can think of!

What changes to adventure games do you foresee in the all-too-near distant future when insects truly roam the Earth as the dominant species? Seriously, you can limit your predictions to a more immediate future if you wish.

Well, I have been saying for years, when adventure games kind of went away (I do think they are back now!), that they never really did go away. The things about them that were good, worked themselves into other games and genres (how many people told me KOTOR was their favorite adventure game that year!?) .... So, I think we will see this trend continue. To me "adventure game" doesn't mean puzzle solving per se – it means story and characters. If games continue to let people interactively experience these elements, adventure games will always be here. We are going to see much more intelligent NPC's that will take interactive storytelling and branching dialog to new levels. There is still much much more ground to cover and I can't wait to see what others come up with!

It has been a pleasure speaking with you.

Thanks for the great, insightful questions!

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