Boldly succeeding GoldenEye with a brand new franchise and lead character, PD introduced gamers of the year 2000 to Field Operative Joanna Dark, given the callsign 'Perfect Dark' for a record-breaking performance in training. She arrived with plenty of story-rich baggage in tow: a murky past, varying relations with colleagues and superiors at the Carrington Institute, a plethora of guns 'n' gadgets on hand and an increasingly intense – and violent – campaign for justice against the dataDyne Corporation.
WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!
I'm Ken Lobb, and I'm the creative director for Microsoft Game Studios.
WP: Can you tell us a little bit about how Perfect Dark came to Xbox Live? What differences or improvements are we going to see? A lot of people have emulators, so if you've got a Nintendo 64 emulator and you're running Perfect Dark in HD on your PC, what's the difference between that and playing Perfect Dark on Xbox Live?
KL: The difference is that if you're doing that, you're running emulation and you're looking at textures from the N64. What we did was take the original code, ported it to the 360, including deep Live integration. We used the same geometry from the original game, but with all-new textures. However, we also recreated the characters, recreated all the weapons, and rebuilt skyboxes so basically; all the art you see is all new.
Of course, anything that you could do in multiplayer in the original game, you can now do on Live. Co-op, counter-op, all the challenges in multiplayer are all playable on Live. You can even play the multiplayer part with eight players online. Do that with your emulator! (laughs)
WP: You talk about porting. Obviously, with the N64 being a MIPS machine, it's a lot different than the core on the Xbox 360. Was this a port from scratch? Did you do some high level emulation for the code? What's involved in the backend?
KL: It's a port from scratch. Partially, that's not our chipset, but it's more because we wanted to integrate Live, and when you want to integrate Live into code that wasn't online in the first place, it's actually easier to start closer to scratch. The geometry came out of the game, the music came out of the game, and the sound effects came out of the game. We had the original, so we have it at a higher bit rate. It's not emulation.
WP: You say music and sound effects are the original, just at a higher bit rate. So you didn't re-record anything?
KL: It's all from the N64. Again, it's from the original recording sessions. Obviously, for the N64, it had to fit on a cartridge, which was 16 MB. This is over 250 MB.
WP: You're redoing the visuals and the geometry's the same, but when you're testing it, were there any moves that worked on the original but you had to tweak for the Xbox 360?
KL: Good question. Actually, we didn't have any problem. A lot of that would be due to collision, and we tried to keep the collision super-true to the original. We kind of had to. We had all the location-based damage collision with weapons, and, as you mentioned, we need to whip through the environment and not get stuck on stuff. One of the things that we had to go through and make sure we got right — you could call it a challenge — was diagonal running. Originally, it's the way you do all your speed runs, by strafe running, and it didn't work when we first implemented the analog stick, so we had to go back and rewrite diagonal running so it would match what was happening on the N64. That's really the only different thing that kind of popped out when we were first playing: I can't run faster at an angle.
WP: The textures are looking cleaner, and the characters and guns have been redone. If the geometry's the same, how did you prevent everything from just looking large and blocky? Or does it still look large and blocky, only clearer?
KL: That's an exceptionally good question! That really wasn't my concern because again, we wanted to retain the original look, so yes, things are large and blocky because that's what PD looks like. The bigger concern that I had was, we were approximately 15 times the polygons added into the characters and weapons, and I was worried about them looking awkward in the low-poly geometry level design. It's one of the areas that I give a lot of credit to the developer on. It just looks right. They were smart about the way they up-resed the models so they still feel like they're kind of retro, but they're clean. It's one of the things that your memory tells you, "10 years ago, it didn't look like that! It was blurry and slow, and the characters had triangles for heads!" And yet, we didn't want to have a world where you have Halo-quality characters running around in a low-poly geometry world. We didn't want to have to redo all the geometry for the level design because we're making an XBLA game. We're not making a $50 million disc game.
WP: Talking about XBLA games and blocky looks, there is something of a retro resurgence going on. You've got Game Room. For the Wii, PS3 and 360, a lot of old games are coming back, and some of them are just straight ports. The retro look and feel is coming back into style, with Mega Man and Dark Void 0. What are your thoughts on that? Why do you think today's gamers are looking to the 8-bit NES and the N64? Is it a passing fad, or is there something to be said for games where the graphics don't overpower?
KL: Another way to look at that is casual gaming. From my perspective, I'm almost 50. My hands don't do exactly what they used to do. I like to jump back and forth between the latest and greatest uses-every-button, dual-analog game to things that are a little more casual and more difficult from a level design perspective but easier from a control input perspective. XBLA is a nice place where you can play with that type of paradigm. If you think about something like 'Splosion Man or Trials HD, they're super-deep games, but the interface is simple: one or two buttons and a direction or two. If you wanted to get good at those games, they're hard, but you just need to figure out the physics on Trials HD. It's not, "Where are the 13 buttons?" It's just a different style of getting depth out of a game. I do believe retro design mechanics are still as viable today as they were back then.
You mentioned Mega Man. Really good level design with platforming that's built on a good toolset is still fun today. I think it's cool with things like, whether it's XBLA or PSN or games on Facebook, seeing some of these styles resurface as fun is more about running up against the wall of things that you can do with today's system and controllers. There's a lot that you can do with those things, but stuff from 20 years ago is still fun.
WP: How long did it take to develop Perfect Dark XBLA, from start to finish?
KL: It was about 11 months. We spent a few months before that working on a prototype, and then once we decided to do it, that was 11 months ago.
WP: Did any of the experiences from doing Banjo benefit this game, or are they completely different games and completely different projects with nothing to carry over?
KL: They're actually completely different engines, but it did help because we used the same developer. 4J in Scotland did all three: Banjo, Banjo-Tooie and Perfect Dark XBLA. Part of it was the relationship built. They're very technical, they're very capable of doing what we wanted them to do, and we've kind of moved up the complexity chain. Banjo was relatively simple, Banjo-Tooie was more complex and Perfect Dark XBLA is way more complex. They're a great partner, and we had a great time working with them.
WP: Everyone always asks about GoldenEye. You've got a developer who's very familiar with porting games from the N64 to the Xbox 30. What other third-party games from the N64 era would be on your wish list to bring to Xbox Live?
KL: That's a good question. It's interesting because arguably, some genres work and some don't. Something that pops into my mind is Beetle Adventure Racing! or Tetrisphere. I'd love to play some Nintendo games on Xbox Live Arcade. Come on, Miyamoto-san! Bring me Mario 64! OK, so that won't happen, but there are definitely some great games on the N64 that would be great to see come over. The same goes for the NES, SNES and the Genesis. I'm an old-school guy; I've been playing since the ColecoVision and Atari 2600 days. I think things like Game Room and XBLA allow me, in some ways, to bring some of these games forward and release them so that — I have a granddaughter — my granddaughter can play someday. It's cool.
WP: If you had to sum it up in two to three sentences, what really makes Perfect Dark XBLA a game that's worth playing?
KL: Online. It's like you get to play PD with your old college or high school buddies no matter where they are. I know many millions of people used to get together with their buddies in their dorm room or at their house and play. By being able to bust out this nostalgia and get it on Live, it's just good fun. I know I've been doing it, and I'm sure other people will have the same fun.
WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?
KL: We have a pretty amazing lineup for 2010. I'm really happy with this generation [of consoles]. The generation is now going on its sixth year since we shipped the 360, and yet you look around [at this event], and I want to play everything. As a gamer, I'm super happy. It's a great time to be playing games.
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