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A Conversation: Ken Lobb And Dean Dodrill

The recent launch of Dust:An Elysian Tail has captured the hearts of gamers around the world, including, some of the most well known names in the industry. One of those industry experts is Microsoft Studio’s Creative Director, Ken Lobb. Ken’s been a part  of the industry for more than 20 years, and at Xbox for more then 10 of them. With that many years making games chances are you’ve played at least one he’s had a hand in. During a recent conversation I had with Mr. Lobb he brought up his absolute obsession and love for Dust: AET.

It got us thinking — we needed to get this rising star and this game industry legend together! So  I reached out to each of them separately via email and asked them to provide 10 questions to be answered by the other….

The results and depth being more awesome than I ever imagined! Click Read More to view their awesome exchange!

 

 

Ken’s Note and Questions For Dean Below:

Ken’s Note to Dean: I have to say, Dust has jumped into my list of all time favorite games, and easily into the slot for the best game I have played this year. So to start, thanks for giving me a great game! Alex mentioned that she wants to do this cool back and forth interview, so here are my 10 q’s. (with a multi-part q in there somewhere) Looking forward to yours!

When did you start working on games?
Dean: I started right at the beginning of 2009.  I didn’t know how to program, but XNA was making the rounds and it seemed like a good place to dip my toes. I honestly thought I’d make a simple NES-era platformer, and had no intention of it becoming this massive project.

What made you decide to join Dream, Build Play?
Dean: I first heard about Dream Build Play the year that Microsoft offered a number of the 2008 runnerups on the 360 dashboard. I couldn’t believe that games made by single individuals were playable on my fancy console, since this was always strictly a PC thing. Shortly after beginning my game I read that 2009 would see another DBP, and I dropped everything to make as polished a demo as I could.  I didn’t think I’d place, let alone win. That was certainly a validating moment, and made me realize I needed to make Dust:AET a priority for myself.

Dust: AET  is clearly inspired by some greats. What was the one thing that pointed you at a brawler/Metroid/crafting/anime awesome game?
Dean: My original concept was very much 8-bit Castlevania. Very linear, bosses, a few powerups, and that was it. It didn’t take long before I wanted more. I love the Metroid open world style (Metroid, Blaster Master, later Castlevanias) and knew I wanted some sort of RPG element, with NPCs, leveling, and dialogue. My favorite era of gaming was around the 8 and 16 bit generations, and nearly everything in Dust:AET comes from there. Monster World with how money flies out of enemies, Cadash for world structure, Golden Axe for magical effects. The list goes on. If nothing else, I ‘borrow’ from the best. Thankfully saving player stats and worldstate are trivial with today’s consoles, so choosing an RPG with the Metroid format made sense. Finally, the crazy combat was inspired by my love for modern action games, and with some help and suggestions by indie superstar James Silva, I focused all my education on combining all of the above into a game. Every step of the way I had a secondary goal, and that was to see how far I could push the visuals. Current consoles are fast, but they have limits with speed and memory. I found it a personal challenge to try and make something unlike anything before. Or at least, something that looked like games the way I like to remember them.

When did you start playing games?
Dean: Wow, it’s hard to nail a date. I’m 36 now and have been gaming as long as I can remember. I do know my first ‘console’ was the Texas Instrument TI-99/4A, with its cartridges. Then the Commodore 64 with its floppies and cassettes. Load “*”, 8, 1. I imagine most younger gamers couldn’t even fathom running a game off of a cassette tape (or if they even know what that is). Then after that I went through the gauntlet of NES, TG-16, SNES/Genesis, 3D0/PS1/N64, and literally every console and handheld after. Honestly it’s a shame that it took me THIS long to actually make a game, since I’ve certainly been playing them forever.

What’s your all time favorite game?
Dean: This is an easy one for me, Ys Book 1 & II, an overhead action RPG by Falcom on the TG-16 CD. The Turbo-Grafx/PC-Engine also happens to be my favorite console of all time, and I think that influence shows in Dust:AET.

Ys in particular, it was a combination of an epic story, mindblowing graphics and cutscenes, and redbook audio that just made an impact no other game has. There is a certain innocence to that world, a sense of legends and heroes that I rarely experience these days. I’m afraid it might be too saccharine for today’s audiences, but I still try to do an annual play through to lose myself in what I feel to be a ‘real’ video game. I really do miss games from that era, which was partly responsible for me making Dust:AET.

I heard that you worked an interesting schedule over the last several months, care to share?
Dean: Haha, well, yes, I’ll say it was an experience for sure.  The entire production of Dust:AET was pretty rough, regularly putting up to 16 hours in every day without weekends off for 3 years. I got used to it, knowing that at one point it would hopefully pay off, and I genuinely enjoy working if I’m learning. The hardest part of it all was sacrificing time from my wife and young children. But again, there was this sense of “this is for the family”, which kept me motivated.

After PAX Boston earlier this year, the XBLA team and I agreed we should shoot for Summer of Arcade.  I basically condensed 10+ months of development into 3, and I was putting in 20+ hour days for the most of it.  There were weeks where I literally did not step out of the house, and family members would place food in front of me as I crunched on code and content. I’m generally pretty good at being self-motivated, but I admit that I went pretty crazy near the end.  On top of that, my third child, a little baby girl, was born during that last month.  The day she was born was actually the one half-day I had off, which was great for me (though not as much for my wife).

After submitting to cert I was still pretty busy, between a trailer, the media, and working with MS on Avatar stuff.  Even now I’m keeping busy sending out review tokens and trying to keep in touch with the fans that have taken to the game, but life is starting to get back to normal.  I did hit a pretty low point of depression right at launch, but from what I’ve heard from others that’s normal. Sending your child off to school and all that.

I’m not sure I’d want to go through that sort of crunch again, but it’s an experience I’m glad I had. I hope the game does well, and it’s always validating when someone tells me how much they enjoyed it.

When you started working on Dust, did you have any idea that what you were going to create was going to be this ambitious?
Dean: Not at all.  The plan was to do an 8-bit game and spend maybe 3 months, tops. My goal wasn’t really to make something for profit, I honestly just wanted to learn how to program, since it was a field that always fascinated me.  I was already an illustrator and animator, and the idea of making my artwork interactive sounded too good to be true.  The very first image I had in my mind was of a character running across a field with a herd of deer.  That actually made it into the final game.

I like to say I was a sponge for those first 6 months, leading up to my submission for DreamBuildPlay. Part of it might be that I was exercising a dormant part of my brain, since artists tend to avoid fields heavy in logic and math. I think it came very naturally to me, and as I continued to learn it became clear I wouldn’t be happy with my original concept.  I will say that after that initial period, I was probably over ambitious considering the schedule MS and I agreed upon.  Thankfully they were VERY patient with me and I give them all the credit for letting me create the game I wanted.

What was your most painful cut? Were there any? Or was this the advantage of being a one man team? (plus brilliant audio)
Dean: I think the most painful cut was a large section at the end. This was all done WAY before PAX, so it wasn’t cut to meet a release date. But late in 2011 I took a step back, looked at the last third of game, and realized it would be much stronger to end with the confrontation as it is in the shipped game.

Originally that confrontation would have been the end of Act II, but it would have made for a weak third act, especially since we had just been through this crazy war sequence. My cowriter, Alex Kain, who had joined around this time, helped convince me this would be best (and we agreed that the game needed to be finished at some point). As it is the game ends on a more satisfying note, and the war creates a nice buildup for the final confrontation. When I first made the cut, it was painful in that the endgame story was clear in my head from day 1. But after a couple weeks of rewriting I think the final game is much stronger for the cut. I will say I’m very happy these decisions were made before the craziness of PAX, because it would have been too risky to make such changes during crunch.

Being mostly solo, I was able to iterate very quickly and adjust content as needed. I can’t imagine a larger studio would be able to do that since so many signatures need to happen. It’s a lot more work, but it was always comforting knowing that I had the first and last word in every decision.

You have created something which I love, and I have heard the same from MANY friends in the industry. Has this sunk in yet?
Dean: Honestly it hasn’t. I mean, you’ve been involved with so many games and companies that I’ve cherished, back before I had any clue how games were developed. It’s always a thrill when a young gamer enjoys Dust:AET, but it means so much more when it’s gamers my age and older, because then I know I’ve struck a chord, and perhaps reminded them of something they loved in games but haven’t seen in a while.

I’m truly honored that you played through and enjoyed the game, it means more to me than you might know. It was a labor of love, a combination of my favorite genres, mechanics, and styles, but after nearly 4 years I had to wonder if it was still good. I’m thankful that Microsoft took a gamble and let me make this game, let alone release it during Summer of Arcade. When I first booted up XNA in 2009 I never thought I’d find myself here.

We need to go for a beer some time at some show, somewhere in the world. Where and when?
Dean: I actually have some family near Seattle, and have been told I could take a tour of Microsoft next time I’m up there. [Editors' note: Dean, you are welcome here anytime!!] I haven’t scheduled anything yet, but I’d love to do some sort of post-launch celebration thing and meet all the great people who helped make Dust:AET my little dream come true. Thanks!

Congrats on a brilliant game. I am thrilled that you decided to give this masterpiece to the world. It’s games like this that continually remind me just how much fun there is to be had, and how much talent resides in our industry.

Thanks!

Ken

 

Dean’s Note and Questions for Ken below:

Dean’s Note to Ken: Needless to say, I can’t put into words how I honored I am that Ken thought so highly of the game! Alright, and here are some questions for you Ken.

XBLA has showcased some great indie talent over the years. Was this the plan from the start (during Xbox 1), or more of a happy evolution?
Ken: Close! For those that remember, XBLA was sort of a small experiment at the end of the Xbox era. It was a disk with a few games, emulated. The idea was that a lot of people love the old greats, so why not build a place, one place, where our players could come to find the gems. It was already known that this would lead to something which was more formalized for the launch of the 360. At the time, I was running the publishing studio which made PGR. And again for those that remember, PGR 2 had an arcade cabinet in the garage… Geometry Wars. When Bizarre Creations started building Geo Wars for PGR3, I introduced them to the idea of XBLA, and helped convince them that it’s in XBLA where the game should really live. It was still in the garage in PGR 3, but the bigger, more complete version… that one received the day one XBLA treatment. At that time, we already knew that what XBLA should be is a place which could support all types of games, from emulated/updated classics, to the best games we could find which didn’t necessarily make sense in the retail space. It has blossomed far further than I had ever hoped, and I believe most of the XBLA team would agree, to a brand which can span everything from the excellent Dust, to bullet-hell shooters, from puzzle games to episodic horror. And every once in a while, a remake of an old arcade favorite.

I recall you wanting to work with Microsoft because you predicted that online was going to be a thing. Are you able to sleep at night being so right?
Ken: It wasn’t that hard to predict! But yes, the potential for online gaming was something pretty much anyone who loved to game could see, from the earliest days of death match and Subspace, to Killer Instinct on an X-Band, I wanted to have people to play with from the comfort of my gameroom. And Nintendo just didn’t seem to be heading that way back in late ’01 when I was making the decision to accept the offer from Microsoft. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome, both for LIVE as a great place to play, and working here!

Does your work/life afford you free time to play much these days? I think it’s great that you are still able to enjoy games having been in the industry so long.
Ken: I play games, it’s part of my job, isn’t that what everyone thinks!

Seriously, if I can’t play, how can I keep up? I learn as much from playing great games (and the mistakes from others in bad games), as I do building and helping people build games. I really encourage everyone, even in crunch, to make sure to play at least a few hours a week, to keep the perspective. We are making games, it’s hard. But it also has to be fun. Hopefully as much fun as when people get to play our games. More importantly, I just don’t seem to ever grow tired of games, I LOVE games.

I see others in the industry, or old gamer friends fall out of gaming, or weave in and out. That’s just never happened to me. I always have something I am hooked on, literally dozens of other games I am dabbling in on multiple platforms, and a nice pile of games I am anticipating. One great secret of life. ALWAYS enjoy the current day, don’t just live for the future. BUT, you should also always have something that you are looking forward to playing/enjoying. Anticipation is a powerful drug!

A lot of people remember you from Nintendo’s old Treehouse Staff, where you were credited in some of the greatest games of all time, ranging from Donkey Kong Country to GoldenEye 007 to Banjo-Kazooie. How do you see the games of today stacking up with the games we look back on so fondly from the 90′s?
Ken: It’s one of the reasons I love XBLA so much, the aesthetic, the design sense, the purity of the best from gaming’s early days has been able to make a comeback in digital. Of course, I really enjoy the latest and greatest huge blockbuster. Playing Darksiders 2 now, (along with NSMB 2 on my blue 3DSXL) But there was something magical and pure about the best from the past that is too often lost in today’s designs. So, the games of today stack up well, they are just different. But that purity, simplicity with depth, and replayability. These things I learned from playing and creating in the past still call to me.

Are there certain genres/styles that you wish would make a comeback?
Ken: They have! Side scrollers, and you shipped a KILLER!! Seriously, Dust, the side scroller with a unique twist, was lost in the last gen. How many were on Xbox, PS2, Gamecube? Almost zero. Now there are hundreds on XBLA, PSN, iOS, PC. I wish that there were even more. I also miss simple single screen co-op gaming. We have some of those, Castle Crashers is a great example. But where are games like GunSmoke? Ikari Warriors? Games like that, but with a modern twist, I would love some of that! With a nice leveling pull of course. Using the Dust engine, with your combat, for something like that… yea, that would work!

Do you own a physical replica of a Klobb from Goldeneye? And do you stroke it in front of potential business partners to instill fear and respect?
Ken: No, but that’s a good idea! Of course, based on its (lack of) accuracy, not sure how much fear it would bring! Of course, with one hit kills, dual wielded klobb’s were quite effective. Personally, my standby is remotes in the complex. Ah, memories!

 

 

Do you have a favorite game/series?
Ken: MANY!! Short list, hmmm. Crackdown is my all-time favorite game. It’s hard to describe why, but it’s just crazy fun to reset the bosses, and replay with my maxed character; I have done that a LOT of times, and can beat the whole game is about an hour. Crackdown 2 was fun, but Crackdown, yea, love it! Robotron is my second fav, I could play until I fell asleep when it was new, and it still is a blast on occasion. We have one in the building I get to when in need of a zen fix. The early Final Fantasy’s, the Halo series, Forza, Pretty much every Mario game, and I am a handheld junkie; I have them all and still enjoy the intimacy of gaming in my hand. On XBLA, the obvious set that everyone knows; though I have a few more gems I loved. Carcassonne, Outland, Bastion, Death Tank, Toy Soldiers, The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, Fusion; and of course Perfect Dark and the Banjo games!

Do you have a favorite game that you’ve been involved with, development or otherwise?
Ken:
Hard to choose from my babies! But Crackdown, KI, Goldeneye, Tetrisphere, and Low-G-Man (always love your first child!) come to mind. Seriously, I have had so much fun making games over the last 25 years, from in the trenches, to casual discussions with developer friends. I have more like a list of really fond memories than a single favorite game that I have had the honor of influencing/creating/signing. My favorite game I have been involved with I could say is the game of this industry!

We snuck in a nice little Killer Instinct homage into Dust:AET (as a quest name), and you were credited with doing some voice acting in that very game. Can we thank you for “C-C-C-Combo Breaker”?
Ken: I noticed! Nice :) I was Chief Thunder’s voice in KI, and Gargos’ in KI 2. You can thank me for the Combo Breaker concept, but that voice, that was the mighty Chris Sutherland.

I’ve enjoyed working with the XBLA team. While not really a question, I do hope you guys will have me again. I’ve grown quite fond of game development.

Ken: Count on it!! Where are the biz dev folks when I need them. You have my support for life. Awesome job on an awesome game. Thanks again for the fun, it would be an honor to help when it’s time for you to build your next masterpiece!

 

  • Anonymous

    Awesome feature, here – everytime I read his name I think of humiliating friends by taking them down using the Klobb. And DD has a great story (and a great game!) – thanks for the good read.

  • Anonymous

    What a fantastic read. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful idea, this has to be one of my favorite articles on here yet.

    Makes me happy to see Dean getting praise from people in the industry. Well deserved from my gamer point of view. I finished Dust last week. I think Dust sets a new standard for modern side scrollers. I am 28, I have played many side scrollers over many platforms(get it?lol) and this is one of my all time favorites. I hope after Dean takes some time to get some R&R that he will continue to make such amazing games.

  • Desert Crawler

    Good read, thanks for this article PXBLA. Ha, that gun was all about spray and pray. Good times.

  • http://www.twitter.com/neo_metatron Neo Metatron

    Thank you Dean from the bottom of my heart for keeping my childhood with DUST AET alive. I hope you rake in a ton of cash to make up for some quality family time, which you sacrificed to give us a 2D Metroidvania style game. I think it’s sad that Konami and Nintendo have abandoned that genre, but I’m so happy you stepped up and put yourself through all this to share your passion for those games with us! Here is to DUST AET and whatever comes next!

  • Fraglek

    Great read/idea for a story. Nice to see Dust getting so much good press.

    Microsoft should try to keep Dean as exclusive developer in the future. Cant wait to see what he comes up with next and Ill be sure to get the system his next game is on :)

  • Justin A Stewart

    Great interview Dust is an Epic Game with an Epic Story! I loved it! I will play more and more and more!

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