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Rag Doll Development – An Interview With Rag Doll Kung Fu's Mark Healey

December 6, 2005
 

Being a game designer is not unlike being a wandering kung fu master: job security is minimal, loyalty is priceless, and there is always someone out there to challenge one's skill. But most of all, the will to act is the primary keeper of stability, and creator of change. Mark Healey began masterless, teaching himself the art on a Commodore 64, hammering out BASIC code in dutiful repetition, as if striking a block of wood repeatedly until his fingers grew numb and bloody. These early efforts earned him his first job at Codemasters when he was nineteen; a few years after he met someone who, for a time, would act as a sort of sensei: Peter Molyneux.


The Horned Reaper from Dungeon Keeper.

Mark worked at Bullfrog, where he worked on Magic Carpet and a certain reverse-RPG, “you should know I did 90% of the graphics for Dungeon Keeper - the Horny is my baby, she's based on an ex-girlfriend of mine.” When Bullfrog become overly corporate and Peter left to found Lionhead, Mark followed, and worked as the first artist at the new company.

After working on Black and White and amid a bit of work late in the production of Fable, Mark started making his own title, like a puppet pulling its own strings, and almost single-handedly developed Rag Doll Kung Fu, released on October 12, 2005, over Valve's Steam network.

Not only did Mark program, design and graphically illustrate his pet project, he also starred in the filmed cut-scene movies, like Orson Welles, but with kung fu. What are the secrets of personal empowerment that could allow a man to so expertly create a polished independent project without corporate funding? Gamasutra traveled long and far up the misty mountains that are the international cellular network to track him down and hear the answers for ourselves.

Ludic Chi

GS: Rag Doll Kung Fu sports a very elegant control scheme centered around the concept of “Chi,” how and when did this underlying aspect of the design occur to you?

MH: Well it's just based on how my body works. That seems to be the most direct way of talking about it - how I move my body. It was almost as though I worked out how I control myself, but I have to do it by the computer: the mouse became an extension of my will.

GS: Were you influenced by any gesture interface work in particular?

MH: Yes. I remember playing a demo where you could push crash dummies down some stairs, I forget what it was called, maybe it was "Stair Dismount" or something like that. I almost got a little buzz that you could be like a puppeteer.

GS: Some have complained that the control scheme has a rather steep learning curve. Do you see this as a necessary evil since there are only three input channels?

MH: To some extent, yes. My original goal was to make a game that you could improve at. As for the experience of starting it, I've been involved for so long that I almost forget. It's like walking, it comes eventually and then you forget what it's like [not to be able to walk]. Not to say there isn't room for improvement. But there comes a point when you're playing, and it suddenly clicks, and you're like: “Wow - I know kung fu.” Then it becomes very fluid and you end up jumping around a lot, doing plant attacks.

GS: If game and story had a kung fu fight, what would be the outcome?

MH: That's an interesting question. I'm not really read up on the whole intellectual argument, but as far as games across the spectrum I would say - well, depressingly it would probably be some sports game that would win, in terms of what's most popular. But if it was down to me, and who would win, it would be a title like ICO. This is the new ICO I'm talking about: Shadow of the Colossus. It's like a real nice experience as much as I've played.


Rag Doll Kung Fu in action.

The Games Like Me

GS: What inspired you to utilize psychedelic mushrooms as a gameplay mechanic [in Rag Doll Kung Fu]?

MH: [Laughs] Oh, I dunno, um, I could say Mario did.

GS: That would be a good alibi.

MH: Yeah exactly. I have experienced magic mushrooms in my youth.

GS: There's a lot of drug influence in other art forms such as music and film, what is your assessment of games in that regard?

MH: That's a tricky one, because I'm pretty sure the good game designers in this industry have had drug experiences. Not all, but many. I suppose you could say that for all crafts.

GS: Do you feel drug use is underrepresented or too narrowly represented in games as opposed to other media?

MH: As in it being part of the content of the story? I don't know, I suppose there are films that have revolved around people taking drugs. Video games seem to have a huge pre-occupation with violence, don't they? Most games seem to focus on some form of crime and violence.

GS: And yet there's very little counter-cultural representation, its more straightfoward crime and violence.

MH: Yeah exactly, but some games are designed to be enjoyed by stoners, that's for sure.

GS: What games in particular match that description?

MH: Things like Rez on the PlayStation… actually maybe all games, now that I think about it.

Iron Eggs Technique

GS: The cinematics in the single-player mode are drenched in cult appeal with obvious homage to ‘70s era chop-suey flicks. Which films in particular most influenced the aesthetic of the gameplay and cutscenes?


Cinematic scenes like this, starring Mark Healey, were inspired by a mix of Enter the Dragon and Benny Hill.

MH: Bruce Lee, Enter The Dragon, definitely. And maybe Benny Hill, who was an old British comedian who had nothing to do with kung fu, but he used really dodgy camera tricks.

GS: So we're talking a zero budget for the cutscenes?

MH: Yeah, basically. We ended up spending about fifty pounds for some plastic swords and headbands. We borrowed a video camera and just improvised. It was just a couple a friends who decided to make a stupid kung-fu film. There was never any plan. It's amazing it came out as well as it did.

GS: Rag Doll Kung Fu was mostly a one-man production that features integrated, bug-free gameplay and professional visuals. Would you say it's possible to make quality titles with only passion and free time?

MH: Yeah. I do agree that passion is a vital ingredient. Passion is essential. You can tell some games have got a bit of soul and the people who made them really cared, and others you can tell [were] just rolled out the factory. With spare time, it's all a matter of the passion that motivates you. I had to pay bills and a mortage, I would've prefered to be able to spend all my time on it and just geek out.

GS: How much prototyping did you do before diving into a concentrated production?

MH: That's a tricky one because the way RDKF evolved, there wasn't a clear prototyping phase and development phase. I would come into work with an idea about how a character would move and put it down with the pen. The basic prototype, on paper, was about thirty minutes of notes with a lot of scribbles.

GS: What's the word on a DS version?

MH: I actually got, before the game was released, a call from Nintendo, and I was very excited since they're my heroes, to talk about doing that. They wanted to do an exclusive deal, and I had already almost completed the PC version and I thought it would be a crime not to release it and wait for a potential DS version. Other companies have talked to me about a PlayStation version. We actually managed to get Rag Doll Kung Fu working on an Xbox in a day, that's a testament to how simple my code was, but the gamepad setup wouldn't work, it would have to be a total redesign.

The Matrix That Sold Rag Doll

GS: Do you consider Rag Doll a casual gaming title?

MH: I'd like to think it could be a casual game. But the diffuclity of mastering the movement tends to put it in the hardcore market. I'd like to see Rag Doll be more of a chat game, where you can sort of… act, like the old emoticons. But I think to capture that it would have needed a much simpler control mechanism.

GS: What are the prospects of online distribution in your eyes?

MH: I think it's a fantastic thing, especially for the industry, because it cuts out so many middle-men, and you can definitely make a living out of it. I've had some friends who've left Lionhead and did online games and they made some serious money out of it, more than they made at Lionhead. There was a racing game that they released for the PC which was basically made by 3 people. It could easily compete with any commercially-developed racing games. It's all about passion. If you make a game, no matter how silly or dark it is, you can put it online and find a market, that's how powerful a thing it is. I certainly think the industry as a whole is going much more that way.

GS: I was referred to Rag Doll through a post on GamesAreArt.com, it seems like there's a burgeoning indie community that's picking up pace on the net. What's your take?

MH: I love that, it's like people are trying to help each other instead of compete. It's the ultimate word of mouth. It's a completely different vibe and atmosphere than writing a game for a company's bottomline. It think it's great.

GS: Was fanbase building a big part of the marketing?

MH: There wasn't really any marketing, to be honest, other than advertising on Steam itself. There were some bits in various magazines, previews and all that. There was never any sort of campaign. Sure, when the game was released, we did a bit of a press release, but that's all to my knowledge.

GS: How have you been tracking the online multi-player activity?

MH: When the game first went live, there was a lot of people making skins and getting in, then it sort of trailed off. But there's been this sort of small hardcore that's been steady. I've been getting a lot of nice e-mails of people getting LANs together and having sleepless nights. I've gone on and played a few times myself and seen just tremendous skill, you know, getting my ass handed to me.


Rag Doll Kung Fu multi-player.

GS: Rag Doll Kung Fu over Steam, not the new Battle.net, but still a robust community?

MH: Oh yeah there is. One thing I loved before the game came out was the custom skins people had, it's been exciting to see what people would do with that. That's why I'm excited for when the map editor comes out and people start making their own little arenas.

GS: How good are you at your own game? Really.

MH: There're definitely people who have gotten better than me. I would honesty say that if there was a world ranking, and that's something I'd really like to setup, so you can log on and see the number 1 as something to aspire to, I'd say I'm probably 4 or 5. So pretty good actually.

GS: What style do you use?

MH: I haven't got a name for it.

GS: Maybe Screaming Mongoose?

MH: Heh, actually I'd call it Flying Viper Style. One of the golden rules of flying viper is if you're standing in the middle of a mushroom patch and you can eat them, then eat them. Then you've got to aim to attack where the enemy is going to be, rather than where they are. Its important that you fly effectively to use the attacks. It makes for an incredibly good score in the long jump.

Contented Players Creating

GS: You mentioned releasing a level editor, what's your take on player-created content?

MH: I said before about the user character skins -I get a real buzz seeing those. When I first got into making computer games, if I'd put in some code and see a character moving on the screen, that would be a big deal. If I can let the players make their own characters and sort of have their part in the game, that's a real acheivement to me. With Rag Doll the graphics are 2D, so that makes it somewhat easier than if they had to model in 3D. Some of the skins I've seen are really quite terrible drawings, but the fact that they took the time gives me a real buzz. It just adds so much personality.

GS: Do you see the production model shifting in the future? Perhaps toward individual auteurs or small teams?

MH: It's quite likely that that sort of thing will exist and we'll see better and better examples of that. But we'll always have the EA production line making "FIFA 10000," I mean look at the film industry: Hollywood churns out these stock blockbusters, but there are people who still decide to do something human on their own. I'd like to see more of that thing with computers and there certainly will be, but that doesn't mean the factory will cease to exist.

GS: Do you agree that procedural literacy is essential for a game designer?

MH: I certainly think it helps a lot, absolutely, in the same way that if a game designer wanted to craft a computer game, it'd be like someone wanted to craft a statue and wanted to hire someone to do it for them... it would definitely help if they understood sculpting techniques. That doesn't mean that someone who can't program, can't have great ideas.


All the cutscenes were filmed with a consumer video camera.

The Room

GS: Tell me this about the new project, will it take the customability of Black and White to a new dynamic?

MH: I have to very ambigious here, let me think about my answer before I give it. I can say it'll be technically amazing, and Peter thinks it's amazing. Very unusual, hard to fit into any genre.

GS: You're doing some good advance press.

MH: [Laughs] What can I say? It's creativity in collaboration, that's a major part of it.

GS: Is this a big studio deal like Fable, or a small team deal?

MH: Currently it's a very small team, like 3 people, but the way we're making it is very fluid and organic, it's very hard to say you know.

GS: Could you tell what the primary game mechanic is? I know I'm pushing the legal limit.

MH: Peter talked about it at his GDC presentation, remember “The Room?" That's basically what we've been working on. The game is just playing with oddness, it could become one of ten different games really, it's hard to say without giving too much away.

No Strings Attached

GS: What's it like working under Peter Molyneux? Is he hard to work for?

MH: I've got an amount of sympathy [for him], I've worked for him for a while. I never really thought of myself as working for him, more with him, though he did pay my salary. He isn't like someone with a single idea of the game who goes around enforcing it, it's more like he gives in and let's people have their input. That's really Peter's great skill, when he started Lionhead it was just a small number of people, it was like a soup with all these ingredients and he would just sort of stir it. I've really learned a lot from Peter.

GS: So there are definitely more people that could design excellent titles beyond big names such as Wright, Molyneux, and Miyamoto.

MH: Well, most of the time, those people are figureheads for large teams… it would be interesting to see who really designed the games, on the team. But I suppose it's easier for people to remember a single name than a whole team, isn't it? It's really similar to the film industry, like Steven Spielberg, he's got all these people working on his films that you've never heard of, but he seems a bit fanatical so people remember him as the filmmaker.

GS: Would you rather be in the corporate hierarchy or an auteur?

MH: I'd prefer to do the auteur thing, maybe with some friends. I prefer to think of game development as like a band instead of an insurance company. And great if you can have the philharmonic orchestra [with] mass chemistry, but it's hard enough pulling that off with small groups.

GS: Say I want to make a Kung Fu game where you can jack knife through a foe's solar plexus and twist out his heart while crowing Bruce Lee style. How long before physics technology allows such a title to function with as sleek a control scheme as yours?

MH: It's possible now I'd say. It's less about technology and more about interface design really.

GS: The future of the interactive entertainment, ten words or less.

MH: That's a tricky one – new input devices and… what'd you'd call feedback – how many words was that?

GS: 8, not counting contractions.

_____________________________________________________


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