When Ken Lobb defected to Microsoft in 2002 after nine years of service as Nintendo’s development manager, his name was already shrouded in an aura of industry reverence. Often an unseen influence, he was perhaps best known as the designer behind Killer Instinct (and the voice of Chief Thunder); the Nintendo-side support for GoldenEye 007, lending his name to its infamously terrible firearm; and the executive producer of Command & Conquer. Since becoming the creative director of Microsoft Game Studios, he’s maintained that mystique, remaining unknown to many players but popping up in the credits of such games as Crackdown, Gears Of War, Fable and Project Gotham Racing. Killer Instinct’s recent rebirth has returned him to the public eye, but here we ask the industry veteran to talk about the thoughts and processes that inform the Xbox One lineup, the console’s technical teething troubles, and new Microsoft studio Black Tusk.
You began your career as a designer, but these days you oversee many studios. Do you miss the chance to be hands-on with your games?
I do miss the ‘I’m going to build one thing and focus on it heavily’ thing, but the reality is that I get to touch anywhere from ten to 20 things. I don’t do it in passing. I get to decide which thing I’m going to go focus on for a day, a week, a month, and still keep my eye on everything else that’s going on. I like to help make teams think about how they can make their games ten points better once things have already been built, rather than help them pick apart the bugs they already know about. I tend to be playing four or five things at a time, too, but there are games that I’ll focus on. Assassin’s Creed IV wiped my slate for a week. But in general, I’ll be playing two or three things at a time as a gamer, and I’ll be working on four or five things at once. I enjoy it.
How much has the way you develop games changed to respond to the way people play these days?
I believe the industry is changing in terms of what I call ‘time slice management’. It used to be we would build games thinking, ‘How often do I let someone save? How long is a level? What’s the reward loop and how long is it?’ The way I urge a lot of my designers to think nowadays is: if you’re a console game, you know that a lot of players aren’t going to turn you on unless they have more than 15 minutes to play. I’m OK with ten-minute levels on the tablet, but I still prefer to play tablet games where I know I can turn it off in a minute. The reality is we architected Xbox One to be fast, to let your games load quickly, and with the HDMI in, [fast enough if] you want to [play a game] on a commercial break. Being able to think about game design in terms of different time slices is what creative designers need to be doing nowadays. There should be parts of a game I can play just for a minute and it’ll be rewarding. But I also want big quests, because console games are about sitting on a couch, kicking back and playing for three hours.
Instant resume is one of Xbox One’s distinguishing features, but thirdparty developers are struggling with some of the console’s other architectural elements. Are your studios facing similar difficulty with the system’s ESRAM and hitting 1080p?
Any time you have a new piece of technology, there’s always going to be a learning curve, and we are in the first couple of months. Anybody who worked before with [360’s] EDRAM has some advantage over other developers now with the RAM.
You’re a creative person who’s been involved in the development process for a very long time, so how do you balance the need for Microsoft to have a comprehensive portfolio with your own desire to develop unusual games?
Well, regarding the portfolio, we look at a bunch of things people want to make and then we have to make decisions. I’ll take an easy one: do we really need FPS number five? In a world where we’ve already done well in that space? So maybe it’s better to work on something like Project Spark. Here’s a team that wanted to do this super-creative thing built on top of Kodu – something that came out of Microsoft research – but it takes a long time to build these things. The original design on Spark is pre-Minecraft. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, look at this creation thing people are doing.’ When you look at it from a portfolio perspective, it’s like, ‘Great, we have a game in the creation space, which is super big.’ But that’s not where that game started. It started from a core group of people that were passionate about create as play, play as creation, not because of some portfolio slot. If we end up with voids in our portfolio, the reality is that thirdparties fill all voids. You don’t have to do a game to compete against a thirdparty; it’s already on our platform.
Do you feel that Microsoft has, under the Microsoft Game Studio umbrella, the diversity that Sony has?
Absolutely. I’ve been publishing for a long time, and I hesitate to say I know everybody, but I know a lot of people in the industry that I can go out and hire to work either internally or [in a] publishing relationship. That can sometimes lead to things like the Double Helix experience [the Killer Instinct developer was recently bought out by Amazon], but to be honest, although I feel bad about it, I feel great about it. I think we added value to Double Helix by both signing them, and then helping them reach their dream of shipping this game. Again, all credit to them, but we helped them get better. And you could say it sounds kind of lame and altruistic, [but] I like when we sign an external partner and their value in the industry goes up. That’s a goal I always have. How do we help external developers get better at what they do? I think we do it really well. And in that sense, I can get whatever I want.
To answer your question in a different way, we don’t slot fill. It’s not a game we play. I want to go and find developers that want to make a game that they think is perfect, and then we’ll decide if that is something that’s interesting to us from a business perspective and also from a portfolio perspective. [But it’s] not, “Gee, I need a fighting game. I should make one of those.”
But wasn’t Turn 10 essentially created to compete with Polyphony and Gran Turismo?
Not really. You can look at the business [side] and say that Turn 10 was built to compete, but the reality was that we had a bunch of car fanatics who really wanted to have a go at making a racing game. The core of that team was there the two years before Forza 1 shipped. It wasn’t leadership coming down and saying, “We must build Polyphony. Let’s create a team.” It was from passion first. That’s where Forza came from.
When you’re working with the likes of Turn 10 and Double Helix, do you make demands of your teams to mix long and short gameplay loops, to take advantage of instant resume, and so on?
I like that word, ‘demand’. No, I demand nothing of the partners that I work with. I think that’s the publisher’s role to convince our partners, ‘Here’s these cool features; you might do something like this stuff.’ We find them because they have a great game and not because they’re going to follow some demand for some platform feature they must support. I need to be able to convince them that this stuff is cool and it’s going to make their game better. If they disagree, then great, then I’ll talk to them about the next thing I think could make their game better, which is maybe a [hardware] feature and maybe it’s not. My job, and the job of my team, is to help the developer make their best game.
You talk about studios with innovative ideas and not making demands, but Microsoft built a studio expressly to have an innovative idea: Black Tusk, which pitched a new idea at E3. So why then put that team to work on Gears Of War instead?
I actually have tons of respect for Chuck [Osieja, creative director] and all the guys up at Black Tusk. I think the reality is what we have is innovative Gears Of War. That’s what I believe they’re going to make. They’re an internal studio, but the reality is it’s cool to have [an IP] that can be a grand slam right out of the gate. The concepts they’ve been toying with are awesome. You take what they were thinking about and their expertise on Unreal Engine 4, because that’s what they’ve been playing with since their founding, and really go with the IP. Again, this was a mutually agreed thing. It’s not, “Here’s this thing you must take.” That’s not the way Phil [Spencer] works; that’s not the way we work.
Rare has proven itself to be a house of ideas in the past, working with you at Nintendo. That innovation was evident in Viva Piñata and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, so why is the studio now tasked with Kinect Sports and other Kinect apps?
It’s easy to forget that Rare created the avatars; that was their idea. It wasn’t like someone said, “Hey, we need these characters to live in the shell.” It was Rare creating this thing that they wanted to get in a game, and it was Rare super-excited and engaged very early on with Kinect that led to Kinect Sports. It’s not like this was Phil or Don [Mattrick] or somebody going, “Thou shalt build this thing.” We’ll see what they’re doing next; it’s up to them. I will say I’ve played Kinect Sports Rivals and it’s a Rare game. It’s the only way I can describe it.
Our studios run themselves as relatively independent studios. They have very strong voices in the decisions about what they should be working on. I loved Viva Piñata; I loved Nuts & Bolts. Naysayers can say what they want; I always wanted Banjo 3, too, but I loved Nuts & Bolts. Rare used to sell millions of everything they made, and I think it’s the audience that helped them [decide what to make next]. Piñata was one of the best games Rare ever made and I wish it would’ve sold millions, because it was super-creative and I love the direction it took Rare. But every group of people wants to continue to do what they love doing. The original Kinect Sports was their best seller as an Xbox-owned developer; that’s why they would go and do another one.
It’s interesting that Double Helix was tasked with Killer Instinct rather than Rare. It otherwise seems like a project you kept very close.
[Double Helix] gave us their best pitch for Killer Instinct and that was a prototype that was playable. I was deeply involved in Killer Instinct 1 and 2 working at Nintendo with Rare. I designed the core combo system and worked closely with them on basically every character on the game and all the animations. It’s an IP that I love dearly, both from the memory of working with these guys and also because it’s kind of fun to go to the arcade and win a lot. I was able to bring some of that back. [Creative director] Adam Isgreen ran the product internally, and we had a bunch of great designers working with Double Helix to make the game. That was a game where I went literally no more than two or three days without looking at it for pretty much the whole time it was in development. I love the genre, so I cared a lot about making sure the game was balanced.
How do you transfer the expertise Double Helix gained making the game to another studio now that Killer Instinct has been handed on?
Well, we helped Double Helix. [The studio] was already in a very good state. They had a good understanding of what Killer Instinct was and had some fans. We brought in Mike Z [Skullgirls designer Mike Zaimont] as a consultant. He’s a huge Killer Instinct fan, and part of my push was that it needs to make Killer Instinct fans happy, but it needs to be modern, clean, balanced and broader than the original game was. Adam Isgreen is a longtime fighting fan and a brilliant designer going back to the Westwood days. We also have James Goddard internally under me, who is a designer who worked at Double Helix in the past and, of course, he also did Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting back in his days at Capcom. We [Microsoft Game Studios] were very involved in the design of every character in the new KI, and it’s just going to continue as we go forward. What I’m saying is: we were deeply involved in Killer Instinct. We were deeply involved in the creation of the game; I don’t want to put a percentage on it, but both sides were responsible for the product that shipped. All of the credit in the world to Double Helix – they did a fantastic job and I wish them all the luck in the future. I wish we were doing a next version with them, but the reality of the business is that sometimes that doesn’t work out. We’ve already got a solution I think players will be happy with.
Is staying largely hands-off as creative director the way you worked in your Nintendo days?
It’s something I learned from the very first games I worked on, even when I ran them. The reality is that a game is made up of a team of people that are all at some level creative. They want to have some voice; they want to have some ownership. And while I’m talking about a team that I’ve signed for potentially tens of millions of dollars, part of what I’m signing is their passion and their ownership of their idea. So I can’t ever get to the point where a developer just says, “Tell me what to do and I’ll go do it.” It doesn’t help to go and take the world’s best artist and give him a bunch of tasks to draw pretty pictures. We’ve signed you – we know you can draw pretty pictures.
You’ve been credited on hundreds of games between Nintendo and Microsoft. Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which was the most satisfying?
Super Metroid is one of the games I’m most proud of, but I didn’t have that much to do with it, other than playing it and making suggestions. And bingo: I ended up in the credits. That was super-awesome. I’m a huge Metroid fan. I ran XBLA for a few years, and one of the first games I signed was Shadow Complex. With Shadow Complex, we had a group of people that knew exactly what they wanted to make. It was just really fun saying, “Here’s the core of what I think makes a Metroid game. Think about speed running. Think about secrets and breaking the game.” These things are in a perfect Metroid game, like I would say Metroid Prime ended up being. Someday, [let’s have] Shadow Complex 2, guys, please! Someday! I also helped kick off Metroid Prime before I left Nintendo, and went through the whole “Why are you doing it firstperson?” thing. Fun times.
Did you have to fight for the firstperson viewpoint?
Not internally. The fight, in the pre-Internet world, was that we were getting a lot of pressure from fans. Nowadays, you’d be buried under Twitter, NeoGAF – both of which I love, by the way – but those voices are even louder today than they were back then. It comes back to a lesson I learned a long time ago: always listen to your customer, but also understand that if you do focus testing what you’re going to hear is, “I want that thing you did last time, because that was awesome.” Every once in a while, you have to learn to not listen to that and go, “Actually, Metroid in firstperson we think could make more sense.” Great creatives are going to disrupt their earlier designs and make things that are new, or build completely new games or new genres.
In the future, how will you and your developers manage working with new hardware?
I think the biggest transitions were to 3D way back, but in the last generation [transition], there hasn’t been a dramatic change between 360 and Xbox One. A little more so on the PS3 to PS4 side, just because of the complexities around their architecture has moved them a bit more towards a traditional design. But at the same time, the reality is that we now have very high-res textures and incredibly detailed models, and asset creation becomes a bigger and bigger portion of the challenge of great game design. When you have multimillion-poly cars, or you have hours of performance capture that needs to be mocapped, plus acting and audio all happening at the same time, you get complexities in content creation that are not necessarily harder than they were, but clearly they’re more complex. That’s the biggest impact on the transition. What’s interesting for me, though, is at the same time you have Minecraft as the number-one-selling game of all time. I think that’s beautiful… We’ve cracked the uncanny valley and now a broader portion of the audience is starting to appreciate design as much as art. To me, that’s the ultimate next gen. The next generation is where we can create high-definition content, and yet I can still play cool, abstract, creative content and have both sides compete for game of the year. I think that’s the next gen.