Creative director of Microsoft Game Studios Ken Lobb explains how Black Tusk came to work on Gears Of War and why Double Helix developed the Killer Instinct reboot ahead of original creator Rare in the new issue of Edge magazine. It is published on Thursday April 10 and you can subscribe now in print, on iPad, Google Play and Zinio.
Within our extensive interview, Lobb discusses his current role overseeing Microsoft Game Studios’ output, as well as his time at Nintendo, where just before his departure for Microsoft he was involved in the discussions that took place around turning Metroid into a firstperson adventure – the game that became GameCube classic Metroid Prime.
In his current role, Lobb is an influential figure across all Microsoft-developed projects, though he says he gives his studios room to be creative. New firstparty studio Black Tusk, though originally conceived as a ‘new ideas’ studio, was recently placed in charge of the Gears Of War series after Microsoft bought the IP from Epic Games. We ask Lobb how Black Tusk got the job, and why. “I actually have tons of respect for Chuck [Osieja, creative director] and all the guys up at Black Tusk,” he tells us. “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.”
He also explains why Double Helix – which has since been acquired by Amazon – created the recent Killer Instinct reboot rather than original developer Rare, which is now owned by Microsoft.
“[Double Helix] gave us their best pitch for Killer Instinct and that was a prototype that was playable,” says Lobb. “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,” continues Lobb. “[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.”
Lobb later adds that he wishes he’d been able to continue to work with Double Helix on a sequel, though Microsoft now has plans for the series that Lobb thinks “players will be happy with.”
Expanding upon the subject of Rare’s place within Microsoft Game Studios, Lobb added that what the studio does next after Kinect Sports Rivals is “up to them” – pointing out that the studio’s work on Kinect games was its choice, not some mandate sent down from the upper echelons of the business. ”Our studios run themselves as relatively independent studios,” says Lobb. “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.”