An Au­di­ence With…

Mi­crosoft Mi­cros Game Stu­dios vet­eran Ken Lobb Lo dis­cusses Xbox One’s lineup and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges


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 su­per­cre­ative 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 high­def­i­ni­tion 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.

As­sas­sin’s Creed IV is one of only a few re­cent games to steal Lobb’s at­ten­tion in its en­tirety for a week

Lobb has al­ready been in­stru­men­tal for Xbox One, over­see­ing part­ners such as Cry­tek and Dou­ble Helix on the way to launch

At the time of writ­ing, the slate of games Lobb’s play­ing in­cludes Tomb Raider, Killer In­stinct, Juice Cubes, XCOM on iPad, Shad­owrun, ALink BetweenWorlds and Tear­away, which he de­scribes as be­ing “a beau­ti­ful, gor­geous game with cool de­sign”

Lobb stayed closer to Killer In­stinct’s 2013 re­boot than any other game in the Xbox One launch lineup, even re­turn­ing to pro­vide the voice of Thun­der


&Bolts wasn’t well re­ceived in 2008, but Lobb loved the game, whose flex­i­ble DIY com­po­nents were ahead of their time

Su­perMetroid re­mains one of Lobb’s all-time favourite games and was in­stru­men­tal in his sug­ges­tions to Shadow Com­plex cre­ator Chair

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