The Mak­ing Of…

How a low-pro­file Namco game launched the cover shooter and paved the way for Gears Of War


How Namco Home­tek’s Kill Switch in­vented the cover shooter and in­spired Gears Of War

The year is 2002 and time is short for Namco Home­tek. The pub­lisher’s bosses have given the San Jose stu­dio carte blanche to make a mil­i­tary shooter, but the team is strug­gling to find the right idea. And now the dead­line for start­ing de­vel­op­ment is bear­ing down fast.

Home­tek had first toyed with ideas for a Viet­nam-themed first­per­son shooter, but felt that it wouldn’t sell. Then there was a ninja shooter con­cept. “I wanted to go down this ninja war­rior shooter route,” re­mem­bers Kill Switch pro­ducer Chris Esaki. “I wanted the char­ac­ter to run with the gun trail­ing be­hind him kind of like a sword. I was re­ally taken with this no­tion, but of course the team shot that down.”

With the pres­sure mount­ing, Esaki and lead pro­ducer Matt Sen­tell re­treated to the stu­dio’s unin­spir­ing con­fer­ence room, with its dis­mal view of a San Jose in­dus­trial park and sad-look­ing fi­cus tree in a cor­ner. “It was the most non­cre­ative space you can imag­ine,” Sen­tell says. “We had a lounge that was much more re­lax­ing and cre­ative, but for some rea­son we weren’t us­ing it that day. The pres­sure was build­ing to fig­ure out what our next game would be, so I guess we didn’t feel like re­lax­ing.”

As the pair bounced ideas around and supped their cof­fees, the spark that would be­come the ba­sis of Kill Switch and the blueprint for the cover-based shoot­ers of to­day emerged. “I still re­mem­ber sit­ting in the con­fer­ence room and talk­ing about what kind of shooter we wanted to make,” Sen­tell says. “I was talk­ing about this as­pi­ra­tion of want­ing th­ese things [such as] con­form­ing to the cover and play­ing a lit­tle bit of hide and seek, while still be­ing a fast-paced shooter. Chris came up, very quickly, with th­ese ideas about how to make it work with the con­trols – the no­tion of grab­bing hold of the en­vi­ron­ment and then hold­ing the left trig­ger and mov­ing along the cover. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is go­ing to be cool.’”

Back then, most shoot­ers paid scant at­ten­tion to play­ers tak­ing cover, which was more a fea­ture of stealth games. “We started think­ing about the na­ture of shoot­ers at the time and how to do some­thing dif­fer­ent from a very me­chan­i­cal level,” Esaki says. “The player’s re­la­tion­ship to the en­vi­ron­ment wasn’t re­ally ex­ploited too well. The only other ti­tles were like Me­tal Gear Solid, where you can take cover on walls, but it was a stealth sys­tem rather than a shooter sys­tem.”

Work­place bouts of No­va­l­ogic’s tac­ti­cal first­per­son shooter Delta Force 2 fur­ther seeded the sense that cover was ne­glected. “We all were play­ing that af­ter work when we were hav­ing the de­bate about cover and first- or third­per­son,” Esaki says. “I re­mem­ber very vividly get­ting head shot­ted when I thought I was be­hind a piece of cover, but it was clear in the re­play af­ter­wards that my head was above the piece of stone. I couldn’t tell, and that was the rea­son why we went third­per­son with Kill Switch.”

With an­i­ma­tor Vince Joly, Esaki be­gan pro­to­typ­ing how a cover-based third­per­son shooter would work. “We did th­ese al­most stick-fig­ure-ish poses and vi­su­al­i­sa­tions of what we could do with cover, and that’s where the whole chest-high cover pieces came from, and the whole no­tion of blind­fire and blind throw­ing grenades,” Esaki ex­plains. “It made sense to me and the team. It wasn’t this videogame ab­strac­tion of a shoot­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It was more, ‘This is how you would ac­tu­ally ap­proach a fire­fight,’ and this no­tion that bul­lets are re­ally lethal. It wasn’t a stroke of ge­nius by any means – it was re­ally un­der­stand­ing what we thought was nat­u­ral via game­play.”

To re­in­force the role of cover, Esaki drew on his child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence. “I came up with this con­cept of cover as a safety blan­ket,” he says. “As a kid, I had a lit­tle blue blankie and, much like [Peanuts’] Li­nus, I car­ried it around with me and would cry if my blan­ket was taken away. That’s what I was try­ing to get to with how the cover was im­ple­mented in Kill Switch, so that you have this feel­ing that you’re grab­bing onto some­thing safe and hold­ing on for dear life.”

The con­trols, which re­quired play­ers to hold down the left trig­ger to stay in cover, flowed from this vi­sion of cover as pro­tec­tor, even if the re­sults were un­com­fort­able. “If you played Kill Switch for any ex­tended pe­riod, you’d get th­ese cramps in your left hand be­cause you were hold­ing that but­ton down the whole time,” Esaki says. “That was in­tended. I wanted that to be a psy­cho­log­i­cal cor­ner­stone of the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. You are phys­i­cally hold­ing onto this thing, and if you let go, you feel like you are let­ting go of your safety blan­ket.”

It wasn’t just the con­trols. Al­most ev­ery as­pect of Kill Switch flowed from the core cover shooter idea. But this was vir­gin ter­ri­tory and, with no blueprint to fol­low, the team spent five to six months of its nine-month pro­duc­tion sched­ule tun­ing the me­chanic.

“We had this thing at Namco where if you were a pro­gram­mer, artist or de­signer at Namco in Ja­pan, you could spend time in the United States of­fice,” Esaki says. “Our me­chan­ics pro­gram­mer, Dai Mat­sumoto, came from the Mr Driller team of all things. He didn’t speak very much English but, damn, that guy was good. He put all the me­chan­ics to­gether. I re­mem­ber Matt and my­self sit­ting with him for for­ever, tun­ing ev­ery lit­tle thing from the cam­era to the tran­si­tion in and out of cover to how the an­gles would change for gen­eral aim­ing. It was a process of re­fine­ment over months and months.”

Get­ting the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence right was also cru­cial, Sen­tell says: “The gam­ing ex­pe­ri­ence re­lied tremen­dously on the AI be­ing able to do all of the same things that the player could do. Be­cause of the cover, the more tra­di­tional shooter AI just didn’t work. We started build­ing it that way and it just didn’t work, be­cause you can get into cover and not move for a long time. The AI took a lot more ef­fort to get right than the player con­trol did. We ended up with an AI that falls some­where


in be­tween a stealth game and a shooter, where they have line of sight and a mem­ory of where they last saw you.

“If an en­emy sees you’re aim­ing near them, they will very of­ten drop down be­hind cover and very of­ten de­cide to move to an­other po­si­tion. Or he may in­stead de­cide to blind­fire and then pop up, be­cause the blind­fire causes the player to drop be­hind cover. So he’s as­sum­ing that if he blind fires at you and then pops up, he’ll be clear to shoot. There’s a ton of stuff go­ing on in that AI. At least when we shipped the game, I don’t think there was any­thing else like it. I went on to work on other shoot­ers af­ter Kill Switch at places like EA, and never saw an AI that was any­where close to as good as that.”

As the pieces fell into place, the 30-strong team be­came con­vinced it had hit on some­thing spe­cial with the cover sys­tem. But it wasn’t al­ways con­fi­dent: five months into de­vel­op­ment, doubts about the game crept in and it en­tered a phase that Sen­tell calls “the dark days”. As he ex­plains: “The game started with this idea about the mo­ment-to-mo­ment game­play; there was no idea at all about who you were, who you are fight­ing, and where this takes place. We didn’t have any­one on the team who was ex­pe­ri­enced in do­ing that. We were com­ing off of do­ing Pac-Man World 2. It was a very tor­tu­ous pe­riod of try­ing to fig­ure out all th­ese ques­tions.”

Namco’s ex­ec­u­tives and mar­ket­ing team also had their doubts. “From the ex­ec­u­tive and mar­ket­ing side it was, ‘Yeah, this is cool, but it’s kind of a one-trick pony,’” Sen­tell says. “We were like, ‘Yeah, but it’s a re­ally cool trick.’”

The task of an­swer­ing the ques­tion marks over the set­ting and the player’s pur­pose fell to Alvin Muolic, a pro­ducer and de­signer ( Army Men II, Dead To Rights) who served as Kill Switch’s writer. But with a tight $3 mil­lion bud­get at a time when $20 mil­lion for a triple-A game was com­mon­place, there wasn’t much money spare for sto­ry­telling. “We had a bud­get for cin­e­mat­ics and it was not too much, so what I wanted to do was re­use as much of that video as pos­si­ble,” Esaki laughs. “We thought that we would go with a kind of Me­mento sto­ry­telling, where there’s a story that is chopped up, and bits and pieces are re­vealed over time.”

Muolic’s story cast the player’s char­ac­ter, Nick Bishop, as an am­nesic soldier be­ing re­motely con­trolled for ne­far­i­ous ends by a man known only as the Con­troller. As the game pro­gresses, the cutscenes tell the story of Bishop re­gain­ing his mem­o­ries and break­ing free of the Con­troller, while play­ing with the no­tion of the fourth wall and videogame sto­ry­telling in gen­eral. “On the sur­face, it might seem like just an­other generic shooter,” Sen­tell says, “but if you play it and go through the story, it’s not.”

The story wasn’t the only as­pect of Kill Switch that felt the im­pact of the tight bud­get and a ninemonth crunch de­vel­op­ment sched­ule that had its staff work­ing 12 to 16 hour days, six or seven days a week. “To be hon­est, Kill Switch didn’t have a lot to hang its hat on other than the cover me­chanic,” Esaki says. “It wasn’t a great story, but it was a de­cent, in­ter­est­ing story. It didn’t have great pro­duc­tion val­ues. The an­i­ma­tion wasn’t fan­tas­tic, be­cause we didn’t have the time or the resources, but it was great for what it was. We didn’t have mul­ti­player. We, of course, wanted all those things.” On its Amer­i­can re­lease in Oc­to­ber 2003,

Kill Switch gained mildly pos­i­tive re­views and did rea­son­ably well. Esaki es­ti­mates that his game sold some­where in the re­gion of 300,000 to 500,000 copies – enough to earn back its costs and make some profit, but too lit­tle to es­tab­lish it as an on­go­ing se­ries.

But while Kill Switch it­self was only a mod­est suc­cess, the cover shooter blueprint it cre­ated would go on to find fame else­where. Three years later, Gears Of War took the con­cept and turned it into a sys­tem-sell­ing point.

“The story is that [ Gears’ lead level de­signer] Lee Perry played Kill Switch, then showed it to [lead de­signer] Cliff Bleszin­ski and he was like, ‘Yeah, we need to do this; this is what we need in our game,’” says Esaki, who by then had moved to Mi­crosoft and was work­ing as the de­sign di­rec­tor on Gears. “It was a re­ally straight­for­ward shooter when it was ini­tially pitched. It was more like, ‘We have this re­ally good tech, and we want to do a sci-fi shooter like Un­real.’ But when they fi­nally pitched the game, they had so­lid­i­fied down on, ‘We’re us­ing Kill Switch as the core com­bat me­chanic and it has a theme of Res­i­dent Evil – this hor­ror ver­sion of Kill Switch.’”

Gears also drew in­spi­ra­tion from Kill Switch’s AI. “Ray Davis was the lead pro­gram­mer on Gears and he did all the AI work,” Esaki says. “We had a lunch where I de­tailed how the sys­tem for Kill Switch worked. He took that to heart and cre­ated what is now the ba­sis for Gears’ AI – it’s all based on sim­i­lar prin­ci­ples.”

Af­ter Epic’s huge suc­cess with Gears, the cover me­chanic spread rapidly, find­ing its way into se­ries and games as di­verse as Un­charted, Mass Ef­fect, Tom Clancy’s Rain­bow Six: Ve­gas and Grand Theft Auto IV. “I do won­der what would be if we hadn’t come out with Kill Switch and Gears wasn’t in­flu­enced by it,” Esaki says. “Would Gears have been as suc­cess­ful as it was? Would Un­charted have had cover? Cer­tainly Mass Ef­fect would not have had cover.”

Kill Switch’s en­dur­ing in­flu­ence is grat­i­fy­ing to Sen­tell. “It’s some­thing not many peo­ple get to do in their ca­reer,” he says. “To feel like they in­vented a sub­genre within the game industry.”

For­mat PS2, Xbox Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Namco (Home­tek) Ori­gin US De­but 2003

Kill Switch’s fo­cus on cover grew out of the team’s de­sire to avoid the straf­ing and un­re­al­is­tic fire­fights of other games

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