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
“I WANTED THIS FEELING THAT YOU’RE GRABBING ONTO SOMETHING SAFE AND HOLDING ON FOR DEAR LIFE”
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