The Mak­ing Of: King­pin: Life Of Crime

In the sum­mer of 1999, vi­o­lence in videogames was a hot topic. So what hap­pened when the most con­tro­ver­sial ti­tle of the decade geared up for re­lease? Ed­ward Love in­ves­ti­gates

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

Ed­ward Love goes be­hind the scenes of Xa­trix En­ter­tain­ment’s first-per­son shooter

If you had any in­ter­est in PC games in the late Nineties, chances are you caught wind of King­pin: Life Of Crime by Xa­trix. It cen­tred on a gang­ster hell­bent on as­cend­ing the un­der­world to en­act out vengeance to the or­gan­i­sa­tion that left him for dead, set in a stylised Art Deco world. With guns and gore and colour­ful lan­guage in plen­ti­ful sup­ply, the demo was prized con­tra­band for any teenager.

Two months be­fore King­pin shipped, how­ever, the Columbine High School mas­sacre took place. The crime was so sense­less, so in­hu­mane, that it was nec­es­sary to find a scape­goat, and videogames were put on trial by the me­dia.

King­pin limped to mar­ket in

June of 1999 bear­ing its bat­tle scars, buried be­neath a bat­tal­ion of Parental Ad­vi­sory stick­ers. Dan Kop­pel was tech­ni­cal lead and se­nior level de­signer on the project, and he re­mem­bers the cli­mate of the time. “Orig­i­nally, Best Buy were keen to stock us. They had seen the game at E3 and were ex­cited, so they met with our pro­duc­ers and pub­lisher and made their in­ter­est clear.” The deal was sim­ple: de­vel­oper Xa­trix would bleep out pro­fan­ity but of­fer up an un­cen­sored ver­sion avail­able for down­load. “And then Columbine hap­pened and Best Buy didn’t touch us.” Other re­tail­ers fol­lowed suit – a shame, be­cause noth­ing in King­pin is overly gra­tu­itous and the storm of con­tro­versy that en­gulfed it only served to shroud an am­bi­tious game. It was a rare breed of shooter that did more than sim­ply give you guns to shoot and plat­forms to jump on.

First, to un­der­stand how King­pin was made, let’s rewind to two years be­fore its de­but. In 1997, Xa­trix re­leases Red­neck Ram­page, a colour­ful shooter with a flavour all its own. It’s a mid­dling crit­i­cal suc­cess but it catches the at­ten­tion of id Soft­ware, which wants a team to de­velop The Reck­on­ing,a Quake II ex­pan­sion. Xa­trix signs on and be­gins work­ing with an soft­ware en­gi­neer named Ryan Fel­trin. Ryan, as it hap­pens, has de­vised some­thing

rather novel: a sys­tem by which a player in the Quake en­gine can go up to an Ai-con­trolled space marine, re­cruit him, and have the marine fol­low them around the map. The fea­ture never comes to pass in the fi­nal game. In­stead, Xa­trix en­lists Ryan to work on its own ti­tle.

King­pin goes into pro­duc­tion. The ear­li­est idea is to have ur­ban war­fare take place be­tween fac­tions, all in

3D, us­ing the Quake II en­gine. But this scope is overly am­bi­tious. Xa­trix doesn’t have the time, the nec­es­sary team mem­bers or the tech­nol­ogy to make it hap­pen. Dan and his team con­cen­trate on fun­nelling the player through lin­ear lev­els in­stead and broad­en­ing the scope in care­fully cu­rated ex­plorable hubs.

Ryan’s con­tri­bu­tion is in­valu­able, how­ever. “We would give Ryan the lev­els and sug­gest ideas for what we wanted the AI to do,” Dan re­mem­bers. “Then we’d go to sleep and in the morn­ing, Ryan’s work would be wait­ing to be in­te­grated.” King­pin has a level of open­ness and freefor­mity that stands tall next to the me-too QTE shoot­ers as a re­sult.

Even to­day, King­pin is im­pres­sive. The game opens in Skidrow, a graf­fi­tistrewn neigh­bour­hood pop­u­lated by thick­set goons in trouser braces and gals wield­ing lead pipes. Bright fires dance in grimy trash cans. Street­lights il­lu­mi­nate swathes of im­per­sonal con­crete. And the in­ter­play be­tween light and dark is stun­ning. The sew­ers nearby are your des­ti­na­tion, but they’re pa­trolled by the same group of goons that left you for dead. Near your start­ing point, you can buy a crow­bar for a dol­lar or hire an­other thug for $10, but you need to find the cash first. The glo­ri­ously named ‘Pawn-o-matic’ sells the good stuff: pis­tols, shot­guns and even weapon mods too. The pro­pri­etor of Pawn-o-matic will give you a pis­tol if you run an er­rand for him, and so be­gins the King­pin ex­pe­ri­ence. A trio of plea­sures that cover shoot­ing, con­vers­ing and even sneak­ing. This is a for­mula cut from tra­di­tional FPS cloth and flipped on its head, with later hubs spring­ing up in the guise of night­clubs and off-colour haunts. Nowhere in King­pin is as gripping as its open­ing level, but it re­minds one of a time when shoot­ers weren’t groan­ing un­der the weight of quick­time events and scripted se­quences.

Dan Kop­pel would later work on Call Of Duty, a fran­chise that made the scripted se­quence its sig­na­ture. In the Noughties, AI pro­gram­mers like Ryan Fel­trin would take on less and less of the work­load. In­stead, team mem­bers called ‘scripters’ picked up the ba­ton. They then worked closely with the art depart­ment to set a scene in con­crete. “The

art depart­ment in a Call Of Duty game got re­ally in­volved,” Dan notes. “They would say things like, ‘We want the player com­ing this way so we can script a plane crash, or an ex­plo­sion.’ You see a lot of that in games to­day.” The dif­fer­ence be­tween King­pin and a Call Of Duty is strik­ing: the for­mer pri­ori­tises player agency while the lat­ter cham­pi­ons a more filmic, con­trolled feel­ing.

King­pin’s ur­ban aes­thetic is unique. Part-steam­punk, part-art Deco, the world is an anachro­nism of eras and lo­cales and per­son­al­i­ties. To achieve this sig­na­ture bal­ance, Xa­trix didn’t have to look far. Vik­tor Antonov was al­ready sta­tioned in­side the bullpen at Xa­trix HQ, a 20-some­thing artist who had trained un­der Syd Mead (Blade Run­ner and Aliens). “I’m fas­ci­nated by ur­ban­ism. I’ve lived in Sofia, Geneva, Los An­ge­les, Seat­tle, Austin Texas, I’ve been all over the place,” Vik­tor notes. “Au­thor­ship is ques­tioned in games, but some­one has to bring some­thing to the table from their own ex­pe­ri­ence. Think Scors­ese: his best movies have al­ways been about his own neigh­bour­hood. Ev­ery­thing I’ve done has been cities and me­trop­o­lises.

“In King­pin, we wanted to do a uni­verse,” Vik­tor elab­o­rates, “but we ended up do­ing one city. You had your down­town area, your poi­son city, your sew­ers, your club, your ship­yard. It was very much like a genre movie. The in­spi­ra­tion started with down­town LA, and then we added a lit­tle bit of steam­punk and sci­ence fic­tion.

“One of the things that I have found use­ful in my con­tri­bu­tion to the medium is that I’m not a hard­core gamer,” Vik­tor says. “So in King­pin,

I wanted the light­ing to be right, the ar­chi­tec­ture to be right. And the phys­i­cal space of the cities to be right first and fore­most. Then the ren­der­ing… if it was too sharp and neat it wouldn’t work. I wanted to cre­ate a real moody am­bi­ence.”

King­pin shook off some of its early sci-fi traits when Cy­press Hill came calling. The rap group loved the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments and signed on to do the score, but it ne­ces­si­tated that King­pin take place in a world that more re­sem­bled our own. The part­ner­ship was mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, but not nec­es­sar­ily the right artis­tic choice.

In the lead up to the 30 June launch, the team had crammed six months of work into two. Dan Kop­pel laughs when he re­mem­bers. “I prob­a­bly didn’t go home, and I didn’t live that far away. I still re­mem­ber one Satur­day where I said, ‘I just can’t, I can’t be in the of­fice on a Satur­day,’ and I showed up on Sun­day and

Drew Markham, Xa­trix’s CEO, was like, ‘Where were you yes­ter­day?’ I replied, ‘I had to do laun­dry,’ and he was like, ‘Shit man, I can get you a maid to do laun­dry.’ That wasn’t the point! I wanted to see my wife!”

i prob­a­bly didn’t go home, and i didn’t live that far away Dan Kop­pel

Though many re­tail­ers were put off by King­pin post-columbine, crit­ics took note. Vik­tor Antonov’s world-build­ing drew con­sid­er­able praise. Dan Kop­pel’s level de­sign was lauded. And on, Erik Wol­paw wrote that Ryan Fel­trin’s AI was “ex­em­plary and eas­ily out­shines the sim­i­lar pre­sen­ta­tion in Half-life”.

“Ah, Half-life. Was I jeal­ous of it? Just a bit,” Dan Kop­pel ad­mits. “They did a bet­ter job of telling a story. Back then, it was a strug­gle to make a good story in an open en­vi­ron­ment.” King­pin is cer­tainly half-baked at times, with con­trived boss bat­tles serv­ing as chap­ter end points and a story that’s wafer-thin. But what it does bet­ter than most Nineties shoot­ers is es­tab­lish a sense of place. Dan Kop­pel be­lieves a lot of credit de­serves to go to Drew Markham, the fiery CEO who con­ceived the game and brought, “A lot of ideas that we man­aged to make hap­pen. That’s prob­a­bly why a lot of us in the team worked out so well: lots of de­vel­op­ers have great ideas, but ac­tu­ally ex­e­cut­ing them is a dif­fer­ent story.”

The legacy of King­pin is, in hind­sight, one of ig­nominy. Xa­trix would go on to de­velop Re­turn To Cas­tle Wolfen­stein as Grey Mat­ter. What be­came of Xa­trix CEO Drew Markham is a mys­tery. His last gam­ing credit was 2005’s Cold Win­ter and he has fallen off the radar since.

Dan Kop­pel went to work for Raven be­fore leav­ing the games in­dus­try be­hind, bound in­stead for the world of data sci­ence and health­care. Vik­tor Antonov is some­thing of gam­ing roy­alty to­day. He was head­hunted by Valve af­ter King­pin and then be­came vis­ual de­sign di­rec­tor of Zen­i­max. He’s now sta­tioned at Dare­wise, which cre­ates high-level con­cepts and then hires teams to ex­e­cute them.

It’s a model of ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­tion that the golden age of Hol­ly­wood cham­pi­oned in the Six­ties. Ryan Fel­trin con­tin­ues to lend his tal­ents to the videogames in­dus­try.

King­pin wasn’t per­fect. It wasn’t even the game Xa­trix orig­i­nally set out to make. But in many ways it’s a for­ma­tive first-per­son shooter that de­serves to se­cure a place in the pages of gam­ing his­tory. Its vi­sion paved the way for suc­ces­sors to build on its strengths. And it’s still quite unique to play; a blend­ing of gen­res and playstyles with am­bi­tion in spades. Not bad for a game about beat­ing thugs to smithereens.

» [PC] Ex­pert a stern chal­lenge. King­pin’s dif­fi­culty level is pretty pun­ish­ing and not for the faint-hearted. » [PC] King­pin’s prin­ci­pal bad­die is clearly in­spired by Marsel­lus Wal­lace from Pulp Fic­tion.

» [PC] The won­der­fully-named Pawn-o-matic pops up through­out the game, let­ting you buy up­grades and ar­mour. » [PC] En­e­mies in the game leave a trail of blood when wounded, or can be sliced up en­tirely. That didn’t go down too well with au­thor­i­ties.

» Vik­tor Antonov de­signed King­pin’s gritty en­vi­ron­ments. Here he is ap­pro­pri­ately pos­ing with a knuckle duster. » [PC] This is you. A charm­ing fella, as you’ll come to learn.

» [PC] The world is all im­per­sonal steel and cold me­tal.

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