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DS Fanboy interview: Insecticide's Larry Ahern

I met with Crackpot Entertainment's Larry Ahern, creative director of Insecticide, at this year's EIEIO event after he had finished demonstrating his game over and over again for successive groups of journalists and other attendees. Even after all of that time spent staring at Insecticide and introducing it to the few people in each group who weren't familiar with it, he seemed enthusiastic about his game.

He was also happy to reminisce -- fondly or otherwise -- about his time at LucasArts, during which he served as art director for Day of the Tentacle, lead animator for Full Throttle, and co-project lead on The Curse of Monkey Island, just to name a few classics.

Hit the break to find out about Insecticide's alternate history as a TV show, to read the most about BioShock you'll ever see on DS Fanboy, and more!

Gallery: Insecticide

The DS game was delayed to match the PC release, right? Were any features taken out or adjusted from one to meet the other?

You know, we designed it pretty much with both platforms in mind. I guess what I would say is that if you looked at our early pitch document, there was everything and the kitchen sink. But some of that was "here's the idea we're showing, and here's what we'd like to make" and then as you start to bargain back and forth about what it is and what you're going to make and then as you start putting schedules and budgets together, it very quickly comes down to what's reality.

The IP was created with a lot of other interesting interactive things in mind, and we got a fraction of it in there, but that's what happens with every game. There's a core element of what's going on in the IP and what kind of interactivity you want to have. That was the core all along.

Was there any one specific feature from an early design that had to go?

It's more detailed stuff, you know ... I think that some of the features we do have in there, I wanted to be more elaborate. We have sort of a Prince of Persia wall-walking thing that's going in there. Originally, I wanted to set it up so that the environments were literally multileveled stuff -- think about a bug crawling up a wall -- you'd basically be able to deal with environments that way. so you'd go into a room and it'd be human architectural style, but you might look up on the wall and there'd be a door up there in the ceiling. So you could walk up the wall; so you'd walk along different planes and the gravity wouldn't affect you that way. You'd have to get a running jump, but physics affected you differently because you're a bug. We had played around with that concept initially and had to scale it back. Again, some of that stuff is like, you look at the gameplay balance -- how many things can you do, and can you do them well if you have them all in there? That was a fun concept that I liked, but, well, we're a detective adventure game, we're a shooter, we're a platformer -- we can't be everything.

You're making a part-action game now. Do you think action stuff is easier to design?

You know, it's interesting, because I worked on early design stuff for a few that never got off the ground, but never got the full implementation, so I was a little gunshy coming in, thinking "is there going to be all kinds of complexity here that I don't understand?" Really, I think at the core, some of the basic design principles are similar, and then you're dealing with more of the technical tuning stuff that -- the head designer's going to deal with all the details anyway, but you've got assistance; our tech partner, Creat in Russia, has a design team. We're giving them basic information about weapon effects, range, damage, that kind of thing, and then they help us out. A lot of what I'm doing is higher-level, helping design what the scenario is, and then once it's implemented, talking about how to tune it.

You worked on a few big Lucasarts sequels that didn't get out, right?

I actually did initial design and pre-production for a sequel to Full Throttle -- it might have been '99 or somewhere in there -- and that one never really got a team. There was a lot of transition going on at Lucas at that time, a lot of musical chairs, and we didn't have a lot of resources. I was basically in the early design pitch mode, and it felt like I was never getting anywhere, and it got to the point where it was like "Hey, what's he been doing for a month?" "Well, you haven't been giving me any resources, you're not giving me any guidance, and now you want to know what we were doing and here it is!" and they were like "No, we're thinking more ... something else." I said "Thank you very much, that's enough." So that didn't go so good. It was fun working on the IP, but the environment was very different.

Do you own the Insecticide IP?


And that was probably a deliberate (decision) --

Yeah, definitely. That's why I was thrilled with Gamecock, because we were able to put a deal like that together.

Did you contact a bunch of publishers?

Yeah, we did. We shopped it around for a while, and the interesting thing was that Gamecock wasn't the first publisher we talked to, but they were early on, and they didn't even exist! We got put in touch with them through some connection who said "These guys from Gathering of Developers are doing a new deal." They're like "We love your game and we want to do it! But we don't have any funding." So we shopped it around to a bunch of other places and got some doors slammed in our faces.

We decided that, you know, this sucks, and that "Hey, you see stuff like this on TV all the time -- let's just make a TV show!" So then we spent six months and repurposed the whole IP and made a television pitch bible and just started mailing it out to four or five key connections in the TV business. We were just starting to get feedback from them, and then Gamecock called and said "We got our money! Let's do it!" And a bunch of the TV people came back with positive reactions, but they were like "We love it, but it's not right for -- we need this kind of thing, or we need to match it to this age group." It's amazing all the things -- like, "We don't want any TV shows with monkeys in them this season!" So we just started that and it got put on the backburner because the game deal came through. And we liked the plan with Gamecock because they weren't some massive company that was going to send this army of producers to look over our shoulder and second-guess everything we were doing. That was a lot of motivation for breaking free of larger companies anyway, to try to do it yourself.

So Gamecock has a hands-off approach to development?

Oh yeah, totally.

I learned that Josh Mandel (designer of Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier and co-designer of Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist) did some of the writing for Insecticide. Is he part of Crackpot, or was he contracted?

Crackpot is officially Mike Levine, who co-founded the company with me. There are no employees, technically. He owns the company, we co-own the IP, and there's no employees. It's all contract-- technically, what i get for making this game is from the contract, and then because I co-own the IP I'll get money at the end for all that kind of stuff, royalties that come in.

Mike had worked with him on some totally unrelated web project and found out that he used to be a designer at Sierra. The ironic thing is, of our whole team, the one area that we didn't need help on was adventure game design, which I had a bunch of experience on, except I was too busy. The great thing is, he's got a great sense of humor, and he totally understands how to design those kind of puzzles, so I was able to give him a crash course in the IP and structurally what we need to do in each section -- the goals, the scenario, and in some cases I gave him the setup, and then he would go off on the design stuff and then we'd review it. He did a great job. And then part of the puzzle design, he was doing some of the interactive dialogue, and I ended up writing some of that later -- no offense, Josh (laughs). Some of the story changed after the design assignment I gave him, so I had to go back and rewrite a bunch of stuff related to that.

The game has an E10 rating, right? It's about murder investigations. How do you do that?

You know, the funny thing is, my approach to games has always been that I want to make something that's family friendly. I have a 9 year old son and I want to make something that's okay for him. But even before I had kids I liked the idea of making something that appeals to me and that adults are going to like, but it has different layers. In other words, there are going to be some jokes that only adults are going to get, some references. There's going to be a whole layer that goes over kids' heads, but they're still going to like the goofy cartoon bugs and whatever else. The storyline is a bit complex, so I don't know if they're saying it's targeted at 10-year-olds; they're just saying the content is not inappropriate for anyone 10 and older. You don't see anybody get murdered, and it's a bug, you know, and he's squashed, and it's like a bug on a windshield kind of thing. We play it up for humor, and that probably affects the rating a bit.

When you look at the details they talk about, you know, tobacco use, because Roachy has a cigar. That's one of the things-- cartoon violence is one of the others. I think the tone of your violence affects a lot. Ours is a comedy, it's a cartoon, it's bugs -- that tone is not very intense. Kids can handle it. And it's comedic how this stuff happens-- one of the guys does get splatted on the grill of a truck, like a bug. We don't show it -- we cut away and then there's a sound effect.

Was the DS always a target for this game?

Interestingly it wasn't. We started out pitching as PSP and PC, and a lot of that had to do with simultaneous development: we thought we could share more assets across the two platforms that way. Initially we switched to DS because we thought there was more of a market there. Some things were more of a struggle because we had to rework things or do things from scratch, but then the plus side is that the DS has a lot of things about it as a platform that are similar to what you do on the PC with the mouse, you know, the touch screen and stylus, so that actually made some things easier, and that worked out in the end. And seeing the way the market's going for the DS with adventure kinds of products, it seems like a smart place to be. I'm encouraged about seeing that kind of product on the DS.

Have you played any other DS adventure games?

I haven't. I'm waiting, cringing, for when people ask me "What's your favorite game?" or "What's the last game you played?" You know, I've got three kids, including a 2-year-old, I've got freelance work on the side that I'm trying to transition into, and I've got a game that keeps me busy 50-60 hours a week. I haven't played anything in a while. I did some research early on, but a lot of it is, literally, games my son would buy. I'd encourage him: "Hey, I'm kind of curious about that, does that look interesting to you?" "Let's get that." "What did you think of it?" or I'd look over his shoulder, i'd grab it for five minutes. i haven't played through a game in a while.

I think the last game I played ... I downloaded the BioShock demo, and I got to the end of it, and said "You know what, i'm actually starting to get motion sick," and so there's no way I'm getting through the whole game. And ultimately, while I thought the art direction was gorgeous, and the storyline stuff they were hinting at-- I loved the fact that hey, it's not space marines, it's not elves and orcs. I'm excited about seeing that stuff in a big game, complex storylines in products. To be fair I didn't play the game, I just played the demo-- but in the end there's just too much first-person shooter in this for my taste. I like shooters in some things, like I'm a big Half-Life fan. But it's a matter of where you're going to go with it. I like seeing those action products -- if they pay attention to what the IP is doing, what the storyline is. I think it's critical for hooking the player. Unless you've got some kind of insanely innovative gameplay thing going on, it seems like if you don't have compelling storyline stuff happening, some kind of interesting characters or twist in the plot to pull you along, you just start to feel like it's pretty tedious.

You got a new gun and it's bigger and it's purple, and it shoots twice as fast -- it's got to be something more than that.

Do you already have your next game in motion?

We don't. that's the other interesting question that I shouldn't answer because it sounds bad. Because of the virtual studio model, that happens to be the way projects are going. Mike Levine, he has another company, Pileated Pictures, and he does a lot of interactive projects, and he's swamped with work right now. And I've got another thing lined up that goes through the end of summer for me. So we're both, like, too busy. You're crunching to build the game, and as you get near the end of the game, if you're going to roll into another one, that's when you try to pitch it and put the idea together so you don't have too much downtime, but we don't have any overhead! We have no employees, so we don't have to worry about that; we don't have to worry about losing all our staff. A lot of our staff is contract people, or subcontracting people, like the animation studio we did our FMVs with-- they're there, I'm sure we could do another game next year and plug them in again, you know, that's what they do. I like that business model.

The other thing that's nice is that you're not killing yourself to get that next thing lined up while you're supposed to be focusing on finishing your project, and it just gives you a breather. I'm looking forward to the fact that I'm not trying to be designer/art director/writer, all this stuff at once while we're doing two SKUs (on the next project). The next project I have is a little too focused.

Plus, I think it gives you an interesting breadth of experience. I can do some other projects with somebody else and, like "Ah, I learned something there" and then fold it back into what you were doing. So hopefully you learn some stuff that takes some of the risk out of what you're going to do next, because you're drawing on your interesting experience.

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