Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An interview with Ken Lobb

It recently transpired that ReyVGM on the HG101 forums had exchanged several emails with games industry veteran Ken Lobb. Not many will recognise the name, though his initials KAL should be more familiar. He worked at Taxan, Namco and Nintendo, and had the Klobb gun in Goldeneye named after him. As we’ll reveal, he’s been responsible for some truly, astoundingly excellent ideas. Read on for the email exchange.

An abridged list of games Ken was involved in: Burai Fighter, Low G Man, G.I. Joe 1&2, and Kick Master, all on the NES. Rolling Thunder 2, and Splatterhouse 2&3, all on Genesis. Plus a slew of Nintendo-hardware games, including Goldeneye and Blast Corps. For the last few years he’s worked at Microsoft Game Studios, and was been involved with Shadow Complex.

His earliest involvement with games on the NES were published by different companies, though all were developed by KID. Astute players may have recognised the name KAL in certain endings for Burai Fighter, Low G Man, GI Joe and Kick Master.

As Ken explained: “I am KAL, Alan is my middle name. I played a lot of arcade games back then, and they forced 3 initials for high scores, so that lived on in my early games. I produced/designed all of those games. The reason that Kick Master was released from Taito was that Taxan was closed when the game shipped. I moved to Namco when Taxan closed.

All of the games had a similar feel because they were all developed by KID, Kindle Image Develop, out of Tokyo. Great guys, I miss that company and working with them!! Of course, I have done a lot more since then, but those were good times. At least my GI Joe was FAR better than the current one!

The games developed by KID are generally regarded as good to excellent. Low G Man as highlighted by our article had some great ideas, as did Kick Master. Meanwhile the GI Joe games are fondly remembered by those who played them – for some gamers they stand as all-time favourites from the NES era. The KID games all had a distinctive style, secret endings, and were a lot of fun. Several readers in the original HG101 forum thread posed questions, such as the degree to which ken was involved.

A few comments from the cool thread. I was a producer/designed at Taxan, not marketing. We started working with Kid with Burai, and then contracted them to do Low G, then GI Joe, then Kick Master, then GI Joe 2. The development was run from the US, though our friends at Naxat helped some. I was making a LOT of trips to Japan back then, and typically for 2 week visits. I went from Taxan to Namco to Nintendo, then to MS. No Taito in there, they just licensed Kick Master from Kid after Taxan folded…

Low G Man was the first game I designed completely, and GI Joe is the first I was really proud of. It had special moves, vehicle jacking, multiple difficulty impact, really pushed the NES with the MMC3 chip… good fun.

Kick Master was about [half] done when Taxan shut down. I was only able to work on it for a few hundred hours, but I have some great memories there.

As with Kick Master, GI Joe 2 was about [three quarters] done when Taxan went away, and was then picked up by Capcom. I wasn’t able to help finish it, but I had a lot of early influence. Personally, I liked the first better.

Magician was the first game from Eurocom, when we hired them to do the game (because of the game), there were the 3 founders working out of a barn…

Would be cool to see them on VC, doubt I could get them on XBLA. Pure mechanics based 8-bit games were great fun to make, and to play! Of course, I did have a reasonable amount to do with Shadow Complex, so I still have a love for the 2D greatness. If you haven’t played this one yet, hold on tight…

Of course since the email exchange took place Shadow Complex has been released, to great critical and commercial acclaim.

More questions were posted and Ken later explained his role at Namco: “Producer at Namco. On Splat, just a lot of balance work. I had some impact on the design for Splat 3, and balance/level work and scripting for Rolling Thunder 2 (look at the text… there is KAL in there somewhere).

He also took the time to dispel some myths regarding Burai Fighter for arcades and Goldeneye for the SNES: “No Burai arcade. There was some early work, but it never went further. There is a GBC version (Space Marauder). Goldeneye was never a SNES game. The license came right at the time when N64 early work was starting at Nintendo and Rare. It was basically straight to N64.

This history with several popular games, developed in Japan, England and America, would alone be enough for most industry figures to feel extremely proud. But arguably Ken’s greatest achievement, and something which few likely even realise, is his push for multiple endings and objectives based on difficulty levels.

I always liked the idea of different difficulties, but I really wanted them to actually DO something, other than just be harder, more enemy types, different level design (as possible with the old tech), unlocks, different endings, whatever… this is also pretty obvious in some of my other early games where I helped and/or had influence… two of the better known being Goldeneye and Blast Corps.

It cannot be overstated how significant this is. NES games by their nature can be extremely repetitive, so including multiple endings and special levels extends their life and gives a reason to replay them. As for the multiple objectives in the N64 games he helped with, this is nothing short of genius. Different objectives fundamentally change the way you approach these titles, in effect giving you more games for the price of one.

There’s been great emphasis on multiple difficulties with today’s hardware generation, with unlockable difficulties such as Legendary or Crushing, which actually do little besides increase the stat variables for an enemy’s HP, or the number of enemies which spawn. If you can beat the machine code you get a little trophy or achievement, but the game itself hasn’t actually shown you anything new.

Considering that most difficulty achievements stack, there’s not even a reason to play the lower difficulties. Something has been lost with modern design, which rather than improving or diversifying content, aims simply to bump up the numbers as a cheap and lazy way to give the impression of variety. Likewise companies are quick to tout the NewGame+ experience, but often this also doesn’t do anything new other than make you play through something again, albeit with higher stats. Sometimes there’s a new item or area, but not always.

It’s easy to look at Goldeneye now and criticise it for its technology. But the underlying design, and the differentiated difficulty levels, are still impressive. Playing through on default gave you had a great game experience, while playing through again produced almost a new world to explore. The same layouts and architecture perhaps, but filled with new objectives and different sense of rhythm.

There are of course a lot of games now which do an excellent job of differentiating themselves on multiple playthroughs, and they deserve to be praised, but when you look at Ken’s back catalogue, it seems like he was one of the earliest to really think about this.

Ken Lobb, we salute you and the games you’ve worked on.

(some images taken from MobyGames)


  1. I'm quite vocal in my criticism of Goldeneye but mostly it's down to how badly it's aged. I can't fault how innovative and creative it was at the time and it seems most of Goldeneye's best features are down to KAL. Great interview, I'd love to hear more from him in an extended one.

  2. Fuck yeah Ken Lobb!

  3. Cool beans, sketcz. I think goldeneye beats pretty much any current fps in every area except framerate:(

    ps. I was just reading over your old Shadowrun Mega CD guide; There's currently a team working(slowly) on a translation, and if you've still got the manual some scans would be really helpful.

    Really liked the Agness Kaku, from the dumping on kojima's ego to the "hired gun" shit.

  4. Oh my god, that guide was one of the first things I ever wrote and it's pretty bad. I had hoped it was deleted...

    Unfortunately I sold the game so no longer have the manual, nor the scans. They would have been lost when my old Win98 PC died.

    Best of luck to all involved though - I'll keeping a keen eye open for any developments.

  5. this is evilpachirisu, I changed my name back.

    Sketcz you are kicking ass lately, thanks for posting this as GE and the Genny Splat games are some of my favorites.

  6. @Zack/Evilpachirisu
    Erm... OK. But didn't you start a long cascading forum topic on The Game Room Blitz forums, criticising my writing, calling me an idiot, before ranting about the fact that I spoke with people on the Tokugawa forums to research info on Japanese computers, accusing me of having others write my articles for me? Article outsourcing you called it. Then you claimed the whole of HG101 were dicks, posted a link to the MagicEngine forums, as it to reinforce your view, before quoting me repeatedly to state how childish I am, then questioning why DA let's me write for the site?

    I'm pretty sure you mentioned, more than once, that you stopped reading HG101 because of me.

    I would say thanks for the compliment above this post, but honestly the bi-polar love/hate thing frightens me.

    You're like my second wife. I don't know whether I'll wake up greeted by hugs and kisses, or my weiner in the food blender.

    1. No I really meant what I said up there. I was MAYBE a tad crazy back then with like two different Zacks inside me but I'm totally cool now! I regret what I posted earlier about you, but you have to understand, that wasn't me. This is the real me. Sketcz you're a cool dude. Keep on keeping on, brother! :3

    2. Seriously, I'm sorry. :(

  7. OK, well, we all have our crazy moments. Thank you then. Try to stay chilled out, man. :)