Interview: Ken Allen from Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed

by Emma Loggins

Designed from the ground up for the Wii home video game system, Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed fully utilizes the Wii Remote to deliver an all-new sci-fi action gaming experience. As the storyline prequel to Destroy All Humans! Path of the Furon, players control Crypto as he travels the world in the Funked Out 1970’s, unleashing massive destruction on foot, in his UFO and for the first time, in the Big Willy mech. Designed by THQ’s internal development studio Locomotive Games, Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed will also be available on the PSP (PlayStationPortable) system.

We had the honor of sitting down with game developer Ken Allen to talk about the game and what it’s like creating a game for the Wii! Here’s what he had to say:

I have to start out by saying I think it’s awesome that you can finally play as the aliens!

Yeah, that’s pretty cool! It’s a pretty fresh approach to video games. And to be candid, don’t ya think we kinda have it coming? I kid! I kid!

How long did the game take to develop?

From the time the Wii version was given the green light by THQ to the time we submitted out gold master candidate to Nintendo was just over a year, which is very uncommon in today’s game development environment. Even more impressive is the fact that since this was our studio’s first Wii game, and we had to also create our game engine from scratch while developing the game. In developing game software, you have your “application” (the game) and the “system” (the technology foundation upon which the application is created). And typically a developer re-uses, the system for each game and improves it little by little for each new game. Since we’d been developing PSP games prior to developing Destroy All Humans: Big Willy Unleashed, our system code had to undergo a substantial degree of evolution all as we created the game. The team really stepped up for this title.

The game is coming out on the Wii, PSP, and PlayStation 2. Are there any big differences between the systems for game play for this title?

Unfortunately, the PS2 version was canceled. We created out game for the Wii, so we didn’t think about structuring our, game play, our assets or technology to be scaled back for the PS2. And when a studio was selected to port our game to the PS2, we were pretty far into development and nearly all the game was locked down. The studio doing the PS2 version spent several months researching this, but in the end it just wasn’t feasible within the parameters they were given. The PSP version offers abut 75% of the game-play we created and, last time I checked, there was a plan to make multiplayer an ad hoc networked experience. Other differences include motion sensitive controls for the Wii some minor differences in play-mechanic, such as how brain battle is accomplished on each platform.

Which platform do you prefer to develop for? Why?

Any time you have more memory and more horsepower you can offer an experience to the player that can’t be matched on platforms further down the food chain. So by that standard, the Wii is preferred over the PSP or previous platforms. But there is also something that’s cool in creating a game that people can take with them and play anytime, anywhere. And the PSP is the sexy little device perfectly suited for that purpose. Of course, when you get a chance to develop for one of the hi-def platforms (like the PS3 or Xbox 360) the cool factor takes on another form, but your budgets also escalate and you have to be sure your investment of tens of millions of dollars for development involves as little risk as possible. So that means you can’t experiment as much in making games for the PS3 or Xbox 360. The Wii is in a unique sweet spot where publishers can afford to try something innovative without risking big bags of cash. So in a way, developing for the Wii is ideal if you want to try something new.

Are there any interesting architectural features of the Wii that make it a unique platform to develop for?

Obviously it’s the controls! Motion sensing, pointing, button layout. The Wii controls, in my opinion, draw the player deeper into the game play experience. It’s more immersive because you move your hands around to do something in-game very much the same way as you do in the real world. The Wii remote truly is an extension of your hand, and perhaps even your mind. I mean, would Guitar Hero be as much fun with the traditional controller? I think not.

How challenging is it to develop an application that uses the Wii remote in a realistic manner?

As you play a game like Destroy All Humans on the Wii and steer your character around using the pointer, it feels pretty organic. But we spent a significant amount of time designing and developing the control scheme so when you perform a gesture or movement the motion sensor uses, that the camera doesn’t go all squirrelly on you. You won’t notice it so much, and that means we did our job. The motion sensors are also quite sensitive and can register movements in your hand caused by your heart beating. Now that’s sensitive! And since many movements happen in real time (as you flick your hand forward, Crypto tosses an object at the same time) our guys had to create special routines for smoothing out the data from the motion sensors without introducing much delay. We’ve got some pretty smart programmers here, so they were fully up to the challenge.

How much creative control did you all have with this title?

Our team is structured such that creative decisions are handled by a creative staff of designers and artists. As the producer, my main job is to facilitate development and clear the way for the creative juices to work their way into the game. That’s a lengthy way for me to say having creative control is not in my job duties. If there is a gap there, then yes, the producer typically can step up, but we have some very capable people on the team who handle that role just fine. As with most games I’ve produced, I have some input into design, usually looking out for the gamer – but I typically focus my energy on good development processes and making sure the needs of our stakeholders (marketing, QA, Nintendo, our corporate parent, licensors, etc.) are taken care of.

What’s the coolest part of this game in your opinion?

Hmmm. On one hand, it’s Big Willy. He’s new to the series and I think could be developed into a spin off game (and, no, there are no plans at present to do so). Controlling Big Willy offers some of the most fun in the game. On the other hand, the game is just plain funny and it’s the rare exception where a game can make you laugh. There are some lines in this game that still make me giggle like a school child. But it’s hard to nail down just one thing that is the coolest part of the game. I like the controls, and how we poke fun at the conventions of video gaming, and how we get to lampoon the seventies. But I go back to my original response. Big Willy is cool because you can “go Godzilla” on a crowd of disco dancers and still feel pretty good about yourself.

Do you have any advice for inspiring game developers?

Make games you love making. It will be a better game because you loved making it. Always put yourself in the shoes of the gamer who will be playing your game, and take the time to understand why people play games and what makes playing games enjoyable. If you’re not in the games industry, get your hands on one of the editors that come with games like Unreal, or Neverwinter Nights and make your own content – and share it with others so you can get some objective feedback on your designs. That’s how many professional have gotten their start. And there’re more tools today to help amateur game makers create games for PC, Xbox 360 and even the Wii (check out the Torque engine) than ever! For example, long before I got my first gig (making music and sound effects for Sierra’s adventure games) I was creating games on my TI 99/4a and Atari 400. So you can do that, too!

Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed


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