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Insecticide - Mike Levine interview

During the 1990s, LucasArts was synonymous with innovation and originality, defining many of the adventure genre conventions we take for granted today. So when former LucasArts designers get back together, people really take notice.

You probably know Telltale Games and Autumn Moon Productions, but there is another group of LucasArts veterans working on an adventure game. Led by Mike Levine, the people at Crackpot Entertainment have worked on such classics as Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road and The Curse of Monkey Island. Now they are ready to unveil their new game Insecticide, a stylish noir detective title set in a world populated entirely by humanoid bugs.

Insecticide is in development for PC and handhelds, though Crackpot Entertainment isn't yet saying which handheld platform(s). The PC version will initially be a downloadable game released in two separate parts, the first of which will be ready around the end of the year. A combined package will be released through retail channels afterwards.

In this exclusive interview, we ask Mike Levine what the game is about, who is working on it and what kind of gameplay we can expect.


First of all, tell us what kind of game Insecticide is and who the main characters are.

Image #1Let me give you the official line first: "Insecticide is a hard-boiled, fast-shooting detective game set in a festering future city where bugs have evolved as the planet's dominant race. A murder at the powerful Nectarola soft drink company leads police from the Insecticide Squad on a bug hunt through the city's seedy underbelly, and into a mystery of epic proportions.

Join Detective Chrys Liszt and partner Roachy Caruthers on the case as they become entangled in a web of crime. It's an action-adventure in the truest sense of the word, immersing players in cinematic combat levels, as well as a story-based detective investigation.

Use Chrys' unique insect abilities, a range of creative bug weaponry, and old-fashioned street smarts to solve the case and uncover a shocking secret, ultimately bringing the mighty boot of justice down hard on the city's infestation of crime."

So at its heart, it's a detective-buddy story ­-- it just so happens one of the detectives is a young, female insect hybrid (Chrys), and her partner Roachy is an aging, on the cusp of retirement/seen it all, grizzled veteran. Chrys is the lead character, but Roachy will be omnipresent for most of the game.

Your press release says it is an action/adventure. Since that label is used for different types of games, how would you characterize Insecticide's gameplay? How is it an action/adventure "in the truest sense of the word"?

Our main goal was to create something fun and compelling. Somehow that simple fact gets lost on too many titles. At Crackpot, we really let the specific IP drive us. Insecticide is inspired by many things, but at its heart it's a detective thriller, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and comedy mixed in. It's like Dirty Harry or The French Connection directed by Tim Burton. Television shows like Homicide or The Wire were also a big influence.

Even though it's a total fantasy, it's grounded in these reality-based stories. We wanted it to feel real, and one of the keys to that is pacing ­-- another thing we don't see in many games. At LucasArts, and in general in life, we were weened on things like great characters, stories, worlds, etc. With Insecticide, we are attempting to create something very cinematic and story-based.

What that means is we needed an experience with ups and downs ­-- like any of those films or shows I mentioned. Too many games today run on "11" the entire game. Like any great film, we wanted our game to have highs and lows that were equally compelling. This is where the adventure comes into it. Investigating crime scenes, talking to NPCs, finding clues ­-- these are critical elements to any detective thriller and you really can't do that effectively running around and shooting at things. There is a time for that ­-- what great detective story didn't have chases, shootouts, etc.? Insecticide is all about mixing those two together to create an overall compelling piece of entertainment.

Please tell us about your background. You used to work for LucasArts, didn't you?

Yes, I worked at LucasArts from 1990-97. Mainly in the art department. I was learning Photoshop on the outside, and things like After Effects and Premiere, and all these digital tools that were emerging.

LucasFilm Games (as it was known when I began) was a small crew ­-- 60 or so total -- but they were so busy just doing what they were doing, they just didn't know about all these new tools emerging. I was kind of like, "Um, you know that thing you are doing frame by frame taking you a week? I think I can do it in under a day --­ can I try?" Well, that kind of got their attention as you can imagine. I was definitely in the right place at the right time, and to this day feel honored to have had the experience. Not to be corny, but it was a magical time there for a while. Though I like to say, when they took the free candy away, it went right downhill.

By the time I left in 1997 the company had grown to 350 people, and I was "Senior Digital Media Specialist", which meant I was involved on a high level on most projects, helping set up the art path and techniques at the beginning of games. Before that, though, I worked in the art department on Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, The Dig, The Curse of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango (but only a little), Dark Forces 1 & 2, Rebel Assault 1 & 2 .... And too many others to remember!

I took a sabbatical after Jedi Knights 2, and on my first day off got a job offer from my friends from ILM who were starting a software company to make art tools for special effects. This company was called Puffin Designs and was an independent company not owned by Lucas. They asked me to come on board and be the product manager, so I jumped at the chance to help craft our own art tools and work at a small company again. Puffin was more about feature film special effects, and the experience taught me a lot, including how to run a business.

After a couple years of being burned out on trade shows, I wanted to get back to games and animation. I had that creative itch and I couldn't escape it. I moved back to the east coast, where I was originally from, and started Pileated Pictures in late 1999. While Pileated began to create original material for the Internet, when that market didn't take off, we shifted plans and became a service company. Pileated has grown steadily and became a leading service provider to the entertainment and toy industries, making online games, animation, websites and all kinds of things. We also do animation for television, and work on many other game systems for kids, through companies like Hasbro.

The continued success of Pileated really is what led to us being able to start Crackpot, and lets Crackpot be a very unique company in the game space who is not subject to the whims and demands of the bigger publishers as we don't have to live in fear of keeping 30+ employees under one roof constantly employed. To most game studios it's all about getting that next job. To Crackpot, it's all about the IP.

The announcement suggests that more than one industry veteran is involved. Who else is on the team?

I can announce here for the first time that Larry Ahern, lead designer of The Curse of Monkey Island and lead artist/animator on games such as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road, is co-lead designer and art director of Insecticide. In addition, Peter Chan has done the bulk of the concept work for this game and been a huge influence who I cannot credit enough. Dave Grossman also worked with us in the early days to develop the characters and the world. Jacob Stephens, who worked with us at Lucas then worked at Nihilistic, is our lead level designer and our real secret weapon on the project. Everybody involved deserves tremendous credit. This has truly been a team effort. Many other LucasArts vets are also involved, including Anson Jew (concept art), Peter McConnell (music), Julian Kwasneski (Sound FX) and others.

What elements in Insecticide would you say are similar to LucasArts-style adventure games?

I think what we are creating, in our opinion, is not that different to what we made while at LucasArts conceptually. We are trying to capture the 'soul' of those games ­-- if that makes any sense. If you look at the games we worked on at Lucas, they were never the same, or 'one type' -- so I really have a hard time classifying any of them into one genre.

We were always trying to put the latest technology into each new title, and advance the tech, every single time. Everyone wanted to outdo each other, and themselves, in a friendly way. Sam & Max stripped back the interface from what is was in the past, Full Throttle had mini games and as much action as could be done at the time, The Dig upped the animation quality and techniques, Grim Fandango starting using 3D technology based on action games. The point is, we always used what was available at the time.

To me, the heart of those games, and the central theme behind them is they had amazing characters, stories and worlds to play in. In essence, this is what we feel has been lacking from so many games that come out today. So, to answer your question, we are making a game that isn't afraid to let you talk to other characters, let you "investigate" crime scenes or find clues. From a pure gameplay perspective, these parts will be the most similar to parts of what we made at Lucas, but we feel the action parts still will carry the same vibe. And we don't plan on making the action so hard you have to be a button masher to finish them. It will be more about strategy and being tactful, even in the middle of an all out blitz.

So why the move to more action-oriented gameplay from the traditional adventures you've worked on before?

As mentioned, we really don't see this as a huge shift from what we did before. Some may disagree, but I think if you look at the facts I mention above, I don't see how one could. This is the natural extension of what we were doing then, period. Because Insecticide is an action-adventure detective thriller, it of course needed action. But for what it's worth, Crackpot has other concepts in the early stages that have far less intense action in them, and more of an emphasis on mini-games, characters, puzzle solving, etc. We will do whatever is right for the given property. Crackpot is totally IP driven, so we will let the property drive us more than anything.

How will the interface work in the PC version of Insecticide? Is it a point-and-click style game, or is the character controlled directly?

The UI for the game will be very streamlined and cinematic. It is not a point and click game. The player controls the character. But we plan to avoid some of the pitfalls of investigative mode that others have made using this scheme but trying to keep the UI very easy to use.

What does it mean for the main characters to be bugs? Also, what can you tell us about the bug society in general?

Bugs and insects have been done before ... And done well. But I can't recall them being done like this. This is not A Bug's Life. Not even close.

It's funny because the idea purely started as fantasy ­-- but as we developed it over the last few years, I kept reading news stories about how the main elements we came up with in Insecticide that led to the humans' demise and the rise of the insects ­-- were actually coming true! Allergies are on the rise world wide ­-- no one knows why for sure, and it has deadly results in things like Asthma and more. Bio-engineered crops, insects with evolved resistance levels, etc. Its all happening, people ­-- so prepare yourself!

In Troi (pronounced "Troy" -- the name for the city in the game), the insects live in a thriving metropolis built over the remains of an old human city (or "Hominids" as the insects call them). Though the Hominid population was nearly obliterated when Pollen levels rose to toxic levels many years ago, the remaining Hominids live in underground camps around the city to avoid intense pollen exposure, which is fatal to them. The Hominids are quite deranged, in a silly way, from years of toxic pollen exposure. They are constantly plotting their return to power as the dominant race on the planet, and always failing in humorous ways.

The dominant force in the economy and politics of Troi is "Nectarola, Inc.", a pollen based soft drink that the city's population cannot get enough of. It's run by the longtime and beloved CEO Madame Haezzal Quinbee ­-- the leader of Nectarola and the top "Queen Bee". The story is involved and we look forward to telling you more about it as we get closer to release.

Your company is called Crackpot Entertainment and your publisher is Gamecock Media Group. Aren't those names a little... weird?

Is weird bad?

We figured after "Wii" -- anything goes.

Gamecock wasn't a name I'd heard before, but a little searching reveals that its founder was also involved in Gathering of Developers. What can you tell us about your publisher and your reasons for choosing them?

On Monday, February 12th, Gamecock and Crackpot will announce themselves to the world. You will soon hear plenty about them, and hopefully a little about us. We signed with them because they are truly an "artist friendly" publisher. Not only do we maintain control of our IP, something that is critical to Crackpot, but we knew we were going to get to make the kind of game we wanted with them, and not be second guessed. So far we have been very happy working with them.

What phase of production are you currently in and what's your expected release date?

We're hard at work putting everything together and we are expecting to have the games out around the end of the year. Also worthy of mention, is that the PC version will be a two part downloadable game at first, and then come out in retail packaged together afterwards.

More information and concept art can be found at the official site. Gamecock Media also launched its website today -- you can read about them in this New York Times article.


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