Since their mass exodus from troubled developer Ion Storm last year, Third Law Interactive have been hard at work on "KISS : Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child".
We dragged several key members of the team away from their computers to question them about the game, KISS, Todd McFarlane, the Lithtech engine, and Doom...
The idea for a game based on the "KISS : Psycho Circus" comics by Todd McFarlane actually came from GOD. That's the Gathering Of Developers though, not the almighty, as Will Loconto (Third Law's audio designer) explains...
"Mike Wilson, CEO of Gathering of Developers, knew that we were planning to leave [Ion Storm] as a group in order to start our own company, and he had been looking for someone to do a KISS game. The timing ended up working out well for us."
The match was made in heaven. "Gathering is very developer-friendly in terms of what they offer, whether it is higher royalty rates than any other publisher, or letting the developers make their games the way they want."
Is that quite enough GOD puns for you? Good, I thought so...
Anyway, to cut a long story short, Third Law signed up with the Gathering Of Developers to create the KISS game, and they've been at it ever since.
Many of us were understandably dubious when we first heard about the game, with memories of "Queen : The Eye" and Iron Maiden's "Ed Hunter" returning unbidden like some sort of terrifying heavy metal nightmare.
But as Will told us, the world of KISS (and in particular the comic book series based on the band) has actually turned out to be wonderfully suited to computer games.
"We have a couple of KISS fans here that go way back, but I don't think anyone expected the universe in McFarlane's comics to be such a cool place in which to set a game. As soon as we read the comics, we knew we could make a great game."
And although the game is based closely on the mythology of the Pyscho Circus comics, it isn't limited by it. "While there will be a number of characters that come from the comics, most of the creatures in the game are our own."
"Contrary to what people might think about a licensed product, we actually have a lot of freedom in designing this game", Will said. "Both KISS and TMP [Todd McFarlane Productions] have rights of refusal if we do something they don't like, but so far they have taken a very hands-off approach."
Mark Morgan ("digital artisan"), agrees with Will. "We have tried our best to make Psycho Circus as if it were our own original concept. In truth, granted the freedom we've had in design and development of the title, it damn near is."
The KISS : Psycho Circus license's main advantage is that, although it doesn't particularly constrain them, it does give them "a great base universe established in the comics, as well as a story and imposing imagery". That, and the name recognition of course.
Even the few limitations that the license does impose on them can be a good thing though.
"The license keeps us 'reined in' so to speak", Mark explained. "It helps the members of the company to focus on tightness of concept instead of always running around with far-fetched ideas irrelevant to the success of development."
And let's face it, Third Law have plenty of experience of designers with "far-fetched ideas" - many of them worked on John Romero's terminally overdue Daikatana before leaving Ion Storm...
Making a refreshing change from the horde of games based on the Quake 3 and Unreal engines that are due out next year, Third Law have chosen to use the Lithtech engine for Nightmare Child.
David "Cleaner" Namaksy, one of the team's level designers, explained the decision -
"There were several major reasons we chose Lithtech over other engines. First, it is a solid engine (Monolith had already released two games using the engine), and we needed a proven technology."
"Second, initial tests showed that the engine could render a large number of creatures and still maintain a reasonable frame rate - something very important to our game. Third, its use of Direct3D makes the engine compatible with most video cards out there now, and in the future."
"Finally, Monolith's commitment to developer support and continuous upgrades until our game is released was very important. It is like having our own dedicated engine team working on the game!"
And Third Law are pushing the engine to its limits, particularly in one area...
"Probably the biggest stress we're putting on the engine is the large number of creatures you will be fighting throughout the game. Along with the engine's ability to LOD models, we have designed with this in mind by creating low-poly models and super-fast AI."
"Still, this will surely push Lithtech to its rendering limits."
All this talk of hordes of monsters is no doubt bringing back fond memories of Doom for our older readers, and this is no accident. Cleaner described the game as "a first person shooter in which the gameplay revoles around intense action, much like the classic DOOM".
Andy Chang (artist) was quick to point out that "everyone at Third Law is a big fan of id software's Doom", and that the classic game has been a big influence on Nightmare Child.
"We all agreed that the thing we enjoyed the most about Doom's gameplay was the sheer number of monsters that they threw at you. It makes for a more primal and less cerebral sort of gameplay - kill or be killed. We're going to have puzzles that will make you think, of course, but the meat of the gameplay is going to be fighting your way out of densely populated nooks and crannies."
"Lithtech's level of detail technology allows us to fit a hefty amount of creatures on the screen without bogging down the speed. We also were very careful in making the creatures as efficiently built as they could be."
Doom isn't the only influence on the game though... "The most efficient way to clear a room is to use an axe or sword to hack your way through it. It harkens back to games like Hexen, where melee weapons aren't necessarily the weakest."
Close quarters action with hordes of gruesome monsters? Where do I sign up?
It's not all about mindless slaughter though, and Andy was kind enough to give us his "quickie version" of the plot -
"The demigods, or "Elder", have been cast into the void because of the breach of an ancient oath. Through the machinations of an (already dead) arch-enemy this triggers the conception of "The Nightmare Child". If this entity is born before the return of the Elder it will take their place in the cosmos and basically swallow the universe whole, just to spit it out again in a highly undesirable form."
The game itself is split into five unique realms... "Four of the five realms each represent one of the four Elders and their elements; The Demon - Fire, The Beast King - Earth, The Starbearer - Water, and The Celestral - Air."
"Each realm will be recognizable as real places that have been distorted by each of the elements. For example, in the water realm you will come across a catheral that has been flooded, or in the earth realm you come across a graveyard that is overgrown and has a large number of rocks shooting out of the ground."
"Finally you face the Nightmare Realm, an all-out hostile environment where the very walls scream for your blood and where a new God of evil is taking shape down the hall."
Sounds like New York to me... So, anyway, what are you doing in these realms, other than hacking your way through swathes of twisted bad guys? Once again Andy, the man with all the answers, filled us in -
"Your task in each of the first four realms is to restore each of the four Elder to power by assembling their armor / KISS costume. Once the four who are one are ready you can enter the Nightmare Realm and cleanse the world of evil."
And then they all lived happily ever after, and recorded a double live album. Or something like that...
KISS Me Quick
Nightmare Child is shaping up to be a breath of fresh air for the first person shooter, returning the genre to its roots with hordes of enemies and fast paced in your face action.
The game's settings are also likely to be a welcome change from the now traditional alien planets, secret government labs, and techno-gothic castles we've grown so used to.
"Because of the nightmarish circus theme, we are given a broader range of places we can take the player. We've got our share of dingy dystopia, but to balance it out we've got manic circus tents with stripes and polka dots."
"It's incredibly refreshing for me as a texture guy", Andy told us, "because I can make stuff with bright primary colors!"
Speaking of which, we should probably let Third Law get back to work again. The game is due out some time in the spring, meaning that they will have gone from an idea to a box on your local computer store's shelf in just over a year.
Given the long design cycle of many other games (Daikatana, Half-Life and Unreal spring to mind), hasn't that been something of a challenge?
"It certainly has", Andy agreed. "But we've had some incredibly helpful things on our side. We've got a solid engine, a thorough design, a supportive publisher, and the most efficient team of professionals I've ever worked with."
Well, we had better let you get back to it then... Thanks to Pam Wolford for setting up the interview, and to all the members of Third Law who contributed.