The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kalani W. Streicher Interview

Kalani Streicher is a gaming industry veteran, with over twenty years experience in development, design, and production. He has credit in dozens of commercial games, including the classic Super Star Wars SNES Trilogy and X-Wing/Tie Fighter Series. He’s worked and produced games for such formative companies such as LucasArts, Activision, EA, Universal, Microsoft and has founded several of his own.
Thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us today.

How did you find yourself in game development? Did anything in particular inspire or motivate you to go into the field? What skills or experience have you found most valuable?

Well, I didn’t really pursue getting a job in the games industry. I grew up in Germany and it is all about precision mechanics and fine German engineering. I did an apprenticeship in tool&die in my teens, though I knew then I wanted to get into computers and software. After that I studied computer science and precision mechanics at the Technical College in Frankfurt. At the time computers and computer graphics were just at its infant stages though I was very intrigued by it. I knew the best place to be part of computer graphics and visual effects production is in California. Therefore I move to San Francisco and started looking for a job in that field. Since I had a background in programming and was fluent in German my first contract job was translating C, C++ books from English into German for Microsoft. 

At the same time Lucasfilm Games was looking for someone that can port and localize all their story games for the European market. I was there at the right time and was responsible for the translations and ports of all the story games (Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, Loom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.) to languages such as German, French, Italian, Spanish and platforms such as PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore64, etc. 

The skills and experience most valuable are having a good understanding of software technology, programming and logic. You have to be adaptive to the different platforms and input devices. Further, being highly creative, organized and having a passion for games is a must. 

What was working for LucasArts like? Was there anything you particularly enjoyed, disliked, or stands out in your mind?

It was incredible working at LucasArts. The culture and creative atmosphere is like no other place. The attention to detail and the combination of creativity and technology is amazing. Working at Skywalker Ranch was totally fun and it is amazing being surrounded by the most innovative and creative people in the film and games industry. 

You’ve worked with many different types of games over the years. Space sims, platformers, adventure games, and so on. Which have you most enjoyed creating, and why?

I enjoyed each one of them. I like the variety of the different genres with their intricate game mechanics I’m always hungry to learn, understand and evolve my design and development skills by building different games. I strongly believe future games will become a playground of the different game mechanics from different genres. We already see this trend with many games in merging different genres as well as embedding many mini-games or sections of the game with different play mechanics. 

How do you feel many of the classic games you were involved in, like the Super Star Wars and X-Wing/Tie Fighter series, have held up over time? If you were asked to remake them today what, if anything, would you do differently?

I believe they’ve held up relatively well. They are definitely considered some of the top classic games. Though game design has evolved since then and if I’d be given the opportunity to remake them today I’d keep the core essence of the game play and add many more new design features. For example, the Super Star Wars was aimed at the core to hard-core player. Back in the days that’s what all players were. We didn’t have a casual player. Therefore the game is tailored to be very challenging to play. Today I’d make the “Easy” and “Normal” difficulty modes a lot easier, though keep “Jedi” mode for the hardcore. I’d improve some of the level design and also add a better save game system. Back then you had to play a level over and over from the beginning after you died. I don’t think that would fly today. I’d add save points or some other save-game mechanism. I’d give it a graphical and aesthetics facelift, and lastly, I’d add a social and content creation component to the game similar to Little Big Planet.

With X-Wing/Tie Fighter I’d definitely upgrade the visual quality. Today PC or console platforms can make it look like the movie. You’d feel like being in movie. I’d focus on seamless integration of story content and game play. The AI of X-Wing/Tie Fighter is phenomenal and still holds up today, but this area has evolved over the years and I’d add better emergent and expert systems, adaptive AI, as well as more emotional depth.

You’ve recently started a company, Kalani Games, which seems to have a mobile focus. In the past you have also worked for a mobile company, MauiGames. Do you believe the industry is heading away from the traditional business model for big budget “AAA” games? Do you think we’re likely to see the bulk of the gaming industry’s growth in smaller, more agile to develop, social, mobile and “casual” games?
Kalani Games focuses on a variety of game genres and platforms. That is what I’ve done my entire career and will continue to do. Currently we are working on a Virtual Worlds/Casual MMO, DLC, Facebook, and iPad/iPhone/Android games.

Console games today are harder to get off the ground just because most of them are tied to big licenses, budgets and resources. These games are definitely approaching, if not surpassing, the budgets of films and movies. I don’t think console games will disappear in the near future, there is still a lot of room to improve and bring an even more immersive, visual and emotional experience to the player. Though the market and revenue growth will flatten off more over the years. We are approaching what the movie industry has been for the last decade and reaching a certain saturation point. I believe we’ll see additions of other new features such as social, 3D or sensory systems in the console games.

On the other hand, the social, mobile and casual game markets will grow at a more rapid pace over the next decades. There are still so many people that aren’t playing games and our goal as game designers is to capture everyone on Earth playing some sort of game on a device.

I believe these are the areas where game play will innovate the most over the next years. We’ve already seen different ways to engage the players with new interesting game play mechanics. People want to play games anywhere they go and socialize with each other. The new devices such as smart phones and tablets are paving the way. In addition, with the rapid technology development, new input mechanisms and faster Internet bandwidth will accelerate the quality of games. We’ll already see the 3D era on the tablets happening and the convergence of console, PC and tablets. The consoles are slowly becoming the “arcades” games of the past. Soon we’ll be playing console-like games on our mobile devices and be totally connected between various platforms.

Any brief words of advice for the next generation of game developers?

Work hard! Attention to detail! Innovate! Have Fun!

Do or do not. There is no try.

Thank you very much for your time!

You can visit Mr. Streicher’s company website here:


Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Steel Storm: Burning Retribution Review

Indie games are an interesting breed. They don’t always have the resources and level of polish we’ve come to expect from AAA titles, but they an endless source of innovative new ideas. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar they’re also sometimes simply a better value.

The slightly awkwardly named “Steel Storm: Burning Retribution” doesn’t bring new ideas to the table, but it does provide a slice of frantic, old school, arcade-style fun. You steer a hover tank from a top-down perspective on a quest to explode everything that moves and most of what doesn’t. Don’t worry about story. You won’t be releasing the fire key long enough to read it anyway.

The intense and tightly tuned combat is the highlight of the game and rightly so. Movement speed, enemy AI, and weapons are all just right. Your tank is fast enough to dodge or outrun most enemy attacks, and good use of the environment will let you avoid the rest. You can’t afford not to pay attention, because the sheer power and volume of incoming fire will destroy you in seconds if you’re careless.

Weapons scale up nicely, and are much of what make the combat fun. In the early levels you dance about groups of smaller enemy tanks, battering and herding them with your weak but continuously firing mini-guns. Later you unleash unrelenting devastation with missile swarms and spread weapons that would seem more at home in a bullet-hell game, laying waste to fields of enemies and rumbling mini-bosses many times your size. The “Finger of God” style beam cannon was my personal favorite.

You advance over dozens of burning enemy hulls, or not at all.
There’s no ammo to keep track of, and little reason to ever stop firing. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s a rare moment where you’re not shooting at something, and staying still is one of the surest ways to die.

Almost everything explodes when shot enough, and looks good while doing so. The models are clean and attractive. For an indie game Steel Storm manages some very slick looking graphics and effects, although performance sometimes chugged when the action was really flying.

Least you come away with the impression that Steel Storm is nothing but a continuous scream of mindless explosions there are some elements that lend it welcome tactical depth.  Weapons aren’t all straight upgrades, and offer pros and cons worth considering when the chance comes to swap them out. For example the homing missiles are obviously useful and accurate, but lack the raw firepower and indirect fire abilities of the ballistic missile barrage. Insidious little repair turrets resurrect destroyed enemy tanks, forcing you to look for alternate paths or pick your way through a regenerating mob.

The best place to shoot someone is from safely around a corner.
There’s a decent variety on display among the level environments. The more open outdoor areas are definitely superior, and the levels that force you to slug your way through narrow linear corridors can start to grind. You’re generally there to hit some switches or blow something up, though Steel Storm tries to keep things interesting with the occasional time limit or escort mission. The friendly AI tanks aren’t very smart, but mercifully you’re never forced to keep them alive to complete the level, making them a minor feature rather than a major flaw. 

The levels themselves can get quite time consuming to complete. I’m not sure I agree with the choice. Steel Storm excels at brief bursts of frantic, arcade-style action and the game’s combat can become repetitive over time. There’s no in-level saves, just a limited number of extra lives. The system would seem to be perfectly suited for short, intense “coffee break” sized levels, but a few of Steel Storm’s can start to drag.

Even the indoor levels have some nice graphical effects.
The developers were clearly getting a handle on their tools by the second episode, which features more interesting environments and gameplay. There are a couple of tense fights against massive, powerful bosses. These brief, arena-style levels are a nice diversion from the longer slugfests, though you should expect to go through a few lives cutting these behemoths down.

Outside of actual gameplay the UI and Front-End are a bit rough, but functional. While Steel Storm is not a brutally complex or unintuitive game some form of tutorial, or even basic documentation, would not have gone amiss. I was stuck for a time on one early level just because I didn’t recognize what the game’s switches looked like yet.

There's a good looking "over the shoulder" camera, but it's too hard to dodge to make it practical to play in.
Co-op is a chaotic blast, provided you can find some people to play with. There’s also a map editor thrown in, if you want to try your hand at making your own levels. You can’t actually make new environments, but you can add in enemies, items, objects, weapons, and what-not. You’re free to string together your own custom campaigns. I was able to find a custom co-op campaign with an even higher enemy density than the core game, which was fun if punishing to the frame rate. Many players probably won’t bother with these features, but they’re a very nice touch, and a good step towards building and maintaining a community.

Reason to play: Intense arcade-style fun. Good indie value. Custom maps and co-op extend life. Splosions.

Reasons to pass: Levels can get a bit lengthy and repetitive. Old school levels and lives system not for everyone.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.