Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Paul Kidd, co-designer on Beam Software’s celebrated 1993 action RPG Shadowrun
Abseiling In Kilts
Kidd was raised in Melbourne, and admits that while he did “did some computer stuff in high school”, his programming skills are nonexistent. He studied “literature, philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Aztec religion, Russian revolutionary mayhem and the rollicking fun history of English Civil war and the Glorious Revolution” at LaTrobe University from 1982 onwards, where he says he dedicated most of his time to “water fights in the Agora [courtyard], abseiling in kilts down office buildings, wargaming, role-playing and chasing women”.
“And medieval re-enactment!” he adds gleefully. “Fit for life!”
Following university, Kidd began to work at developing literary skills with the aim to be a writer. “While on the dole, I set myself hefty tasks and exercises, driving to get better,” he says. “In the early days, I would set myself a task to describe an event or an emotion. Then to do it with half the words. Then to do it from a different point of view or tense. I would pick apart texts of my favourite books and critically analyse them. Find tools that had worked for other writers, and try to adapt some of those lessons to my own work. I began to do story sections, polish them, and polish them again.”
“I joined an APA - an amateur publishing association. Rowrbrazzle
– a fine magazine! These were magazines that had a select membership of folk who wanted to push their skills to higher levels. You basically got a copy of each magazine as it came out, but had to contribute to at least every second or third issue. Members then gave critical comment on your work. It was a wonderful way of putting the polish on.”
Kidd’s first published work came as a comic book writer, with the series Tank Vixens
, which was then followed by “countless short stories in anthology magazines”.
The Empty Vessel
Kidd’s start in the games industry came in 1984, through a series of events and changes in the industry that he puts down to “just random chance”. It wasn't something I had considered,” he says.
“The earliest designers were all actually head programmers - and this was reflected in the games,” he explains. “They were interested in the cunning maths and programming, but were weak on gameplay and goofy imagination. It was clearly becoming difficult for them to come up with ideas – and things like dialogue and descriptive text were far outside of their skill set.”
”So what they needed was an empty vessel,” Kidd continues. “A being so utterly devoid of computer savvy, tech skills or mathematical training that he would be a kind of - of guiding light in the darkness. My girlfriend - now wife - Christine found a newspaper add asking for ‘Writers skilled in games, RPGs etc.’. I immediately answered. Since I designed and ran competition games for RPG conventions, was an avid [role playing] games theory nut, and wrote well, I secured my first job. This was to do a specific little game for Melbourne House [then Beam Software] - a strange little game about bootlegging liquor: Mugsy
. From there, they hired me as a full time employee.”
Kidd began working on titles as a writer at the time, co-scripting Beam’s Lord of the Ring
text adventures. “The games were filled with meaty highlights,” he enthuses. “I was brought in to do dialogue and descriptions for the first game.”
There was also a foray into the world of QA for the series, though Kidd notes that this didn’t occur until “after the games were released”.
“Apparently, I was the first non-programmer to test the game,” he laughs. “I rapidly discovered that black riders did what you asked them to - like killing the other black riders.”
“Also, black riders confront Frodo and demand that he gives them the ring,” he continues. “If he gives them the ring, they systematically kill each other to possess the ring. Frodo can then stab the last one in the neck and get the ring back. Additionally, for laughs, you could sneak into Bree and kill the black rider's horses. They were then stuck, literally flogging dead horses as you walked past them.”
“I also discovered that you could play the entire game by getting into
your backpack at the start of the game, and then closing it. Monsters couldn't see in - so you just hopped about the place tied in a sack, utterly invisible to the bad guys.”
“By the way,” he adds, “if you ever want to play the 3rd LOTR
text game in a hurry, start the game and type ‘go nowhere’. This leads to a netherworld where all doors connect. Just exit out the 'crack of doom' door, and chuck the ring into the volcano. Total game commands: 3!”
Men In Suits
Kidd notes that the time he spent working for Beam in the mid ‘80’s was “actually rather fun”, adding that at the time the company “was basically the only computer games design house in Australia”.
“The "men in suits' had not yet come,” he says. “So games studios were laid back, full of creative people, and basically devoid of pretension. Computer games were a fringe market, so no one had brain-throbbing visions of world conquest. The boss wore bare feet and a caftan. My immediate neighbours were hairy, scarecrow-like things with combat boots, or shaven-headed maniacs in bovver boots.”
The semi-chaotic time for the company remains a happy memory for Kidd, who reminisces fondly about an occasion that saw one of Beam’s artists drawing “Asterix and Obelix having gay sex up on a white board just as the [Asterix creators] Goscinny and Uderzo representatives walked in the door.”
“Or the day one artist phoned in to apologise for not coming to work one Monday,” he recalls. “His excuse was that he had fallen into an alcoholic stupor at a party - and had woken up naked except for a toga made out of a bed sheet, somewhere in Northern Queensland or possibly New Guinea – and he now had a red back spider tattooed on his forehead.”
“This all suited me fine. A lot of good thinking came out of that environment.”
The Airwolf Theme
1987 saw Kidd moving into a design role, on post-apocalyptic action RPG Doc the Destroyer
, which, after some thought, he declares “primitive”.
“But fun!” he notes. “Not bad given the tools and machines at the time. It was a jumping off point. Horace Goes Skiing
was state of the art arcade play at the time.”
“I was always a games designer,” he says. “I have been a D&D
player since the little brown books came my way in 1974, and wargamed with lead soldiers from the age of 12. Games are in my blood.”
“Along with a certain amount of lead content,” he adds.
Kidd believes that his background as a writer also contributed to his predilection for design, noting that “a good writer should be able to adapt to any format, and any genre”.
“Screenplay, game design, novel, comic book - they're all different aspects of the art,” he says. “You have to research the format - study it with much intensity to see how to do it right. But good general skills at expression will allow you to do a good job, as long as you love it!”
Kidd’s workload for Beam continued to grow, as he designed and co-designed what he describes as “tons of games”.
“Nintendo titles, movie licensed games – Sega material,” he says. “Oodles of it! Mighty stuff like Days of Thunder
. Stalwart stuff like Street Wrestle
, where you can beat up on Andy Warhol and choke grannies to death! Weird stuff like Aussie Games
- including a game where you perch in the back of a 'ute', blowing away road signs and rare wildlife while your drivers drink beer and puke.”
He also worked on the NES game Airwolf
, based on the ‘80s TV show of the same name, which saw release in 1989 and is described by Kidd as “ground-breaking stuff”.
“We received prototype Nintendo systems, and had to actually break them apart and reverse engineer the things to figure out how they worked,” he notes. “The music for that damned show still haunts my head!”
Free-Standing Fred Impresser
Kidd was brought into the project as designer by Steve Taylor, animator and graphical programmer for Beam’s groundbreaking beat ‘em up The Way of the Exploding Fist
- “a long, tall, hairy man who had a wonderful sense of humour”, according to Kidd.
“Steve taught me a valuable skill,” he comments. “He was the inventor of the ‘Free-Standing Fred Impresser’. Fred [Milgrom, Beam Software owner] wanted to see progress on games - shiny
progress! He didn't see number crunching and programming as denoting progress. So at the start of a project, Steve would burn about a week making a series of cool images – Helicopters exploding, motorbikes racing, moon landings, detonating boats. All stuff that had sod-all to actually do
with the game. He would then have these images appear on a separate monitor - one new image halfway through each week. Management would do their daily inspection, see the big, bright explosions and fill with satisfaction that good things were being achieved!”
“This left Steve free to sit there uninterrupted, and get on with all that boring coding! Cunning sod!” Kidd laughs.
“Then one day in the late 80's,” he recalls, “the men in suits arrived.”
“It seems there was a movement abroad to re-make the games industry,” Kidd explains. “To make the design houses 'better'. Their theory was that better creative ideas come out of places that have dress codes, rigid structure, chains of command and office etiquette rules. So, the boss now wore a suit. Serious money making was the name of the game. Ten crap games that made a buck were perceived of as a better goal than the making of one classic. So, dress codes, office manuals, regular hours, and the good people went through an attrition rate that can be favourably compared to the Battle of Verdun [the WWI battle that saw some 800,000 French and German soldiers die].”
“If you were old guard like me, you used office directives as coasters, still wore tabi-boots to work, and pinned 'dress code' regs upside down to walls and surrounded them with rubber skeletons to keep the juju away,” he muses. “But it was the start of a war. Management didn't like ‘my’ kind - but had an uncomfortable feel that we were a necessary evil. Artists and writers tended to band together in a creative bund. We waged a practical joke war to stay sane, as step by step, the weasels closed in...”
As uncomfortable as the new environment was, Kidd continued to design titles – though he admits that he did have a Hunter S. Thompson quote above his “brand new little grey office cubicle” that read: “The industry is a shallow money trench. A narrow plastic corridor where thieves and pimps run free, and weak men die like dogs.”
Damned Clever Puzzle Games
His next major project was Nightshade
, an action adventure title for the NES that was intended to be an important IP for the company, but “made too little money”.
“It was sad in a way,” Kidd reflects, “Because it was such a damned funny game!”
Even more heartbreaking were the “many, many, many” games from the studio that didn’t make it to the shelves. “As head designer, I was supposed to constantly design new games for the company,” Kidd explains. “I'd have to cook one up every month or so - all designed, documented and planned. In all the time I was there, not one of those designs was ever made. Licenses came down from on high, and the company preferred to take that money rather than risk developing its own projects.”
Among the cancelled titles were a number of “good adventure games with female leads long before Tomb Raider
was ever conceived of”, a few “damned clever puzzle games” as well as “snappy adventure games with real heart to them” – some of which Kidd comments would have made a genuine impact on the games industry.
“Ah well,” he sighs.
Fortunately, due to “good negotiation skills on behalf of Adam Lanceman up in management”, Beam acquired a license that appealed strongly to Kidd – the tabletop RPG Shadowrun
“I was very, very keen to be involved!” he enthuses. “As an avid roleplayer, I wanted to see it done right
. I knew the RPG system. Actually - I didn't like it - I thought the RPG rules were clunky. But what the hey! Roleplaying is my home
The development initially went to Beam stalwart Gregg Barnett, until he left the for the UK to form Perfect Entertainment, at which point Kidd took over. “The story had already been approved and contracted, so I had to run with Gregg's storyline. This was a tad difficult, but I snuck a foxy babe into it!” he says, laughing.
The game received glowing reviews, but sold poorly, partially due to low shipping numbers, most notably for Kidd in Australia, something he describes as very disappointing. However, the biggest problem remained Kidd’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with Beam management.
“When Shadowrun gained excellent reviews, I think that strung a few people who'd hoped it would fail. They really didn't like me one bit,” he says.
“It was no longer a good place to be. I toughed it out for far longer than I should have, since I brought a lot of hate and disappointment home with me each night. Good game ideas weren't passing the editorial barriers of management, and we no longer had any input into the company's output. My hostility to the management had made my work day at Beam about as restful as the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan
. Boy but was it time to go!”
“When my first novels sold, I was able to leave. It was the best move I ever made,” he reflects.
The Post-Game World
Though he notes he’d been dedicated to writing since he was in his teens, the years of conflict inside Beam had caused Kidd to view his work in the games industry simply as “a way of pulling a wage for writing”.
“I began to head off to SF conventions in the USA,” he says. “As a games designer and comics writer, I was welcomed into the pro circles, and began to know pro writers. I made deep friendships with [fantasy authors] Larry Dixon and Mercedes Lackey, who mentored me over a wacky couple of weeks in the woodlands of Oklahoma.”
“First and foremost, I am a writer,” he states.
His time in the industry wasn’t quite over, though. Barnett’s Perfect Entertainment had picked up the license for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
series of tongue-in-cheek fantasy novels, and “needed a writer who could do thousands of words of dialogue, and do game design”.
“So, he called me,” Kidd explains. “It was a contract for one game. I leapt over to England for six months and set to work.”
“I actually knew Terry Pratchett from years of going to Worldcon [The World Science Fiction Convention]. We had often been the only ‘commonwealth’ types at various meet and greet functions, so we'd spoken often. I'd read his first two books and liked them a lot.”
Kidd found himself in a similar situation to his time on Shadowrun
, with Barnett having already written up the story for the point and click adventure. “He had also designed all the problems and gameplay,” Kidd clarifies. “He wanted me to provide dialogues, descriptions, jazz up the gameplay and edit. The game was all my dialogue and humour.”
Possibly more frighteningly reminiscent of his time at Beam was Kidd’s opinion that the company was “tearing itself apart with office politics”. By the time Kidd returned to script the sequel, Discworld II: Missing presumed...!?
, in 1996 things had “apparently gotten worse”.
“I'd sort of break into the building via sewer grates, have my wife lay down suppressive fire with the flame throwers, drop of my week's work, then withdraw behind a smoke barrage for evac via drop ship,” Kidd laughs. “For those of you out there involved in game creation, remember: ease back, take a smoko - laugh! They're only games, after all!”
While the company went on to produce a third, and final, title in the series, it was done without Kidd, who puts the decision down to a desire to keep things within the UK, rather than any involvement in office politics on his part. Kidd has spent the last ten years outside the industry, a move he doesn’t seem entirely unhappy with.
“I've moved on to far more interesting and rewarding pastures. Novels and film,” he says. “I have 11 novels in print
. Five more are coming out in 2007.”
“It has been monstrously difficult to get into print,” Kidd admits. “My material isn't mainstream. Book publishers don't appreciate it - but movie people do! So I've been deeply involved with set-up in a movie production company, writing screenplays, TV series, etc. It's all looking good.”
Not that a return to the games industry is entirely impossible, he adds. “Games spun off from my movie projects are all on the cards. I will have a definite role in designing and producing these. Those old skills are serving me in good stead!”