Q&A: Lionhead's Mark Healey on Rag Doll Kung Fu

We talk to the Lionhead artist behind the pet project due for the PC, and just maybe the DS.

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First announced in March 2004, Rag Doll Kung Fu is an innovative fighting game that's currently being developed primarily by Lionhead Studios artist Mark Healey (who most recently worked on Fable) in his spare time.

In the past, the game has been described by Healey as "a kung fu fight with string puppets in which you don't have to worry about getting the strings tangled up or even having a kung fu fight at all if you don't feel like it," and we're pleased to report that he had a lot more to say about the game when we interviewed him recently.

GameSpot: It's been almost a year since you announced that you'd been developing Rag Doll Kung Fu in what spare time your position on the Fable team afforded you. How is the game coming along?

Mark Healey: It's very, very close to being finished--I just need to add more sound effects, fix some bugs, and then balance and polish it in a few places. Thank God for that; it's really quite tiring doing something like this in your spare time. Believe me.

GS: Do you still plan to have Rag Doll Kung Fu support up to eight players on a single screen, and do you plan to include any online multiplayer options?

MH: Yes, eight players is in there and working, and quite hectic. You can plug in multiple mice into your available USB holes. There are four multiplayer modes/games: sandbox, which allows you to just mess around with each other without worrying about losing health; deathmatch, for giving your mates a good thrashing; shaolin soccer, with a gigantic soccer ball; and shaolin athletics, which has you competing in five events that put your rag-doll skills to the test in sprinting, long jump, high jump, distance throwing, and distance kicking events. If you don't have any friends, or extra mice, you can play against AI characters.

I would love to add an online option--I will do this at a later date if there is enough demand for it (and release it as a patch). It's also something I have no clue how to do yet, so don't hold your breath! You can talk in the game (it's not advisable to insult the master too much though) by typing on the keyboard, and your character then says it in their own special way (a speech bubble, and jibba jabba language). This is crying out for online/chats, so I will try.

GS: And what about solo players? What kind of gameplay options can they expect to find?

MH: The first thing that is available for solo players is the training/story mode, which takes you through 16 levels of getting to grips with it all--learning to walk, jump, munch mushrooms, fly, use weapons, and such. This is where the film resides too, to tell the story between levels (commonly known as cutscenes, I believe). Hopefully, along the way, you'll find many of the secrets I have hidden--which in turn unlock the various subgames (single-player and multiplayer). The single-player games are as follows: ninja onslaught (how long can you survive against the ever-increasing ninjas?); chu chu wing pooh (kick giant eggs up a mountain to hatch your psychedelic smoke-breathin' buddies); shaolin soccer, and the ability to practice the individual athletic events.

GS: Yeah, one of the trailers that we saw for Rag Doll Kung Fu mentioned unlockable content. Can you tell us about any other kinds of bonuses that will be available and the ways in which players will be able to gain access to them?

MH: Yes, there are the various games I just mentioned, and some other stuff. I won't reveal it all now, but my favorites are the mixer tracks you find--these allow you to mess around with the music on the front end and create your own mix.

GS: Can you explain the game's innovative control system? It seems like there must be a little more to it than just dragging limbs around with a mouse.

MH: Well, your mouse cursor represents your "Chi," or energy--you use this to move the limbs around so you can walk by literally picking up one foot, moving it, then picking up the other one. Of course, this might get a bit annoying after a while (although I can walk pretty fast using this technique), so I added the ability to grab the character's hand, and simply pull them along. To jump, you have to power up your Chi by drawing small circles with the mouse, then clicking in the air. If you keep your chi powered up, you can do multijumps and almost learn to fly! To attack, you select a limb with the right mouse button (or just right-click and it will select the nearest one), aim, and release. The longer you hold, the more powerful the attack. It's really quite simple, but I still amaze myself with new techniques all the time. The player can be really creative with their own style.

GS: And can you tell us about some of the items that will appear in the game? We understand that weapons and mushrooms will feature quite heavily.

MH: Ahh, the mushrooms! Yes, by eating the "special" mushrooms that you find growing around you, you can perform magical flying feats, which allow you to fly into outer space and slow down time. This gives you room to pull off some truly amazing flying attacks, but I like just chilling out in the clouds. Also, you'll come across pots, which when smashed, contain various items: nunchakus, long bendy poles, swords, shurikens, laser-head cannons, pet dogs, fruit, that kind of thing. The head cannon has an interesting side effect that I didn't foresee. If you power it up enough, you can propel yourself into the stratosphere using the recoil from it! It's also quite funny swinging your pet dog around and watching it clamp onto a ninja's head.

GS: Are you surprised by how much attention Rag Doll Kung Fu has received both from the Lionhead community and the specialist press to date? We understand that the game already has its first fan site.

MH: Yes! I was really amazed, then a bit shocked, and then full of dread. Suddenly I felt under pressure to turn my daft pet project/home movie into a proper game, which has been a learning experience to say the least. But it's nice to know that people are interested in something different, and I hope they won't be disappointed with my effort.

GS: Are you still planning to release the game exclusively for the PC, or has Nintendo decided to pick up the Nintendo DS version that you pitched to them, since the game really does appear to be a perfect fit for the handheld?

MH: Well, the current plan is to make the game available via the Web for PC, and depending on how it is received, I'd love to see it on a handheld console. I agree the DS seems perfect, but Nintendo has yet to learn all about my Rag Doll activities.

GS: You're obviously the driving force behind Rag Doll Kung Fu, but how many of your friends and colleagues have become involved with its development? Has Peter Molyneux showed much interest in the project?

MH: Well, the whole thing started as a silly kung fu film with some friends, but on the game side, I have had a lot of help with technical stuff. There's no way in a million years I could understand Microsoft Direct X documentation, so I've been relying a lot on a guy called Alex Evans for that kind of thing (he has a brain the size of a planet, and is incredibly creative, too). I also got some graphic help off a couple of other mates. I'd say I was 95 percent responsible for the game. Peter is obviously a very busy man, but he has been very supportive and even found time to do a small piece of code for me--it's in there somewhere! But I've kind of kept it under wraps at Lionhead, as I wanted to finish it before I showed it to everyone.

GS: At the risk of antagonizing you, do you have any idea when Rag Doll Kung Fu will be finished and made available to the masses? You were originally hoping to finish it sometime last year, correct?

MH: Yes, dates are a funny thing. When making a game, for some reason, it always feels like you'll have it finished in two months. But I am actually very, very close now--the whole game is there, all I have to add are some more sound effects and fix a couple of bugs. So hopefully it will be available within a matter of weeks--probably sometime in early February at the latest. I hope.

GS: So, besides Rag Doll Kung Fu, what are you working on now that Fable is out of the way?

MH: OOOOOOOHHHHHH, I wish I was allowed to show you. Basically, Peter has given me and Alex free rein to "make something cool." This, of course, is a dream come true, and the thing we are making is indeed very cool, even if I do say so myself. There are three of us on the project (we kidnapped Dave Smith, a closet physics coder), and it's coming along leaps and bounds. I think I can get away with saying that the main "mechanic" is all about creativity, and the graphic engine pisses over everything else out there. Everything.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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