Justin Chin Interview

Geoff Keighley catches up with Justin Chin, ex-LucasArts designer and now top dog at Infinite Machine. Here's what he has to say about game number one.

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Infinite Machine, the development house founded by Jedi Knight designer Justin Chin and programmer Che-Yuan Wang, has signed a publishing deal with GT Interactive. GT plans to publish Infinite's first PC 3D action title in the year 2000. And GT has also obtained the rights for console versions of the title, along with sequels, add-ons, and level packs. Geoff Keighley caught up with Justin Chin, the ex-LucasArts designer and now top dog at Infinite Machine. Here's what he has to say about the immediate future of Infinite Machine.

GameSpot News: Let's get right to what everyone wants to know: You're making a 3D action game, but every company is making a 3D action game these days. What is going to set your game apart from the others?

Justin Chin: Well, obviously we can't talk too much about the game since we're in the early stages of our development. I can say that our game is heavy on the content side of the spectrum. The control scheme is pretty typical, but all the level details, weapon mechanics, and story are all pretty original and are designed to immerse the player into the world we are creating.

GSN: Half-Life received rave reviews from players because it infused the typical 3D action game with emotional hooks such as characters, suspense, and a story that developed from within the game engine. Now that Half-Life has ignited the wick, are you going to follow in its footsteps and emulate the same formula?

JC: Half-Life is pretty much a natural progression from what we did in Jedi and Dark Forces. It's a great game, and I had a lot of fun playing it. Our design, script, and layout were completed way before Half-Life shipped. There is nothing really new to HL that we didn't already have in our design so we didn't need to change anything. In fact, it's a much different approach. Our design takes story and player involvement a step much further than 3D action games have in the past. I know that this has been said before, but that's what Infinite Machine is set up to focus on, content and characters.

GSN: The engine that a 3D game uses is often one of the most vital foundational elements needed to craft a successful product. Your partner, Che-Yuan Wang, is a programmer, so will you be creating your own 3D engine? I know Valve, another successful 3D action game start-up, felt that developing its own engine from scratch would take far too much time for its first product. Do you agree with that sentiment? Are you going to license the Quake or Unreal engines?

JC: I can't really comment on this right now. There will be more information about this in the future. All I can say is that we've got some cool code working. No games on the market and not many about to be released have some of the things we're putting in. I can flat out say that we want to concentrate on the game and the content and that I do agree with that sentiment. I would also agree with that sentiment if this wasn't our first game.

GSN: Can we assume you are going to do a first-person game and not a third-person one?

JC: We've wrestled with that issue for some time before we got heavily into the design document. But given the way we're structuring our gameplay mechanics we feel that third-person is the way to go. All our weapons and combat system emphasize a third-person view.

GSN: I know it's sort of a given rule when developing a 3D action game that in order to maximize your chances of success, developers should create a science-fiction world; players like neat technology, futuristic guns, and outer space. Are you going to go for a science-fiction setting?JC: I wouldn't call this game "science fiction," but in reality it is. It won't look like hard-core science fiction, and hopefully it will have a style all its own. That's what we're shooting for.

GSN: Looking at the success of Duke Nukem and Lara Croft, one could conjecture that developing a name character for a game is a good thing. Can we expect your game to be based around one main hero/character?

JC: Our game is very character driven by not just one character but a good handful. I like characters that drive the story and in turn gameplay. The trick is how to design a game that can handle all types of characters and just let you play the game. AI is always a big problem or option, and how that relates to character development and different types of character types is another black box. I think we came up with a good solution for all these issues.

GSN: When I talk to most developers who decide to leave large companies and set up their own development shops, the thing I hear time and again is that they want to be able to create their own characters, worlds, and games and own them. In other words, everyone wants to be the George Lucas of the industry and have a franchise such as Star Wars all to himself... and who wouldn't. Was this part of the appeal of starting your own firm? Do you have plans for your world beyond just a game - i.e., are you already thinking about leveraging what you've developed over to action figures, comic books, etc?

JC: Merchandising is something that development companies should keep in mind, mostly with respect to intellectual property and the control of it. To use your George Lucas example, it's obvious to see the value in that franchise. He became a billionaire on merchandising alone and will do that again with the prequels.

We don't have aspirations of being comic book writers or movie makers, but we do want to make sure that if it gets done that it will be something that is worthwhile and makes our ideas and properties stand out. It is important that developers own their properties if they want to build the valuation of their company. If we didn't own and control our intellectual property, the value of Infinite Machine would be only in the liquid assets (computer equipment, desks and deals, etc.) and our reputation. If you have ownership and control of your intellectual property the value of your business increases tremendously. Just look at 3D Realms or id and their properties. Even if you don't include the talented people within those development groups you still have a huge value in the name and their titles.

Then there is the quality issue. We felt that we wanted to keep control of the property in order to ensure its quality to the end user. We don't want a mission disk or sequel to come out without our stamp of approval. If you didn't have control over that the publisher or whoever owns the rights to it can go off and do their version without even consulting you.

GSN: It seems like most developers today work with their technology first and then retrofit a universe and story that will work within their technology. To me this stifles creativity. Did you develop your world first and then decide what game could be made out of it?

JC: Basic gameplay and the story are developed in the beginning. Then I usually focus on the story development, and gameplay naturally builds from that process. But that can be limiting in its own right, so you always have to keep your gameplay goals in mind. Some might think that it's a backwards way of working, but a horror game might play differently than an action game or better yet a deer hunting game, and I agree, you can stifle creativity if you work from technology first. Jedi Knight was a good example of that. I wrote the design and script without limits of the engine or technology in mind. Then we "tailored" the engine to meet some of those needs. Of course you can't get too insane with your ideas, but we definitely didn't want to limit the flow of them just because of technology.

I feel game design breaks down into two elements, gameplay and content. Gameplay is the player mechanics and the type of game (action, suspense, puzzles, strategy) and how the player interacts with the game itself. This includes things like the use of the mouse, attacking (if there is any), interactions with the world, game board, screen, or information

The content is what the player interacts with. Do they interact with a story, create a story, or does it have no story at all? Do the players have a sword, gun, or just an inventory? Does it take place in the future or in the past? How are those elements conveyed to the player, and what type of feeling or emotion do you want the player to have while they are playing? These are very important issues when we approach our game design, and each one plays off the other. Meshing the gameplay and content is the real crux of a good design.

GSN: You left LucasArts in the spring of 1998, yet you're just now announcing your publishing deal. Most developers seem to leave one company and announce a new deal only a few days later. Where was Justin Chin for the second half of 1998? And more importantly, how could you afford to wait so long to sign a deal?

JC: Che-Yuan and I knew that this would be a long-haul deal, and we didn't want to screw it up by needing immediate cash flow. We just set ourselves up to make sure that we didn't need to sign by any date. It wasn't easy; our loved ones could attest to that. It's nice to have a savings account and cash to fall back on as well. If you are planning to start negotiations with a publisher, try and put yourself in a position where you could walk away from the table at any time. It's not an easy prospect, but you'll get a better deal because of it. It also gave us time to design the game and work out the legal and structural issues of the business before we had any employees. I always feel it's better to narrow the design and story down, so when you get your team together you can better evaluate the ideas they are going to throw at you.

GSN: Let's talk for a second about GT Interactive, your publishing partner. No doubt you talked to a lot of companies. Why GT? They seem to still have quite a bipolar slate of titles, ranging from the great (Unreal) to the not so great (Nam). Was GT the clear choice, or did you have a number of close alternatives?

JC: We talked to a lot of publishers. I mean a lot of publishers. Most wanted to work with us in some way. We were even offered five different licenses and mission disks from various publishers. To be honest, none of them appealed to us. It would take a second of thought and we would say, "Nah." So we stuck to our guns and kept our goals clearly in sight.

Most publishers have some sort of checkered past. There isn't one that you can really look at and say, "Wow, every game they do is terrific" - not even LucasArts. We have confidence in our abilities to make a cool game, and in the end, the publisher that can successfully market and put your game on the shelf is the winner. As long as the publisher allows us our creative freedom, then we don't have a problem. In the end it was GT who trusted in our design and gave us what we wanted, all in one package. We're incredibly happy with our deal, and we feel it's going to work out really well for both parties.

GSN: You were part of the Jedi Knight team at LucasArts, and although the product was hugely successful, I'd argue that it's hard to suggest one person is responsible for the game's quality. Although some try to suggest parallels between the film industry's auteur theory and the game industry, I think the prevailing view is that game development is more of a collaborative and pluralistic process than other forms of media. Do you agree?

JC: I would never take credit for something that I didn't do. It's always a team effort. With the last two games I worked on, Dark Forces and Jedi Knight, we had an incredible team. I wrote the design, the story, and level layout for both of those games, and it's absolutely critical that you have a good team that can execute the design. But you don't want them to execute the design exactly the way you designed it; no, you want them to add, modify, and make it better. It's all a team effort.

In the end someone has to carry the vision and have final say as to what goes in the game and what doesn't. There are lots of issues that surround this process. If you don't get a handle on what type of game you're doing in the beginning, then no one will. If you go into it not knowing some very fundamental issues, then it's a free-for-all, and you're likely to end up with a game that has little focus or inspirational idea. I've seen it time and time again, where bad leadership and bad game designers screw up a good team and a good idea.

I'm used to working with huge teams comprising 15 to 30 people or more, and leadership is critical. You can't simply have team meetings to discuss design issues on a daily basis. As a project leader you are making these types of decisions every minute. Not everyone will be privy to what is happening in another department or even within their department. So the project leader is the person that focuses everyone to their goals and informs them of things they need to know.

Even in a auteur situation there is give and take. I don't always have the best ideas or an appropriate one at any given moment. We hire people that can take the initial or even detailed ideas and add to them to make them even better.

But even after all that's done and our game is on the shelf, it won't be a "Justin Chin game"; it'll be an "Infinite Machine game." What is going to make it a successful game is the effort of the team.

GSN: That being said, I'm always amazed at how many developers believe that because they were part of a successful 20-person development team, they can break away, start their own company, and think it's a forgone conclusion they will make a hit game. How confident are you that Infinite Machine is going to be successful?

JC: Very confident. We wouldn't go into an endeavor like this if there were any doubt. Not much more I can say about that.

GSN: Parts of that success will undoubtedly be the product of how well the team crystallizes. I know you have a number of people who are joining you from LucasArts, but where are you finding the rest of your talent? Tell us a bit about your team.

JC: We find talent in many different places. At LucasArts we hired a lot of people that were new to the industry. Having such a big infrastructure and famous name allows you that luxury. We don't have that. We're hiring mostly artist and level designers that have previous experience. Mainly, we hire people who we like as people, are talented, and who add new ideas to the group.

You can read about the team as it builds up at our web site, www.infinite-machine.com. Our current lineup consists of Che-Yuan Wang (CTO), Dan Chao (programmer), Stephen Hwang (level designer), Trey Turner (level designer), Chris Hockabout (artist), Cory Allemeier (artist), Paul DuBois (programmer), Steve Kalning (art engineer), and last but not least Thuyen Tang (accountant/coordinator).

GSN: Finally, give us something to get excited about - a new piece of information on your game that is going to tide us over until the next wave of news.

JC: Of course you leave this one for last....

Let's just say that our goal is to make you feel like you are leading a dedicated group of warriors into a huge war.

GSN: Thanks, Justin!

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