Kain Shin from Question Games talks The Magic Circle, Deus Ex, Thief, Dishonored, and Dark Souls

Here is an email interview that I had with Kain Shin from Question Games. He is currently working on The Magic Circle. You can check out the video interview I did with Jordan Thomas at PAX about the game as well: http://youtu.be/kp5rfCO4Nu4

Also, visit The Magic Circle website at http://www.magiccirclegame.com/

Hope you enjoy!

 

***

 

Dan P: I contacted you via Twitter several days ago about doing an interview via email.

Sorry it took me a while get this email string going. Ok, I figure we just go back and forth with some emails and I’ll put it together to publish on the site.

Kain Shin: Thank you, Dan. I checked out infinitelives.us a few days ago out of curiosity to see what you guys are about. In the PAX videocast, Kevin’s comment about The Magic Circle was very complimentary, and I am quite honored by it.

Your crew reminds me of the crew I used to run with during my days as a journalist/reviewer for a boutique hardcore gaming site during the late 90s/early 00s. Strangely comforting, in a way.

 

DP: Thank you for the kind words. Infinite Lives has existed in some primitive form since I was a teenager. It had a lot of different and stupid names. But the podcast aspect really made the whole thing come together. Right now, this is my hobby and passion. My real day job is not terribly exciting or satisfying, but it pays the bills. Whatever Infinite Lives becomes (or doesn’t), I’m hoping we stay true to our general unwritten principles: podcast, write, and play games we like, pay attention to indies and the small guy, and try to remain positive while doling out honest criticism. I’ll play anything once, and I don’t mind saying, “Maybe that is just not for me.”

KS: Talking to you is like talking to an alternate universe version of my former gaming site ringleader. We were all passionate dudes with day jobs for whom gaming was sacred. We all had plans to change the world of gaming, but eventually, life happened for each of us, and we each took separate paths … but still, going to E3 as a crew with press badges are some of the  fondest memories I have of those years. I am still good friends with that ringleader. He still keeps the website up, but for a different purpose. He is now a dude with a day job making an indie game: http://omc-games.com/

 I like your mission statement. The indies part is especially interesting to me because that definition seems to be branching out in so many ways. At the end of the day, sticking to games you like and being honest about them no matter where they come from is a valid countermeasure to the.. umm.. stuff out there that is not that.

 

DP: Who are you and how do you end up working on The Magic Circle?

KS: My name is Kain Shin. I am a programmer by trade (13 years as a professional game programmer) and currently one-third of the company known as Question, LLC developing The Magic Circle. I worked with Jordan Thomas (Creative Director) back in 2006. He is the designer that I credit with my evolution from just a programmer into programmer/designer. We had a great working chemistry and our design aesthetics were largely in synch.

So when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life as an independent game developer in August of 2013, I contacted Jordan to see if his team needed any help while I figured out my identity. After also talking to his business partner, Stephen Alexander, the two decided to allow me to contribute to their project in between my contracts with other companies. I spent late 2013 and early 2014 as an independent contractor for various companies, but my heart and soul belonged to The Magic Circle every chance I got. The plan was that I help Question,LLC. ship their game, and then when my company (Ring of Blades, LLC.) does its game, they would help me ship. The more I worked with them, the more I fell in love with their project and their way of doing things.

Eventually, I reached a point where I had to make a choice for the future: gamble my fate on their company or start the ball rolling with my company. After much soul-searching, I realized that what I can accomplish on my own would pale in comparison to what I could accomplish when working with Stephen and Jordan. Apparently, that feeling was mutual. Much love was expressed, and this culminated in me dropping plans for my own company in order to become an official invested partner within their company.

 

DP: What games have you worked on in the past?

KS: I have a portfolio here that I maintained during my days as a mercenary independent contractor:

http://portfolio.ringofblades.org

In backwards order, shipping games I have worked on are Dishonored, Ghostbusters Wii, Mushroom Men, Thief 3, Deus Ex 2, and the Microsoft Casino Games series. I also did some “Serious Games” for government contractors and charities.

 

DP: This is something I ask everybody that I interview: What is your gaming origin? I ask because I have this theory that games as a subculture can connect everyone in a quick and sometimes profound way. Since I moved to Seattle, almost all my friends were made through the common interest of video games. My origin story starts with Bruce Lee on the Apple ][, continues through the Famicom, SNES, PSX, PC, N64, Dreamcast, PS2, XBOX, XBOX 360, and more PC. So what’s your origin story?

KS: Dude, great question! And Bruce Lee is my philosophical guru. His Jeet Kun Do philosophy of “Take what works, throw out the rest” is a religion I adopt for aspects of my life ranging from programming to relationships to martial arts. There is a time and a place for dogmas, and then there’s Bruce Lee!

My origin story: It began with the Atari 2600 at the age of 7. After that, I spent a lot of time watching grownups play Arcade games during its golden age until I had enough leftover lunch money to play these games myself (Dig Dug, Mr. Do, Terra Cresta, Satan’s Hollow, Bad Dudes, Double Dragon, Legendary Wings, etc.). Consoles became a big part of my life during high school and college starting with the NES and continuing on to this day. I was particularly in love with shmups, beat-em-ups, and JRPGS. At around the same time, I was part of the local Street Fighter game circuit. You know how some kids would go around to different basketball courts looking for pickup games? I did the nerd version of that were we went around to different arcades and convenience stores around town looking for crowds gathered around Street Fighter machines so that we could put our quarter at the top of the cabinet awaiting our chance to play against the new guy. I eventually favored Soul Calibur over Street Fighter and got to where I was ranked #2 in the city of Austin, Texas during the citywide competition.

Then Deus Ex happened to me. Before that, I could never afford a computer that could play decent PC games, so much of my gamer identity was formed by Japanese console games. Deus Ex changed all that when I had to make interesting and meaningful moral choices instead of those choices being made for me. I fell in love with this introspective aspect of games and have a special place in my heart for immersive sims to this day for that particular reason.

My current gaming tastes have gotten much more eclectic over the years. I spent some time in a Halo clan when that was a thing. My now wife and I spent our courtship in Borderlands 1 and our engagement/early marriage in Borderlands 2. Lots of weird indie games make me happy, like Octodad and Goat Simulator. I’m also religiously fanatical about the Dark Souls series… that game will teach you everything there is to know about life, man.

Outside of games, I used to be a journalist for a small gaming website, but that went down due to lack of funds combined with our policy of no advertising and no selling out to “the man”. I was also active in various gaming forums ranging from Dreamcast Technical Pages to UGO to Gamer’s Republic to Something Awful. Nowadays, much of that social interaction energy goes into Twitter.

 

DP: I totally know all about the whole going to different arcades like pick-up basketball. I had friends that did it (I am always and forever mediocre at fighting games), and our local ramshackle arcade would get invaded. My neighborhood arcade was partly a card shop with 6 machines called “Time Machine” in Hawaii. It was next door to a barbershop run by elderly Japanese men that never seem to ever cut hair. I miss that place. What was your local arcade haunt?

KS: In Houston, my arcade haunt was a place in Memorial City Mall. In Austin, it was a place across from the University of Texas called “Einstein’s”. May they both rest in peace.

 

DP: I loved the arcade scene so much. I really get sad that it has largely vanished in the US, and replaced with online gaming. I wonder what we lost in this transition.

KS: I feel that this would be an interesting topic to explore. In a sense, we now have more conventions and gaming competitions than we ever did before. I think the loss of arcades and growing home community may have instigated the need for this. Every time I go to PAX, I am reminded of how much these folks walking around are my peoples… like if we lived in the same city and went to the same school, I would be in their house eating potato chips and watching nerdy things on Netflix.

 

DP: A follow-up to your portfolio – what did you think of the final product of Deus Ex 2. If I remember, there was some mixed reactions to the sequel. I thought it was ok, but my PC didn’t run it very well.

KS: Yeah, both Deus Ex 2 and Thief 3 had mixed reactions upon release. I remember them as being mostly negative. I had difficulty playing both games shortly after release because I was too close to it, but after a long passing of time, I felt that they were actually pretty well made for that time period when you compare it to other games out there that may have been trying to do the same thing.

In both cases, there was much backlash from a loyal fanbase that had a specific set of expectations on what that series was supposed to mean. Most of the dev team, including myself are fans of the original games and also wanted it to be those things. There are a lot of reasons why it wasn’t those things on the technical, design, and business fronts. Behind all of that drama are some very human stories that I will leave in the hands of those who own those stories. My time working on both of those games was very formative, and I was quite surprised by how much power is wielded by external “designers” on the publishing side trained by their marketing backgrounds… that type of power is not wielded by all publishers the same way, but it is essentially design authority without the accountability that usually goes with that job.

 

DP: Was it weird to work on the sequel to a game that influenced you so much?

KS: It was a dream come true!

 

DP: How did you like Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

KS: For me, the Deus Ex series represented meaningful choices and immersion into a systemic simulation. I enjoyed Human Revolution as a game, but there were a lot of decisions in Human Revolution that did not adhere to that sense of meaning and immersion and systemic gameplay.

On breaking immersion, the constant camera cuts for stealth kills or sticky cover felt like some cool-looking guy in sunglasses was interrupting my first person game to show off his moves. I understand the aesthetic and gameplay reasons for doing those cuts, but it really broke that feeling of “this is me experiencing the mission through my own eyes” for me.

On the meaningful choices front, there seemed to be a design mentality in the game of letting the player know what the consequence of their choice is before the choice gets committed, and that took ownership of those choices away from me, which made them less meaningful because I was basically selecting the outcome I wanted to experience as opposed to the action I wanted to take in the moment. A canonical example of this happened either early in the game or the demo where I was presented with a modal dialog asking me to choose a path and how I should play each path. When I saw that, I immediately realized that this may be a good game, but it is not in the spirit of Deus Ex that I had in my head. Another example is the ending of that game, which I won’t spoil for anyone if they have not played it, but in that case, all endings are accessible up to the very end, thereby invalidating the consequence of any choice you have made in the game up to that point.

The systemic factor of gameplay is also a major difference between my expectations of Deus Ex versus what Human Revolution provided. The game was largely systemic in its use of augmentations and upgrades, but two things stood out as non-systemic: punch-through-wall and boss fights. The “Punch through walls” augmentation is really cool, but you can only use it where you see cracks, and cracks have a very distinct look that might as well be a big red X saying “punch here”. Boss fights were pleasantly difficult, but that difficulty came from invalidating many of the skillsets and gameplay upgrades you have made up to that point as opposed to being a true test of the skills used for most of the game. In essence, almost every boss puts you in a room with a threat that nullifies most of your non-combat augmentations. This is probably too hardcore for most folks, but I would totally dig it if I had a stealth option of killing some badass powerful boss while he was sleeping in his bed wearing only his pajamas.

I understand that the director’s cut has addressed some of these issues I’ve mentioned here. After all is said and done, I am a guy who worked on two games that people hated because it was not what the fans expected, and then I got laid off as a result. Ultimately, I had fun with Human Revolution. Artwise, the game is beautiful! Not every stealth action RPG game has to be a Deus Ex game with me. When I take a step back and view Human Revolution not as a Deus Ex game, but more like an action-focused Bioware game, then I see it as an extremely well made game that succeeded in what it set out to do. It is possible that the Human Revolution team made a game that is more marketable than classic Deus Ex; I wonder sometimes if my taste in games might be going the way of the dinosaur.

 

DP: In your portfolio, you have a lot of work pertaining to simulation, psychology, animation, gameplay reactions. How did you get started in this direction? Was this always an interest with games?

KS: I graduated college with a computer science degree, and I take the words of a former mentor to heart: “Be a good programmer first and foremost, the game part will naturally follow.” So that is where I started… as a junior programmer doing whatever needed doing. I said yes to everything that was asked of me and delivered all features with an inherent understanding of the gameplay intention as well as empathy for the designer who would be tuning its data. That algorithmic flexibility combined with communication and empathy put me into the “gameplay programmer” bucket where I felt confident in making anything happen on screen as long as it had a set of rules to model under the simulation.

I was always into martial arts for as long as I can remember, and that sense of timing, distancing, and Street Fighter-ness came in handy first, as a combat programmer/designer on Mushroom Men and then eventually as a combat + tactics programmer for AI on Dishonored. I was also a social outcast for most of my younger life. This imbued me with a survival interest in human psychology and sociology to figure out what was wrong with me so that I could fix me. That combination of self-analysis and combat sense had steered me in the direction of combat-oriented AI programmer over the years. I still feel weird about being called an AI programmer. In my mind, there is no such thing… it is all just gameplay programming, and psychology and physiology are merely gameplay systems that get modeled within structures of the simulation.

 

DP: What kind of considerations do you look at when determining AI, pathfinding, etc?

KS: To me, the architecture of a system has to match the reality that it is modeling in order to work as intended.

The structures I put into code often model structures that exist in real life. So for example, I have classes in our codebase where psychology is managed, and that is called the Brain. Pathfinding would live inside structures within the Brain, but because the Brain is only a mental construct, it can’t do any actual movement unless the Body class takes signals from the Brain and implements its rules of physiology. Because the body object manages physical rules, the Body can also do involuntary things that the Brain did not tell it to do, such as die or react to damage.

As far as the big picture goes, I always consider the end result in terms of what the player feels when they observe a system. So for AI systems, I start by asking myself, “What would I be thinking if I were that NPC?”, and then I follow that up with “How can I make the player feel like a badass with my actions from second to second?”. Basically, I code AI as if I were in its shoes, and my job is to amuse the player, even if that means making seemingly bad choices.

 

DP: What’s your philosophy on balancing gameplay?

KS: That is a great question that has evolved much over the years. During my competition days, I thought gameplay balance was a mathematical thing where a game becomes better if the math numbers have balanced rewards no matter what your selection is. Now I think differently from that. To me, the ultimate purpose of a game is to make you feel emotions. Sometimes, those emotions can come from a sense of unfairness, but unfairness is not always a negative thing. Being overpowered with some mega gravity gun in the final level can create golden moments that will keep people talking about it for years.

So for me, I will start by saying that balancing gameplay does not mean keeping a steady and consistent difficulty curve because fairness is not the goal of the game, emotions are. You don’t want the game to be so easy or so hard that the player shelves the game due to boredom or frustration, but you do want to think of difficulty as merely one of the many tools used by a designer to get you to feel positive emotions. The act of balancing gameplay needs to be in service to that goal of positive emotions. Of course, negative emotions can happen with mathematical imbalances when fairness is a core aesthetic, such as in an MMO or MOBA; so there’s that. But if you can take the competitive nature of social gaming out of the picture and free any restriction on fairness, then you can have an unbalanced game that is a lot of fun.

Case in point: Borderlands 2. The game is fairly unbalanced in terms of which character you choose. Due to the nature of their combat methods, the Mechromancer gets most of the kills, and the Assassin gets the fewest. Despite this, I will always play the Assassin because I have the most fun expressing myself in that game when I get up close and personal. From that role, I am the “boss killer” amongst my group as opposed to the “room cleaner”. I have an identity that is worthy of my embrace, and that is enough for me to not worry about balance… especially since the game takes obvious measures to balance out rewards in other ways and hides any sense of imbalance that could eat away at anyone who is OCD about it.

 

DP: I like your idea that games should have you experience an emotion, and how unfairness, while inherently negative, can be used to produce an emotional reaction to a gameplay situation.

KS: Credit for that notion goes to Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc, and Robert Zubek’s MDA framework:

http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf

The short version of the MDA framework is that game design starts at emotion and works backwards to verbs, which works backwards to rules. Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics are basically Rules -> Verbs -> Emotions.

 

DP: I often wonder if a game will actually approach Deus Ex. It seems that we have a lot of games that come close or definitely feel like Deus Ex, but I feel that maybe nothing has surpassed its ambiguity since.  Even Deus Ex: HR, made 11 years after the original, has some very different ideas of conflict, decisions, and morality. Was Deus Ex so far ahead of its time or is it nostalgia? Is it fair to judge games this way or should we take a game for what it is and not what we want it to be?

KS: Deus Ex was a labor of love by some very passionate people that would be difficult to replicate because that humanity ingredient was critical for its success and not easy to come by. It was the first of its kind to offer that kind of narrative expression, but some games have come close… namely Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. The scientist in me says that nostalgia paints our memories of Deus Ex, but I don’t know… I might be too close.

 

DP: Do reviews and criticism of games you have worked on affect you in any way? Is it frustrating? I suppose a lot of it has to do with the quality of the review, but I would imagine there are some mixed feelings.

KS: It takes me a long time to get over them. I read every review of a game I’ve worked on and silently agree with much of what the good reviewers say. Most of the great devs I know tend to be our own worst critics. We often get into situations where we must choose between a bad problem and a not-so-good problem. The more features you have in the game, the more likely it is that you will run into Kobayashi Maru design scenarios that have no real solution. That is the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at night.

 

DP: The Magic Circle looks really good and I believe I played it for almost an hour at PAX Prime. I would label it as a FPS, but there really is no “shooter” aspect to it (at least the parts that I played). Do you think this will present a challenge appealing to an audience? Or is this not really a concern?

KS: Thank you. I have faith that the story crafted by Jordan (our Creative Director) will resonate with people out there as much as it resonated with me when I learned of it. We could be wrong about that, but this is a risk that we signed up for when we accepted this mission. No matter what happens, it will be a great honor to have been a part of the team that is telling this story.

 

DP: As a programmer and a designer, do you think that The Magic Circle does a good superficial job of exposing the development and design process of a game. I saw a lot of satire in my brief time with the game.

KS: We did not show all there was to show at PAX, so much of what you got to see was the version that allows people to understand the premise quickly without investing too much time on a busy showroom floor. Satire is there on the surface, but I think the more time one spends with The Magic Circle, the more they get into the language of verbs that designers live in. The entire premise of the game is that you, the player, are a better game designer than the makers of the game, and we expose the parts of design and development that allow you to express your own sense of creative ownership. We want you to explore that very human relationship you have with game designers, including the designer within yourself.

 

DP: A lot of your experience has been with simulating AI, combat, behavior in a 3D “action” environment; games that give you direct control in the world. Have you ever been interested/worked on/played simulation games like Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis, etc? I find these games fascinating because of how complex and detailed things can get. I even used to be obsessed with a baseball management sim called Baseball Mogul. Do you have any experience in this genre?

KS: Every once in a while, I would purchase a game like Civilization and see if I can get immersed in it as much as others do. I seem to be missing that gene. Not only am I bad at parallel multitasking, I have trouble modeling complex rules in my head that do not revolve around a single person’s experience. I will keep trying, though. People keep telling me that Mount and Blade might be a happy medium for me.

 

DP: Related to the last question, have you ever looked into the abyss that is Dwarf Fortress?

KS: This is my secret shame. I somehow missed this game completely in my evolution as a gamer. I am only aware of its greatness… perhaps someday, I will rectify my lack of experience with this game… that and the original Dungeon Keeper which I have waiting in my stack of shame.

 

DP: Are there any game genres that you used to love, but have not really played in years? I used to be quite devotional to football games once upon a time, but in the last 10+ years, I feel that they aren’t as fun anymore. Same thing with JRPGs.

KS: Yeah, I got the same thing with JRPGs. I am not sure if it is because I can reverse-engineer how game systems are made or what, but when I play JRPGs, I see the same story about some spiky haired teenager out to save the world from ending. I see the same EXP treadmill offering scheduled rewards as if I were a mouse in a Skinner box pushing buttons to get that release of dopamine. I most recently tested this realization with Persona 4 on the PSP, and I will likely test this again every few years. I still love Chrono Trigger for what it did with New Game+ and the concept of a malleable narrative, but overall, the JRPG genre is mainly nostalgia that I keep on the shelf, cobwebs and all… says the guy named after a jumping Dragoon knight.

Another genre that I used to have patience for that I can’t really get into is 2D or 3D platformers. This is where I feel that there is something wrong with me. Jumping challenges just don’t do it for me unless there is enough game in the systems around that to hold my attention. So… cutesy animal jumping, no, but ninja jumping with combat… maybe.

 

DP: What is a genre that you don’t have much experience in but would like to try? Interestingly enough, Dark Souls (it feels like its own genre) is something that I owned and have tried to understand. I feel that I am missing something, and at some point, I will have to try again.

KS: I keep giving RTS’s a try, but I can’t say that I see myself ever getting into them. Same with MMOs. Those are really the only two genres that I don’t have much experience in, but I am content not trying to get into them. Perhaps turn-based CRPGs might also be that genre that I lack experience with. I played a bit of Planescape: Torment back in the day, but I never finished, even though I liked that game. I am currently playing Divinity: Original Sin in the hopes of getting to know this genre better. With the exception of Dark Souls, I definitely like the writing style of Western/European RPGs more than Japanese RPGs… their world is grittier, and their characters tend to be grownups like me as opposed to teenagers at the academy or something.

BTW, Dark Souls 2 is a lot less punishing than Dark Souls if you want to give it another shot. To me, Dark Souls is ultimately about your relationship with loss and subsequently, your relationship with the risk of loss. You will experience meaningful loss in Dark Souls to the point where the game will make you feel genuine stress and an almost existential contemplation as to why you should bother continuing on like this… and that is where the game crosses the fourth wall in a very deep way. Every new area you encounter is an opportunity for regret, and you will be forced to choose between moving forward with the game. On another level, letting go of your preconceived notions of who you are is also an important element of Dark Souls. I am not sure if this applies to you, but for the longest time, I was a high DEX swordsman. I died a lot. Then one day, I put on heavy armor and became a tank. Not very sexy, but all of a sudden, parts of the game that were difficult became supremely easy. The sheer magnitude of meaning in the equipment you choose goes beyond anything I see in what most games dare to give you because the wrong choice can actually cause you to hit an impossible roadblock. And that is why Dark Souls is an analogy for life… sometimes, it’s not you, it’s the choices you’ve made and the equipment you are wearing.

 

DP: Thank you for your time and awesome responses.

KS: Thank you for reaching out to me.

 

***

I want to think Kain Shin once again for the great back and forth. I am already planning on the next piece to do with him. And be sure to send me any feedback at infinitelivespodcast@gmail.com