Enjoy this excerpt from Patrick Hickey Jr’s book, The Minds Behind Adventure Games! To celebrate Free Comic Book Day, we take a look under the curtain of X-Men Legends!
Patrick Lipo: X-Men Legends…The Birth of the Marvel Action/RPG Monopoly
With limited technology during the Atari, NES and 16-bit eras, it was highly improbable that a video game could encompass all of the wild abilities that the superheroes of the Marvel Universe have. This, of course, didn’t stop publishers from releasing as many superhero-based games as they could during that time period. As a result, gamers usually scoffed at the thought of a console video game based on their favorite comic book character. Fast-forward to the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras however and all of a sudden, developers finally had the tools needed to make caped crusaders and mutants come alive on the TV in ways never thought possible. While there are a litany of excellent comic-book-inspired games during that time period, X-Men Legends remains as one of the most influential because it captured the best thing about the X-Men, their differences and their ability to work as a team.
But what makes Raven Software’s X-Men Legends so much more unique is that it takes that notion several steps further than every other game based on the franchise before it. Not only does it deliver a game that captures the essence of what it feels like to be an X-Men, but it also did so in an Action/RPG genre that had never been applied to a comic book license, effectively fueling three massive sequels that almost single-handedly proved that superhero games don’t suck. Selling millions of copies in the process, X-Men Legends, next to titles the likes of the Batman Arkham games, the first two Spider-Man movie games and The Incredible Hulk Ultimate Destruction, is easily one of the most enjoyable and influential video game franchises based on a comic book franchise.
Using an engine similar to that of games such as Diablo and The Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance series, gamers can control one of four members of the X-Men and bust fight hordes of enemies to progress through a deep and elaborate story. Along the way, they’ll level up and collect better equipment and gain access to new maneuvers. The end result is not only a wonderful and addictive single-player experience, but it’s also an excellent couch co-op game as well. Nevertheless, the road to completion was a wild one, with a series of plot twists that would have been considered too crazy to make an issue of The Uncanny X-Men. Again, just the thought of a solid console superhero game at the time was a wild concept, but an X-Men game? That was thought to be highly unlikely.
“Considering that today we are bombarded with multiple Marvel comic franchises across every medium, it’s easy to forget that a superhero-based game was still a little unusual back in the day,” Lipo said. “There was a stigma among gamers that every game based on a comic book was terrible… and not many of the heroes were truly mass-market.
“When Activision suggested that we do a Marvel Comics-based game, our mind reeled. Spider-Man was considered to be the strongest property, but Neversoft had just completed their (excellent) Spider-Man game (and the Sam Raimi movie was still a couple years off). It was briefly floated that we make a game based on the fairly successful Wesley Snipes Blade films, X-Men was pretty much at the top. Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie was just hitting theaters and, really, to everyone’s surprise, was pretty great. While DC had its run of 1990s Batman movies, in 2000 the concept of a blockbuster movie featuring Marvel superheroes was still pretty wild. The X-Men were pretty well-known (especially after exploding in the early 1990s), but the ‘second tier’ heroes such as Iron Man or The Avengers (!) were still fairly unknown in the mainstream. Using properties such as Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy would have been the dumbest idea anyone ever had. At Raven, we were comic nerds, so it was automatically exciting. I spent the entirety of the 1990s spending way, way too much on comics, and I had a ton of X-Men issues to draw from. It was a tremendous opportunity to explore what we could do with those characters and that world.”
In spite of his love of comic books and the X-Men Lipo and the rest of his team weren’t mutants, though. They weren’t born with their ability to develop games. Like many developers that worked on video games in the ‘90s and early millennium, his start in the industry didn’t begin thanks to an experience while gaming online or learning to develop on a free version of Unity. His beginnings in game development were far more humble. “My start was pretty boring,” Lipo said. “I’d loved pen and paper games since I was around 10 years old and had always wondered what it would be like to write a computer game. But at the time game, development was a black box: little was known about the process and people involved in making them. For all we knew, games could have been made by magical leprechauns and we wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Despite my dreams, for college, I dutifully pursued a computer science degree at the University of Wisconsin. It was a great education, although the training was largely theoretical. Along the way, I got a student job that let me use a Silicon Graphics IRIS workstations, a workstation the size of a small refrigerator, along with Alias Studio, the predecessor to the 3D Package Maya and best known for being used to create the movie, Jurassic Park. With it, I could create 3D models and animations, but it would take the better part of a day to render, after which each frame needed to be transferred to videotape in order to be viewed.
“I might have gotten deeper into 3D software after graduation if a friend hadn’t spotted a small ad in our student newspaper looking for a programmer for a local game development company. What? Game development in Madison Wisconsin? Bewildered, I sent them a resume and they invited me to visit, where I got a peek at the action RPG Shadowcaster in the height of development. Alas, I only came in second for the advertised job, but kept checking back in with them and bringing personal prototypes throughout the year, until they finally expanded to a second project and offered me a job.”
Fast forward five years and Lipo earned credits on games the likes of Mageslayer, CyClones and Necrodome, as well as a lead programming job on Raven’s third-person shooter, Heretic II. After a childhood obsessed with creating things and now a few years of seasoning, he was ready to make his first big splash. Luckily for him, Raven Software was in a similar position.
“In 1998 after shipping Heretic II on the PC, I was given the opportunity to forge new territory for Raven and lead their very first console title on the upcoming PS2 and Xbox,” Lipo said. “We had a challenge, however: when Heretic II was released and was by all accounts a quality game, there was a lot of difficulty marketing it… and the sales suffered as a result. This time we wanted to get it right… the new game needed to clearly identify its audience and obtain full support from Activision publishing. All the stars had to be aligned.
“Raven had a couple of other titles to work on, so we could take it very slowly. Over a couple years, we went through a massive investigation period where we both explored the best engine technology to work with, as well as investigating concepts from Dungeons & Dragons to horror to Greek mythology to monster fighting games. A couple of small prototypes were mocked up and concept art was generated, but it was fairly slow going. Over that period, we pitched in with all the other games in progress such as Soldier of Fortune, Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force and Star Wars Jedi Outcast in the interim. Our own delays were tough, but I’m incredibly glad that I was able to contribute to those great games along the way.
“It was 2000 or 2001 when we started to discuss with Activision the possibility of a Marvel Comics game, taking advantage of a licensing deal they had not made long before,” Lipo said. “We’d considered a few different properties, but Activision suggested to us that we take on an RPG project for them, something they had kicked off with another studio, but dropped when they were directed elsewhere.”
Wait. What? A Marvel RPG? Those same thoughts ran through Lipo’s mind as he pondered the possibility of what this could mean for Raven. He and his team had no idea what they were getting themselves into. “When they passed us some preliminary docs from the previous developer as a kickoff point, I started to wonder how it had gotten through Activision approval,” Lipo said. “The game in the document was a full-on Japanese-style RPG. Turn-based combat. random encounters. The whole Final-Fantasy-with-X-Men enchilada. It was incredible. We couldn’t believe that Activision would consider such an unusual project and meetings began between Raven and Activision to discuss how the game would get made.”
Those who have played X-Men Legends, its sequel and the Marvel Ultimate Alliance games know that this game would not be anything like a Final Fantasy VII game. After Raven’s issues marketing a solid game in Heretic II, they weren’t about to take any chances with screwing with one of the hottest comic book and entertainment IPs at the time. But they had to play it smart. “We’d been working with Activision long enough by this point that we were very careful to make sure we fully understood what they wanted out of the product,” Lipo said. “They had already dropped hints that nothing in that preliminary doc was sacred, so we felt a fair amount of freedom to help define the product. We also speculated on how, if we were trying to go straight for the Final Fantasy market, what sort of production team we’d need to really hit a home run in that space.”
With the ability to now take the game in the direction that they saw fit, Lipo and his team got to work. “Internally, we started discussing what sort of game we felt would best fit the franchise and our own talents, and we hit upon an alternative idea for a hybrid Action/RPG,” Lipo said. “It still would have a separation between exploration and combat sequences that mixed real-time and turn-based elements. In the end, we wanted to create a game that was a real RPG, but still focused on Raven’s strengths: action gameplay, a great art aesthetic and a sense of power in the player’s actions. We cautiously approached our Activision producers about whether they would consider some changes and they actually seemed relieved. I think they were hoping we’d push the game towards a larger audience and Japanese-style RPGs were a tough sell in the West at the time if they weren’t from Square.”
With a potential marketing crisis averted Raven began to get their footing with the project as they continued to build its foundation. “X-Men was Raven’s very first console game aside from an unfinished Playstation port of Necrodome. When we started considering console, we dabbled with creating our own engine, which is what you did back then,” Lipo said. “We investigated the PlayStation 2 capabilities of the Quake 3 engine, which was familiar to us from our work on the PC. We investigated Unreal, which was still very limited in its console support at the time. We even considered the Lithtech engine, which was used for games like No One Lives Forever.
“There were many factors we had to take into account, not the least of which was the objective to ship simultaneously on all three consoles. The engine had to ship on Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Gamecube, and we didn’t want to assemble three teams to do it. We wanted an engine that ran fairly fast on the notoriously tricky PS2 and could easily publish content for all platforms. In the end, we were steered towards a fledgling engine called Intrinsic Alchemy, which ticked many of the required boxes but was fairly untried except for some titles by Vicarious Visions (who ultimately bought the struggling company and became our support staff for the engine). It was an elegant bit of technology but pretty complex to use. Building our content for a platform like the Gamecube (when only a couple of us had access to Nintendo hardware) would have burdened a lot of the team. On top of that, we had limited access to the engine code itself, so we started to worry that we had gone down the wrong road. In the end, we were saved by our brilliant tech programmers, who did emergency fixes and created an amazing tool that built our assets for all three consoles automatically without hassling the team. Without them, I’m sure we wouldn’t have shipped on time and perhaps not at all.”
Despite now being completely finished with the thought of implementing the JRPG concept and with a new gameplay engine in place, Lipo and the team weren’t done experimenting with ideas that would define the core gameplay that made X-Men Legends so special. “During the early stages of development, we did some investigation,” Lipo said. “We went pretty far down the mental road of separating exploration and combat phases. If we had executed that plan, the player would have controlled a single swappable hero during exploration, breaking into a full team of four in an arena once combat started. It might have allowed us to have more elaborate exploration areas and more breakable stuff in the arena. I was a big fan of Power Stone and the idea of a tight arena filled with a rich set of interactive gameplay elements was super-attractive. However, as I continued to work with our art director Brian Pelletier, we started questioning whether we were selling ourselves short, creating a game that limited the interesting environmental situations that a free-flowing adventure would have created. Could we do encounters where you had to cross a gap to reach the opponent as they used their powers against you? Could you take advantage of long-ranged attacks as melee enemies rushed to close? These issues may have been solved with special arena layouts, but eventually, we embraced what we felt we could bring to the table- real-time exploration and combat played seamlessly with the player controlling all four heroes.”
One of the hallmarks of the X-Men Legends series was the ability to control four different characters during gameplay. The ability to switch on the fly was fast and intuitive and created a plethora of fun moments. Getting it into the game was far from an easy endeavor, however. “During development, giving the player control of four independent heroes was quite challenging,” Lipo said. “The PlayStation 2 controller only had around eight buttons (and the Gamecube had fewer than that!). Coming up with a way for players to comfortably switch between characters (on top of all the moves and powers they had) was pretty tricky. In addition, to control, we also had to make sure the camera showed all the heroes, as well as display each of their health and power levels. There was just so much going on!
“As preproduction ended, we tried briefly to make a case for reducing the number of heroes to two. This would have vastly improved our control scheme. Instead of using the D-pad or two buttons to cycle heroes, we could have used a single swap button and supported super-fast hero-switching in the middle of a combat move. We could have mobbed the players with a ton of enemies. Our user interface would have been cleaner. It was because we wanted to hit the highest quality bar possible, whatever the game was. We took these concerns to our producers at Activision. To their credit, the production team pushed back. They really wanted four heroes, so we kept with it. While there were tradeoffs to make it happen, it worked out because it really set that game apart. I never got to play a full campaign with four players myself, but people have shared a lot of great X-Men Legends stories over the years simply because four-player games were not common.”
At the same time, X-Men Legends is about so much more than having control over four super-powered characters simultaneously. Taking an ode from battle arena games the likes of Power Stone, but maintaining the Action/RPG core, X-Men Legends ends up as a game that is deep in terms of combat and exploration, but it’s also a lot of fun. While not originally well-received by the entire team, Lipo was able to push for extra bells and whistles that many fans of the series still remember fondly. “I have a real thing for dynamic environments,” Lipo said. “Destruction of a wall or column was something I love seeing in any game, but for a superhero game, I felt it was a necessity. I imagined a world that was packed with breakable objects. Walls would be segmented into tiles so they could be broken individually. The specific moment I dreamed of having was to punch an enemy and knock him backward through a wall, only to slide and smack into the wall behind it. The first time I got to see that happen in our game was one of my favorite moments in my entire career.
“However, this goal had a cost and required a lot of back-and-forth negotiation with the team. A static, unchanging world is much faster to render (for any engine), and for X-Men Legends we wanted eight or more characters fighting onscreen in a dynamic environment! Our engineers were working extremely hard to try to meet this target. In addition, a squared-off, tile-based world can be extremely bland, so it was super tough for our world team to create interesting environments out of that. Finally, the dynamic, breakable environment meant our lighting was less than top-tier. The best lighting in a game of that era typically used shadows that were ‘baked’ by an artist, but that would have meant that those objects couldn’t be broken. Of course, our artists were eager to hit the highest quality bar that they possibly could, something Raven had a good reputation for.
“Over time, some modifications to the plan crept in. One time I came back from a trip to find that the team had created an experimental diagonal tile to break up the 90-degree walls. It worked great and was an awesome addition. Over time, we also started setting some game levels in environments that couldn’t possibly meet the 100% destructible credo, such as the city parks and collapsed buildings at the start of the game. In the end, we put as many destructible objects as we possibly could in those areas, over the hand-built non-destructible terrain. The art team was able to ‘bake’ lighting on those non-destructible sections, which gave us certain areas that had a higher aesthetic. We still took the X-Men into sewers and enemy bases where we used our tile-based destructible world and so we could still pay off that ‘bustin’ through walls’ fantasy. It turned out to be a fairly worthwhile compromise.”
Destructible environments wouldn’t mean a thing though if combat wasn’t enjoyable. Although their most successful game up until that point was Heretic II, a third-person Fantasy/Shooter, Lipo and the team’s love of comic books shined through and they crafted a system that truly made the game stand out. “One of the ‘key features’ of X-Men Legends from the very beginning of the project was the presence of ‘mutant combos.’ This referred to the creative way that the X-Men combined their powers in the comics, such as combining heat and ice to create steam and so on,” Lipo said. “The most commonly-known X-Men combo was the ‘Fastball Special,’ where Colossus threw Wolverine at high speed, Wolvie’s claws outstretched to impale the Sentinel or whatever they were fighting. It was a well-loved, lasting part of the comics over the years.”
Making the game feel like it had authentic X-Men characters that utilized their special powers was one thing, but enemies couldn’t be brain-dead either. At the heart of an excellent Action/RPG are enemies that don’t feel like hordes of enemies taking space until you find a boss. That element of X-Men Legends, in particular, needed fine-tuning. “Game development often requires you to test parts of a game long before all the features can be experienced together,” Lipo said. “Before the hero AI was complete, we could only play with a single hero on a single screen. When the engineering team got the hero AI functional for the first time, allowing us to play the full set of heroes against the enemies. It was exciting but some issues came up. First, if AI enemies and heroes simply seek out the closest opponent and attack, the game dissolves into a furball: a mass of characters hitting each other, not a great experience. You can’t easily protect yourself if enemy attacks come from all directions. Plus, your allied heroes tend to pile onto whoever you’re fighting, disrupting your attacks or sometimes stealing your kills before your attacks connect. It can be a frustrating feeling. That was solved by having the heroes and enemies ‘pair up.’ They coordinate with each other and find places onscreen to fight that are clear of other characters. This helped keep the game looking vibrant, with combats taking place all over the screen. You are still targeted by some enemies and can always call the other heroes to help you out with a press of a button. It doesn’t have a negative effect on the experience, and you can move around to help out with whatever fights you wish.
“The second problem that occurred once we got the AI functional was that fights tended to be over rather quickly. If you can take out an enemy in a few seconds with a hero you control, an AI-controlled hero could do the same in a few seconds. This meant that a lot of enemies onscreen were killed without you having to participate. Conversely, in a more challenging area, one of your heroes might get KO’ed before you even know that it is in trouble, requiring you to babysit them. The solution to this came from our AI programmer, and while crafty is probably a little controversial… When AI heroes fight AI enemies, they do less damage to each other based on how far they are from you. If you sit around and watch your allies fight, they will still take out their opponent, but it takes a lot longer if they are near the edge of the screen. If your controlled hero is close by, the combats resolve quicker, because we felt your attention would be on those fights and would notice the discrepancy. This doesn’t affect any damage done by players or to players, but helped the overall feel and pace of the game by keeping the focus on the player.”
The thought of combos and fighting multiple enemies at once ironically made a lot more sense logistically when the game was originally slated to be a JRPG. But now with the Action/RPG tag, things got far more complicated. “During its concept phases when X-Men Legends was a menu-driven Final Fantasy-style affair, it was easy to imagine how combos might have worked: An X-Man earns something like a ‘Limit Break’ that can be chosen from a list of powers,” Lipo said. “When it is unleashed, the world would fade out and we’d see (for example) a canned sequence of Iceman making a column of ice that Magma turns to steam, a lovingly-crafted camera angle showing us a spray of dazzling particle effects. The target, singled out from the world with a spotlight, is blasted backward as numbers sporting the total damage done flash across the screen. However, this game didn’t roll that way anymore. Combat was a messy affair, with the player having to juggle a lot of different things going on at once. Our original action RPG spec included a ‘Combo Button,’ which would have caused the game to find a nearby X-Man to combo with when you pressed it. However, there was no guarantee that an ally would be nearby, or that they wouldn’t be busy with some other fight, or whatever. It just didn’t work that way, and the button was at risk of being somewhat worthless. We did try the ‘canned Final Fantasy cinematic’ method, allowing the player to press a button and play out a Fastball Special against a targeted opponent if Beast and Wolverine were on your team. It worked all right, but it was jarring and would have proved difficult to create cinematic content for each X-Man paired up with any other X-Man. Some of this work I believe did eventually apply to the ‘X-treme Power’ super ability that each hero possessed. (Sorry about the name by the way. I named it that as a joke and it just stuck.)
“So we finally flipped everything on its ear and created what we called “ad hoc” combos. We created opportunities for a hero to interact with another hero, even if they just used their powers on the same target. You got bonus damage and a specially-generated name. We added some other combo mechanics like the fastball special (Colossus just needed to be near Wolverine and press ‘Grab’). It wasn’t as rich of a system as I’d hoped, but I think a lot of combos were the result of player ingenuity and this helped support that. My only regret is that we didn’t have time to create a checklist and give you rewards for completing all the combos… that would have been great.”
But X-Men Legends did more than play well. Sporting cel-shaded character models, the characters looked and behaved like the comic book heroes and baddies they were based on.
“Once we started to get all our heroes together, with fairly complete models and environments and heroic proportions and animations, we had another problem,” Lipo said. “The player had a lot to keep track of. The game was at risk of not being playable because so many things were vying for the user’s attention. It was important to us that the player could easily pick out their team members in the corner of their eye and identify enemies quickly and easily. In game development, a variety of techniques are typically used to help make a character stand out in its environment. A simpler floor texture with less ‘noise’ helps, as does choosing a good color palette with strong contrasts between game elements and the world. Our combat animator helped us by exaggerating each character’s stance and movements so they were more decipherable from above (top-down games often have difficulty with this because you may only see a head and shoulders of a character). Even with these tricks, it was still a bit overwhelming to keep track of everything, especially when the game was played on the 480 lines of a standard-definition television.
“Then, one of our artists had an inspired idea: They had an easy way for us to add outlines to our existing hero models,” Lipo said. “It worked wonders to help characters to draw the player’s eye. After the game shipped, some gamers did grumble that we were caving into an artistic trend at the time towards ‘cel shading’ in games. However, it wasn’t really about that, but rather it was a method of helping players spot the silhouette of each character quickly during play… making each enemy and hero pop out visually from the floor.”
So X-Men Legends was fun too and absolutely looked the part of a PlayStation 2 Action/RPG, but it also had an excellent story. It’s kind of like the cherry on top of the game’s proverbial sundae. It’s crazy to think however that the narrative could have been even deeper. “For the duration of the X-Men Legends project, we worked with a talented group of writers called Man of Action,” Lipo said. “They had some wild ideas and created an elaborate plot for X-Men Legends, which we worked back and forth with them to mold it into something we could tell effectively. Their energy and creativity gave us some fabulous plot twists, not the least of them was the ‘fake ending’… In both the final game and their written story, Magneto threatens the earth with ongoing darkness by shrouding it with debris. The team must fly the Blackbird through the gauntlet of debris to reach Asteroid M, where Magneto is using the Gravitron to enact his plan. The player defeats Magneto but… the meteor crashes into the earth(!) kicking off an Act IV that never was. In a complete reset, the story flashes forward to 25 years in the future, at an internment camp in a devastated New York City. Three of the heroes wake up in different bodies, having been brought forward in time by a mutant named Channeler. An aged Nick Fury explains how a powerful mutant named Zeitgeist was the puppet master behind Magneto all along. They meet Cable, Bishop and others, who help them reach Olympus, which is Asteroid M, telepathically suspended above a crater in Manhattan. Along the way they must deal with further mutated versions of the villains, now self-styled as Greek gods: Blob as Ares, Pyro as Vulcan, Toad as Hermes, and Avalanche as Hades.
“The fourth act involved the refugees from the past wandering through the icy wastelands of the ravaged city, where humans are rounded up as second-class citizens. The player slowly rebuilds their team from new and earlier heroes. In a few instances, I think we had already created future “snow” outfits for them, which ended up as unlockables in the final product. The team had to make their way up the massive chains holding Olympus in place and confront Zeigeist along with a rendition of Dark Phoenix and Rogue, who was Zeitgeist’s mother with Magneto (man, there was so much going on!) The player then chased Zeitgeist back to the past with Cable’s help, at which the team was able to undo all the damage to the time stream in Act VI, and put an end to the threat. The concept art for the Greek-styled villains are probably still out there somewhere, but in the end, the whole future twist had to be cut because there were just too many game regions, characters, and environment art. It would have taken the story in a really interesting direction, but it would have required twice as much content! I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a game that didn’t have to cut a level or three to successfully ship, and in this case, the game would have needed at least another six months to finish. In the end, I’m proud of all the work that everyone did.”
In spite of a development cycle that featured a series of changes to nearly every aspect of the game that at times, even threatened its existence, X-Men Legends finally hit shelves on September 21, 2004. Considering the fact that it went on to sell over three million copies across the PlayStation 2, Gamecube, Xbox and Nokia N-Gage and spawned a sequel, X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, as well as a new series in Marvel Ultimate Alliance, you’d expect Lipo and his team to be confident. However, after the release of Heretic II, they understood they could release a solid game that simply didn’t sell. With all the work done and the game now available to the masses, all they could do was keep their fingers crossed.
“Upon shipping X-Men Legends, we felt good of course, but it was still a little unknown how we would be received,” Lipo said. “It was our first console game, superhero games didn’t have a great history at that time, and we are our own toughest critics about our quality. We hoped that it hit a great gameplay bar and also lived up to the visual bar we had set for our other products. Our emphasis on controlling a four-player team was the biggest risk we took when creating X-Men Legends…No matter how you slice it, a game that features four simultaneous characters has to make sacrifices as compared to a game that features two or one playable characters. Having four heroes onscreen requires at least four enemies to match them, which means having to make a lot of tough choices with characters and environments. The control complexity, that is how many moves a single character can execute, also is less than a single-character title might have since gameplay development had to be spread across 15 characters. Finally, the RPG upgrade options were fewer, because we limited the number of upgrades each hero had so as to not overwhelm a player with hundreds of upgrade points and options. In the end, I think the choices we made to make the game playable, yet have so much happening onscreen, were worth it. If anything, the X-Men Legends series helped define a style of game that had very few peers. That’s something we all feel pretty great about.”
Gamers felt good about it too and they wanted more. Although X-Men Legends was mainly a couch-co-op game, future versions took advantage of online play and the formula became more refined. “I think it was good, even better than I imagined,” Lipo said of the game’s release. “The reviews did spot some shortcomings that we expected because there were some things that ultimately got smoothed over and enhanced in X-Men Legends II, but I think people understood and appreciated what we were out to accomplish with that first product.”
While Lipo and his team were happy about the impact that first game had on the industry, it ultimately had a long-lasting impact on his career. “Throughout my career as a lead programmer at Raven, I had the opportunity to influence the design of the games I worked on quite a bit,” Lipo said. “At the time, Raven did not have ‘game designer’ positions per se, but a level design team…’real’ systems design was generally squeezed in between everything else, by the programmers, level designers, or leads. Trying out risky new features (or even fundamental issues such as balance) tended to happen here and there as team members got excited about this or that and sneaked in a few hours. I really wanted the opportunity to devote more of my time to design systems and I saw the route to that as the Project Lead. So, I vied for that position for years. Taking on Project Lead for X: Men Legends was a tremendous opportunity that I was thrilled to take, but there was also a lot of management and coordination that gets added to ‘carrying the vision.’ I wasn’t able to focus on systems as much as I had hoped and I did miss being able to scrape together time to try some new game mechanic out myself. Most of what I was doing in the early days was paper design, shepherding the story and working with the various leads. (We didn’t have an internal producer role either).
“In the last year of the project. I got some Project Lead assistance from Rob Gee, so we were better able to split our responsibilities between us,” Lipo said. “He could keep the story on target and deal more with the art side, and I got freed up to help out a little with game programming and systems design. It was during that time I was able to get the melee and power combat the way I wanted it and add in special moves like Iceman’s ice slide and Beast’s charge roll. I hit Excel and balanced out the enemy health, damage, and critical percentages throughout the game based on how we expected players to progress. It was an exciting time. A while after I left Raven, the studio started to staff dedicated internal producers and systems designers, so this issue might have not been as significant if I had been in that position at a later time. Nonetheless, since that time I’ve been happy on projects as a lead designer most of all, where I can consider all the aspects of the player’s experience. I also have a new appreciation for small teams, where everyone has to be a strong contributor and people can wear many hats. Each company and each project is different in the game industry, however, so every new one is a new adventure.”
Going on later to work on the teams responsible for Defense Grid, Dungeons and Dragons Online and Dead Space 2 and 3, his career has been quite an adventure. And while Heretic II remains the project he’s the most connected with, he can’t deny how special the gameplay of X-Men Legends was. “The first thing that I think captured people’s imaginations was the drop-in-drop-out couch cooperative play,” Lipo said. “It’s social and easy to get going, a great way to get together have fun. When compared to online games that require a second console and TV, which pretty much guarantees your friend will be at their own house rather than hanging out in yours. I’m glad they were able to add online multiplayer in later versions, but the couch co-op I think set the tone for the series. The second part was the selection of heroes. At the time having a roster of 15 playable characters was pretty amazing. It was cool to see how many new playable characters Raven was able to add over the series, building on the foundation we had laid…it just got better and better. It’s almost like our 2.5-year project became a 4.5-year project with three releases along the way.”