Press > Exclusive Interviews > Mike Kennedy (Video Game Developer: Snake Plissken's Escape)




How did you end up being a comic book writer and video game producer etc?

I'd been into comics since a kid, and my first real job in high school was working in a comic shop, so comics and writing stories were always in my blood. I'd gone to conventions and made a few friends at Dark Horse in their early years (this was the late 80s), and those relationships lasted while I went through college. I never once thought of comics as a career, and graduated college with a degree in computer graphics, which were still pretty young. This was 1991, and things were still 8/16-bit sprites and floppy discs or cartridges. Pre-internet, pre-CD-ROM, pre-3D, etc. So it was a great time to get into games, and as a career path, it took off like a rocket. I started as an artist and designer, but started doing as much writing and directing as I could, since story started playing a bigger and bigger part in games. Soon, campaign and storyline direction became my focus on whatever games we were working on.


Meanwhile, friends at Dark Horse offered a few writing gigs here and there: Ghost, Star Wars, Alien vs Predator, Lone Wolf 2100, etc. It was never more than just fun stuff on the side, but a cross-over between the two industries came up a lot. Bringing comic artist friends onto game projects to do concept art and storyboards, for example. Tim Bradstreet, Chris Warner, and Francisco Velasco brought some great stuff to the table on Plissken

How did the Snake Plissken's Escape Video Game come about and how did you and Andre Emerson get the assignment to be involved in it?

It was all Andre's doing -- he'd been a huge fan of the character and films, and we often talked about how cool it would be to do a Snake Plissken game while we were working on Dead to Rights and the (shelved) sequel (that was half finished and looking awesome before being farmed out and completely re-designed). DTR was a nice success for Namco at the time, so they were open to his pitch and proposal. He did some expert networking and got ahold of Carpenter and (Debra) Hill, explained the vision, and they were on board. After whatever negotiations were necessary, it was greenlit internally.


At that point, we started outlining the feature set, campaign structure, and production plan right away. We started making concept art, storyboards, test animations, etc, built upon the DTR engine. Since we had added a lot of really cool features into the DTR2 build, we leveraged a lot of those advances in the design. Andre was the guy with the drive and vision pushing it forward. There were, I think, three of us at the early stages hammering out design basics. Andre and I focused more on campaign structure and story stuff, while he and the others focused on gameplay design.

Can you tell us more about the campaign design and approved storyline created for the game? Snake's past, present and future would be explored through new and original stories for instance.

It was gonna be awesome. It was set after LA, after the Big Crash, dropping the rest of the country (world, even) into nearly the same level of desolation as we'd seen in NY and LA. We had a plot that would take him across the continent in yet another manipulated mission for a questionable authority, but since we'd have such a larger canvas, longer running time, and (in a sense) unlimited FX (Special Effects) budget, we were able to get big with everything. We did explore his past, and even had a flashback sequence to the Leningrad Ruse that suggests (inconclusively) how he lost the eye. Old friends and foes come into play, some from the novel, some from the unproduced animated feature screenplay, and many original creations of our own. The contract with Namco was for three games, so we were aiming for a trilogy with some big ramifications. I think it was the cornerstone of John, Debra, and Kurt's hope to keep the character alive, fresh, and big profile for years and years to come.

How involved were John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell in the project and what kind of requests and input did they have? Kurt Russell was suppose to provide with likeness, voice and motion capture for Snake Plissken for instance.

At the early stages, they were very involved. Still one of the biggest thrills in my career was the day spent with the three of them at Debra's house in the Hills. We spent hours not only talking about who Snake was, what he represented, his drives and peeves, and what he would and wouldn't do. They all were very passionate still for the character and world, and excited by this chance to bring him back big.

Kurt was all on board. In fact, that same afternoon, we had his face and head cyberscanned by Gentle Giant so we could start working on a functioning 3D model of Snake. We had a rough temporary body model already made, but it was key to have him recognizable as Snake from the neck up. He IS Snake! Unfortunately, that's the extent of his involvement, since the project got shut down before the real participation would have begun.

How far was the video game developed before it was cancelled and how close does the playable pre-production demo that was created represent the final version of the game?

At some point for reasons I'm not totally clear on, Namco decided to shift gears suddenly and dial back on internal development, leaning more on third party dev. That decision led to the shutdown of Dead to Rights 2: Hell to Pay (which itself was looking awesome, well over half-done… bits of it showed up in the farmed-out sequel and PSP (PlayStation Portable) spin-off, but that's a whole other story…). The team was split up between a few other projects that needed support, with about 10 of us assigned to get Plissken off the ground. We built two mini-levels, a bunch of new Snake-specific character models, animations, and features (including climbing, hanging, etc… all of that Splinter Cell stuff that was just starting to heat up). Those two mini-levels were fully playable, albeit without any scripted story events – just sandbox shooting galleries, proving the earliest unique features. We had the whole campaign outlined, with concept art for many of the key locations and characters defined. You can see a lot of that in the presentation videos we prepared for Namco brass.

Is it true that the video game was cancelled due to the death of Debra Hill?

No, not at all. It was cancelled well before her passing. While her health had been a concern, even during our visit, she was the most vocally participating of the three up to that point. I can't say for sure, but I think it was cancelled as part of Namco's internal re-focus away from original US development back to importing and localizing Japanese developed titles. I believe it was a financial belt-tightening on the company's part, not anything specific against any particular title or team, just a necessary downsizing (that ultimately led to their acquisition by Bandai).


What was it working with John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell as well as Namco?

The three primaries were great, and I was truly looking forward to working with them a lot more. They had some really interesting ideas about how to mix some AI (Artificial Intelligence) into the character so that he kept his "independent" personality – for example, if the player tried screwing around out of character, the character himself would take over and get back in line. We were talking about ways to keep Snake from ever "losing" or looking like a chump even through the tropes of "death" and respawning. It would have been pretty groundbreaking stuff that I still haven't seen today.

Working with Namco, on the other hand… let's just say things would have been different if they were as excited by the prospect as the team was. I just think the handful of decision-makers involved didn't understand the value and potential of the property.

Were you disappointed that the video game was canned and what did you look forward to the most about working on this video game?

Incredibly disappointed. But after they cancelled DTR2, I honestly wasn't surprised. There had been writing on the walls during that whole period, but we on the team chose to ignore it and focus on building what we all believed was going to be an incredibly cool and high-profile AAA title.

I was super-excited about getting to spend time in the voiceover booth and mocap (Motion Capture) stage with Kurt. That would have been such a thrill.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the project?

Definitely that afternoon with John, Kurt, and Debra. They were all so cool and inviting and down to earth. They admittedly didn't know much about what was possible or acceptable in video games at that time (outside of a shared love of GTA (Grand Theft Auto), but they were into doing something narratively new and groundbreaking. They wanted to keep the character mysterious and independent, somehow separate from the player controlling him, but without denying the player the thrill of being Snake. It was a great day. They signed my copy of the novelization! And I shouldn't mention it (since I wasn't supposed to be doing it), but… I recorded our brainstorming session. That's a folder of MP3s I'll treasure for years. (And no, I don't think I can ever share them at the risk of pissing them off…)

What are you currently doing and what else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

After 20 years in games, I hopped the fence from video games to comics entirely. I've been publishing artbooks, comics, and graphic novels, first as Publisher for a company called Archaia, then as my own publishing company Magnetic Press after Archaia got bought out by BOOM! Studios. Magnetic merged with another publishing company Lion Forge last October, so I'm currently directing the Magnetic line for them, bringing in some really cool and unique comics and graphic novels from some amazing talent from around the world. Some pretty exciting stuff! (You can check it out at: http://www.magnetic-press.com)

Thank you for your time, Mike.