Ben Judd has a job many people would kill for. He's a producer at Capcom, one of the biggest Japanese game publishers in the industry. After the success of Bionic Commando Rearmed, the downloadable remake from Swedish developer GRIN, he's now hard at work on the full 3D next-gen Bionic Commando, once again working with GRIN. We caught up with him to find out why a Western studio was chosen to make the game and if we're going to see more HD remakes.
VideoGamer.com: First off, congratulations - Rearmed turned out even better than we'd hoped. Are you surprised by the reaction people have had to it?
Ben Judd: You know, my marketing sensibilities and what I had sort of envisioned, a path to go down, that I always felt that most trends are cyclical, most are every 20 years or so. We're now, us, those of us in our 30s, are at the point when we see things from the 1980s and are like "Holy shit! Yes!". I think that's in games now too. You look back at those very early old classic games and we're like, you know, I want to play that again. But unfortunately with games some of the user unfriendly parts of those old 8-bit games now have been totally left behind in the past where they should have been left, so you do have to update the franchise. You can't just meta emulate it, throw a fresh new coat of paint on there and say 'oh look it's Bionic Commando'. There were some unnecessary frustrations that occurred because they didn't have the technology back then.
VideoGamer.com: What kind of things spring to mind?
BJ: Without a doubt, the save system. A lot of those games you had to beat with one sitting. I remember playing Ghosts and Goblins, on the fifth level, and having to leave it on for three days because I just couldn't beat it. There's just no way, no password, no save, no nothing. So, things like that. Bionic Commando, of course being able to update the weapons so you weren't just using the bazooka all the time. It's nice to be able to make fixes that the developers didn't know back then - they didn't realise until the game came out, in hindsight.
We've actually got phone calls from other developers saying 'you arseholes, now because you've made a game at such high quality and priced it at $10, now that's the gold standard. If we try and put out a game for $15 people are going to say, well what about Bionic Commando Rearmed? What if we put out a game that's just meta emulated, they're going say we're being greedy'. Because we've raised the bar to that level now we've got other developers on their toes, where they should be. There's a lot of potential there, but right now people are being too damn lazy. They're not paying the respect to the old classic games that they should.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think this will open the door for more remakes from Capcom?
BJ: It's hard to say unfortunately. It's a game that's been done by a Japanese publisher so even though it's doing extremely well, that information hasn't really sunk in to their side. It'll be interesting to see what happens with Mega Man 9. That right there could set our internal strategy. If the Mega Man 9 stuff is successful we might see more retro games like that. But if ultimately Rearmed is more successful, they could come back and say 'people really want these high def, high quality remixes, they don't want just the old stuff'. It'll be interesting to see what happens.
VideoGamer.com: I heard online that we might be hearing a fairly big announcement at Tokyo this year...
BJ: It's quite possible.
VideoGamer.com: Can you give any clue, like a one word clue, just to keep us playing along?
VideoGamer.com: Bonus, that's a good word.
BJ: That's obtuse but also informative. After the fact you'll go 'oooooh'.
VideoGamer.com: We'll get our top guys working on it.
BJ: The code breakers (laughs).
When rearmed came out, to be honest I didn't know how well it was going to do. It never sold well, any of the old Bionic Commando games, which is kind of crazy - so many games for a title that has never proved itself. I was very nervous, but we've outsold all the other big summer campaign games, including Braid and Geometry Wars 2.
VideoGamer.com: It really has been a great summer for downloadable games.
BJ: All fantastic. MS is on a roll when it comes to their Arcade games - they're all great. I want to see what Castle Crashers does as that's the one that everyone's also really really excited about.
VideoGamer.com: Was the original Bionic Commando a favourite of yours?
BJ: It's one of those that I remember where I was and what I was doing - at a best friend's house. We were playing it until like 2am. I remember when we saw Hitler racing. 'That's Hitler, he just said damn!'
VideoGamer.com: He presumably wiped the floor with you as well.
BJ: Oh, he did yeah. The fact that afterwards you had one shot at killing him with the bazooka as you're falling down - it's like 'WTF'. The first thing you do is fall down and die as you have no idea what's going on. Here, take this bazooka and fire it. Where, what, what? I just died. Nooooooo.
VideoGamer.com: I really appreciated the new save system, but it's still a really challenging game.
BJ: The challenge rooms. Our mindset is, if we give you the option, if you don't like it, if it's too hard you always have the option to play it on easy. If you don't like the challenge rooms, if you think they're too hard, the only thing you get from beating all the challenge rooms is achievements. There's nothing special, you don't miss a key weapon or anything like that from playing the challenge rooms. So since they're optional, the whole mindset was 'we can make them as hard as possible'.
VideoGamer.com: That's what you want. There are people all over the net talking about how to do certain challenge rooms.
BJ: That's what we wanted.
VideoGamer.com: That whole mentality is pretty old school.
BJ: That's what we like. There are even special codes in the game that open up new challenge rooms. There are some in magazines, Major Nelson has one. Putting in codes like that is really old school.
VideoGamer.com: Why did you go with a Western Studio for Bionic Commando?
BJ: One of the reasons that we definitely wanted to go with a Western developer for Bionic Commando, is that, to be blunt, Japanese studios are not good at doing shooters. Western studios are much better at it. We wanted to go with a studio that was much better at shooting, one of the core mechanics of the game.
VideoGamer.com: How does the story fit into Rearmed?
BJ: The story roughly takes place 10 years after the original game. When we were creating Rearmed we took some story elements that we knew we were going to have in the 3D version and put little hints into Rearmed, so there's foreshadowing in Rearmed for some of the things that will happen in the 3D game. That was neat to be able to do that. To take a story and build it over a brand, not just unit by unit in a single game. We've also of course taken a serial comic book that we do every week. That fills in key plot points between Rearmed and the 3D game.
VideoGamer.com: Can you say how the control system has changed since E3?
BJ: It's based on physics and Grin knows physics really well. We tried to do real world physics. If you were to take a weight and tie it to a string, after about three swings it would be at a standstill. So what we had to do was give the swing a turbo boost in the middle of the swing so you have the same momentum going back and forwards. It's not realistic. What it does it make the swing a lot more smooth. What I think they've done is, the actual end arc, there's a very tiny gap where... imagine yourself on the swing set. You're swinging and you want to jump off the swing set. If you jump off at the very end of the swing arc you're going to go in the air, straight up. If you jump off as it's going into its forward most momentum, you won't be at the end of the arc, you'll be right before it, but you'll fly forward. People would wait till the end of the arc and just fly straight up and it would be frustrating. Now it's a lot more forgiving. They ultimately had to cheat with the physics.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think games are too easy on gamers these days then?
BJ: Yes, I do. I think that if you look at one of the highest praised games of last year, BioShock. BioShock was easy as Hell, I don't care what anybody says. That's what people want. They want to play through it. They want to die once or twice. It's like an interactive movie, sort of. Gamers have lost their will to continually drill down on something. It's also the fault of the developers. If you make enough restart points; if you make it so that if you die you can restart and retry without having to go back for an hour, which is not the right way to do it, I think people will keep trying something. I think that the challenge rooms in Rearmed are like that. It takes you 10 seconds to try but you can keep trying over and over again.
VideoGamer.com: How will the save system work in this then?
BJ: The idea is you have to use your Bionic Arm to give you the strategic advantage, to find the best position to attack enemies from. For one skirmish there probably will be a save point, but you'll probably die. There'll be enough save points so you don't want to throw a controller into a wall, but they're going to be tough and you'll need to find the right solution.
VideoGamer.com: What games have caught your attention from the last year or so?
BJ: I would say, I liked Metal Gear Solid 4, with the exception of the story. I like Kojima's stories, but they keep getting longer and longer. He needs to put the clamps on himself and only give himself 30 minutes. If he did that I'm sure they'd be fantastic. I did like Super Mario Galaxy. Even MGS4 is more of the same. In Galaxy it's still the same basic moves. It's still 70/80 per cent the same. We're trying to do something with a new mechanic. People say it's like Spider-man, even though for us it's nothing like Spider-man - it plays very very different.
VideoGamer.com: Is it going to be a long game?
BJ: Right now it takes about 25 hours to get through the single-player campaign, but we're going to cut that down because it's too long. You don't need an action game that's that long. 10 hours is about the sweet spot for me. It's got multiplayer as well.
VideoGamer.com: So will that be reducing the size of the levels?
BJ: Yes. Right now it's going to get dull by about hour ten as there's not enough to do. We need to cut bits out.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for your time Ben.
Bionic Commando is due out on PS3, 360 and PC early in 2009.