Making Of: Freedom Force

By Kieron Gillen on November 30th, 2007 at 4:37 pm.

[Considering Mr Levine’s turned up in the rumour mill today, I thought turning an eye back at one of Irrational’s other games would be a worthy endeavour. This interview with Ken was done in the run up to the second Freedom Force game.]

MAN BOT!

“We had a lot of internal arguments at the time. Some people wanted it more dark and gritty, and others preferred it in a lighter style,” recalls Irrational head-honcho Ken Levine, “I remember waking up in the middle of the night, before we shipped and going “What did I do? Why did I go and make it so it was retro? What was I thinking?””.

The panic was understandable but unnecessary. What Ken and his colleagues at Irrational had done was break a dread spell that had haunted the world of videogames since its inception, meaning that never would a game be based around over-muscled/over-bosomed people in skin-tight spandex…. ever. Except, not. “The superhero curse. It was ridiculous,” laughs Ken, “I think what happened was that a couple of games that started development were canned. It became an article of faith that it just didn’t work and isn’t going to sell.” Of course, there had been games based around superheroes before – but normally a singular, licensed character like the Bat-chap or the Spider-fellow. And even then, it was more about inserting metahumans into a standard beat-em-up or platform game than anything really about Superheroes per se. But a game where you created a character from the ground up, based firmly on superhero ethics and mythos… no publisher seemed interested.

Well, one was. When Irrational took their game to publisher Crave, it just clicked. “We did a two page pitch document and they said… great,” says Ken, “They bought it. It went from being impossible to being incredibly easy.” In a second the problem changed from paying for the game to actually working out how this thing would even work.

ALSO MAN BOT!

Being a game unusual in scope, that was easier said than done. Initially, for example, it was a turn-based game before they decided to abandon it to create a more dramatic real-time game. However, in real time, the game’s variables start to confuse the player. “Pick any power you want. Pick any character you want,” explains Ken, “With turn based it’s not an issue. Because it’s… turn based.”. Luckily, innovations in design were occurring which Freedom Force appropriated, namely the pause-time feature that made complex RPGs like Baldur’s Gate with tactical-RTS combat playable. This allowed both speed and control, though had some problems. Baldur’s Gate, based on the Dungeons and Dragons rules, was actually a turn-based game beneath all the movement. “With Freedom Force it’s more difficult,” notes Ken, “because the rule system running beneath is in real time, which was a fair amount of work to make right and get good.”

The biggest problem was the biggest aspect of the game. Freedom Force is all about – as the name suggests – Freedom. It’s easy to do a game with one superhero. Making a game which simulates all superheroes is somewhat harder. And balancing it? “If you have an arbitrary power creation system, you also have an arbitrarily difficulty QA problem,” laments Ken, “How to balance it? How do you make it work? It gives the player a lot more freedom, but the QA guy a lot more headaches”. Even in the release game, things weren’t perfect. For example, the super-speed character “The Bullet” was far more powerful than his friends in the final release. Once you’ve got hold of him, he unbalanced the game. This was corrected in a patch, but a good example of the difficulty Irrational faced.

MAN BOT TO THE LEFT!

The payoff for all this work would be the freedom. How successful were they? Ken has an unusual Gold Standard for this. “The standard I use is how hard is it to write a strategy guide for this game.” Ken grins, “I’ve always liked Strategy guides. My favourite of all time is Master of Magic’s. It doesn’t say “here’s how you play this part of the game” and so on. It gives you guidelines.” So rather than having set solutions, you’re set problems with many solutions. “I think most of the game is fairly successful at that,” Ken decides, “You could play through with any of fifteen characters. You could play through with characters you’ve created. And the environment is far from a corridor.”

Structurally, Freedom Force was a linear series of skirmish missions, with a plot connecting them. There was no way to alter the grand sweep of the narrative. However, the freedom offered inside each of the missions was where the design concentrated. “We provide a single path, but with a broader range of how you go about it,” Ken states, “Traditional adventure games go from point A to B to C to D to E and so on along a central path. Our games tend to be just heading from one door here, to one door here, but how you strategise to get to those points is absolutely and incredibly traumatic.”

Its kitsch-aesthetics and playful attitude of its world was one of Freedom Force’s strongest points. This is all the more impressive considering it was based on a new world rather than a licensed one. Ken looks back at the time he was Stan Lee for a week with obvious pleasure. “Writing Freedom Force has to be the highlight – and if not the highlight, definitely one of the highlights – of my career,” he exults, “I sit down and have to create a whole universe of comic book characters. It’s really gratifying to create this whole world, that’s both new and familiar at the same time, inspired by that whole generation of comic books.” Not that he was in complete isolation, locking himself in a room and coming out with a tattoo of Manbot etched onto his chest, but rather worked hand-in-glove with an artist as a partner in crime. “Half the time, I come up with an idea, and get him to draw it… then I get an idea from that,” Ken Explains, “And it goes back and forth. Occasionally, he’d just do a drawing and I’ll go “I know who this guy is!”.

MAN BOT CROPPED FROM SHOT!

So, generally speaking, Ken’s pleased with Freedom Force, with only regrets over the relatively vestigial multiplayer component tempering his joy (It’s notable that the forthcoming sequel, the brilliantly named Freedom Force versus The Third Reich has considerably developed this area). But what most pleases him? “The most gratifying thing, I think, is going on the Freedom Force fansites and not knowing what the hell they’re talking about,” he grins, “The whole world is being create and a whole language being created. Irrational is irrelevant to it, in some ways. We enable it, and made their own permutations about it. Like Doctor Man-bot.” It’s unsurprising that the game produced such a relatively witty fan-base. After all, Freedom Force was cut from very similar spandex. “It had a sense of humour which made it stand out,” Ken notes. Large communities mean more niche areas. More niche areas mean… well, things like Dr Manbot a fairly surrealistic riff off the perpetually depressed metal-clad hero from Freedom Force. We quote from the (currently down, alas) site: “Left stranded by his Freedom Force teammates on the Celestial Clock, Dr. Manbot eventually wiggled free and jumped ahead to the year 2003. Made his claim to fame by offering ill advice in a frank and brutally honest manner, often under the influence…”. We especially like his fried Ted Mentor, who is simply Mentor from Freedom Force with a gloriously attached moustache. “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about it, and that’s great – because they’ve taken the game and made it their own,” states Ken, gleefully bewildered.

The comics cultural cross-pollination reaches further. In some ways, it’s an ideal creative synergy. “Comics have if not the same, then at least similar, limitation to we do,” theorises Ken, “Back then, they were fairly limited to their colouring compared to what they are now. That’s why Jack Kirby had to design the characters so iconographically. Videogames are still a relatively low resolution medium, for texture maps and polygons. And that’s why the Freedom Force characters looked so good, I think – because they were so simple and controlled”. Simple, controlled… and very funny.

, , , .

21 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Steve says:

    I’d quite like to know Levine’s feelings on Freedom Force Vs. The Third Reich, since I personally felt the World War II element totally failed.

  2. CrashT says:

    I can’t recall where it was but I remember reading that he felt choice of the Third Reich wasn’t the best in hindsight as though it was relevant to his generation it wasn’t as relevant to the generation who’d actually be buying the game.

  3. Oasx says:

    I was disappointed in the sequel aswell, you couldt pick your own team for most of the game and the new characters were useless

  4. Phil says:

    I actually prefered the second game – it seemed more balanced, the underpowered second world war heroes made sense plot wise and it had Jimmy Stewart as the rocketeer. Now if I could of just fought for the Communists…

  5. The_B says:

    I’d quite like to know why more people didn’t buy the first one. It was (and I believe still is) a bugger to find.

  6. Phil says:

    Have you tried the torrent sites?

    Oh wait, that also answers your first question.

  7. CrashT says:

    I remember the there was something like a two month gap between the first one being released in the US and finally arriving in the UK. I’m not sure but I think the first UK reviews of it were around the time of the US release and I don’t remember any Psychonauts style “Let’s review it again now it’s final out” journalism so it probably got totally forgotten about by the time it did actually appear on these shores.

  8. Darius K. says:

    Nuclear Winter is still one of my favorite villains in a video game. His theme song is amazing.

  9. Steve says:

    The original game went budget relatively quickly and has always been available in some form. You can pick it up for a fiver on amazon.

    The second game may have been more balanced, but it just didn’t have the personality of the first. Time Master, compared to Blitzkrieg. Quite aside from parodying actual historical figures instead of just superhero archetypes, the levels weren’t as interesting either – compare Shadow’s underground levels to Red Oktober’s.

  10. Solario says:

    As a comics nerd, I loved both Freedom Force. I do however remember that the sequel was a bit buggy to begin with.

  11. Phil says:

    You’re right about the levels, although Time Master and co. did make a come back in the second game if memory serves, in one of those villain forced to team-up with the heroes scenarios.

    The second game also marginalised minute man, which was useful as he got right on my tits in the first.

    What I remember was the tone of the second game, its pitch perfect from the washed out colour of 40s comic books levels to the vaguely counter cultural themes that reflected developments in later comic books (like anti-heroes so: Tombstone = the Punisher), the game seemed to carefully draw from a wider range of sources.

  12. Kieron Gillen says:

    A quick google makes me very sad that no-one’s uploaded Nuclear Winter’s theme onto the electric internet.

    KG

  13. Sander says:

    I’m sort of bemused myself why this jumped out at me so much, but Mr. Levine is really only quoted as saying one thing in the article. The rest of the time he recalls, laughs, explains (twice), notes (twice), laments, grins (twice), decides, states (twice), exults, and theorizes about stuff.

    (Sorry to bring this up Kieron, you don’t write like this anymore, which is one of the lesser reasons why I like to read your work.)

  14. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yeah, it’s terrible writing and for some reason I’ve had a tendency to do it in this sort of feature a lot. I also terribly over-use italics, which I mostly pull out when reposting them.

    You live, you learn.

    KG

  15. Deadron says:

    “You live, you lament,” KG noted wearily.

  16. geraint says:

    i loved both freedom force games, though the european release of the 2nd having Starforce protection caused me no end of problems. they captured the look, spirit and tone of silver age marvel perfectly – and people i’ve lent the game to who have no knowledge of the source material beyond maybe the odd episode of Adam West Batman.

    The main issues both games had were ones of balance – i like to rotate a team of 5 or 6 of my favourites, but too often a solid character would become useless for a few consecutive levels because the enemies would be strong against their elemental attacks. the level/enemy design was a bit inconsistent too – the only weak bits of the first game were the second level, laid out to encourage stealth tactics in a game that wasn’t designed for them at all – and early enough that it probably put a lot of people off – and the levels with the fake flying cops, who were cliff-racer levels of irritating (the nazi brain/jar type things were the equivalent in FFvsT3R iirc, though i haven’t replayed it since it’s initial release due to Starforce)

    as far as i’m aware both sold relatively poorly, did they not? a shame if so, as we’ll probably never see a 3rd in the series.

  17. Arathain says:

    The level of environmental interactiveness was what made Freedom Force, I thought. Nothing says superhero like chucking a car at someone then ripping a tree out of the ground and smashing someone else into a fire hydrant, while a missed fireball collapses a big chunk of building.

    I loved the levels where you had to save the city from giant ants and robots and stuff. Also Shadow’s levels where you really got to cut loose.

  18. Kieron Gillen says:

    The smashing up shit was where my crazy love is too.

    KG

  19. Xagarath says:

    Both games are personal favourites, and have been since they were released.
    I seem to recall rumours of a more action-based third somewhere in development?

  20. Miles says:

    I bloody love Freedom Force. Never got the sequel, I probably should.

    Anyone else remember the whole Marvel skins debacle? Good times.

  21. Markoff Chaney says:

    I just discovered this gem and I can’t believe I had discarded it earlier. I really should get over my hatredfear of pseudo-RTS and dig deeper into the genre I’m thinking, especially if beauties like this are sometimes classified as such. Ever since I was playing Alley Cat (not an RTS, I know, but bear with me I say to the odd Googler that reads this missive) on my 8088 and I was fine at 4.77Mhz but when I pushed the nice shiny red TURBO button that brought her up to 8Mhz and rendered the movement of the eponymous cat, shoe and various and sundry other obstacles inherently too difficult and unmanageable for the neurons betwixt fingers and brain, I realized that sometimes my brain just seems to work too slowly for these electromagical device-o-matics and I prefer taking turns with my adversaries when I am able. This game is such an amazing amalgam of all things great about my growing up and it just mashes them together in an episodic strategic engagingly hilarious joyride.

    1.4 years late to this post and 7 years late on playing this phenomenal game and I just wanted to express gratitude for sharing more insight to this overlooked timeless game. Thank You.