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The Making Of Kingpin: Life Of Crime - Retro Gamer 178

In the summer of 1999, violence in videogames was a hot topic. So what happened when the most controversial title of the decade geared up for release? Edward Tietze Love investigates

If you had any interest in PC games in the late Nineties, chances are you caught wind of Kingpin: Life Of Crime by Xatrix. It centred on a gangster hellbent on ascending the criminal underworld to mete out vengeance to the organisation that left him for dead, all within a stylised, anachronistic art deco world. With guns and gore and colourful language in plentiful supply, the demo was prized contraband for any teenager who found it on the cover disc of their favourite magazine. 

Two months before Kingpin shipped, however, high schoolers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a rampage inside the hallways of Columbine High School, killing thirteen and wounding twenty-four. The crime was so senseless, so inhumane, that it was necessary to find a scapegoat. Harris had been a keen first-person shooter fan and violent videogames became Public Enemy Number One. It didn’t matter that Kingpin and its ilk were aping themes that films had flaunted for years. Here was the ammunition authorities needed to decry the medium we love; virtual entertainment was corrupting and could help disaffected youth to discover violence. 

Buried beneath a battalion of Parental Advisory stickers, Kingpin limped to market in June of 1999. Dan Koppel was technical lead and senior level designer on the project, and he remembers the climate of the time. “Originally, Best Buy were keen to stock us. They had seen the game at E3 and were excited, so they met with our producers and publisher and made their interest clear.” The deal was simple: Xatrix would bleep out the R-rated language but offer up an uncensored version available for download online. “And then Columbine happened and Best Buy didn’t touch us.” Other retailers followed suit - a shame, because nothing in Kingpin is overly gratuitous and the storm of controversy that engulfed it only served to shroud a truly ambitious work of art, one of a rare breed of first-person shooters that did more than simply give you guns to shoot and platforms to jump on. 

First, to understand how Kingpin was made, let’s rewind the clock two years. In 1997, Xatrix releases Redneck Rampage, a colourful shooter with a flavour all its own. It’s a middling critical success but it catches the attention of id Software, who want a team to develop The Reckoning, a Quake II expansion. Xatrix signs on and begins working with an ace software engineer named Ryan Feltrin. Feltrin, as it happens, has devised something rather novel: a system by which a player in the Quake engine can go up to an AI-controlled space marine, recruit him, and have the marine follow them around the map. Though a working demo is made, this feature never comes to pass in the final game. Instead, Xatrix enlists Feltrin to work on their own title, and the ace AI whizz begins consulting from his native Australia.

Kingpin goes into production. The earliest idea is to have urban warfare take place between factions, all in 3D, all in the Quake II engine. But this scope is overly ambitious. Xatrix doesn’t have the time, the necessary team members or the technology to make it happen (by 1999, the Quake II engine is showing its age and there are fewer than 30 people working on the new game). Koppel and his team concentrate on funnelling the player through linear levels instead and broadening the scope in carefully-curated explorable hubs.

Feltrin’s contribution is invaluable. “We would give Ryan the levels and suggest ideas for what we wanted the AI to do,” Koppel remembers. “Then we’d go to sleep and in the morning, Ryan’s work would be waiting to be integrated into the code.” Kingpin has a level of openness and freeformity that stands tall next to the me-too QTE shooters as a result. 

Even today, the net results are impressive. The game opens in Skidrow, a graffiti-strewn neighbourhood populated by thickset goons in trouser braces and gals wielding lead pipes. Bright fires dance in grimy trashcans. Streetlights illuminate swathes of impersonal concrete. And the interplay between light and dark is stunning. The sewers nearby are your destination, but they’re patrolled by the same group of goons that left you for dead, and they’re wielding shotguns. Near your starting point, you can buy a crowbar for a dollar or hire another thug for $10, but you need to find the cash first. The gloriously named Pawn-O-Matic sells the good stuff: pistols, shotguns and even weapon modifications too. The proprietor of Pawn-O-Matic will give you a pistol if you run an errand for him, and so begins the Kingpin experience. A trio of pleasures that cover shooting, conversing and even sneaking. This is a formula cut from traditional FPS cloth and flipped on its head, with later hubs springing up in the guise of nightclubs and offcolour haunts. It has to be said that nowhere in Kingpin is as gripping as its opening level, but it reminds one of a time when shooters weren’t groaning under the weight of quick-time events and scripted sequences. 

Ironically, Dan Koppel would later work on Call Of Duty, a franchise that made the scripted sequence its signature. In the 2000s, AI programmers like Ryan Feltrin would take on less and less of the workload. Instead, team members called ‘scripters’ picked up the baton. They then worked closely with the art department to set a scene in concrete. “The art department in a Call Of Duty game got really involved,” Koppel notes. “They would say things like, ‘We want the player coming this way so we can script a plane crash, or an explosion.’ You see a lot of that in games today.” The difference between Kingpin and a Call Of Duty is striking: the former prioritises player agency while the latter champions a more filmic, controlled feeling.

Kingpin’s urban aesthetic bears remembering today. Part steampunk, part art deco, the world is an anachronism of eras and locales and personalities. To achieve this signature balance, Xatrix didn’t have to look far. Viktor Antonov was already stationed inside the bullpen at Xatrix HQ, a twentysomething artist who had trained under Syd Mead (Blade Runner and Aliens).  “I’ve always loved cities; I’m absolutely fascinated by urbanism. I’ve lived in Sofia, Geneva, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin Texas, I’ve been all over the place,” Antonov notes. “Authorship is questioned in games, but someone has to bring something to the table from their own experience. Think Scorsese: his best movies have always been about his own neighbourhood. Basically everything I’ve done has been cities and metropolises.

“In Kingpin, we wanted to do a universe,” Antonov elaborates, “but we ended up doing one city: a very classical environment. You had your downtown area, your poison city, your sewers, your club, your shipyard. It was very much like a genre movie. The inspiration started with downtown LA, and then we added a little bit of steampunk and science fiction. 

“One of the things that I have always found very useful in my contribution to the medium is that I’m not a hardcore gamer,” Antonov says. “So in Kingpin, I wanted the lighting to be right, the architecture to be right. And the physical space of the cities to be right first and foremost. Then the rendering… if it was too sharp and neat it wouldn’t work. I wanted to create a real moody ambience.”

Kingpin shook off some of its early science fiction traits when Cypress Hill came calling. The rap group loved the gritty urban environments and signed on to do the score, but it necessitated that Kingpin take place in a world that more closely resembled our own. The partnership was mutually beneficial, but not necessarily the right artistic choice.

In the lead up to the 30 June launch, the team had crammed six months of work into two. Dan Koppel laughs when he remembers. “I probably didn’t go home that entire time and I didn’t live that far away. I still remember one Saturday where I said, ‘I just can’t, I can’t be in the office on a Saturday’, and I showed up on Sunday and Drew Markham, Xatrix CEO, was like, ‘where were you yesterday?’ I replied, ‘I had to do laundry’ and he was like, ‘Sh** man, I can get you a maid to do laundry.’ That wasn’t the point! I wanted to see my wife!”

Though many retailers were put off by Kingpin post-Columbine, critics took note. Viktor Antonov’s world-building drew considerable praise. Dan Koppel’s level design was lauded. And on, Erik Wolpaw wrote that Ryan Feltrin’s AI was “exemplary and easily outshines the similar presentation in Half-Life.”

“Ah, Half-Life. Was I jealous of it? Just a bit,” Dan Koppel admits. “They did a better job of telling a story. Back then it was a struggle to make a good story in an open environment.” Kingpin is certainly half-baked at times, with contrived boss battles serving as chapter end points and a story that’s wafer-thin. But what it does better than almost any shooter of the Nineties is establish a mood, a sense of place. Looking back, Dan Koppel believes a lot of credit deserves to go to Drew Markham, the fiery Xatrix CEO who conceived the game and brought “a lot of ideas that we managed to make happen. That’s probably why a lot of us in the team worked out so well: lots of developers have great ideas, but actually executing them is a different story.”

The legacy of Kingpin is, in hindsight, one of ignominy. Xatrix would go on to develop Return To Castle Wolfenstein (2001), but only after changing their name to Gray Matter; a shift principally to protect Wolfenstein from Kingpin’s poisoned chalice. What became of Xatrix CEO Drew Markham is a mystery too. His last gaming credit was 2005’s Cold Winter and today he’s a ghost on social media, having lost contact with his old employees to boot. 

Dan Koppel went to work for Raven before leaving the games industry behind, bound instead for the world of data science and healthcare. Viktor Antonov is something of gaming royalty today. He was headhunted by Valve shortly after Kingpin and then became visual design director of ZeniMax. He’s now stationed at Darewise, which creates high level concepts and then hires teams to execute them. It’s a model of executive production that the golden age of Hollywood championed in the 1960s. Ryan Feltrin continues to lend his talents to the videogames industry. 

Ultimately, Kingpin wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even necessarily the game Xatrix originally set out to make. But in many ways it’s a formative first-person shooter that deserves to secure a place in the pages of gaming history. Its vision paved the way for successors to build on its strengths. And it’s still something quite unique to play; a blending of genres and playstyles with ambition in spades. Not bad for a game about beating thugs to smithereens. 

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