Interview with “Ballz” / “Dogz” / “Catz” creator Keith Kirby

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While doing research for a video on the game “Ballz” I reached out to the game’s “design and content” lead (according to the game’s instruction manual) Keith Kirby. I had just a few brief questions, but I truly appreciate him taking the time to answer what he could and chatting with me for a bit! I wanted to put the written version of the interview here for posterity, and comments from him will appear in episode 57 of OurStorySoFarTV.

Nu: Can you settle it once and for all: is the name of the game simply Ballz, 3D Ballz, or Ballz 3D?

The game was called “Ballz”. I am pretty sure the 3DO version was called Ballz 3D.

The version of Ballz that shipped was much different than the original concept. The original game had a bunch of features that were cut. Our company (P.F Magic (Pure Fucking Magic) named for what our founder Rob Fulop used to use as comments for his code) built a modem for consoles that also used smart cards. Ballz was to be the launch title for the hardware. Remember this was pre-internet. The modem allowed players to play peer to peer over the phone. The smart cards allowed players to save their characters progression and bring them to an arcade or to their friend’s house. The modem never shipped so many features were cut last minute.

Nu: Now that that’s out of the way: not mentioned in the manual, other than a single screen shot in the Sega Genesis manual, the game’s introduction features the Jester telling players that if they win, he’ll grant their wish. When players beat the game, a screen in the arena basically just says “wish granted.” Is there any canon you ever had created as to what that wish was? Was it something more like the PlayStation era Twisted Metal games where each individual character would have a wish? Was it meant to be incentive for players (the kind of player who makes a wish when all of the digits on the clock are the same, or legitimately makes a wish before blowing out candles or when they see a shooting star) to keep playing?

If I remember correctly, the design was if you finished the game you were allowed to play as one of the bosses. The “wish” being… which boss do you want to be? Back then the teams were small. I was team lead, lead programmer, animation director, lead designer and a few other things (most of the tasks I was barely qualified for). And being a programmer, I wasn’t exactly talented or prolific with story so I am sorry to report, there wasn’t much thought or preparation that went into the world.

Nu: Was story ever much of a consideration, or was the concept always about making a game that capitalized on the fighting game craze, with unique visuals, heavy on comedy and attitude?

For sure we made Ballz to “capitalized on the fighting game craze, with unique visuals, heavy on comedy and attitude”. But our spin was more about the features of the new modem and the 3D. [Virtua] Fighter came out after we started Ballz…… we thought we were the first 3D fighting game.

Nu: Keen eyed players will notice that the game’s intro changes “YOU GOTTA HAVE BALLZ” on the Genesis to “YOU GOTTA PLAY BALLZ” on the Super Nintendo. Nintendo of America was known for their family friendly positioning in the ’90’s which continues to today, so was even getting the game on the system a challenge, or was Nintendo mostly cooperative in the process?

I didn’t program the Super Nintendo version, we hired a company “Cave Logic” to do the port. I am sorry, I wasn’t involved much with the Nintendo submission but we published through Accolade and I am sure they had to deal with many things with Nintendo regarding this game.

Nu: Perhaps my most important question: Something that is often overlooked by players, the “Quick Test For Ballz players” is in both the instruction manual for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis versions of the game (the two versions I have that I will be reviewing). Were these “test questions” basically different themes and potential story lines that you had considered for the game, before deciding “Who cares?” was the correct answer? Or are there, in fact, answers to those questions that are more correct than the others? What is your “head canon” for the game?

…I am sorry to tell you that the same goes for [this question as well]. Those were written by someone at Accolade for the purpose of the manual. They, like you, saw a void where a defined world and story should be and tried to solve it with some interesting text.

Nu: Is the game actually 3D? Even on the Sega Genesis version of the game, each of the spheres was a 3d object being rendered by the Genesis hardware? They aren’t just pre-rendered Sprites like, for instance, what Donkey Kong Country used? That’s pretty impressive, considering you guys didn’t even use the 32X add-on!

You are correct. The trick for Ballz, Dogz, Catz, etc in the beginning was the characters were built out of sprites. In memory we stored a lot of the different sized spheres. We didn’t have very fast hardware so we had to do that trick to display in 3D.

Nu: Truly impressive. Mr. Kirby thank you so much for your time. Would you like to share what you’re working on these days?

Do you have access to a Vive or Rift? Here is my latest game: