Wednesday, December 8, 2021



Confession time: when it comes to the 1990s to the present, my history with computer games is spotty at best. Sure, I’ve played DOOM and some of the other major releases, and I even taught myself to type with Mario Teaches Typing (it was much more effective than my high school typing class), but I’m definitely a console gamer through-and-through. By and large, I prefer the simplicity, immediacy, and “plug-and-play” vibe of the console experience over computer games.

In addition to console gaming, one of my other big hobbies is following the rock band KISS. Not only did I grow up loving their music and plastering their photos all over my walls, I wrote a book about the band called Encyclopedia of KISS: Music,Personnel, Events and Related Subjects (2016, McFarland Publishers). Unfortunately, there aren’t many KISS video games. Almost none, in fact. There was the dreadful, unlicensed pinball sim for the PlayStation called KISS Pinball, and you can play various KISS songs on Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

But that’s about it. Or it would be if it weren’t for KISS: Psycho Circus—The Nightmare Child, released for the PC in 2000 (and ported to the Sega Dreamcast the same year). The game was published by Gathering of Developers, developed by Third Law Interactive, and is based on characters from KISS Psycho Circus, a comic book series published by Image Comics and Todd McFarlane Productions that ran from 1997 to 2000.

The DOOM-like first-person-shooter, which was a welcome release as far as this KISS fan is concerned, puts the four members of a band called Wicked Jester (a riff on Paul and Gene’s pre-KISS group, Wicked Lester) in a hellish world of hideous creatures, demons, and circus mutants, including bosses. Beginning as a mere mortal, the player must battle said baddies to progressively acquire the powers of The Elder, the supernatural alter-egos of KISS: Demon, Starbearer, Beast King, and Celestial.

There are three types of weapons you can wield in the game: melee (beast claws, thornblade, twister and punisher), common (zero cannon, magma cannon, windblade and scourge), and ultimate (stargaze, galaxion, spirit lance and draco). You can also grab temporary power-ups and other items, including health and attack and defense powers. In addition, players should assemble Elder armor comprised of gauntlets, boots, a belt, a vest, a plate, and a mask. There are four realms to explore: Water, Fire, Air, and Earth.

A special Collector’s Edition was released for the PC in a lenticular box, with cover art from the four 1978 KISS solo albums. The package also included an official VIP backstage pass and neck chain from the Psycho Circus Tour, a KISS poster signed by all four band members, a limited version of the game’s official strategy guide, and a game disc that is signed by each member of the development team.

I recently had the distinct privilege of catching up with Sverre Kvernmo, the lead designer on KISS: Psycho Circus—The Nightmare Child. He discussed the development history of the game, why they made a game based on the comic book instead of the band itself, his interactions with KISS co-founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, and much more.

BRETT WEISS: How did this project come about, and how did you get involved? Were you working for Third Law Interactive?

SVERRE KVERNMO: Not at the time, no—we founded Third Law as a result of the opportunity to make Psycho Circus. KISS wanted a video game for their reunion tour, basically. Who were we to deny them that?

WEISS: Did you meet and confer with members of KISS during this project? If so, please explain what that was like.

KVERNMO: Yeah, Gene Simmons was directly involved, so it was great the few times we met him. Paul and Gene both showed up during the release party in full battle gear. It was a bit of a childhood dream seeing them up close like that—they really are larger than life people!

WEISS: I’ve heard that Gene Simmons hates video games, that he considers them a waste of time, and that this is why there are hardly any KISS video games. Do you know if this is true?

KVERNMO: [Laughs] First I’ve heard of it! In his defense, he instantly took to Nightmare Child—seeing the player first-person, wielding a giant battle axe, wading through hordes of hellions. He’s either very good at faking enthusiasm, or he absolutely loved it at the time!

At the end of the day, I’m sure it might have been just a matter of generating more money off the brand for him, but at the very least, he doesn’t hate them so much that he’d miss out on a good business opportunity. It was only ever intended as a light hearted action romp, after all. Not a full-fledged metaverse, as we know some games today.

WEISS: Why was the game based on the comic book instead of the band members themselves? I could see a pretty cool KISS game starring Ace, Gene, Peter and Paul.

KVERNMO: By the time we decided to make a game, the comics were already part of the media package tied to the album that reunited the original band members. Also, Todd McFarlane was an absolute titan at the time, recently having revitalized the Spider-Man brand, etc.

Cool as KISS is on their own and in concert, without the adjoined comic books I honestly doubt we would’ve taken the project, for fear of not being able to bridge the gap between the two mediums. They just don’t have any natural enemies within their own well-defined universe.

The comics basically provided the much-needed art direction, setting, theme, and leeway for much of the game’s “off stage” content. Just KISS on its own would have required a much more thorough from-scratch design, which in turn would likely have had to be green lit every step of the way by the KISS machinery. You kind of need something with the gravity of, say Iron Maiden’s Eddie, to believably challenge them to full effect in a prolonged action game.

Expecting a massive synergic overlap between The KISS Army and gamers in general was perhaps a big ask in the first place, so yeah—tying the comic book audience into that equation might have further complicated things, but there just isn’t an easily available established equal opposite force that the four of them might tackle, without such a vehicle.

Certainly not KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park! Perhaps Vinnie Vincent? But then, what army does he lead—ancient Egyptians? [Laughs] This is all unproblematic for the abstract playing field of something like a pinball machine, but not so much for a first-person shooter, where you’re largely assumed to need some manner of motivation to get into it. At least, that’s how we felt at the time we were considering it.

WEISS: Why did you decide on creating a first-person shooter as opposed to a beat-’em-up game or some other genre?

KVERNMO: The first-person genre was basically still in plasticity, taking shape around those years. The only common experience the Third Law Interactive team had at the time was trying to make a contending product—John Romero’s Daikatana.

For whatever reasons we weren’t able to make that game, we felt pretty strong from years of work-hours together, that we had a good first-person shooter in us, if we weren’t, say, trying to keep a linear curve of world-altering progression going, like that happening off an unbelievable hat-trick like first Wolfenstein 3D, then DOOM, then Quake.

First-person level designers weren’t easy to come by back then, and we had four that were tried and tested—if not quite up to Romero’s wet dream of again doubling down on his latest project. (I mean, you have to at least try right?)

We had very gifted programmers, one of which had been coding the genre since id made Wolfenstein.

Also, really solid artists that already knew the FPS production pipeline by heart and had flair to boot—so the genre for the game was never in question. The FPS iron was still hot (though in retrospect, cooling), so that’s where we struck.

KISS would be neat in Mortal Kombat, I suppose, or maybe as outer quadrant gods in some mystic space-sim.

WEISS: Please discuss any special challenges you had while creating the game.

KVERNMO: Hmmm...choice of engine, perhaps. Lithtech ticked all the important boxes for us—it performed the best during critical game features tests, plus was the most affordable out of those times’ “big three” license engines. Applying the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to argue that the Unreal Engine wouldn’t have been a better engine to get comfortable with, seeing as that was heading for world domination, but that’s perhaps more of a personal perspective.

I also regret agreeing to shut down an unofficial KISS mod that was taking shape at the time. We should have just left them to it; might even have helped our own game do better if the mod turned out well. I don’t know what I was thinking—I only got to where I was due to similar work, so shame on me for not protesting to that one.

The actual production of the game happened with few hitches and on time. It was more challenging to let go of all the nice bells and whistles we might have added if we spent three-to-six more months on it to really make it shine, than any real trouble along the way of the game that actually got made. A one-off comic book leading up to the game’s beginning was an early wish-list item we had to drop.

WEISS: Do you remember what KISS songs were used during the game and how they were used

KVERNMO: Of course! But bar one stroke of inspiration for how “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” was used, the band’s music really didn’t add as much as it might have and felt a bit tacked on with bad glue. The KISS machinery feared the game would be considered/hacked-into an “unofficial KISS compilation album” (which would’ve cost a LOT more than the game budget) if we were given full-length songs to distribute, so instead we were basically given 10 second snippets from 10 songs the team picked together. I mean, the snippets are great, and it does add to the experience, but yeah, more could have been done there. In a way it was good, though, since it gave our inhouse “synthwave” composer more creative freedom, without having to worry about butting heads with KISS all day.

Personally, I picked “Unholy” as my only must-have, was happy to see “Black Diamond” also go in but was a little skeptical of the “Love Gun” pick, thinking it might be too cringy and fourth-wall breaching (considering it’s in a run-and-gun game), but it worked out fine.

WEISS: Anything else you care to share about working on KISS: Psycho Circus?

KVERNMO: I really wanted the Spaceman character to do a full five-minute guitar solo in airborne ecstasy after picking up his ultimate weapon toward the end of his episode. I never told anyone on the team about it, but that’s what I secretly wanted. Smoke machines, lightning balls, laser spotlights, and glowing cosmic vistas. The full Ace Frehley experience!