It seems as if 2009 will be a good year for Ghostbusters fans, with a re-release of the film and two brand new games: one for the Wii, and one for the PS3 and Xbox 360. The latter is being developed by Terminal Reality, and last week we had a nice little chat with creative director Drew Haworth and executive producer Brendan Goss.
VideoGamer.com: How did you feel when you were given this licence? Were you excited, or were you massively intimidated by the sheer size of the fanbase?
Brendan Goss: It was absolute jubilance followed by stark terror! It sinks in really quickly that Ghostbusters is the Tom Hanks of movies. Nobody's like, "Ghostbusters? Nah, I dunno." Everyone loves it, and we all remember sitting in the theatre, in grade six, and seeing the librarian, and seeing the dogs, and the comedy. That puts a huge amount of pressure on the team to live up to those expectations, to be able to deliver the high-quality Ghostbusters experience that everyone wants, and that we want. So yeah, it was a combination of the two.
Drew Haworth: We feel a lot of pressure, but I think a lot of that is self imposed because we're so dedicated to getting this exactly right. I guess it could go either way, potentially, but luckily we have the original creators on board, so when they it's authentic, who's going to argue? We're unimpeachable at this point! But yeah, a lot of that pressure is because we love the films so much, and just doing them some justice and just creating... I hope don't offend anybody by saying the first really good Ghostbusters game. Or at least the first authentic Ghostbusters experience.
BG: It's not a movie game, not at all. I mean, when you're working with guys like Dan [Aykroyd] and Harold [Ramis] and Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson, and having such a collaborative effort where they're not just lending their likeness, and they're not just spending an hour in a sound studio, but really going through and creating the story and creating the script and working with us to develop the next chapter in their universe... that's a really unique opportunity. That's not something that comes up in games very often at all. To work with true icons of comedy. Harold Ramis wrote eight of the ten funniest movies of all time, you know? Caddyshack, Animal House...
VideoGamer.com: What were the early stages of developing this game? The creative input of Ramis and co must have channelled things quite a bit, so how did that work?
BG: We were really fortunate that the executive producer we had at Sierra at the time, John Melcher, came from Simpsons Hit and Run. He had essentially broken trail for us in terms of how to work with high-end comedy talent, and how to get the best out of them in a game and make it a successful multi-million unit seller. What he brought to the table for us was the idea of, "You guys are experts in gaming, these guys are experts in comedy. Let's work together and define the mechanics, define the gameplay experience that you feel is appropriate as a gamer, and then let's let the talent put the wrapper on that. They can define how this fits within their story, what do we want to call it, what's the backstory going to be? What's the look going to be to help make sure we're staying true to the universe? Having that really collaborative relationship allowed us to create the authentic experience.
DH: John Melcher is sort of an expert in both, luckily, so he's the perfect conduit between the two worlds.
VideoGamer.com: You just said that this is not a movie game, in the traditional sense. What do you think is the biggest mistake that people make with licensed games?
DH: A lot of people don't realise that it takes a lot less time to make a movie from the moment it's green-lit, than it does to make a great game. It's just trying to find that lead time. With a movie game, it has to come out at the same time as the film - that's the whole point of it - and it takes about twice as long to make a game as does to make even a really expensive film. So it's just trying to work how you get that lead time to make the game great, but still have it come along with the movie. We're lucky because we don't have a movie that we have to go along to, we just have the benefit of all this awesomeness, this Ghostbusters! So we had this beautiful box of parameters that you can't go outside of, but it's great to work within it.
BG: I think the other major element is having a story that can be tailored to the gameplay experience, that you're not trying to follow a movie from scene to scene. You build suspense in a movie by putting a bomb under the table; in a game I just walk out of the door! So it's a very challenging thing to do, and if you don't have the relationship with either the film-maker or the original creators and you don't have the time, it's just not possible to do a triple A title.
DH: I know there are a lot of people in the industry looking to figure out a way to do that, and it's something we're looking at too. Among other things, we're interested in the way that you can take something and add a lot to it, like you can be creative within these boundaries but still create something entirely new. We'd never just re-tell the exact same thing, we'd always have to find some kind of space within that.
VideoGamer.com: I'm sure that it's been brilliant working with Aykroyd and Ramis, but has that brought any kind of particular challenges? Do you have to go about things in a different way because their creative input is so important?
DH: We have to go through very rigorous approval processes for just about everything. That's art, that's likenesses, any additional lines that have to be done - because there are so many people who have different ownership or propriety in Ghostbusters. We've never had to jump through quite so many hoops, but it's cool because when by the time things are done, they're 100 per cent bona fide. I guess we've had a little back-and-forth on some of the approvals, because sometimes you just want to do it and implement it, and you have to think ahead a bit and say, "if we're going to change this, we need to add the approval process".
BG: One other thing I'd mention is that we're quite fortunate in being very strong, from a tech-house side, with the infernal engine. It's allowed us to adjust our systems to speak their language. Harold Ramis is a director by trade, and for him to come in and say "I want you to use this lense and this lighting" in film terminology, that will translate directly into our engine. Having everyone speaking the same language certainly makes things easier. We've certainly seen that there's a lot of desire on both sides to do a lot more collaborative work. A lot of the major directors see the power of these new console platforms and what they can do, and they want to express their creative work on that. And likewise we see these great film properties and want to be a part of that, so finding those relationships is important.
VideoGamer.com: What has been the hardest element of Ghostbusters to move from the films to the game?
BG: From my side, I'd say it was trying to get it so that you felt like you were a part of the team from the film. When they're in the ballroom trapping the ghost, it has to feel like it did in the film. Doing that in a game space is not easy, because it's all AI driven, and getting the scripting to work the right way, and the timing and the sound balance... but the pay-off is tremendous.
DH: And you know it. As soon as it's right, you know it and everybody knows it.
BG: The licence is that razor's edge. When you're not right, everybody knows it! [laughs].
DH: You can beat your head against the wall trying to figure out why something isn't working correctly. Luckily with the guys on board, it's really helpful. They told us a lot of things. As you'll know from the commentary on the Ghostbusters DVD, the first film is a going into business story. So what we took from that is, "what's the next stage?". And one of the things you might not think about, that's very obvious when it's pointed out, is that nobody else in the Ghostbusters world is funny. It's just that tight circle of Ghostbusters, and everyone else in the world takes it very seriously. That's what makes Ghostbusters so great. So you don't have big jokey billboards or the funny radio stations in GTA, nothing else is funny apart from them... and Peter MacNicol in the second film. So you can't get too jokey or punny.
BG: Walter Peck was a very serious guy.
DH: He never said a funny word.
VideoGamer.com: I hated that guy when I was a kid.
BG: You meet William Atherton [the actor who played Peck] and he says, "Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years of people coming up to me in the street and saying, 'Look! It's the man with no dick!'"
DH: He's the nicest guy.
BG: And even Ernie Hudson with the line, "That's a big Twinkie." He gets hundreds of people coming up to him. One of the magic moments for us is when you get the script in, and you put all the effort in, and then people play the game and start quoting one-liners from the game. Aha! We've got them. Bill Murray turns everything into a golden one-liner. He could ask for directions down the street and it would be hilarious. I don't know how he does it.
VideoGamer.com: Were there any things that you had to pull from the game because they just didn't work?
Both: Oh yes!
BG: At the very beginning, and it was a huge technology element, we had complete voice-command squad control. On all platforms. "Ray, go open the door!" And then Ray went and opened the door.
DH: Well, about 70 per cent of the time. [laughs]
BG: It worked! But in all seriousness, we came to the conclusion, "Hang on a minute. You think Venkman is going to do anything that this noob tells him? No!". And that's where it was. It was cool, but not what we were looking for for Ghostbusters.
DH: Even the Ghostbusters don't boss each other around. They give each other suggestions, but there is no squad leader. It's egalitarian.
BG: People ask us, "Do you drive the car? Can we drive Ecto 1?". And we have a lot of fun with that in the game. They're not going to let you anywhere near that thing! "Hey, shall we let the rookie drive?" "No!".
DH: Another thing we threw out... We originally had a full character worked out for the player. He had lines and was a funny guy. While I think the comedy worked, the player experience wasn't really what we wanted. It changed the dynamics of everyone's relationships and it's not Ghostbusters. Even though people may think that's what they want, what they really want is to be a Ghostbuster and to watch the Ghostbusters. This was just the best way.
BG: Ray's enthusiasm, without Egon's dryness and Venkman's insolence. Each one of those independently... yeah, it's a laugh, but put it all together and it's magic. It just comes back to that question: if it works and it's really funny, are you sure you want to mess with this?
DH: We've talked a little bit about the new movie and however they're going to deal it. We don't really know.
VideoGamer.com: Is that confirmed now?
DH: Well, it's confirmed that they're writing the script. It hasn't been green-lit as far as we know. But they don't have the luxury of having this blank character that you can put in and play around with. They're really smart, funny guys, so I'm really looking forward to see how they deal with that.
VideoGamer.com: Well, that makes two of us! Before I go, I wanted to ask you about physics. It seems that physics is going to play a big part of this game. What was your thinking with this?
BG: Terminal Reality has had technical strength with physics for quite some time, and with the Velocity engine it really gives us the freedom to have physics not just as eye-candy, in destroying New York, but as something that gives real game relevance - like the Gollum technology allowing us to put characters together in real time. So we see it as a major part of making New York a character, which was so important to the original Ghostbusters film. Without the destruction, they're not the Ghostbusters. To a degree, I think that's part of the reason why we were selected as the developer for this.
DH: We've got the tech, but also as a developer we're extremely devoted to developing gameplay-significant physics and environmental interaction. That's what we're going to do with just about every game we tackle. So Ghostbusters was a perfect marriage for us.
BG: We think that's where games need to go: physics gameplay.
VideoGamer.com: Can you expand on that? We're already seeing a lot of physics engines in games, so where are we going to go?
BG: To a degree, it [the current use of physics] is eye-candy. But one of the ways I can build a huge amount of tension and fear is if you know that any of the objects in the room could form into a huge creature and demolish you. You walk into a room that's nothing more than full of bricks, and you're like "Crap! I'm way in over my head!"
DH: "I don't want to walk around the glass pit just now!"
BG: So being able to use the environment as a character, and as a weapon and as a defence for the player, that's something that I don't think has been exploited. It's always been about graphics - make it pretty, make it pretty! Now we [developers] are very close to photo real. We can do some really high-end stuff, so it's what's going to be the next stuff and where you are going to innovate.
Ghostbusters: The Game will be out on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii on June 19.