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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The birth, death, and rebirth of the Ghostbusters game

By Michael Thompson |

A phantom title?

Trying to nail down the details about Ghostbusters' development history is difficult,
but we'll do our best to get it right.

Over the years, there have been a number of games featuring strange and/or absurdly drawn-out development cycles. Games like Too Human, Daikatana, and Duke Nukem: Forever have all become legendary in the video game industry because of development delays, but few titles have managed to achieve the notoriety in recent memory that Ghostbusters: The Video Game has. Even though it has been in development for less than two years, the supernatural adventure has a supernaturally convoluted history that, at first glance, seems about as easy to pick apart as Alexander's Gordian Knot.

If there was ever a franchise made for a quality video game, Ghostbusters is definitely at the top of the list. While the movies definitely spawned some quality comic and cartoon tie-ins over the past twenty years, every game that has come out has been wholly unimpressive at best, and utterly god-awful at worst. A particularly low point was the 1993 Ghostbusters game for the Game Boy, which was an almost exact copy of Garfield Labyrinth; players just controlled Pete Venkman instead of the obese orange cat. We may not have been afraid of no ghosts, but those crappy games scared the hell out of us.

While there have been a couple of obscure Ghostbusters titles developed for various consoles since that unimpressive handheld title in the early '90s, there certainly hasn't been a game of actual quality. Understandably, the new Ghostbusters game has been the subject of much fascination ever since rumors of the game's development initially began circulating around the web. One of the strangest things about the game's development is that it was actually started by a company with no official involvement with the franchise, nor would it be involved with the game's actual construction.

In 2006, Slovenian developer Zootfly began working on a Ghostbusters game before it had officially acquired the rights to do so. When it released videos of the game engine in action on the web, a considerable amount of buzz was generated by both the press and fans alike due to the fact that it looked like we might finally be in store for a decent Ghostbusters game. Unfortunately, because Zootfly didn't have the rights, Sony promptly had the videos taken down from YouTube, and the developer is now working on a project that involves similar gameplay (dubbed TimeO) but happens to be different enough so as to avoid any possible lawsuits.

Though Zootfly's efforts may have seemed for naught, they were largely responsible for getting the game (as we know it) into development. Terminal Reality co-founder Mark Randal told the Official Xbox Magazine: "what Zootfly did for us, inadvertently, is help sell the concept. When their footage came out, we were close to our green-light meeting, and when the executives saw the reaction from the fans, they immediately knew, 'Hey, Ghostbusters is going to be a big hit—we need to put this game into production.'"

One thing that many fans have wondered about is whether the Ghostbusters game would feature any of the concepts shown by the Zootfly videos. When we spoke to John O'Keefe, Terminal Reality's studio director, he assured us that everything in his company's game was wholly original. "There is nothing from their videos that was used as inspiration for our game," he stated. "At the time of the release of the video we were already seven months into development on the Ghostbusters game. Because we had been sworn to secrecy, no one knew that we were working on the game or even that any game was being worked on."

But, O'Keefe did reveal that Zootfly's leaked footage was still advantageous to Terminal Reality, confirming Randal's earlier comments. "The video did help us... in that it confirmed to Vivendi’s upper management how interested people were in a Ghostbusters game. While a number of people at Vivendi, namely our EP’s John Melchior and Pete Wanat were confident in the popular appeal Ghostbusters has maintained over the years, some others there needed more convincing. I believe Vivendi, at the time, knew the game could sell well, but the incredible reaction to the ZootFly video increased the seriousness of the game from the publisher side even more."

On to Vivendi

Vivendi Universal was chosen to helm the project, and it subsequently handed over the design duties to Terminal Reality, the studio behind such supernatural hits as Nocturne and the BloodRayne titles. As it turns out, Terminal Reality's involvement was rather coincidental, as they were originally dealing with VU to pitch an entirely different title. Creative Director Drew Haworth explained:

We were visiting Vivendi Universal at the time, and we were showing a different IP—an original IP—that we worked on, and also showing off our engine technology. So this is all proprietary technology that we're using, the Infernal engine. And they mentioned that Ghostbusters might be available... in two weeks we had a fully working ball room for the hotel scene, and Slimer, and proxy Ghostbusters with proton streams up and running. And so we had to prove it, and we did prove it a number of times with Sony, there were a couple of things—not just with Sony, the other owners. We realized that we did need to bring it every time and so we did that, and we did a progression of visual demos and gameplay demos that convinced them.

The first real look most of us got was at Sierra's press preview held earlier last year, and what was on display was certainly impressive: much of the game's demo was a showcase of the capabilities of the new engine that Terminal Reality had developed, featuring some truly impressive technological feats. Aside from rendering over 1000 separate NPCs on the screen at a time (and keeping another 500 units in memory), we got to see some impressive physics on display in a recreation of the first movie's scene at the New York Public Library, and in a battle with a ghost that formed its body out of hundreds of individual books. (Of particular interest was a "goo gun" that could hold up objects like cars if used properly, as well as how uniquely objects could break up when they were shot.)

We also got a brief summary of the game's plot: set a couple of years after the second movie, the game is actually considered to be a third film by the franchise's creators; the script was written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, and is set to involve the voice talent of most of the movie's cast, the exceptions being Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis. The game introduces the player as the newest Ghostbuster who's been hired to help the team deal with a surge in paranormal activity in Manhattan; the player also will serve as a guinea pig who tests out Egon Spengler's latest inventions in the field.

The actual level that was shown during the demo showed the team cleaning out an architectural firm's offices of various spooks, including but not limited to what appeared to be the offspring of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (who could be seen lumbering outside the highrise windows) and specters that looked like those that appeared in the courtroom scene from Ghostbusters II. The action sequences definitely appeared chaotic and challenging, and teamwork between players and AI-controlled characters was necessary to capture or destroy some of the more challenging opponents.

Later on that night, I chatted with O'Keefe over drinks at the Ghostbusters-themed party that Sierra held in downtown San Francisco. After grilling him about when I'd get to play the next entry to the Nocturne series (short answer: it's not going to happen anytime soon, if ever), the subject changed to the engine Terminal Reality had developed for their latest game. The engine is useful to have because the company can actually earn a substantial amount of extra income by licensing out such technology, as the studio had done before with its Nocturne Engine back in the earlier part of the decade.

When asked if this was still the case, O'Keefe enthusiastically confirmed that it was, "even more so than before." He went on to fill me in on the engine's popularity since we'd last talked: "At the time you and I talked we were already licensing the Infernal Engine out to a small group of developers. The engine technology was so well-received by those people that we started getting requests to license the engine through word of mouth—even though we had not officially launched the engine yet."

Everyone involved with the game was extremely enthusiastic about its progress, as evidenced both by Sierra's heavy promotion of the title, as well as by how genuinely excited a number of the company's PR team were about it. Now, it isn't all that uncommon to talk with PR folk and be fed a line about how great whatever product they're promoting is, but even after several hours of drinking copious amounts of alcohol, the enthusiasm never waned; this definitely wasn't the case when we discussed some of the other titles that had been on display during the day's event.

Even the members of the press corps, as we huddled together and compared notes, generally agreed that Ghostbusters had been the most impressive thing we'd gotten to see at the event. All in all, it looked like Sierra was going to deliver a game that finally gave the Ghostbusters franchise the respect it deserved, and none of us could wait to get our hands on it.

A merger

And then... the unthinkable happened. In the midst of the game's promotions, the Activision/Blizzard merger occurred, and things took a definite turn.

The merger itself occurred on July 9, shortly after Sierra had announced that Ecto-1 would actually be touring across the country as a part of the summer/fall Hot Import Nights shows. Whether or not the car actually appeared at these shows is a little uncertain, though, because there doesn't seem to have been any press coverage of its appearances. "I am not sure if that happened or not," said O'Keefe before adding, "We were lucky enough to have the Ecto-1 visit our office for a day, along with a 30-foot inflatable Stay Puft. They did an amazing job restoring the Ecto-1. The last time we saw it before restoration, it was abandoned out on the Sony Pictures lot, just bleaching under the sun. It was kind of sad, actually. But now it’s in better shape than it was when they filmed the first movie!"

This was, it should be noted, the second time Ecto-1 had been used to promote the game, as it had been revealed that Vivendi marketing execs had used the restored vehicle to help promote the game on a corporate level earlier in the year.

A couple of weeks after the merger, it was revealed that only a few of Sierra's games would be carried over to the new publisher's lineup: while titles like Spyro, Prototype, and Crash Bandicoot were all kept on the company's platter, other titles like Brutal Legend, Ghostbusters, and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand were dumped down the metaphorical garbage disposal. While we weren't exactly crying ourselves to sleep over that last decision, many of us were heartbroken to hear about the former two. To say we were surprised about the cancellation of Ghostbusters is an understatement, given that the game was practically completed when the news came down, and Sierra was in the midst of a huge promotional push at the time.

As it turns out, it seems like the news was a shock for everyone on the Vivendi side of things, as well. "Actually, everyone, including the production and business people on the Vivendi side, seemed to think that the game was going to be carried over into the Activision/Blizzard lineup," O'Keefe admitted when we asked him about the cancellation. "It was one of those things that seemed like a no-brainer. We had heard a lot of the Vivendi (or 'Sierra', by that time) games were not being carried over, and that decision point had come and gone. Then, very late in the process the situation changed. It was a surprise for everyone, including the people on the Vivendi side. We were told it was not an easy decision and one that was not made lightly."

Rumors started to fly almost immediately, as is the way of such things, and it wasn't long before people were saying that the game had been canceled. While Sony was quick to stand up and say that the game was only delayed, not canceled, and would be coming out in 2009 to approximately coincide with the first film's 25th anniversary, it wasn't clear who would actually be publishing the game. While that was encouraging to hear, this information just led to more questions, the first and foremost being, "if Sony owns the movie rights to the series, why doesn't it just publish the game itself as a PS3 exclusive?"

Unfortunately, this question seems like it's going to be one of the permanent mysteries left surrounding the game's development. Not even Mr. O'Keefe has an inkling about this: "Only Sony can answer that question. At the time that Activision was shopping the game I had heard that Sony had a lot of interest in it." Now, months later, it's pretty obvious that Sony's interest wasn't enough to get the publisher to take over the reins, something that still seems a little strange.

The game's sudden entry into development limbo didn't mean that it was gone from anyone's memory, though, especially when leftover marketing plans like the lanyards at the Penny Arcade Expo kept on reminding us of the Ghostbuster-shaped hole in our hearts. The real story behind those mysterious lanyards was far more benign than many theories suggested: Sierra had signed up to sponsor the lanyards nearly a year beforehand and had shipped them out that June, shortly before Activision had unceremoniously dumped the game. As Penny Arcade's director of business development Robert Khoo explained to Variety, "We didn't have much of a choice of finding an alternate lanyard provider, so we just ran with it."

While some folks were hoping that the embarrassment of the lanyards might have shamed Activision into rethinking its decision to drop the game, CEO Robert Kotick explained that that wasn't going to happen, because essentially, he couldn't repeatedly mine the franchise for multiple millions of dollars on an annual basis. According to Kotick, games like Ghostbusters "don't have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million franchises."

Atari to the rescue?

Happily, Dan Aykroyd eventually revealed that the game wasn't doomed to languish unpublished. In a radio interview, Ray Stantz's real-life counterpart said that the title had been picked up by Atari—a publisher that had become saddled with a reputation for unimpressive games of dubious quality—the latest in a string of moves that president Phil Harrison has pulled in an effort to turn the company's performance around. Harrison himself had some kind words to say about the game, revealing that he, too, was a bit of a Ghostbusters fanboy. "The title has built considerable anticipation and excitement among game fans for its high quality action and all-out mayhem," he said when it was officially announced that Atari would publish the title. "There's no more thrilling Ghostbusting experience to be had, short of building your own proton pack."

Also, Harrison seems to politely disagree with Kotick about the potential for the game's saleability. In a recent interview with MCV, he revealed that he doesn't think Kotick's logic led to the best possible outcome with the Ghostbusters game. "What Bobby perhaps unhelpfully said was that those games were franchises which wouldn't make $100m of revenue and generate sequels," he explained. "If that's his benchmark, then fine—and we'd love to aspire to the same benchmarks. But you know what? I would love to turn Ghostbusters into a $100m franchise, just to prove him wrong."

"And sell it back to him!" added Atari CEO David Gardner as an afterthought. O'Keefe mirrored these sentiments when asked about the potential to turn the game into a whole franchise. "Oh, yes, we can definitely see sequels to the game," he said before adding a rather juicy tidbit of information. "Interest in the game seems to have spawned interest in creating a new Ghostbusters movie. There are so many places to take the game and so many more stories to tell."

The fact that Atari has pushed the release date to later this year was definitely a good thing, though, as it has allowed Terminal Reality the opportunity to put some extra layers of polish on its creation. "We have spent a lot of time combing through the story and all the experiences to make sure they are really funny or really scary," O'Keefe confirmed. "Our number one goal for this game was to create an authentic Ghostbusters gameplay experience, which no one has ever done before. We really want to make the player feel like one of the Ghostbusters team, like he or she plays a part in the movies and this great universe. So we’ve used this extra time to make sure we nail delivering that experience for the player."

All things considered, it seems like Ghostbusters: The Game will be one of those games which will (hopefully) deliver everything we want and more, despite its complicated history and the game of Musical Chairs it has been forced to play with publishers. Now that the title seems to have stabilized with a publisher that believes in its potential, it doesn't seem unreasonable to hope for greatness from this game, especially since Terminal Reality has a fair amount of time to apply a heavy layer of polish.