Interview: Living Vicariously
We speak with Vicarious Visions about Shrek, Spider-Man, and why the company is so happy to work with other people's licenses...
Licensed handheld videogame adaptations have led to plenty of nightmares among the Modojo staffers over the years. While the console iterations of the latest en-vogue kids show might not always be too hot either, they're at least ran through some attempt at Quality Assurance. In the handheld arena however... for years the M. O. has been "anything goes.
Vicarious Visions, on the other hand, has consistently proven itself to be one studio that refused to take the easy way out with its game design. Time and time again the company has surprised the gaming press, whether it be with their DS Madagascar, or their PSP X-Men Legends II.
Modojo sat down with Spider-Man 3 DS Executive Producer David Nathanielsz and Producer Chris Olson to discuss their big DS titles Shrek the Third and Spider-Man 3, and VV's stance on licensed development vs. original IP.
Modojo: How hard is it adapting movie-based content into a video game? Is there plenty of room for gameplay ideas or do any movie producers give you some ideas for creative input in the game?
VV: We have a lot of fun adapting movie-based content for our games. The movies give us great characters and stories as a foundation to work with, but we're generally given a lot of freedom to incorporate our own gameplay and narrative ideas into the final product. You can see that in Shrek the Third, where we have a completely original storyline and game design but it fits within the timeline of the movie. In Spider-Man 3, we've taken the movie story but added additional subplots and storylines and woven them into the movie's plot.
On top of this, we're always trying to make the DS game experience different from the one you'll get when you play the console version of the game. We focus on completely different game mechanics, control schemes and narrative elements so that the DS games are unique.
Mo: How does VV make licensed games appeal to the "hardcore" crowd? Do they really need to?
VV: If you stick to the fundamentals and create compelling game mechanics with intuitive controls, which we try to do, it shouldn't matter if you're a hardcore gamer or a relative newbie. Then, we try to layer on some depth to the game so that those players who really want to can find additional hours of enjoyment in the game beyond the main progression.
For example, in Spider-Man 3 we built the touch-screen combat system so that players can generate their own combat style and play the game the way they want to. You can stick to simple touch-screen based maneuvers and successfully progress through the game or you can focus on unlocking all of the combat upgrades and stringing complicated hit combos together to gain massive amounts of hero points.
Mo: Do you feel that dealing with a popular license you are being constrained or self-compelled into developing the game with mostly the "casual" gamers in mind? The hardcore and the critics often decry licensed games for this fact, even though it's becoming painfully obvious that the casual can sometimes be the hardest market to sell to.
VV: You know, we honestly don't feel constrained or directed towards a specific audience at all. We've always tried to make our movie-based games as good as they can possibly be and appeal to as many people as possible across the spectrum. If you focus too hard on making a "casual game," you'll probably end up with something that doesn't appeal to anyone.
Unfortunately, some people automatically assume that if a game has a family-friendly license attached to it that it won't be any good. But I think we've proven with our games in the past that we can make really compelling games that meet the needs of all types of gamers.
Mo: Often critically praised games get poor sales while critically lauded licensed games receive great sales. What does Vicarious think the role of licensed game development is? Are they trying to change the unfortunate norm we've grown used to?
VV: We really view working on a licensed property as an opportunity. We know that it will probably mean there is an audience for our work when we release the game - which is a nice thing to know as your toiling away in development. And yes, we'd love to change the perception that licensed games aren't as good as original IP games. Of course, the only thing we can do is just focus on making good games. We can't force people to go out and buy Okami or Hotel Dusk!, but we can work to make sure the licensed games that we make are really high quality and fun to play. Hopefully, if we consistently deliver on that goal enough people will start to notice that licensed games aren't just for fans of the movie, but for people who enjoy playing games across multiple genres.
Mo: Does Vicarious have any plans or desire to apply your development skills to create original handheld IP of your own design alongside the established franchises and licenses you work with?
VV: We're always coming up with new game ideas at VV and would love to create an original handheld game in the future!
Read on for some exclusive info on Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third...
Mo: What kind of innovation can we expect from Spider-Man 3 on the DS this time around? The first games brought some innovations and we're curious to see what new tricks are being thrown in this time around.
VV: First and foremost is the introduction of a touch-screen based combat system for Spider-Man 3. This type of control system has never really been attempted on the DS and we're hopeful that it sets a new standard for where the DS can go in the future. We have also innovated in the scope and size of the game. The levels are much larger than what has ever been done in a previous Spidey DS game. The world is more of a sandbox, where you can explore and progress in a much more non-linear fashion than previous games. And to top it all off, the graphics are some of the most realistic and detailed we've ever done!
Mo: Why did Vicarious opt for a fully touch-screen driven experience this time around?
VV: There were several important reasons we decided to go with an entirely touch-screen based system. We wanted to take what makes the DS so unique - namely the touch-screen - and what makes Spider-Man so unique - his fluid and acrobatic fighting style - and bend them into a combat system that felt natural and rewarding. We really wanted to create an experience where you felt like you had complete control over Spider-Man in a more organic and tactile way than you could by just pressing buttons.
This is the third Spider-Man game we've done on the DS and we felt it was important to move the series forward instead of treading the ground we'd already covered in prior games. To do this at the same time as fully embracing the features of the DS was a key goal for our project.
Mo: How is Spider-Man 3 DS handling boss encounters?
VV: All of Spider-Man 3's boss encounters are built around our touch-screen combat. By focusing on a more classic twitch-based boss encounter we keep the action more dynamic and immediate. All of the bosses are tuned to be interesting and challenging for touch screen combat.
Mo: Can you elaborate on the game's mission structure? Is the DS experience linear, or non-linear?
VV: I guess you could say that it's a combination of both linear and non-linear. We have multiple storylines within the game, including the movie story. Players choose to play the stories in whatever order they like, so they can easily switch between the movie and some other story while they play. The stories themselves are linear with no branches or alternate endings, but gamers can choose when they play the missions within each story. We also have an open city environment with non-story related challenges like races and crime watches that add hours of additional challenge for users to pit themselves against.
Mo: What can you tell us about the versus mode?
VV: The DS is the only version of Spider-Man 3 to offer multiplayer support. Because of the built in wireless connectivity of the DS, we felt that head-to-head play was a natural fit. We have several head-to-head modes that allow users to compete in, from brawling with thugs for the most points, to using your webbing skills to web up the most targets. The multiplayer offers people an additional way to prove their skills and gain bragging rights of being the best "Spidey" there is.
Mo: This time around multiple playable characters are swapped in and out of gameplay each with their own abilities. Can you give us some specific examples of an obstacle or puzzle that might require a character's special skill?
VV: All of the levels in Shrek the Third require using each of the four playable characters - Shrek, Puss-in-Boots, Artie and Donkey - in order to complete the level. We focused unique skills around each character which tie directly to the environments and the AI in the level. For instance, Puss-in-Boots is the only character who can jump high enough to reach ledges and platforms and he can also slide through small gaps in the walls; Shrek can use his strength to break down certain walls and floors; Artie can throw his shield for ranged attacks and also surfs on it across water; Donkey oversees all the action in the game and can cast magic spells to activate magic items and aid the other characters.
To solve the levels, players have to determine which characters can traverse to different areas and how to activate switches and platforms to continue navigating the environment. Amongst all of the puzzles, there are also a bunch of hazards and enemies that block the way. The best thing about all this, though, is that gamers can either play through these levels in a single-player mode or play co-operatively in multiplayer and solve the puzzles as a group.
Mo: Did the Vicarious team play the old Lost Vikings game to gain some inspiration for Shrek the Third?
VV: Lost Vikings was definitely one of the titles that was referenced in early design meetings by a few folks. But we didn't sit down and play the game that much before settling on our final game and level designs.
Mo: Shrek the Third seems to be an adventure set in three dimensions - how does Vicarious decide which DS games should receive 2D treatment, and which are right for 3D? How did this decision impact the game's design?
VV: We've actually got 3D on both screens in Shrek the Third. The levels span across both screens, which can give our environments a really massive, expansive feel. In terms of the decision to go 2D or 3D, it really comes down to what design choice is most effective for the property. We've made games for the DS that are side-scrollers, open world, 3D on one or both screens, and even two different 3D perspectives across each screen. Each choice was based on what we thought would make the best game while using the unique capabilities of the DS as much as possible.
Mo: The Shrek films are known for working on a couple of levels - there is entertainment value for adults and youngsters. Is the DS game being released with a similar ideal in mind?
VV: Definitely! We did our best to create both a game design and story that would appeal to players of all ages.
Mo: Lastly, and certainly most importantly, who would win in a fight - Shrek or Spider-Man? :)
VV: Isn't the answer obvious? ;)