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Lufia packaging originally designed by Taito Japan in 1993

Lufia packaging originally designed by Taito Japan in 1993

In mid-April, 1993, Taito Japan decided to green light the North American localization of Lufia and the Fortress of Doom for SNES. I felt kind of a rush when I was told about the go-ahead. This was the first time in my life that I successfully championed a major release title for publishing. My intuition for selecting great games was validated. Little did I know that there was more going on below the surface. My Japanese managers congratulated me on being so tenacious. Then they informed me that I was responsible for localizing the game.

Having the responsibility of localizing Lufia was a double-edged sword.  Taito was making a big investment to publish this game in North America. I was now the point man between Taito America, Taito Japan, and Nintendo America for this game meeting all the development and submission requirements. If this game missed its deadlines, or if Nintendo failed to approve its submission, then my head was on the chopping block. I was also responsible for working with the Neverland team and the Taito QA team. Neverland was easy to work with. The Taito QA team were difficult – they didn’t like being told what to do by someone they viewed as an ‘outsider’. It was an eye-opening experience about international relations.

I won’t get into all the nitpicky development details. Taito America wanted Lufia and the Fortress of Doom ready for the 1993 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, which was held in mid-June. Nintendo wanted the beta evaluation EPROM set and full game documentation by early July. I had slightly less than two months to get the translations completed, documentation written, game packaging organized, and ‘cultural issues’ in the game revised. What were the cultural issues? Nintendo’s submission guidelines for SNES games were very strict. Games were prohibited from showing all kinds of things that could be construed as offensive. In Estpolis, the Sinistral Shrine originally displayed a Christian crucifix on the altar (no religious symbolism allowed). I’ll never forget how the Taito Japan team wondered why Americans would be so sensitive about a crucifix in a videogame. References to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or sexual suggestiveness were taboo. Estpolis originally contained a tobacco reference, a few alcoholic references, and one particularly famous drug reference involving my favourite video game odd couple – Aguro and Jerin.

Here’s one of their famous ‘discussions’ starting at 02:50:

I really liked the character of Jerin – she was the precocious, stubborn sister to Aguro’s brave and stoic sense of duty. But man, could those two argue with each other! Jerin always managed to needle Aguro in the just the right place. Of course, she was also a bit of a brat. I’m sure the die-hard Lufia fans remember the famous exchange between them about that magical tonic to make Jerin’s hair grow. In the original Estpolis dialogue, it had nothing to do with hair. The potion was meant to make women’s breasts grow bigger. I still remember Jerin’s famous last words on the subject:

“Right. We’re not here to talk about breasts!”

My Australian translator Dianne and I snorted in laughter when we read that line. She was an awesome Japanese translator and a wonderful friend. We spent many hours reviewing the dialogue, changing names, and looking for cultural fixes. She was a joy to work with. I learned that there were quite a few Australians in Japan who were masterful Japanese translators.

My biggest challenge was rewriting the story of Lufia for a North American audience. It was a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, I needed to stay within the story guidelines of the original Estpolis. I couldn’t make wholesale story changes. Then there were the expectations of the North American audience, many of whom were fantasy RPG fans. The big advantage given to me by the game was having a text buffer for 112 ASCII characters. I could write the story of Lufia so it read like a real fantasy adventure. In 1993, this feature was something new and unique. I  was also responsible for reviewing the names of every item, every weapon, every spell, every town, and every special game location. By the time we finished translation, the complete rewrite document for Lufia was contained on 112 pages of 8.5″ X 11″ paper.

Of course, guess who was responsible for typing all the ASCII characters and saving several hundred text files for the game? I spent many long spring evenings getting everything completed.

Next Time – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom debuts at the Summer CES Show

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

What’s in a name?

When it comes to videogames, the title is literally everything. It must stick inside the player’s head and stay there for eternity 🙂  The title becomes the brand, leading to franchises, sequels, merchandising, and maybe possibly stuffed animals! When I worked at Taito Software in North Vancouver from 1988 to 1990, my American boss Alan Fetzer taught me that videogame titles could only be a maximum of four syllables – no more. Just think about some of the most well-known videogame franchises in the world:

Mario – Zelda – Metroid – Sonic – FIFA – Halo – Call of Duty

Need for Speed – Warcraft – Diablo – Gears of War

 Metal Gear – Kirby – Pokemon – Angry Birds

I think you get the idea. A successful videogame name is short, sweet, and creates an image that stays with you for a long time.

I had the privilege of creating several titles for published videogames. I can tell you that dreaming up the name for a videogame isn’t easy. There is so much riding on it. A great name that grabs people’s attention creates buzz. A terrible name will hang around your neck like the proverbial millstone. A ton of money gets spent on videogame promotion – it’s critical to have a great sounding title. However, what matters more than anything else is the gameplay.

The first videogame title I created was for the Japanese sequel to The Legend of Kage (pronounced KAGE, not CAGE) for NES, which Taito released in 1987. Some of you might remember the flying ninja who madly rotated his blade like a lawnmower. Taito Japan created an awesome sequel which had four stages and sixteen levels, with beautiful cinematic sequences.. Taito Software decided to release a North American version. I was asked to submit a set of possible titles in 24 hours. I grabbed several sheets of paper and brainstormed 48 different names. From this list, the title Demon Sword was chosen. Later on, I created the titles Wrath of the Black Manta, The Flintstones – The Treasure of Sierra Madrock, and The Jetsons – Invasion of the Planet Pirates.

So, how did Lufia and The Fortress of Doom get chosen? Well, the story goes something like this. It was definitely the burning question with Taito Japan about what to call this game for the North American market. My managers agreed that the Japanese title Estpolis was out of the question. I didn’t like the title; I knew American videogamers wouldn’t get it, either. I was asked to come up with a name. The way I looked at it was that the entire adventure wasn’t about the player – it had nothing to do with you being Maxim’s descendant. That was different for an SNES rpg at the time. The story was ultimately about this young girl named Lufia and her connection to the Sinistrals. I put it to Taito Japan that we simply call the game Lufia. I felt that the name could stand alone by itself and would be instantly recognizable. I believed the title could be the start of a successful series (was I prescient, dear Lufia fans? 🙂 ) I received the green light to call the game Lufia. Ultimately,Taito America was responsible for approving the name because it was their product. I sent a fax with my recommendation.

Taito America didn’t like Lufia.

To be specific, they thought the name by itself wouldn’t resonate with North American videogamers. I argued that there was already a precedent with Nintendo games like Mario, Metroid, and Zelda. They countered that those games were already well-established Nintendo titles; Lufia was completely unknown to the market. Taito America told me they would reply in a few days. It actually took a full week before they offered their solution.

They wanted to call the game – Lufia and the Fortress of Doom.

My first reaction was that I wanted to gag. Taito Japan was aghast. I recognized immediately that the subtitle was a clear adaptation of the movie title Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  In 1989, Taito Software released the NES title Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The rationale for the subtitle from the American perspective was that the story revolved around the Sinistrals and the Doom Fortress, although I strongly suspected they didn’t play deeply enough into the game to understand the story of Lufia. Taito America felt it would resonate better with the American audience that simply calling it Lufia.

The Japanese taught me that there are times when you must compromise to achieve a larger goal. I succeeded in naming the game Lufia, and we added the subtitle to get Taito America’s buy-in for publishing it. Looking back, I think it was a worthwhile bargain.

Next time – The race to the 1993 Summer Consumer Electronics Show

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

If there is one fault Japanese videogame publishers have to this day, it’s the myth that they know videogames better than anyone else. Because of their historical success with coin-operated arcade titles, followed by the Nintendo and Sega and Playstation videogame consoles, Japanese business managers in videogame companies like to think that the reason for their success is their all-knowing expertise. This myth goes along with another one that still exists – that Japanese videogamers are inherently better than North American players. I had to contend with this mythology as the sole non-Japanese employee at the Taito R&D facility. On the one hand, as a Taito employee from North America, I was an immense asset to the development team. On the other, I was viewed as an outsider. In any case, I had to prove myself in what were challenging circumstances.

The following weekend in mid-March, I headed out for the world famous Akihabara electronic district in northeast Tokyo – what was then six square blocks of consumer electronic madness in over 430 stores. Standing there on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of packed crowds, I couldn’t believe I was really there. But indeed I was. My mission was clear – find a videogame shop that sold imported titles from the United States. It took about a half hour of searching, but eventually I discovered a second floor store up a narrow flight of stairs. It was full of titles from around the world for different platforms. I quickly snatched up copies of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and and Final Fantasy II. They weren’t cheap either – about 9,000 yen ($90) each. When I bought them, I suddenly realized that I was going to need some kind of converter for my Japanese Super Famicom in my apartment. Japanese titles were cased in oval packages. USA titles didn’t fit the Super Famicom. So I spent another 4,000 yen on a converter made by Hudson ($40). My gamble was already proving to be expensive.

I still have my Japanese Super Famicom and a small library of Japanese games. I also have my Super NES and about 35 titles.

I arrived home at my apartment in Hamadayama, a small town in western Tokyo located in Suginami (“Cedar Wave”) Ward, and started playing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. To my disappointment, I polished off the game in just over two hours. It was a short plot, with chunky characters, a clunky combat system, and not very challenging monsters. But that was the point of this Square title. They claimed it was made for beginners who were not used to the Final Fantasy series. I thought it was a rushed title to fill their quota for North American releases. On Sunday, I started playing Final Fantasy II and realised how similar it was to the original NES version of Dragon Warrior, only with slightly better screen scrolling, music, and sound. The combat system was a step up. I took the game at a slightly slower pace, but I managed to finish it within two days. After playing the two games, I wrote up a report and met with my managers. Once again, I emphasized how much better Estpolis looked and played than the Final Fantasy titles. I gave them direct examples about combat, graphics, music, sound, and player interface. I pointed out the difference between Square’s limited text and our ability to tell a proper adventure story. I said they had something unique on their hands; we had a great opportunity to release something special.

Taito Japan was nervous about releasing an rpg videogame overseas because the company was not known for roleplaying titles. The last Taito rpg title sold in North America before Lufia and the Fortress of Doom was Dungeon Magic for the NES (another title I still own with my original NES). That game barely broke even, so I understood why Taito wasn’t keen about a SNES rpg. However, in a rare moment of opportunity, I was asked to talk with Taito America and see what they thought. Several of the key Taito America staff were good friends of mine, so they were excited to hear I’d found something interesting because they were looking for one more title to fill the product release schedule. My Taito America counterpart Larry Stalmah asked me to send him an EPROM set so he could play the game. I transmitted the game code over a dial up network to Taito America. He got back to me one day later and said he wanted to release a North American version. Larry would take care of convincing Taito Japan’s directors about getting approval for localizing the title.

Now I had an ally at Taito America.

Next time – How we decided on the title ‘Lufia and the Fortress of Doom

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

When last we left our hero…

As I rode the Toyoko line from Tsunashima back to Shibuya in southwest Tokyo, I was thinking about how I was going to change the minds of my corporate Japanese managers about localizing Estpolis for the North American market. In the early 1990’s, developing Super Nintendo games was a very expensive business. Nintendo controlled everything when it came to physical game packaging, printing, and production. You paid Nintendo for the cartridges, circuit boards, EPROM chips, math co-processors, game manuals, and game packages. The cost for an initial production run was at least a minimum of several hundred thousand dollars. The onus was on me to prove that my gamer intuition was absolutely spot on and that this title would be a worthwhile investment.

In 1993, the SNES had been out for almost two years. When it came to fantasy role playing games, there was a very limited choice available. You were looking at Actraiser, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and The Legend of Zelda. That was it. I’d played all these games from start to finish. They were good examples of SNES ” first generation” titles – the term developers use to describe the iterations in software development. Estpolis was the next step up – it was a second generation title. To put it in perspective, 1994 SNES titles like Donkey Kong Country and Final Fantasy III were third generation videogames.

From 1987 to 1990, Taito was considered by the videogame industry as one of the top five global publishers for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This was extraordinary considering that at the time, there were at least 45 NES publishers! It was an extremely crowded market. In May, 1988, I was originally hired by Taito Software (the North American headquarters) to work at their Lonsdale Quay facilities in North Vancouver. By the time I joined the Japanese R&D centre in 1992, Taito was suffering from poor North American Game Boy, NES, and SNES sales. They were also involved  in serious legal  issues with Atlanta based Turner Home Entertainment around the classic Hanna Barbera Studio licenses The Flintstones and The Jetsons. All North American operations were concentrated at the Taito USA office in Wheeling, Illinois. Taito Corporation sent a new Japanese senior manager to the United States to oversee their videogame sales. He previously worked for the sales and marketing division of BMW Japan. He knew nothing about videogames or the current trends in gaming. Later I would learn that he actually didn’t even like videogames.

So what made Estpolis different from Final Fantasy II or The Legend of Zelda? Here’s what immediately caught my eye as a “professional” videogamer:

Playable introduction sequence – The introduction took place 100 years before the player’s character appears in the game. Letting the player participate in the pre-history was totally unique. No one had ever done that in a Nintendo title. It set the stage for everything that happened afterwards. By the way, here’s a fascinating snippet of Lufia lore – in case you ever wondered who created the evil name  ‘Sinistrals‘  <— I did 🙂

Bright, colourful graphics, and animated magic spells – The character and background graphics for Estpolis were bright, colourful, and detailed. Honestly, they made Final Fantasy II and The Legend of Zelda look dull by comparison. I have to emphasize here that I’m talking about where we were at in 1993. This game was graphically better looking. The magic spell animations were big and colourful. I remember casting the lightning spell and watch the shocking white bolts dance on the screen. It’s also worth mentioning that the group offense and defense magic system played really well and looked very nice.

Large text buffer – Many people commented over the years how the story of Lufia reads like a real fantasy adventure. There’s a reason for this. The developers created a text buffer that could handle a whopping four lines of ASCII text at 28 CHARACTERS PER LINE. There was 112 character space for writing dialogue. I like to joke that Lufia ‘invented’ Twitter! 🙂 Another piece of Lufia lore – if you wondered who wrote the dialogues – that was me as well, with the help of an awesome Japanese translator named Dianne, who hailed from Australia. We had a ton of fun going over the dialogue, which was re-written from the original Japanese text.

After 20 years, I still have the original translation files from the game. I made sure to archive Lufia’s history. I also own a final beta cartridge of the game.

Next time – How Taito America and I convinced Taito Japan to localize Lufia for the United States.

Doctor Arkanoid

Doctor Arkanoid

lufiaJune, 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the classic Super Nintendo role playing game Lufia and the Fortress of Doom. I can’t believe 20 years have passed; it really still seems like yesterday when I saw the original Japanese version of the game Estpolis in March, 1993, at Taito Corporation’s former research and development centre in Tsunashima, Japan, just north of Yokohama. I’d been hired in the summer of 1992 as their overseas 3rd party development producer – an incredibly awesome job where I collaborated closely with Nintendo of America, Sega of America, Taito America, and third party game developers in Europe, South Korea, and the United States. Like all Taito staff, I wore the company uniform, performed company exercises beside my desk at 8:45 a.m. sharp, and lined up to recite the company motto precisely at 9:00 a.m. We also repeated it again at 5:00 p.m.

Lufia was a very successful title when it was officially released in the fall of 1993. It sold approximately 900,000 copies, won three awards, spawned numerous sequels, and developed a bit of a cult following among video game players. In 2013, there are still quite a few gamers who recognize the name whenever I mention it. But what the videogame industry doesn’t know is that the North American version of  Lufia and the Fortress of Doom almost never happened. Taito management originally never seriously considered releasing  an overseas version. Karma is a strange thing, but at the time, Taito Corporation had no plans to release a North American version of the game. The truth of the matter is that Lufia and the Fortress of Doom would never have happened at all – without me coming along and being a real pain in Taito management’s backside about the game’s potential in North America.

It was on a Monday morning in March, 1993, when I saw the Japanese Super Famicom team playing what looked like a very bright, colourful, fluid, action role playing game that strongly reminded me of Dragon Warrior by Enix and Final Fantasy by Squaresoft. The game music was also very well composed, compared to other Super Famicom titles of that time. I asked the producer whose game it was. He told me that it was Estpolis, a Taito RPG for the Japanese market. I was very impressed with how it looked and played. Right away I recognized that there was nothing else like it on the market in North America – it was an impressive looking RPG. I told my managers how cool and unique this title was, compared to what I’d seen in North America. I remember they were surprised to hear this – they were corporate managers, not game developers. I asked them if they had considered possibly developing a localized North American version. I’ll never forget how they hummed and hawed for a moment before answering me.

“You know, Anthony-san, we don’t think this sort of game would do well in North America”, they said.

“Why do you think that?”, I asked.

“Because”. They paused. “We don’t think video game players in North America like action role playing games“.

One of my strengths as a video game designer is that I still possess a keen gamer’s intuition for knowing a potential hit videogame when I see one. At the time, my gamer gut was screaming that this title had hit potential.

I knew that I had to convince them.

To be continued –

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

The Doctor has been thinking about pixels. Those tiny sparkling lights that dance and weave all over your screen. They pirouette, shimmer, and twirl in my dreams, carrying me far away across the digital sea.

Why is the Doctor thinking about pixels, you may ask?

This week I received an extraordinary video that made me wax nostalgic about all the great titles I was lucky enough to be involved with over my two decades as a game developer:

I love how this video incorporates famous video games into the narrative. What amazed me was that I have some direct connections with three of them. Space Invaders was created by Toshihiro Nishikado of Taito Corporation. I was extremely fortunate to know this man and work with him as an associate producer during my time with Taito in Japan. He was a very quiet sort of guy who smoked alot, but he understood game development very well. We once had a heated discussion over the quality of fighting combo game play for the Super Nintendo title Sonic Blastman 2. But that was the rarity. He was actually very accommodating and provided me with the opportunity to champion the development of Lufia & The Fortress of Doom for Europe and North America. I also visited Nintendo of Japan in Kyoto on several occasions, where I met Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Donkey Kong, Mario, Metroid, and Zelda. I first experienced the legendary Donkey Kong arcade game beside the butcher counter at a small grocery store at the Cadboro Bay Village in Victoria, BC in 1981. It’s fair to say that my long affinity with video games started in that shop.

Tetris was created by Alexi Pajitnov. I’ll never forget how I met him at the 1989 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. I was demonstrating Taito’s arcade conversion of Puzznic for the Nintendo Entertainment System. A bearded gentleman walked up and started asking questions about the game. I passed over the joypad and invited him to play. After a few minutes, I looked at his CES identity badge and realized who it was. We spent the next ten minutes having a long conversation about Puzznic and the history of Tetris.

During my time at Taito , I worked on many different versions of Arkanoid. I worked on conversions for the Amiga, Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and IBM. I’m most proud of Arkanoid DOH it Again for the Super Nintendo. When I first arrived in Japan, I was asked by my Japanese managers to help re-design it. Because I knew the game and its lore inside out, I set to work in trying to recreate the arcade experience. We even managed to incorporate a level construction set and some nice cinematics into the final product. Nintendo of America wanted to give the game an eight page spread for its magazine Nintendo Power. Only exceptional titles received that much coverage.

Since I saw Froggie jumping his way through the streets of New York City, what better way to end this story than with Buckner & Garcia’s take on Konami’s swampy arcade classic.

Go Froggie go! You gotta’ keep on hoppin’ til’ you get to the top!

Doctor Arkanoid

‘I sense a great disturbance in the Force’

Legend of Zelda Wind WalkerMighty Nintendo, home to the great pantheon of immortal video game characters, has been shaken to its foundations by an ancient force re-awakened. Since 2004, Nintendo enjoyed a resurgence of commercial success thanks to the creation of the Nintendo DS and the Nintendo Wii. The company once scorned by die hard gamers saw the same worldly cynics madly scrambling to buy Super Mario Kart and Nintendogs! Nintendo re-established itself by focusing on the ‘Blue Ocean’ – the huge number of casual video game players who enjoy playing games for short periods of time, leaving the intensely competitive ‘Red Ocean’ market share of core gamers to Microsoft and Sony.

The ancient force stirred, gathered its strength, and dipped its mighty hand into the Blue Ocean, sending ripples across the world to the shores of Super Mario’s Temple.

In October, 2009, Nintendo reported that profits for the six month period from March to September decreased by 52%! Global sales of the Nintendo DS decreased 15% during that time to 11.7 million units (insert gasp here how this many sales could be a decrease – but the ways of the Gods are fickle). Software sales for the DS are expected to contract by 17% to 150 million units by the end of March, 2010 (again..insert gasp).

What force could possibly shake the foundations of Super Mario’s Temple?

Apple.

The grand technology Zen master Steve Jobs has extended his reach into the video game world with iTunes, the iPod Touch, and the iPhone. The president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, admits that Apple is having an impact on Nintendo’s fortunes, though he claims he is an Apple devotee and that there is no apparent rivalry between them.

A Short History About Apple and Video Games

When it comes to thinking about companies that create technology for playing video games, the name ‘Apple Computer’ doesn’t exactly leap into mind. It’s sort of a strange paradox because Apple was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak on the original premise of creating “...computers for the rest of us...”. The Apple II was never designed for playing games; however, many lone programmers spent countless hours slaving away in their basements, bedrooms, and garages to create titles like Expedition Amazon, Apple Panic, Choplifter, Lode Runner, Drol, Sammy Lightfoot, Sneakers, The Dark Crystal, Time Zone, and Wavy Navy. I will never forget the thrill of playing Transylvania by Penguin Software, Prince of Persia by Broderbund, or Ultima II by Origin Software. The first personal computer game companies evolved, including Broderbund Software, Sierra Entertainment, and Electronic Arts. Founded in 1982, EA was a small company of programmer ‘auteurs’ who created famous Apple II titles like Archon, Pinball Construction Set, and Skyfox. The first computer game designer ‘celebrities’ were crowned, including Bill Budge, ‘Lord British’ Richard Garriott, Ken & Roberta Williams, Jordan Mechner, and Doug Smith.

When the Macintosh appeared in 1984, it was all about the mouse and the graphic interface. Apple focused on showcasing how Macintosh and its flickering bluish white display screen could be used for graphics and writing. In 1986, desktop publishing was the ‘killer app’ for buying a Mac. Apple wasn’t interested in games. But that didn’t stop developers from trying to wring some fun out of Macintosh. Dark Castle and Beyond Dark Castle were very popular. Most people don’t know that you could play networked games on a Macintosh in the late 1980’s using an Appleshare connection. I regularly fought my friends in long Maze Wars tournaments after work (God I hated seeing the killer eyeball come round the corner wall before my nemesis killed me!). The introduction of Hypercard in 1987 and its use of hyperlinks led to the creation of The Manhole (1988) and Cosmic Osmo (1989) by Rand and Robyn Miller, who later went on create the Myst adventure series on the PC in 1993.

One moment I’ll never forget is at the 1991 Game Developer Conference in San Jose’ California at the old Hilton Airport Courtyard Inn. Apple sent a lone company game evangelist to walk among the 200 PC and video game developers who attended. It was truly a ‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den’ moment as the game developer crowd wasn’t exactly receptive to the evangelist’s message that Apple really cared about games. I observed it was a good thing there was plenty of food for the developers at the reception!

Steve JobsFast forward to 1997 and the second coming of Steve Jobs as he returned to Apple and launched the iMac computer. Steve rightly decided that it was important to get game developers on board to help make Macintosh ‘cool’ again to computer users. So he did something clever and enlisted the help of programming wunderkind Jon Carmack to create QUAKE for the iMac and show off the 3D graphic capabilities of Apple’s computers. It had the desired effect; game development for the Mac started to take root. While it’s true that the number of titles was nowhere near what could be found for Windows based computers, at least there was a better chance of making money developing games for the Mac. You know Apple has come a long way in computer games when Blizzard developed a Macintosh version of World of Warcraft!

Join the Doctor at ringside next time for Part Two of the ultimate Super Smash Brothers matchup: Super Mario versus Steve Jobs!

Doctor Arkanoid Doctor Arkanoid

Kim Jong ilI’m fairly sure that I’m not the only one who feels like the world is going off the rails these days. Global recession, global warming, religious radicals, Kim Jong Il, Balloon Boy, Carrie Prejean self destructing on CNN Larry King Live – and now video game developers in Vancouver and around the world are being scorched by a firestorm of layoffs.  Echoing inside Doctor Arkanoid’s massive cranium, I hear the lyrics from the famous Phil Collins song ‘Land of Confusion‘:

Ooh Superman where are you now?

When everything’s gone wrong somehow.

The men of steel, the men of power,

Are losing control by the hour’.

On November 9th, the Reuters news agency reported that Electronic Arts announced a major round of layoffs affecting 1500 staff worldwide, including 900 game developers, 500 publishing support staff, and 100 administrative staff, with the Burnaby Studio being significantly affected. This is the EA mothership’s second major round of layoffs. In January, 1200 staff were laid off, including the closing of Black Box Studios, creators of the Need for Speed series. Reuters also reported that EA recorded its 11th straight quarterly loss for the period ending in October, 2009. This news attracted the attention of CBC Radio, who invited the good Doctor to provide a diagnosis of what’s currently happening in the video game industry.

CBC Radio EA Layoffs

EA isn’t the only Vancouver video game developer to lay off staff and close studios in 2009. Most people didn’t know that the cell phone giant Nokia established a game development centre in Richmond several years ago for the NGage portable media player. Nokia folded its operations and laid off 100 staff. With the merger of Activision and Vivendi Games into Activision – Blizzard in the fall of 2008, Radical Entertainment dismantled two of its four game teams, laying off 120 people. The South Korean game company Nexon, creators of the online game Maple Story, shut down their Nexon Human Nature Studio run by Alex Garden, former co-founder of Relic Entertainment. 90 people were laid off. Walt Disney’s Propaganda Games let go of 36 staff. Backbone Entertainment was closed, Hothead Games laid off staff, Relic Entertainment let people go, and Microsoft’s game studios in Redmond, Washington released several hundred people as part of an overall staff reduction.

According to the Canada Entertainment Software Industry Report released in March, 2009, there were approximately 5,842 game developers working for 61 game companies in British Columbia. While it’s hard to say exactly how many unemployed game developers are looking for work in the Lower Mainland, the Doctor is fairly certain that between 1500 and 2000 creative, talented individuals are anxiously seeking new opportunities. In fact, I was contacted this past week by two former game development students I worked with at the Art Institute of Vancouver. Both of them were recently laid off and trying to find another position with a game company.

In Hollywood, they say you’re only as good as your last movie. In Vancouver, you’re only as good as your last profitable video game.

Take it away, Phil Collins:

Doctor Arkanoid Doctor Arkanoid

Last week I talked about bad video game based movies and provided a list of every one I could recall. Thank the broadband for Wikipedia! When I reviewed the list, it was clear to me that some of the most creative and commercially successful video games were never made into films. For example, why didn’t Lucas Arts ever make a movie based on The Secret of Monkey Island? Well, after what happened in 1993 with the movie Super Mario Brothers, you could understand the reluctance of video game publishers to let any of their original properties be adapted to film. I still think Bob Hoskins was an excellent choice for Mario. I will never forget the giant Koopa trooper I met at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas! Of course, Nintendo created the Pokemon franchise and everyone knows how massively successful that series continues to be since its introduction in 1996 (even the good doctor has his trading card starter pack and music CD’s – I still do a mean Team Rocket voice impersonation “..Prepare for trouble…and make it DOUBLE!”).

Let’s take a look at some video game based movies that Doctor Arkanoid prescribes as recommended viewing:

MORTAL KOMBAT (New Line Cinema, 1995)

I believe that this film shows the right way of how to adapt a video game for the big screen (or today’s HD screen). Mortal Kombat the game has a well developed backstory. There are a set of characters who clearly represent the forces of good and evil. Each of these characters is unique and possesses amazing fighting powers. They also have established relationships with each other, such as Raiden and Shang Tsung. The locations for the battles were exotic and nicely designed. The script for Mortal Kombat was well written and the dialogue was reasonably decent. But for a video game based movie to be a commercial success, it must attract both the video gamer and non-video gamer alike. Gamers were impressed that the movie was faithful to the game’s actual fighting moves and special  finishing techniques. Probably one of the most compelling features of this movie was the soundtrack’s opening techno theme, which eventually was adapted and played in many dance clubs around the the world. Even today, the theme is immediately recognizable. The movie grossed $122 million worldwide.

TOMB RAIDER (Paramount Pictures, 2001)

Ah, Lara Croft. How many gamer hearts have you broken with your beauty, your intelligence, your tight fitting clothes, and your arsenal of weapons? Sure, Metroid has Samus Aran, Street Fighter has Chun-Li, and Dead or Alive has its squad of gorgeous yet vapid beach volleyball bimbos. But frankly my dear, none of them hold a digital candle compared to you! Since her first appearance in 1996, Lara has become the world’s most recognizable video game heroine. So it was only fitting that a larger than life video game character would appear on the big screen. It’s fair to say that Tomb Raider was a natural candidate for a video game based movie because it channels the adventure and action of Indiana Jones with the sophistication  and wit of James Bond. This isn’t a surprise when you realize that not only was Angelina Jolie the perfect choice to play Lara Croft, her nemesis in the movie was none other than Daniel Craig who would later become the new James Bond in Casino Royale. Jon Voight also starred in this film as Lara’s father. Tomb Raider is considered the most commercially successful video game movie yet – it grossed over $300 million worldwide.

FINAL FANTASY VII: ADVENT CHILDREN (Square Enix, 2005)

The Final Fantasy series of role playing video games started in 1987. The first Final Fantasy game was produced to save the fledgling company from bankruptcy. 22 years later,  Final Fantasy has a huge cult following around the globe. Final Fantasy: Advent Children is a computer generated movie based on the video game Final Fantasy VII, which was produced for the PC and Sony Playstation in 1997 and 1998. The game features two of Square’s most famous video game characters – Cloud Strife and his massive sword versus Sephiroth the one winged dark angel. It’s considered one of Square – Enix’s most successful titles with over ten million units sold. Unlike the epic video game movie disaster Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), this film remained faithful to the mythology and story of the original series. It was also a DVD only release that sold approximately 11 million units worldwide and received several awards for its quality.

In the Doctor’s mind, these three films epitomize the best of the video game based movies released to date.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

Sergeant PepperIf there’s one thing I’m grateful for in my life, it’s that my parents had a huge record collection when I was a child in the 1960’s. I was raised in a home where music was always played. One of my earliest memories is dancing wildly to Collette Renard singing a song from the comedy Irma La Douce when  I was three years old. My mother said I spun around and around and around. I was introduced to folk music from Bob Dylan, The Weavers, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. My parents’ collection included the controversial musical Hair. At eight years old, I knew the lyrics to Age of Aquarius by heart. But if I had to name a group that was the soundtrack for my childhood, it would be the Fab Four from Liverpool – George, John, Paul, and Ringo.

There are so many Beatles songs I can associate with my childhood. I remember hearing ‘I’ll Follow the Sun‘ when I was five years old. ‘All You Need is Love’ as we drove along a highway in rural Ontario on a rainy day when I was eight. ‘Yellow Submarine‘ buying vanilla chocolate chip ice cream at Britannia Bay in Ottawa on a hot summer afternoon when I was nine. I also remember my mother refusing to let me see the animated movie ‘Yellow Submarine‘. In retrospect, maybe she was right. The imagery of that film was really psychadelic. Or maybe she feared I’d turn into a flower child like some of my babysitters 🙂 My most favourite memory is hearing ‘Maxwell’s Hammer‘ on my grandfather’s enormous sound system at Glen Lake in Langford, BC, when I was ten. When I turned twelve, the songs that marked the passage into my turbulent teenage years were ‘Hey Jude‘ and ‘Let it Be‘.

Even though the band long since dissolved, and George and John departed this world for the ethereal Strawberry Fields, the music of the Beatles still endures decades later. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise and enthusiasm when it was announced at this year’s 2009 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) that The Beatles: Rockband for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii, will make its global debut on September 9, 2009 – the same day as the re-release of all their albums.

This idea for this game was originally championed by George Harrison’s son Dhani. It was presented to Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono –  the majority shareholders of Apple Corps. It was developed by Harmonix in collaboration with Apple Corps. The game follows the history of the Fab Four – you actually choose which Beatle you want to play. Are you the enigmatic John? The contemplative George? The cool Paul? Or the mellow Ringo? The instruments are modelled on the drums and guitars used by the Beatles. The soundtrack includes 45 original titles remastered by the engineers at the Apple Corps studios. There’s also actual in-studio dialogue from the Fab Four as well.

I have no doubts that The Beatles: Rockband is going to be incredibly successful when it makes its worldwide debut on September 9. There was a huge reaction to it at E3, especially when Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr showed up to give their blessing. I couldn’t help but find it amusing to see the mostly 20 something audience wildly cheering for a group who played before most of them were even born! <Insert snide comment about these gosh darned kids today and their music> 🙂

On another note, it strikes me that a new cultural threshold is being crossed when a video game becomes a platform to acquaint and re-acquaint people with such a global influence as the history, music, and visual style of the Beatles. It’s almost a ‘karma’ sort of thing that the son of a Beatle would bring forward this idea and help to make it happen. Somewhere George Harrison must be smiling.

Doctor ArkanoidDoctor Arkanoid

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