In conversation with David Bishop
Licensed games have had a tumultuous history, to say the least. From the early days of movie studios investing into the industry – and causing its collapse, famously thanks to the likes of Atari’s E.T. – through the golden age during the Mega Drive and SNES era and onwards into the rise (or perhaps fall, in this case) of licensed mobile games. David Bishop has done it all, beginning at a time when licensed investment was at its highest and eventually across myriad platforms. There are few people in the games industry as knowledgeable about licensed games, so we caught up with the veteran developer to find out more about the heady days of licensed game development…
How did you first get into licensed videogame development?
So, when I joined Virgin – which was back in 1987 or something – I got hired by a guy called Nick Alexander. My first day I went to his office and he introduced me to my boss – a guy called Frank Herman. Frank was like this no-nonsense guy, quite scary actually, before you got to know him. So I went into his office and before I could even shake his hand he threw a copy of the book Dune at me. And it’s a big book, luckily it was softback and luckily I managed to catch it. And basically the first words he said to me were ‘here, go and make a game of this’. That was my first introduction to my boss, who would be my boss for many years and became a really good friend. Luckily I’d actually read the book as part of my English Literature O Level. And so I’d already read the book and some of the other Dune books and loved them. So I re-read the book – and that was a challenge, it’s like 550 pages! – you know, it’s a how do you make a game of The Lord Of The Rings, sort of thing. It’s again, you have to distil down what is at the essence of that book.
And so you helped make the adventure/strategy hybrid Dune game, not the Westwood real-time strategy?
Yes, I was very much more involved with the first one, I consulted on the second one but that was the clever people at Westwood that did that one. It’d be unfair for me to say I worked on the second one. With our game, once we decided on the kind of gameplay to have – and that was based on an understanding of what we believed to be the kinds of people that liked that book – I think the biggest challenge after that was balancing the game so that it worked. So the game was up and running in a fairly unattractive form fairly early on, which allowed us to do a lot of play balancing.
How do you approach the development of a licensed game?
When you play a game that’s based on a brand – you know, any game – you can tell if the people that made the game were passionate about what they were doing. And that’s not just about branded games, any game actually. If you play a game, you can tell whether or not people were passionate about it depending on the amount of TLC they’ve given the game. If that makes any sense. And that’s no different for a branded game; you can tell when someone has taken the trouble to get under the skin of the brand and really do a game that feels like it extends the brand in someway, that could’ve been done by the people who created the original brand.
One of the most popular licensed games you worked on was Aladdin for Disney. What was that like to work on?
When I moved out to the States, Martin Alper – who was the boss of the US office – came in and said ‘do you reckon you could put together the team from hell? We’ve got the chance to do a game based on Aladdin, but only if we can have the game done for when the video launches’. Cause it was all about having a game either for theatrical or, for the most part, video release – which was a massive thing back in those days. Which meant we had to put together a team and build the game in five months – and to build a Mega Drive game in five months and get it through all the various Sega testing shenanigans and obviously it had to be manufactured was almost an impossible task. So I said ‘sure, why not?’. So we basically started relocating people like David Perry, Nick Bruty, Mark Kelly, Steve Crow, Neil Young, Mike Dietz, Doug TenNapel; so this team was like a team from hell. It’s one of those perfect storms where you just got to work with a bunch of amazing people, and David Perry was sort of at the epicentre of this thing, driving the whole thing forwards.
How was Disney to work with?
Working on Aladdin – I probably saw the film 40 or 50 times, we all did – but to get access to and get to meet the people that worked on it and meet the directors, for me it was like being a kid in a candy store. And then having to present your game design to Jeffrey Katzenberg – like, the god. I can still remember, we had an 8:30 meeting in this big square office, in one of the sub-offices. We knew his reputation as a micromanager, I mean there weren’t never any rushes of films when he was the head of the studio that didn’t get his stamp of approval before they were put in the can. And I can still remember him going through level one of our game – the Streets of Agrabah – and saying ‘I think at this point we need a sight gag. I think that guard, his trousers will drop and he’s got polka dot boxer shorts on and he’s too embarrassed to attack you because he’s covering his modesty’. That was from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of Disney studios.
Did you find the brand enhanced the game in any particular way?
Well we worked very heavily with the [Disney] animators down in Florida that actually worked on the film. And it was actually the first time that anyone had done that, because up until then everyone just basically did animation frames directly into DPaint. So these frames were animated, scanned and electronically coloured by a company in LA, and again electronically colouring frames was a brand new thing. It was being pioneered by this one company; Ren And Stimpy was the first show that used that process. And so we’d piggybacked off that. Unfortunately when we worked on Jungle Book, everyone who had worked on it was in their nineties or dead. So with Jungle Book it was more access to the brand, though we may well have had access to the archives. Aladdin was still a live project, so we had access to the people that had worked on it.
Why do brands often want to get involved with videogames? What’s the benefit?
They are popular from the brand holders point of view, and they were popular from the publisher’s point of view. A good example of that was Cool Spot. So Spot was the logo that 7up used in the States; it was different in Europe, that was Fido Dido. In the States there was this character – the red disc in the 7up logo – that would come to life in all their adverts, did something mischievous and would jump back into the logo before any human saw them. And 7up approached Virgin, they thought it would be very cool to associate their brand with games. We thought it would be really cool to have the equivalent of 20 million dollars worth of advertising as a result of our game being printed on their bottles and cans. And you can see how everyone would be a winner in that situation.
Cool Spot was an interesting one for us in the UK because many didn’t know it was a licensed game…
Exactly. In Europe it was an unbranded game, really. It had to stand on its own feet. Apart from the bonus levels [that] were set inside this world with all the bubbles that you had to jump through – it was obvious that you were inside a bottle of 7up, if that you know that it had to do with 7up. The bonus levels were fun anyway – and that was part of our brief – to make it a great game, even if it was an unbranded game because we knew it would be that in Europe. If you do a game and you rely on the brand alone and just slap the brand on then that’s not the right way to go. It was important for us anyway to make it a great game, as well as using the brand. So that when the brand wasn’t there in Europe it would still do, hopefully well, on its own feet. It did really well in Europe, it’s remembered with a lot of fondness by a lot of people which is great. And people to this day still don’t know it was a 7up game.
Did you find there was a particular process you had refined during this period that helped make a good licensed game?
I don’t think there’s any one process. With Deal Or No Deal it was ‘okay, why is that popular and how can we maintain the picking of boxes, but gamify that?’ All we did was we added in a trivia quiz element to the game, where basically you have got to answer a question and if you got the question right then among all the boxes you had to pick from it would eliminate all the high value boxes. So by using some skill, which was the game bit, you would increase the probability of ending up with 250,000 pound box. If you got the question wrong it would block out all the low ones. And that was all we needed to do to turn that into a game. But we had kept what we had decided during our distillation process was the soul of the brand.
This era of gaming had many popular licensed games, but these days there are much fewer released. Why have licensors moved on to other platforms like mobile?
I suppose licensors always want to be on the next big thing. Obviously if you’re in the bizdev side you’re looking to make as much money from your brands as possible, if new platforms come along why wouldn’t you want to have your brands on those new platforms. And actually before your competitors too. But some have been better than others, some have got games and some haven’t. And I’m sure that varied relationship with licensors is as varied today as it was back then. I think if you make a good game and you have a great license on that game then that can make a massive difference.