Interview: Terminal Reality? Ain't Afraid Of No Ghosts
A little over a year ago, Slovenian developer Zootfly made a big splash with gameplay videos of an in-development game based on Ivan Reitman's classic film Ghostbusters - then made an even bigger splash when it was revealed the game was an unlicensed prototype.
In late 2007, Ghostbusters fans were re-energized by Vivendi's announcement that an official game was in development by Texas-based Terminal Reality for a fall 2008 release on nearly all major platforms.
During a recent Vivendi event, Gamasutra sat down with Terminal Reality co-founder and president Mark Randel to discuss Ghostbusters: The Video Game.
He spoke in-depth on how the franchise was chosen, Terminal Reality's internal tech and the PlayStation 3, engine licensing plans, working with the original film's writers - and how ZootFly's short-lived project helped out.
So, how did you guys get involved with this property? It's a sequel, right? It's not a remake. Or, not an adaptation.
Mark Randel: Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a continuation of the Ghostbusters franchise. The first movie came out in 1984, by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, then they did the second one in 1989, and Ghostbusters: The Video Game takes place in 1991, and continues the story of the Ghostbusters.
How we got involved in this game is kind of a long story. Two and a half years ago, we were pitching an original game IP and shopping it to various publishers, and we showed up in Sierra's office to show them the game we were pitching at the time, and they said, "How about Ghostbusters?"
And we were like, "What?" They said, "No, no, hear us out. We did focus tests about video game properties, and license properties, and we're trying to figure out what we think would be an idea that would be a very popular idea. And we did tests, and consistently, Ghostbusters was near or at the top of the list."
Just the Ghostbusters icon alone, they found in their sampling, was the number two most recognized icon in the world, the ghost with the slash through it, the number one being Coca-Cola.
What kind of tests were these? Who were they testing?
MR: They were focus-testing video game audiences, people 18 to 48 years old. And they eventually expanded their tests, 13 to 60, and found out that people pretty much all ages know the Ghostbusters property, and like it or love it.
So, of course, we weren't skeptical about the Ghostbusters property at all; we all grew up on it, and we loved it too. And we were thinking, "Will this thing sell?" And the data showed, clearly, this was a great idea whose time has come.
So, we worked on a prototype for Ghostbusters for about nine months, and then got it green-lit for production, and have been working on it for about two and a half years now.
Was that prototype based at all on the project you were pitching before?
MR: Not at all. We're using the technology, which was our brand new Infernal Engine for next generation consoles, which we were working on. The Infernal Engine is an internal game engine that we use to make games.
We were fortunate enough enough to be seeded by Sony with PlayStation 3 hardware, probably six to nine months before launch. We had the big giant boxes that were alpha hardware, and we got the specs on the system, and realized they're doing parallel processing in a vastly different way than PCs and Xbox 360s were headed.
With the general-purpose processing, they had very specific helper units called SPUs, so when we were designing our engine, we designed it for PlayStation 3 in mind first. And that type of model, to design an engine for co-processing, was also a different way. It was different way, but we could also take that model, and take it back to the Xbox 360, take it back to the PC, and it also worked.
So if you're working on an engine, and you were using a general purpose computer model, you would not be able to make a PlayStation 3 game run very well. However, if you were working out using the SPU model from the PlayStation 3, you could make it work very fast, and you could make the other platforms work fast as well. So that's what we took advantage of in the Infernal Engine.
That's almost like having the PS3 as the lead system for your actual engine tech itself, which ends up working better when taken the other way rather than vice versa.
MR: Yes, absolutely. So, in 2000, 2001, when PlayStation 2 came out, we made a conscious decision to also do that for PlayStation 2; we knew that if we mastered the PlayStation 2 technology, it would be easier to go back to the Xbox and PC at that time. So we made another gamble on Sony, and it definitely paid off. We were now able to be fast on all three platforms.
Do you find there are any particular tasks in the engine that are particularly suited to [that parallel] structure?
MR: Yes, absolutely. Velocity - that's the name of our internal physics engine that we wrote - Velocity is very well suited to be run in parallel on PlayStation 3. We're one of the few physics engines that runs about 96 to 98 percent on the SPUs only, with very little intervention from the main processor, so physics is a very good algorithm that can be run in parallel; in this case we can run on five SPUs in parallel.
On the PlayStation 3 you get six SPUs, so we run one for the sound, to continually mix Dolby Digital 5.1 signal - and we have lots of sounds in the game, trust me - so we really beat that SPU hard.
And we have, also, a lot of physics in the game, too, so we beat the other processors pretty hard. Physics is definitely one thing we do that can be done massively in parallel. Collision detection can be done totally in parallel. And if you're very clever, you can also put your physics solver in parallel, on SPUs, so it's a perfect item for that.
Another thing we use for parallel programming is skeletal blending. Typically, in previous generation games, you have just canned animation, you have one animation frame saved, and basically you play it back, because you don't have enough power to do animation blending.
With the PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 of course, in parallel programming you can let the other processors run your animation system, and you can do multiple layers of skeletal blending. So we're doing animated skeletal blending, facial animation, lip-syncing, everything in co-processor mode on PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 as well, so we can free up the main game thread to run the game logic and AI.
That's where most of our programmers work. It's on the main game thread, where not everybody may be experts in low-level SPU programming, but they're experts in AI, they're experts in graphics or what have you, or gameplay programming. So we give them something they're really familiar with, but give them a lot to use, a lot more resources than other platforms.
Are you guys planning on licensing this out at all?
MR: Oh, absolutely. We are already licensing our technology out to a bunch of developers, kind of on a pilot program, and then after Ghostbusters, we're going to start licensing, and a bigger approach to open up wide to a bigger audience.
Doing anything else internally with it yet? Any other projects?
MR: Uh, yeah, nothing I can discuss right now.
So, what is the involvement with - I mean, there are actual guys, Aykroyd and Murray, I think, and Ramis is involved in this. What is their involvement exactly? I think Ramis was co-writing?
MR: Yeah. Harold Ramis is co-writing the script. And Dan Aykroyd is really the main guy behind the script and the equipment in the Ghostbusters video game. He's been a really big facilitator, helping bring all of the parties together.
Multiple people own the Ghostbusters intellectual property, so he's been a really big facilitator in getting everybody together, getting Harold and the other guys back to discuss it, and bringing him onto the project and working on the script, and making sure the game is [on track].
Ghostbusters has a very serious tone, and that's something that Dan pointed out to us when we were making the game. The comedy is funny because the characters are very serious about what they do, and then they have deadpan comedic timing. And we just would not have that without Dan's involvement.
Plus he's been really helpful in coming up with and naming all the equipment in the game, so all of the story, the characters, the equipment you use in the game - we hate to say 'weapons', because they're more than just weapons - is directly created by the original creators of the Ghostbusters franchise.
So do they actually give you artwork for that? Or do they work with your artists?
MR: They work with our artists, pretty much coming up with the overall story, and we come up with the areas. We wanted the game to be in New York, so we came up with kind of the areas that we wanted to have the gameplay, and Dan and Harold have come up with the names of the creatures, the story, what people are saying, what dialogue happens, who says what, how things are going to be timed - pretty much the script of the video game.
It's kind of like the script of the movie, except it's about three times as large. And the characters - Dan was really insistent, and Harold also was really insistent, on having a female heroine in the game, and some of these Hollywood elements that video game creators don't always think about.
So they're very, very involved with the story and characters of the game.
As far as you're aware, was it just a complete coincidence that ZootFly was making their - whatever it was - their prototype, or demo, of a Ghostbusters game?
MR: Actually, ZootFly helped us a lot. When we originally were working on Ghostbusters, probably six to nine months before ZootFly came out with their demo, that was actually before we were green-lit into production.
And when the executives at Sierra saw the reaction to the ZootFly game, they immediately knew that we would have a hit on their hands, and they immediately green-lit the full game. So, indirectly, ZootFly really helped us get out game green-lit.
Huh. Have you talked with them at all?
MR: No, I haven't, but I wish to say, "Thanks!" I wish them the best of luck.
Do you have any contingency plan in the game for if the players cross the beams?
MR: Well, since in the single-player game you're playing as a fifth Ghostbuster, the AI Ghostbusters are smart enough not to cross the streams with you. Obviously there might be a chance in the multiplayer game, where you'll be able to cross the streams with a buddy that you're playing with.
So, if you really want to end your game, I guess you could cross your streams. And there may be a moment in the single-player game where you'll have to cross the streams, and that'll force you to do that, to make a complete protonic reversal, but I don't know.
I think ending the game and sucking everything in, completely blowing up existence as we know it is something that most video game players don't want to do.