This year's Comic-Con International, held at the San Diego Conference Center from July 14th to 17th, is by far the largest worldwide event for the comic book industry. But in recent years, with comic characters licensed into other media (and, indeed, characters from other media feeding back into comics), it's increasingly relevant for the video game industry. As such, the 2005 Comic-Con event saw a number of roundtables and panels with tangential or direct relevance to games, with notable industry personalities in attendance and even on-floor booths from companies such as Nintendo and Sony. But where to start?
|Public access superstars Mega 64, striking an action pose at their convention booth.|
"You'll never have more fun getting ulcers than you will in the games industry," said Alex Jimenez, formerly of Capcom and current Lead Designer at Tesseraction Games (Enigma: Rising Tide). The Panel, titled "Dirty Secrets of the Video Game Industry," served as a good segue into the general tone of Comic-Con International's grim view of the video game industry. "[Game development] is like the mafia," he continued. "It's like this big, incestuous family. Once you're in, you're in. But getting in is the hard part."
Co-hosting the panel was Dave DeVries, a freelance artist with experience in both the comic book and video game world. His main body of work was for the now-defunct 3DO, doing character designs for Army Men: Sarge's Heroes and the MIA Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
"Comic and video game art crosses boundaries," he offered. "Both need to create high drama, they really have to grab the viewer." DeVries insists that a budding video game artist should go beyond digital skills and actually be able to sketch on demand. "Be ready to quickly sketch ideas that designers throw out in meetings," he said. "Bring a physical portfolio to your interviews, don't think anyone's content with a disk."
Jimenez, who created the original twelve Darkstalkers characters in under an hour via a fax machine, offered this advice to those wishing to get into game design: "Be a nerd. Watch lots of movies, read comics, do what you've gotta do." He also suggested playing pen and paper RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons. "If you can run your friends through an RPG game, as a dungeon master, and they have a good time, congratulations. You're a game designer."
"A good backdoor key into the industry," DeVries suggested, "is to create a property that can go in 8 million directions - books, animation, games, whatever. Don't just pigeonhole yourself into one medium."
This approach worked for Chris Charla, Executive Producer at Backbone Entertainment, and the company he works for, which developed the upcoming Death Jr. for Sony's PlayStation Portable (August 16 in the United States, published by Konami). The game, initially in development for the Xbox, was first shown at 2003's Game Developers Conference. Along with the game, Backbone put together what they described as an "art book," which was a visual and text reference to Death Jr. and his world. "We had a lot of good concept art, and a great world, but it was hard to explain that all to publishers," he said. "So we made comics."
In addition to the upcoming game, Death Jr. stars in a series of well-received comic books, as well as a line of toys. "It was as much to help us flesh out the world as it was to push the game onto publishers," he said. "Having Death Jr. already established in these other mediums helped in talking to publishers, it made it apparent that this was a real, successful franchise, worthy of a video game."
|Death Jr. merchandise on display.|
This approach also worked for the team behind The Red Star, led by creator Christian Gossett. Establishing a series of comic books and merchandise helped solidify their video game deal with Acclaim, though the publisher unfortunately filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy just two weeks before the title's scheduled release. However, the game, we're told, has recently been picked up by another publisher, and we should expect a major announcement soon.
But is creating a property and then moving it into multiple mediums necessarily the best approach? "The video game industry is suffering from low self-esteem," said David Jaffe, Lead Designer of God of War by Sony Computer Entertainment America for the PlayStation 2. "We feel like the bootleggers of the entertainment industry, and that's just wrong. [Creating a franchise with the intent of multiple mediums] is like, say, writing a comic book with the secret hope of getting into film. It's disrespectful to the medium as a whole."
Joining Jaffe on this panel, titled "Did Video Games Kill Comics?" was Paul Jenkins, who worked with Jaffe on 2001's Twisted Metal: Black for the PlayStation 2. "[Comic book scholar] Will Eisner said that comic books will die quite a few times before reaching acceptance, and I think the same could be said of games," said Jenkins. "The decline in comics is because many of them are crap," he added, which led to a discussion of comic-based video games.
"A lot of the comic games kind of suck really bad," said Jaffe. "I know a lot of passion went into the production of Fantastic Four, for instance, but at the end of the day, it's a pretty crappy game." Jaffe places the blame on the comic publishers. "We were trying to do an Iron Man game years ago for Sony," he said. "I was explaining to Marvel that I wanted to bring in a lot of the emotional aspects of the comics, such as Tony Stark's alcoholism, into the game, but they just weren't interested."
Jaffe, like many designers, seems intent on bringing real emotional impact to games. "We have to trick people in Wal-Mart into buying something that looks like another first-person shooter Vietnam game. But when we start secretly tugging at their heartstrings with games like this, they'll take notice," he said, insinuating that the only way to bring real character and emotion into the games industry, as it stands now, is to sneak those aspects in to popular franchises and genres. Then, he insists, we can start creating the games we all want to see.
"Are we going to be the next comics industry, or film industry?" he asked, at the conclusion of the panel. "Are we cutting off a huge part of the market by not appealing to audiences outside of the norm - say, kids - or will we one day appeal to the whole world, as film does?"
There was, of course, much to see on the convention center's show floor, though relatively little that the seasoned game trade show veteran had not seen elsewhere earlier in the year. Publishers such as Majesco, Sony, Nintendo, Activision, THQ, Capcom, and Midway showed off a few of their current and upcoming games, and, while this reflects a bigger video game presence than any past Comic-Con, it mirrored most of the titles already showcased at E3.
|The Behemoth's yet unnamed work-in-progress console game.|
One major surprise, though, was from The Behemoth, creators of Alien Hominid, which premiered its new, as-of-yet unnamed console game, mere weeks in development. Like Alien Hominid, this four-player-simultaneous beat-em-up was hand-drawn in 2D by one Dan Paladin, and is an ode to classic games, with a feel that could be described as a cross between River City Ransom and Treasure's Guardian Heroes. We also got a sneak peek at Tuna Interactive/Zoo Digital's Game Boy Advance port of Alien Hominid, also very early in development, which seems to be a very faithful recreation of the console game.
So, as media coverage shows, Comic-Con International is becoming a more viable place for budding game designers to discuss the industry and show off their portfolios. Whether this is good opportunity for a more direct approach or more of a secret backdoor entry, however, is a matter of opinion.