The word "veteran" gets quite a lot of play in the fast-evolving video game space, but Deep Silver COO Geoff Mulligan has truly earned the label: He was one of the first employees at the original Activision in 1982, and led the formation of its international operations.
Back in the 16-bit days, he founded a company that helped bring Japanese Sega Genesis games to Western audiences (Arena Entertainment, later bought by Acclaim), and was COO at Konami from 2002-2007, among other projects.
Much of his work has a common thread: Mulligan's specialty has been bridging oceans with gaming content, which is why Koch Media brought him on to help Deep Silver get set up properly in the West. Fast forward: Ever since Dead Island's first cinematic trailer went viral, the open-world zombie apocalypse game has built up significant buzz, something of an important feat for a company whose parent, in its long history, primarily distributed games in Europe.
Much is made of the difficulty in making Japanese games translateable to a U.S. audience, but as it turns out, cultural differences also present challenges for European games. When Mulligan first looked at Deep Silver's ideas for potential Western hits, he chose Dead Island -- but there was work to be done. "I said it should go back to the drawing board," Mulligan tells Gamasutra.
"I said, 'this is great technlogy, but there's a lot missing,' and wisely they took it back to the storyline drawing board. I just said, 'what's here won't work,'" he says.
European and U.S. storytelling process are fairly different, Mulligan says. "I think the U.S. gaming audience likes a more readily-identifiable storyline, clearly-differentiated characters and character development, but also they always like a hook, a surprise ending, a surprise character with a dark side." Having worked with Hideo Kojima at Konami, Mulligan now believes that understanding of Western-relevant characterizations is part of what helped esoteric Metal Gear Solid become a massive global brand.
"It's subtle nuances; it's the fine tuning," he explains.
With Dead Island, Deep Silver hopes not only to make a splash in the U.S. for the first time, but also to establish a long-term franchise. "We're not EA, we're not Activision; we don't try to be on their scale and we don't intend to be. We're much more of a niche publisher," says Mulligan. "We're going into big genres and trying to find a unique hook."
The 'big genre' in this case is zombie-survival horror. Certainly there's plenty of room in the popular concept, but by choosing this space Dead Island must put itself in a position to invite comparisons to some major critical hits: Properties like Resident Evil, Left4Dead and Dead Rising. "We had the opportunity to look at competitive products and pick out what traits we liked best," says Mulligan.
Global brand manager Vincent Kummer is candid about the market challenges: "Whatever you're doing with the game you're going to get compared [to existing titles]," he says. "Our game is going to be focused on the island and the open world environment and its RPG elements. It's really a unique setting; you're at the beach, it's going to be sunny, and it's going to be a place you can still see as it once was. Througout the story you get better at defending yourself."
The result: An open world zombie apocalypse game with a focus on co-op, plus RPG and crafting elements that will allow players to raise their characters, create their weaponry and do cooperative quests.
In addition to what the team considers a tight focus on storyline, the game's setting, a luminous holiday island, also sets it apart somewhat in a genre whose environments are often quite dark. Dead Island releases September 6 (just dated yesterday), and will include a 20-30 hour story arc with drop-in, drop-out multiplayer and four character classes each with a unique skillset.
With the focus on a surprising setting and a character-driven open-world environment, the team hopes Dead Island will offer the type of complexity and surprises that Mulligan described as being essential to appealing to North American audiences. Mulligan "absolutely" hopes not only to make a splash in the U.S. for the first time, but also to establish a long-term franchise.
"It's Deep Silver stepping up into the true splotlight in the North American market, as well as building a long-term franchise," he says.