The Making Of: Ghostbusters
In mid-January, less than ten minutes of videogame footage appeared on YouTube and set the internet aflutter. The handful of clips in question seemed to suggest that a new Ghostbusters game was in development for the Xbox 360 and, within a few hours, everybody was talking about it.
As concrete details slowly started to emerge, a strange picture took shape: ZootFly, a small Slovenian development house, admitted that it was responsible for the footage, that it came from a short prototype it had running, and that it didn’t actually own the IP rights to the licence. Despite such a shaky bargaining position, ZootFly had understood one thing perfectly: the lasting appeal of the right game licence.
And the right licence, in this case, is something of a rarity: one that’s milked too rarely rather than too often. Even though Ghostbusters has the right mix of driving and shooting to fill any sandbox, even though the film itself is nowhere near as divisive as a Star Wars or a Superman, even though Bill Murray’s face represents the holy grail for texture artists everywhere, games based on the film and its sequel can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Isn’t that slightly spooky?
The reason for this may be simple: the first Ghostbusters game was dauntingly good. That’s not to say Activision’s Commodore 64 title followed the path many would have expected: though players could lay traps and fire proton guns, drive Ecto 1 and scamper between the giant feet of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, the core of the gameplay was a business simulation with a heavy emphasis on strategy.
Rather than letting you control one of the movie’s Ghostbusters, the game let you actually become a Ghostbuster more directly – by setting up your own franchise, stocking up with equipment and despatching teams around the city to catch spooks and make money. Crucially, for a game with so many parts – driving, simple resource management, shooting and trapping ghosts – the pieces snapped together well, and the money-making, business-upgrading elements gave the game a lasting replayability. Activision’s Ghostbusters is polished, intelligently-paced, and suggests a measured and meticulous development approach: something which wasn’t the case at all.
“A typical C64 game took nine months from start to finish,” laughs David Crane, the game’s designer. “Ghostbusters took six weeks!” Crane is one of the most prolific developers of the early videogame era. Creating titles such as Little Computer People and Pitfall made him Activision’s star programmer – an intelligent and creative hit-maker whose most left-field ideas still struck gold. “I had just finished Pitfall II when we decided that the Commodore 64 had sold enough units to be a good target for third party games,” says Crane. “Tom Lopez at Activision came to me with the idea of doing a game around the Ghostbusters movie. Tom had heard of the project and, predicting its success, he had negotiated a licence from the studio. It’s common for videogame companies to look at scripts for films in development and try to decide if they would make a good game. In this case, Tom thought it would be big, but he first brought the idea to the design team to see what we might do with it.”
With the film still in production at this stage, Crane would have to come up with a design concept working directly from Ramis and Aykroyd’s original screenplay. “We started the game before the movie came out. As it happened, I did get to see the completed film before finishing the game, and may have tweaked it a bit. But most of the work came before the release of the film.”
And it was the film’s impending release that meant that Crane had to work so quickly. “You have to bring out a game tie-in while the film is still hot,” explains Crane. “And we had a very late entry into the Ghostbusters franchise. The film would be out soon and if it wasn’t a huge hit, it could be in and out of the theatres in mere weeks. So when we considered this project, we knew that we needed a great concept that could be completed in record time.”