I wrote part of my college thesis in English on Apocalypse Now, the epic Vietnam War film by Francis Ford Coppola. I consider it one of the best films ever made, and I’ve encountered a few other Apocalypse Now geeks over the years. So imagine my surprise when American Zoetrope announced this week that Coppola had finally decided to allow a video game based on the motion picture, 38 years after the movie came out.
Lawrence Liberty, a video game veteran, is the executive producer of the game and one of a handful of Apocalypse Now enthusiasts who went on a journey up the river to keep this game alive. Coppola felt that the storytelling in games had progressed to the point where a game could do the subject justice, and he wanted to keep the title as an independent effort.
So the team launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise $900,000 for the project. It’s not a slam dunk, as Liberty has to keep Coppola happy and give fans what they want as well. He envisions the title as a narrative story that follows the movie, but it will be a horror role-playing game, rather than a Call of Duty style shooter.
I talked to Liberty about the plans to make the game for 2018, the 40th anniversary of the movie. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Where is your game studio located? Are you in Los Angeles?
Lawrence Liberty: Right now, it’s being run out of the parent office in Hollywood, even though we’re technically a separate company.
GamesBeat: How did it all get started?
Liberty: My involvement goes back to 2010. Rob, one of the partners on the game side, was contacted by someone at American Zoetrope in 2008 or 2009 about this idea. They wanted to learn about the game space. It slowly turned into something back in 2010. Monty [Markland], another one of the guys involved on the project, and I had our own game studio. We made our first early prototype back then, using the CryEngine to do a rough prototype. After 2011, it went into stasis.
I rejoined the effort in early 2015, but Monty had started putting things together again back in 2013 and 2014. It’s been a long, you could say, labor of love to get it to this point.
GamesBeat: Were you interested in doing something with Apocalypse Now in particular?
Liberty: Rob [Auten] and Monty, two of the three of us, were major Apocalypse Now fans. I’m certainly a Coppola fan, and Apocalypse is in my top 10 movies of all time. I liken it to a dark Wizard of Oz. I always thought we could do some interesting things in the game space with it so long as we were given the freedom to do something interesting with it. Not just make a Call of Duty in Vietnam.
Young people may not really know the movie, but it’s still had an impact on popular culture. I don’t know many people in America who haven’t heard lines like “terminate with extreme prejudice” or “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” We grabbed a website personally, Monty and I, “napalmAM.com,” just because we loved that term. We might do something with that at some point. But yeah, I do think it will resonate with people, even if they don’t understand fully why.
GamesBeat: You’re doing a horror RPG. How did you come to that concept?
Liberty: It seemed to be the best way, at first, to approach the adaptation. My background is in RPGs. I was the executive producer on Fallout: New Vegas. To me, a lot of the logistical challenges of making this work are similar. We have a large geographic area. We have to figure out how to develop a progression system and a path for Willard’s odyssey. Making that work in terms of world building and content creation, I felt like it was a similar challenge. I enjoy those types of games.
Really, what interests me is figuring out how to develop a game and game systems that feel good, feel natural, and will have to be more artful and subtle — not big, obvious HUD elements indicating things like health and enemy location. That’s something I’m looking forward to. We’ll be getting early versions out there, getting feedback from players. Hopefully, together, we can make something that we can all be proud of that and that the Coppolas will feel comfortable with. This is their baby, the crown jewel. Nothing has been done with this. We have to be extremely respectful going into this.
GamesBeat: Is that why you’re doing the Kickstarter, to get that kind of feedback?
GamesBeat: When you’re talking with Coppola, how do some of those conversations go? I see his quote there, that he’s seen video games grow up.
Liberty: I think he believes we’re at a point in both the evolution of the craft of game making and the development of the technology needed to make this — we’ve reached a point where we can tackle this. Particularly, if we have an extended development cycle. This is a game that I wouldn’t want to rush.
I mentioned Fallout before. That was a case where we essentially had 16 months to make a 200-hour RPG. We had a hard marketing date that we needed to hit. I’d like to think we did a good job. I know the game was buggy, but it was still beloved. I don’t want to do that here. I don’t think we can afford to that with this game. I’d rather take our time and iterate and involve the community. That’s one thing I’m most looking forward to. We’re developing our own website to be the official information source for the game and its development, but it’s also going to be a platform for us to collect and generate actionable data from the people backing our game.
GamesBeat: What’s the status of the studio? Have you put many people together yet?
Liberty: We have a small core. It’s very much a skeleton crew. There’s a working prototype we’ve put together. We switched engines. Currently, we’re using Unreal, which is almost certainly what we would use for production. We have a couple of key people, and we’re in talks with others to build out the team. But for now, it’s just that kernel. That’s part of the reason why we’re going to launch the Kickstarter and see if people agree that this is something worth backing.
GamesBeat: Did you consider pitching it to one of the big game publishers?
Liberty: Years back, I know Rob helped them approach some of the larger publishers. I think Francis didn’t have the best experience with another game property. He didn’t like what was coming back in terms of concepts. He wanted more control, which I totally understand.
We’re an independent game endeavor now. We have what we think is a very good concept to start with, but ultimately, we’re beholden to American Zoetrope. We’ll treat them as the hand of the publisher, essentially, helping us adhere to their vision and their aesthetic standards.
GamesBeat: The art style does look very realistic. Is that how you’d describe it?
Liberty: Yeah, it’s reasonably realistic now. Over time, I think we’d work to increase the fidelity and be even truer to the film. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’d add things like film grain effects or anything like that. But I want to explore skin shaders. I think, in particular, rigging and skeletal systems and using animation to convey subtle mood and AI behavior changes in non-player characters is going to be very important for this game. For us to be able to do it with little or no traditional HUD and other traditional game features, we’re going to have to have very good animation.
GamesBeat: Some people are inevitably going to ask how much combat is going to happen in this game. There’s an audience that still wants to just play Call of Duty.