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NBCUniversal, Intel, Microsoft, and Unity are engaged in a developer contest dubbed the Universal GameDev Challenge, in which the companies asked indie game developers to propose games based on its brands such as Back to the Future, Jaws, Battlestar Galactica, Voltron Legendary Defender, and Turok.
More than 500 indie game developers submitted entries in the contest, which carries a $250,000 prize and a rare chance for an indie to make a game based on a Universal license. I was one of the judges, and it gave me an inside look at how a big entertainment company can work with small developers on licensed titles. We chose six finalists, and the companies offered them professional coaching. The finalists are now competing to create finished games in the coming weeks. The final winner will be revealed at Unite LA on October 23.
During Universal’s mentorship event, I sat on a panel with my fellow judges, offering advice for the developers. Gary Lokum, the vice president of business development, games, and digital platforms at Universal, moderated the panel.
Besides me, the panelists included the other judges for the contest: Bob Gale, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter-producer-director, best known as co-creator, co-writer and co-producer of the Back to the Future films; Kate Edwards, CEO and principal consultant at Geogrify, the executive director of Take This and former executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA); and Lauren Montgomery, co-executive producer at DreamWorks TV and showrunner for DreamWorks’ Voltron: Legendary Defender.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our panel. I’ve also embedded a video from Universal about the contest and further advice from the judges on how to develop a sense of passion for games and figure out the kind of games they want to make.
Gary Lokum: I’d love to know what you felt was intriguing about this program, what compelled you to participate? Bob, when we were talking early on, Back to the Future was something that we looked at. This is a property that’s beloved, that we want to do a great game with. I had to reach out to different creators to get them involved in this program.
I remember calling Bob and saying, “There are these new events happening. They’re called game jams. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them? People create games over the weekend. I’d like to get Back to the Future.” I had about 10 minutes of ammunition about why this made sense, and before I did any of that, he said, “That’s great! Let’s get it done!” That’s it. Bob, why did you think it was such a great opportunity?
Bob Gale: I’ve been playing video games since Pong. That’s how old I am. I’ve loved them ever since. And Back to the Future has spawned some of the shittiest games ever made. If you’ve never seen the YouTube video of the Angry Nintendo Nerd reviewing the LJN Back to the Future 8-bit Nintendo cartridge, put that on your must-view list. That was one of the worst games ever made. It was so bad that when it came out, I did interviews and told our fans not to buy it.
We go off to make the sequels and the game guys at Universal say, “We’re gonna do a license for the sequels.” I said, “Well, let’s not do what we did with LJN.” LJN was wholly owned by Universal, so we were stuck with them at first. They put this up for sale and Acclaim picked up the license. I think, “OK, Acclaim, they’ve done some good stuff. I’d love to have some input.” The guys at Acclaim were like, “Gale, what the fuck does he know? You’re a movie guy. We’re in the game business. Fuck you.” Okay?
And what did they bring? Well, it turned out that they didn’t have enough time or enough money to do it right, so they said, “We’ve got this subcontractor in New Zealand. They’ve got this platform game. We just have to change the images and the iconography to Back to the Future and it’ll be Back to the Future II.” They show me this game where Marty McFly is running around and jumping and grabbing cherries off trees. What the fuck is this? Back then there were two states that a game was ever in. Either it was too soon to tell, or too late to change. It was too late to change at this point. Again, I told people, “Don’t buy this piece of shit.”
It wasn’t until 2010 that we had a decent Back to the Future, thanks to Gary and the Universal guys and Telltale Games. When he told me about this, I said, “Okay, this is right. This is what we need to do. Let’s get the IP out there to people who love the movie. Let’s get all this IP out there to people who love Battlestar Galactica or Turok or Jaws or Voltron.” That passion is going to drive something much more exciting than you’d normally get when Universal just sells a game license to such-and-such company and you get a team of creators doing it because it’s their job.
Thank you all for entering this contest. Thank you for the love of these IPs, whatever you picked out, because this is how we can make exciting, great games based on this kind of material.
Kate Edwards: I’m involved in a lot of contests, judging a lot of contests, whether it’s indie game contests or larger events, all that stuff. I’m very familiar with judging games. But you almost never get to judge something you’re so familiar with. Going into a contest like this, where I’m vastly familiar with all of these IPs — some more than others, but I’m intimately familiar with the details behind them. I was instantly intrigued to be involved, because I wanted to see how the vision as it’s expressed in TV or film could be represented in games.
That was one of the biggest draws for me, other than I just like to judge. [laughs] But not in a bad way! I like to be constructive. That was what set it apart from a lot of other contests.
Lauren Montgomery: I have no involvement in video games, other than I am a gamer. I enjoy video games very much, but I come more from the TV and animation side of things. One thing I do know about is taking a beloved IP and creating new content based on it. That’s really exciting to me. I’m a fan of a lot of things, and sometimes I’ll just fantasize — how would I update that for today? How would I make that new?
That’s one of the things that was exciting to me about this contest, just seeing how all these creative minds were going to take these beloved properties and not only do something new with them, but take them into a new medium — take them away from television and into video games. That’s what excited me about it.
Dean Takahashi: I come from Silicon Valley. There’s a futurist there named Paul Saffo. He always talked about this shift going on, economically, from an industrial economy to a consumer economy, and then to what he believes we’re all in now, the creator economy. I like to run with that and pose this idea of a leisure economy, where someday we’re all going to get paid to play games, to be entertained.
I’m an example of that. I’m a game reviewer. But all kinds of people are getting paid to play games — esports competitors, modders, live streamer, YouTubers. This whole set of people have created jobs that have never existed before. This contest was interesting to me because it’s making more of this happen. Indie developers, people who aren’t so different from modders — perhaps a professional level above that — getting together with all this cool IP and seeing what comes out of it. We all know that fan-fiction can be pretty cool stuff these days. This seems something like that. It was pretty interesting.
Lokum: One thing that I got when I was talking with different developers is that we have lots of different experience levels, people at different stages of their careers. But one thing I heard that really spoke to me — some people are doing this as a side job, but if it actually works out for them, they could quit their job and do this full time and really follow their passion.
One of the questions we had was, all of you are very successful now, but you didn’t just arrive there. You worked to get there. Whatever type of adversity you might have gone through to get to this point in your career — I’ll start with you, Kate, because you have a very interesting background. I also think you’re a kind of pioneer when it comes to diversity and sensitivity in the game space. What type of adversity have you run into? What made you stronger to get to the point you’re at now?
Edwards: To put it briefly, when I went to high school, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was four years old when we stepped on the moon, and I’ll never forget it. I wanted to do that. That’s what I aspired to do. A year of calculus and aerospace engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo nearly killed me, so I changed my major to industrial design and went to Cal State Long Beach, because I knew most of the artists at Lucasfilm had an industrial design background. I wanted to be an artist on Star Wars. I had the artistic skills, and I wanted to be able to draw like them.
But I got bored with that program, so I changed my major to geography and cartography, because I loved maps. I loved culture and travel. I could still use my artistic skill with cartography. I never lost my love of space, of Star Wars and geeky stuff, but I decided to go in a different direction. I ended up staying with that, and got my master’s degree in geography. I did a master’s thesis in 1991 about AR and VR for cartography.
Then I got pulled into Microsoft. I thought it was going to be a three-month contract to work on the Encarta encyclopedia, and I ended up staying there for 13 years. While I was there, I noticed a huge hole in the risk exposure of the company, where they weren’t addressing the cultural and geopolitical implications of the content in their products. Things like flag usage, gesture usage, the maps in their games. Once their games division got started, things like character design and all these other factors that can get you in trouble in different cultures and with different governments depending on local expectations.
With my background, I wrote up a proposal to create an internal team called Geopolitical Strategy. It took nine months of persistence and talking to different VPs to finally get one to approve it. It was the one who was not from the United States. He instantly got it. [laughs] And the rest was history. I led that group until 2005, when I became a consultant.
My love of games took me here. Like Bob, Pong was my first game. That’s how old I am too. I’ve loved games ever since. I never aspired to work in the game industry, because honestly, when I was young, there wasn’t a lot to be said for the existing game industry. There were no game design degrees. But I just went down this circuitous route, following my passion, doing what I like to do.
One of the footnotes to this is that, many years later, I actually got to work on Star Wars: The Old Republic for four years. I got to work on Star Wars as a culturalization consultant, not as a conceptual artist, but I still got to do it. The circle was complete. It’s a lot of persistence, a lot of following a direction that made no sense at the time.
Montgomery: As a little girl, loving animation, I was naturally very into Disney princesses. They were my thing. I grew up and got into things like the Batman animated series, anime, action-adventure stuff, and ultimately, when it came time for me to pursue my career, I was able to get a job in the action-adventure side of animation. It’s a very male-dominated side of the industry. It’s very much geared toward boys and young men. Myself, growing up liking it, I didn’t really understand why people weren’t gearing this toward women or even considering them an audience at all.
I spent a large portion of my career just making shows about boys for boys, savoring the chances I would get to have a woman on screen for five minutes or so and I got to draw her. It’s been an uphill battle for a long time. It’s only really been recently, working on Voltron, that we’ve finally been able to get some studio heads and other people to realize that we have an extremely large audience of young women, and there’s an audience watching animation for women.
Across the board, there are more women gamers than ever. There are more women coming into the industry. Even conventions are attended by more and more women. It’s been a slow process, but it’s exciting to me, and I’m happy that it’s starting to have a happy ending. I hope it just keeps going from here.
Takahashi: I first started formally covering games at the Wall Street Journal in the San Francisco office. I got that position because I was the only one in the office who was young enough to be playing games at the time. Every now and then, a couple of times a year, Walt Mossberg would go on vacation and they needed a sub, so I would write game reviews for the first time in the Wall Street Journal. Air Warrior was one of them.
I was trying at the time to explain games to people who didn’t play games or understand them. Wall Street was run by very much that kind of people. They saw games as a small industry, a niche, a subculture, something that was a stepchild to the movies and other things. Over my whole career, this has been the struggle for games, that they’re somehow a stepchild to something else and they’ve never merited being the central thing.
Explaining games to people who didn’t understand them became a good job, especially as games have grown up. Some estimates have the industry at $116 billion a year, $70 billion for mobile games alone. We all know they’re a big deal now. As a group, the younger folks here are lucky, because — I wrote about a lot of people who were struggling to communicate this same thing upward, to bosses and CEOs and people who had budgets to allocate. It’s been a long struggle for all those people, and now you’re arriving at a very good time for the game industry.