Movie fans know that 2004 marks Godzilla's 50th birthday: a good time for Atari to launch its new monster fighting game, Godzilla: Save the Earth. Developed by Oregon's Pipeworks Software (pictured at left), the PS2 version launched in the past week, and the Xbox version is due in just two more weeks.
Pipeworks' president and cofounder Dan Duncalf and a few members of the development team attended a Godzilla film festival in Portland, Oregon, last weekend to speak about the game and to lend their blessings to a Godzilla: STE tournament, played in almost life-size proportions on the movie screen, thanks to a high-end digital projector.
GameSpot caught up with Duncalf during the event to talk about his experiences working with Toho Studios and his ideas on what the future holds for small developers like Pipeworks.
Duncalf is a game industry veteran. His console pedigree includes ports of classics like Golden Axe and Turbo Outrun, and his experience helped Pipeworks grab some early high-profile projects for the Xbox, including the well-received Raven & Rex technology demo. This demo may have helped attract Atari, which approached Pipeworks shortly after the Xbox launched with an interesting offer: it had licensed Godzilla from copyright-holder Toho Studios, and it was looking for a developer.
The rest, as they say, is history. Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters did well enough as a GameCube-only release to get an Xbox port and spawn the sequel that hit the shelves yesterday: Godzilla: Save the Earth. As a result, Duncalf has now worked with Toho Studios and its most famous creation for four years, and he has some interesting stories about those experiences.
Working with Toho
As Duncalf put it, "Toho takes Godzilla very seriously." This phrase was repeated so often by Duncalf and other members of the development team during the round table following our interview that it became a kind of mantra. For most Americans, the kitsch value of a man in a rubber suit trampling cardboard buildings is a major component in Godzilla's appeal. Toho doesn't see it that way, and because the licensing agreement gave the movie studio final approval for each animation in the game, Pipeworks had to respect its opinions.
It's easy to guess that Toho's main concern is its most famous creation's market value. Godzilla is the goose that laid the golden licensing egg, and it's not surprising that the company wants to protect that revenue stream. That means that the games can't make any significant departures from the movies, and that might alienate Godzilla's fans. As a result, the game's sound effects and music are sampled from the movies; like the movie Godzilla, the game Godzilla is not shown directly killing humans (for example, it's OK to tear down a building, but it's not OK to step on a pedestrian); and most importantly, the monster's attacks and movements must follow what's shown in Toho's canon: 50 years of Godzilla films.
A typical Toho objection during development: "That behavior is not appropriate for that monster." Some moves--and some monsters---were retired as a result of that judgment.
But Toho wasn't completely rigid. The movie studio did compromise when Pipeworks could convince it that a new attack or motion led to improved gameplay. As an example of Toho's flexibility, Duncalf cited the "hotfoot" animation from the first game: when Godzilla's foot is burned by a magma attack, he holds it in his hands and hops around on his other foot. Toho's initial reaction was: "Godzilla does not dance in a circle and go 'ow.'" But after consideration, they saw the humor in the animation, and allowed it to be included in the final game. Similarly, in Godzilla: STE, the flyweight monster Baragon can pick up smokestacks and use them to fence with his opponents--another behavior that Toho hadn't previously considered.
Duncalf was poker-faced on the possibility of a third game in the series, saying only that it depended on sales for Godzilla: Save the Earth. But he was more open about where he sees the game industry--and Pipeworks--going in the next few years.
The challenge of next-gen development
During a Q&A session after the round table, Duncalf estimated that the average budget for a next-gen console game will range from $6 to $20 million--a steep increase from the $3 to $5 million he cited for the current generation. He also noted that he was specifically aware of a number of next-gen games with budgets in the $10 to $13 million range. Asked how the increased development burden would affect a small studio like Pipeworks, he candidly admitted, "we've been told that we don't have enough staff for a next-gen console game."
Ballooning development costs are a perennial concern in the game development industry, and Duncalf didn't try to minimize the possible impact. "At some point," he said, "the business model falls apart." An industry in which costs go up while average unit price and units sold remain the same is unsustainable. He predicted that once the new consoles launched, a few publishers would go bankrupt, and others would survive only by producing a steady stream of "safe" games--sequels and well-known licenses--and refusing to fund risky projects.
Duncalf was far more optimistic about the prospects for developers. "The publishers carry all the risk," he pointed out. In his view, a publisher that goes bankrupt will find it almost impossible to find enough capital to return to financing game development, but if a studio goes under, the developers there will always be able to find work at another studio. Of course, he has no intention of seeing Pipeworks go under, and he has some interesting plans toward that end.
He feels that two things will help developers clear the financial hurdles of next-generation game development: better tools and outsourcing. Better tools will allow designers to do more work with minimal programming time, and outsourcing some tasks--Duncalf points to the animation industry as an example--could radically cut costs. It's no surprise that he has given some thought to how both these solutions might work for his studio: Pipeworks is currently considering selling an internally developed animation tool it used for production on its two Godzilla games. And intriguingly, Duncalf is also thinking about how Pipeworks might cooperate with other developers to create a more efficient business model.
As Duncalf puts it, "the load changes during a project." There are distinct phases like engine programming, character design, and testing, and each draws on different strengths. By sharing resources, Duncalf suggests developers might be able to remove the need to have experts in all these areas on their staff. Instead, they'll outsource various phases of the design to developers with corresponding strengths.
It's an appealing solution to the acknowledged challenges facing the industry as it gears up for next-generation games; it will be interesting to see how things turn out.