Ghostbusters was one of those rare things – a film licence that was actually good. Like really good. First released on the Commodore 64, before being ported to numerous other systems, we decided to speak to David Crane and find out how it all began.
When you look back at the god-awful film and TV licences that came out on the early 8-bit computers, it’s shocking to realise that many of them actually appeared after David Crane’s delightful Ghostbusters and not before. Turds such as Street Hawk, Knight Rider, Highlander and Miami Vice – interestingly, all by Ocean – were just a few of the titles to make gamers curse with frustration; mainly because they shared little, or nothing in common with what they were actually supposed to be based on. Earlier systems such as the Atari 2600 fared little better, and while the odd enjoyable gem springs to mind on that system (The Empire Strikes Back being a reasonable example) it was hamstrung by some atrocious pieces of coding, the most memorable being Atari’s infamous ET: The Extra Terrestrial.
Busting ghosts is highly satisfying. In fact you could say bustin
makes us feel good.
“To be fair, the biggest problem with Atari’s ET was the sheer cost of the licence,” explains Crane when we ask him why so many licences failed to make the grade. “Atari had to sell around four million copies of the game just to break even. That would have been more games than any cartridge in history. Then you have the fact that the game itself was developed in record time – leaving the game designer very little time to ensure the game played well.” So while ET is a more extreme example of a poor licence, it does highlight one crucial aspect that all licences do have in common – a ridiculously short development cycle. “You have to remember that there is usually no interest in an actual movie licence, until the movie itself is far enough along to generate some actual excitement,” continues Crane. “And once a movie is finally released its excitement only lasts so long, so a videogame publisher has to identify a licence, negotiate a licence, design and program a game, then get cartridges manufactured and on the shelves before the movie is old news. When all of these tasks have to fit into a compressed schedule, it is the amount of time allocated to game design and programming that inevitably suffers.”
When you have a schedule as tight as the above, it helps that all parts of your team are firing on all cylinders, and being able to spot a potential hit ahead of time is crucial for success. Step forward one Tom Lopez, then Vice President of Activison’s Product Development who Crane gives full credit to for acquiring the lucrative licence before any other publisher expected it to be a hit. “When choosing movie licences for videogames you have to catch a licence early if you have any hope of making a good deal financially,” Crane continues, clearly warming to the subject. “A good example is that of Acclaim when it signed the rights for The Simpsons when it was still a small feature on the Tracy Ulmann show.”
Nowadays film licences can be a tricky proposition with anything from the film studio to the actual movie’s stars calling the shots on how the game is finally realised. Fortunately for Crane, things were not quite so hands-on back in 1984 and the talented programmer found himself with a surprising amount on freedom, for what was to be such a big licence. There were no requests from Columbia to make a specific type of game, there were no rules or stipulations in place that meant Crane’s already short development time would be further decreased, he was simply allowed to get on with it. A deal that suited Crane perfectly. “I had a script and some storyboards, and that was enough,” he confirms. “My personal opinion on how to design a licenced game is this: Design an original game that works within the THEME of the actual licence. Don’t try to make the movie into a game… make a game that borrows from the look and feel of the movie.” Of course, when you already have some game mechanics in place, it makes it a lot easier to work out a final product, particularly when you find that its development time is going to be severely cut down.
Ghostbusters hit many systems. This is the Spectrum port.
“When Tom Lopez determined that the Ghostbusters licence was available and that he could get it for a reasonable price, he came to the game design group,” continues Crane. “He told us, ‘this licence is available. To make financial sense we will have to make a game in six weeks (as opposed to the normal nine months). What can we do?’ We all agreed that if we had to start a game from scratch we could not do a quality game in the necessary timeframe.” Luckily for Lopez, Crane had already been toying with a game called Car Wars that featured a resource-allocation segment where players could buy different armaments for their cars from the money they had earned on levels. Car Wars was also due to feature a top-view racing segment that would combine both racing and shooting. Needless to say, the seeds of an idea were quickly formulating in Crane’s mind.
“One of the coolest props from the movie was the hearse-turned-ghostmobile,” laughs Crane, clearly enjoying the trip down memory lane. “I could picture how to wrap the theme of this new movie around my existing game, with the minimum amount of effort. I kept the top-view racing game and replaced the guns, missiles, and rocket launchers with more appropriate ‘weapons’ such as the Ghost Vacuum. Ultimately though, if the base game Car Wars hadn’t contained a resource-allocation segment, there is no way that the Ghostbusters game would have featured it. That’s great, because I like the way it works. But the harsh realities of development schedules have a major impact on game features. It always has and it always will.”
Obviously Crane is being rather generous in how easily Ghostbusters came together. While the structure was in place, and many of the game mechanics had been decided, what lay ahead was six weeks of incredibly hard graft that saw Crane and the rest of the team working around the clock in order to meet their stringent deadline. “Obviously, Ghostbusters could have been a much better game with more development time,” concedes Crane, “but if it missed the window of opportunity it would not have been the commercial success that it became. And Crane’s tip for looking out for a commercial success? “Look for the sequels,” he laughs, “No unsuccessful game has ever been followed by a sequel.”
Ghosts appear on your way to your next encounter. You can suck them up if you have the right equipment.
Keen to learn how Crane would have improved on an already enjoyable game our eagerness had to wait as Crane was now in full flow… “Here’s a tip for game designers I like to call: ‘How to deal with a tight deadline.’ Complete a full game as quickly as possible, and then go back and enhance until they pry the code from your hands. After that, STOP adding features and only fix bugs, or you’ll simply fall victim to ‘creeping elegance’. Give your game a beginning, middle, and an end. If the code-release deadline comes and all you have is a fully playable and beautifully tweaked main game, all of your work is commercially worthless! That game can’t be released. Implement the complete game flow, from the time the player boots up until the final congratulations screen. Do this first, even if the fun part – the main gameplay sequence – is nothing but a placeholder. Second, make the game really fun but leave out neat little enhancements that might take a day or two to code. Then in the last weeks of a project, revisit each part of the sequence based on greatest need and add the cool little ideas that have been percolating in your brain. The result is that near the end of the allocated time you have an average, but complete game that has at least some commercial value even before it has all the coolest tweaks. But since everybody knows that a great game sells better than an average game, you have the leverage to show your publisher that you can improve the game with each subsequent day they can give you. I did this with the Ghostbusters title (as I do with all my games). I spent every hour that the schedule allowed tweaking the game, and it came out OK in the end. I could have done a lot more, but in the final analysis it seems to have been enough.”
It certainly did seem to be enough, as Ghostbusters proved to be a massive hit for both Activision and Columbia, but was Crane concerned that such an effects-laden movie would translate well to an 8-bit home computer? “Not at all,” he tells us. “If you think about it, it wasn’t the special effects that made the movie enjoyable, nor would special effects make the game more playable. Modern console games often fall into the trap of substituting effects for gameplay. It was much easier for us in the Eighties to avoid that trap because the hardware was so much more limiting than what is on the market today. You set out to design a fun game, and you put in as many cool effects as you could without compromising the fun.”
The city map. Flashing buildings indicate ghosts, so move towards them as quickly as possible.
One notable aspect of Crane’s Ghostbusters, was that, unlike many of his previous titles, it was released on the C64 first and then ported over to the Atari 2600, which by then Crane declares as “being history”. Despite Crane’s frank statement, he still holds a torch for Atari’s popular console. “The Atari 2600 was the most challenging system to program in history, and I loved it,” he tells us. “As a puzzle-solver I derived great satisfaction from making the 2600 do things that its designers had never intended. The Commodore 64 on the other hand was far simpler. On one hand that allowed me to spend more time on gameplay and less on display difficulties. But in missing the challenge I would often try to make the Commodore 64 do unusual things. Why else would my first C64 game be able to talk?
Ah yes, Ghostbusters’ now infamous speech. Whilst not the first game to offer digitised speech – that honour goes to Williams’ Sinistar – it was certainly a chatty little title. “Midway through development, I decided it was important to add digitized speech to the game,” explains Crane. “Some of the trendiest things to come from the movie were sound bytes such as ‘He slimed me’ and the crowd chanting ‘Ghostbusters!’ I felt the sounds helped to capture the spirit of the movie (pun intended) so I decided to keep them in.”