Oceans’ Robocop was so successful it spent over a year at the top of the software charts. Based on the hyper-violent film of the same name, it set a new standard for film licences, and created a successful template that Ocean would use for years to come. Here Gary Bracey and Mike Lamb reveal how it all happened.
With 8-bit micro versions released in 1988 and 16-bit ports the following year, Ocean Software’s RoboCop became the quintessential videogame success story of the decade, subsequently putting the Mancunian software house firmly on the map and setting it up for many prolific and profitable years that reached well into the Nineties.
The Spectrum version was superb and is loved by many.
Having secured the electronic rights while the film itself was still considered an unknown quantity, Ocean produced a game that both converted Data East’s monster coin-op hit and also added a sprinkling of originality to the game design. Pulsating action in the form of side-scrolling platform mayhem from the arcade was blended with puzzle and first-person shooter sub-games to create a diverse and faithful representation of the movie in a game that sold in the millions and topped the multiformat charts for what seemed like an eternity.
Ocean Software already had a track record with profitable film licences such as Short Circuit and Rambo: First Blood Part II when the licence rights for RoboCop became available. As the company’s former development director Gary Bracey explains, he knew that a futuristic sci-fi action film with a Detroit cyborg cop out for revenge would be the perfect material for a computer game. “Being the ‘movie buff’, these scripts always came to me (as I was the only person who would read the damn things),” he says. “I still have all the original scripts of movies like RoboCop, Silence Of The Lambs, etc. Anyway, I remember about ten years later, fellow exec Jon Woods showed me the RoboCop script he had kept for posterity. It had a yellow Post-it note on the cover on which I had scrawled, ‘We should get this – it could be a winner!’”
The 16-bit conversions shared more in common with Data East’s arcade game.
“As far as I was concerned, the material was ideal for a videogame,” he continues. “Science fiction, shooting, set pieces, etc. Also, the movie itself was quite low budget, which in turn allowed us to negotiate a very preferential deal. I think the guarantee we paid (for worldwide rights on all electronic formats) was in the tens of thousands.” As the game went into production, the film was just hitting cinemas and starting to become a global phenomenon, as Gary recalls, “I loved the movie. The success of the film was a little bit of a surprise as we did take a flyer on it. The fact that the director was unknown, as were the cast, made it speculative at best. The script wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of modern literature, but it did have the same gritty feel that Blade Runner had… which meant that if it had been made well it stood a pretty good chance of making its mark. It was and it did.”
Although on the surface a generic genre piece, and sold on its ultra-violent sci-fi action, the film itself has gone on to be praised for its more cerebral elements and underlying metaphor and allegory – specifically its Americanisation of the Bible. Gary, however, explains that this element was never really a factor when opting for the licence rights. “Not that analytical, I’m afraid,” he explains. “It was evaluated on the entertainment value and what the demographic would be. Basically, you take a science-fiction action film and (back then, at least) you have pretty much the same audience as that for computer games. The subtleties and subtext were immaterial as they wouldn’t translate into game elements anyway.”
The were a number of cool mini-games, with this one being a firm favourite.
With the rights acquired, it was a bizarre twist of fate that would bring an arcade machine manufacturer to a software company when Data East sought to sub-licence the title from Ocean in order to create its own arcade game. This would result in the rather ironic occurrence of Data East crediting Ocean Software on the Attract mode for its RoboCop coin-op – which Ocean would then go on to convert. Gary details the specifics to this somewhat unique event, “At the time, I wasn’t directly involved in the Data East deal – that was Jon Woods and David Ward. They already had a relationship with that company as I think Ocean may have licensed a coin-op game from them earlier. When RoboCop came up, then we acquired all the worldwide electronic rights so Data East sub-licensed the coin-op and pinball rights from us. Cannily, they also negotiated the rights for us to convert the coin-op game. As a side note, the then-CEO of Data East was Ray Musci who went on to become President of Ocean Of America a few years later.”
When Ocean’s own interpretation eventually went into development, Gary divulges that neither Orion, Paul Verhoeven nor the other film-makers were as protective over their intellectual property as Warner Brothers was with Batman the following year, “We had the usual approvals process, but they weren’t very precious about the property at the time (not in the way Warner was with Batman, for instance).” With the film being an American production and principal photography taking place in Texas, the on-set access Ocean would experience in 1989 for Batman: The Movie was out of the question. It was, however, gifted with some very useful reference material. “We did get a little video footage prior to the film release,” says Gary. “However, keep in mind that as we were basing our game on that of Data East’s then we never needed such reference. Data East visited the set a couple of times, I think, and were given access to pre-release footage and stills. The coolest thing I saw was the original uncut scene of Murphy’s death (the triggering event that leads to him becoming RoboCop). It was mega-graphic for those days and substantially cut/edited when it finally hit theatres. I guess it was restored for the inevitable ‘Director’s Cut’ DVD.”
The Amstrad was another good conversion and not a direct port
of the Spectrum game.
As would be the case with his high-profile film tie-in in 1989, Gary himself was very close to the project of RoboCop and had a commendable slice of input for a company executive. “The main driving force behind the game was Mike Lamb,” he explains. “Although the most significant elements were taken from the coin-op version, it was Mike Lamb who translated and adapted it for home computers. I think the one thing that was my idea was the Photofit bit. For some reason, I was always into faces in games and I think my career in this business has left a small trail of breadcrumbs leading to what I am doing at the moment (Digimask). The Photofit section of RoboCop is one of those breadcrumbs. Other than that, I just generally managed the development and oversaw the game on all the formats. Data East did the NES version, and we did the Game Boy (in fact, Mike Lamb did it).”
While the resulting game would become memorable for many reasons, one of the most notable was the way in which it deviated from the norm of being a genre-specific game and incorporated the concept of several diverse sub-games that came together to form a complete experience. This would change the way software houses and players thought about videogames, and proved instrumental in Ocean’s design process for many years to come. “I think we just wanted to make our mark,” says Gary. “If we had simply converted the coin-op version then it wouldn’t have been terribly satisfying (creatively) for the teams involved. We therefore wanted to put our own stamp and spin on the product, as well as differentiating it from the coin-op. Keep in mind the philosophy between the formats is very different: coin-ops want you to keep plugging quarters into the machine, whereas computer (video) games are able to be a little more diverse and challenging. We wanted to take advantage of that freedom and also incorporate ideas/scenes from the film, which were not just the blasting/action elements. This became a philosophical template for future movie licences.”