Monthly Archives July 2011

Interview: Mike Nelson of RiffTrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000

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Mike Nelson is a hero to those who love (or love to hate) bad movies. Having served as head writer and host of the classic TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, Nelson played a large role in elevating movie riffing into a new form of comedy. After the show ceased production in 1999, he kept the flame alive with various projects, but most significantly with the 2006 launch of RiffTrax. An innovative site where users download audio commentaries and sync them with DVDs and Blu-rays, RiffTrax – which features Nelson and fellow MST3K stars Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – lampoons everything from Michael Bay’s Transformers to classics like Casablanca to oddities like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. RiffTrax has also produced a series of successful live shows that are simulcast to movie theaters nationwide, with the latest installment set for August 17: a riffing of the low-grade 1962 fantasy adventure, Jack the Giant Killer. We recently spoke with Nelson about taking a chance on Twilight, sending the Tweet that may have started an Internet forest fire, and blowing up a cheese factory.

Flightpath: I know that after MST3K, you started doing some commentaries for Legend Films on DVD releases like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Little Shop of Horrors, and that led to RiffTrax. But when did the idea of “let’s record commentaries on MP3s and have users sync them with their DVDs” actually hatch?

Mike Nelson: It was actually quite awhile ago. I think probably the first time we ever did some specials for MST, we got to use modern movies because we were just taking bits of the EPK and using that. People were like, “Why aren’t you guys doing this,” which is fairly obvious, why we weren’t. We were thinking in the old days about bundling DVDs with the commentary, kind of before MP3s really took over. So it had been brewing for awhile.

Flightpath: I find that part of the charm of RiffTrax is the syncing. It gives it kind of an underground feel and adds to the experience.

Mike Nelson: You know, we sort of tentatively launched it. We knew that there was at least some demand, because I would get emails. A lot of people saying, “Why aren’t you doing this? This idea is so obvious, you should do this!” And so I knew that there were at least some people who were interested in it, but people say a lot of things. We get suggestions for movies, and people are like, “This would be killer, we would love this,” and then nobody buys it because it’s just a little too off the beaten path. So this seems like it could’ve taken that route, but like you say, there’s a savviness to people who like to be early adopters, and there’s something fun about it.

Flightpath: With RiffTrax, you can do anything because you’re only offering the audio files. Was that really freeing for you compared to MST3K, where your scope was more limited?

Mike Nelson: Yeah, and time limits [on MST3K] were kind of frustrating. Not always, because sometimes you could edit a film and make it actually better than the filmmakers did [Laughs], so you could leave out all the dull parts. But a little bit restricting when you were cutting a lot of stuff that was funny. And that was frustrating for us because we’d write the movie first before we’d edit it, because we just didn’t know how much time we could have. And you’d have to cut a favorite passage because if you didn’t include another part that you needed for the plot…it just presented a lot of complications. So to just be able to do the movie, is sort of freeing.

Flightpath: I wanted to know if I could go through a few RiffTrax with you, and you could give your thoughts on the movie itself and how you attacked it.

Mike Nelson: Sure.

Flightpath: Okay, Birdemic?

Mike Nelson: [Laughs] Well, it’s one of those things we’ve been talking about a lot lately, because a couple of people have emailed and said, “Why did you make me sit through that?” And I think they meant it sincerely. [Laughs] A lot of times people are kidding. It’s one of those things where it’s like, it’s totally indefensible that I like it, because generally, despite what I do for a living, I like to champion good things. But there’s this fun side that’s undeniable, and sometimes things that are totally inexplicable make you laugh. And again, this is one of those where I find it absolutely delightful. And yet if you go, “That is the worst thing. Banish it to the deepest pits of Hell,” I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you.

Flightpath: Twilight?

Mike Nelson: Twilight was very risky for us. In fact, I had a bet with the CEO of Legend, who we partner with. He said, “No, it’s a girl movie. It’s not our audience at all. It’s a bad idea and it’s a risk.” So I bet him a sushi lunch that it would be a success. And it was one of our biggest ones, and it was really, really fun once we weighed it in, because obviously none of the people who work at Legend would be watching these movies or know anything about them. So screening it was a delight, because we were like, “Wow, this is the movie we’ve been waiting for.” [Laughs]

Flightpath: I just felt that with its long dramatic pauses and how serious it took itself, it was perfect for you guys.

Mike Nelson: Yeah, we always are laying out the criteria. We say it has to be sincere, and you know, the pauses – that’s just sort of a technical thing, you have to have room to say something – and it has to have goofy elements. And, boy oh boy, does it excel at all of those things.

Flightpath: The Room?

Mike Nelson: That was also a risky one. We had heard the rumblings about this being the “new B-movie.” There’s something about these really bad movies that you have to know the story going in. You have to know, is this sincere? Is this a put-on? Because how do you relax and enjoy how bad it is when you’re sitting there going, “What is this? Who made this?” And that was my concern about it, that it was just too weird. But then like, two viewings of it convinced me. Once you sort of see the disjointed logic and everything, and you get the story of it, it really helps, and that made it enjoyable. And it was successful for us. But again, another movie like Birdemic, that stands on its own, but we think is enhanced by us.

Flightpath: And you met [The Room director and star] Tommy Wiseau?

Mike Nelson: I didn’t meet him face-to-face. We had several discussions with him; he was concerned about our RiffTrax, and he called us up. I think he really thought that we were stealing his movie or something. I don’t think he fully understood what we were saying, that it was just a commentary to it. But he – for a long time – tried to talk us into settling a lawsuit that he was going to bring, and I think we just couldn’t get through to him.

But then after that, coincidentally, he was at Comic-Con, and my son who had seen The Room went and waited in line for him and got pictures with him and with [Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room], and he mentioned who he was. And again, Wiseau seemed confused, but [Greg] was like, “Oh yeah, I heard about this. I heard it’s really funny!” And he’s since admitted that he loves it. So at least somebody knows and understands the spirit of it and thinks it’s funny.

Flightpath: The Internet has evolved into a real destination for comedy, from Funny or Die to College Humor to RiffTrax. Why do you think that is?

Mike Nelson: I think [it’s] immediate access to things that you really like without the filter. You can pick or choose what or when or where. Now that that’s becoming just totally ingrained, I just don’t see that changing. I don’t see the tides of that changing, especially with Hulu and all of that. It just makes no sense. The gatekeepers, I think they’re in trouble as far as that goes, because you can make something and give it directly to the people who want to have it for exactly the kind of arrangements you want to make on it.

I love it. I mean, obviously RiffTrax couldn’t be possible without that, and just connecting on that level and reacting to what people want to see very quickly, I think makes it exciting.

Flightpath: Kind of an extension of that is Twitter, which has drawn a lot of comedy writers and comedians, and you got on board pretty early. What do you think of Twitter?

Mike Nelson: I like it. My use for it is fairly limited. People like me to crack wise about stuff, and that’s pretty much what I use it for: mostly jokes, a few advertisements about what we’re doing – which I never feel bad about, because I’m talking to the very audience who presumably likes what I have. I just try to make it a nice balance of very light stuff and things of interest, pointing things out to people and jokes, and then a few bulletins about what we’ve got going on. It works for me, and then all the people that I think are funny or want to pay attention to, I do the same. It’s perfect.

I know from the outside, when I first was looking into Twitter, I just didn’t understand. “Why? Who would do this?” You have to maybe spend a couple of hours actually doing Twitter and reading what’s going on, and then you get it. “Oh, okay, I understand how these little bulletins work.”

Flightpath: I’d imagine it’s also kind of a good comedy workout, in that you have 140 characters to say what’s in your head perfectly and funny.

Mike Nelson: Yeah. It’s very similar to what we do with RiffTrax, because you get this setup and you get this amount of space to say it in. So we’ve been well-practiced at that. I did a book once [in the Pop Ink series with the Charles S. Anderson Design Company]; it was graphics mostly, but they wanted commentary on it. When I collaborated with them, they would send me the pages back and say, “You need to trim three letters from this.” [Laughs] You know, it became so unbelievably technical. But I had been trained for like, “Okay, make it three letters shorter. How do you reword it to make it fit?” I kind of like the challenge of that.

Flightpath: Did you send the Tweet that basically created Rebecca Black? Is that true?

Mike Nelson: I have been credited for that. We were watching that over the weekend that that happened, and it did sort of fan out from my Tweet about it. Usually just by sheer scale on Twitter, when you post something and you get the replies, you’re kind of like, “Okay, I got 30 or 40 or whatever, that’s fairly decent,” – direct replies or ReTweets or whatever – and this one was just like, insane. Just so many people responding, and it just went on and on. I happened to be traveling that weekend, so I was sort of paying half an eye to it. But another writer here, Conor Lastowka, was Tweeting me, “Uh, we’re up to however many million, and it’s climbing.” So that was kind of fun to watch. It did seem to fan out from there. And obviously you never know for sure. It’s like the forest fire thing. It’s really hard to know what was the thing that started it all.

Flightpath: How do you compare writing for RiffTrax, which is released quickly and online – people can get it instantly – with writing for other mediums you’ve worked in, like TV and print?

Mike Nelson: I just consider the writing of RiffTrax a hard slog at times, because you’re concentrating so much that the amount of time that it takes would probably surprise people, and probably be pretty daunting to most writers. But once you get the efficiencies of it, and you understand what you’re doing – and obviously we’ve done this a lot – there’s something very nice about relaxing into that. It’s like, some people just like doing manual labor to think. This is kind of the opposite. It gets you away from all of the other writing. You know, writing is hard, and I always try to avoid it. Even though I do it for a living, and I’m constantly writing.

When I hear people say, “Oh, when I just have some downtime, I just love to do some writing,” I’m like, “Really? Are you insane? It’s really, really hard!” But there is an element of relaxation to doing it for RiffTrax, where you know what you have ahead of you and it looks like a lot of work. It’s kind of like when I was a kid, I used to like when my dad would to tell me to move a big stack of wood. It was just like, “Well, you know, you just have to do it.” And there’s something about that, of just having this large task ahead of you, and just putting your head down and doing it.

Flightpath: RiffTrax is going back to movie theaters with a new live event. What can you tell us about the movie that you’re going to be riffing and the live experience?

Mike Nelson: Live is always exciting for us, because rarely do we get the immediate feedback. Like I said, you’re sitting in a room doing the slog of writing, and then when we get together amongst ourselves it’s always fun to sort of refine the script. That’s got a writing room feel to it. But you’re still not interacting with an audience, and so that’s always a blast, and the feeling of the infectiousness of laughs is just good for the soul.

The movie that we have is sort of a lift for us, because in the past we were sort of limited to public domain movies, and we’ve worked a lot of the best ones. Titles that could be recognized by an audience and get people excited, we’ve already done. And so this being a brand new one is pretty exciting for us. It’s Jack the Giant Killer, which is kind of a Sinbad adventure-style movie, with stop-animation giants, and wizards and witches and leprechauns in jars, and stuff like that. So it’s pretty perfect for us. It’s not quite an A-level version of that movie; it’s definitely in the B camp.

Flightpath: I have one last question. This is one thing I’ve always wondered. How close was the actual young Mike Nelson in real life compared to the one seen in the MST3K episode Time Chasers, who had hockey hair, temped in a cheese factory, and was in a band called Sex Factory?

Mike Nelson: [Laughs] It wasn’t very close. The cheese factory simulation was spot on, but I was basically playing guys that I had worked with at the cheese factory. I was the odd man out there and looked on as kind of strange, but yeah, through college I worked nights at a cheese factory. It was like 12 to 14 hour days, and I just did it because it was a job that was close. About a couple of years into it I realized that everyone I was working with had been making like five times as much as me, because it was the most hated job in the world and no one would do it. I was like, making minimum wage, putting in 14 hours a night. Stories of the cheese factory never ended in the writing room, and finally the guys were like, “Can we just do an episode about this?”

Flightpath: Well, I’m glad you got out.

Mike Nelson: [Laughs] I did, I did. My fantasy was that I’d make it big in Hollywood, and I would buy the cheese factory, I’d pay off all the workers, have a huge party, and we’d blow up the factory. That’s every guy’s dream when you have a bad job.

Facebook Friday: Analysis of Facebook Campaigns – Amex makes online shopping something you can truly Like

Welcome back to Facebook Friday, where we look at various Facebook marketing campaigns and examine what went right, what went wrong, and everything in-between. For this particular analysis we are going to be examining the new offering from American Express (AMEX) that integrates ‘Likes” with online shopping.

This is more than just a campaign in the traditional Facebook marketing sense; this offering is an entirely new platform that integrates “Links, Likes and Loves” with one’s AMEX credit card.

The Campaign:

The crux of the campaign is tying in deals and offers to AMEX cardholders’ social activity.

Users are directed to the application, which is hosted on the AMEX Facebook page.

They then enter their credit card number into the application in order to connect their card. Once the user has hooked up his/her card, an original deals list is populated. This list is based on the user’s Facebook activity, pages they have liked or places they have checked into, as well as the activity of their online “friends.” Over time, the deals being shown will continue to be adjusted based on deals they or their friends may engage or share with, as well as new activity within their Facebook graph.

The Results:

While the campaign has only been running for a week, one success factor has been the amount of buzz it has generated. Numerous articles and postings are being written about this new platform with almost all of them positive. As far as actual impact on the users, I have not seen any data up to this point about enrollments or redemption of deals, so it’s hard to quantify success at this point.

According to monitor.wildfireapp.com, the AMEX fan page has not shown much growth, increasing by less than 1% since the new offering launched. However, most of the consumers who could take advantage of this deal would most likely be active on Facebook and probably already liked the page, so this may not be a fair number to represent success.

What Worked:

  • Buzz Generating – As previously noted, one of the keys to this campaign has been the buzz that AMEX has been able to garner because it is such a new and unique technology. It capitalizes on some larger trends in the online space, including social shopping and deals.
  • Simplicity for the User – The ease of redemption is one of the biggest selling points. The fact that you don’t have to worry about printing a coupon or bother with a code – everything is automatically is taken care of – is huge. This is a big point for not only consumers but also merchants looking to capitalize in the online deal space. I would be remiss to mention that AMEX understands this, and actually launched a program designed specifically for small business to enroll and take advantage of these coupon-less offers. It is called “Go Social” and has tremendous marketing and outreach potential. Now businesses or companies have an easy way to handle these specials, and don’t have to worry about integrating their point-of-sale technology and/or training their staff on redemption methods.

    When a user participates in a deal, AMEX simply updates their statement with the credit that should be received based on the deal the consumer opted into.

Where It May Fall Short*:

*It’s probably too early to say what didn’t work for this campaign. However, I do think there is one hurdle that may seriously hinder this campaign.

  • Privacy – One element of all this that I have not seen addressed in any of the online press for this campaign is the privacy issue. I have to be honest – I was so enthralled with this program that it didn’t even cross my mind. But as one of my colleagues said, “It sounds cool, but I am not sure I would want to give out my credit card to a Facebook application.”

    That makes sense; I still know people who have a hard time handing out that kind of information over to Amazon or online retailers, let alone doing it within Facebook and a third party application. I am not sure if the public is ready for this step or not.

Takeaway:

Regardless if you are willing to give out your information or not, you cannot argue with the “cool” factor surrounding this campaign and the utility that it provides. Being able to be presented with relevant deals based on your likes and interests, as well as that of your social graph, brings new meaning to personalization and is truly a smart way of utilizing social network technology and connections. Knocking down a major barrier related to online deal redemption by making it automatic, and not something a user or merchant has to worry about, should help lift the usage numbers and get more people involved. This could have a big impact on the bottom line of AMEX; in addition, individuals who may not have a card, would be encouraged to get one, because it is the card to have if you are active in social.

Now where is that enrollment link…

Flightpath Joins the iMedia Top 25 “East Coast Agencies To Watch” List – Amazing, What Some Great Clients Can Do For You!

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Flightpath was recently named to iMedia’s list of 25 East Coast Agencies to Watch. It’s something that has us both excited and humbled.

We thought it was important to talk about this list not because of our inclusion, but because it’s never really about the agency – it’s about the client. The fact is, we have some clients – we can’t name names for fear of blushing – that are extraordinary. It’s the truth. Like, freaking great clients at what they do and what they don’t.

Let me give you three on both sides.

What They Do

  1. Define expectations in measurable, but not constrictive or limiting, ways. Pushing the envelope higher is easier when you know how much altitude you have to fly with.
  2. Make it fun by sharing in and appreciating the passion we have for their business. Our projects are collaborative – that’s where the real joy and excitement of creating something viable and original is most fully realized.
  3. Know the reality that digital marketing and social media are dynamic as they are fraught with unexpected detours. Smart strategy, intuitive SEO/SEM planning, elegant design, and imaginative copy all help keep the bad stuff from happening; but the “state of new” can be harsh if going it alone. Our clients would never let us feel we’re alone!

What They Don’t Do

  1. Shy away from being honest with their opinions. We love feedback and the process of refining an idea until it’s the best it can be.
  2. Keep things close. They partner with us like a…partner! We get to sit, occasionally, at the big person’s table – and that adds cred to us all.
  3. Assume we are always tireless, always available, and even assume other clients don’t exist. What these wonderful clients only assume – what they know is true – is that we share a mutually passionate commitment.

So, we love being able to share with our clients and readers this wonderful news about being an agency worth watching. But we also think it’s just as important to thank our clients, and note what makes them great.

Interview: Josh Shabtai, Creative Director of Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner

Star Wars has had a surprisingly rich history in video games. From the Super Star Wars trilogy for the Super Nintendo to the recent Force Unleashed series, there have been racing games, side-scrollers, RPGs and more, all designed to further engulf game and movie fans in one of the most successful film franchises of all time – but often with mixed results.

Yet some of the most beloved Star Wars games are also some of the earliest: the arcade shooters of the ’80s, starting with the classic vector-graphics based Star Wars, where users piloted an X-Wing in the first film’s Death Star battle.

In 2010, Vertigore Games created Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner, a fast, fun love letter to Star Wars and its early arcade titles, but with new technology – touch screen functionality, motion controls and augmented reality – updating the experience for today’s audiences. Published by THQ Wireless and available exclusively for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Falcon Gunner has players twist, turn and tap their mobile devices to control and fire the Millennium Falcon’s gun turret in over twenty levels, including The Empire Strikes Back‘s asteroid field chase and the climactic Death Star battle from Star Wars. Or, with the use of the camera, they can turn the game’s setting into their immediate surroundings – the living room, the subway, or wherever. It’s exciting, looks great, and stands as one of the best Star Wars game releases on any platform in the last few years.

We recently spoke with Josh Shabtai, CEO and creative director of Vertigore, about his love of Star Wars, how his mother may have provided the inspiration for Falcon Gunner, and the game’s surprising original premise.

Flightpath: Just from playing Falcon Gunner, I could tell you were a huge Star Wars fan because of the level of detail in it.

Josh Shabtai: Oh man. Star Wars has sort of dominated life. I was born in ’79, so I wasn’t even old enough to see the original one in the theater. I’m not really sure what my first exposure to it was. I think I had the books on tape or something. But I ended up collecting a lot when I was a kid. Well, not really collecting so much as begging parents and relatives to buy me every toy.

I had hundreds of toys. I had an original Yak Face, which has gotten more and more valuable. My brother buried it, along with a handful of others, in Virginia Beach when we were on vacation. They’re gone. This was like, when I was eight. That’s kind of the one that got away and has tormented me all my life.

I’ve always been able to weave Star Wars throughout whatever I was doing professionally. I’ve been in PR for awhile, and I worked at an agency called Ketchum. And when I was there, I was on the marketing team that launched Geek Squad, as it transitioned from an independent brand to becoming owned by Best Buy. And I actually convinced them in 2005, the second year they were around, to become sort of the unofficial sponsor of Star Wars-related absenteeism around Episode III. We basically hijacked the launch in all kinds of crazy ways. We built a series of tools so you could get out of work, like an absentee excuse note that was customizable, or things that would automatically block your Outlook calendar. We then partnered with the fans who were waiting on line outside the Ziegfeld, and sponsored that line, and we went for 30 days. So I actually got work to pay for me to wait on line for Episode III. [Laughs] It was amazing. We rented this bus and skinned it to be sort of like the Millennium Falcon, and then inside we made it look retro and really crappy, like the inside of the Millennium Falcon. And there were all these wi-fi stations, so people could connect to work. That was sort of the brand tie-in. But that was the first time I able to somehow merge Star Wars with work.

Flightpath: And then you got into game development?

Josh Shabtai: Yeah. So I went from Ketchum to an Israeli startup, where one of the guys on our board is a serial entrepreneur. He’s put together a really neat incubator-slash-entrepreneur sort of resource calorie. So he not only funds companies, but he also has a layer of human resources developers that connects the business managers and owners with talent, so it actually gives you all the tools to run your own business.

And he was working with these guys on the beginnings of this [shooter] game engine, and as soon as I saw it, I was like, “You know, it’s kind of cool, but what would make it a ton cooler is if you were sitting in the gun turret of the Millennium Falcon. You have to do that.” And basically, Edo – his name’s Edo Segal – he’s like, “Really? You want to do a Star Wars game?” This was February 2010.

Flightpath: So that was where the idea for Falcon Gunner came from.

Josh Shabtai: Yeah. It was a game engine that let you move 360 degrees across three axes, so when I saw it, I was like, “This is serious Millennium Falcon territory.” It was a sprite-based engine, sort of a World War II [setting] for shooting planes that were flying sideways. But the cool thing was, Edo was like, “Look, if you really want to do this, let’s do it.” So I ended up, just sort of on a whim, writing up a 40-page design document and then working with the team to build a demo. And we tracked down THQ Wireless, who owned the license, and we were able to go to them with a working demo and a real design document.

Flightpath: You built a Star Wars-themed demo before you had any approvals?

Josh Shabtai: Yeah. I mean, when we were building it, there was no guarantee we would get to make anything. It really came just from, “I have to make a Star Wars game.”

This will sound like a canned narrative, but this is completely true. When I was a little kid, like three or four, I used to love the Star Wars arcade game. My mom would hold me up to the machine, and I actually got relatively good. For a four-year-old, I could play for probably five to seven minutes at a time. When Episode I came out, I actually flew back home to Erie, Pennsylvania, and bought tickets for my mom, dad, aunt and uncle and all my cousins, and we all went to see it together, because that’s how obsessed I was. And that’s when my mom first told me this story. There was a time where she was holding me up and was getting exhausted, and she actually wanted me to stop playing the game. She was like, “Look, we gotta go. I hear there’s a Millennium Falcon game at the other end of the mall.” And that’s what got me to stop.

Flightpath: Was she lying or was she telling the truth?

Josh Shabtai: No, she was lying! And they never made a Millennium Falcon game! They never made one in the arcade.

Flightpath: So maybe that was the genesis of the idea.

Josh Shabtai: Well, I would bug her. I would always be like, “Where is it?” So then when I started making Falcon Gunner, she was like, “You know, you’ve been working on this since you were four.”

Honestly, my entry point to video games is that I played a ton of them. I was obsessed with understanding how they work. I started to make some alternate reality games, so I was never really making video games as much as games that could be played in real life, and stuff like that. A lot of the work that I was doing in marketing and PR was basically designing entire marketing campaigns that would push people’s buttons to elicit responses, so essentially applying game design thinking to developing integrated marketing campaigns. You’re creating content you know people will interact with. I’ve always done it from that perspective, so when I saw what Edo was doing, I jumped at the chance to do that.

I don’t know if I’ve really told anybody this. Originally, the game design that I wrote up was not Falcon Gunner. My first instinct was to make an awesome Millennium Falcon game, but then second, I was like, “Man, you could make such a cool narrative experience.” So I wanted to actually make a game called Death Star Gunner. The idea being, you start off as the lowest guy on the totem pole in the Empire, basically a space janitor, who ends up graduating to becoming not the Turbo Laser operator on the Death Star, but just a turret operator. Like literally, just running one of those little stupid turrets on the side. [Laughs] Like, it’s so sad. That’s as good as it’s gonna get, and then ultimately…

Flightpath: You get blown up.

Josh Shabtai: [Laughs] Yeah, you get blown up! I wanted to make this awesome thing where you start as a janitor on one of the small frigates, and in the middle of a battle you end up taking on one of the turrets. Basically, your face would be covered the whole time by one of those black helmets. It’s so sad. And then there would be moments where he’s with his wife and kids. It would be this really weird, dry comedy set in the Star Wars universe. Ultimately you graduate, and then at the end when you’re on the Death Star, you get one shot at the Falcon. He literally zips by. If you hit him, the game ends with Vader wiping out Luke and the Empire winning and Vader getting all the credit, and no one ever knew your contribution to it. Or you blow up. [Laughs]

Basically, I put that together thinking, “We’re never gonna really make a Star Wars game, so if we’re gonna make a demo, let’s just do that.” Then I sort of dug deeper into who had the license. We found THQ Wireless had it, and had been making some games for awhile. And then we found we had a real shot at it, and I was actually afraid to pitch this off-the-wall concept.

Flightpath: It’s not a safe bet.

Josh Shabtai: I had no idea how it would fly. I think it’s funny, but will anyone else? So we were like, “Let’s go back to the original idea,” which was a Falcon game. So we went out to THQ, who was really great to work with. I just have to say, I find that so often, ideas get killed because they’re presented in idea form. So to be able to walk in and say, “Hey guys, here’s a working augmented reality Star Wars game,” totally unsolicited, it was good.

I remember the first title for the game was 12 Parsecs. But it sounded too much like a racing game.

Flightpath: How was the development process? What were the stages in creating the game after you got the OK?

Josh Shabtai: First thing really was rebuilding the complete engine from scratch. By the way, the engine that the game’s built on is our own. We call it the Immersion Engine. We built it from the ground up. So when we first started out, the engine we built the demo on was a sprite-based engine, and we gutted it and recreated it so it would be able to have full 3D models and things like that. So we started there. The game that we ended up building was essentially the design document that we put together to present, so a lot of the pre-work had been done, in terms of really outlining what the user progression structure was going to be, what the menu interface system was going to be like. All that work really was done upfront, and then we spent the next couple of months just building all this stuff. We got official sounds from Lucasfilm, and that was pretty cool, and obviously you have to have the real music.

We made a few bets on what the control scheme would be like. The original engine that we had was a simple touch-the-screen to shoot. There were no thumbsticks, so we added that in. In game design, it typically works that you have an idea you think is going to be cool, you implement it as a prototype, and you find out it sucks. So you have to go back and forth. Where we landed with how the control sticks work, the speed with which you can spin to manipulate the position of the turret – all those things – they changed a bit from the final version, but for the most part we nailed a really fun control feeling from that early demo. A lot of credit goes to our devs.

That was a dangerous first game to start with, because when you’re like, “Wow, this is fun with no effort,” you start to feel like that’s the way it’s gonna be on [making] future games. And I can say from experience now that it’s not. So we really lucked into it early on. It was pretty cool.

Flightpath: Was there anything that was off-limits? Characters or locales that Lucasfilm wouldn’t let you touch?

Josh Shabtai: Everything we laid out, they let us do. It was awesome. It’s funny. I feel like in the past, Lucasfilm got a lot of grief about how they played the fan community. But I have to say, they were amazing in terms of providing any assets we were looking for.

Flightpath: And once it was done, how did it feel, both as a designer and as a Star Wars fan, to have made a Star Wars video game?

Josh Shabtai: It hasn’t worn off. I really went into it saying, “Okay, I just want to make a Star Wars game. I don’t even care about anything else.” And trying to make one that would hopefully live up to what I loved about the X-Wing series, and the original arcade game, and to some degree, Rogue Squadron. I dunno man, it hasn’t worn off. It’s still pretty crazy. [Laughs] I really can’t even put it into words. And honestly, when I talk to Star Wars fans who are like, “Man, that game was awesome,” [I get] that good feeling of, “I was able to make something real,” that a lot of people had dreamed of for awhile.

And frankly, what’s funny is that it actually ended up spawning a company, and we’ve made two other games since then, and we have some other stuff coming up. It’s starting to become a significant thing. But I don’t even know if that’s as interesting to me as just having made a Star Wars game.

Flightpath: Well that’s a nice thing to check off your list of things to do in life: Star Wars videogame.

Josh Shabtai: Yeah! I’d like to make more!

Flightpath: Is there a chance for a sequel? Maybe one with speederbikes?

Josh Shabtai: I hope so. [Laughs] But speederbikes are definitely one of the things I’m dying to make.

Flightpath: I don’t know if you feel comfortable answering this, but Star Wars has a big legacy in video game history. Where do you think Falcon Gunner fits in that legacy?

Josh Shabtai: I was obsessed with the X-Wing series. The X-Wing and TIE Fighter series were unbelievable in terms of making you feel like this stuff was real. My favorite game of all time is Knights of the Old Republic. I actually think that nailed the themes behind Star Wars probably better than even the prequels did.

Realistically, I sort of feel like…you know, those games are incredible. You know, Knights of the Old Republic, X-Wing, TIE Fighter, not even just amongst Star Wars artifacts, but just amongst games, they’re unbelievable. I mean, we basically made a fun arcade shooter for iPhone. I’ve gone back and played Rogue Leader on Gamecube, and it’s amazing, some of the things they did in that game. It looks good, it plays well, it’s immersive. I feel like those guys really killed it.

I’m psyched that we introduced augmented reality to it. I think [Falcon Gunner] is closer in spirit to the original arcade game than any of the others. It’s more arcadey, and really, the design objective was really simple.

One part from A New Hope was probably my favorite when I was a kid, and it was when Luke got in the gunner seat and got really excited when he shot [a TIE fighter] down. Han says, “Don’t get cocky!” There was something about that moment. I love that feeling, where he’d never done that before. He’d never sat in a seat like that, he’d never fired those turrets. And for me, that moment where he was elated, and he figured out how to do it and master it, that’s the fabric of the Star Wars that I love. If the game did one thing, it would create that feeling in you. It’s kind of hard to figure out how the controls work well, and then all of a sudden, you lock into it and you have that feeling of elation like Luke did.

I feel like, Knights of the Old Republic, their objective was to immerse you in a universe where you feel the shades of gray between being a Sith and a Jedi, and the political ramifications of decisions being made throughout the galaxy. Those are experiences that are more intricate in nature, so I couldn’t put Falcon Gunner up with those experiences. But at least we nailed that feeling [from A New Hope‘s turret scene], and a game hadn’t done that yet. So, hopefully we earned our place amongst those games.

Google Plus: Potential Impact on SEO, Social Media Marketing, and More

As a marketer who works on behalf of a variety of brands, I am both scared and very intrigued by the introduction of Google Plus.

GOOGLE PLUS & SEARCH

The potential that Google Plus has, if it truly uses the power already built by Google, is tremendous, and brands may not have the luxury to wait around and decide to get involved. And not just because of its potential as a social media tool that can unseat Facebook, but because of its potential to impact search engine rankings in unexpected ways.

Imagine for a moment that you work for Brand X who has a solid presence on Facebook, a decent following on Twitter, but their strongest asset has been their optimization strategy for search engines. This strategy has resulted in Brand X being the top brand for heavy utilized keywords and has helped increase the traffic ten times over in the past year. Brand X feels like they have a good thing going, and when you ask to get involved in Google Plus, they tell you not to bother. You then notice your rankings start to drop and you are being pushed out of the top pages by your competitors. Upon further research, you discover that Company Y decided to get involved in Plus and Google announces that activity in the social network is now factored into their search engine results algorithm. Company Y jumps ahead because they decided to use Plus and now you have to try to get Brand X involved just to stay competitive.

This is a very scary scenario but one that I could see playing out if Google wanted it to. Brands would almost be forced to get involved or risk losing everything their SEO initiatives achieved. Right now, however, there is no way for brands to get involved as it is only open to individual users, but according to Google, brand pages will be available by the end of the year and they are already starting to accept applications for a special beta test.

GOOGLE PLUS & SOCIAL MARKETING

No one knows exactly what Google Plus brand pages will look like or the functionality that they will have. When the product finally rolls out, it could be a big shock and something we have never seen before, or it could be something very similar to the way a Facebook page looks now.

One of the very intriguing things from a marketing perspective would be the targeting capabilities of messaging using the fundamental building block of Plus called Circles. Google said they found one of the major problems with the social landscape today is that one thing is shared with everyone instead of being able to pick and choose. “Not all relationships are created equal,” says the Official Google Blog. “So in life we share one thing with college buddies, another with parents, and almost nothing with our boss. The problem is that today’s online services turn friendship into fast food—wrapping everyone in “friend” paper—and sharing really suffers.” Circles solves this problem by bringing the activity of only sharing certain information with certain people to software.

As a marketer, being able to pick and choose certain subsets of consumers to target a specific message is something that is lacking in the current options, but is a feature with a lot of potential. While Facebook does allow you to target through their ad platform, you cannot target updates or status messages to a specific group. Imagine if you could send coupon and discount messages for kids clothing only to your consumers who you knew had kids. This would avoid a lot of irrelevant messages going to your community and would allow a complete personalization of content.

Still, Facebook has a mechanism available to businesses to help them increase awareness and make their presence known through the use of Facebook ads. Although Google Plus has a lot of potential in this area by connecting with their Ad Words program, the two are currently separate.

Over the next several months, as Google fine tunes the program through feedback and starts to drop hints about the business pages, a clearer picture will certainly emerge on the power that Plus has. If you are a brand though, be ready, because this might be one network you can’t afford to be left behind on.

If you were lucky enough to receive an invitation to Google Plus and have had a chance to try it out and experiment with it, we would love to know your thoughts in the comment field!