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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.

Would Don Draper Go Mad For iAds?

Don Draper meets the iPad and iAd

Fooling around with the Tron: Legacy iAd – the first iAd for Apple’s iPad – I wondered what Don Draper would make of the new advertising format. (Not a curmudgeonly 90-year-old Don Draper of today, who’d probably be more concerned with those loud teens down the block than the latest whatsit. I mean an in-his-prime, boozing, smoking and Kodak Carousel-branding Don Draper.)

“Advertising is based on one thing,” Draper said in Mad Men’s first season.  “Happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” The role of advertising in our lives and what it strives to achieve has changed since Draper’s time. The core is perhaps the same – to reach someone in a manner that speaks to them – but the idea of ads telling you you’re “okay” has evolved, as has the meaning of “happiness,” via advertising. Today, successful ads achieve a broader emotional engagement in a way that excites people honestly and intellectually. More than something material, they give you something worthwhile. So what does it mean for people seeing advertisements that they can reach out and physically manipulate, touch and interact with?

iAds are the posterchild of immersive HTML5 ads – the advertising format on all touch screen mobile devices – and this new format can revolutionize advertising altogether. iAds made their debut last year on the iPad’s smaller cousins, the iPhone and iPod Touch, with several top-shelf brands (including Nissan, Audible.com, and Campbell) making creative entries. They first appear as banners in iApps, can be clicked and activated, and then exited at any time. The hook (and innovation) is that that they’re not passive ads; users interact with them physically via the touch screen and engage with them on their own terms.

iAds and HTML5 ads can make the user a part of the advertisement like never before, and that is genuinely exciting in a, “Let’s create something no one has ever seen before and make a real connection” way. As a gamer, I think of how Nintendo’s seemingly simple innovation of user interaction changed how we relate to video games forever, stirring the imagination in new ways. I watched my friend’s 85-year-old grandfather play Wii Bowling, probably the first time he’d “bowled” in 30 years, invigorated with each strike; I smiled as my uncle played Wii Baseball, swinging the remote like he was back in Brooklyn playing stickball. They were honest moments of joy.

iAds and HTML5 ads can have the same impact on how we experience advertisements. The Tron iAd lets you spin, with a flick of the wrist, a Tron-inspired wheel that takes you to movie trailers, a map with theaters near you playing the movie (the most usable, personalized feature), soundtrack samples and more. Nissan’s iAd for the Leaf, a 100% electric car, makes use of all of the iPhone’s functionality – tapping, sliding, tilting, and even shaking – to give users a unique, in-depth experience. You can rotate the car; see inside it; watch a high-quality video ad; reserve one or compare it, dollar-by-dollar and mile-by-mile, to other cars. It’s almost an app in disguise, and it’s a delight.

So what would everyone’s favorite ad exec think of iAds? Can they tell you you’re okay and bring about happiness by today’s standards? I think Don would argue that they have more potential to accomplish this than maybe any other ad format that came before. The Nissan iAd, through the experience of exploring the car and the message of just how different and innovative the Leaf is, does tell you you’re okay. It tells you you’re taking a step into something important, social and worthwhile. That is happiness. Imagine what Draper could have done with this technology while working on the Kodak Carousel? Maybe he’d give users the chance to spin it themselves, upload their own photos instantly, and share them – and the stories behind them – with friends.

iAds and HTML5 ads represent change. “And let’s also say that change is neither good nor bad,” Draper said in the show’s third season, “it simply is. It can be greeted with terror or joy, a tantrum that says, ‘I want it the way it was,’ or a dance that says, ‘Look, something new!’” My guess is, he’d be excited by the “something new” that iAds bring: the chance to connect with people on even deeper levels than ever before.