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GDC Europe Speaker Spotlight: VandenBerghe On Embracing Established IP

In the latest in a series of interviews with speakers from this August's GDC Europe, Ubisoft creative director Jason VandenBerghe discussed how he maintains his creative drive when working on someone else's game concept, noting why all developers should "become a fan" of their IP to stay passionate about their work.

VandenBerghe has been in game development for over 16 years, and much of his career has been spent making games based on popular movie licenses including James Bond (007: Everything Or Nothing), Lord of the Rings (Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age), and X-Men.

During his time working on these well-known franchises, VandenBerghe (Red Steel 2) learned to stay passionate and enthusiastic about his projects, even when a powerful brand offered his team little control over a game's creative direction.

With GDC Europe almost upon us, VandenBerghe teased his upcoming talk, "The Magic Gun: Surviving IP Development Through Embracing Your Constraints," diving in to his approach on IP-based development, and providing tips for making games based on popular licenses.

What do you do to maintain your creative drive when working on an established franchise?

For me, it came easy. I grew up sitting around with my D&D buddies talking about what our own Alien film would be like, or playing through a Traveller campaign based on The Terminator, and even in these early experiments, we were nailing the tone of our beloved franchises.

It was only later, when I came into the industry, that I realized that this was something that was even an issue for people. Working on the James Bond franchise, I was stunned by how many people wanted to utterly change the very nature of that character, simply to suit their personal creative tastes. While I could understand the drive to create, doesn't James Bond deserve to be James Bond?

So, I developed the "Magic Gun": a way of thinking about what I think of as "other people's ideas" that could help my teams re-orient their thinking. It's easy to learn... but extraordinarily difficult to master.

The Magic Gun is this: Learn your constraints, and then embrace them. Simple -- yet so hard to do.

Learning is actually the easiest part: I find experts on the IP I am working on, and I interrogate them mercilessly. It's the embracing part that is truly hard. To succeed as a designer, I must learn to love my IP for the same reasons that the fans of that IP do. Truly, unreservedly, I must become a fan. Then, the real work can begin.

What are some titles you've worked on that most challenged your creative control? Why were these titles particularly challenging to work on?

Few franchises can rival the Bond franchise for challenges related to creative control. James Bond is a $3 billion+ annual industry without the games, and if you think that those guys are going to let you kill the golden goose by incorrectly re-interpreting their character, you got another thing coming.

Strangely, though, the fans of James Bond are almost harder to deal with. Not individually, mind you, but as a group. Ask yourself this: have you ever met anyone in your life who doesn't have an opinion about James Bond?

Chances are, you haven't. That applies to your team as well. And everyone's vision of Bond is just a little bit different.

Getting everyone to see the same creative vision is hard enough. Getting everyone to see the same creative vision when that vision is different from the strongly held, personal vision in their mind? Nearly impossible.

What advice would you give to developers who are stuck working on a game they are not motivated by?

Look around. Ask yourself if there is something else that you can do right now that you would rather be doing.

If the answer is yes, go do that instead.

If the answer is no -- and more often than not, the answer will be no -- then do this: look inside the game you are making, and imagine that someone is going to love it. Ask yourself why. And then become deeply empathetic towards that kind person.

What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced when trying to balance the needs of an established IP with the needs of effective game design?

Sometimes, characters and gameplay don't mix very well. Wolverine is a great example: there have been many, many attempts to make Wolverine great...or even good, for that matter. In my opinion, only Raven's most recent effort shows the greatness of that character, and that was due to their ability to utterly embrace the character's core constraints: his claws.

When I was working with Wolverine, we found him incredibly challenging. As a 3rd person character, you would immediately think that he would be great, right? Here's the thing: Wolverine is a pugilist. He fights with his fists. The fact that he has claws attached isn't really that relevant for gameplay purposes: he still has to get in close. Effectively, Wolverine was built for fighters. Yet, we insist on turning him into an action character.

The solution to this, as illustrated by Raven, is to allow him to leap... and to give the game an M-rating. That one key factor -- the ability to slice up your enemies -- made all the difference in the game. Every other version of Wolverine had been T-rated, and that was a constraint that was very difficult to overcome.

How will your GDC Europe talk address working with established IP, and what do you expect people to take away from it?

I expect people to come away with a clear, simple mantra that they can use in the most common problem situation they will be presented with: "Uh oh! We can't change our IP...but we need to make it fun! What do we do!?"

I'm going to present my solution to this dilemma, which I call the "Magic Gun." The idea is that it is true that there is no magic bullet to this problem -- I can't give you a guaranteed fix. But there is a magic gun. I can show you the weapon, I can teach you how it works...but you have to make your own bullets, and have to learn how to fire it yourself -- much moreso, in fact, than with most game development advice.

Additional Info.

GDC Europe will take place August 15-17, 2011 at the Cologne Congress-Centrum Ost, alongside the major gamescom trade show, and will host lectures and panels with other notable speakers, including keynotes from Epic Games president Mike Capps, Ultima creator Richard Garriott, and Wooga founder Jens Begemann.

For more information on GDC Europe, please visit the official GDC Europe website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Europe-specific news page via RSS, Twitter, or Facebook. GDC Europe is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb, as is this website.

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