Licensed IPs may be an insurance policy against commercial failure for publishers, but most gamers are hardly enthusiastic about titles based on movies. They have a reputation for poor production values and a lack of polish that would cripple games without the added name recognition. But occasionally, a developer is able to transcend the limitations of a license and make a game that succeeds on its own terms. Publishers are quick to reward these efforts with their trust – and the creative freedom that comes with it.
Blue Tongue Entertainment, a medium-sized Australian developer, has produced no less than five games based on licensed property following their acquisition by THQ in 2004. That’s five games in under just four years – not bad for a team of 89. It’s especially challenging working with established franchises and external stakeholders, given the cross referencing of assets and extremely strict deadlines the developer must meet. There’s little room for artists, designers and programmers to truly invest themselves and leave their mark.
Last month, however, the team at Blue Tongue reached a new milestone for the company: They completed a game that, when originally green-lit, led to “a moment of unbounded joy” when “the clouds part and a beam of light shines down and you go, ‘Oh my God, we have complete creative freedom to do whatever we like with this title.'” These are the words of Blue Tongue’s Creative Director, Nick Hagger, about their latest release, de Blob. Like any other developer, however, they had to earn their time in the sun.
In 2006, a development team within Blue Tongue had just completed a Wii port of Barnyard, based on the movie of the same name. The game received a surprisingly positive critical reception considering its humble roots, but it also gave the team the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the Wii’s unique control scheme. Senior V.P. of Product Development Steve Dauterman asked the team to start kicking around ideas for new Wii titles.
Meanwhile, the Dutch demo of The Blob, which featured a rather goofy, pear-shaped lead character who colored his environment by rolling around, had appeared on gamedev.net, capturing the attention of artists and designers throughout the development community. Jon Cartwright, Director of Production at THQ-owned Studio Australia, also saw the demo, and quickly encouraged THQ to pick up the license for de Blob.
“The executive team back in Agoura saw it, and one thing led to another,” explains Hagger. “This cool, fresh new idea was snapped up by a big publisher in a genuine effort to try to be innovative and interesting with a Wii title.”
THQ then assigned the de Blob property to Blue Tongue. However, de Blob‘s characters and environments still remained the property of the Dutch city of Utrecht, leaving Blue Tongue to inherit the pure gameplay mechanic – using a ball to splatter color around a cityscape. It turned out to be a perfect fit with the in-house concepts the team was experimenting with, such as transformational gameplay mechanics and interactive music.
The team decided to keep the spherical nature of the Blob and the basic painting mechanics, building upon them an accessible platformer that anyone could pick up and play. However, the initial prototype took a while to win the hearts and minds of the folks back at THQ corporate.
“We were demonstrating the painting, the environment art-style, the street-art inspired paint effects and the interactive music system,” explains Hagger. “We had a colored ball you could bounce around, and at that point it was like half wielding a paintbrush, half swatting a squash ball.”
“There was a moment of silence, because the people present weren’t quite sure what they were seeing. I knew at this point that we had to work a lot harder to communicate what was fresh and exciting about the game we wanted to make. Thankfully, Steve [Dauterman] continued to champion our vision.”
Coming from a smaller Australian studio, with a game that introduced a mish-mash of not-so-typical mechanics and ideas, Blue Tongue was going out on a limb. Haggar says the team had to answer two rather important questions: “How do we bring a character-driven platform-puzzle game to a marketplace which is very risk adverse at the moment, and how do we convince our publisher to get behind us?” As an internal studio, the team was not only competing for their share of the budget, but for the time and attention of a talented pool of developers that could be working on other licensed property. THQ encourages innovation, Hagger says, but “they also have games to be released and schedules to be filled.”
The next challenge for the team was wrapping up all their kooky concepts into a marketable package. Drawing heavily from the designer vinyl scene, the team created the tyrannical, monochromatic Inkys and the game’s lead character, “de Blob.” Very clean and rounded, de Blob lacked the pedigree and mindshare of such iconic characters as Mario and Sonic, who’ve “had a lot of time to become ingrained in people’s minds as part of the gaming cultural landscape,” according to Hagger. Though not immediately understood by the publishing team, Blue Tongue needed to convince corporate of de Blob’s lasting appeal.
Part of the appeal of designer vinyl is the ability for artists to customize the look of figures and bring new meaning to the familiar shapes of the toys. In a sense, this is one of the flavors that makes de Blob unique as a videogame character – his ability to change the color and sound of the landscape around him. This makes him part videogame character, part interactive toy.
“Blob is just enough of a character that he exists but is not so domineering that it pulls the player’s imagination out of the equation,” Hagger says.
“He’s an unconventional hero. We wanted him to employ the values that we hope other people share. He’s very relaxed, he’s not particularly in your face, he’s a little bit mischievous, he’s fun, he’s got a sense of humor but ultimately he’s really you. He allows you to express yourself in an abstract and barren world.”
An underlying theme of de Blob, manifested by the game’s oppressive black-and-white antagonist, the I.N.K.T. Corporation, helped widen de Blob‘s audience beyond the youth and hipster market. I.N.K.T. is “the creeping homogenization of our urban landscape,” says Hagger. “Blob is fighting to prevent people from feeling alienated from the world they live in; he’s stopping life from becoming bland and colorless.” Blob is an attempt to empower the disaffected by “using color and music as constant rewards for activity.”
“It works on so many different levels. You see parents go, ‘Well that’s something I’d really like my kids to play’ and parents that go, ‘That’s actually a game I’d like to play – so damn, I kill two birds with one stone.'”
Hagger is quick to note that the team’s ability to express themselves and deliver this message was only possible due to a number of “creative champions” who spent their time ensuring that corporate understood and supported the game. These people include THQ’s recently appointed Director of Creative Services, Danny Bilson, “a phenomenally hooked-up guy who helped communicate the core message of Blob to people who still couldn’t see it,” and the THQ Asia/Pacific PR team, who also “saw the potential in Blob from a long, long time ago. They talk to corporate as often as we do and they were telling people, ‘Don’t overlook it. Don’t forget it. Don’t write it off.'”
“At each critical step, we knew we had to convince people that the vision was sound,” Hagger said. “Each step forward was difficult, but as we learned how to better communicate what was cool about the game, all aspects of the business started to rally behind it, You’re convincing people that you will deliver something that will get critical acclaim and will have the best possible advantage slotting into the marketplace. We were lucky to have a lot of people championing de Blob.”
Initially, it seems that the risk has paid off. de Blob has received a Metacritic rating of 82, higher than Nintendo’s own platformer Wario Land: Shake It. The Official Nintendo Magazine U.K. even touted it as “the best game Nintendo never published.” The team at Blue Tongue can rest easy knowing they’ve accomplished at least one of their goals: developing an original title that has received critical acclaim.
Hagger is happy to have been proven wrong about the characteristically risk-averse industry. “The world isn’t yet run by the I.N.K.T. Corporation,” he says. “There are nice people, wherever you look … but they’re in hiding.”
Hagger hasn’t confirmed or denied whether Blue Tongue will continue working on original titles but he can reassure that “we will continue to develop great games. The same passion we have for making de Blob as a new and original IP, we’re bringing that same passion to the next project.”
That sounds like Blue Tongue’s still enjoying their time in the sun, if you ask me.