Interview: Doc Mack of Galloping Ghost Arcade (Part 3)

By: Steve Zachmann

Today is the third and final installment of our interview with Doc Mack from the Galloping Ghost.  If you’ve been reading the first two parts, you should find this 3rd installment to be just as interesting.

Let’s talk a little about your production company.  You have Dark Presence coming out, tell us a bit about that.

It’s a digitized one-on-one fighting game.  We’ve filmed live actors, similar to how the old Mortal Kombat games were done, but on a much larger scale.  In a game like Mortal Kombat II, those characters were about two-hundred and fifty frames of animation per character, including finishing moves.  The most animated 2D fighting game out there right now is King of Fighters, and those characters were clocking in at about fourteen-hundred frames per character.  Our characters, without finishing moves, are about seventeen thousand frames per character, so it’s easily the largest data-content game ever attempted.  We want to do a lot of very unique stuff to make it a relevant arcade game.  We’ve done stuff like tying a GPS unit into the cabinet so it will look at where the cabinet is and will adjust the backgrounds for daytime and night-time, and for weather.  If it’s raining outside where you’re playing, then it’s raining in the game, if it’s sunny out, it’s sunny in the game.  That element has added so much to the game, and it’s not even something that most people might notice.  We have ninety different background variations, and instead of just handling them as 2D, we pre-render everything so the visuals of the game look better than the visuals of most 3D games because its pre-rendered, but we’re not just doing simple stage scrolling like the old MK games, or Street Fighter.  We actually film each scene with paralleling so the camera and moves left to right and you get all the perspective changes with the light.

The level we’re working on now, on one computer it’s going to take thirty-eight days to render out, if the thing doesn’t crash.  Right now we actually have nine computers rendering it out.  We’re not cutting any corners.  With the move sets for the characters, there are separate left and right stances, so it’s a very deep fighting game.  The combo system is very unique.  We didn’t want to just make a game that played like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat.  There is so much of that already going in the industry.  There’s not enough innovation, and while our game is technically similar to Mortal Kombat, we really try to put in so many new elements, so you can look at it a bit like Mortal Kombat but really see that it’s something different.  It’s really about innovation for us.

So when can we expect to start seeing it?

We’re actually going to be making a large marketing push in the coming month or so.  We’re shooting for a first-quarter release next year.  We had done the game once before and had it pretty much finished.  We worked on it for a really long time, but threw it all away because the visuals looked very dated.  Honestly, it probably would have sold even then, but I don’t want to have something marginal.  It was 2005 when we scrapped everything, started fresh, and went back in the studio.  We filmed every day for four years.  Each character has two-hundred and fifty moves and reactions, and for our finishing moves, we actually had every actor film with every other actor.  So that ends up being four-hundred and thirty-seven finishing moves for the game.  You have finishing move A, B, and C.  You can link A to B, and B to C, so you can do these really elaborate, complicated, finishing moves.  Again, we didn’t want to go the Mortal Kombat route with over-exaggerated gore.  We went more for violence, than over-dramatized gore.  There’s no heads being punched off.  That’s so much harder to do when you’re using live actors.  We have so many tremendous martial artists on staff, myself among them.  I’ve studied martial arts for thirty years.  A lot of the guys who did motion capture for Mortal Kombat were in the game.  They couldn’t understand what we were doing.  They mentioned that they had filmed Mortal Kombat in like three hours per character.  Initially we thought it would take a year and a half to film the whole thing.  It got drawn a bit because we had so many incidents when we were filming.  We were filming these really elaborate finishing moves which sometimes resulted in a trip to the hospital emergency room.  People were getting hurt constantly.  It was so grueling on our actors because they had to maintain continuity.  They couldn’t go out and get a sun tan, they had to keep their hair length the same, the girls had to do their make-up the same.  It was a very arduous process for them.  It was amazing how long it took, and that everyone stayed in character for such a long time. 

Once we got done, we started announcing that we were going to do a tour and we have thirty arcades ready for that.  Microsoft flew me out to discuss doing an Xbox version.  We were trying to keep this thing quiet, but there were a few websites that had picked up on us and started talking about it and it just grew.  There are places out of the country that are interested; Japan, Germany, Turkey.  Arcades there are interested in buying a machine.  It’s been amazing but the downside was that we had to take a three year hiatus from production to do the arcade, which again, started on a whim.  Now though, were back on the production of the game more than the arcade.  It’s a huge struggle, keeping everything in balance.

So is there a planned release for Xbox of Playstation?

The big problem right now is that the game is sitting on about a terabyte of data, and that’s with compression going.  For Microsoft, they just want to see it finished first, and then they’ll talk to us.  It’s hard because if you look at the developers that are doing arcade games; you look at games like Street Fighter IV, they’re limiting themselves to what the console hardware is capable of.  And they rush to get the console ports out that they don’t leave any room for the arcades to flourish.  Street Fighter IV, when it came out, was $27,000 for a single player cabinet, so of course you needed two of them.  Capcom only sold then in sets of four though.  Capcom even went on record saying that they had no interest in revitalizing the U.S. arcade industry, so they didn’t release it here even.  So now you’re paying these huge import fees to get these cabinets over here.  There were even petitions to release it out here in the arcade.  The bad thing is that there are arcades that actually bought them.  They got them out here.  The console versions were released within eight months, so you’re spending at least $27,000 – it was clearly more than that – but you had only eight months to make $27,000 back before the version that was balanced better, had eight new characters, and had online functionality came out.  Nobody is going to go pay a dollar to go play Street Fighter when, for $50, you can just have it at your house.

When the arcade update for Super Street Fighter IV came out Capcom said, “We’re not going to do this version on Playstation.”  So we finally thought, ‘ok, how much can we get one for.’  We were able to get just the console inside the cabinet for $15,000.  I figured that if they weren’t making this version for Playstation, we’d get it.  So we sent the cash off to get the arcade version and one month after we had sent it in, before we had even received the game, Capcom announced that they were doing Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, for Playstation and Xbox.  To make it worse, the reason they were able to do that was they had adjusted the characters better [for consoles] so it wasn’t technically the same version.  They had made it better, again.  That left us with no time to promote it because everyone would have already had access to the game.  It wouldn’t have been a draw anymore.  So we ended up putting that money towards getting King of Fighters XIII.  The industry just does so many things to make arcades not succeed.  What we’ve done with Dark Presence is make a game that’s meant to be played in the arcade. 

We had a sculptor from McFarlane toys do eight-inch resin statues of our characters, and we’ve put those inside each of the cabinets.  If you’re the first person to finish the game with a specific character, you win the statue of that character.  Another thing we have are touch screens and a USB slot.  You put a USB drive in and it does complete stat tracking.  It tracks what characters you select and as you find moves in the game, it will write them to your log.  This way, you can have a complete move list on the touch screen, and you can scroll through them.  We’ve really tried to bring some innovation to the arcade scene.  This game is definitely not designed to work on consoles.  Our characters, right now, are about a gigabyte and a half [each], so the game would need a lot of effort if we were going to port it to a console.  That’s what made arcades do so well back in the pre-16bit era. 

If you wanted to play the arcade version of Double Dragon, and you had an 8-bit Nintendo, it wasn’t the same thing, you had to go to the arcade.  It was the same with games like Ninja Gaiden and NARC.  The arcade version were just drastically superior to the console versions, which is why they sold so well.  It can still be that way, it’s just cheaper for the industry to just keep doing what they’re doing, do it for the consoles and not worry about the arcades.  I don’t agree with it, and one of the reasons why we’re doing it this way is because I think that arcades can make a huge comeback, but it’s up to the developers, distributors, and operators to all change how they do things.  It’s on the players too; the players keep getting sold the same games over and over and [the industry] is selling millions of copies and until that changes, the developers aren’t going to change.  Game innovation is changing as drastically as it was in the 80’s.  There’s too many Call of Duty clones.  It would be cool to see some different stuff.

It sounds like where arcades are still continuing to thrive is in the social aspect.

Absolutely.  You’ll never get that same experience with a home console.  You’ll get some version of it, but here, with our regulars being so cordial and inviting it’s definitely not the animosity and trash talk that you find online.  That’s not what it is here.  You have world-record-holder caliber players encouraging you and giving you tips on how to beat their scores.  A lot of times the record holders here want their scores to come down so that they have a reason to play the game again.  It’s very difficult to make a name for yourself online, but here it’s a smaller community.  There are players here who have gotten world-wide exposure, like Caitlyn Oliver.  Players like Matt Rocco, Matt Walters, and James White; people know those guys before they even step through the door just because they hold so many world records.  It’s very difficult to do that when playing online.

We have some players that are aged twenty to twenty-five that have never been to an arcade before.  We do this achievement list which is a little booklet, kind of like the Xbox achievements that have become so popular.  We try to use that to help them ease over.  These books have simple achievements like, ‘go play a specific five games’.  There is a psychological aspect to that we’re doing with that.  It gives them something that they know but we’re pushing them to play very specific games.  Hopefully that will get them interested.  You gain points with the achievement books and you can use the points to come back for free, or get a free drink or a t-shirt.  It goes all the way up to a full arcade cabinet for your house, that we’ll custom build for you.  It’s stuff like that that’s always been the branching point between console players and arcade players.  We put a new achievement book out every season, and even our regulars still find them to be a lot of fun.  There is a lot of completest mentality out there for people who like trophies.  It’s really interesting on a psychological level, to make this place more enjoyable for people.  We do have a party room that has consoles.  We just picked up an Xbox One and a PS 4 so we do have that stuff here, but again the main draw is still the arcade games.

Do you have a lot of younger children come in?

We do, especially on weekends.  Early Saturdays there are a lot of kids.  We have a lot of birthday parties held here.  With big groups of kids, honestly it’s probably not as fun for them as other arcades.  There are a lot of games that they don’t recognize, and we have to spend a lot of time making sure that they’re not beating up on the sticks.  The ones that really work well are when a dad will bring in his kid, for instance.  He’ll want his kid to see all these games that he used to play.  To me that means a lot.  You can see that there is this deeper connection.  Kid’s parties can be lucrative, but it’s not so much about the money.  We want people to know what they’re getting.  We’ll have groups of kids come up with their achievement books and try and convince us that they‘ve gotten some really difficult achievement instead of just getting out there and playing the games.  It’s like they just don’t get what this place is.  They want you to give them a piece of candy instead of going to play Shinobi.  I’d be happy to give them a piece of candy just to play Shinobi and enjoy it.  It’s interesting to see it on that level.  At least they’re coming in and getting exposure to some of these classic games though.  Hopefully that’s something that makes them appreciate them.