Following the news that Spielberg will be directing the movie version of the acclaimed novel Ready Player One, we thought we’d take a look back at his long, sometimes unexpected, sometimes just plain strange, but always interesting relationship with the video game industry.
That E.T. game…
There isn’t much to say about one of the most notorious video games of all time that hasn’t been said a million times already, so we’ll just stick to how Spielberg factored into the game’s development. It is said that he personally asked for Howard Scott Warshaw to create the game (and Raiders of the Lost Ark as well), and he was directly involved in the negotiations with Atari to secure a licensing deal for it. Warshaw presented his concept for the game to Spielberg himself, who was not convinced and instead asked him to make the game more like Pac-Man. Warshaw didn’t want to do something derivative and went ahead with his initial idea instead.
Interestingly enough, although there was a very prolific video game imprint of Spielberg’s DreamWorks making games both original and based on his properties throughout the 90’s, his most direct (pre-Medal of Honor) involvement in a video game in that decade wasn’t a DreamWorks Interactive game at all. It was actually the 1995 point-and-click adventure game The Dig, developed and published by LucasArts. The original story of The Dig was first conceived by Spielberg to be an episode of his Amazing Stories TV series, and then he expanded on the idea and was considering making it into a feature-length film. Deciding that the film as he envisioned it was going to be far too expensive to make, Spielberg eventually landed on a video game being the venue to finally bring The Dig to life. He wrote the story along with Ender’s Game author – and also sometime video game collaborator – Orson Scott Card and Brian Moriarty of Loom and Infocom fame. The Dig is noted for being a much darker and more serious adventure game than was typical of LucasArts largely cartoony and comedic point-and-click games, and it was originally meant to be even more violent and gruesome until Spielberg had the game toned down a bit following complaints from parents about the level of violence and scariness in Jurassic Park which they didn’t expect from a Steven Spielberg dinosaur movie.
Finally doing right by DreamWorks – and console FPSes
In the late 90’s and early 00’s, Spielberg was all about WWII – Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the pioneering first-person shooter Medal of Honor. As the story goes, Spielberg was inspired to create an FPS after watching his son play Goldeneye for N64, and felt the genre would be the perfect vehicle to bring a gritty, realistic WWII experience to video games. He came up with the basic story and consulted on many elements of the game’s design and production, and in many ways he is one of the key figures in setting the tone for modern story-driven, Hollywood blockbuster-level first-person shooters (though I’m not implying that we “blame” him for latter-day Call of Duty). On a personal level, being exclusively a console gamer I was grateful to have such a fantastic, full-fledged FPS available to me that wasn’t an inferior port of a PC game (the series was a PlayStation exclusive for two installments before the third game came to PC) and for a few short years it felt good to have such an epic FPS to “call my own” over my PC-loving friends. It also is one of the three main games – along with Goldeneye and Halo – to set the standard for console first-person shooter gameplay and prove that the genre could be viable and highly playable with a controller.
Here comes the Boom
After the success of Medal of Honor, which went on to become a multi-sequel, multi-million-dollar franchise, EA and Spielberg came together again to announce a three-game deal in 2005. However, when the first game was announced to be a family-friendly party/puzzle game exclusively for the Wii, nobody was quite sure what to make of it. Boom Blox may not have been the epic we were hoping for, but it did end up being the game we didn’t even know we wanted, and was an absolute blast to play and a rare bright spot in the Wii’s shovelware-infested third-party “party game” lineup. The development team has said that the core concepts were entirely Spielberg’s, and he was extremely involved throughout development, stopping by their offices on a weekly basis to check in on the game’s progress, suggest ideas, give feedback, and so on. Though EA insisted that the game’s sales met their expectations, it was largely viewed by outsiders as a disappointment at retail, in spite of hugely positive critical buzz, even earning an impressive A+ from the notoriously critical 1up.com. Spielberg reportedly continued to meet with the Boom Blox team following the release of the game and continued to brainstorm new ideas and discuss features meant for the first game but had to be cut, and the continued enthusiasm by himself and the team lead to EA green-lighting a sequel – Boom Blox Bash Party – released the following year. Buzz was once again strong, with many praising the sequel’s increased focus on multiplayer, but sales were even weaker than the original and the promising series currently stands at only two installments.
Boom Blox was actually meant to be the second of the three original games Spielberg and EA were going to collaborate on. The first, known under the codename “LMNO,” was actually the only one that was explicitly discussed in detail at the time the deal was made. The initial concept for the ambitious game was an action/adventure game starring an average Joe named Lincoln who had to assist an alien named Eve who came from the future and was being pursued by the government. Eve was to be an AI-controlled co-op partner who the player didn’t directly communicate with but reacted to your actions and modified her behavior accordingly. It was also going to be played from a first-person perspective with very parkour-esque movement a la Mirror’s Edge. EA supposedly was afraid just how costly and difficult a game of that scope and ambition was going to be, and ordered the project to be reworked, this time being a more traditional third-person action/adventure game in the style of Tomb Raider or Uncharted (which would’ve definitely been right in Spielberg’s wheelhouse given the huge debt both of those franchises owe to Indiana Jones). But even that much more accessible plan fell apart, and LMNO is now considered officially cancelled. Whatever the third game is in the Spielberg/EA deal is as of yet unknown, but supposedly the collaboration remains active and the two sides maintain a positive relationship. What the future holds for that deal, or Spielberg’s video game future in general, remains a mystery. Maybe he’ll helm the inevitable game tie in of the Chris Pratt Indy film…