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.