Montgomery Markland wants to adapt one of the most storied American movies of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, into a video game that the team describes as “like Fallout: New Vegas on acid in Vietnam.”
Markland has been in the trenches of the gaming industry for a decade, starting with level design for developer Obsidian Entertainment. He’s run his own game studio and recently acted as a producer on both Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera — two widely acclaimed role-playing games.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Markland about the project, his passion for the source material, and the ways he wants to make Apocalypse Now different from anything the gaming landscape has ever seen.
Would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Montgomery Markland, and we’re making an Apocalypse Now video game, and it’s going to be for the Xbox and the PlayStation and the PC — and Mac and Linux if you play on that. One of the reasons we’re doing it is to disrupt the lethargic and stolid game and movie industries that have calcified over the past ten or fifteen years.
It used to be that great movies were made in this town, and Apocalypse Now was one of them. Apocalypse Now is still the number 49th movie on IMDB out of hundreds of thousands of movies. And it was made 40 years ago. And there’s a reason for that.
And, like I was chatting with you just a second ago, I’m just a guy from Dallas, Texas, born in Ft. Worth, went to the University of Texas, and one day I got it into my head that I would go make video games and movies out here in Hollywood.
And so, my path out here has been very different than the normal path — though I don’t think there is a traditional or normal path for anybody that ends up getting to do creative things in the game and film industry — but I came out here with the intention to disrupt things from the very beginning. And, making an Apocalypse Now game is part of that.
When American Zoetrope decided to make a game out of Apocalypse Now, they asked people for pitches, and every single big game company came in and pitched the same thing: They pitched it as a shooter in Vietnam. “It’ll be great, it’ll be easy, it’ll be profitable. We’ll reskin our existing shooter for Vietnam and ship out an Apocalypse Now version.” And American Zoetrope wasn’t interested in that.
When myself and Lawrence Liberty, the executive producer, who is also the executive producer on Fallout: New Vegas, got the opportunity to pitch, the first thing I did was I went back and — I had already seen the movie probably a dozen times — but I went back and watched it a dozen more times, because in any great endeavor, you have to respect and learn from the traditions of your culture.
Apocalypse Now is based on an 80 or 90-year-old — depending on where you count from — novella called Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1899. And John Milius wrote the screenplay in 1969, and the movie came out in 1979. Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness and it’s about a lot of things. It’s about a personal journey, more than anything, and that’s why I think Apocalypse Now resonates to this day, because everybody has their own “journey upriver.”
And obstacles along the way that are unanticipated, and it’s more about the choices you make as you go up river, than it is about some theoretical end goal, or final chapter. So, both of these great works of art — Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now — two of the greatest works of art from Western civilization — are both inspired by something that’s 3000 years old: Homer’s The Odyssey, which tells the story of Odysseus.
That story started by people sitting around campfires and telling the story orally, probably originally a lot of them who had actually been in the Trojan War, and they told a story about a guy they had heard about, who was stuck on a ship getting back home for a decade. And the story grew and grew and grew, and millions of people probably, or at least hundreds of thousands, retold it over thousands of years. And then finally it got written down over and over again and changed and rewritten I’m sure a thousand times, so it’s completely different now than whatever it was 3000 years ago. But it has the same core fundamental elements.
And, so what started out as thousand of people telling a story around a campfire, and eventually became Apocalypse Now, we view our job as to just reverse that 3000 year process and give millions of people a chance to tell their own version of Apocalypse Now around a modern version of a campfire, which is your computer screen.
That has got to be one of the best pitches for a game I’ve heard — I’m not surprised that American Zoetrope wanted it.
Part of what has interested me so much about this project is that Apocalypse Now is both a great war movie and a great movie about humanity. An internal war, if you will. It’s a haunting portrayal of a man’s journey through a horrifying world. But let’s get back to your personal journey, specifically. How did you end up here, making this game?
Yeah. I was in law school in Dallas, at Southern Methodist University, and one day I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I played poker pretty regularly and pretty well, and something that I believe Doyle Brunson said in one of the great books on poker was, “Money on the table is no longer yours.”
So, when I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I went and made an independent video game — or a “mod” — for Neverwinter Nights. We had great success in making it, so much so that Lawrence Liberty at Atari, the head of product development there in NY, wanted to turn our little independent project in Dallas into an expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights, the game that we were making it for.
Which was extraordinarily lucky and rare. And what kicked all of this whole process off, that didn’t quite happen. Hasbro decided — and this is in 2006 I think, or 2007 — so a decade ago, Hasbro decided that Planescape Torment was not a great world for Dungeons & Dragons anymore, which ended up being an ironic decision because in 2014 inXile Entertainment, another company I worked with, raised five million dollars for exactly that.
So, Larry went to be the executive producer on a video game based on the Alien and Aliens movies, I and II, with Obsidian Entertainment in Orange County. So, instead of getting the expansion pack going with Atari, he ended up getting me on board as a designer and producer on the Aliens game with Josh Sawyer and about half the team that’s working on Apocalypse Now, including Rob Auten, our head writer, who at the time was in charge of video games for 20th Century Fox.
So, Rob, Larry and I worked together on Aliens nearly a decade ago. And, the Aliens game was loosely inspired — it’s narrative — by Heart of Darkness. And so, we went from that point in time to, over the years doing many different things. Larry produced Fallout: New Vegas, which is a first-person role-playing game in a postapocalyptic world, there’s been a nuclear war and you’re exploring this huge 20 square mile open world, it’s got an 86 Metacritic.
One of the best RPGs ever.
Yeah, and if people knew how efficiently Larry made that game, they would be shocked. You know, you hear about Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto having a 200 million dollar budget or a 150 million dollar budget. Larry made Fallout: New Vegas, which is a 200 hour game in 20 square miles, for $9 million in 20 months. And he did it with a 15-year-old game engine.
So, we’re pretty confident that Mr. Liberty’s production plan for Apocalypse Now is a stout one. Our game is a little smaller, a little deeper, and we use much more advanced technology than they were using ten years ago on Fallout: New Vegas.
Larry and I started a game studio called Killspace and we made some games with Atari and Ubisoft — Yars’ Revenge and Rocksmith. Rocksmith was cool; we got to plug a real guitar into an Xbox or PlayStation and it was like Rock Band or Guitar Hero with a real guitar.
We worked on a lot of stuff from 2008 and 2009 and 2010 that unfortunately never saw the light of day because of the mortgage-backed securities crisis at the time, and the economic issues that everybody had, you know, especially out in California.
So, you know, all of the game publishers — well, not all of them — most of the game publishers we worked with went bankrupt. Atari went bankrupt, we had a horror game at THQ that didn’t ever go past the prototype stage because they went bankrupt, so a lot of our partners in developing video games, the people that were providing the financing for video games went bankrupt while we were making these games. And, from my point of view, they went bankrupt because they made terrible decisions.
So, then this new method of funding video games arose. Crowdfunding. Through my company Malibu Road Pictures, I was fortunate enough to be producer on Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, which are two of the most successful video game crowdfunding projects in history, and I worked with Brian Fargo, from inXile, on those.
Larry, meanwhile, shipped DC Universe Online, which is one of the largest, most successful licensed MMOs ever – and it was free to play, I think it had 20 million users. Larry’s career is very storied and goes back a quarter century, all the way to the Nintendo 64 and maybe the PlayStation 1. He shipped a game for just about every console for the past 25 years, since before I could drive. And so, he’s got a really interesting set of games that he’s worked on over the years, including one of the best Tony Hawk’s — Tony Hawk 4 — The Witcher, the Sacred Series, DC Universe Online, Fallout: New Vegas, Aliens, Neverwinter Nights, et cetera.
So, I work with inXile for several years on Wasteland 2 and Torment — primarily on Wasteland 2 — and then started this process approximately 18 months ago of really kicking Apocalypse Now off as a project. We had been discussing it for years with America Zoetrope, because when everybody else pitched a shooter, we said, “No, it’s not a shooter, it’s a horror role-playing game.” Because if you look at the movie, the protagonist only fires his weapons twice. He only kills a few people in the movie. It’s clearly not a movie about smashing a button faster than the AI and running 50 miles an hour with an M16.
To me, you got to respect the traditions of the art form that you’re working in. And I think that what needs to be disrupted most about the game industry is that it is becoming technologically mature, but not fully creatively mature yet. And I think you can see that with — and I’m not interested in, we’re not competing with anybody — we’re making a game that nobody else would make, for an audience that’s under-served. Hollywood makes stuff for five of the fifty states.
Movies made by marketing departments.
Absolutely. It’s formulaic, it’s driven by a P&L, a spreadsheet. I think that people make a better decisions than former toothpaste executives working off of a spreadsheet, right? You get a graduate from Brown, who has spent some time in the William Morris mailroom and did a week of cocaine, and they decide which combination of intellectual properties and people would make a good video game, and then that’s the thing that goes. It’s a terrible, inefficient way to greenlight stuff.
That’s why Marvel has been able to make essentially the same movie with different costumes for years.
Right. But at least Iron Man is fun when Robert Downey Jr. starts talking.
I think that our job in making the Apocalypse Now video game is to do two things at once. We have to make a great game, that’s our number one job. But in order to do that, we have to disrupt the system of game finance and greenlighting by giving control to the people that are in the 45 other states that do not get consulted on which video games to make and how to make them, even though that’s the audience, and then we also have to respect what came before us and the aesthetic requirements of art and story and interaction that I think people are quick to discard because it is ideologically or professionally satisfying in the short run, rather than being the correct decision in the long run.
I think a lot of the reason that you don’t see movies like Apocalypse Now — and video games like your description of the Apocalypse Now game — is that it’s uncomfortable. Vietnam was not a pleasant experience, and the themes in the movie are very unpleasant. Virtually every scene in that movie is, in some way, discomforting. Purposefully so. In an industry where the general philosophy seems to be “louder is better”–
“Call of Duty in space,” right?
–Right. How do you address the darkly complex world of the Vietnam War and the psychological horror of Apocalypse Now?
Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists borrow and great artists steal,” and so, to me, as the director, my number one job is to not make the decisions that have already been made for me.
And, so, if we look at Apocalypse Now, and watch it over and over and over again — and I’ve probably watched it up to 70 times at this point — it tells us how to make the game. It tells us that it’s got to be first person, because like you say, it’s about psychological horror. And so, if we’re going to achieve psychological engagement with the protagonist of the story, it needs to be in first person.
It needs to be a survival and horror experience, which is like the war in Vietnam and like the movie. These are experiences where, for example, estimates vary, but you’re throwing fifty thousand to two hundred thousand rounds of lead down range per KIA. That doesn’t sound a lot like your typical button-mashing arcade shooter. That sounds a lot more like a survival and horror game in first-person.
You’re creeping around the jungle. And then there’s Captain Willard, who’s obviously incredibly important, who has a personal journey that he goes on up the river as he takes on this mission. And that tells me that it’s a role-playing game, that you create your own version of Captain Willard. You design him how you see the world, and how you see yourself moving through that world, and then you interact with the characters in the world in the way you choose to do so.
If you intend to move through the world in a more violent fashion than Captain Willard did in the move, that’s your choice. If you want to do recon on the huey during the air cavalry’s raid on Charlie’s Point, you’ll have that choice. If you want to be stealthy and sneak around and recon the jungle more, and make it about avoiding conflict rather than seeking it out, that’s your choice. If you want to develop good relations with the crew of the Erebus, which is the name of the boat, the PBR, “the Patrol Boat River,” named Streetgang, then you can have different relationships with them than Captain Willard had with them in the movie.
And, spoiler alert — some of those crew members die and some of them live in the movie, but in the game which ones die and which ones live and whether they all survive or not is going to be up to you. And, again, this is a spoiler for the movie, Captain Willard is sent on a mission to terminate Colonel Kurtz’s command with extreme prejudice. And you are given that same mission. And there’s literally dozens of ways that you can complete that mission, but you also can reject the mission. The game wouldn’t be the game that we intend to make if you had to complete your mission, because at the end of the day, all the greatest games put the steering wheel in the hands of the players.
Right. I think that a crucial point of the movie is his personal decision about completing the mission.
Yeah, and how to go about it.
So, we’ve talked about why the game needed to be survival horror, and why it needed to be a role-playing game. How far does that go? Can you complete the entirety of the game without killing anyone at all?
A lot of people will appreciate that. There are a lot of people, myself included, that enjoy finding ways to subvert a given scenario.
It’s about control of the experience and the story, right? Many, I think, creatively immature game designers and directors impose their will on the story of a game because everybody has something that they want to say. And that’s okay… if you’re making a movie, or writing a novel.
Because those are both passive, observational experiences.
Right. Yeah, in a video game it’s about what the player does, not about what you do. So anytime we can make our data structures or our gameplay or anything in a more open fashion that allows the player to have more control over it, we will do so. And we won’t care that you can do things that are outside the perimeters of what we expected. We want that to happen. That’s called emergent gameplay, and it’s the best kind of gameplay.
It’s no secret that I am a total sucker for emergent gameplay design philosophy. There is nothing else like the sheer sense of agency that it offers players.
There’s this great video/meme from DayZ, which is a zombie open world survival horror experience in early access — Hell, I don’t know if they’ve ever finished the game. But it’s a game where you can, your character can die and you can lose all of your stuff. And it’s a game where you’re supposed to collaborate and cooperate with your fellow players to defeat the zombies, you know? I’m sure it was inspired a little bit by The Walking Dead, would be my guess.
And this one guy goes and gets 25 or 30 players to pile into this bus that he’s driving, and he’s like, “We’re gonna go get ’em, we’re gonna go get ’em, we’re gonna go get ’em,” and he gets everybody into the bus and he drives up this mountainside road, and drives the bus off a cliff and kills them all. [laughing]
Everybody loses their stuff, they’re all screaming as they go down in the bus, right? This is totally not intended to be a part of the game, but it’s one of the most famous videos from the game. You know, similar experiences that players have with games are doing speed runs of games — Fallout 1 you can complete without exploits in about 16 minutes, even though the game is nominally 20-40 hours long, depending on how much stuff you do.
And the same’s going to be true of Apocalypse Now. If you want to just jam upriver in the PBR Streetgang and skip all of the content and scenarios and stories and events along the way, call in an airstrike on Colonel Kurtz’s compound and call it a day, you can absolutely do that. Because Captain Willard had that choice in the movie to do it.
Anything that Captain Willard had the choice to do, you will have the choice to do. And then, additional things. Because the movie — the theatrical release — is two hours and thirty-three minutes long, Redux is three hours and forty or something. But the video game is 20 hours long. So, we’ll go to the theatrical cut, the Redux cut, the five-hour work print, the original screenplay, deleted scenes, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and The Odyssey, to find that new content.
We also set up a military advisor group composed of veterans that will help us create both authentic scenarios for the game but also maintain a sense of historical accuracy. Because in the war in Vietnam versus the Apocalypse Now movie, there are some errata because the movie was made years after the war in Vietnam ended and was released in theaters a decade after the year of the events in the movie.
So, for a great simple example of that — I got two. One good simple example of that is that an M16A1 was issued to soldiers in the war in Vietnam up through 1969 with a 20 round magazine. And then, from late 1969 forward it was issued with a 30 round magazine. So, in the context of the time of the events of the movie, everybody should be using 20 round magazines. But in the movie, everybody’s using 30 round magazines, because it was shot in 1975-78 or 76-79 or whatever.
So, little details like that, we’ll ask ourselves and our veteran survivors, “Is it narratively significant?” If it is narratively significant, we’ll keep it. If it’s not narratively significant we’ll be historically accurate. Two other examples of that — a Huey airlifts the PBR Streetgang and drops it into the river, the mouth of the Nung River. A Huey can’t carry a PBR Streetgang, it’s above its airlift capacity. But we’ll keep that scene because that scene is narratively significant and I don’t think anybody really cares exactly how many thousands of pounds a Huey can lift, at least not for the purposes of this game. This isn’t a simulation.
Then, here’s another example. Colonel Bill Kilgore calls for some “20 mike-mike Vulcan” on that tree line. Well, he’s calling for a 20 mm Vulcan minigun, but those weren’t on Hueys in 1969. They were only on, I think Falcons, which were airplanes. Then, later, by 1977, they were on Cobras and Warthogs, but they just weren’t on Hueys. They were on gunships when the movie was being made, but they weren’t on gunships when the events of the movie are taking place. But what was on a huey gunship in 1969 was a 7.62mm minigun, so we’ll have that instead of the 20.
And again, it’s not narratively significant, so we’ll be historically accurate where we can be. That’s, you know, a lot of the stuff, but I think there’s a process to all of this. And instead of the process, to me product always follows process, and we have to have fun while we’re making the game, otherwise the game won’t be fun.
I think you can tell with many of the same-y shooter releases, that the development teams are bored.
Yeah, they’re just like, “Oh, man, I’ve made this game seven times, do we have to really make it again?”
But people want to keep jamming things out while they’re making money. But if it was just about making money, I’d go to Wall Street, or I would have gone and been a lawyer in Texas, you know? Those are more directly connected to money. I make studio games and movies because it’s fun, and this is a good example of the kind of choice responsibility that I think we have to the players in terms of giving them choices and, in doing so, being true to the original motion picture.
Apocalypse Now is loosely inspired by Heart of Darkness. In Heart of Darkness when Marlow goes upriver and meets Kurtz, he actually convinces him to come back down the river with him. He doesn’t kill him, he doesn’t airstrike him — well they wouldn’t have airstrike in the 1890s anyway — but he convinces him to come back with him. And so, to us, when confronting the Colonel, the player should have at their fingertips all of the potential options that Captain Willard and his direct inspiration from Heart of Darkness would have.
Apocalypse Now straddles a unique line in regard to its violence. The movie doesn’t have a whole lot of truly graphic depictions of violence despite the setting. Yet what depictions there are — the joyous whooping of the soldiers as they raze a village comes immediately to mind — are jarring.
Which is probably why it didn’t win the Oscar in 1980, and Kramer and Kramer [sic] beat it, and I don’t think anybody watches Kramer and Kramer anymore. Mediocre Meryl Streep movie beats Apocalypse Now for Oscar in 1980. I think because it has scenes like that.
Because it is not politically correct, and fortunately I am not politically correct. So, the direction of this game will remain not politically correct. And it will be a better game for that. That’s one of the reasons we have to step outside of the traditional Hollywood publishing system and do something a little disruptive in the initial announcement and creation of this game.
To keep it from becoming sanitized.
Right, it’ll be sanitized if it just goes through the corporate system. And it won’t be an Apocalypse Now game anymore, it’ll just be some silly shooter. And so, to keep it from being sanitized, to keep it true to its original mission, is, I think… Well, first off, I’m glad to be the guy who gets to do it. And I’m excited that we are doing it. I think it’s important for art, it’s important for games as they move toward virtual reality, and it’s important for Hollywood — it’s even important for movies that we get back to a place where we create interactive and linear stories that are not afraid of telling the truth. Because the truth is always the best story.
Even if sometimes it’s a scary one.
It is a scary one, right? You know, Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, is based on real soldiers. Colonel Stockton, and I believe Hagworth. But also at the same time, the Hollywood version, the Rambo version of getting shot and flying back on wires and stuff, you know, that’s not the way people die when they get shot. And so, you know, I think we’ll strive for authenticity and specificity in that regard, and we’ll certainly rely on our military advisor group for guidance there.
One of our senior writers, Ryan Plachetti, served in the US Army and served in Iraq. And I’d like to see most, if not all, of our writing team, other than Rob Auten, our head writer, be veterans because they will have a touch to the experiences that we’re talking about. There’s two, I think, points that are worth making that spin off of this. Number one, for every bit of horror that is present in Apocalypse Now, there’s also humor, especially in Redux. You know, they steal Colonel Kilgore’s surfboard, he comes in in hollering over the PA from the Huey to get it back.
That’s the next thing I was going to ask about. Apocalypse Now’s humor is sparse, and what’s there is pitch black.
Right. A lot of “gallows humor.” And that, I think, is one of the reasons why service members and veterans enjoy the movie. Because it doesn’t shy away from that part. There’s the part where the guy flies by on the other patrol boat from the Erebus and moons everybody on the boat. And that kind of, you know, vulgarity and humor in a war zone is nothing because you’re sitting there in life or death situations. Then there’s a lot of nothing in between, and a lot of waiting. So, naturally a bunch of guys in that environment are just going to cut up, you know?
It expresses itself some in Colonel Kilgore’s character. I think that’s a really interesting — to me, Colonel Kilgore is as interesting as Willard and Kurtz. Colonel Kilgore is, when he says, “Someday this war is going to end,” you hear the guy from Indiana. Instead of the beating-the-chest war leader that he normally is while we watch him.
I think that gets at the duality of human nature, which is also a quote from General Corman — named for the director Roger Corman — super low budget movie producer and director from the sixties who got Mr. Coppola his start and got Jack Nicholson his start and got Robert Downey Jr.’s dad his start. A lot of the famous directors you know and have heard about got their start from Roger Corman’s tiny production budget zany movies. Gonzo movies, maybe before the term “gonzo” was coined.
So, General Corman says, “There’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil, and good does not always triumph over evil.” I think that each significant character in Apocalypse Now responds to that reality by making different choices.
Kilgore chooses to adopt a persona to literally have a glow around him and to have fun leading his men into battle because he both honestly believes that that is the best way to keep the most number of his men alive and to win the battle each time as decisively as possible, and he has fun doing it.
That duality is inherent in, I think, every character in the movie. Willard says it in the hotel room. He says, “When I was in the jungle, I wanted to be back here, and when I was back here, I wanted to be back out there.” And he is an assassin. What we know about Captain Willard is sketchy, his backstory is limited, so the players will have a lot of latitude in creating the backstory of the character.
Captain Willard enlisted at 19, which means he was a mustang promotion because he’s a captain by the events of the movie. He’s a self-admitted assassin, because he admits that he undertook six assassination missions prior to the events of the movie. He’s also been trained by General Corman, Colonel Lucas, and the mysterious CIA officer played by the assistant director, Jerry Ziesmer. He is given what is probably, almost certainly — he is given what is certainly the most controversial, the most secret, the most dangerous mission of the entire war of Vietnam in the world of AN. He’s being sent upriver to “terminate,” euphemistically, an American colonel in his own army, who is, in fact, a member of the 82nd Airborne, just like he is.
And so, if Captain Willard is entrusted with this mission, we have to assume that only one of the best and most serious and most dangerous assassins available to the special operations group would be entrusted with that mission. And so, that’s the point from which you’ll be able to create your character, is that this guy is the very serious individual in terms of capabilities. And we don’t necessarily know the full extent of those capabilities. Willard says, six people I’m sure of because I killed them when they were close enough to breathe their last breath in my face, and we see him do that, spoilers, with Chief.
Chief is clearly going to die when Willard kills him, but he’s not dead yet, and Chief turns on Willard and Willard eventually puts Chief down, and does it face to face. And that’s, again, one of his own soldiers. So, I think because Martin Sheen has such a natural likability to him — I mean, he was the president in The West Wing, right? — and everybody loves Martin Sheen because he’s got that natural likability, he pushes against the written reality of Captain Willard in a positive way. It makes it multi-layered and more interesting and more dynamic.
That kind of push and pull, we want to give now to the players, because what you choose to do in a video game says absolutely nothing and everything at the same time about your real life. It’s escapist entertainment, but what you choose to do — what entertains you — has something to say about what kinds of stories entertain you, and about what kinds of stories you want to tell, because we’re getting to the point where just as many people watch people play video games, as play them
And I think by 2019 and 2020 that’ll be even more true, especially with VR and better streaming technologies and full-screen video capture becoming more and more advanced, and hard drives getting larger, hard drives become solid state drives so video capture and high resolution becomes easier for every single player. I think, in the full realization of this game, millions of people will play it, but millions of people will watch it be played by those millions of people.
Like I said, returning to the oral storytelling tradition of The Iliad and The Odyssey, 3000 years ago, but in reverse. That’s the most exciting part to me. And a lot of this is kind of high-falutin’, and as a guy from Texas sometimes I like to boil it down to just brass tacks: It’s a first-person survival-horror role-playing game like STALKER, like Fallout: New Vegas, like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like Hitman: Blood Money, and you’re going to create a character that travels through a world, you’re going to navigate that world in an exploratory way, and make choices about how you deal with the obstacles and the conflicts and the secondary objectives that are the choices you want to make, rather than the choices the game designers want you to make.
I want you to play the game however you want to play it, and I want people to break the game. Not even kidding. Right? A lot of game designers would be horrified at that, but I want you to go out there and find the edges of the game, and break it, push it to the boundaries, push it to the limits, and see where you can take it. Because where hundreds of thousands or millions of people can take it is going to be a lot farther and a lot wilder and a lot more interesting of a ride than where just we can take it.
This is really a very exciting project, and your approach to it is definitely something much different than we’ve typically seen from the games industry.
I think that this project — I’m a director on Apocalypse Now the video game — so my number one job is to make the game great. Historically, I’ve been a producer and an executive, and I think that this project is part of a larger opportunity for the people of the United States of America and the other countries around the world to take back the creation of their culture in a disruptive fashion.
And that is equally important as one individual game. As a director, it’s not going to distract me from my job of making the game great. But it is part and parcel with how we’re announcing and delivering the game to the public. The people are going to drive the decisions. We’re engaging in a crowdfunding process so there are thousands and thousands of people who are the boss.
That’s a much better situation to be in, because fans of either the movie or the game, or both, thousands of them that get involved with the community at an early process, an early stage in the process, will never ask us to do something dumb. They want us to make it as great as it can possibly be, and everything that they want it to be, and so they won’t ask for the silly things.
They don’t need us to make quarterly numbers, and that part of this dynamic in this process is secondary to making the game great, but it’s almost as important. And it’s going to be a years-long process that we’ll have a lot of fun with. I mean, I already have a ton of fun in the public-facing portion of being the director of this game, when I go on a thousand different Facebook posts and riff with tens of thousands of people and hear what they say about what they’d like to see.
At the end of the day, I can do my job as a director, and do it well, but nothing will substitute for an entire grassroots army of people saying what it is they want to see in the game. Collectively, they will be much more accurate at decision making than an executive board or a production team or anything else. And obviously, there’ll be more ideas that people and individuals in the community and in the crowd and on the team come up with than we can ever implement.
But sifting through that is fun; finding the parts that “Oh yeah, that’s actually a really really cool idea, we should do that.” And yeah, this other thing that we were planning is dumb. “We shouldn’t do that, because everybody hates it.” So, that’s freeing in a lot of ways. It allows us to focus on the primary objectives and not worry about guessing a bunch. There’s very little guesswork involved in this project, and I’m fortunate enough to be at a point in my life and professional existence and creative career where I feel no compulsion to prove my worth to the world.
So, if the greatest idea in the video game comes from team member number 10,000 of the backer community, great. That’s fantastic. I’m not the guy here to come up with all the cool ideas. I’m here to direct a great video game.
Do you think that the games industry as a whole is shifting in the direction of the crowd-funded indie scene?
Yes. 100%. I think what we’ve seen so far with some websites is simply version 1.0; we’re just through the Friendster/MySpace phase of crowdfunding, and we haven’t hit the next phase of it. But I think it’s fundamentally the way that most entertainment decisions will be made in the future. I think video games will be dictated by the people, I think movies will be dictated by the people, and I think we will get much better entertainment because of that.
A major publisher would never allow you the freedom to make the game you’re making.
Right. If you drop $100 million on a project but you’ve still got to make the board of directors and the CMO and everybody happy and feel safe and not worried about the press and all this other stuff, you’re not going to get very far with $100 million.
But, with a team that’s fearless and a crowd of people that back the message of the game with a very reasonable budget, we can go anywhere in the world.
So when can people get their hands on this game?
So, if you’re a high-tiered backer, $1250 or above, we will give you the prototype no later than Q1 of 2018. So, by like February or March of 2018, maybe as early as December 2017; it’s a little hard to predict the earlier dates and mid-range dates. But that’s the first milestone.
If you back the game at $155, you get the early access in around August thru October; we’re comfortable promising October 2019, but it could be a little earlier than that. If you back the game at $95, you get the Alpha of the game in February 2020. If you back the game at $65, you get the game beta in the summer of 2020, and if you just want to pledge $25, which is 60% off the retail price which would be about $60, you get the game in October of 2020.
And so, there’s a series of releases depending on your level of financial engagement with the budget. The nice thing about the way we’ve got our website set up is that it’s free to pledge. We don’t charge you anything when you pledge. We do not run your credit card, and you will only be charged your pledge if we raise the entire budget.
That neutralizes a lot of the nonsense and risks of crowdfunding 1.0, which is guys in my shoes going out and overpromising on deadlines and budgets in order to get people excited enough to fund things in 30 days. We don’t have to do that.
Like I said, at the top, the truth is always the best story, and it’s always also the best marketing. And, so, we’re just being totally transparent. The budget is exactly what we say it is, the timeline is exactly what we say it is, we are certain of every element of it. You know, the mysteries are more in how we get there each step of the way, what our particular journey up the river is, and what the peoples’ journey up the river is as they make the game with us, and what all happens next. And that’s going to be a fun experience in and of itself.
Speaking of pledges, you guys have pledge levels from $25 all the way to $1 million.
Well, I figure there are some fans of Apocalypse Now in this world who might be interested in backing Apocalypse Now for a million dollars, instead of buying a Ferrari.
If I had a spare million lying around, it sounds like a fun package.
There’s a lot of stuff in that reward tier. We give you like 110 or 120 copies of the game, first off, but one of the more interesting things we do is — if you want, and I presume you would want it if you were a million dollar backer — we will come to your house and we will build a virtual reality video game equivalent of a home theater in your house that is Apocalypse Now-themed that uses real props from the movie, with a specially designed rig to run the game, and it will truly be a shrine to the Apocalypse Now experience, which like I said, is an experience not just about today or 2020, but tracks back 40 years, tracks back to Heart of Darkness in 1899, and tracks back 3000 years to Homer’s The Odyssey.
So, that, I think, is a one of a kind — and I believe in the million dollar tier, there’s at least seven or eight one-of-a-kind, can’t get anywhere else, rewards. Whether it be Colonel Kilgore — there’s two extant copies of the actual death cards that Colonel Kilgore uses in the movie. The million dollar tier backer would get one of those. And that’s a 40-year-old movie prop that is, I have no idea what it would be worth if you were to auction it off as a thing.
So, there’s real value in there, and I think it’s a unique opportunity. And so are all the — we call them the “advisor tier” pledges in honor of the military advisors that were in Vietnam, in-country prior to the major hostilities, so the “advisor tiers” range up from a reasonable expenditure of money that’s equivalent to someone who’s a dedicated MMO player or does a significant amount of microtransactions in a game, you know?
We have like a $500 one, a $1250 tier, those are a lot of money to just pay for a single video game, but if you think about this process as being something where you’ll be entertained over the course of four years in a variety of ways, both on the website and through the game, and by getting versions of the game over the years, I think it starts to make a lot of sense in terms of structuring the price for those kinds of things at those levels.
If you were a World of Warcraft subscriber, you were paying that subscription every month for years. And we intend to provide the same level of entertainment to our team, which is the way we refer to our community, because I think Apocalypse Now, the community is a team. When you back the game, you’re not joining the “community;” we’re not going to have a drum circle. You’re joining a team. And if you join the discord chat for Apocalypse Now, it’s called Red Team, and you’re a member of it. And your voice is just as important as anyone else’s in the making of this game.
That is a pretty novel approach to addressing a game’s community.
Yep. This is a team that is driven by the people.
We’ve got an event with the military advisors and the game team coming up in the not too distant future. And then, at E3 and ComiCon we’ll obviously be doing stuff. I don’t know if we’re going to do this, or even if the city of Los Angeles or the Department of Homeland Security would let us, but I want to fly a Huey over E3 blasting “Ride of the Valkyries” and land it in the convention center parking lot, and have Playboy USO dancers hop out of it rather than buying a booth on the E3 floor.
Wow. That would definitely make an impression.
If we didn’t want to do things like that, we’d be the wrong people to make an Apocalypse Now game.
Thank you for your time. It’s been great to talk to you, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how the game turns out.
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