From television to technology to books and beyond, few in the ever-changing world of entertainment have transitioned from one arena to the next like multi-talented writer and producer John Zuur Platten, the recently-appointed Director of Digital Media at Rubicon Group Holding. His credentials include writing for shows like Matlock and Harry and the Hendersons to The New Adventures of Lassie, while his prodigious videogame portfolio includes such noteworthy – and infamous – such as Fear Effect, HAWx 2, Ghostbusters, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and even Tomcat Alley and Double Switch full-motion games on the Sega CD.
But what brings John into our personal space today is the recent release of RHG’s debut title, Dragon Eggs, which on the surface seems about as far from his previous projects as you can get. And it’s a chat packed with info from his thoughts on transitioning from big-budget console gaming to the mobile market, surviving in an ever-changing market, his advance for upcoming developers, even to his thoughts on the long-fabled film Ghostbusters 3, a project he’s most qualified than most to comment on.
You can read our official review for RGH’s Dragon Eggs right HERE. And without further adieu, here’s our extensive chat with John Zuur Platten!
Thanks for joining us today and congratulations on the recent release of Rubicon Group Holding’s (RGH) debut title, Dragon Eggs, for Apple’s iOS platform. At this time, it’s customary to let the guest introduce him or herself a bit and I’d feel funny breaking with tradition now. Care to share some details about yourself for our readers?
Thanks to Popzara for the invite! I’ve been in the game business for almost twenty years, having started creating titles for the Sega 16-bit system all the way up until the present consoles. I have around 50 published games under my belt, and was fortunate enough to get together with RGH last year to help move the company into the game and app space.
With Dragon Eggs debuting on iOS devices (and soon Android), I’m curious what you feel the advantages were there for developing games primarily for mobile devices over more traditional home consoles like Wii, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3? On the surface, Dragon Eggs seems like a good fit for each of those consoles’ respective motion-controls to let Orella (the game’s mothering protagonist) flap her leathery wings, don’t you think?
Completely agree. We’d love to see the game played with Kinect – it’s definitely where we are headed in the near future. For us, since we are well-established entertainment studio that is in the process of building brands, we felt that starting on mobile platforms made the most sense. Development costs are controllable, and let’s face it, this is where gaming is headed. Having worked with large publishers and developers over the past few years, I have seen how there has been pull-back on console development – it now focuses almost exclusively on huge properties – while there has been an explosion of activity in Facebook and iOS games.
Speaking of expanding to other platforms, does RGH have any plans to expand their line-up to other mobile platforms like Windows Phone 7, or even dedicated gaming consoles like Nintendo’s 3DS or Sony’s PS Vita?
We are looking very hard at the Vita. We are also interested in where Microsoft is headed with Windows 8, especially how it relates to tablets. Android will be in our immediate future.
I was surprised to learn that RGH is primarily Middle Eastern-based, and have been producing education-themed content for some now. Do you have any input on RGH’s Arabic-themed Tareq wa Shireen learning games for iOS and Android devices? I also read that an Xbox Live version may be coming soon – is that still happening?
I work directly with the team in Amman, so yes, I manage those projects as well. TwS was one of the first titles that allowed the company to grow, so I have immense respect for it and the entire Amman studio. However, RGH now has a huge presence in Los Angeles, where in addition to the apps and games, the studio is also focused on features, television, streaming web-content and location-based entertainment. We also have great studios in Manila, and offices in Dubai and now Qatar, where we are able to utilize talent.
On that topic, a recent study by the Modern Language Association pegs it as the fast-growing language taught on college campuses in the US (up 127% by some metrics). Has there been any talk of bringing the Shireen franchise (or an evolved version of it) to a larger English-speaking market to better capitalize on growing interest in the language? Maybe elementary or collegiate students?
We have an app in development for release in early November called ‘My Xenos’ that is a cross between Pokémon and Rosetta Stone, so we are definitely thinking along these lines. It is a fun collectible game that teaches language learning through alien pets – the Xenos. The initial release is English/Spanish, but we have an Arabic and Mandarin version in the works. As well as being an app, it will feature an aggressive web component, which will allow educators access to the content.
You’ve spent much of your professional career drafting scripts and producing videogames that featured big-budgeted and Hollywood-style cinematic videos. Yet, perhaps owing to their limited size (or budgets) mobile gaming tends to focus less on theatrics and more on delivering a more singular gameplay experience. I’m curious what it was like for you to shift direction from one style to the next, and are there advantages to scaling things back?
I really love the challenge. I’ve always been platform agnostic. To me, creating is the most exciting thing. The goal is to make sure that what you are creating delivers on the expectations of the users/players of the platform. I write differently for features than I do for games because the expectations and needs of the audience are not the same. William Golding had this great concept about writing a scene that basically states you want to enter it as late as you possibly can. In essence, you are always cutting to the chase and getting to the core of the content. I think that for a lot of platforms, that minimalist, essentials-only style works because it mirrors the pace of gameplay.
An existential question: I read that you transitioned from writing for television on shows like Matlock to Harry and the Hendersons, then onto games with cinematic elements (i.e. full-motion video), particularly Tomcat Alley and Double Switch (starring the late Corey Haim) for Sega CD. Now, three years after publishing the book “The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design”, you’re working in a field (mobile gaming) that’s becoming famous for its inclusion of just about everyone with a home computer to design and publish for.
One, which transition would you say has been more meaningful for you, and two, was my half-assed attempt at an analogy as threadbare as it seemed?
No, I completely get your point. Everything does seem to come full-circle. If you had told me when I started this journey that eventually I could come back to sitting at my computer in the middle of the night and have all the tools necessary to create a game, a movie, animation, web-content, etc. right there, I wouldn’t have believed it. The fact the game business started as guys and gals in a garage, and now, after all that it has been through, comes back to the garage is something I think is amazing. Having transitioned multiple times in a number of incarnations career-wise, I’ve always seen myself as a writer first, so that is the craft I focus on and that is how people know me. I was transmedia before the term existed, so I see the business as having finally caught up to me. J.
Unrelated question: I know you worked on the recent Ghostbusters: The Videogame, which caused quite a stir because it managed to bring the original cast back together. Do you think we’ll ever see the much-rumored third film in the franchise in the near-future? Should we?
I hope so. I’m a huge Ghostbusters fan, and it was a real honor to get to play around in that world. Our pitch was “Who’s Gozer Gonna Call?”, and that resonated with Dan and Harold who told us it fit in with their master plan, which included another film.
Going back to your 2008 book The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (co-written with your frequent collaborator Flint Dille), what advice would you offer to those independent programmers or would-be game designers with dreams of developing the next Tetris, Angry Birds, or Dragon Eggs?
I would say this is hard, so be sure that you are creating something that you truly believe in and are ready to dedicate time and energy to for the long haul. The tools are available now so that anyone can create a game, but that is no different than saying because everybody has MS Word, we can all write the next great novel. What is going to put you over the top is that intangible, and for me, it comes back to content. I’ve argued that Angry Birds wouldn’t have been the hit it has become if it was called “Slingshot Boulders at Crates”. Which is basically the core mechanic, and one that is not original either. But the genius was in the content – ridiculous flightless birds and green pigs combined with solid gameplay, and the rest is history.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, and best of luck with Dragon Eggs and future releases from RGH. Speaking of which, what can diehard fans and curious lurkers look forward to in the future? Feel free to plug away!
We have three more titles coming soon – Trashers, My Xenos and The Math Mage. Your readers can get details on our website at www.rghgames.com. Continued success to Popzara and thanks for letting me share a little more about RGH and Dragon Eggs with your fans. Cheers!