Written by: David Chapman
When game designer Eric Holmes shifted gears from consoles for comic books, Game Almighty had to find out more.
By David Chapman
When you work in an office that has super-heroes on staff, it kind of goes without saying that you should have somewhat of an interest in comic books. So, when Captain Almighty heard that Eric Holmes, lead game designer at Radical Entertainment, was making the leap from game designer to comic book writer with IDW Publishing's upcoming mini-series Megatron: Origin, he thought it would be a good idea to round up Eric for an interview. And since the Captain signs the checks (and since he can bend steel beams into pretzels), what the Captain says goes.
David Chapman: Eric, although this is your debut as a comic writer, this isn't the first time you've gotten to play in the comic book sandbox, is it?
Eric Holmes: You’re right, I’ve been working in the comic space for a few years now. I’m the lead designer on the team that created both of the recent Hulk videogames. Hulk was in 2003 and was the game that got us started on that character. It coincided with the movie. In 2005, we shipped Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which I THINK still stands as the highest rated super-hero game to date on the current generation game systems. We were all very proud to have been a part of that team.
Not only did we have an extremely strong team at Radical, but we got to work with some comic industry heavyweights, such as Paul Jenkins as our writer and Bryan Hitch as our concept artist, to namedrop a few. Marvel was a great bunch to work with. We even had Hulk legend Peter David work with us on a story that tied the events of the Hulk game to part of [the Hulk's] continuity, which I believe is a first for comics.
It was a great project to be a part of.
D.C.: So what prompted you to make the leap from developing videogames to writing comics?
E.H.: Comics are a medium I’ve always loved. I grew up reading and Marvel UK reprints. 2000A.D. is a comic rich in ideas. Then it was onto Dark Knight and The Killing Joke, where I started to realize the sheer volume of U.S. material there was.
The greatest thing about those universes is that they’re so rich. There are stories that practically leap out with questions to have about them. If there’s no answer, as a creator, you can make it up! So I’ve been kicking a bunch of comic ideas around for a while. They’re an itch I have to scratch!
With regard to this particular story, I have always been a Transformers fan, and Megatron is easily my favorite character in the universe. There’s something about his drive and intelligence which makes him inspirational, even as a bad guy. I think that’s something that’s really strong about the Universe – the bad guys aren’t repellent monsters, they have their own unique appeal. That these characters are still around and popular today is a testament to the overall draw. How many 1980s properties can you say that about?
D.C.: How did the idea for Megatron: Origin come about?
E.H.: I guess the Transformers' premise is "There’s this huge war that draws in the entire populace of an entire planet." The question "Why?" has never been answered.
Origins offer value beyond their pages. They’re a fascination. Once you know the origin, they affect the way you think about a character from then on. A good example is Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” admitting to be a schoolteacher. It’s a frame of reference for a character that never fully goes away, it adds value to every story of that character beyond that. Every other tale you read, you have that background to refer to and to reflect on – it makes those later stories stronger.
D.C.: Why Megatron in particular?
E.H.: Megatron is a character with a lot of energy to him. Out of all the characters in that universe I think he’s the most dangerous. He’s extremely smart and has unstoppable drive to achieve. Those are the people that change the world. He deserves an interesting tale to have made him what he is.
D.C.: What are the biggest differences between developing a story for an interactive media like a videogame and writing a stable script for comic books?
What a colossal question! I’ll try to be succinct.
With any traditional story, be it a movie script or a comic, it lacks the ability for the audience to futz around with where it’s going. They will, for the most part, do what they’re told. For games, that’s a huge problem and a huge opportunity.
There are a lot of similarities for sure, but one of the biggest challenges with a game is also its strength: interactivity. You can’t quite be sure what the player is doing or thinking at any particular point – and he’s the game lead! You have to do a lot of work to try and keep him on the rails and feeling what the game character is feeling as much as possible, so that when a story point is hit the player accepts it and is further intrigued, inspired, and motivated by the latest development.
The worst that can happen in a game is if the player rejects an event because it doesn’t hit what he’s feeling or thinking when he gets there. He either shakes his head and goes "What?" or laughs at the game story because it’s out of touch with where you’re at. I game a lot and I find that’s an all-too-common reaction to game stories. As developers, we’re learning a lot about how to do that better. It’s such a new medium and it's progressing all the time. The problems multiply just as fast as the opportunities.
For example, GTA-style free-roaming gameplay is a huge problem, because you can be any of a number of types of characters in there. That open gameplay experience is hard to reconcile with a character's performance. If the protagonist is in a mission briefing where he has kill someone and he reacts in the game with "What? You want me to kill someone?", that tells you a lot about his character. However, if just prior to that, you’ve been playing 5 hours of running over every pedestrian you can find, it’s now at odds with how YOU perceived the character, and it can result in the player sniggering or rejecting the scene, at which point you’ve lost their buy-in to the story and the characters.
D.C.: Comic franchises have had a particularly bad track record in the video game industry. Why do you think it's so hard to develop a genuinely good comic-based video game?
E.H.: You say comic book games have a bad track record. I don’t think what you’re saying is true in recent years. Sure, there was a lot of shovelware back in the day, but I think Neversoft’s Spider-Man on the PSOne heralded a new dawn for super-hero games. It delivered an experience both true to the property and with great gameplay. Recently, Marvel Ultimate Alliance reviewed highly. Activision's Spider-Man games do huge business. And the Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction game snagged a few awards.
The future doesn’t look too shabby either. Coming up, you’ve got Starbreeze and Paul Jenkins doing the highly anticipated The Darkness. You have Spider-Man 3 coming out this summer. I think gamers expect a lot from Treyarch on this one. There’s a Hellboy game on the way from Konami. Cryptic Studios is putting together the Marvel MMO and they have the City of Heroes series behind them. Add those up and I’d say things are looking pretty bright.
Why is it so hard though?
A lot of comic book adaptations are seeing the movie-piggy-back trial. It’s a schedule challenge to ship a game with a movie event. Games take a long time to make, and movies are often on shorter schedules.
Funding can be the other gotcha. Metal Gear Solid, for example, isn’t just great because the team is great. They are great, but they also have the advantage of a lot of time to make their games and enormous budgets to hire an army of talented people. That’s how they get their blockbuster cinematics and polished game experience; funding gets them the talent and manpower to deliver. Funds don’t replace the need to be creative or talented, but they certainly help.
D.C.: Well, if you had carte blanche to develop a game based on any comic series, what would it be and how would it play?
(Laughs) You’ll never shut me up. Clearly, it would be Transformers. Look at that Hulk game engine! Just imagine what we could do. Huge destructible cityscapes, filled with life just waiting for you to shift out of disguise! I’d love to get my hands on that and bring the classic characters to life.
If I had to answer something else? The Punisher would be fun. I’d love to do a free-roaming Punisher "war on crime" game. Batman likewise. I don’t think Batman is a great corridor game. It’s all about the freedom to use the gadgets and the vehicles to solve large-scale problems. Twisting that further, I’d love to do a Dark Knight Returns game, although taking that narrative into the game space would be a terrifying challenge.
Green Lantern has great control system potential. Wouldn’t it be great on the Wii?
Finally, I’ll go on record with Marvel Comics' The Ultimates as the dormant license that would give me wood.
D.C.: By the same token, what video game franchise do you think could best make it as a comic series?
E.H.: You got me scratching my head with this one. God of War has an intriguing story, and, if done right, it could make for a great graphic novel. You could probably do something really beautiful and different with Shadow of the Colossus too.
D.C: So I've got to ask … is Megatron: Origin a one time only kind of deal, or would you like to do more writing for the comic industry?
E.H.: I have a bunch of ideas backed up. I have this USAgent project I’ve been thinking about for a while. Hellblazer – I want to write a Constantine story. Everyone has a Batman story stuffed under their mattress. Green Lantern would be a great space to play in, but I think it’s getting exactly what it needed with [current Green Lantern writer] Geoff Johns these days.
I have a bunch of other Transformers stuff stashed away too. We’ll see how this story plays out. Fans have a way of getting what they ask for.