We continue our look at 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game, a game that fans regard as Ghostbusters 3 in spirit (pun intended), by going back to the beginning and exploring how the game came together. Earlier this week, we explained how the game became an unofficial sequel to the first two films, to the point where Dan Aykroyd himself was quoted as saying “This is essentially the third movie.” Then, we tracked down an Associate Producer on the game, Ryan French, who lent his likeness to the character known as “the Rookie,” effectively becoming the fifth Ghostbuster.
Now, we turn to one of the key people that got Ghostbusters: The Video Game off the ground, Executive Producer John Melchior, to tell us in his own words how the idea for the game came about, how it survived executive scrutiny, budget cuts, and a merger between Vivendi Games and Activision that resulted in the game being sold to Atari, and how it ultimately saw the light of day.
Matthew: What was your official involvement with Ghostbusters: The Video Game?
John: I was the Executive Producer throughout the project’s time at Vivendi and Harold Ramis wanted Atari to hire me to work on the game once it was sold off during the merger. So, I was able to work as a writer and helped manage Sony and the talent throughout the process.
Matthew: How much of a Ghostbusters fan were you prior to working on the game? Did that change at all over the course of development?
John: I was a HUGE fan from the moment I saw the movie in 1984. I remember that we had to sneak into a sold out showing and from the first moments in the library I was a huge fan. The tone, the feel, the way the narrative followed the characters as if they were just exterminators and that this was somehow normal to them and NYC was brilliant. It allowed the humor around the characters to be front and center, not the scares or the fact everyone around them was freaking out.
The development not only enhanced my love for the franchise, but my respect for the cast grew as they showed great interest in the game and really rooted me and the team on to create something great. Sony was the game.
Matthew: Which members of the original creative team from the movie did you work with, and in what capacity?
John: First and foremost, Mark Caplan at Sony was instrumental in working with us and granting us the license. This was a highly political and highly charged license, just based on the people involved. Mark was a champion from the start and help us guide the waters to get us in a position to get the talent to say yes.
We met with Dan [Aykroyd] first, we felt that he was the most important person to get on board. So, we took some early prototype work that Terminal Reality had done and contacted Dan’s agent at CAA. We were able to meet him at the House of Blues to show him the work and to pitch him the project.
I think he felt this wasn’t a license slap or an opportunity play. We were fans that wanted to explore this universe and do it in a way that was respectful to canon and in the tone, style and look as the films. This was also something that Caplan wanted to ensure was happening. Dan loved the work that was done and felt it was in the right hands, ones that will pay attention and make decisions that were in the best interest of the IP.
Second was Harold [Ramis], who we met at the hotel next to the Fox lot, when he was directing an episode of The Office. Over breakfast, he pushed hard on my sense of humor and what kind of tone we were shooting for and if he felt we had that same style of humor. We talked about moments in the game, the movies, other movies like Caddyshack, Animal House, and Stripes. He was happy with the result and gave his blessing and pledged his involvement. At this point, we felt like the ball was rolling.
That was the core team we needed. The guys who would help write the treatment, look at the work done by Flint [Dille] and John [Zuur Platten] — two writers we hired to help craft the narrative — and move into writing and approving the final story and dialogue. The story changed dramatically from that original work once Dan and Harold got into what we wanted to do and the locations we wanted to create and recreate.
That left one, Bill Murray, the cornerstone of the franchise. We had to have Bill or this wasn’t going to be what we wanted it to be.
Matthew: Murray is notoriously difficult to reach. Any stories about that?
John: Everyone told us, I mean EVERYONE said, “you are not getting Murray, no way no how.” In our initial meetings with Harold and Dan they even cautioned us that getting in touch with him and having him do lines was going to be a task. Bill only has an 800 number, so we called and left a message early on, but we heard nothing.
Months went by, we called again, nothing. We sent an offer over to his lawyer and kept calling, nothing. We offered to pay for rounds of golf in Hawaii, between recording sessions, on us.
Then, out of the blue, when the game was just about in alpha, the red dot on my phone was blinking. Thinking it was a general developer or QA [quality assurance] message I clicked it and the voice was distinctive and it was Bill. He mentioned that he was in South Carolina and there were many courses there to play. We left a message back saying “hell yes!” We heard nothing. We even contacted his younger brother to see if he would do a soundalike voice to get close. Then we met with our executives, no Bill meant no game. We were missing alpha, then he called again as if he knew and said he would indeed record in New York.
Bill came to the sessions and read the lines and was very engaged and got into it. He actually could call out if Dan or Harold wrote the line or if someone else did. He moved through the script and was a genius. However, we quickly realized we were not going to get through his entire script. So, we recorded the lines we could get, moving around the script for the key scenes.
When Bill was done, we showed him the game, he loved it and the Wii Version from Red Fly, then he left. We had no idea if he was happy with the entire process or hated it. But when we saw him on David Letterman’s Late Show saying he had fun and got into it, we were very happy.
Quickly after, I even think I called the developer from the plane to discuss how we can cover and move things around to connect the dots. We asked Dan and Harold if they would return to the recording booth to record an additional four hours each to cover off on the areas we didn’t get. They both agreed. So, in the end, we had Bill where we really needed him and he nailed it and the other cast members were placed in the scenes we did not have time for.
Matthew: How does it feel knowing you worked on what unofficially became Ghostbusters 3?
John: It was a great feeling and we felt that [it was the unofficial sequel]. Dan said as much in several interviews. We set out to create a game that felt like the movie and fit in the canon. Did we hit it 100%? Of course not, but we sure as hell tried harder on that game than any other game I produced, outside maybe The Simpsons Hit & Run. We wanted to make Mark Caplan proud, we wanted to make the cast proud. We wanted the fans to be proud.
We set out to make a game on a license that was dormant for 20 some years, with a cast that doesn’t really speak or get along some of the time, get a song and score that was beloved and place our bet with little-known developers that had the same passion. We did it, we got them all involved and worked hard to ensure what they wanted is what they got. The merger really damaged the game as there was a pause between publishers and a lot of momentum lost.
Dan, Harold, Ernie, and others love that IP, it showed, they really helped us and were involved whenever and wherever we needed them. It was Harold’s last performance and for me, that is something I will never forget as nobody defined my sense of humor more than he did.
Matthew: You mention the merger damaging the game’s momentum. What were some other challenges the project faced throughout development?
John: We had an executive at Vivendi tell a room from of people that he would dig up his dead grandmother and @$## her if we got Bill Murray. That same executive killed the game one week, tried to make it a value title and cut the budget by 60% another. We had another executive working against us trying to kill the game because they did not understand it or how it would be a good game.
We had a constant flow of meetings and work to keep this a secret until Sony (Mark Caplan and team) were comfortable we had it right. We had a European developer release screenshots and a movie of a Ghostbusters game they said they were making that sent panic throughout our company. Sony stopped that in a hurry.
We had to keep driving the quality to get the Game Informer cover. We had to keep the talent engaged for three years, three voiceover sessions and countless writing assignments and reviews. But a lot of people had a passion for this and loved it as much as I or any fan does. I had to let the talent and everyone know that I was leaving as the Vivendi and Activision merger went through and the game was in limbo. Atari stepped in and saved the day.
All that….with all the politics around the fan base and actors, but we did it… we did it. I am proud of that, and so proud of the teams that worked on it as they had to deal with these ups and downs.
Matthew: So what kept you going through all of that? How did you avoid just pushing this game out as a “licensed slap” and calling it a day?
John: The one thing that drove us was Dan’s constant passion, engagement, and enthusiasm. We really went were driven by making him happy as he was always there to look at assets, dialogue, level concepts, characters (their skinny 1991 versions). This was not a licensed slap, this was not something that Caplan threw over the fence and said we will see you at alpha. Caplan was involved the entire way, Dan was involved weekly, that helped. We had guardrails, we had someone keeping on point, on focus. It was a great experience, one I had with Simpsons Road Rage but not on much else with regards to licensing.
The greenlight build was the best prototype I have ever seen, I wish people could have played it. It had so much to it. We had a full 20-minute experience, with soundalikes playing each of the characters. We decided to pander to the room and had lines of dialogue commenting on the people there, calling out that finance “would never fund this, too expensive,” calling out legal, and our CEO Bruce Hack. We had all the humor about the decision makers in the room and their roles in approving the game at greenlight.
Matthew: How was working with Akroyd, Murray, Ramis, and the rest of the original cast?
John: It was a blast, but very difficult at times. Though we had several writers supporting and Drew [Haworth], the Creative Director at the developer, all working to put all the content together it was hard for them to understand how big a game script was. Harold used to laugh about the script when we were talking about a character walking towards the door and we said we needed lines and actions for when the player opened the door, didn’t open the door, went to the window, turned around, got lost, stood there, shot at the door, kicked the door, etc…
Dan and Harold gave me everything I asked for as far as effort and time. They traveled to us. They made time for us to travel to them. They added voice sessions for free to cover off some lines that other actors didn’t get to. They were there every step of the way. Harold thanked us for “keeping the franchise alive” and Dan told us that Mark and we did more for the license coming back than anything else over the last couple of decades.
I only saw the stern side of them once or twice and it was always about content or making something work for us. I am honored to be a part of their work and they kept in contact for several years after the game was released. Harold would check in with me every couple of months after its release, even gave me a Christmas present of Pizza of the Month club!
Matthew: Do you have any stories about Aykroyd’s love of the supernatural and how it affected the scriptwriting?
John: Dan loves the paranormal. His book A History of Ghosts was a great example of his passion and fondness for it. I love ghost stories and what goes bump in the night, so we got along just fine. He really brought his knowledge of that world and the world of science into the fold and he went over each piece of equipment we created and named it and gave it some “science.”
Harold told me that when they started crafting the final drafts of the scripts, the approach was Dan was a total believer in the paranormal and the afterlife and other dimensions. Harold was not, but understood the reasoning for believing because his ex-wife was a total believer. There was a true balance because they each knew what the other believed and had an understanding of why. The respect they had for each other and Ernie and Bill’s ability to take the lines and make them work was front and center in every conversation.
He told me to approach the script with Dan and Harold’s characters acting like kids on Christmas morning, Dan was SUPER excited to get the present he wanted, Harold’s character loved the presents in a more scientific way, and Bill was more like the parent in the scene, bringing them back to reality and focus. The firehouse scene is a great example of that.
Matthew: What is it about the game, and specifically the sequences where the player traps ghosts, that makes it fun and really gives you that feeling of being a Ghostbuster?
John: What people almost missed about the mechanics of the game, is that it really is just a fishing mechanic. We really looked at that when designing the core mechanics. Once we had the cast, reel in and trap, we knew we had fun gameplay to try and wrap the rest around. There were a lot of tests done early on to ensure we nailed that, the physics and that the proton pack destroys everything.
Matthew: What is your reaction to the new movie reboot?
John: Look, I am happy that the franchise lives on and has new content for its rabid fans. I am not a huge fan of the reboot as from what I have seen, the humor is based on them, their actions and reactions to what happens and to each other. Lines about slime getting everywhere, the high five is deadly, and others seem to miss the tone of the franchise. The situation drove the comedy in the original. However, I have not seen it, so I will withhold final opinions till I do. Each of those actors is very funny, so for me the concern is the script and tone, not the cast or abilities of them to be funny.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game is available via Steam for a mere $9.99. It is well worth that amount for Ghostbusters fans interested in what Ghostbuster 3 could have been.