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Toying With Games: Todd McFarlane On Halo And His MMO

Spawn creator Todd McFarlane has lent his designs and IP to multiple games, but right now, his two major projects are 2008's Halo 3 action figures, and his co-founding of 38 Studios to produce an MMO with Curt Schilling and R.A. Salvatore - and Gamasutra sat down to discuss both with him.

Gamasutra recently visited the GameStop Expo in Las Vegas to investigate exactly what happens when the biggest game specialty retailer puts on a shindig for its staff. Exhibitors were there, of course, to both pitch product and sign autographs.

Among them was famous comic book creator and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, whose toy company has partnered with Microsoft and Bungie to produce a line of Halo 3 toys that are due out in March. Alongside the game's release, a special limited edition Halo 3 controller wrapped with McFarlane's art was also produced.

Thus, Gamasutra spoke to McFarlane - just before Halo 3 launched - about the realities of making toys based on games, his company's relationships with Bungie and Microsoft, and his venture with baseball player Curt Schilling and author R.A. Salvatore, 38 Studios, which is currently in production on an MMORPG.

So obviously you're here at the GameStop Expo to promote the Halo figures you're doing with Microsoft.

Todd McFarlane: Right.

How did you come to get involved with that project?

TM: You know what, someone just asked me that, and it's interesting. Most times it's somebody who just walks into the room and goes, "Hey, how would you like to do that?" And I never know whether it was because someone was asking us or we asked them, at that point. But we've been keeping our eye on Halo, wanting to get back in doing some video game figures again. You know, we had done Metal Gear Solid --

Those made a big splash back in, I guess that was probably 1999?

TM: Yeah, so. We followed up on a couple of other games that didn't do quite as well as Metal Gear, but I also have a bunch of guys that work for me who are huge Halo fans. They've always been sort of nudging me the whole time, and I think between us looking for them and the Bungie developers wanting to have a bunch of cool toys -- luckily a bunch of guys who work at Bungie also collect our stuff, so they knew that we would deliver quality to them. And not necessarily just that we offered the most money, but just that we could come in there and actually make toys that looked like what was on the screen.

Todd McFarlane

Well, that's Bungie's philosophy, essentially. They care most about quality.

TM: Right. And so whenever that happens on the license, that puts us high up on the pecking order because there are very few companies out there, if any, that I'll take a back seat to in quality. If they want art, all of a sudden our phone starts to ring. If they want the most money, usually they go to the public companies. But anyway, we ended up making early contact and talking about the toys, and as a byproduct of talking about the toys we sort of splintered off into doing the wireless controller artwork that they had on the drawing board.

Who's producing the controller? That's not your company...

TM: No, no, no. That's Microsoft.

They're producing it themselves?

TM: Yeah, what we did was, they came up with it and wanted to see if they could actually wrap some artwork on it, so we did some artwork for it and then we produced the little tiny figures for it -- those little guys right there [indicates display] are going to be packed in with the controller, and then you get both of those for whatever the retail price is on that.

So did you actually do the illustrations or do you have a staff that completes the illustrations?

TM: Nah, the guy I've been working with over the years, a guy named Greg Capullo, he and I, when it gets down to the artwork, he and I are like Batman and Robin, we do it all. There are other things that we do, that I let my staff do, but then I don't sign my name to it.

Right, I understand.

TM: So if I sign it, I'm doing artwork on it.


So when it comes to something like this, the game is shipping soon, but obviously you guys have been working on these products for a long time, so what's it like working for Bungie and Microsoft, to sort of come together and have these things ready in time?

TM: You know what, I was a little concerned working with Microsoft only because it's such a big company. And whenever we've dealt with these big corporations, sometimes it can get silly. But they've been tremendous. They've been given a great liason into letting the people at Bungie do most of the art commentating, and working as a facilitator, so they've been... you usually would think a company can sometimes actually get in the way and be an obstacle, but between myself and Bungie they've been a tremendous asset.

And then the people at Bungie -- wow. They've gone overboard. They've literally been more sensible on this line than any other license I've ever dealt with before. Besides delivering the assets, they've given us color codes, to how each one of the pieces works, and the designs, and all the scales and stuff, and the weapons, and then every time we do something they come back with instant notes, to say, "Hey, you know what, the rivets are supposed to be this way." And I don't think that they're pushing us wrong because it's their baby, and I actually want to deliver it.

So when we started, we asked for and they gave us their data from the game, to use their wireframes from the game to start with. So instead of us looking at still pictures of captures of the screen, we actually said, "Can we have your wireframes?" and they said, "Yeah, sure." And they gave us their wireframes -- we had to cut them up so that we could put them into moving parts in 3D and had to make some minor adjustments, but we're going straight from Bungie's information as much as possible.

And when it comes to making action figures you said you hadn't done some game ones for a little while, you've been concentrating I guess on comics or movie stuff?

TM: No... Well, yeah. Movie toys are a big one. Batman, Superman, Spiderman stuff, that does well for us. Half our business is now sports -- we do the NFL and the NBA and the NHL and Major League Baseball, but it was just waiting for the right license.

Because what was happening was we put out the Metal Gear Solid, and a couple other companies put out some stuff, and then all of a sudden five or six smaller companies started burning through the games. They're not all worthy of being turned into plastic goods, so I took this step back and said, "No. Next time we go into the videogame market it's going to be with an A-list title." And we were fortunate enough, with Halo coming up, that were able to go "Wow." We could go straight to the top of the list there.

Well, I was talking with [McFarlane executive director of PR] Carmen Bryant a moment ago, and she said that right now toys aren't in GameStop. There was a point where... I think it started with your Metal Gear toys, those toys were kind of like a watershed moment in realistic game action figures. That was the genesis. That game was so huge, and it started picking up and picking up and I think there came to be a point where you got to GameStop and it basically was an avalanche of toys falling on you. It almost took away from the games. Do you think they got cautious?

TM: I think what ended up happening, they found out the same thing with their toys that they found out with their games -- all toys are not created equal, just like the games. Just because somebody turns it into plastic does not necessarily mean it's going to sell at the same rate. So what happened was they were very generous with bringing in a lot of product, but all of a sudden if it's not selling... you have to be very cognizant of the reality that a toy that's four inches thick, when you look at it from the profile, is equivalent to about five sixty dollar games. That could be three hundred dollars instead of a fifteen dollar toy. And and some point you're going, "What are we giving this space for? That could be six hundred dollars we're giving away to that big fat toy!"

So they then pulled out, I believe, all their toys. I think they threw the baby out with the bathwater. But we're going to have a follow-up conversation here with some of their executives and go, you know, "What if I built you a dump? What if I built you kiosks -- floor kiosks -- that I could put the product in so you don't have to take away your space, because I don't want to take away your space. I understand not wanting to take away your space. What if I created new space for you and sent it off to all your stores and gave you some exclusive pieces?" If I can't turn their heads with Halo, I don't have too many more that are going to!

Yeah, it's top of the line. Is Microsoft working with you guys on this, or is it kind of like once you get the toys created and you work on them, it's you from then on -- you take them, you finish them, you manufacture them, market them, all that stuff.

TM: They've been very good and very supportive of either lending people out to give some sales pitches and/or letting us know the information that they're using for marketing, so when we're trying to get the product put on shelves that everybody understands the wide breadth of effort that Microsoft's going to be putting on it, which will completely engulf anything we're going to do. Forget what we're going to do to market it -- which we'll do. It's what Microsoft's going to do as a whole, like launching a giant movie. And so they've been there, and then I'm sure once the game comes out, then we'll be able to do a few more things, because everybody, as you might imagine, is a bit distracted right now.


Now, you announced the formation of 38 Studios not too long ago with Curt Schilling and R.A. Salvatore. Can you go into how you got involved with the project, your thought processes?

TM: You know, it really is Curt's baby. Curt, aside from being an All-Star Major League Baseball player -- as you might imagine, as an athlete you're on the road a lot and you have a lot of downtime, and for well over a decade he's been going back to his apartment, not going to the bars, going back to his hotel room and getting on his computer and playing a lot of MMO games over the years. Everything, I believe, from Ultima Online, EverQuest, now World of Warcraft. He saw stuff there just like I see when I'm doing stuff -- "I don't get why you don't do this and this and that" -- and he just got to the point where he started thinking about his post-athletic career. I mean, he's now in his forties, and he's winding it down on a professional baseball level, and he just wanted to start planning for the future.

So he started putting his money where his mouth was, which was, "I know. I'm going to start developing a game, and I'm going to get good people on it, and then I'm going to go and help people to get distribution, and help fund it, and we're just going to rock and roll and see if we can't go into that space and do some competition and land, in a perfect world, somewhere between EverQuest and World of Warcraft, and see what we can do." And then R.A. came on board and wrote this big fantastic story based on the seeds of the ideas that Curt and his friends had already come up with.

I see, so he got involved afterwards.

TM: Yeah. And then he fleshed out a bunch of stuff for Curt, and then we put the team together, and it's my job to look over all the artwork and push the artists to actually live up to the standards that Curt and R.A. have sort of laid down artistically.

How did you get involved, exactly?

TM: Curt, who used to pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks -- I live in Arizona, so we're both in Phoenix so we used to run into each other --

And you're well-known for being a baseball fan.

TM: Yeah, and we did some common charity, with the ALS foundation, and so anyway we just knew each other. And then he took off to Boston, and when the time was right he gave me a call and said, "Hey Todd, I'm doing this crazy thing and I need somebody who can do art, and the first guy who came to my mind was you, and I wanted to know if you wanted to get on board." So I flew out to where he was at and met a couple of his people, and for the last year I've been going off and on to some of the investment meetings and doing some of the pitching for him in terms of the ideas and what it would look like. And that's how we got together.

Now, in terms of the art, obviously to make a big game, an ambitious game like an MMO, you have probably dozens of artists working on it. Do you work on characters, or concept art, and then how does that become part of the game?

TM: You know what, I see myself as more of a director. It's my job to take those twenty guys that we've got, talk to them about the philosophy of what it should look like and why, and here's some ideas.

If anybody ever gets stuck I can draw, you know... "Guys, here! Let me draw it for you." But I wasn't interested in being the guy who came in and drew the stuff per se. I've done that. I was more interested in being part of a team effort. Basically the whole is way better than the parts, and arguably that's what I do with my own toy company. I don't sit there and sculpt every toy, but what I do is I give guidance every day, and I give philosophy, and they hear me talk about stuff, and the best days are when they take all that information and they turn it into something that's three times better than I could ever imagine. Then I look at stuff and I go, "Wow!" I consider myself to be a pretty good artist and I would never have thought of that.

So, if you can be an inspiration to them, it catapults them to actually do even more, and that there's a reasoning behind it, so there's some uniformity to what we're doing, then I go, "OK." We'll have done our jobs. This isn't about an R.A. story, or Todd artwork. This is about -- is this, at the end of the day, going to be a cool game to play? And if the answer is yes, then we all did our jobs and there will be plenty of pats on the back to go around for everybody. Matter of fact, if people think it's a Todd art game, then I've done my job wrong.


Did you have any hesitation about getting involved with another game project or was that something you were interested in?

TM: You know, we'd been talking about it internally, developing our own game anyway, and it looked like we weren't going to be able to do that and do some of the other ventures that we already do, so this was a way of sort of having my cake and eating it too.

I went "Oh, good." I can get in on developing from the ground level up, have a say in the project, add some blood into the game, and not have to worry about preconceived notions of somebody's game that they've got a deadline and this is the budget, and you've got to get it out, which is what happened with some of the other stuff I was involved in.

Yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but some of the game that you have been involved with have had checkered histories. The obvious examples are McFarlane's Evil Prophecy from Konami which turned out to be not the best game, to put it mildly, and then Ultima Online 2 ended up not even coming out. Did that give you pause?

TM: Yeah, well, because again, in some of those [situations], there were mechanisms in place that I couldn't control. Here, we're in control. So, I go, "All right." To be able to have input on how it's all going to develop from the get-go, that was it. That was really the biggest enticement for me, and not going, oh, I'm jumping onboard to this thing that's already built halfway, that already has its status quo, and then I couldn't do anything to change some of those boulders that are already running down the hill.

You know, there's a lot of talk -- I was just at the Austin Game Developers Conference last week, which was full of MMO guys. Some of the 38 guys were there. There's a lot of talk now about that space. Thanks to the phenomenal success of World of Warcraft, there's also a lot more competition upcoming. How do you feel about that?

TM: I see it as being the same as any place where people see there's an opportunity for business. Once there's one big success in one arena, you get fifty guys coming on board and they try to milk it a little bit. It sometimes can be a bit of a deterrent to that business because you sort of start cannibalizing from each other a little bit.

I think what ends up happening with that space is the same thing that happens here with videogames. But, you know what? The cream will rise to the top. The fans will basically pick and choose what they want. There will be a bunch of games that will come out, hang around for a little bit, peter out and then move on.

I mean, the movie business is the same way. Just because they put out a hundred movies, doesn't mean they're all successful. You could even spend all the same amount of money and that doesn't mean they're all going to be successful. Somebody's going to have to deliver -- 38 Studios included.

We're not just going to be able to sit there and go, oh, look at us, we've got a couple people who have reputations coming by. That may add a little bit of curiosity at the beginning, but if you don't deliver the goods, like we were saying with Evil Prophecy, once you get past the curiosity, if the game doesn't work then the game doesn't work! People will move on very quickly because they can spend their money better someplace else.

Are you confident so far with what you've seen with 38 Studios? The planning, the staff and everything?

TM: Yeah. The story's well thought out, the visuals -- and I'm not saying this because I'm doing them, I'm actually watching the kids do it -- are turning out to be some terrific stuff, and then we have a good crew of people who are paying attention to the logistics side of it. Brett Close, who's helped a handful of big games coming out.

Everybody has equal value and that doesn't have to necessarily be what you're going to end up seeing with your eyes. Even the mechanism of being able to actually generate that though a pipeline of IT -- all that data information that's going to go make those guys move the way you want. You've got a roomful of guys who work behind the skeleton that we build, that are right there going, "You can make it as pretty as you want, guys, but if we don't do our job then none of this works." So everybody's doing what they're doing and so far it's tracking.

Now, the bigger hurdles are going to come in the next two years as we get to some bigger, higher mile markers. Right now a lot of it's conceptual in terms of the artwork, and once we have to start making it 3D, rendering and moving, and make it all work in a space, then we're going to see whether we actually know what [we've got]. We're going to turn theory into reality and it's going to have to work at that point. But Curt was very smart in getting some very skilled people in those different divisions who have already lived this life over and over and over.

MMOs are most likely more complex than any other game genre to produce, so I'm sure you've been made aware of some of the pitfalls there.

TM: Well, the thing is we're necessarily trying to reinvent any wheel, we're just trying to polish it up a little bit, so the wheel exists and we're just kind of trying to cool mag, maybe put a kind of a bling spinner on the wheel. And just go, "The wheel works. We don't have to start all over, the wheel works. How do you present it in a way that's a little bit different?"

So have you guys made any details about the game public yet, or is that all sort of being held back until you get further along?

TM: No, not a lot. We showed our first visual at San Diego Comic-Con. So now people look at that and they go, okay, it's not going to be a sports game. Because in interviews, people were going, "Oh, Curt Schilling! Are you doing a sports game?" So people can now see that it's got a fantasy element to it, and we'll go into that area that already is hugely popular.

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