Interview: How Rainbow Studios Dreamed Up Deadly Creatures

An idea that came to Rainbow Studios' Jordan Itkowitz in a dream led the MX vs. ATV developer to break out of the racing genre with Deadly Creatures -- he talks to Gamasutra about the creepy game's unique circumstances and new Wii IP.
Rainbow Studios is known for motorsport titles like the MX vs. ATV games -- in fact, that's pretty much all the THQ studio's done. That's why it comes as a surprise that Deadly Creatures, one of the more anticipated Wii exclusives of the coming year -- is coming from the Rainbow team, especially since THQ often focuses primarily on licenses. So how did the team get the pitch through, and what advice can they offer to other studios in similar situations who want to try something different? Lead developer Jordan Itkowitz explains, and also discusses the challenges inherent in going to market with a new IP on Wii, plus the benefits in developing a title solely for Wii. Dreaming Of A New Project Deadly Creatures, a realistic-looking action adventure that pits a scorpion and a tarantula against other creepy crawlies in their natural desert habitats, is about as far from the racing genre as you can get. "A bunch of us had wanted to do an action title, or something out of racing, for a long time," lead developer Jordan Itkowitz tells Gamasutra. Although Itkowitz says that racing is the studio's "bread and butter," the team was eager to catch THQ's attention with a change of pace. A small team of about 8 or 9 of the studio's developers had been brainstorming ideas to take to the publisher, and was about to vote on which one they wanted to pitch together. "The morning before we were going to have this vote, I had this dream," Itkowitz says. "I was a snake in the dream, and I was slithering through some grass with the Wii remote in my 'hand'... I saw a mouse, and reared up with my right hand, and then struck at it and killed it -- and then I woke up." Itkowitz says he immediately brought the idea to the brainstorm team: a Wii remote-driven action title that casts players as creepy predators. "The team was really into it; it scored really high on our internal vote," he says. And it was good timing for THQ, he adds -- although the publisher's currently in risk reduction mode, it was at that time quite interested in original IP for the Wii, having just greenlit De Blob. "It was one of those things where the stars converge and you get a concept through that normally would not have gone under normal circumstances," Itkowitz says. Aligning The Universe He calls it a "charmed journey" for the project the entire way, with THQ's full support helping bring in a Hollywood creative director to add a storyline to the gameworld and getting Dennis Hopper and Billy Bob Thornton on board to voice the human characters. "I think we were lucky in that THQ was in a position in which they were really receptive, and actively looking for new IP," Itkowitz says. Beyond luck, however, owned studios looking to get publishers to bite on new IP can keep a couple tips in mind. "Make sure it's a really high concept that you can neatly summarize in a couple of sentences," he suggests. "Get that idea across with concept art, a really well-represented example of what that experience is going to be and why it's going to be significant to gamers, and you're off and running." And what seems fresh and novel sometimes isn't, he cautions. "You run into problems where it does seem really niche and derivative," he says, "and maybe it's just that you're trying to take your own spin on something that has been done before, and then it becomes a little more of a risk." "We were just lucky this time," he says. Deadly Creatures is Itkowitz's third title with THQ, following Splashdown 2 which Rainbow brought from Atari and the Cars film game. "Creatively they've been great to work with because they pretty much sit back and let us do our thing. The Wii Audience Did the team have to strike a careful balance developing a game about frightening bugs and reptiles on the family-friendly Wii? "Our big challenge was not to make it overly violent so that it would turn off the parents of the younger half of our audience," says Itkowitz. "We had just enough bug guts that the ESRB gave us a T rating," he adds. "But from the beginning, we didn't want to dumb it down or kiddy it up too much. Some people figured... that we were putting googly eyes on [the creatures] and giving them funny personalities, but we wanted to take a National Geographic special and meld it with an action horror experience." "The fact that it's on the Wii didn't deter us from choosing the tone," Itkowitz continues. "Just because it's on the Wii doesn't mean you can't execute the way you need to. A big hook for us was not the overall family-friendly vibe for the Wii -- it's what we could do with the controls that really made it a family-friendly experience." Itkowitz hopes players who often complain they want something less casual and light on the Wii will enjoy Deadly Creatures -- "And then we can do another one," he says. "I'd love to do one that takes on the predators of a different ecosystem." The State Of Wii Development How does he see the state of Wii development in general now? "The Wii has the potential to be this really interesting petri dish for new and original ideas," he says. "I'd like to see that taken to a bigger level... it's just tough now, obviously, with the economy." The challenge comes from the specificity required to develop a Wii-oriented game rather than just a Wii edition of a multiplatform title, he suggests. "We were lucky in that we were only making this for Wii... we had new tools and technology specifically for Wii for this title." It gets more difficult to produce a quality game when a team is simply doing a Wii version of a game alongside the next-gen versions. "It's still next-gen versus last-gen," Itkowitz says -- which means the next-gen version comes first, and then the Wii version has been scaled down, cut up and thinned out in the resolution department, among other changes. "That's just the reality of the situation -- which means that a team that's making a game specifically for the Wii is probably going to be able to pour a lot more into it than a team that's doing a port," Itkowitz says -- although he was sure to note that some Wii ports, like Okami and Resident Evil 4, are quite good. But in general, do the highest-quality Wii games tend to be made specifically for Wii? "I think so," says Itkowitz -- "but that's just me speaking as a consumer, really. With my development experience, obviously publishers have to do whatever's going to be best for their portfolio and whats going to be most economical." And it can be deceptively hard to draw audiences on Wii. "Just because there's a huge install base doesn't mean that people are buying a vast variety of games," Itkowitz says. "Look at what's selling -- obviously it's mostly Nintendo stuff... really, it's just kind of a process of getting people that are new to video games to dip their toe into the water and try some other genres."

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