Shipping a licensed game is a pain in the ass, but making one that's worth playing? That's even harder. Most developers can't pull that off, which is why there's a good reason to avoid games based on a license. It explains how most people zipped past Gemini: Heroes Reborn in early 2016, a game based on the ill-fated return of NBC's superhero series. But those who gave it a chance were treated to a surprisingly fun action game with inventive time travel powers.
Thing is, you don't always get to work on your dream project. Sometimes, you might be asked to develop a port of a mediocre mini-game collection for the launch of a new console, as was the case when designer Steve Bowler was handed a lead role on Game Party Champions for Wii U.
"I never want to work on another Game Party as long as I live," said Bowler in a call with me recently. " [laughs] I hit my limit. But the whole reason I agreed to take on that first Game Party project was because it was a growth opportunity and the challenge."
Bowler is used to games with unique challenges; after shipping Game Party Champions, he was seen as someone who could shephard others like it to the finish line. It's how he ended up as lead designer on a mobile tie-in game for Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, Man of Steel.
"My whole philosophy when it comes to working on projects is to find something you enjoy about the project you're working on and make it great," he said. "I think that's why the Man of Steel game was pretty successful. I mean, insofar as people enjoyed it. It's not a smash hit. We made a good game out of it."
You might think a busy director like Snyder wouldn't have time to actually hear out a pitch on a lowly mobile game, but that wasn't the case—Bowler ended up pitching to him directly. The team brought a mockup of what the game might look like, based on assumptions they made about the movie. They were assumptions because developers don't always get real access to scripts or footage, even if the game they're building is supposed to be based it. (Polygon published an excellent piece about how that helped doom a game based on Superman Returns.)
Synder loved the pitch, though, and quickly showed Bowler a bunch of unfinished footage from the movie to help provide inspiration for the game's enemies, environments, and other elements. That rarely happens.
Towards the end of development, though, they needed another set of enemies.
"I was told several times," said Bowler, "by DC Interactive and DC Comics and everybody: 'No robots. We don't care what enemies you put in the game.'"
Robots, though, were exactly what they wanted to add. During one of Bowler's meetings with Snyder, he made a calculated gamble.
"We're sitting in Zack's editing office and one of the guys who was like 'No robots,'" he said. "I asked 'Hey, do you have any other things? Like a spacesuit for the Kryptonians? Or any like…robots?" [laughs] I see them cringe on the couch and he goes 'Oh, we totally have robots! Check this out!'"
And that's how robots ended up in the Man of Steel mobile game.
Bowler wasn't sure what his next project would be, only that he didn't want to work on another mini-game collection. What landed in his lap was a game based on Heroes, a year in advance of NBC bringing back the show. Whereas some game projects have years to come together, licensed games are usually fast, tightly budgeted, and limited in scope.
"I'm not going to say it's great," he said. "It is what it is. It was a nine-to-11 month development cycle for two separate games, with TV licensing thrown in. Super rapid schedule."
Bowler and his team drafted a design treatment that spanned more than 200 pages—roughly 110 pages for the game meant for PC and console, another 90 or so for a mobile tie-in.
"I can respect when people are like 'Look, I'm not that excited to work on it because it is a tie-in. I was trying to coach team members on it who were flustered."
One of the big differences between Man of Steel and Heroes was access. Though the writing staff on Heroes was interested in being creatively involved, there was an enormously burdensome secrecy surrounding everything, including what powers characters would have.
"We're already under NDA and we're like 'Can you just tell us what all the abilities are on the show?'" said Bowler. "And they're like 'We can't.'"
Bowler needed to figure out what powers he could assign players, but no one would give him access to a script or answer basic plotting questions. And if he ended up including a power that was in the show, it was virtually guaranteed to be rejected; the show always got priority.
This lead to a guessing game, a clever way of getting around the legal headaches.
"[I'd say] 'Here's all the abilities that we think we want to put in the game,'" said Bowler. "'We're either going to give it to our main character or NPCs in the game or a villain might have it or an enemy might have it.' And we'd go 'Here's ability A.' And they'd go 'No, can't use that because there's another character in the TV show that has an ability that's similar to that.' 'Okay, here's ability B. How about that one?' 'Yeah, yeah, I think that'll work.'"
In essence, they learned what they could use by finding out what they couldn't.
This extended to other areas, too. Bowler wanted to make sure the game's color scheme and aesthetic vibed with the show, but he couldn't see clips in advance. Instead, the only way to know what the show looked like was to find officially released clips on places like YouTube.
"I was trying to bend over backwards as far as I could," he said. "I'll fly to you! I'll come to your office. Take my phone!"
Bowler put together a basic script for the game, but the show's writers eventually took over and wrote the in-game dialogue. But since Bowler wasn't allowed to know what was happening on Heroes, the resulting dialogue often didn't make sense, filled with references to unknown events or phrases. This lead to a bizarre experience after the game shipped and the show aired: those gaps got filled in.
"There's a lot of callbacks to the show in the writing that the writers put in that we didn't know were callback to the shows when they said it," he said. "It was almost like I was seeing easter eggs in my own game."
The game that shipped was, by my count, pretty damn good. You should play it! Honestly. It might lack the polish and ambition of Titanfall 2's surprise time manipulation mission but not for lack of trying. Plus, what makes Gemini: Heroes Reborn special is how hard it tries within its own bubble. It's working within difficult constraints.
Doing good work in that headspace wasn't always easy, though.
"I can respect when people are like 'Look, I'm not that excited to work on it because it is a tie-in,'" he said. "I was trying to coach team members on it who were flustered. ''Oh, we're working on a licensed game again.' I'd be like "Yeah, but focus on your puzzles. If you're doing a puzzle in the game, you just have to make it a fun puzzle.' There's lots of ways that you can work within that confined box that you've been given, to actually make something kind of cool out of it."
Rather than lamenting the game he wishes he was working on, Bowler focuses on the moment. Maybe the cool puzzle you build in this crappy licensed game can go on your resume and help you build that original game you've had kicking around in a notebook for the past decade.
"Part of it is that, yes, we all want to be loved and adored by fans and we want everybody to love what we do," he said. "This is not me dismissing that frustration, because man, I feel it. […] You need to find something for you in it, and it can't be 'No one's going to appreciate my work.' If you appreciate your work and you got paid for it, that's still, at the end of the day, a win."
It's since paid off for Bowler, who recently founded CloudGate Studio, a developer focused on VR games. Island 359, in which players fend off dinosaur attacks, is currently in early access on Steam.