Designer Ecko's Creativity Crosses OverJames Brightman
Do you remember the last time someone in the fashion industry crossed over into the video game business? Right, we don't either, but that hasn't stopped New York fashion designer and graffiti art enthusiast Marc Ecko from following his dreams. With Ecko's first game on store shelves for over a month now, we recently spoke with Marc about Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, Ecko's future plans, and the industry in general.
Coming to fruition
Ecko began by explaining how he decided to get involved with gaming. "The back story on Getting Up is I wrote it at a time and built some of the core brand defining assets well over 7-8 years ago when my core business was completely in the shi**er. It was over $6 million in debt and I think my tendency to work on it was probably somewhat of an escapism from where my real business was at, because it felt good and there were no ramifications, no measures of success or failure. And I didn't have a partner so it was kind of like an extension of those days when I was kid designing comic books or making a board game."
A few years later Ecko's business had recovered and that afforded him the opportunity to actually pursue his game project. "Before we met [developer] The Collective, we went around meeting developers in other parts of the world, namely Atari or Infogrames owned developers and we were looking at developers whose core competency was driving or was side-scrolling and it just wasn't an organic fit... And what I was impressed about [The Collective] was just their willingness to do this [because the project] had an indie vibe and wasn't a movie license."
Ecko also explained how it was a challenge to recreate the feel of New York in the game. "It was really hard to get the lighting and what the skybox should look like, the drama of that, the topography of rooftops; it's kind of hard to communicate what Brooklyn feels like to guys in Newport Beach, California... So I hired an agency, got a budget from the publisher [Atari] to develop a lot of the art assets to populate the environment—the kind of environmental secondary stuff that your eye just tells you it either looks polished or doesn't."
As for his direct involvement as development proceeded, Ecko said, "I personally would write all the dialog and work with [lead designer] John Manley who was tasked to write all the non-player characters... and I would write all the core story [details]. And initially the publisher didn't want me to do that. They hired someone and they realized they were just burning money by doing that, and that I was doing most of the heavy lifting, so they said, 'Ok, let's just let Marc go finish. We'll figure out how to connect it back in.' So that's basically what I did. I hooked up with Richard Hare, one of the principals at The Collective, and at an executive level we just kind of fleshed it all out."
As with any project, looking back there are often certain things you wish you had included or done differently. It's no different with Ecko's first game, but overall he's quite pleased with the final product. "There's areas obviously that I cringe at, and there's parts of the game that got cut that I cringe at... it's a very collaborative process; you can come in there with the idea but you have to be able to interface with the team and to kind of allow the real frontline guys who are doing the heavy lifting to have a sense of ownership creatively. So there were things that they wanted to do design related that I couldn't micromanage. I had to give them their space to flesh it out... that was definitely a learning curve. I would say that six months were added [because of that]. Knowing what I know today, managing future IPs I know I could cut 6-9 months off the process just by coming in with a better blueprint upfront."
Interestingly, Ecko actually wanted to make the game shorter, which is surprising given that reviewers often like to complain about a game's length. "The game's at like 15 hours for the average gamer... I really was pushing for shorter and I can tell you a third of the game is on the cutting room floor as it is now, like geometry, total huge boards, rooftop chase things that didn't get made, etc."
Reviewers and game length
When we raised the issue of reviewers, he countered, "As a trend I think the whole industry is moving towards [shorter], just based on return on investment... Ultimately, I would rather have something that's got tremendous production values, focused animations that don't break and tilting gameplay that's gratifying that's six hours or eight hours in the spirit of let's say Half-Life 2 than something that is overly ambitious, where you're trying to build a $10 million game on a $5 million budget; that's kind of the tendency of most of the industry."
"I think your long gameplay experiences are going to tend to come from games that in spirit play like pinball games or sports games—games that basically tilt and loop over and over and over again," he added. "Sports games are games you're going to get a great return on investment on any of those purchases. MMOs ultimately are where you're going to be able to get your really long, deep RPG and be emotionally and physically vested in the long-hour type gameplay. I think console gaming is going to move towards shorter stuff, where the box gains you entrance to the IP and ultimately with the online capacity... you'll be able to download 4-6 hour experiences, like what the guys over at Valve announced with the Half-Life brand. I think you're going to see that and I think that's okay, especially when the final product is going to be really gratifying."
Looking specifically at Getting Up Ecko said, "For me, [shortening it] wasn't because I wanted to gip the consumer. It was because I just wanted to manage scope and expectations... the analogy is like trying to put 10 pounds of sh*t in a 5-pound bag [laughs]; it's going to get messy around the edges."
Interestingly, throughout our conversation Ecko referred to Getting Up as a franchise. We asked if a sequel was definitely being planned. "That was always our intent," he said. "I think ultimately both Atari and my position is to be vested in the franchise and how do we manage the expectations of the consumer that has bought it... and how do we bring the brand into the future for both handheld and next-gen? That's really where our heads are at."
Unlike most video games on the market today, Getting Up seemed to be strangely polarizing. While many in the enthusiast press gave the game above average or even glowing review scores, several other outlets downright trashed it. Ecko told us that he wasn't sure why the game seemed to generate such love it/hate it responses but he did admit that there could have been some bias because of his fashion roots.
"I think there's an inherent cynicism for any outsider... you know, what the f*ck is a fashion designer who like, measures zippers... doing coming in and telling us about code and games? I think there is some pent up animosity or kind of a predisposition to want to be cynical," he said. "And I don't necessarily blame that disposition; I think that's a pretty organic response when gaming has been as insular as it has been in the last ten years or so. Ultimately, it's going to take the kind of independent, kind of like kick the door down creation of products that's going to drive innovation and there's that very fine line between love and hate I just keep saying... Behind all the hate I think they really want to just kiss me."
Dealing with controversy
Not only was Getting Up somewhat polarizing, but the game also dealt with its own share of controversy. Certain politicians accused it of encouraging and condoning vandalism, while down under the Australian government went so far as to ban the title by denying it classification. Speaking about the Australian issue, Ecko said, "It just blows my mind. They were quoting [in the ruling] things that are in the game that aren't even in the game. They claim there's nudity and drug usage, and it's not even there, so we're doing our due diligence to see where the f*ck they got that from because it's not the same game we made."
He continued, "You know look, games are demonized and graffiti culture and urban culture for sure is demonized and it becomes the perfect ingredients for the perfect storm, and there's going to be people that get up in arms and be overly reactionary and technologically xenophobic. They fear that there'll be some graffiti epidemic; it's kind of a silly argument to say that games are the problem for things that are much deeper, more systemic. It's just too many gray hairs in critics' eyes, you know. They just don't get the medium."
Whether or not Getting Up is finally considered a commercial success for Atari, the property has already been signed by MTV Films for a major motion picture. Unfortunately, a lot of game-based movies aren't worth your money. We asked Ecko if he was concerned about the film's quality. "I'm not going to make a movie with a sh*t script. If you just took the cinematics out of Getting Up and you watch those back to back you could see something that would lend itself to a really good movie," he explained. "I think that's probably one of the strongest aspects of the game and of the product, how it makes you feel from a narrative point of view, and I think it really builds empathy with the character. I think a modern, coming of age story could be interesting. That said, I'm a producer on it... and I'm not going to do something that compromises the integrity of the brand. If it can't enhance the brand experience, it won't get made."
Revolution SKU in the works?
So what does the future hold for Getting Up? We brought up the idea of a Revolution version that would turn the unique controller into a virtual spray can of sorts that the user could shake and then spray/tag with. It seemed like Ecko had this idea in mind already. "We're all over it," he enthused. "We are doing our due diligence now. I think community is ultimately what the brand experience needs to be about, and I think that's what's going to drive our decisions largely and the ability to customize the art. I mean, the mechanic is great, but it almost sets ourselves up for needing a separate SKU... We gotta do some tests... obviously the Revolution is very, very exciting. When we think about that, we get all geeked out."
Regardless of where Getting Up is headed next, one thing's for sure: Marc Ecko is in the video game industry to stay. "Anyone that knows me, if you do the history on me, you'll see that I don't get into things on a whim... I come to work everyday to be inspired. I think the gaming space is tremendously interesting; it's creatively disruptive in a way that's exciting to be around. It's like the Wild West of entertainment and I want to be around while it's emerging and try to do something to leave an impression."