Teetering on the edge of the supposed-end-of-the-world, we sat down with Old Spice’s senior interactive producer Mike Davidson, copywriter Andy Laugenour and art Director Max Stinson to talk about the creative process that resulted in Dikembe Mutombo’s 4½ Weeks to Save the World, a game that lets successful players add more time to the Mayan calendar.
The idea for Dikembe Mutombo’s 4½ Weeks to Save the World had a difficult inception, with more than a few false starts. But the team says that the delays were a blessing in disguise.
“[The game] was supposed to be about four months, and it would include topical stuff every week-–we wanted to prove we were doing a game every week,” Andy said. “It was the craziest idea we’d ever had. We couldn’t make that as interesting as we needed to, so that didn’t pan out, but we had enough media to last through the end of the year, and we wanted to do something fun with it.”
“It’s kind of scary to say, but we thought it could turn into the best opportunity ever,” added Max. “‘We have to make a video game, so now what?'”
“It all had to happen really fast,” Mike said. “We had media dates to hit, and we were losing opportunities the longer we went without something live. It turned out to be a blessing, that we didn’t know would turn out that way.”
The team found themselves in a lengthy phase of testing, playing around with ideas, and working with their development partners, including game developer Adam Saltsman, also known as Adam Atomic, the creator of Canabalt. Over time, they were able to hone their development processes and timelines.
“The first phase was all practice runs and trial and error with our product partners,” Andy said. “We tested things for a month, making games and seeing what kind of stuff could actually happen. That gave us an opportunity to play in the kiddie pool for a bit. That taught us how to get to work, when the time mattered.”
Later on, the game found its purpose: become a quest to save the world in five weeks. By that point, the team said they had figured out all of their processes, how each of them would work, and what their daily schedules would look like.
“It’s very not how we normally operate–we take our time, we don’t move til we have our ideas and the creative is perfect,” Mike said. “But this was quick decisions, quick approvals, from our end and the client end. The video game developer had to make designs and levels and characters really, really fast. It’s been interesting from a workflow standpoint to see that we could actually do this. We’re not known for speed, we’re known for precision.”
“Everything is a house of cards–miss one deadline and the whole thing falls apart,” he added. “It’s like a bad Tom Cruise movie: Zero Fail. Everything had to happen in the right time, or nobody else could do what they needed to do.”
And how was this all possible?
“We all had to have so much trust in everyone else,” Mike said. “If the client didn’t trust us as much as they did, we couldn’t do this. We know what the rules are, and we had to assume that if there were no red flags, we could move forward, without talking to them first. They trust us to be smart and not take advantage of the situation. And our BA team is very involved.”
Each level of the game was created in a single week, the week before it went live; this tight turnaround time meant that sticking the process each week was essential.
“Sunday night we’d say, here’s what happened this week, in the world,” Max said. “Monday morning, they’d be like, stay away from this. Then we’d go away and make a game, and on Friday we’d say, here it is. If you think about all the approvals it takes to do a television commercial…”
“We had to be smart,” Max said. “Any other normal creative process, we push the boundaries and explore how far we could take things, and we didn’t have time to hear that we couldn’t go down that road. We had to pick stuff we knew they’d be okay with. It’s been an interesting combo of news stories and internet memes, what’s popular, what was on people’s minds. Sometimes it was Thanksgiving, sometimes it was jokey stuff. And we had to approach things in the right way.”
“Development started Sunday night, we’d scour the internet for news,” Andy said. “There were some times when we’d look at it and were like, ‘There’s nothing here.’ And then on Monday, we’re having the conference call with Old Spice, and someone on the call was like, ‘The Duchess is pregnant, it was announced this morning.’ So that became the topic.”
The rest of the week happened just as quickly, with each team working together and going out of their ways to help speed things along.
“We had to come up with a game type, and would talk to the game developer and CDs about the idea and the game type, the theme, the gameplay,” Andy said. “That took a couple of hours. It was amazing working with Adam [Atomic] as well. He’s the Gamemaster. We’d have an idea and he’d come back with a prototype and we’d be like, this is boring. And he’d say, ‘How about this?’ and turn around something new in a day, and it would be amazing.”
“We were the real-time testers,” Mike said. “We sometimes get too close to our work and can’t evaluate it, and he’d tweak and adjust and 12 hours later it would be done.”
“It’s been intense,” Mike said. “We haven’t had any time off for the last two months.”
“Yeah, we haven’t had any time off from playing all these video games every day,” Max said, laughing.
But Mike is quick to point out that Andy and Max had duties that went well beyond just playing games.
“There’s significant animations involved in the cutscenes that start, end or interrupt the gameplay,” he said. “That’s a lot of scriptwriting and character development. These guys had to write two, three 30-second animation scripts in a day, get them approved by clients and legal in a day. That’s the whole rapid mindset of how we put this thing together. We had to have that put together on Tuesday so the developers could make it Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”
As budgets and the timeline shrank, deadlines became even tighter, forcing the team to find workarounds to make things happen.
“Everybody sort of had to take on a lot of different roles of different times, just because of budgets and time constraints,” Andy said. “We drew our own storyboards because so much was going on, like songs were recorded here in Max’s office. We couldn’t buy and coordinate all these talents, so we were like, let’s just do what we can.”
“Even Dikembe had only 24 hours to turn stuff around,” Mike said. “He’d just record voice memos on his phone.”
“Sometimes we’d get the animations with the game, not separate–so we’d have to play through it to get to the scenes,” Andy said. “One of our creative directors emailed and was like, ‘I can’t review this because I can’t beat this level.'”
“It wasn’t an option to take that time,” Mike added.
The inspiration for the game came from many places, including a personal love of video games, but that wasn’t the only driving force.
“We were building a retro-style addictive, super simple thing,” Mike said.
“We have a lot of generations in this team and you could definitely tell who was born in the video game era,” Andy added. “We’d complain that something was hard, and one of our producers who would always write back and be like, ‘Really guys?’ and send us his scores and stuff. Everyone balanced each other out.”
“And even week to week, you can see how everything improves,” Mike said. “The animations, the gameplay, the levels. We learned what worked, what was hard, what was most fun.”
“Also, we always tried to consider, what would be a fun game to play, rather than a fun game to beat?” Max said. “We kind of felt around and found a game type that we thought was fun. It’s challenging enough that it’s a game you want to beat, but not so hard that you can’t get to the content.”
When players beat a level in the game, they can submit their scores to be converted into time, which is carved onto a new ring on a large, wooden Mayan calendar.
“We had to figure out what to do with the Mayan calendar,” Mike said. “We knew we wanted to do something real-world with it.”
“We really wanted to blow it up,” Andy said.
“We weren’t allowed to do that,” Mike said. “So we thought, can we add more time to it? And we created this ring around the outer edge. There’s a logic to the points system, which translates to more time that gets added.”
So does the team really think the world will end on 12-21-12?
“Of course the world won’t end,” Max said. “We’ve saved it!”