For a while, MTV Networks was a video game publisher. MTV Games started out producing titles based around shows produced by the network (like Pimp My Ride) and licensing them out to other, better-equipped publishers. Then MTV decided to become an actual publisher when it acquired former Guitar Hero and current Rock Band developer Harmonix Music Systems, partnering with EA to help distribute the title while MTV handled the bulk of the marketing and PR. Somewhere in there, MTV Games also made overtures regarding publishing games that weren't called Rock Band. A deal was made with Jerry Bruckheimer to publish games created under his newly formed development banner. Pitches were repeatedly made regarding other, non-music game products.
For a time, it looked like MTV Games was going to become a real publisher. It never quite did. Bruckheimer Games slowly faded into the vapor without ever producing a product (though no definitive word on whether the studio still exists or not has ever come to light), Harmonix was eventually sold back to itself, and MTV Games was quietly, unceremoniously shuttered earlier this year, with its employees either pushed to other divisions of the company, hired on by Harmonix, or simply laid off. Presumably, MTV Networks was out of the game development business.
Except, it isn't.
Back in April came the surprising announcement of 345 Games, a new publishing arm from MTV's Entertainment division. What is MTV's Entertainment division? It's the division that handles networks like Spike TV, Comedy Central, and TV Land. They're in an entirely different New York City office from the rest of the MTV Networks crew (at 345 Hudson St.; hence the name), and despite having the MTV label on their products, they're pretty much their own thing. So, in effect, they're MTV, but not. That probably sounds remarkably confusing, but such is the way of a major media conglomerate like MTV, and parent company Viacom.
345 Games is effectively a return to the roots of what MTV Games started out as, a small publishing group dedicated to producing products based on MTV Entertainment's various properties. Their first official release was the sequel to last year's game based on the Deadliest Warrior TV series. Next up is a cooperative shooter based on Comedy Central's animated program Ugly Americans. And if creative director Prithvi Virasinghe has his way, this is just the beginning.
Virasinghe is just one of four full-time employees at 345 Games (development is largely handled by outside studios--Backbone Entertainment is handling Ugly Americans), none of which came from the original MTV Games group after the shutdown. The company is solely focused on producing downloadable products, which makes the size of the team tenable. Still, you get the impression from talking to Virasinghe that he has hopes of growing their operations over time, hopefully with a string of successful products geared toward more casual audiences.
"We're really trying to focus on the connected console market," says Virasinghe. "We feel like that's a really good, emerging space that isn't completely saturated, unlike, say, Facebook. I think this is a good space for us to exist in."
It hasn't been super easy going so far. Deadliest Warrior, while critically-panned, was a successful title. The sequel has evidently been selling fairly well, though critics once again haven't been overly kind to the game's simplistic brand of fighting, and crash bugs in the multiplayer (related to difficult-to-test live server issues) have presented headaches for the team right out of the gate.
"We can't reproduce the issue because it only happens on the live servers, not our debug testing servers," said Virasinghe. "Essentially, we have to wait until [Microsoft] goes through our code and their code and find out what's wrong. It really hurts us from a consumer standpoint and a review standpoint, because, you know, we're on the message boards, we're talking to people. It's unacceptable for a game that relies heavily on multiplayer. That's been a problem for us. That's the major thing we're trying to address."
"But despite all that," he added, "It is the number one game on XBLA as of right now."
Next up is Ugly Americans: Apocalypsegeddon, a $10 title set for release this August. It takes the characters of the TV series--who occupy an alternate reality version of NYC where humans, zombies, demons, and wizards all coexist in a sort of disastrous harmony--and puts them in an original story line penned by one of the show's writers. The full voice cast is on board, and the game features about a full episode's worth of cutscene animations, albeit at a much lower animation frame rate. Cutscenes are essentially a series of still frames cut together. According to Virasinghe, it would have more-than-doubled the game's entire budget to fully animate the sequences.
As for the game itself, it's a strange brew of cooperative dual-stick shooting and cartoon characters cursing a lot. You control your character with the left stick, and shoot with the right. All the levels are in 3D, but you're really just running from side-to-side as you would in an old school shooter. Each playable character (which includes the human Mark, demon heroine Callie, overly intense cop Lt. Grimes, and lazy wizard Leonard) has their own set of weapons they're particular to (everything from golf balls, to machine guns, to rocket launchers are included), and the game even includes something of a leveling system, with points upgrades in a surprisingly wide variety of categories you can use to beef up your character.
The few levels I played of Apocalypsegeddon gave the impression of an extremely simple game. The mechanics require minimal explanation, and while there are certainly some amusing moments to be had when playing cooperatively, this is not what you'd call a particularly "deep" gameplay experience. It certainly speaks to the kind of casual audiences 345 is aiming for, even if it is squarely targeted at the M-rated audience as well.
Where that focus evolves from here depends entirely on what properties Virasinghe and crew are able to get their hands on. Though it's currently unlikely that TV Land will be seeing any of its shows transported into the game world any time soon (though a Hot in Cleveland dating sim sounds like a killer idea, if you ask me), Virasinghe has plenty of ideas as far as Spike and Comedy Central go. On Spike, he seemed particularly interested in the TNA Wrestling brand, and the network's various mixed martial arts programs. The UFC license is squarely in the hands of THQ these days, but Virasinghe hinted that there may still be a way for the company to create something MMA-related in the near future.
And as for Comedy Central?
"For Comedy Central, it's a little harder, because those properties don't naturally blend into gaming properties, except for South Park, maybe. You could easily do big properties like The Daily Show, Colbert Report, Futurama is definitely something interesting. I would love to get my hands on Futurama."
Licensing and accessibility issues ultimately determine which properties 345 will be able to work with, though Virasinghe seemed especially interested in working with Stephen Colbert, noticeably beaming when discussing what a Colbert game might entail. "There are so many possibilities with Colbert, it's just about finding the right pitch and the right execution to be worth his while."
Apparently, the idea of a Colbert game has been broached to the comedian before. "We had a pitch to Colbert that was called 'Colbert Quest,' sort of in the vein of the old Space Quest and Police Quest games. You'd either be taking direction from him and completing tasks, or you are him, and he has his enemies you'd fight, the enemies of America, like bears, of course. Tek Jansen is another character that would really work well."
Unfortunately, gaining access to the faux-conservative pundit has been difficult thus far. "He's so high profile that it's hard for a group like us that's so small to be like, 'Hey, we want to make a game about you!' The hope is that something like Ugly Americans takes off, does well, and gives us leverage to try and do something a little more ambitious."
Ambitious, in the case of 345 Games, sounds somewhat relative. The company seems set on maintaining its focus on smaller titles and MTV-branded products for the foreseeable future, perhaps specifically in the hopes of avoiding MTV Games' fate. Still, Virasinghe echoed a sentiment that likely sounds eerily familiar to anyone who worked at MTV Games during the company's lifespan.
"Even though we're part of a big company within MTV, we're still like a small little group. We're trying to do video games in a TV network, you know?"