Namco Bandai Gives a ShiftyLook to Comics

Namco Bandai is a game company with a rich history. Much like Nintendo or Atari, it has a catalogue full of unknown or unused games and concepts, reaching back to Namco's inception in 1955. This year, the game publisher begins to revive its properties through an innovative new program called ShiftyLook.

Launching today, ShiftyLook will take old Namco Bandai characters and concepts and launch them on a multimedia front, beginning with webcomics and eventually graduating to mobile games. The program has already hired a number of well-known comic writers through Udon Entertainment and Cryptozoic Entertainment, including "Skullkickers" creator Jim Zub, "Blackhawks" writer Mike Costa and in a CBR Exclusive announcement, "Pigs" co-writer Ben McCool, who will be appearing at next weekend's WonderCon to announce his ShiftyLook project.

To shed some light on the general concept of of the new Bandai initiative, CBR News spoke with ShiftyLook Editor-in-Chief Robert Pereyda, who explained the impetus behind the inception of the program, its goals and plans moving forward and the creative talent on the horizon.

CBR News: What's the core concept behind ShiftyLook, and how does it link to what Namco Bandai has planned for the mobile gamespace?

Robert Pereyda: Basically, what we're doing is taking a look at stuff that's forgotten IPs, stuff that's sleeping, stuff that -- just to be honest -- some people don't care about and thinking what we can do with it. This is a big system and we know that not everything's going to succeed, but if some of them can make it to the big time, we've done a good job. We're casting a really wide net. We're doing different styles, different artists, different kinds of titles, just filling out a whole matrix of different things we can do and then seeing where that goes. While it's a very analytical process, it's very fun, too, so we're not being too robotic on this. It's a combination of analytics and having fun. The goal is basically to start with the comics, and if the comics do really well, do some web animation, do some other mobile games, do some plush toys or other small merchandising products.

Will all the webcomics ShiftyLook launches end up being made into games?

I wouldn't say all. If it tanks as a webcomic, there would be no reason to advance to a game. It's step one and, as it does better, it graduates. Think of the webcomics as a first step. Things that do the best as webcomics can get a web-animated pilot. The things that have a good pilot will get a web-animated series. The web-animated series that have an awesome reception might then make sense to develop into a new mobile game. Right now we're launching with four things, but we're launching Rocket Fox at the end of the month, we're launching a couple more titles the next month. We have eight titles planned and we'll be developing more. Not all of those are going to get games. Most of those will end up stopping after a three-month run. The ones that do the best will graduate to the very end.

What was the impetus to branch out into webcomics and undertake this graduation model?

I can't give you too many specifics, but if anybody is familiar with games, if you look at a mobile game or a smartphone game, a decent game could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, there's stuff like "Infinity Blade" which is a multi-million dollar game, but that's very rare in terms of smartphone games. I'm not talking about mobile games like "Angry Birds" -- that's not going to be ten million bucks like "Infinity Blade." When you develop mobile games it's in the hundreds of thousands. Console games can be in the millions, tens of millions. Sometimes people go nuts. A comic, though, you're talking a fraction of that, so you're able to take a smaller risk as compared to a game, and you're able to execute faster. A comic, if you have a buddy who is free that weekend, you can call him up and beg him to make it for you by Monday and it could actually happen. You can't do that with a game. There are different scales on the economics and there's also a different scales on the time. The way we do things -- a lot of stuff's working and you want to keep doing what's working, but also you want to look for something new. So we wanted to see what we could do to rapidly evolve our IP evaluation and development in parallel to all the things we're doing. This system made sense.

What will the cost of the ShiftyLook webcomics be to the consumer?

The webcomics on the site will always be free. We're not going to charge, we're not going to take any outside ads. We will have to do some internal ads. Let's say there's a new "Tekken" game coming out -- we might slap an ad on the site, but we're not going to have a fast food ad or some beverage ad on our site. It's all about Namco Bandai. If we do an anthology or a trade paperback, those would, of course, cost money as a physical print product. There could be a store later. If there are plush toys that come out, then of course it makes sense to have them in the store, but in terms of the actual content of the webcomics, those will never be charged for.

You mentioned "Tekken," one of Namco Bandai's many successful properties. Will ShiftyLook also be looking into developing content for those properties as well?

I noticed you just said a key word, "successful." What we're trying to do is take properties that are not quite big yet and make them successful. If something's already successful, then, at least for this phase of the webcomics, we are not focusing on it. For example, if it's a global hit and has a huge following, for the angle we're going for, it's already made it through the process. It's already won national attention. You're not going to ask Justin Bieber to compete in "American Idol." It's not going to happen. At least for right now, we're trying to take stuff that's not known, that's not big, and make it big. In the future, it might make sense to do comics with some of those other titles, but we also don't want to mess up the big titles. At least with the small titles, from 25 years ago from an arcade game that was only released in Japan -- if that tanks, then we didn't do any damage to a monetizing brand, versus if it was a title of ours like "Tekken" or "Soul Caliber." We don't want to jump into doing comics. If we did a comic and it was the worst thing ever and it hurt the brand, that's not good.

You've already announced "Alien Confidential" and "Rocket Fox" as both webcomics and mobile games. How will ShiftyLook's comics help expand gameplay?

On the first level, it's about expanding the universe, giving more exposition. It's letting people before the game comes out to know the universe and see how things work. Those two games are a little bit different. "Rocket Fox" is really a gyro-based platformer. It's not linear or 2D, it's 3D. It's a platformer that you just enjoy, go through the game and there's a story. You can beat the game. It's a very specific experience and it's a lot of fun. I think it's going to be a huge game. "Alien Confidential" is more in that social game structure. There's still story behind it, but the two different formats both lend very well through exposition setting in comics. With "Alien Confidential" specifically, I would think there are options to detail in-game things happening through the comic or through the blog. For example, if three months from now we do an update on the "Alien Confidential" mobile/social game and there's some story element happening, we can tease that story in the comic at the end of the week or week before. There is definitely some interactivity between the comic and the game in "Alien Confidential."

While your focus right now is mobile gaming and webcomics, would it be possible for one of these forgotten IPs to graduate up to a console game?

There's no reason to limit our scope, but within 2012 [our focus] is comics, animation, mobile games, toys and some merchandise. It's not feasible to execute a console game in the next year. If something goes really well as a comic and a web-animated series or cartoon and the plush toys are the hottest thing ever, then of course it would make sense to look at a console game, but there's not a specific formula. We've really worked out the the things we want to see become mobile games, but beyond that we just want to get this part done first. If that goes well, we can look at the console possibilities in the next step.

Why do you think the properties you have lined up for ShiftyLook lend themselves well to the webcomic format you have planned?

When we look at IPs, we look at things that have flexibility, an interesting universe. For example, when we were putting together this project, we had a couple thousand different things we can choose from in terms of making games. A lot of them have been Japan only, and some of them are culturally widely varying from US taste and what's acceptable. You can't have a little kid peeing on monsters and killing them -- maybe you can. [Laughs]

All the things we're looking at have a real angle to work as multimedia franchises, potentially but also still work as a comic itself. One thing we're trying to focus on is [each property] should be adaptable as a game, but we do want to take it one step at a time. First and foremost, we want to make an interesting comic. For example, "Alien Confidential" is going to be a mobile/social game where you're an agent for an international organization who keeps alien affairs in order, but what was the story there for a comic before the game came out? Instead of trying to rip off the game and rehashing the telling of the story, we used the angle of a guy who's a former agent. [We follow him through] flashbacks and mini side-adventures. It's really about taking a property and making it work with the comic medium first.

In terms of content and the comic medium, how did you go about hiring creative talent to best serve the vision Namco Bandai has for these comics?

ShiftyLook/Namco Bandai Games does not hire writers or artists directly. We're a gigantic Japanese company. In terms of time to set up processing, it doesn't make sense to hire all these people individually, because there are so many artists and writers. It's too many logistics. We have a couple experienced companies working with us. We have Udon Entertainment in Canada and Cryptozoic Entertainment in Irvine. We're shelling stuff to them. We're not giving them anything blind -- I'm not going to go to Cryptozoic and say, "Okay, can you make 'Xevious?' And you have to use this [creator]." That's not what happens. They'll think of an angle, they'll source an artist and writer, we'll talk about it and, if we're all happy, we'll go with them. On the flip side, we have gotten some messages about people who are interested in working with ShiftyLook. We're not going to be hiring them directly, but we are sending those messages to Cryptozoic and Udon to see if those are people our partners can work with.

Cryptozoic is well known for its presence in the collectable card game and tabletop game markets. Are you working with them to develop on that front as well?

That's a possibility. Right now, there's nothing announced, so I don't want to say anything. There's definitely a possibility. One thing worth noting is that Cryptozoic has a lot of industry veterans in both tabletop gaming and comics. Some people are saying Cryptozoic has the potential to be Wildstorm 2, with the people and the legacy they have. It's quite possible, and maybe ShiftyLook is the angle for this to happen. What's great is we have access to quite a broad amount of people. At WonderCon, we're going to be announcing a new property written by Ben McCool and drawn by Dean Haspiel. The names we have now are awesome, but those are some more awesome names I think people will really appreciate. Using those connections to get talent is really valuable for us.

For fans of Namco Bandai and their games, what would you hope they take away from ShiftyLook?

I think what's really important is, of course we want them to enjoy it and have fun, but another priority is getting their feedback. We actually want to do stuff like polls and surveys to see what kind of properties they want. Of course, we're not going to only take fan suggestions for new properties. At the same time, we're not only going to decide things for ourselves, but maybe, if over the next year we make comics for ten more IPs, maybe two or three of them we base completely on fan results. We really want to get fan reaction, whether it's through ShiftyLook.com or Facebook or Twitter or on the forums. We've already been looking on other sites and on Facebook and Twitter to see what people want. It's interesting to see trends emerging of games people really want to see come back. Those are messages we're really taking into account.

ShiftyLook debuts today at shiftylook.com.

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