Valiant Goes Retro In "Harbinger Wars" 8-bit Game

While fans might have to wait until June to experience Valiant Entertainment's 8-bit homage covers, it's only a few short weeks until the debut of the "Harbinger Wars" 8-bit game for iOS and Android devices. Developed by GameShastra and published by Storm City Games, "Harbinger Wars" is an 8-bit side scrolling adventure that harkens back to the genesis of console gaming on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 2600, complete with the technical specs and graphic restrictions associated with that era. Cast as Bloodshot or Peter Stanchek, players have the opportunity to experience "Harbinger Wars" as an interactive adventure for free, with additional levels and characters available for purchase as each issue of "Harbinger Wars" is released.

In order to get a better idea of what to expect in just a few short weeks when the game releases, CBR spoke with a roundtable of Valiant CEO and Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani, Valiant President of Consumer Products Russ Brown, Storm City President Steve Newton and GameShastra Vice President of Business Development Dan Kitchen, who spoke about the desire to get back to gaming's roots for "Harbinger Wars," the interactive and immersive connection between the Valiant event and the game, the possibility of expanding to other properties and some of the cool features included in the current build of the game.

CBR News: A retro, 8-bit mobile game isn't unheard of, but it's certainly unusual when it comes to comic book-based video games in this era. How exactly did this project begin and where did the idea to deal exclusively in 8-bit come from?

Dinesh Shamdasani: We announced a series of 8-bit covers for our June books, and they got a tremendous response. What happened is we were all sitting around -- we do brainstorming meetings, and we were coming up with creative ideas, marketing ideas, sales ideas -- and Warren Simons had recently seen "Wreck-It Ralph." We were all talking about the proliferation of 8-bit style and how genius that movie was and how much fun it is. He pitched doing Valiant characters in 8-bit. Atom Freeman, our sales manager, knew Matthew White, who did the covers for us. He hooked us up with Matthew, who did a test piece that actually ended up being the "Planet Death" "X-O Manowar" cover. That hasn't changed from the test piece he did with no direction. It was fun, it was cool, we really liked it and we started talking about how we wanted to play that game. I had a chat with Russ and said, "Man, it would be so cool [to play that game]." Russ said he knew the perfect person for that. Russ and Steve Newton knew each other from doing Marvel with DSI. We sat down with the Storm City guys and everybody was on the same page and the 8-bit covers were announced. ... We were totally gung-ho about doing the game and that's how we hooked up with Steve Newton and Storm City, and Steve brought in Dan Kitchen, who's been tremendous.

Dan Kitchen: Thanks, Dinesh. Unlike people replicating the retro look, I myself was actually one of the people who created these games back in the early '80s, middle '80s, late '90s, middle '90s. I produced and programmed many of the 8-bit and 16-bit games that players are trying to replicate today. I was fortunate enough to have with me one of my chief 8-bit artists, who also was working with me back in the '80s and '90s who knew exactly -- when Dinesh revealed to us the concept -- we knew exactly what it should look like, we knew how it should play because we actually created a number of the titles that have become folklore back in that era. We dug into it and created it as a complete, brand new 8-bit title as if we were creating it back in the days of stone knives and bear skins, utilizing the same kind of restraints we would have on the 8-bit systems, the same 256 character restriction, the same color mapping and we really replicated exactly what we would have done back in that era.

Dan, you've worked on a number of different classic games like "Double Dragon" and "Ghostbusters." 8-bit is a gaming medium with a rich history and so much of what it's possible to do has been done just by virtue of the amount of time it's been around. How did you and your team come up with a unique take on the experience for "Harbinger Wars?"

Kitchen: We actually looked at it with, obviously, the controls and the idea of doing it on a touch-screen platform. We wanted to bring over the look and feel, but be able to enhance the game with the new technology, certainly some of the graphic capabilities, certainly some of the gesture capabilities on the iPad and on the Android devices. It was a marriage of the new technology with the old-style look and feel of the gameplay. It certainly brought out a neat product that is very much in the heart and the feeling of the 8-bit era, but plays well in the new hardware. It was a very fun challenge to be able to utilize the best of the new hardware, but to create it as if we were back in time with the restrictions and the looks and the same kind of gameplay we had done many times.

Shamdasani: We are bringing new things to the 8-bit world. We're bringing something that's never been done before. I have to point out that Valiant has never been given the 8-bit treatment. It's a lot of fun, so that's definitely there.

Kitchen: Yeah, the fun is there and what players expect from a freemium model with IAPs and a lot of in-app purchases and a lot of upgrades and a lot of things you'll get today in the current products, you now see in this 8-bit retro world that we've created around the Valiant characters.

One of the interesting aspects about this game is that is was announced for mobile. Why go mobile? Why not try for a downloadble console game for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360?

Brown: It's the hottest area in the business right now. It's a very important part of our overall licensing strategy, which is really -- everything points back to publishing. So, the eyeballs we get, it's an extension of our visibility in the marketplace.

Newton: Further to that point, also, I think that from a strategic standpoint, as a collective group, we'll be monitoring the reception and feedback from the fans, if you will, because I think that's exactly what they are. At some point, we may certainly determine that next level expansion into other platforms is certainly something we would want to do. But in the spirit of managing and making the right decisions, we'll chase this and see how it plays out and then ultimately as a group make a decision on whether or not to expand. We fully expect this to be very well received, so I don't think those conversations will be that far down the road, but that becomes a strategic conversation for both parties.

Shamdasani: I should point out that the response has already been tremendous. We really haven't shown much of the game yet. We've shown some screenshots and we talked about what it's going to be and the response had, frankly, surprised us to the point where Storm City literally built an extension for their website so they could start to collect email addresses because we had so many people asking us to be put on our newsletter to find out when the came is going to come out, how it's going to work and what downloads they can get. We've had people pushing us to get them on a mailing list.

Newton: We've launched a Facebook page set up directly for this as well as a Twitter account. We'll be communicating with all bits and pieces of information just as fast as it becomes available.

Kitchen: To read into that -- marrying the new technology with the 8-bit look, we have Twitter and Facebook connectivity, so as you get achievements, it'll be broadcast to your friends, it's going to broadcast to your social media. We've really married the business model of mobile gaming and social gaming to an originally created game that's based upon an 8-bit look designed by original 8-bit designers; those of us that created the games and those of us that drew that games that were actually around during the time. It's quite a unique group of talent we're putting together.

In the initial press release, you spoke about combining print and digital mediums, which I found fascinating. How do the two interact in a greater capacity than a typical tie-in comic or licensed game?

Shamdasani: This is very similar ideologically to the QR covers we did for "X-O Manowar" and "Harbinger" when we launched them. What we tried to do with all our marketing and promotions is we try not to break the fourth wall. We don't really pull the curtain back, we try to immerse the reader deeper into the narrative, deeper in the emotionality, deeper into the character -- and this does that. The first level, for instance, you play as Bloodshot entering in to Project Rising Spirit, you play through the fight with Gamma, play through the nursery, play through releasing the Psiots that are the inciting incident for "Harbinger Wars." The first level -- everything you need to know about "Harbinger Wars," you can play through that first level, you can read the books, you can do both. If you do both, you'll get a deeper narrative because you're going to be in the shoes of Bloodshot. As the game progresses, as the new levels come out, you'll be able to read the book, go and download the new level and play through largely what you read. For instance, we're introducing the H.A.R.D. Corps, a team fans have been asking for for a long time. We're bringing them back and their first appearance is "Harbinger Wars" #3. Once that hits the stands, you'll be able to go into the game and download those characters. That's a way for you to interact more deeply with the events in "Harbinger Wars."

Dinesh, you mentioned earlier that this is the first representation Valiant will have had in 8-bit. While that's true, Valiant does have a prior history in games. It was owned by Acclaim at one point, Shadowman had a pretty good showing on the Nintendo 64 -- from a designing and publishing standpoint on the mobile game, did you look back to some of Valiant's past in gaming for inspiration?

Shamdasani: We're very, very conscious of Valiant's history, of course, as you can see from everything we've done so far. To be honest, we did not, in this iteration. Ross is working on a couple things we're not ready to talk about yet that tie directly into your question. For this we really looked to Steve and to Dan and to Frank and to the book, to what Josh Dysart and Duane Swierczynski are doing, and the ideas coming out of "Harbinger Wars." We looked to that.

Considering the big response this game has had so far before its release, are there plans to expand the app beyond "Harbinger Wars?"

Newton: Absolutely. I think we're talking about another strategic part of the conversation here. We absolutely love the idea and with part of my background, I've been around a lot of parts of consumer products and industry, been involved in the toy business and certainly been involved in the video game business for quite a number of years. Sometimes I think there's a huge flashback -- do people want to go back to what they played when they were young? I think that's exactly what we're offering here, to Dan's earlier point, marrying the ability to take advantage of the new technology is just propelling this product and accelerating the acceptance beyond what our initial expectations would have been. We couldn't have been more pleased. Leveraging that and building that, I think would be in all of our best interests to expand on that and again, sit down strategically with ourselves and the group at Valiant to determine what the next best step is. I think 8-bit and retro are going to continue. People want to play what they played when they were young. They love that. Again, I think we've all gone back and played with toys that we played with when we were younger. I think the same thing applies here from a technology standpoint, and I see no reason why we wouldn't continue that onto the next level.

Kitchen: We've all grown up with our iPads and iPhones and want to have that same sterling experience when we first plugged in the "Legend of Zelda."

Shamdasani: Dan and his team built the games that we're all nostalgic about. Dan's not going to like me saying this, but he's been super excited. He's having a lot of fun with this game. He hasn't really worked in this world for a long time and I think it's been fun for him to dive back into it. He's been spitballing with us and he keeps throwing us super exciting ideas. He sent us art of different Bloodshots in different stages and the different stages of the guns firing.

Kitchen: It gives you a little peek back behind the curtain of Oz as to how things were done in the '90s without the help of 3D Studio and the various tools we have now. We've gone back to the old tools to really get the look. Dinesh is correct, you can see exactly how the sprite sheets are laid out and how the colors and palettes replicate the restrictions we put on ourselves to make this truly look like an actual retro product. It was a wonderful time in my life to create products in that genre for many of the clients you mentioned, like Acclaim and others in my day. It's been a joy to work with Valiant and recreate these products that really brings me back to the old days of the gaming business. It's been an incredible experience, I can't wait to do it for another title with Valiant.

Russ, it worked out well that the covers came about and then Valiant chose to pursue this game. What kind of cross-promotion is Valiant looking to do with these two products?

Brown: One thing I'll say is that we were talking to a number of other partners about taking that 8-bit look and bringing it into the world as figures. There's never been figural representation of Valiant characters. Look for an extension of the game into figural form.

Are games an area that Valiant is looking to explore more thoroughly now that a mobile game is launching?

Brown: Yes, it's a major part of our strategy, as is international publishing. You may have read already that we've announced a couple of partners in the international space. There's a few more announcements to come in upcoming weeks. We see the publishing and interactive gaming/publishing really dovetailing each other to broaden the awareness of Valiant internationally. So yes, very much so.

Shamdasani: We've been very busy little bees. We've got a big backlog of announcements we have to make on the licensing front, so you'll be seeing a lot of those. Video games are a massive part of Valiant's history with Acclaim and it's definitely something we'll be looking to do at the right time going forward. This is the first step.

Wrapping up, what is your personal favorite aspect of this game so far?

Newton: As I said before, having been around the gaming business, really going back to the introduction of Nintendo back in 1985, and looked at how fun and exciting it was at the beginning of the industry. To have the ability to go back and relive and revisit part of that through the creation, development and ultimate publishing of this game -- that's it for me. It's so exciting to go back and be able to bring back something that I played with, grew up with -- and I actually cut my teeth on the video game business in the early Nintendo games.

Kitchen: To mimic Steve as well, I think my greatest enjoyment was the challenge of replicating the 8-bit worlds. Certainly, we can do that with the hardware we have today, but the most fun in our days was the ability to do work on -- for instance -- the Atari 2600 and create games that were smaller than most of your emails today and be able to fit them into the gameplay that we had to do. We kind of took that approach to this and said, "Well, let's put restrictions on ourselves." That was really exciting to have that challenge to go back and say, "We only had this many colors, we only had this many characters on the screen. Let's really replicate what we had to do back then." That was the most fun part of the retro days -- the challenge of having to circumvent the hardware and make it do what it wasn't meant to do. That, I think, was my most fun: to design within the constraints that we set ourselves up to be for the time period that we were replicating.

Brown: As a consumer products guy, it was the ability to close a deal with good friends who I know make outrageous products and I look forward to doing more of that -- and extending beyond this graphic look to other consumer products.

Shamdasani: This is a hard question. The 8-bit synth sound for the music is really fun, the fact that when Bloodshot jumps, his legs still move like they're walking -- no, the most fun about this is that Dan is going to insert an old "Contra" cheat code in to the game as an Easter Egg, I won't tell you which code. What it does might be the most fun thing for me.

Kitchen: I think so. I agree. Some of those old Easter Eggs we're going to insert are going to be very fun for the retro gamers to find and be surprised.

"Harbinger Wars" releases for iOS and Android May 2.

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