Right now, in 2016, it’s an unquestionably good time to be a fan of comic book movies. Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men—many of the most iconic superheroes of all time have blockbuster films coming out this year. But of all the comic book adaptations hitting our screens, none quite demonstrate the power of the superhero genre more than the Deadpool movie, which hit theaters last Friday. The fact that an utterly depraved character like Deadpool, who actively speaks to the audience, makes fun of other characters on a whim and slices his enemies in half “for funsies,” made it in his own film is a testament to the power of comic book-based cinema.
Before he conquered the big screen, though, Deadpool was all set to conquer the world of video games. In 2013, when getting his own feature-length motion picture was still a pipe-dream, Deadpool got his own game. Not just some tiny downloadable indie game—a fully-fledged mainstream release.
Don’t be too surprised if you’ve never heard about it though—the game itself failed to make much headway thanks to sharing a release window with the endlessly lauded The Last of Us and a less than ideal critical reception. Outside of bad timing for the market, though, the real tragedy of the Deadpool game is what could’ve been, or rather, what was meant to be before tragedy struck.
To get the full story of the game’s development, I caught up with its lead writer, Daniel Way, who told me that, like so many great things, it all started by chance.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
“I was in conversation with someone during San Diego Comic Con and I was saying how much I enjoyed the Marvel pinball games,” says Way. “And the guy I was talking to said ‘Well the guys who make that, they’re standing right over there, you should tell 'em!’ and so, he introduced me and they were like 'Oh, you’re Daniel Way, we’ve been trying to get a hold on you for a long time!’ and I said 'Why?’ and they said 'Well, we’ve got the license to do this Deadpool game, we’d love for you to get involved as the lead writer!’ I was like 'sure!'”
Way doesn’t keep much of a public profile, so actually tracking him down in the industry can be a little difficult. A prolific Deadpool writer in comics, Way has one of the longest consecutive runs as writer for Deadpool under his belt at 65 issues. As far as writing anything Deadpool is concerned, few, if any, are more qualified than him. The team at developer High Noon Studios were more than aware of this and really wanted Way’s writing to be the core of the project.
“I met with the creative director a couple of months later at PAX in Seattle and we sat down and I asked what they had in mind and his answer was basically 'Well, we wanted to talk to you, we wanted to build it from the ground up with you!’ and I said 'That sounds amazing!'” He told me, before going on to explain a little about how rare this situation is. Oftentimes, as Way puts it, a lot of work may be done on a game before they ever decide they need a writer at all. This much is hardly a surprise—licensed games are regularly released in subpar condition—but it is refreshing that occasionally someone actually cares what’s best for the franchise.
“We got together, at high Noon Studios, we had like a three day meeting staked out where all the creative principles got into a room and we were going to hammer out what the story for the game was going to be,” Way said. Three days was more than enough, as their vision for how they’d like the game came together in one. And, as Way gleefully put it to me, it was an “expansive” story with a “lot going on”. It was, in his words, a “very Deadpool story”. What was better was, even with all these high ideas, the higher-ups at publisher Activision (of Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and Destiny fame) greenlit the whole thing. They got more time and more money, both things you regularly hear development teams complaining about a lack of.
But their development dream was ripped away from them as quickly as it was given when things got difficult between Marvel and Activision. A messy, messy divorce ensued between the two companies and Deadpool became the child stuck in the middle. The issue was something well above their pay-grade as developers, as Way tells me that everything they did was in-line with what they were told they were allowed.
“This was a licensed game so as part of the license you get a list of characters that you can use. There was no question about who you can’t use, they’re not on your list, they’re not in your game,” he answered when I asked about the character roster and what came with the license. “It was the same thing with the Deadpool movie. So we had a list of characters that we had, literally, license to use.”
All was going well, the story worked, they had funding, voice actors were acting out the main roles, and it was all going as planned. But one day there was just silence. Suddenly Way’s phone calls weren’t being answered, or his emails, or anything. I got as far as “troubled” in my questioning about the development and he was already explaining it to me.
“I’ve done quite a few games. I can tell you that sooner or later they all run into some kind of trouble, but this was pretty remarkable,” he said, with a little giggle at just how outrageous the story feels. “This was bad. I think part of my recollection is that, I dunno who filed first but I’m pretty sure, at one point, with Activision and Marvel, it wasn’t liked suit and counter-suit—they were actively suing one another.” As a writer, once you’ve written everything, you’re out of the development cycle until something needs to change. Programmers and artists make what you’ve written a reality. But it was the complete radio silence that unnerved him.
Eventually there was a conference call to enlighten him as to what had happened. We didn’t go into the nuts and bolts of what was going on legally—I got the sense that only a few executives at either company could answer that accurately—but the team was left severely hanging. All funding was cut and the game, as unfinished as it was, would have to make release in some haphazard state. Way was offered an out, but he refused; he name-drops Dave Craven, who was another writer on the game who helped out when Way was in the dark. They were going to perform some “battlefield surgery” to get the Deadpool game to launch.
And, with a night’s rest behind him, Way came up with a million dollar idea to fix it: have Deadpool literally hijack the game in a fourth-wall-breaking twist. It was in character, it worked for how everything was written and laid out and it was cheap. And it allowed them to still have a huge battle with one of Deadpool’s main foes, Mister Sinister, at the end. “It was crazy,” Way said.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS
When I played the game back in 2013 I found the gameplay lacking. It was more evident upon the game’s re-release towards the end of last year, too. But one thing that stood out was how well Deadpool, AKA Wade Wilson, is captured in-game. He’s wise-cracking and larger than life, and players can develop a unique relationship with him, since he talks directly to the audience regularly. As Way describes Deadpool’s charm, “you get to have both the superhero fantasy and not feel like uncomfortably dorky about it because he’s right there with you.”
When I floated the idea to him that at least the version of Deadpool that’s in the game is authentic, it seemed it’s what could have been that hurts the most. “I wish I had both the game that we set out to make and the game we ended up making so I could put them side by side,” he said with a sigh. “Everyone involved with the game, we were all such fans of the character and we really felt honored to finally give Deadpool his game. And then to have it just get caught in the crossfire, it was a sad day.”
Even with all that though, Daniel is optimistic about giving a Deadpool game another shot. “Hell yes!” he exclaims at the thought. Happily discussing what he thinks makes Deadpool appealing, he keeps coming back to how it’s not just one thing. It’s the violence, it’s the talking with the audience, it’s his costume looking cool; it’s everything. Deadpool speaks to the internet generation with his quick wit better than any other character and, now with a major motion picture behind him, we might get the game Daniel originally envisioned. Even just for funsies.
Anthony McGlynn is a freelance writer by night and a sleepy freelance writer by day. He’s also a firm believer in the zombie apocalypse. Yell at him to stop procrastinating on Twitter @AntoMcG
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