In 2006, a team of producers, writers and game developers began their attempt to resurrect Ghostbusters—then a dormant franchise—pitching their project as a video game sequel to the films. It would not be an easy task. Atari’s 2009 Ghostbusters: The Video Game wouldn’t have survived the financial turmoil, corporate doubts, publisher mergers, or Bill Murray’s ambivalence were it not for a select few who loved the series and believed it could be saved. By the time it was completed, the Ghostbusters game had endured an up-and-down journey through the muddiness of politics and business, not unlike the heroes in the film itself.
The project, which would act like a lightning rod for trouble, began with Vivendi Universal Executive Producer John Melchior. Following his work on Fox properties like Simpsons Hit and Run, Melchior wanted to tackle Ghostbusters next. He began meeting with Sony’s Mark Caplan, who was responsible for licensing Ghostbusters.
“It was dormant,” Melchior told me. “They weren’t doing anything with it. It was something he and his staff had talked about, but there [was] no movement on it whatsoever.”
There’s a reason, according to Melchior: Ghostbusters is unique among corporate franchises in that Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and director Ivan Reitman were granted power over the property’s direction. “They can’t do anything without approval of the actors,” noted Melchior.
(That’s not exactly common knowledge; I got in touch with Caplan to verify, but he ultimately couldn’t confirm one way or the other. But it’s what Melchior claims.)
By 2006, years removed from the Ghostbusters heyday and Aykroyd’s failed attempts to jumpstart a film sequel, Sony didn’t think it was possible to have them all on board for a video game. Melchior and a Lewisville, Texas-based developer called Terminal Reality believed otherwise.
Luck brought Terminal Reality to Ghostbusters. In 2006, their project for small publisher Majesco, Demonik (featured throughout the movie Grandma’s Boy), had fallen apart amidst Majesco’s financial problems. Under direction of new Studio Director John O’Keefe, Terminal Reality’s work in the aftermath of Demonik was whatever kept employees busy.
“At that time, they were playing a first-person shooter, Battlefield or Call of Duty. I had them create a first-person demo. It was a war scene where you were in a platoon, rockets come, and you have to help your buddies out. It showed this sort of cinematic teamwork. There’s lot of destruction. At the time we had a really good physics engine,” said O’Keefe.
By coincidence, the combination was perfect for Ghostbusters, which led to a pitch meeting with Vivendi producers Pete Wanat and Melchior. “As soon as we saw the destruction and the physics engine, he and I looked at each other, then got up to discuss it in the hallway,” said Melchior. “Ghostbusters was only going to work if the proton beam destroyed everything. So we jumped up and down a little bit, and came back in. ‘What would you say if we turned this into Ghostbusters?’ We didn’t know if that was the stupidest idea they’ve ever heard or you just made our day. Turns out they were as big of Ghostbusters fans as I was.”
Our CEO said, ‘I’m going to give you two weeks and as many plane tickets as you need to get these guys to say yes.’
O'Keefe and his team said yes. Next, $1 million was devoted to creating a prototype to show Sony and prove to the Ghostbusters creative team this was the way forward. Concept Artist Grant Gosler remembers the demo, which they named “13th Floor.” “The process took three weeks, recreating the famous ballroom sequence from the first film where the team blasted through a lavishly decorated set-up in New York’s Sedgewick Hotel,” he recalled.
With the demo completed, it was time to bring key people on board. “The process on the talent is its own book,” Melchior said. “Our CEO at Vivendi pulled me aside and said ‘I’m going to give you two weeks and as many plane tickets as you need to get these guys to say yes. Travel, call them, get them on the phone.’”
Some were easy to convince. “The first chapter is Aykroyd. He’s the cornerstone of the Ghostbusters,” Melchior said. “So I started with him. We went to House of Blues, walked him through, showed him concepts we were doing internally. Immediately he was in.”
The late Harold Ramis was only slightly more difficult. “The hard thing for all the actors was in writing the script,” Melchior said. A video game script needs to account for all possible player actions. “If a character walks through a door, they have to do four different instances,” Melchior continued. “If he walks away from the door, if he opens it or if he doesn’t open it or he just stands there. That’s a lot of writing. [Ramis] was daunted by that, but we left the meeting and it felt good. He talked to Dan, and then he was in.” Ernie Hudson joined shortly after.
Contrary to a statement made by a member of the development team back in 2009, Melchior says he never contacted Sigourney Weaver. “We debated the Dana and Venkman relationship and where it could be after Ghostbusters II, but wanted to remove that threat from the game. We felt getting someone new in there would be fun and flirty, so we went with Alyssa Milano.” (As for why the developer ever said otherwise, Melchior said, “No idea. They were the developer. They would never ever have access to those conversations.”)
Rick Moranis respectfully declined to reprise his role as Louis Tully, reportedly due to his retirement.
Then came Bill Murray. In 1989, when discussing Ghostbusters II for an interview in Starlog, Murray stated he wanted the name to be The Last of the Ghostbusters to “make sure there won’t be anything like a Ghostbusters III.” Combine years of disinterest for a sequel, public dissent with Harold Ramis, and Murray’s infamously unusual communication habits and therein was a specialized challenge.
“Bill Murray doesn’t have an agent. He doesn’t have a cell phone or email. He has an 800 number and an attorney,” Melchior said. “Bill showed, through his lawyer, no interest in doing this. It almost made me physically ill at points, but we persevered. We kept going. I called the number, left a message, and for nine months I didn’t hear anything.”
Bill Murray needed time and prodding, a story that came full circle later in the process. For now, work had already begun.
THE ZOOTFLY PARADOX
Ghostbusters entered full production as a $20 million video game (Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song cost $80,000 alone, which Melchior said they “way overpaid” for). That dollar figure includes multiple development teams and versions. Terminal Reality developed for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, while PlayStation 2, PSP, Wii, and DS versions went to other studios.
The first hiccup, naturally, occurred within months. In January of 2007, a Slovenian developer called Zootfly released a demonstration of their own Ghostbusters game. No one at Vivendi/Universal or Terminal Reality had any idea what was happening.
“When you’re working on a licensed IP game, as a studio you learn to be absolutely silent. The publisher doesn’t want anyone to know,” O’Keefe told me. “We had been working on this for a while but then Zootfly came up.”
“There were people sprinting around Vivendi trying to figure out what was going on,” Melchior added. “The internet was exploding about a Ghostbusters game and it wasn’t ours. We couldn’t say anything. Sony ended up sending a cease-and-desist letter but for a good day and a half we thought ‘what was going on here?’”
Without public knowledge of Terminal Reality’s work, Zootfly was forced to reconfigure their efforts into a game called TimeO, which was never released, and other projects. On Vivendi’s end, with that particular panic calmed, the story could begin to take form.
Ghostbusters went through production without a script for some time. Although Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are credited as writers, the bulk of the narrative work fell to Creative Director Drew Haworth. The first draft came in early 2007 after they considered treatments from a dozen writers. From those, a story outline was chosen. Later that same year the initial script was presented to the Ghostbusters creative team.
(As for why Dan Aykroyd’s existing scripts, such as Ghostbusters III: Hellbent, weren’t chosen, Haworth told me, “They were never presented to us as something we should consider.”)
It was essential to keep the game set in 1991. “We really wanted to preserve the idea of the DIY, junky looking technology,” remembered Haworth. “We didn’t want cell phones and the modern conveniences that make script writing so hard now. We isolated what we thought were the key components of the property and ran it that way.”
You might think you want to play as the Ghostbusters, but you’d really rather be among the Ghostbusters.
There were lots of early ideas for the story that wound up on the cutting room floor. Each person I interviewed spoke of a wild Thanksgiving Day parade sequence. Conceptual artwork for the scene features a zombie Spongebob balloon marching through the procession. Grant Gosler’s concepts even show the bustin’ team in China. “There were pre-formed ideas where the Ghostbusters were caught between two gods fighting each other and New York City was caught in the crossfire,” Haworth said. “That made it seem like we were putting too much focus on these other characters.”
In the story, players didn’t control one of the original team, but instead a silent protagonist known only as Rookie. Both Melchior and Haworth mentioned some difficult back-and-forth on the decision—and there was of course some backlash from fans—but Rookie served a specific purpose.
“If you’re a fan playing Ghostbusters, you might think you want to play as the Ghostbusters, but you’d really rather be among the Ghostbusters,” Haworth said. “Thinking about how the comedy was going to work and what was funny in the game, you need a lot of characters to deliver lines and get that sense of timing. We figured that a rookie was a great way to start and then we were thinking about sequels and expansions. Eventually it just made sense for him to shut up and listen.”
The Ghostbusters game revisits key locations from the first movie, expanding on the library ghost’s lore, recreating the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man’s epic jaunt through the city, and trashing the Sedgewick Hotel’s ballroom, an expansion on Terminal Reality’s original “13th Floor” demo. “New York was as big a character in these movies as any of the individual Ghostbusters,” Haworth explained. “We knew New York had to have a real sense—a presence.”
The game ultimately was true to the films, including the series’ bootstrapped small business theme. Walter Peck (still played by William Atherton) becomes the head of a newly formed government regulatory commission, and the mayor gets possessed by Ivo Shandor, the architect who designed Dana Barrett’s apartment building. The game crescendos with a business quite literally fighting a government entity.
During the closing credits, Venkman discusses expanding the Ghostbusters into a bigger franchise. It was a ready made set-up for either a movie or game sequel, but neither would come to be.
THE MONEY BATTLE
As production moved forward, executives balked at the cost. According to Melchior and a source who confirmed the information off the record, some time in 2007 a call came down from higher-ups at Vivendi/Universal: the budget was being slashed between 25% and 40% (the number was not definitive), and Terminal Reality was to pick up the work on all versions of the game.
Melchior was livid. “We had a Creative Director working at Vivendi. He felt that because we weren’t going to get Bill Murray, the game was a bad idea, and that it should be a value bin title that hopefully sells at a lower price point. I went to war over that decision.”
What followed was a meeting with executives that Melchior calls a filibuster. “It was like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan in the room,” he said. Four hours of arguing passed. Dan Aykroyd chimed in over the phone to defend the game’s potential. In the end, Melchior and Pete Wanat won out. Terminal Reality’s budget was restored, the other studios continued on their different versions, and progress could continue.
It was a victory, but the biggest battle was yet to come: they still had to get Bill Murray.
THE BIG TWINKIE
After nine months without a response from Murray, Melchior and others, Drew Haworth included, devised a secondary plan of action. Plan B involved Bill Murray’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray.
Actor David Margulies was set to reprise his mayoral role from the movies, but they terminated his contract, according to Melchior.
“We devised a plan to try to get [Bill Murray’s] brother to at least know that the game was good. So we hired Brian Doyle-Murray to play the mayor,” Melchior explained. “We told him to come in and look at the game, look at the character, get a feel for it. And he asked, ‘Do you do this for everybody? Because it’s just 50 lines in the game,’ And the answer was of course we do this for everybody! We had Terminal Reality create the likeness of his brother because it was originally based on the other character. We walked the guy through everything. We talked about all the people involved. Then he said, ‘What about my brother?’ I said, well, that’s what we’re working on.”
“[Brian] liked it. He’s in,” Melchior continued. “Brian gets up, and before he leaves, turns around and said, ‘You did this so I would tell my brother that it’s a good game, didn’t you?’ And I said yes. He said, ‘It’s a good game and I’ll tell him.’”
Bill Murray came in—on time—and when he talks you’re intoxicated by him. He’s such a genius.
Bill Murray’s attorney called within two days. He agreed to reprise his role. “I can tell you, there was a dogpile of producers in the hallway when we got that call. It was almost like when a pitcher charges the mound after winning the World Series, like, it’s the only time I’ve ever hugged another man like that,” Melchior quipped. “Little did we know how difficult it was going to be from there.”
From the stories I’ve gathered, it seems Bill Murray did things in a Bill Murray way because he’s Bill Murray. After personal issues prevented him from showing up to the first recording session in South Carolina, they rescheduled for New York over a weekend in late June 2008.
“We got into the studio on a Saturday morning, 6-7AM. Bill came in—on time—and when he talks you’re intoxicated by him. He’s such a genius,” stated Melchior.
There was a problem: for reasons known only to Bill Murray himself, Murray had planned only to do some of his lines to get started, and to return later to do the rest. “He thought he would give us lines to get started,” said Melchior—but development time was short at this point. “Well, the game ships in June , so, no.”
Melchior recalled the stressful days that followed. “We went through as many lines as we could on Saturday, took a lot of breaks. We kept him engaged because he likes baseball, I like baseball. Every time there was a dead period where it looked like it was going south, I just started talking about baseball. He recorded [a] few lines but delivered them well then said we were going to do the rest tomorrow because we had two days. There was a sleepless night between me and the associate producer Ben Borth in New York because there was a chance he was not going to show up for day two. True to his word, he showed up.”
The problem was Murray never finished. How many lines Murray completed is unclear—Melchior claims it was half of his scripted 750-800 lines, while Haworth hesitated to give a number. Regardless, Murray’s work was done. He wasn’t coming back. “I’m not going to judge the way he works because it’s how he probably works on everything,” said Melchior.
(I attempted to reach Murray’s lawyer, David Nochimson, for comment on this story via voicemail and email. Those attempts went unreturned for one month prior to publication.)
On a plane ride home from New York to Los Angeles, Melchior called Haworth and the two revised the script on the flight. “We had to do a lot of work to cover that up, a lot of redesign,” said Haworth. “For the cutscenes it wasn’t so bad, but for gameplay, it was chaotic. Like the Rikers Island level, [Murray] was your story companion. Because his lines weren’t recorded, we were lucky enough to get Ernie and Dan.”
Hudson, Aykroyd and Ramis returned to their recording booths for seven to eight hours—at no charge—to plug the holes left by Murray’s early departure. “I went through the game recently and I’m like, you can’t really tell. It doesn’t feel like Murray disappears for a long period of time,” Haworth noted.
Years later Murray stated on Letterman’s Late Show: “The video game was kinda fun.”
Then came the next fight: Activison.
FROM ACTIVISION TO ATARI
Founded in 1979, Activision grew quickly and was the first studio to hold the Ghostbusters license. In 1984, prolific programmer David Crane (designer of Pitfall) was hired as the designer on a Ghostbusters game, adapting an unfinished project, Car Wars, to fit the new property under a rushed schedule.
Crane recounted his role in an email. “We had an internal policy where the game design lab was secured by electronic lock and even senior management was discouraged from wandering through in case they might disturb a sensitive creative moment.”
Things drastically changed for game developers in the decades between that and Ghostbusters: The Video Game; development studios exploded from one-man teams to hundreds of people, and isolation became impossible—to the distress of game developers everywhere, including Terminal Reality.
In December 2007, the same month Terminal Reality’s Ghostbusters starred in Game Informer’s cover story, now mega-publisher Activision announced a proposed merger with Vivendi. The deal was approved July 8th, 2008.
Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis called my wife to tell her it was going to be OK.
The Ghostbusters game’s survival was suddenly in doubt. Unlike with David Crane, the team had no electronic lock to shield them from the suits. Activision would keep only a few projects from Vivendi, namely the properties of Blizzard (Warcraft, Diablo) and Spyro, which was to be the genesis of Activision’s lucrative Skylanders franchise. “I think they looked at [Ghostbusters] and didn’t see massive franchise potential for it,” stated Haworth.
“We would go in and pitch every game to [Activision CEO] Bobby Kotick and his executive team during that phase,” said Melchior. “It wasn’t just Ghostbusters. There was no interest in any game. 90% of the games in development, including a Tim Burton original IP, they wanted none of those.”
Now without any publisher behind Ghostbusters, Melchior believed the project was dead, but reassurances kept him going. “I sent an email to everybody saying goodbye because I didn’t know if I was going to be involved. Before I got home…both Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis called my wife to tell her it was going to be OK,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
On the development side, the game got stuck in limbo. The team feared another Demonik/Majesco situation. O'Keefe said it was “disruptive,” but development continued nonetheless.
In late 2008, after Terminal Reality worked four months in total uncertainty, Atari made them an offer, and Terminal Reality had no choice but to accept (rumors that the game would become a Sony exclusive proved true only for European players, who wound up only seeing PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and PSP versions).
Atari, however, lacked the resources Vivendi had possessed. Atari, once a gaming giant, was little more than a name at this point, dragged through leadership changes before landing under control of French firm Infogrames. Everyone interviewed agreed: the change in publishers hurt Ghostbusters’ potential.
“Atari was very tight budgeted,” said O'Keefe.
Haworth recalled, “We had a couple of producers at Atari who were very involved but were like, 'Can you hurry up and get it done?'”
In the transition to a new publisher, Melchior says his role shifted to handling talent and approvals. “Terminal Reality took their foot off the gas thinking the game was going to be killed,” Melchior stated. “When Atari bought it four months later, when you’re in alpha, it’s hard to get that momentum back. [The developers] lost a little bit of steam and I don’t blame them at all because all odds were this game was in trouble.”
“Atari didn’t have the marketing muscle that was required. [Vivendi had] had a plan to spend millions of dollars,” said Melchior. “[Atari] should have put more money into development than Vivendi. Of all the companies that approached Ghostbusters, everyone was surprised Atari bought it. I am assuming the game was at a place where it was fun and the producers there were huge fans. The producers there were great. It was the company that was faulty.”
I LOVE THIS TOWN
In later development stages, Melchior speculates that Sony’s executives woke up. While internally the game was referenced as Ghostbusters 3—and Aykroyd continually stated, “This is like the third movie”—Sony ultimately prevented the game from being called that. The sight of the actors working together and visibility of fan excitement apparently helped the studio see future possibilities.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game released on June 16, 2009. Sales reached four million copies across all platforms according to Melchior, combined with a Metacritic score hovering near 80. “There’s a strong belief that if Vivendi would have finished the game and marketed it, those sales would have been much higher,” stated Melchior. A few years after Ghostbusters, Atari filed for Chapter 11.
Since the 2009 release, Sony has issued three theatrical re-releases of the original film along with a glut of posters, toys, action figures, and books. This week, a Ghostbusters reboot will find its way to theaters. In a twist, Activision recently produced a new Ghostbusters video game—a sequel of sorts to the new reboot.
“Everything we’re seeing in discussions and groups is going on because the game was popular,” believes Melchior. “And once that became popular, everything exploded.”
Terminal Reality folded in 2013 after tackling Star Wars Kinect and the widely panned Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. Melchior is still producing, O'Keefe holds a position at a new studio, and Gosler and Haworth freelance. Each shared their memories.
“It’s one of the greatest products I’ve worked on,” began O'Keefe. “I was really proud of the entire team. It’s one of the funnest games I can remember working on. Despite all the challenges we faced, I’m very fond of it.”
“I felt like what we got to do was what we were hoping for, with the original cast,” O’Keefe said. “It was more fun to work on that than Star Wars Kinect because those guys [Aykroyd/Ramis] were so open.”
Haworth couldn’t say enough. “Keeping the intellectual part of the Ghostbusters canon is something I’ll always be really happy about. It’s not a perfect game, but it had all of the elements we were really hoping to get in. Considering how small that team was, compared to major games now, there’s so much content in that game. We did an amazing job.”
In the transition to Atari, Melchior lost his Executive Producer credit. Atari’s producers took his place, Melchior relegated to “Special Thanks.” But he retains fond memories that can be traced back to an email he received from Harold Ramis on April 20, 2009. Ramis wrote:
“By all accounts the game is great to play and I hope it’s a big hit for everyone, and the fallout has been a keen interest in the future of a Ghostbusters sequel, so thank you for keeping the spark alive.”
Praise from a Ghostbuster himself; there may be none higher.