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The Monkey Puzzle

LucasArts' David Nottingham on bringing Guybrush Threepwood back, and why digital distribution is the best way to do it

With all the various interesting developments in the past few months for the digital distribution space, one of the most satisfying for longtime gamers was the announcement that LucasArts was to release classic comedy adventure franchise Monkey Island.

At this year's Develop conference, we caught up with David Nottingham, project lead at LucasArts, to find out what the thinking behind using online in this way was for the company, and how it might evolve.

GamesIndustry.biz GamesIndustry.biz hosted a packed session at BAFTA earlier in the year on the subject of digital distribution. How does LucasArts, as a big company with a lot of huge IP look at the sector, and what does it bring for you?
David Nottingham

I think for companies like LucasArts that have this great legacy, and rich back-catalogue of IP that's there - there's still a passionate audience for it but if we haven't done too much for it in a while, digital distribution just opens up all these possibilities for us to look back at those classic games and re-introduce them... not just for the old fans, but for a new audience.

For us, how we got into where we're at now - this first step - it was a bit like the planets aligning. Darrell Rodriguez came in with new ideas, and digital distribution was definitely part of that. Plus he's a super-fanboy himself of some of the classic games.

And that's a big reason for a lot of people who work at the company, like me, as to why we want to work there - I remember playing Monkey Island, and remember all the classic games.

So it was this perfect storm where digital distribution feels like it's reached a tipping point, where it's here in a meaningful way. It's not like we sat around and looked at reams of market data - because one of the things with digital is that there isn't a lot of global data, because everybody's protecting their own areas.

In the end we just felt we had to do this, so we made a commitment, and what I think is really interesting about the approach we took is that it wasn't about just taking the back catalogue and putting it up on Steam, and that was the extent of it.

We've done that, but we've also taken this three-pronged approach, so the team that I head up is doing internally-developed games. So we did the Monkey Island Special Edition version - we're not the only developers that have done this, there's Bionic Commando, Prince of Persia for example - but I think it's a really interesting way to take those classic games and refresh them and reintroduce them to people.

And then the other part is hooking up with Telltale, which is almost like extended family anyway because there are a lot of old LucasArts people, so we just felt it was a great opportunity. Now we're working with them on Monkey Island, delivering new content as well. So it's pretty exciting.

GamesIndustry.biz Talking about Telltale - the ideal relationship would always only ever involve the creator and the consumer, so it's good to see that the direct-to-market approach that Telltale has taken in the past has worked so well?
David Nottingham

I think the thing is, something like Monkey Island is a pretty treasured IP in a lot of people's minds, so the idea of working with a partner to do a new game is obviously a pretty big deal.

We wouldn't be working with someone like Telltale if we didn't feel they were the perfect partner in so many ways. Dave Grossman's there - he worked on the original. They had a tonne of people at LucasArts, so it's kind of a no-brainer. Once we started talking we realised the benefit of it.

GamesIndustry.biz How do you see digital distribution bringing publishers more into the online space? How do you see the projects you're working on developing in the future?
David Nottingham

Obviously for somebody like LucasArts, it's a reasonably big company with a strong brand. We have great relationships with retailers, so that's great for us.

But adding digital distribution gives us... something like Monkey Island, for example - traditionally the PC at retail is competing with a lot of products. And then you've got to figure out what the inventory that we're going to build for this, and then get it into stores... it just made the risk of re-introducing this IP for us way more attractive.

The other thing is that we have this rabid fanbase that's online - if we can engage them online and be selling them this digital stuff online as well, we can get them in one place, so it makes sense.

But it depends on the game - I'm talking about a Monkey Island game specifically.