The lights are on
Nostalgia is a valuable currency in the video game industry. Nintendo’s biggest titles stick to decades-old formulas, and the indie scene is overflowing with pixelated throwbacks. Earlier this year, Ubisoft took a different approach to the ‘80s homage with Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. The standalone digital title combines the era’s iron-studded, fluorescent action films with Far Cry 3’s superb gameplay. Blood Dragon stands as an anomaly, both in terms of its aesthetic and marketing strategy. This is the story of how it all came together under the guidance of Ubisoft’s passionate 1980s savant, Dean Evans. It’s also the story of how Aliens: Colonial Marines nearly turned Michael Biehn, voice of Rex Colt, off from working in video games entirely, and how Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener helped inspire Ubisoft’s experiment.
A Stable Base for a Crazy Idea
Blood Dragon is a curious love letter to a bygone era built on a rock-solid foundation. Far Cry 3 hit late last year on 360, PS3, and PC. The latest entry in the multiplatform FPS sandbox series preserves the exotic setting: a tropical archipelago filled with animals and armed thugs. However, Far Cry 3 comes with some big changes to the series. Players gain new abilities by progressing through RPG-like skill trees. Far Cry 3 eschews the punishing realism of gun jams and malaria outbreaks with accessible, reliable gameplay more in line with modern, big-budget shooters. Enemy AI is improved, with patrolling pirates and indigenous wildlife that behave convincingly. Players can also liberate enemy encampments, creating a new safehouse and reducing the amount of roaming sentries. While the overall aesthetic of the game would change radically with Blood Dragon, all these elements (save for skill trees) remain. Critics praised Far Cry 3, and as of last May the game shipped 6 million units, 1.5 million more than projected.
The first piece of concept art for Blood Dragon
Well before Ubisoft knew how successful Far Cry 3 would be, the company decided to take a new approach for the downloadable add-on strategy. Over the past few years, gamers have come to expect DLC in the form of new costumes, multiplayer maps, or a story-expanding campaign chapter. These iterative episodic additions usually only cater to people who completed the core game, alienating potential newcomers. In an effort to break out of this stale approach, Ubisoft took a chance with Assassin’s Creed III by crafting The Tyranny of King Washington, a standalone, alternate-history tale that deviates from the main game by pitting protagonist Connor against the preeminent founding father. For Far Cry 3’s add-on content, Ubisoft took it a step further with a standalone title that completely abandons the story, characters, and overall tone of the base game. The publisher opened up the doors to its development teams for ideas. Even the really crazy ones.
Among the Ubisoft Montreal devs organizing pitches for Far Cry 3 projects was Dean Evans. Growing up in the ‘80s, Evans spent his formative years binging on video games and absorbing the action section of his local video store in Surrey, a county in southeast England. He watched Arnold Schwarzenegger slaughter a police department over and over in The Terminator until his parents became concerned. Perhaps unbeknownst to his parents, Evans liked to pack up toy guns and practice breach and clear missions with friends at a nearby nursing home.
Bring up the topic of ‘80s action or horror films around Evans, and he responds with an enthusiastic stream of obscure film references, one-liners, or unusual game ideas exploring topics like animal revenge. Evans has an unbridled enthusiasm and a lack of self-censorship that’s rare in the PR-padded realm of the game industry. The powers that be at Ubisoft were smart, or crazy, enough to harness Evans’ overactive imagination to its advantage.
A screenshot from Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's in-house pitch video
Evans funneled his penchant for hot pink hues and heavily armed heroes into an offbeat pitch for Far Cry 3’s downloadable counterpart. Set in a 1980s vision of the future, cyber commando Rex Colt sieges the island stronghold of his former military superior, Colonel Sloan. Far Cry 3’s modern pirates are swapped with leather-clad enemy cyborgs, giant laser-shooting reptiles roam the landscape, and the atmosphere is thick with moody fog and neon lights.
“Presenting it to some of the [Ubisoft] guys in Paris – those guys are brilliant poker players,” Evans says. “You’re doing the presentation to them and they’re faces are just like f---ing stone. It’s like, ‘Oh no! This is just going to be a f---ing disaster!’ Then once the presentation is, over they’re like, ‘Excellent. Good. Love it.’”
The editorial team greenlit the project, giving Evans’ team six months to complete it.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon creative director Dean Evans
From Wookiee, to Rookie, to Rockstar
Before Evans unleashed the ambitious insanity of Blood Dragon on Ubisoft, he made his entrance into the games industry with a Kashyyyk battle cry.
“It all started with a wookiee,” Evans says. “I was raging at a house party in South London and unleashed my throaty warble of a Chewbecca impression on an unsuspecting audience. Little did I know that a managing director of a fantastic advertising agency heard my wookie call and wanted to geek out. After a lengthy discussion, we got onto the topic of video games. His agency had just won the PlayStation direct marketing account and they were looking for an account executive. At this time, I was working as a delivery driver. Needless to say, I snapped up the opportunity to pursue a career in polluting minds. I always wanted to work in video games but at that time I had no idea how to get into it. The door was literally opened.”
A storyboard sketch of Spider's death at the hands of Colonel Sloan
After working on the PlayStation account, Evans joined Rockstar London as a product manager, helping launch titles like Max Payne 2, Manhunt, an#mce_temp_url#d Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
“These were truly my formative years in the industry,” Evans says. “Nobody understands tone and vibe quite like the folks at Rockstar Games, and working there opened my eyes up to what is possible in PR and marketing for video games. Break the mold. Shoot from the hip. Run with your gut feeling. We trusted each other’s tastes and sensibilities to create truly unique and artistic assets. If we like what we are doing and put gallons of passion into it, then this will be reflected in the final product and gamers’ attitudes.”
Rockstar’s dedication to consistent messaging, branding, and robust gameplay offerings would stick with him throughout his career. These lessons became invaluable when devising Blood Dragon’s effective marketing campaign.
Boasting games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Max Payne 2 in your portfolio speaks volumes, and in 2007 Ubisoft Montreal hired Evans as a marketing manager to help with gameplay trailers. He worked on the famous Assassin Creed “Lonely Soul” trailer, which pairs dramatic slow-motion gameplay of Altair with the somber vocals of The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft and driving beat of British band U.N.K.L.E. Evans’ careful music choices for trailers is an example of his passion for finding the right vibe for games.
After putting in his time as a marketing manager, Evans jumped over to game design with Splinter Cell: Conviction, where he helped develop Sam Fisher’s new customizable interrogations and Mark and Execute ability, which lets him rapidly gun down multiple enemies. Later he joined the conception team for Assassin’s Creed III, where he continued to flex his directing skills by putting together videos demonstrating design goals.
Assassin’s Creed III arrived in late 2013, shortly followed by Far Cry 3. Sometime before Far Cry 3’s release, executive producer Dan Hay told the team they had free reign on downloadable ideas for Far Cry 3. Hay wanted something unexpected, and Evans planned on seizing the opportunity to resurrect a VHS-era aesthetic he felt was lost to the times. Recent films like Manborg and Hobo with a Shotgun fueled his longstanding adoration of cheesy ‘80s action, and Evans felt this was the perfect time to tap the same vein of nostalgia with games. Manborg, released in 2011, is a low-budget science fiction adventure about vampire Nazis and cyborgs, overflowing with laser guns and green screen effects. According to Evans, Manborg “kicked him up the ass” to follow through on his vision.
Read on to learn about the axed armored minions of Blood Dragon and an important '80s sex scene