• Joe

Introducing Brian Babendererde - The Phantom 2040 Video Game Designer (1 of 2)

Twenty five years ago we were given a glimpse into the future. In the far-flung year of 2040, mankind has all but fulfilled its destiny of destroying our once beautiful planet. Nearly all flora and fauna has become extinct, and most of the population of Earth is destitute with only the super rich able to eke out a comfortable existence. Mega corporations prey on the poor while oiling the palms of the wealthy to get what they want. The worst of these is Maximum Inc. who desire nothing less than total domination. In the future, it seems humanity has but a ghost of a chance…

This was the world of Phantom 2040, a future in which The Phantom was nothing more than a memory until a young Kit Walker Jr. is made aware of the family heritage he never knew he had.

Placing Lee Falk’s 1930’s hero into a futuristic world full of advanced technology and shape-shifting robots may sound strange, but it worked surprisingly well. The series was praised by fans and critics alike and is still very fondly remembered today.

These fond memories are due in no small part to the excellent video game released for the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1995. Loosely following the story of the series, the game allowed players to take control of the Ghost Who Walks as he battles Rebecca Maddison and the Maximum Incorporated. While much has been written about the game, we’ve not really known what went in to making it. Until now.

In my quest to learn all I can about Phantom 2040, I was able to contact Brian Babendererde who worked as one of two designers on the game. Although Brian is the first to admit that it’s been a long time since he worked on the game, he very kindly provided me with many details from behind the scenes.

Chronicle Chamber: Hello Brian, thank you very much for agreeing to discuss your time working on the Phantom 2040 video game with us here at ChronicleChamber. You acted as both Lead Designer and Lead Artist on the game. For those who may not know, could you explain what those roles involved?

Brian Babendererde: Hi, glad to answer these questions – it takes me back a long ways.

A Lead Artist is responsible for art directing the look of the game, working to set schedules for the artists, wrangling the day to day time of those artists, and working with the Producer and Programmers to solve problems and work out any technical issues with overall art production and implementation.

A Lead Designer is responsible for overseeing the creation of game play systems— everything from combat to level designs and even overseeing story creation. They also have to work with the art team to convey a sense of what they want in terms of how everything needs to tie together to make the gameplay flow.

Now, back in the SNES days we had pretty small teams, so each team member had the opportunity to wear a lot of hats. For this project, on the Art and Design side of things, we had two Lead Designers, a Lead Artist, and two Artists. I acted as both Lead Artist and one of the Lead Designers. So that means we had an Art and Design team of only four people. Because of that, I worked right alongside the other two artists in creating assets for the game, such as sprite animation and level art – so that means I was acting as an Artist, Lead Artist, and Lead Designer all at once.

In terms of design, everyone was able to contribute ideas, especially during brainstorming meetings. I ended up working more on the overall story and combat / enemy design, while the other Lead Designer did more of the level designs and final dialogue.

CC: Did you have any awareness of either the 2040 cartoon or The Phantom comic/ strip before working on the game? BB: When this project came to us, the Phantom 2040 show only existed in script and character designs. I was familiar with the Phantom comic strips that were pretty ubiquitous in the Sunday comics of the newspaper, but I wasn’t overly familiar with it, having never really followed it. This changed rapidly, as the team delved into the history of the character and where the new show was going to take him.

CC: Phantom 2040 was pretty early in your career, but you had worked on previous games as designer and artist. How did 2040 compare to those projects? BB: I had worked on four previous games by the time we started the Phantom. This was actually my third time developing for the SNES, but my first Genesis (Mega Drive) game. And I think it was the first time anyone on the Art and Design team had worked on dual platform development, where the game you’re making is being developed on two platforms at once. This was my first Lead Artist position on a project, so that was a change.

In terms of design, I had been involved as a designer on games pretty much from my first project, and by the second and third projects I was co-designing and lead designing. But, on those early, pre-Phantom games, we didn’t really have design titles. We just had Artists, Programmers, & Producers. On the design side, it was kind of a wild west, with the whole team invited to contribute. In practical terms, that meant that team members who had a passion for design, and could back it up with good ideas and instincts, just sort of slipped into the role. Of course, this also meant they were not only doing their regular job (Art, Programming, Producer, etc), but also the whole other job of design.

But this started to change around the time of Phantom 2040. For example, we actually started to get job titles that reflected our design duties, (not just after-the-fact design credits in the game), so that felt like a big change. It also meant that the production pipeline was acknowledging the role that design had to play, taking it into account in terms of scheduling your time, and giving power to designers to enact a vision for gameplay.

In addition to being a Co-Lead Designer on Phantom, I was also being lent out to other teams to help with design (and sometimes art) on their projects. Keep in mind that I was something like 23 years old at the time, and the youngest person in the company. It was a lot of responsibility, but I loved working on all these games and helping teams find the fun in their games.

So, in all, Phantom 2040 was actually quite the big change—I had started as an Artist, but was quickly moving into a more Game Design centric role, which is where my career eventually took me.

CC: Before 2040 you had worked on several other licenced games, such as Rocko's Modern Life. What's working on a licenced game like? Does the licence holder have to approve all art, gameplay and story details or are you just given a basic idea and off you go? BB: All of the games I had worked on up until Phantom were licenses. Back then, licensed games were usually looked down on, and with good reason, because it seemed like publishers were just kicking out poorly made games with a license slapped on it to make quick cash.

Around that time, the studio I worked for (ICOM Simulations) was acquired by Viacom, and renamed Viacom New Media. They wanted us to make games based on their large catalogue of properties, from Nickelodeon and MTV shows to Star Trek and other movies.

But it quickly became clear that some of the big wigs at Viacom didn’t seem to care about quality. When I was working on Beavis and Butt-head in Virtual Stupidity, I was literally told that it didn’t have to be good, it would sell based on the license alone.

Well, you can imagine what the dev teams thought of this attitude. We didn’t listen. We always rejected that attitude, and tried to make the best game we could, given the time and resources we were given.

Working on a license game means that, yes, everything has to be run by the license holder. In this case, it was Hearst, which owned the Phantom, and was part of the Viacom conglomerate. They had the right to approve all story, gameplay, art, character designs, music, you name it.

Now, as sometimes happens when you work on a licensed property, the Phantom 2040 show was very much in development when we started working on the game. All we had were episode synopses, character and mechanical line art, and some broad property “bible” documents—the kind of docs you put together to try and describe what it is your trying to make. So, because the show was still formulating, we had a lot of leeway in what we did.