Glee Forever!

Glee Forever! was a role-playing, collectible card, music-rhythm game for mobile based on Fox’s hit TV series Glee and released in 2015. It provided much of what fans were looking for: favorite characters, fashions, story, and songs. In the vein of KLab’s other Japanese hit Love Live, players could progress up the single-player chain, unlocking new chapters and songs along the way, or compete with others in weekly and monthly challenges.

This is the story of its making.

Why Glee?

That’s a good question. Not only why would I design Glee, but why would KLab choose the license?

KLab’s crown jewel was (and still is) a game called Love Live: School Idol Festival, based on an anime of the same name. It’s an RPG, collectible-card, music game. In it, the player collects a bunch of young girl students in lots of crazy outfits and they compete by singing songs from the show. Their idea was to translate this winning formula into a version that might work well in America.

What popular TV license has a bunch of kids in crazy costumes who compete by singing popular songs? Glee!

On paper, this was an obvious win. However, there were some clear issues from the get go. First, this wasn’t the first Glee rhythm game, and the first (Tap Tap Glee) had launched and been pulled before we even started.

Second, the ratings for the show had been steadily declining. In fact, Fox had already determined that the next and last season would be cut in half and air on Fridays (the traditional graveyard of under-performing shows). This meant that, as it turns out, Glee would be off the air before we even released.

That said, the benefits remained, and KLab signed up to license the show for a game. And since it was an American title, it made sense to have KLab America produce it. After Crystal Casters was brought to a close, they let us know that Glee would be our next title and I would design it.

Find the goodness

My first reaction was strong and negative. I had never seen the show, but I knew the target audience and I was not that. But there’s a design rule I explain to my students, and this game turned out to be a great example: find something about the property that you like and become a fan of it. If you can’t do that, you will not design a great game. Worse, true hard-core fans of the property will smell your dislike from a mile off. They can tell if the designer doesn’t treat their beloved material with respect, and they will take it personally. I’ve dealt with fans of Star Trek and Wheel of Time, and Glee fans are just as dedicated.

To go further, you must design a game that identifies what fans like about that property and deliver it. Even if you design a good game, if it can easily and obviously live apart from the license, fans will not get on board. The license will feel like a veneer, slapped onto a generic game (see Tap Tap Glee).

Luckily, if a property is big enough to get a lot of fans, there’s usually something good about it. And I found it in Glee once I started watching the episodes: the writing (particularly in the early seasons). It was funny, it was self-aware, and the characters were compelling. Beyond that, the music was outstanding and truly the reason to watch in the first place. I was hooked, and excited to design this game.

New or Old?

In my talks with Fox, I started out by saying that this needed to be a game for the fans. And it needed to be nostalgic. On the face of it, this may seem limiting. What if there weren’t enough fans to appeal to? Why not make the game open-ended so we could produce new materials, new characters, and new story?

A Glee comic I didn’t know existed until I wrote this post

Reality just didn’t agree with that position. Look, I’m a story guy and I love to create new stuff, but we had a small team and deadlines (especially with the imminent sunset of the series). Instead of creating everything from whole cloth with artists that we didn’t then employ, we had to be able to pull from the show. We needed ready-made assets. We needed existing songs. What’s more, we didn’t actually have a license to write anything new: everything, even the cut scenes I put together, had to be approved by Fox and they were draconian about what they allowed and didn’t. If it wasn’t in the show, we could not include it.

So pulling from the show was the only option, and honestly, it was the best way to connect with the people we needed to play our game. If you weren’t even a casual fan of Glee, you probably wouldn’t download the game. Making it into a cartoon wouldn’t help that.

What Does Casual Mean to You?

Now, Love Live was the design I had to start with, but there are a lot of differences between a Japanese gamer who grew up with these RPG card-collection games as a part of their culture and a Glee fan. Love Live might have been one of the more casual of these types of games in Japan, but it was extremely hard-core here. I could see Glee fans enjoying the music mini-game, but the entire meta-game was new and foreign to them. They didn’t know about fusion (why is one character eating another to gain experience?) or leveling up or evolving, they wouldn’t know why two or three Kurts can compete in the same show choir, and they had never pulled a gacha before. It would be a challenge to teach them about all of this. I knew a big part of the task would be to create metaphors that these fans could connect with.

Tell Me a Story, Card

A solution hit me that would satisfy a lot of these issues: story cards. They paid off in a number of ways. I viewed them like chance cards from monopoly: as soon as the player drew them, they would trigger their actions and change the game. But also, I could attach them to story moments from the series. Without having to tell the whole plot of Glee, I could pay off on tons of moments the fans already knew and loved, and do it in almost any order. Using these moments, even just getting a few coins could feel poignant or funny or gleeful.

Originally, I wanted to use video clips from the show to illustrate these moments. The technology didn’t work out, the media size was concerning, and honestly–given the number of cards the player collected–it would have slowed the experience down too much, but I loved the idea of how it would feel.

Here’s an example of what I was thinking this might look like, taken from my first pitch to Fox about what this game would be.

Story cards also addressed the cannibalism issue. Instead of fusing two characters together to make one better character, I just gave the player boost story cards to feed into any version of that character. The story-moment metaphor made a lot of sense, and it was satisfying. Kurt defending himself against bullies would give him more confidence, and that event would boost his experience level. I decided that these boost cards wouldn’t trigger automatically; instead, the player could save them and choose which of his performers to boost when they wanted.

The Performance

Originally, I considered putting the core music rhythm game against a background of song videos taken from the show, but quickly figured out that it would require too much data, and the movement would likely be distracting when trying to follow all of the moving rings (which at the highest difficulty level, would be crazy impossible). Instead, Josh Law (our fantastic animator) mocked up a compromise: something that still looked cool with parallax motion and paper doll animation, but moved slowly enough not to distract and used assets that could be animated without taking up a lot of data.

Here is the original mock-up we showed to Fox.

So, in both cases of the story cards and the performance, we ended up using static images. But had I known at the beginning how much time and effort it would take to gather all of those images in the first place, I never would have suggested anything else. We had hundreds of cards, dozens of songs, and only a few team members in place to gather the resources. Because we could grab instead of create, we ended up with a ton of variety that paid off on people’s memories of the show, which was the real goal.

He’s Such a Character

One of the major upsides of the license was a ton of memorable characters dressed in lot of crazy costumes. The crazier the costume, the more rare the aspect of that performer. Rarer aspects had better stats, more song types (colors), and more skills. Of course, all of those things just boiled down to “how many points do I generate when I tap on it in the music game?” In no way did I want the player to worry about activating skills or worry about song-type matching when they’re frantically trying to tap to the beat.

But, because of the crazy costumes, they also looked cooler–and that was a huge driver for demand, likely more than any functional reason. We played up on this by making the borders and presentation look much more valuable.

Here is an example of some of the aspects of one character.

The rarer aspects are always sorted to the left, and you can see in this image, Sam’s super-hero and puppet personas were some of his rarest.

People chased after the aspects of their favorite characters. In particular, New Year’s Blane was a hot card (so to speak).

One challenge was that, even within an aspect, we needed different stages of evolution, so we had to search for different poses that represented those stages. Finding and choosing those poses ignited some interesting discussions among the development team. We were worried that players might have a favorite pose of one aspect and then lose it when it staged up. But we never got one complaint, so I guess we did alright.

The Search for Songs

Glee was known for its huge and deep library of popular music, and it’s one of the key reasons KLab licensed it. At the beginning, I had no idea what song licensing entailed and was about to get a crash course.

I found out that we were in the worst of all worlds. Glee’s songs were taken from everywhere: different artists, different publishers, lots of people with slices of the rights, all with lots of different agendas about whether they might want their song to appear in a video game.

So here’s the process we had to follow. 1) Identify who published the song (some songs had multiple publishers), 2) Identify who else has the rights to a song (singers, band-members, writers, producers, agents, etc.). 3) Track them all down and get them to talk to us. 4) Negotiate a licensing deal, a different one per song that everyone who owned a piece of the song would agree to (some of these songs had up to 10 rights-holders). 5) Sign the contract for a year, knowing that you’d have to do the same the following year.

Sound simple? A few additional wrinkles.

First, many of the most popular artists wanted MFN deals. MFN stands for Most Favored Nation. That means that, if we make a deal with someone who demands more money than anyone else, everyone with an MFN deal would automatically get the same terms. It’s beautiful for the artist, because they’re making any artist who comes after them negotiate for them too.

Second, publishers were gatekeepers. If they weren’t on board, they wouldn’t even tell the artists that a deal was on the table. One BIG publisher told us up front that they weren’t interested in our terms and shut down all of their artists. Suddenly, a huge list of songs just became unavailable, songs I was pained to lose.

Third, we not only had to license the rights from the song-owner and publisher, but since the performance we were licensing was from the Glee show, we also had to pay to license THAT song too. So effectively, we were paying double for every song. What’s worse? A mash-up. We had to pay for the rights to BOTH songs in the mash-up AND the Glee performance.

If I had to point to one thing that made Glee untenable, it was this licensing structure. To overcome these costs, Glee Forever would have had to have been a smash hit.

These challenges made song licensing into a treasure hunt. We’d scour the shows, looking for songs that were available and that fit into one of our categories (like solo songs, event songs, chapter songs, competition songs, daily songs, etc.), and then pray when we got the publisher list. Would it be owned by a publisher that would work with us? Did someone own a slice of the rights that wasn’t working with us? Could we even find out who owned it (you’d be surprised how hard this was some times)?

Some songs were uphill battles. We had to pitch to a few artists to try to convince them to let us use their songs. Journey was the toughest. They decided they wanted nothing to do with video games. Evidently, they had a bad experience before us. After months of trying different tactics, they finally signed; we celebrated and breathed a sigh of relief. Can you imagine Glee without “Don’t Stop Believing”?

The Rolling Stones were also tough to pin down, but they eventually came on board.

And when we signed “Let it Go” from Frozen, the entire Japanese dev team threw a party (if you thought Frozen was popular in the US, that was nothing compared to Japan).

The Game

The development of this title was challenging, and not just for the reasons listed above. While we did the design, art, and animation in the US, it was being implemented by a team in Japan. Working with a remote team is difficult in the best of circumstances, but we also had significant time zone, language, and cultural differences working against us.

For example, every mobile game in Japan seems to have the same FTUE (First Time User Experience) structure. Players get a tiny interactive demo after which the entire game loads onto the mobile device which can take upwards of a half an hour. However, when Glee initially launched this way, we saw massive drop off. American players are fine with a lengthy initial install when they can ignore it for a while, but when they start playing, they want to play. Few western players had patience to wait. So, after a lot of communication with the Japanese team, we convinced them to implement a background loading scheme that would work for both audiences.

This video shows what we sent them to illustrate what we wanted the player to experience while the game was loading.

The following video shows someone walking through some of the tutorial and exploring the interface and some of the systems.

This next video is an example of how the music game is really played. It shows how complex the expert level can get.

Reception

The end result was a game that I remain proud of. Reviews were positive, but what I really cared about was what the fans thought, so I interacted with the community regularly (just like I did through Wheel of Time’s development). Soon, it became clear that we satisfied the fan base. The core music game was fun (enhanced by Glee-specific features, like the Glee bonus and Spotlight mode), and the meta-game didn’t scare people off. In fact. they LOVED the collectibility of the characters (and the fashion aspect), the story moments, and the music.

Those dedicated fans played until the last minute when KLab pulled the plug a year after launch, just in time to avoid paying the next year’s crushing license fees. We even received petitions to bring it back. While I was sad to take something away that the fans so enjoyed, I was glad that the game reached them.

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