Matters Arising
Post Mortem: Ghost Master (Part Two)

Post Mortem: Ghost Master (Part One)

Two years after the release of Ghost Master (PC) seems a little late for a post mortem, but there is much to be learned from examining just want went wrong with this game. Of particular note is that what went wrong wasn't, for once, the result of 'bad design'. In fact, the design was perfectly serviceable for a first title in a franchise, although this doesn't mean there wasn't room for improvement (there always is room for improvement!) What went wrong, broadly speaking was a total lack of marketing.

As background, I should explain that this is in response to perfectly reasonable questions raised by Deacon over at Design Synthesis, following on from genre discussions at Man Bytes Blog. I should also explain that I was the game designer on this project - although the project director, Gregg Barnett, made the content decisions and worked closely with me on the game design. A good way to understand the relationship between Gregg and myself on this project: Gregg made all the decisions; I gave him the options and generated all the design documentation. The game would be utterly different without our creative partnership.

Let’s begin with why I don't consider the game design to be ‘bad’. Well, subjective issues aside, the 81% metacritic review score is a fairly convincing vindication for a game developed on about a quarter of the budget of most other critically-acclaimed games. Since it didn't have the budget to wow players with its production values, it came down to the quality of the game design and the skills of the programmers and artists. This latter point should not be overlooked: the Sick Puppies team was built from the ground up by Gregg and was exceptional. A game designer can only be as good as the team behind them, and this team was first rate.

Note that one of the reviews listed on metacritic is PC Gamer (US) magazine, which gives it a 90% score. PC Gamer is allegedly the most influential video game magazine in the world; certainly it is the game magazine with the largest global circulation. Industry wisdom claims that getting a 90% in PC Gamer all but guarantees a top ten best selling game.

That's not what happened to Ghost Master. In fact, it vanished practically without a trace.

What went wrong?

I'm going to look at two particular elements in the game's commercial failure - audience model errors (which were my responsibility) and marketing failure (which was not). I'm also going to look at the extent to which genre confusion hurt the game, although this is at best a secondary issue.

Audience Model Errors

When I designed Ghost Master, our audience model wasn't very sophisticated. It was the Hardcore-Casual split, the most basic model at use in the industry. Still, it is better than nothing, and I can hardly be blamed for not having a better model since until we researched ours, there wasn't a better model (Nicole Lazarro's Four Keys didn't exist yet either).

I badly misread the Hardcore on a number of points, chief of which were:

  • Hidden Fiero: Believing that innovation and well designed gameplay would meet the play needs of the Hardcore. It did for some players - but not for those for whom fiero was a key play need. There is fiero to be found - but only in going for the "Triple Pumpkins" (effectively gold medals). Since most fiero-seeking (Type 1 Conqueror in DGD1) players found little or no fiero in their initial play through, they never tried for the Triple Pumpkins and hence never found the fiero. Also, the esoteric name for the medals (Gregg delighted in maintaining the consistency of a game's identity) meant they weren't interpreted as medals. We would, in fact, have done better to call them Medals - as then at least some of the Type 1 players would have felt more compelled to tackle the more difficult Triple Pumpkin challenges.
  • No Micromanagement: The gameplay was designed to allow the player to genuinely be in charge of a team, reacting to dynamic situations by making leadership decisions. Strong ghosts in your team could compensate for the lesser skills of an inexperienced player, whilst adept players could enjoy the satisfaction of commanding a well-oiled team. The key to this was a simple but effective AI subsystem for the ghosts themselves, who acted as quasi-autonomous agents. (This is one of the few games to have such complex agents, in fact). Because of the highly dynamic environment - you can never reproduce exactly the same results even with the same haunters - the game supports Tactical and Strategic play but not Logistical play. Say goodbye to the players fitting the Type 1 Conqueror archetype once again.

One other problem - the game was too short. This was not strictly our fault, since most of the game budget was required to get everything up and running, and the environments required a lot of care and attention to produce. Furthermore the method used to develop the game locations did not support the option for a level editor without a great deal of additional time and expense. This particular problem would have been fixed had we got a sequel - we all agreed it would have been a priority for Ghost Master 2, a game that now can never happen.

The trouble with games being too short is that they don't stay in circulation. Even if a large proportion of Hardcore players love a game, if they complete it in a week and there's nothing to go back for, they go on and start playing something new. That only gives you a week for them to recommend it to someone else in real terms. It's what we have termed the 'play window' of the game - and for Ghost Master, it was cripplingly short. Part of the secret of the success of the recent GTA games is a huge play window - it allowed word of mouth to build. I'm not saying we could have been as big as a GTA game on our tiny budget, but the point still stands.

So we don't have the support of the Type 1 Conqueror players, and the game is too short for word of mouth to build up momentum... Both of these elements hurt us, because with the support of players fitting the Type 1 archetype (who are in general vocal supporters of the games they love) and a long enough play window, we might have been able to survive the game's other problem.

Marketing Failure

How can I competently tell that this was a case of marketing failure? Well, there are two key pieces of evidence. Firstly, the news that Gregg reported to me from his contacts in the US which described Vivendi's promotion of the game at release as "the worst campaign Vivendi has ever mounted". If you saw any promotional materials for the game anywhere in the US - any advertising, point-of-sale fixtures, posters or anything else at all, please let me know - you might be the only witness to this unbelievably lacklustre affair.

The second piece of evidence is my first hand observation of what happened at launch. I was able to find the game on the shelves in the States, but I had to look, it wasn't stocked in every store (only one out of four chains in the region I was visiting had it), and in all cases the staff in the video games shops had either not heard of the game, or was only aware of it sufficiently to know it was on the PC shelf. This generally happens only when the publisher drops the ball on its marketing campaign (or when there is no marketing campaign).

I may never know exactly why this happened but there are two schools of thought. The first school says: Empire (the publisher who owned Sick Puppies) basically pissed off Vivendi, and so Vivendi snubbed the game. The second school says: whoever mades the decisions inside Vivendi assessed the game as not very significant, and assigned a marketing budget accordingly; when the PC Gamer review came in, nobody thought to shift gears and initiate a second round of marketing. Perhaps they figured it was too late at that point.

Combined with the Audience Model errors, the marketing failure meant the game was never to have any commercial success, despite a very positive critical response.

"But It's a Strategy Game"

Although it's a small point, part of the problem with the game was that it didn't go down well in the UK, and so the assumption was that there was a problem with the game. Well, there was a problem with the UK release - it was rushed, and we hadn't ironed out all the bugs until the US release, but of course, this wouldn't have mattered if we'd had the Hardcore support. At the time (and possibly still now) the specialist press in the UK strongly resembles the Type 1 Conqueror archetype, and agon (competition) and fiero (triumph over adversity) appear to dominate the play needs of most UK specialist press reviewers. As already mentioned, it was a bad fit to the audience - but it shouldn't have mattered, because Gregg and I had always known that the German and US audiences were the key to the game's success. (I have no idea what went wrong in Germany, incidentally - probably similar problems to the ones already mentioned).

Chatter in the forums behind the scenes of the specialist press showed up all manner of extremely negative response, characterised by one particularly vitriolic individual who declared the game "the easiest strategy game ever" - meaning this to be an insult. (Presumably the point here was that the player in question couldn't manage to get the game to provide any fiero for them). Consider also this extract from the PC Format review:

The puzzle elements are more like extremely simple exercises that you have to complete, rather than challenging problems that need solving, and the same is sadly true for the strategy.

This person sounds like they are closer to the Type 2 Manager archetype - interested in puzzles and strategy - but clearly the failing point here a mismatch between their skills and the level of challenge the game provides. (Fiero is not just for players preferring Type 1 play, of course). Now it must be said, some of the puzzles in the game are in fact seriously challenging, and only an extremely expert adventure game player could possibly dismiss all the puzzles in the game as 'extremely simple exercises' - but this is besides the point, as I didn't actually intend for the puzzles to be hard. They were supposed to be relatively simple, because they weren't supposed to represent the core gameplay, which is about how you use your team. Again, this player almost certainly never tried for the Triple Pumpkins, which are really quite challenging strategically, especially Full Mortal Jacket and, to some extent, Haunting 101.

As an aside, let me just say that I never wanted the puzzles - it was something Gregg made me put in. According to him, the publisher asked for puzzles because they couldn't understand what the game was about otherwise. This may not be the whole truth, however. Gregg has a love of puzzles, and a gift for making them which far outstrips my own talents in that particular area. I wanted to just focus on the gameplay inherent in the haunting itself, although in retrospect having the puzzles wasn't significantly problematic.

From responses like those above, it seems there was a definite intent to interpret the game as a strategy game. I'm not an expert on the genre, but I would predict that many popular strategy games are sources of fiero because the player fails certain battles over and over again (thus experiencing fiero when they beat it). Ghost Master isn't like that - the levels are relatively easy to beat, they are just hard to beat completely.

Seeing the game as a strategy game therefore hurt us in some indefinable way, although as mentioned above, the biggest problem in this genre mismatch was probably that it hurt how the game was marketed. On the one hand you have a box which suggests "this is like The Sims", and on the other you have some reviews or word of mouth which say "this isn't a very good a strategy game". We strayed too far from genre expectations, and this hurt us simply because there wasn't a ready-made cluster of game evangelists waiting to support the game.

Instead, there was a ready-made cluster of strategy fans who, apparently, didn't get to grips with the idea of a strategy game in which you lead your units (your ghosts), rather than controlling their every move. This probably reflects the fact that most strategy games are in fact tactical games - very few real time games require Strategic skills to play well; most require quick thinking responses (Tactical skills) or methodical planning and optimisation (Logistical skills).

The lack of direct control also probably hurt us: we should probably have given the player the capacity to directly control the ghosts if they wanted to. We didn't because it would have destroyed the original gameplay we'd created (turning novel new gameplay into a modified FPS). For anyone for whom watching the ghosts act out your plans was insufficient, having direct control would have been some compensation, though. It was planned for the sequel (but would have been designed such that it would not have been in any way necessary).

Lessons Learned

I learned a lot from Ghost Master, much of it about the importance of marketing a game, the treacherous landscape of the games market, and the problems of trying to promote a game without a clear genre to inform people how to interpret it. Collectively, people do not accept new approaches to play with an open mind. Everything is assumed to be related to other things, things that have already been seen. This isn't true for every individual, of course, but when you average over a large enough group of people...

If we had got a sequel, I believe we could have ironed out a lot of the problems the game had - but sadly the games industry is a vicious marketplace which throws away a lot of the value that it creates. When EA bought Bullfrog, they threw away all its IP because there was nothing in their portfolio with a big enough following to operate at EA's scale. But a smaller publisher could have made a profit on franchises such as Dungeon Keeper, Populous and Theme Whatever - not that EA would sell on the IP, because that would be helping their competitors. The fact that their competitors are so small as to make such a sale practically foreign aid from a superpower to a banana republic is somewhat beside the point. So these franchises are lost forever, just as the Ghost Master franchise that never was is now lost forever.

It's not really a huge tragedy, when all is said and done, after all, it's only a game. Mind you, it does demonstrate that the constant talk of desire for "innovation" in games is either a minority desire, or is only a half truth. I suspect what people want are new variations on established themes - why else would God of War, the most advanced and expensive scrolling beat-em-up ever made, be oft praised as 'innovative' rather than being considered an especially slick and impressive take on a genre which is almost twenty years old? Why else would Halo often be considered an innovative FPS, rather than a skillfully crafted pinnacle of an already codified form?

I feel truly innovative games should transcend, expand or defy genre, but this in turn may make them harder to sell to the audience at large. It certainly didn't help Ghost Master that it wasn't designed to belong to a particular genre, but that doesn't mean that it should have done - it just means one should be careful straying too far from the genre norms unless you either have marketing on your side, or you don't need to capture too large an audience.

One final note: although I'm certain the delusion was in our heads at the time that we would capture some of the audience of The Sims with Ghost Master, it is now abundantly apparent that this could never have happened (from the perspective of our DGD model, at least; the game doesn't really support Type 4: Participant play) . Still, in an online appearance, Wil Wright said that Ghost Master was the best 'Sims-like' game he'd seen so far, which is a nice complement in anyone's book, although perhaps not the most fitting epitaph to this unusual but commercially doomed game.

Note: We didn't work on the console versions, and I have never played them. This is solely about the original PC version. Thanks for your patience with this excessively long and rambling post which is probably of limited interest to most people.

Comments

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Thank you. I consider post mortems to be one of the single greatest tools available for people starting a game design company.

I'd be interested in seeing a Part Two where you covered the things that went right!

I had never heard of this title, period, prior to reading this site. I don't read print mags (only IGN, Gamespot, and a handful of weblogs) so I wouldn't know about print ads, and I don't watch much TV either. However, I don't remember any buzz at all circulated on any of the websites I have read (nor on any gamer forums,) so certainly the marketing effort was anemic to say the least. It would be really nice if there was some enthusiast website where unique nonclassifiable games like this could be listed or archived or whatever. Knowing as they say is half the battle, and I imagine theres a lot of innovative titles that get released under the radar. With no central depot to find demos/reviews/etc of innovative games, its mighty difficult for gamers to support innovation. It was only thanks to IGN and other sites pimping the hell out of Katamari at E3 reports that I ever heard of it; and thanks to that I bought it almost immediately with no regrets. An industry or enthusiast site that could catalog and report on new innovative titles would be so huge a boon to the indy movement I can't even begin to articulate it here. Some kind of partnership with Steam or the like to enable easy access (since these titles have poor retail circulation; Ghost Master doesn't show up on a search at Gamestop.com's store) would be an asset as well.

"When EA bought Bullfrog, they threw away all its IP because there was nothing in their portfolio with a big enough following to operate at EA's scale."

While the industry doesn't exactly have a mighty juggernaut lobbying group, I wonder if some kind of anti-trust legislation couldn't be introduced to prevent this dormancy. I think copyrights/trademarks have some sort of "due diligence" clause that requires the holder to make an effort to prevent abuses to be entitled to protection; perhaps some sort of equivalent requiring companies to spend $x on a franchise within y years or let the IP ownership revert to the original creator or public domain or whatever. OK I guess that's really doubtful and unlikely, but its something maybe the IGDA should consider.

Thanks for the thanks, Corvus... The trouble with 'what went right' in this particular instance is that I'm not sure how much it will mean to anyone when I ramble on about regearing the plasm mechanic using a custom formula I developed using MathCAD to ensure that the game would never fall into an unplayable local minima... On the other hand, I am thinking about writing it anyway. It's not as if what I've already written isn't fairly obscure and written for a tiny audience. :)

James - this issue of how to propagate awareness of innovative titles that would otherwise fall under the radar is something I've been thinking about for the last couple of days. Your idea of a catalogue site is every bit as good as anything I've come up with so far... fancy running one? :) I expect to post something about this topic some time soon, although I'm not sure I've reached any conclusions yet.

We still have an overwhelming problem in that game fans just don't want to agree as to what constitutes 'innovation' most of the time... Greg Costikyan seems to think Burnout is just Pole Position, for instance (shame on him for his lack of insight in this case, but we all have our blind spots), and it seems no-one agrees about Doom 3 (haven't played it myself, but it doesn't appear to be innovative from what I've heard).

Can gamers agree what constitutes the threshold of innovation?

Out of curiosity, why do you classify Burnout as innovative? I mean, I love the game to death and will be picking it (and We<3Katamari, same release date last I checked) on release. However, I always thought it's innovations were micro- rather than macro- - particularily in the first two games, which were still good racers (the third one, which I greatly enjoy, is fun for very different reasons. BO3 cuts out a lot of the risk/reward elements of dodging traffic from BO2 that made it a good racer, and transforms it into more of a destruction derby.)

I'm also pretty certain that most people view Doom 3 as innovative only from a technological standpoint. Everyone admires Carmack's coding prowess, but I've never seen or heard anyone call the game (and not the engine) itself innovative.

I wouldn't single out Burnout as 'innovative', per se, but I wouldn't (as Costikyan does) condemn it for being the same gameplay as Pole Position... largely because this is a total diservice to the Burnout franchise.

Pole Position is a straight forward arcade racer, and yes, Burnout is also an arcade racer. But the core play in Burnout is driving recklessly in order to build up your boost bar, in order to maintain savagely high speed. This gameplay is completely absent from Pole Position, and I believe originated in the Burnout franchise. Also, Burnout is a total ilinx (vertigo) game, Pole Position is nothing of the kind.

Furthermore, Burnout 2 has the completely innovative Crash Mode which deserves an honourable mention in anyone's book - no idea if they kept it in 3, though.

Basically, I found Costikyan's dismissal of Burnout to be ill informed.

Although the designer of Ghostmaster probably doesnt even check this anymore, I have a couple of questions. One i would like to contact you in reguards to how you could help us at least try to revive ghostmaster. I know the title ghostmaster 2 couldnt be used. Also is it possible for you to in some way assemble your own team and make a "sequel" without calling it ghostmaster. Perhaps something that would somehow point to ghostmaster as a sequel without crossing the legal line? Tell you the truth i didnt know about this game til this year. Even though its old i really do like it. You would easily have a fan base if more people knew about it. My email you can email me at is malcorn2@hotmail.com if you are even interested in talking about ghostmaster at all other then this post.

This is a great and upsetting article: great because it is intelligent and completely true, but upsetting because I am a huge fan of the game and every new hope-killing article I read is just a little more... hope-killing.

Look, I'm a teenaged girl and I love this game. The only other video game I ever play is the Sims 2! This could have a great market if it were re-released.

Is there any chance that the game might be updated and re-released? The basic attributes should be kept the same, and the gameplay should be the same (with only minor tweaks). But perhaps the tasks would be made a bit sleeker, the difficulty issue would be tightened up, and the asthetics modernized a bit. The game would be expanded: more tasks, more levels, more ghosts, and so on. Then, there could be a REAL marketing campaign.

I know I'm being overly hopeful, but one never wants to see the future of their favorite game fizzle out with such finality...

Mike and Keely: first, let me say what a great pleasure it is to know that there are still fans of this game out in the world! Despite its flaws, I'm still really proud of the work everyone did on this game.

It's odd that you both turned up at the same time - where did you hear about the post mortem?

It is not entirely impossible that there *could* be a Ghost Master 2 - but it is highly unlikely. Greg Barnett, who lead this project, retains a half-share of the game's legal rights; if there was funding for a sequel, it might be possible to put together a team and make another game...

The best hope of this happening would be if one of my current or future game projects was a huge hit. If I had a big success to my name, I could potentially get funding to pursue a Ghost Master sequel.

So while I don't want to get your hopes up to high, I'm certainly not going to suggest that there couldn't ever be a Ghost Master 2... It's just not very likely at the moment. :)

Thanks very much for your comments - as a game designer, my job is to make games that people enjoy, and it's great to know that in this respect, at least, Ghost Master was a success.

Best wishes!

PS: I assume you both know that there's a second part to this post mortem which focuses more on the things that went well? :)

I actually got a link to this from www.ghostmaster.net fan site. There was a forum topic that included this link. I was actually starting out looking for a trainer for the all ghosts mod for it. The current trainers doesnt work with all ghosts. Then i came acrossed here and posted even though i wasn't sure if id get a reply since the past post was in 2005. Its great that we did though. I firmly believe that if ghostmaster 2 was in the mainstream market that it would be a success. Especially now that there are better engines to work with (that is if you wouldnt build your own from scratch). Graphics would be excellent in a todays engine. Heck while im at it... would it be a waste of time to make a trainer for the allghosts mod? If not no biggy. Being as it seems like no one will make one i figure i would see if it would be a difficult task for you to. Since what small community there was for it got the shaft on the source code and mod tools... theres really not much anyone else can do. I have thought about posting on different forums where they have a general discussion or a games discussion or something about this game to get more word out. Ghostmaster 2 would be very much appreciated to a fan base that knew the game exsisted.

Mike: I'm afraid I don't have any capacity to make a trainer for the game - I honestly wouldn't know where to begin! I'm afraid there has been little support for the community, alas... Empire disbanded Sick Puppies (the studio) shortly after the game shipped. What community there exists is at the site you mention - ghostmaster.net. If anyone can help you with a trainer, it would be there I'm afraid.

Sorry I can't offer you anything more!

God...I need Ghost Master 2 :D

Quite random, but I just picked up Ghost Master via Steam. And I must not fit in many of the categories, because I found this game far more enjoyable to play than Starcraft, or any of the C&C games. It felt, to me, like playing Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius without needing to worry about 'properly using' every little freakin' square of the map 'just right' to win, and letting me get to the slightly more silly but enjoyable things like sending minions out to do my bidding, go attack this area over here... okay, send these troops over there so they can close the trap when the enemy wanders through while running from the first group, etc.

I will admit it may have helped that I tried replaying Haunting 101 right after beating it, and immediately got the two-pumpkin reward so I got a clue that there was a medal-like system to tinker with eventually. But I will say I already got four friends to buy it over Steam, and three have thanked me for pointing out the game less than a day later.

WolfWings: thank you so much for your comment! I was feeling pretty low about the project when I wrote this post mortem, but it does mean a lot to me that there are players out there who enjoy the game. I'm proud of the work I and the team did on the project, and disappointed we weren't allowed to take what we learned on the first game and make a sequel.

As a game designer, there is no greater success than hearing a player express their enjoyment of your work, so once again, thank you!

At best, try to get the game's demo up on some of the abandonware sites. Since the game has been pretty much discontinued, it should generate word by mouth from people looking for the game. Sites such as Home of the Underdogs would be perfect for this as it is visited by such a large variety of gamers (nostalgic, hardcore, and casual). I wouldn't be suprised if the game made their list of top dogs.

aris: thanks for the suggestion, but I've heard that the game *is* still being distributed - apparently, it's on offer over Steam. Don't know when or how this happened, but at least the game is still out there!

I did not know this and I use steam daily.

Wow! It's very cool to find the blog of the designer of Ghost Master.

I actually found your blog because I was looking for an editor that allow me to cheat and give tons of gold plasma for my ghost upgrades. ;)

Yes! I'm still playing it after three years. I bought the game in 2005. Once in a while, I dust it off and play it through again. It's that good!

Final note, the complexity of orders that you can give your ghosts hints at some deeper level of playing that didn't quite make into the game. Is that true?

I do try to 'beat' each level and get the gold pumpkin, but find the emphasis on quantity (fast time) over quality (really good scares, paranoias, insanity etc), made using more than one or two orders for the ghosts made them counterproductive.

Final thought, how about you start your own company and make a sequel? I'll buy it if you do.

Jeff: thanks for stopping by!

The trainer you were looking for might be available from the official fan site www.ghostmaster.net, or if not someone could point you towards one if you ask in the forums. Searching for "Ghost Master trainer" in a decent search engine might also work (this page, for instance).

I'm thrilled to hear that you're still playing the game after all this time! This was one of my favourite projects to work on, and I'm glad that it has some fans.

The complexity of orders... Well, I'll agree with you that these are more complex than is strictly necessary, but this wasn't because of some deeper level that never made it into the game, but rather an attempt to provide the player with some expressiveness in how they lead the team. I think there was a misjudgement here, as we might have been better served by an ability to take direct control of the haunters.

In my own efforts to secure the triple pumpkins, I do use the orders, though (although it's been a while since I played, so I'm not really certain which orders I used!)

As for a sequel... this isn't on the cards at the moment, I'm afraid, but it I don't want to rule it out. Gregg Barnett, the director of the project, still has a half share of the intellectual property rights (the other half being owned by Empire Interactive), and in principle we could put together a new Ghost Master game (although the team for the original has, sadly, all moved to new pastures). All I can say for now is that there are no plans for a sequel.

Thanks for dropping by! As a game designer, I always appreciate it when players let me know they enjoyed something I helped to make.

Best wishes!

We were talking about Ghost Master over at Shakesville in the latest "Fat Princess" thread. (OK, PaultheSpud and I were talking, but we agreed GM is awesome.) As a 3 pumpkin player, I heave a deep sigh at the thought that will be no sequel, especially since terrorizing those annoying little Sims characters is surprisingly stress relieving. Perhaps in another ten years, technology will be advanced enough to design and download a sequel through gamer websites, regardless of computer platforms or old contract issues. 'Till then, I'm searching ebay for Mac copies of GM.

Thanks for designing such a clever, innovative game. I'm glad you're still gaming for us mortals, and I hope I can find more of your work.

Blue Jean: thanks for your kind words! It's great that there are still players finding and enjoying this game. Although a sequel seems like a remote possibility, it isn't an *impossibility* so let's see what the future might bring... :)

Best wishes!

I'm just repeating what others on here have said... I've just found this postmortem on ghostmaster.net because I went on there to check for add-ons or even news of a sequel.

I've had Ghostmaster for years now and although it's not a constant I continually pop it on every few months, start a brand new game and enjoy going through it again, really with no real aim in mind but to have fun.

Maybe I'm just a little weird in the head but I like games that let me play as "the other side" and this one keeps dragging me back, I only wish the marketing had been on the same level as the programming, if it had been I honestly think right now I might be complimenting you on the programming for Ghostmaster 3 or 4.

I'm sure a sequel would garner some real support but I understand all the limitations holding it back... we can but hope though :D

Andy: thanks for your kind words! I'm always glad to hear there are people who found and enjoyed this game, despite the utter absence of any marketing for it.

Best wishes!

I've been playing Ghost Master for a good 2 years and I've really enjoyed it. I was upset to the fact of there being a minute possibility of a Ghost Master 2.

At the end of the game i've heard there's a level when your actually scaring on the Gravenville express but found out to be a Bonus Scenario calle 'Class of spook 'em high', Now I'm not sure that that is an offical scenario but it is good it happens to be the only level which you can actually use the 'Darkling'

Still i wish that Ghost Master 2 could be created, i am a great fan of it, you've definatly got one costumer of that brilliant game :)

Finn: thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the game!

There was a level called "Murder on the Gravenville Express" intended to be a bonus scenario, but this was (I think) replaced with "Class of Spook 'Em High" - the larger map allowed for more free use of the haunters. The bonus level was released as a Halloween extra.

As for Ghost Master 2... never say never! :) If my reputation as a games designer continues to increase, I could get to the point whereby making a Ghost Master sequel might make it back on the cards. It would not be easy to pursue, but I don't want to rule it out as a possibility!

Best wishes!

I live in the states and remember seeing this game on the shelves years ago, thinking it was a children's game based on the title and the box art, and passing it by.

Years later I picked up a copy for $6 off gog.com and was floored by how excellent this game actually was. Unlike Dungeon Keeper, which turned out to be an incredibly simple RTS with very involved recruitment mechanics, this game delivered on its promise of strategically placing your ghosts around a haunted house before springing the trap on the unsuspecting visitors and sending them screaming into the night.

I particularly liked the way the energy meter made your hauntings play out like in TV or movies. A moan here, a light cutting out there, the weather picks up, slowly building up to crazy telekinetic madness and visions of hideous ghouls. I also liked that it took ghosts a couple seconds to warm up their powers so you couldn't just dump the lot of them on your victims' heads all at once like in Dungeon Keeper.

As for problems with the game, I just have one big one. The thing that keeps me coming back is getting a high score to unlock new powers. Unfortunately freeing trapped ghosts are the biggest part of your score, and since most of them depend on mortals randomly entering the correct room (and not too scared to be curious) it can be incredibly frustrating trying to free them all AND get triple pumpkins. Ironically the best and worst missions in the game take place in the same house: Calamityville horror, where you can't scare the mortals too much and you need them to randomly travel to the correct rooms to discover the hidden bodies, and the poultrygeist, which involves absolutely no puzzles and a gives a big house full of interesting fetters to have a ball in while scaring the bejeezus out of everyone.

Mischief Maker: always glad to hear from a Ghost Master fan!

I wasn't happy with how Calamityville turned out. This was the very first of the scenarios to be scripted, and we learned from this one that it was harder to wrangle the mortals than we originally expected - so we toned this down in later scenarios. Believe it or not, the puzzles in this haunting were much harder during development than they were in the final game!

I confess, I didn't even want the puzzle element to the game - it was forced upon us, allegedly from the publisher. I would have preferred a straight haunting game, and if I ever have the chance to make a sequel this would be my preferred focus.

But I'm surprised to hear Poultrygeist listed as a favourite haunting! I always found this one to be a little frustrating since the child fetter is a little too anarchic for my tastes. I think Weird Seance is my favourite haunting - the puzzles are easily handled and the mortals are a scream to scare! I also have a soft spot for Full Mortal Jacket - lots of enemies, and a location you can really let the headless horseman loose in!

Glad to hear you appreciate the way the mechanics mimic a horror movie - this was always my goal with them, and with the wonderful art the team provided, plus Paul Weir's dynamic music score, the final result was very satisfying indeed.

Thanks for stopping by!

Just wanted to say I really enjoy the Ghost Master game. I originally "downloaded" a copy years ago but never finished it.
Now that its availible on steam, I finally purchased it and finished it!
Great game!
It has a lot of depth that you find the more you play.
I'm now working on the 3 pumpkins ratings on the levels.
I also really enjoy the mod (official mod I belive?) availible that lets you use all ghosts on all levels.

I have a few questions, What is the "Unclean" fear that mortals have? The manual doesn't really explain what kinda powers to use for the differant fears (although most of them are pretty self explainitory).

Another question, to "level" your ghosts to get more order slots, is it the # of scenarios that you play with those ghosts or the length of time that you play with them?

Thanks again!

I got Ghost Masters on sale a couple of years ago and played through it like there was no tomorow. It was the most interesting game I had seen in a long time and got me hooked.

At the time, because I knew it was an oldie, I went in search of part 2 and... oh, well, what to do?

Anyway, I have just finished another replay and wanted to drop by and say there is at least another fan out there ;)

Hi, Chris!

I just wanted to point out that, to my recollection, Majesty beat Ghost Master to market by a year or 2 and also was a game where the player 'lead' the team.

I was wondering if maybe you had any thoughts on why Majesty seems to be a well liked game and Ghost Master an almost unknown when they have a similar game play mechanic.

I'll say this: If, in Ghost Master, one were actually able to design the house ... I think that removing the puzzles in favor of pretty straight forward goals would result in a smash hit, but what do I know?

Majesty 2 will be out soon (finally). If it gets a good response, I suggest you try and drum up some interest in a Ghost Master 2!

Pleef, Firefly, Earnest: Thanks for dropping by to let me know you enjoyed Ghost Master! I do appreciate knowing that the game has found its audience, albeit a little too late. :)

Pleef: "Unclean" is a fear mortals have of dirt, bugs, disease etc. Stench powers like Lingering Smell, Stink, Suspicious Stench, Queasy, Choking Odour and Nausea are the principle ways to get an advantage against mortals with these fears.

Regarding earning more power slots, this is related to the Training Level of the Haunter. Here's what the original design document says:

--------------
Training level
--------------

After each scenario that a haunter spends any amount of time at Plasm Band 1 or higher they gain a number of points of experience equal to (Time Spent at Plasm Band 1+ in Scenario/Total Scenario Time)*6.
That is, 1-6 experience is awarded, one for each 16% of scenario time the haunter was active.

Each haunter has a (private) score of Experience Points, and as these go up, the haunter’s Training Level increases, with a corresponding change in the name of their level of Training.
--------------

So to train ghosts, you have to keep them in the field and supplied with some plasm.

Earnest: I confess, I had not considered a parallel between Majesty and Ghost Master, but I see what you are angling at. Although they share in common the idea of leading, in Ghost Master you actively pick a team (Mission Impossible style), whereas in Majesty you don't so much lead a team as you encourage a pool of freelancers to do your bidding by offering rewards. :)

Our original plans for Ghost Master 2 were to allow players to design their own haunting locations, and to reduce the emphasis on puzzle solving. In fact, I always pushed for a game which didn't depend upon puzzles, but was overruled.

Best wishes!

Stumbled upon this blog from a thread at The Escapist. I do remember this old game and did enjoy it in the days. I see Steam got it on their collection. Might be worth to pick it up for those of you that didn't play it back then. It is a good game, quirky and original with a somewhat dark twist. I read some other reply's saying this game is too easy. If anything, I found the game quite hard back then, but I like to do everything a game got to offer before moving on to the next level. You can probably skip alot of the various sidemissions(unlockable ghosts) and still complete the game. By the way, I think Good Old Games too got this one in their collection. I would recommend this title for anyone, except maybe the constant sugarhigh kid behind the latest Halo or whatnot. It's an overlooked masterpiece in the gaming history, quite artsy even.

Hans: thanks for the kind words! "An overlooked masterpiece" is quite the highest praise I've heard for Ghost Master! :)

I was always surprised that people complained that the game was too easy... I suppose one must really want to struggle against incredible odds (failing along the way) to feel this way about Ghost Master, which is not that easy for most players to complete... and getting triple pumpkins is genuinely challenging!

Best wishes!

Found this while looking for some hints to the bonus scenario. I bought the game when it was released and played it alot, then I lost it while moving and have just bought it again:)
It`s a shame to hear that your team was so unceremoniously dumped, a longer and more polished Ghost Master 2 would have been welcome. Personally I have been looking for a sequel since the first one came out:)

Good luck though with current projects.

Simon: greatly appreciate your comment! It means a lot to me that this game did find its audience, even if the publisher managed to kill the franchise dead. :(

Cheers!

Well the IP will now be owned by someone new as Empire died recently...

Neil: Apparently, New World IP has bought Empire's catalogue of IP, but Gregg maintains a 50% share of the IP, so I'm not sure what the death of Empire means for the intellectual property now...

I too was searching for a sequel to the game when came across this blog. So really sad to hear there isn't one. I'm almost finished and was so hoping to play another. Keeping my fingers crossed!

A few days ago, a friend pick-up a copy for me from Target because he thought it sounded like something I'd like. I do! I've been obsessively playing ever since. Do find the navigation awkward but love all the ghosts and scaring mortals. All and all, it is a great game and wish there were more of this type on the market. I thank you for creating it.

Dresden: Thanks for the kind words! It means a lot to me that this game has found its audience, albeit a little too late. :)

Couple of things to say:
First, I'm another fan of ghost-master. Although it's not the best game I've ever played, it's quite possibly the game I find it hardest to think of any significant flaws in the core gameplay. The interface was mediocre (not terrible), it *was* too short as you say, and it could have done with a better "sandbox" mode that just let you pick a location and have fun in it (though you can do that to some extent via revisits).
I'd like to note that I actually *liked* the puzzles, and think the game would have been poorer without them. I think, though, that optional puzzles, like freeing difficult ghosts, are better than ones that are required to complete the level- that way they don't get too frustrating.

Andrew: I agree there was room for improvement in the interface, but in our defence there were some tricky design problems to be solved in allowing haunting in multi-story buildings. (Has any other game tackled this?) As with so many aspects of this game, a sequel would have helped us clear up these problems.

I totally agree that the absence of a "sandbox" mode was a blunder, and one that I wish we had fixed. And as for the puzzles, it's the puzzles "on the spine" which I wish we hadn't done - having restless spirits that were freed by puzzles but that weren't essential to progress wouldn't have troubled me at all.

Thanks for your comment!

Ahoy there!

Another recent discoverer; you're right, this little beauty truly had no advertising! I'd barely even heard of it until but a few days ago - when I found it on Steam for £1.50 - and I'm pleasantly stunned by it =)

At first I approached it as a game in the vein of Dungeon Keeper 2, Startopia, Evil Genius or even Dwarf Fortress - and the comparison certainly stands.. After a few hours however, the single game it most closely resembled to my experience was the Hitman franchise.

An odd comparison, but the approach of beginning 'innocent', a mere civilian, or ethereal observer, exploring an enviroment in detail, observing fairly deep AI interactions with the enviroment and with one another before making stealthy assaults upon them, speed and awareness encouraged by the diminishing reserve of plasm here, as in hitman by the increasing risk of discovery as your crimes mount up.

You're also bang on in your mentions of failing to name/target a genre - but through no fault of your own. Ghost Master has no genre, deep down. It's certainly strategic, just as the Hitman games are 'shooters' - but neither are adequately framed by these titles.

The closest I could manage would be to describe them as AI Sandboxes. They're playgrounds in which artificial life dances, and we kick them in the shins and spike their drinks to see what it does to that beautiful dance.

We throw explosive powerballs into a giant bucket, a bucket full of dancing polygonal crabs! For the sheer joy of of not knowing where the richochet will take them and who will get pinched!

.. Forgive my metaphors ._.

There is no defined genre for this game - there was not at the time of creation, nor when you wrote this article - and there still isn't today.

I'd guess given your interests and career to date you're familiar with the game 'Dwarf Fortress'? If not, it will suffice for now to say that it shares several of the most important foundations of Ghost Master - you've no direct control or influence upon the characters, they are powered by unpredictable AI possessed of emotion, and in this mad sandpit wonderful things happen; if you let them.

Emergent gameplay, as I believe Will Wright said.. But he didn't make perhaps the most significant point; with sufficient AI simulation, the game starts to make itself. Many of the emotions evoked within and experiences had by the players are entirely new, unanticipated by the creators.

Well, I'm getting more than a little verbose, I'll try to make my points and draw this to a close =)

Your game is a great deal of fun and a true inspiration - A very pleasant surprise, from nowhere. I'm glad to see Steam and GoG giving this game a little bit of life long after it seemed to have disappeared.

Did you ever get a review in PC Gamer UK? If their score was anything like the US review, I'd imagine the game would be on the cards for a re-release in the PC Gamer Presents boxes I see floating around PC World and Maplin. Have you heard anything like this?

I had a look on ihobo as a result of finding this article (.. while googling sadly for tech help with the game, as I'm afraid as much as I'm loving it I experience a hardlock long before I can ever ever beat Weird Seance >.<) .. Ooh, that was inspiring. I've knocked out an email to the contact address saying hello and asking for any words of advice that could be offered to someone inclined to writing and design, without a taste for code or asset production.

In indie-modland, trying to get onboard a decent project without technical skills is a long and difficult journey..

Well, I encourage you to take any opportunities you can to push Ghostmaster for more re-releases, to spread the word of mouth - the graphics engine has not aged significantly (impressive in itself, Sickpuppy were clever buggers) and there's a massive number of players out there I know would absolutely love this game, thousands of desperate Bullfrog lovers praying for another Dungeon Keeper - and they simply haven't heard of it!

And your comment from October last year.. No, never ever say never *smiles* As good as this game is, I do not doubt that you know better than I do that you've only scratched the surface of the potential the concept has - An AI sandbox in which ghosts can play around to achieve their goals can go a lot further than just Suburbia. Consider the direction the latest sims 'sequel' has taken, expanding into a persistant neighborhood. A little freedom of exploration and travel around, blending open world sandbox with AI playground.. That could be entertaining.

*grins* Blast, mental images of Electrical fettered gremlins speeding through underground lines, crackling off a substation and bursting out of my computer screen with a confused look. I'd best stop now before I start writing up a design document on the backs of my arms.

- running for the sake of his sanity, and yours - Jack O'Hare.

Jack: thank for your kind words! I replied to your email that you wrote. Didn't realise this was selling for just £1.50 - what a bargain! :)

I imagine some would find it insulting to see their baby going for so little - but so long after development, I'd think the best outcome now is that as many people get to play it as possible, building a little bit of underground support for a sequel, and generally making people happy - something more important to me than making money.

I'm a bit of a cynic and a lot of an.. anticonsumerist? I hate money - a claim that often makes my older and more experienced friends wince at my naivete - and anticipate a future of scraping by with part time jobs in favour of using my spare time to make games for free on a donation basis. I'll regret the technological limitations a low/nonexistant budget will instil, but do not anticipate regretting the choice. Almost without exception, the best games I've played have been graphically minimal, and most have been independent projects.

I think the only game that has truly hit me hard thanks to a large budget well-spent and the latest graphical tricks would be Shadow of the Colossus..

I was pleasantly surprised by your email - I look forward to replying to it shortly. A pleasure to have met you, Chris =)

Jakk - I'm just glad it's in circulation; £1.50 seems too cheap, though... I feel like £5 is more of a reasonable price, but as I say, at least it's out there! :)

I also hate money, but I like being able to live with a roof over my head and eat food. :D After you've been in the games industry for a decade or so, you get to the point whereby you don't have the luxury to appeal to the "starving indie" aesthetic any more.

Best wishes!

I'm uncomfortably aware that having more needs and responsibilities would be a distinctly good thing for me - that it would wake me up and stimulate my creativity, as long as I could keep it from exhausting me..

.. Nonetheless, knowing I will eventually need the monies makes me keen to enjoy the family home for as long as possible O.O

I feel £10 would be what the game is worth - which is saying more than it seems, as I've never been able to afford games at release-price, growing up poor in South Wales - but £5 would be the more intelligent point to market it at, given the skepticism the game's age would induce in the prospective buyer. Looks like that's the way it's going with GoG and Steam, give or take a few =)

Continuing to enjoy the game a great deal.. Dreading it coming to an end - and expecting I'm very close, having just reached Phantom of the Operating Room (or is it Operation Room?)..

Yes, you're near the end now. :) And as it happens, turns out no-one involved in the game is getting any royalties on it so it doesn't make much difference what they choose to sell it for. :p

You know, I think you hit the nail on the head - unfortunately, most gamers aren't interested in playing something truly innovative and "game-changing" (if you'll pardon the pun).

I for one enjoyed Halo... but not for the reasons that most folks enjoyed it. I loved it because I've been a Bungie fan since their beginning on the Mac... they have always produced solid products - specializing in perfecting what work was already done before them (Pathways into Darkness from Wolfenstein, the Marathon games from Doom and Quake, Legend of the Minotaur from Ultima and games like it). It's for this very reason that I have really strongly disliked the various sequels and spin-offs from Halo since its original release. It's not fresh or innovative anymore... it's the same old experience in new packaging - boooorrriinnngg!

I did not, however, enjoy God of War. I don't like the 'beat-em-up' as a rule and God of War was no different. Try as you might, you can't mask button-mashing with mandated combo memorization and epic plotline. It's still button mashing and it still feels remarkably abstracted from what is actually happening on screen... there's no connection made between gamer and game when playing one of these - that's my experience anyway.

I wonder now how things would be different - what with PSN and XBLA playing host to a bevy of innovative and new game designs that are actually selling quite well. Particularly, I am thinking of Flower and Echochrome on the PSN. Those games defy categorization and yet have received much press. I really enjoy both of them and find them to be a refreshing break from the tired old "press this button to attack, press that button to jump" model of gameplay.

I find myself wondering if the face of gaming has truly changed a bit since the writing of this article? Brutal Legend is about to be released and it has received a boat-load of press... especially compared to it's predecessor, Psychonauts (a fantastic but misunderstood game itself). I don't know whether that change is because of an industry that has learned its lessons, or if it is because of the increased importance of the web as a marketing tool and strategy... but as a consumer and software programmer, I do sense a definite change.

Finally, I wish to complement you on the excellent work you did on Ghost Master - although it may never see a sequel... it was, and is, a fantastic game. Of course there were bits and pieces that could have been ironed out with more development time and a bigger budget as you mentioned in your post mortem... but the same holds true for most medium budget game titles. The fact that you delivered a compelling, creative, and enjoyable gameplay experience is enough of a reason for me to keep coming back and replaying Ghost Master over and over again. I tip my hat to you!

Andy: firstly, many thanks for your kind words about Ghost Master. This game has a special place in my heart, and it means a lot to me that it has a fanbase, no matter how small or scattered! :)

Regarding console downloaded games, I think it would be a mistake to assume that these games are selling quite well... it is not my impression that this is the case. If the downloaded content was selling well, why would Rockstar feel the need to release the GTA DLC as a box product? This speaks to me of lower-than-anticipated sales over the console download services.

Its easy to mistake critical acclaim for commercial success... the games that journalists talk about aren't necessarily enjoying commercial success proportional to the volume of mention a game receives. To my knowledge, no game has sold seven figures over a console download service yet, although some have certainly racked up six figure sales (e.g. 100,000). Meanwhile, the top boxed products can sell *eight figures* (tens of millions).

I think these days I might be too close to the sales figures, though. Even if Flower only sold 100,000 (and I don't know that it did) I imagine on its development budget this would still be in profit, and this is what is important pragmatically - because if a company can't at least make games that break even, it will go under. We need innovative developers to survive, and make more innovative games, or videogames will become very stale indeed.

Thanks once again for the tip of your hat! :)

Excellent post mortem. I had long before wondered why such a wonderful game went unheard of. (In fact, trying to find out was how I found your blog)


I am a novice game developer, working in a team of two, and I was wondering if you had any advice to us rookies.
Currently we're developing games for phones, but we were planning to move on to PC games later.
Is there any typical pitfalls we should avoid? Should we focus on gathering a larger development team in general? Any advice you could give would be most helpful. :)

Email: redmattis@gmail.com

Remattis: I'll leave my comment here, and forward it to you by email as well.

Firstly, thanks for the kind words about Ghost Master; I say this often, but it does mean a lot to me that this game has been enjoyed.

Going into game development can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a hard-going road. The first thing I would suggest is *not* to focus on gathering a larger development team. Try and find your feet with the smallest team you can. You will not find money easy to come by at first (or ever!) and the more of you there are, the thinner the money will have to be spread.

Focus on making games as *small* as you can to begin with - this will not only prevent you wasting too much time in projects which later turn out to generate little income, but also it will get you into good working habits. Once you can produce small games promptly, you can consider tackling larger projects. A lot of indies wade in on a giant project, and consequently never complete it.

Lastly, get in contact with other indie developers and talk to them! A good port of call is the IGDA's indie Special Interest Group. You will be able to get a lot of good advice from other people treading the same road.

Best of luck!

Chris.

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