In Real Life

Wreck-It Ralph And The Tail That Wagged The Dog

Wreck-It Ralph is a movie. A movie based on a fictional game. Now? It’s a real game. A game driven by the involvement of Jim Molinets, a video game developer who not only helped design and build a game-based-on-a-movie-about-a-game, but also helped shape the movie itself. In many ways Wreck-It Ralph the movie and Wreck-It Ralph the game are inseparable from one another. This is what happens when the tail wags the dog.

Wreck-It Ralph’s history is imagined. But it exists.

It’s representative of a movement, a transition. The generation that grew up knowing nothing but video games are now old enough to feel nostalgia and we’ve seized that impulse and run with it. 8-bit ties, modern games with retro aesthetics, jewellery, t-shirts, tv shows, jokes that were once funny but now twinge silently in the pit of our stomachs. That’s what Wreck-It Ralph is, that’s what it has become.

Disney built an arcade machine. When the folks that suggest such things suggested building a fully functioning replica of Wreck-It Ralph’s Director Rich Moore was adamant it be done correctly. They hired coders, they put an actual green board in. It was as though Wreck-It Ralph had always been.

But before that Disney built a game.

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The movie was Rich Moore’s problem — he was the director, it was his baby — but even he knew he needed help. Rich Moore had directed episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama — including the video game inspired ‘Anthology of Interest’ episode — but he wanted to surround himself with smart people who understood games.

Moore had been bandying the idea of a ‘Game Central’, and the concept that playing the hero or a villain in a video game could just be a day job. What would be the consequences of that? At Disney the movie was once called High Score, and had little to no connection with the nostalgia and pining gamers now, as adults, have for their gaming pasts.

But it was merely a skeleton, and it was Rich Moore’s job to fill in the cracks. One of the first people he spoke to, early in production, was a game designer. That man was Jim Molinets.

“I’ve been in the games industry for a long time,” says Jim, “about 24 years and the ironic truth is I felt as though we were trailing in terms of our ability to lead, to be the tail that wagged the dog.”

Jim Molinets has been around for a while. Managing Mobile Games Glendale is his current day job, but in another lifetime Jim spent four years developing video games around major Disney properties such as Toy Story 2 and Cars. He also has Quake II and Motorstorm in his credits.

Jim had been in the video games industry for a long time, and he understood Disney. Naturally he was the man to call.
Over five years ago, Jim was invited to an early production meeting for the movie that would become Wreck-It Ralph.

“Very early on in the movie’s development the producers said to us, hey we’re thinking about making a film about video games, could you guys come over and maybe consult for us about making games and how you do that.”

Jim heard the pitch. He nodded enthusiastically. At the end of the meeting he said: “you guys can’t not make a video game around this. How can we make this work?”

Now the game was Jim Molinets’ problem.

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“I said we have to work together on this.”

Wreck-It Ralph the movie and Wreck-It Ralph the video game were, technically, separate problems but in many ways they were intertwined. For the next five years Jim Molinets worked as a consultant on Wreck-It Ralph, not because Director Rich Moore didn’t understand games — he did — but because the production team wanted the expertise that 20 years in the games industry gives you. Jim wasn’t a bystander or a consumer, he was directly involved in the business of making games for a very, very long time.

“‘Insider information’ was a phrase they used a lot,” explained Jim.

“The involvement from my perspective was more about, ‘hey you guys have been in the video game industry for a long time, what do you do when you make a game, what are the important things you want to convey?’”

To an extent, it was the little things. Jim’s initial background was in first person shooters, so many of the gags in the movie — the rocket jumping, the character name ‘First Person Shooter’ — a lot of those ideas came from these initial meetings. Jim brought many of the raw ideas gleaned from decades of experience in the games industry, and Rich Moore and his crew refined it into something fit for movie consumption.

“It’s just really cool what they did with it,” says Jim. “They managed to spin the things we thought were important into something on screen, and they picked some of it up. I mean Richard is huge gamer. He knows games backwards and forwards. He’s really done a great job of immersing himself in that. He had a lot of great ideas himself on what it was he wanted to see, and how he wanted the world to be perceived.”

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Rich Moore is a game designer. He has to be.

Wreck-It Ralph is the story of a man whose job is so repetitive, so banal, that he wants to switch things up. He wants to be a ‘good guy’. In order for that to make sense as a narrative, the game Ralph is trapped in has to be repetitive. Wreck-It Ralph the movie has the same problem most games have — the narrative has to be driven by its mechanics and vice versa.

In short: the game Jim Molinets was building for Wreck-It Ralph was a little more important than your regular licensed Disney game. His decisions, in a sense would impact not just the licensed game he was building, but the movie itself — there existed this dynamic tug and pull between two different mediums. Essentially Molinets was creating a fictional game for a movie, then actually building that game in real life.

“Rich Moore, from the beginning, had a real ballpark idea of how he wanted the game to be,” explains Jim. “He always knew it had to be reverential to one of the older games. He knew what kind of look he wanted it to have. He definitely wanted it to be 8-bit, he wanted it to have that idea of the stages, the insinuation of infinite play was really important for Ralph, doing what he did.”

The process of it, deciding exactly how the game would play, both in the movie and in reality, was an interesting one. The game couldn’t be a direct clone of something that came before it, but it had to pay homage to the games that came before it. Wreck-It Ralph has a lot in common with, say, the original Donkey Kong, but it also brings in elements of games like Rampage and multiple other titles. Creating Wreck-It Ralph was a delicate balancing act.

“We spent a lot of time trying to find a solution to those problems,” admits Jim. “Games evolve over time they’re so complex. Going back to something more simplistic was really interesting both from a film makers side and a game design perspective. We realised we couldn’t just make an 8-bit clone of something, we actually have to make it so that people playing today can relate to it.

“Mostly it was about us executing Rich’s initial vision, bringing the kind of spin to things that we bring as game designers.”

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It’s an interesting bait and switch. In the movie Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy, but he wants to do the impossible — he wants to switch jobs.

And that’s almost what Jim Molinets and Rich Moore did, just for a second. In Rich we have a Director who had to think like a Game Designer; in Jim we have a game designer pitching ideas to a movie studio.

But Jim and Rich aren’t enemies. Above all, they have video games in common.

“Rich is such a big gamer,” says Jim, “we start off pretty much every conversation just talking about the kind of games we love.”

” But just to give an idea of how important it was for him to stay legitimate — I know you’ve probably seen the Fix-it Felix arcade cabinets? The actual arcade cabinet? What he said was, if we’re going to do this we’re going to do it right. Not just from a film perspective or from an app perspective. For the game cabinet they went out and hired actual coders to put a green board in the cabinet. It’s totally legitimate experience.

“It’s as if it was built in 1982.”