The year was 1999. The studio: Melbourne House. The dream: simple. Make a Mad Max game. Make a Mad Max game in Australia. Make the kind of Mad Max game Australians could be proud of.
That dream never came to pass. But for three short months a small team of Australian developers gave it their best shot.
This is the story of the Mad Max that never was.
It's a story about a dog, a girl and an abandoned oil rig in the middle of the desert. It's a story about a man who eats other men. It's a story about accidentally telling George Miller Beyond The Thunderdome sucked. It’s a story that started with a man named Bruno.
No-one really knows why Bruno Bonnell bought Melbourne House.
Some suggest it was the historical significance of it all.
Melbourne House was an Australian studio with a long and storied reputation. Established in 1980, Melbourne House’s first video game was The Hobbit, a text adventure released in 1982 that went on to be one of the most successful of its time. Later came Hungry Horace and the seminal Way of the Exploding Fist. Once upon a time Melbourne House was one of the best games development studios in the entire world.
Others believe Bruno Bonnell was merely interested in the raw expertise. Even in the late 90s Melbourne House was capable of great things. They were well on their way to developing a reputation for building 3D racing games in a time when 3D racing games were very much in vogue. Melbourne House was stacked with talent.
These are good reasons for buying a studio, but Mark Morrison has a different theory. He believes Bruno Bonnell bought Melbourne House because he really, really wanted to make a Mad Max game.
In 1999 Bruno Bonnell was the CEO of Infogrames, a gaming powerhouse that purchased Melbourne House on the absolute brink of closure. In 1999 Mark Morrison was a designer at that studio, a man proud of the fact he squeezed three typos into the name of DETHKARZ, the last game he worked on.
Back then Melbourne House was working on a number of projects, including a sequel to DETHKARZ, but that changed, almost overnight.
Mark remembers the first meeting between Melbourne House and Bonnell.
"We gave a presentation of all the games we were working on to Bruno Bonnell who was the CEO," he remembers. "He said, 'wow, these are all fantastic. Stop working on them right now!'"
A shock for all in attendance, but Bruno Bonnell had a different plan. Bruno Bonnell wanted Melbourne House to start work on a Mad Max video game. ASAP.
"Bruno really wanted a Mad Max game. His thought process was, 'you're Australian. You've just done DETHKARZ. You guys are perfect. Start right now.'"
One small problem: Melbourne House didn't have the license to make a Mad Max game.
It was a running joke at the time. So many studios had called asking for the Mad Max video game license that Kennedy Miller Mitchell considered hiring someone just to pick up the phone and say "no" for eight hours a day. Some say Mad Max director George Miller was so burned by an early Mad Max video game, released on the NES in 1990, that he was reluctant to take the plunge all over again. In 1999 a Mad Max video game was a tough sell.
So despite its pedigree and its storied history with licenses, when Melbourne House came calling for the Mad Max license the answer, like the others, was a resounding no.
Bruno Bonnell wasn't to be dissuaded. His glass half full response: start making the game anyway. Hopefully at some point, George Miller would change his mind.
The plan of attack was simple: Infogrames would fund three months of pre-production. A small team would create a Mad Max pitch so compelling George Miller couldn't ignore it. They'd immerse themselves in the Mad Max universe, they'd start building and hopefully, by the end of those three months, create something capable of convincing George Miller to take a chance on an Australian-made Mad Max video game.
Mark Morrison was one of the few people selected for the project, but he wanted everyone involved.
His idea: take everyone from Melbourne House. Everyone. Take them to a hotel and split them into random teams for brainstorming sessions: character ideas, location ideas, story ideas — any kind of idea. Nothing was off limits. All bets were off.
Mark believed it would help the entire studio to get invested in the success of the pitch.
"It was really nice to have the whole team brainstorm the game because everyone follows the development process like… 'oh that's my bit!'"
The best idea from that series of brainstorms: a high concept for one section of the game.
Mad Max would be wandering in the wasteland. He would stumble across an oil rig. In the desert. What the hell happened to the ocean, the players asks himself? Am I standing in the middle of what used to be a massive body of water? Shock. Horror. Revelation!
We spoke to multiple people involved in Mad Max. The details of the production are lost to some, but everyone remembers the oil rig.
"The one thing that sticks with me," remembers Craig Duturbure, "was that oil platform. Because the ocean had dried up it was in the middle of the desert. It was a kilometre high and all these nasty people lived at the top. You had to try and climb this massive structure.
"I'm still upset we never got the chance to make it."
Craig Duturbure was another designer assigned to the Mad Max project.
"I worked on how the level would flow; how the story would flow."
A focus of the team was familiarity and authenticity. Everyone was well versed in the lore and universe of Mad Max, they wanted to create a video game space that paid homage to the original movies. This meant returning to old characters, old places.
"Our game was set after the Thunderdome," explains Craig. "We tried to pull in as much of the stuff from previous films as possible."
The high concept: years after Beyond the Thunderdome, Max is once again a broken man. He has nothing left, nothing to live for. He rescues a young girl from certain death at the hands of villains.
"The girl was roughly the same age as his son who was killed in the original Mad Max and had the same name as his wife," says Craig. "It triggered something in his mind and he started giving a shit again."
It was to be called Mad Max: Asylum ("I was really excited about the name," says Craig).
It would take Max back to the Thunderdome, which was now abandoned and decrepit. He would meet with the infamous Feral Kid character from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In that movie he was a strange child lopping off fingers with a boomerang. Years later, in the game, he was to be the 18 year old leader of a new group in the wastelands.
Also, of course, Mad Max himself was going to have a dog.
"I realise dogs are kind of fashionable and cliche now," laughs Craig. "But we were going to have a dog back in 1999.
"It was a blue heeler dog who would react when Max was talking to someone. The idea was that Max wouldn't give a shit what happened to him, but he would care about the dog. Heart of gold!"
The villain: a cannibal who initially ate to stave off starvation in the wasteland but soon acquired a taste for human flesh. His catchphrase: "TIME TO EAT". The idea: this villain believed he could acquire the gifts of different humans by eating the corresponding body part. If he ate the legs of someone quick, for example, he'd be able to run faster.
Then of course, there was the Interceptor.
It was important to the team that they do justice to one of cinema's most notorious vehicles.
Driving in Mad Max: Asylum was to be important. It made sense — Melbourne House's very first 3D release was a racing game and they'd built a high level of expertise in that area. Mad Max as a movie series was well known for its memorable car chases. Little did they know that George Miller's next Mad Max movie would centre around what was essentially a 90 minute car chase.
David Giles was the lead producer on the Mad Max: Asylum project. He insisted the team pay close attention to the Interceptor. He figured it might be key in any eventual pitch made to George Miller and his production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell.
"I remember at the time David Giles particularly wanted a shot where the camera would start at the grill of the car then go underneath," says Morrison. "He wanted to show that we could put cameras where no real life cameras could go."
In a desperate search for intricate details on how the Interceptor looked, drove and functioned, many members of the team found themselves studying a fiercely exhaustive fansite run by a lone Australian.
His site was loaded with an incredible amount of detail on all things Mad Max, and paid particularly close attention to the vehicles themselves.
Craig Duturbure refers to him as a Mad Max "superfan".
"We hit up his website so much that he figured it out someone must be making a game," Craig remembers. "He recognised that people from Melbourne House and Infogrames were hitting up his site all the time so he called us up.
"He was like, oh are you guys making a game?"
The team didn't panic. They didn't back away quietly. They did the sensible thing. They hired the guy.
"We got him on as a consultant," laughs Craig.
"He was just obsessed. He'd gone out to the original locations where the original movies were shot. He had all this info about the cars."
Most importantly, he knew absolutely everything there was to know about the Interceptor.
No-one really remembers how, but a meeting with George Miller was secured. Mark Morrison suspects that Adam Lancman, the longtime Financial Director of Melbourne House was behind it. He had a knack for that kind of thing. Tragically, Adam Lancman died in March 2005 at the age of 46, so we might never know precisely how George Miller was convinced to abandon his previous issues with video game studios and take the meeting.
But a large factor would have to be the timing.
16 years later, post the movie's release, it's difficult to believe but George Miller was already in pre-production for the movie that would eventually become Mad Max: Fury Road in 1999. Fury Road would be delayed, recast and reinvented a number of times in the years to come, but at that point George Miller was already thinking about the possibility of a video game developed in tandem with the movie.
"Transmedia was in fashion then," explains Mark.
Mark Morrison, alongside project lead David Giles, was one of the few members of the team who attended the meeting with George Miller.
"All they said about the movie was, 'we think it would be really suited to a video game'. They were talking about it as a parallel development."
The team at Melbourne House came armed with a trailer, a set of animations and a folder full of concept art. At that point there was also an early playable demo, featuring the Interceptor and a desert environment.
Prior to the meeting it was difficult to judge precisely how George Miller would react to the pitch, given his reputation for shutting down discourse around a Mad Max video game, but the team were surprised to find Miller 100% responsive to their ideas, and remarkably well informed on what it took to make a video game in 1999.
"He was just so sharp," remembers Mark. "'Who made that animation for you?' 'How did you make that?'" Just great questions.
"He asked questions about everything. It became apparent during the day that he wasn't a filmmaker who had no idea how to make a video game."
There was a distinct feeling that Miller and his team had either done a fair amount of research in preparation for this meeting, or were already in the process of thinking about video games and how that medium could be applied to the Mad Max universe.
"It was one of those meetings," explains Mark, "where they got as good as they gave."
There was only one awkward moment.
In addition to all the concept art, Mark Morrison brought along a humongous 500-page design document to the meeting. The team brought along everything they'd been working on, to show how serious they were about the project.
When George Miller saw the design document his eyes lit up.
"Oh, can I have a look at that?" He asked.
"Of course," replied Mark, and slid the binder across the table.
He opened the gargantuan document. The first page he landed on: a three page list of bullet points, written by Mark Morrison himself, headed "Why Mad Max Beyond The Thunderdome Sucks".
"I was like, whoops," laughs Mark.
"He just smiled very kindly at me and said, 'don't worry, I know its failings more than anybody.'
"He was a lovely man."
"The meeting ended with George saying 'that's very interesting, we'll be in touch'," says Mark Morrison.
And that was that.
The team were buoyed by Miller's positive response to the Mad Max pitch, but tempered their expectations. Melbourne House had done numerous pitches just like this, and had a number of projects cancelled. As a studio they were used to having the rug pulled from under.
"I remember coming out feeling as though we had had a great chat," remembers David Giles.
"My feeling was that he really enjoyed all of the ideas and what we had put together but I think we were years too early."
Sadly, for Melbourne House, David's gut feeling was accurate. They received a callback with the bad news: George Miller did not want to go ahead with Mad Max: Asylum.
The reaction at the studio was a mixed one. Some, like Mark, were fairly philosophical. The project was never a sure thing, to begin with. The team gave it their best shot.
David Giles felt the same way.
"To be honest we did lots of pitches with most of them not going anywhere. We gave this one 110 per cent, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath."
Craig Duturbure took it a little harder.
"It was miserable," he says.
"When we had to take down all the concept art from the wall, it was like taking down balloons for a birthday party that never actually happened.
"In this industry you try not to get too excited because projects do fail, but that one was personal. It was going to be really cool and Australian and stuff. We had to shelve all that work."
Last year Mark Morrison saw Mad Max: Fury Road. He loved it. It's a movie that video games could learn from, he believes.
It was a little strange watching a movie he'd known about for 16 years, but he's not bitter. Not at all.
"We gave it a red hot go."