If you grew up in the 1990s or were at all privy to the intersection of sports and pop culture during that decade, you were probably exposed to the NBA's marketing strategy of connecting generations of fans to the game of basketball through multimedia. Between Space Jam and Kazaam on the silver screen, NBA Inside Stuff on TV, then NBA Jam and Barkley Shut Up and Jam!, there was no escaping the Association—especially if you were a kid.
It's within this milieu that Brian and Liam Raum came in contact with the NBA and its myriad off-court oddities. The two brothers founded Tales of Game's Studios after releasing their first "masterpiece," Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. Not long after its release in January 2008, the game became an Internet cult classic.
And, like any strong opening act, the Raums' Barkley game will soon have a sequel, on which ToG is currently hard at work after a successful Kickstarter campaign in December 2012. Brian and Liam recently took time out of their busy lives as budding game developers to talk about their odes to the Round Mound of Rebound, their love of "sci-fi basketball" and more.
Bleacher Report: Did that love for bad games have anything to do with you guys making games?
Liam Raum: It’s sort of a necessity, I guess, because your first game is going to be bad, regardless. No matter what your ideas are, it’s going to suck. I guess you sort of have to embrace it being so bad. I guess that’s what the beauty of Barkley is, is that it totally owns its own atrociousness.
B/R: What was the inspiration behind making the first Barkley game?
Liam: Eric pretty much just asked me if I wanted to help. I mean, “Barkley, Shut Up and Jam” is just a great title. It’s commanding you to shut up and jam. Adding “Gaiden” to the end is like a video game “thing,” and I think we were just messing around, pretty much. He made the first couple rooms of it and said, “Hey, do you want to help me with it?” and I said “Sure.” Started writing people and making maps and stuff and it just kind of continued from there.
I’ve made all sorts of little games that never got past like 15 minutes of playability, so going into this one was never really the thought of finishing it, but I think it was just easy and fun to make, so we did?
B/R: How long of a game is it? How long does it take to play through?
Liam: Five to seven hours, depending on what you do. There isn’t that much extra exploration, but there is quite a bit of text to read from different NPC characters that you can go and talk to. If you explored everything and you went nice and slow and fought all the enemies, it could possibly take you seven, but probably around five.
B/R: So the Barkley thing was more the result of Shut Up and Jam, or did you guys have a particular affinity for Barkley?
Liam: I had no connection, but Barkley was like, they’re all kind of characters. I didn’t like Michael Jordan, but I liked Barkley, so there was part of that. He was a funny character, I guess, but there’s always been...I don’t even know if necessarily Barkley spawned any of it. It just sort of cemented it. Like, Barkley vs. Godzilla, just how weird Space Jam was from the very beginning, and all those games. NBA Jam, like every kid played NBA Jam ad nauseam, like every day. You played it and you got all those codes, like Big Head mode and all that stuff.
Brian Laum: Everything lights on fire and all those weird, bad things like “(Michael Jordan:) Chaos in the Windy City”...like, it’s almost basketball stuff...
Liam: It’s just sort of like we said, “Well, what if all these things are serious?” Like all of this weird undercurrent of “sci-fi basketball,” like Shaq Fu and all that. It’s all out there. Things like these are very novel. I just think that everybody sort of had it in the back of their mind that basketball or just the marketing of basketball to kids is such a bizarre...like making basketball extreme and cool, especially in the '90s, when it was not like...it’s far from what it is now. Like I remember basketball being sort of like...
Liam: Yeah, like “Eat your chicken nuggets so you can do good in school.”
Brian: That, first of all, doesn’t make any sense, but it was commercial and cheesy.
Liam: It’s like what we were talking about the other day with extreme trapper keepers. The “No Fear” trapper keepers. Just like, “Hey kids, school and basketball and everything.” I don’t know. I guess I don’t really have my mind stuck in that time. I have no idea how a 12-year-old thinks about basketball, how he analyzes who LeBron James is or something like that. But to me, it was always very odd. Like the Dream Team and stuff was always just this weird...sort of separated from what we were really experiencing.
I don’t know if you heard about Space Jam 2...
B/R: Yeah, I did. Were you guys disappointed when you found out that it wasn’t actually going to be a thing?
Liam: No, I think we are...well, there was a Twitter upheaval about it. I don’t know how deep you got into the Barkley thing, but we have a whole thing about canon, which we don’t know if we actually enjoy [laughs]. We’re saying it’s all true, like Space Jam is true, Chaos in the Windy City is true, Shaq Fu is true. Essentially, everyone asked us if Space Jam 2 happens, will it be part of the Barkley canon? Like, will it be part of the whole thing? Because it would essentially disrupt everything.
Brian: You can’t say no.
Liam: We sort of said that it is part of like a bridge in canon, but we use the term “dark canon,” the other part of the canon that, at every answer, spawns both the canon and the reaction creates pretty much the opposite, like an interdimensional thing, which is all just pieces of this nonsensical basketball world where it commands everything in the universe. I don’t know if it necessarily is a good thing or a bad thing, but whether it happens or doesn’t happen, it’ll definitely work its way into the story.
B/R: So the world in the Barkley games is molded around all these other “sci-fi basketball” movies and games, that you portray them as real events in this world you created?
Brian: Yeah, it assumes that Space Jam is real and happened in our world in the future. I don’t know if there was any repeated Space Jam viewing while we were trying to make the game.
Liam: There were Monstars, so we were just going to add them in. But really, yeah, it’s just the idea that...the whole Shaq Fu thing is avoided, but most of the things are in there in some way or another.
The biggest thing, which is not part of any other basketball story, is Barkley becoming the ultimate baller and performing the “chaos dunk,” which is the dunk that destroys New York, and that starts everything.
B/R: What was the reception to the first Barkley game like? What was the feedback you got? How many downloads?
Brian: Good. I don’t know how many people downloaded it, actually. We just put it out there. I know whoever’s server we put it on first, it was a buddy of ours, it got overwhelmed. At first we made a demo, and people thought the demo was kind of funny.
It was about a year later before the actual game came out. But the guy’s server went down and we put it up at a bunch of other places after that, and then there was a while where I don’t even think we were actually hosting it. It just kind of existed out there for a while, so I’m not sure how many people actually downloaded it, but, I mean, I would assume, I don’t know, in the thousands? Over 10?
B/R: What was your reaction when you saw how the game was being received by the Internet at large?
Brian: It was cool. I didn’t really...it was really just made for like people that we knew. It was a chance to put a bunch of weird s--t in a game and have people play it and it actually be completed and playable and sort of fun, so while it was weird...and I would Google search everything to see, like, what do people think, but until we actually ran the Kickstarter, I didn’t realize how popular it still was. That’s the weirdest thing, not that it was popular at the time, but that it persisted in people’s minds, I guess, and to give us money later, I guess.
Liam: It also spawned another odd sort of meme thing with mashing up the Space Jam song with other songs. If you go on YouTube and you say “Space Jam” and then just add in something, like say “Gangnam Style,” there’s so many, SOOOO many songs, and they all have some sort of image of...so, it’s Space Jam mixed with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and instead of Kurt Cobain playing the guitar, it’s Kurt Cobain’s body with Charles Barkley’s face posed playing the guitar. There’s thousands of those. Without ever really searching for them, you’d have no idea, but once you start to search for them, you start to see the views, and the views are like hundreds of thousands.
Brian: Stuff like that is sometimes kind of freaky.
Liam: Yeah, it gets a little weird. Also, the other thing is Tales of Game’s sort of has this...we like to present ourselves as if we’re this dastardly corporation that’s much, much larger than the three people that we are. A lot of it, even if we hear that something’s well-received or something like that, we sort of sabotage it in some way by officially releasing our corporate stance on the matter and things like that, so it all just sort of blends into one big joke.
B/R: Did you guys make any money off that “joke,” as you call it?
Liam: Well, the Kickstarter for Barkley 2 made $120,000, but Barkley 1 was free because it’s all stolen stuff. It’s all ripped…
Brian: There’s a Russian website that was selling it, so yeah [laughs].
Liam: Some Russian company took the game and just sold it for $10. We would for sure get sued if we tried to sell Barkley 1. All the graphics in it are ripped from other games.
B/R: Does Charles Barkley himself know about any of this?
Liam: A lot of people ask. We’ve heard yes. I actually used to do TV shows and there was a moment where Emeril Lagasse, the chef, who’s a friend of Charles Barkley, actually had him on the phone and he was aware of the game—Emeril was. I don’t exactly know if there was a discussion between the two about it. I sort of doubt it. But that was like as close as I think it ever got to him, through Emeril Lagasse. I’m going to assume that he knows something, but we have never really talked to him at all about it.
B/R: Do you know if any of the other NBA personalities from Barkley 1 know that they’re in it?
Liam: We don’t know, but someone could, like...we’ve had no real connection to it, in a way, that someone would care. For the new game that we’re working on, we actually sort of drew a line and are avoiding actually naming NBA players and things like that. Basketball’s still a very prevalent part of the story, but obviously, we are a small group of neophytes, and we’re not going to start treading water with the Players Association and stuff like that. So if any of the NBA players know, especially like...I’m going to guess that Larry Bird doesn’t know and doesn’t care that he’s the priest in Barkley 1. Vince Carter maybe knows that he’s the cyborg. It’s possible.
There’s also guys in the NBA now, I’m guessing, that were—what?—14 at the time that the game came out, so maybe they had heard of it because they were on the Internet playing video games at 14 and looking up basketball games that they could play, so there could be NBA players that’ve actually played Barkley and know about it. We’re slightly removed from it. For a few different reasons, we just kind of leave it at that. If it approaches us and somebody lets us know that some player knows about us, that’s really cool, but we’re also just kind of laying low [laughs], just in case Barkley really doesn’t like it.
B/R: So you said you’ve removed any mention of actual players from Barkley 2?
Liam: For the start of the concept...the game actually was conceived at the same time that Barkley 1 was. It’s just sort of coincidence almost that story sort of takes a very different direction that there’s not actually any direct reference to all these different guys or girls; there’s WNBA players as well. First of all, this game is a lot easier to sort of...we don’t have to worry about that because we’re not naming them directly. It’s the classic, your player has amnesia [laughs].
Brian: It happens a lot.
Liam: Yes, so we might as well use it. The game’s very, very cliche, but we embrace it. So yeah, we kind of actually avoid naming players specifically. Now, if we had the ability to, we totally would, but I think the likenesses are all controlled by the Players Association.
Brian: Unless someone didn’t sign the contract.
Liam: Like one guy, like the Barry Bonds of basketball. I’m sure there’s one. When Barry Bonds was in all the baseball games, his name was like Larry something else because he was not part of the (MLB) Players Association where everybody else was.
B/R: What was the reasoning behind the switch in game play from JRPG-style in Barkley 1 to more real-time combat in Barkley 2?
Brian: Like Liam said, we came up with it at the same time, almost a little before we made the first game, like really started working on it. It was kind of tied to an old idea we’d had. In 2007, there was definitely going to be this sequel, even if we put out the first game and five years passed and it didn’t make it. This has always been the idea.
But it’s really mostly about one character and we just thought it would be a little more entertaining, I guess, to have you actually be able to control the person and run around rather than just have single-player, turn-based battles because they can be kind of boring.
But I think the thing that caused it...we got into the thought of you using all kinds of crazy weapons and stuff, which would be kind of boring if you couldn’t actually shoot them in real time and aim them and stuff. That may be the biggest reason for it being action-oriented more than anything else.
B/R: Do you guys have a particular timetable for when Barkley 2 will be out?
(Editor's note: The full title for Barkley 2 is "The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 - Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie - Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.")
Liam: We’d love to get it out this year and we’re sticking with it. We just sent out an update to our backers that says, “Hey! As the ball drops…” [laughs]. We’re really rushing to get it done, but at the same time, trying to keep the quality up. Hopefully, this year.
B/R: Were you guys surprised by the outpouring of support for Barkley 2 via Kickstarter? You guys started out asking for $35,000 and ended up bringing in more than $120,000.
Brian: Yeah, it was very surprising.
Liam: Yeah, it was ridiculous. We thought 35 was going to get us right to the end. We sort of said, “You know what? F--k it. 35. Let’s just see if it works.” One of our group of guys was saying, “Oh, you’re going to raise over $100,000. Barkley’s huge. You guys don’t even know.” We sort of entertained the idea in the back of our minds, but we didn’t know. We never really said, “Oh, this is going to happen.”
B/R: You said you’ve tried to steer clear of Shaq Fu and Kazaam. Could there be any Shaq-related cameos in the future?
Liam: There’s Kazaam. Yeah, I forgot there was Kazaam. There’s Kazaam in Barkley. I heard that he announced Shaq Fu, that there is a new Shaq Fu. At CES or something like that, he said “Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s a new Shaq Fu” or that he’s working on it.
B/R: Because the first one deserved a sequel, right?
Liam: The original Shaq Fu is not bad. It’s not horrible. It’s actually kind of cool. But between Shaq and Barkley, those are the guys that are larger than life or larger than the court, essentially. If Shaq’s people want to get ahold of us, by all means, we’ll work him in.
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