When season one of Stranger Things aired, everyone inside the Allen-based game development studio BonusXP became an immediate fan. At lunch, they had to separate into camps just to safely discuss spoiler-ridden anecdotes and fan theories.
Co-founder Dave Pottinger was among them and said from the start he dreamed of creating a game set in the world of Hawkins, Indiana, the series' setting. His initial attempts to broker a deal with Netflix fizzled, so the team went about business as usual. It was, after all, just a lark.
“Then we heard an interview where the Duffer Brothers (creators of the sci-fi/horror series) said they wanted to make a game, and that really reignited the passion,” Pottinger said. Tapping a former colleague who now worked for Netflix, BonusXP was able to pitch some ideas on how they would develop a Stranger Things game.
“I’ve been trying to make a Zelda game for 20 years because who wouldn’t?” Pottinger said. “When Netflix asked us, ‘What would you like to do?’ we said, ‘Duh, Zelda.’” Their initial two-page pitch couldn’t have been more simple. The show’s starring cast would operate like different tools in 1980s era top-down adventure games, like Nintendo's Legend of Zelda, with some breaking walls while others could knock out guards. The environment of the game itself was a puzzle that required patience, wit and a fair bit of exploration to solve.
Pottinger said Netflix agreed immediately, and the team at BonusXP worked with a tireless drive. He attributed the resulting smooth development cycle to their collective dream of creating a Zelda-inspired game. Both Pottinger and lead designer William Lemons said the fit of subject matter to genre couldn’t have worked better.
To their credit, the fans agreed. With only a single tweet from Netflix’s main Twitter account as advertising, Stranger Things: The Game released in October 2017 and was downloaded 8.5 million times in the first eight hours. Not only that, the actors loved it. Pottinger said they were tracking play metrics and saw one person had restarted the game well over 70 times. After contacting a source, they discovered someone on set was showing everyone else the game, letting each play through the opening section.
During an online showcase on March 20, Nintendo officially announced Stranger Things 3: The Game would be coming to the Nintendo Switch. Developed by Pottinger and his team at BonusXP, this sequel will be much larger in scope, introduce couch cooperative play and launch simultaneously with Stranger Things’ new season on July 4.
The sequel leaves behind much of the original, opting for an isometric view that hearkens to the RPG games popular on mid-to-late 1980s consoles, while also adopting more combat-focused mechanics. “It’s a cross between a lot of different games: old computer adventure games, a little bit of Fallout and still some of the Zelda DNA,” Pottinger said. “It’s more of a melange of genres and games than the first one.”
The story of Stranger Things 3 won’t just adapt the events of the new season into a game. The studio has created hours of additional content in the form of optional quests, characters, stories and location. Pottinger and Lemons refer to it as “Season++” because it weaves perfectly among the show’s binge-able episodic nature. A straight retelling sounded boring to them, and the studio’s narrative team were eager to leave their mark on the Stranger Things universe.
“We have no expectations that our creations will end up in the show, but our stories help reinforce the world that plays out in the show,” Lemons said.
How did they adapt an already written and filmed story to a game? Did the team get to screen the entire season ahead of time? They weren't that lucky. “William and I were brought to Netflix for a closed session read of the first episode galleys (scripts meant for editing work),” Pottinger said. “After that, we were given plot summaries we could use to create the game’s narrative.” These materials were distributed among the studio and provided the foundation upon which the game’s narrative structure was built.
Adapting a widely beloved show for console gaming is something Lemons said the entire studio take seriously. “We wanted this to be a fan-driven decision process. The pressure is to not let the fans down. Luckily, all of us here love it and want to do right by it.”
BonusXP boasts quite a bit of talent who have developed games for consoles, so while the studio is a practiced hand with freemium mobile experiences, it was a welcome change to return to consoles, instead of a daunting learning curve.
The challenge was a creative one: working from a script offered the sort of constraints that forced the team to think creatively for solutions. The entire concept of cooperative play was a late-stage idea meant to solve an unrelated problem. But they knew almost immediately they had struck gold.
“The first game was focused on combat and puzzles. This time around, we wanted to focus more on dialogue, relationships and interactivity,” Lemons said. “So much of the show is built upon characters working together to overcome obstacles. Very infrequently do they go off on their own.” To which Pottinger joked, “Normally to disastrous results.”
In the end, BonusXP will know they succeed if the fans have fun exploring the world they’ve helped expand. They feel a keen obligation not to screw anything up. “As a narrative writer and as a fan, it’s important that everything we do follows the rules of Hawkins and the rest of the show’s world,” Lemons said.
Said Pottinger, “Our intent is to be exactly what you’d expect a game made by Stranger Things fans to look like.”
Stranger Things 3: The Game releases digitally on July 4 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Android and iOS.