How Ubisoft scored the Michael Jackson dancing game

You would expect that any publisher wanting to develop a game based on the king of pop would have had to bend over backward to please the singer's estate. But in fact, the estate came calling.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
Unexpectedly, the Michael Jackson estate called on video game publishers, including Ubisoft, looking for the best company to make a game based on the performances of the king of pop. Ubisoft

LOS ANGELES--When it comes to making a video game based on the life and performances of Michael Jackson, you can bet that the project didn't just happen by accident.

After all, the rights to the music and the likeness of the king of pop are still some of the most valuable in show business. So it was no small feat for game publisher Ubisoft to pull together not just a game based on and named after Jackson, but to be able to guarantee that the game--scheduled for a holiday 2010 release--will feature, at a minimum, mega-hits "Billie Jean" and "Beat it."

Ubisoft announced the forthcoming game at the mammoth E3 convention here on Monday, just shy of a year since the superstar died last summer. The company said that the game will have Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable, and Nintendo Wii and DS versions, and will be compatible with both Microsoft's Kinect and Sony's Move motion control systems. It's not known if it will be one of the 15 launch titles that will be available for Kinect when that system goes on sale on November 4.

The game will "provide an interactive experience that enables players to step into the shoes of Michael Jackson himself and re-live his most iconic performances through their own singing and dancing," Ubisoft said in a release announcing the upcoming title. It "will include the most famous tracks from Michael Jackson's extensive catalog...as well as an array of his awe-inspiring dance moves for players to learn and emulate within the game."

But unlike last year's big music megastar game, Beatles: Rock Band, which happened only because of a chance meeting between the president of MTV and the son of Beatle George Harrison and that Beatle offspring's idea for such a game, the Michael Jackson project fell right into Ubisoft's lap.

Last year at E3, Microsoft brought out former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to promote Beatles: Rock Band. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

'The estate approached us'
To Tony Key, the senior vice president of marketing and sales for Ubisoft, the company was the natural publisher for the game.

"We're the leader in the dance category," Key told CNET in an interview, referring to the company's hit Just Dance. "So it makes sense we would be the company doing a Michael Jackson dance game, because we have experience."

From Ubisoft's perspective, getting a chance to do a Michael Jackson game was the natural evolution of its existing dancing franchise. "Michael's such an awesome dancer, and in some ways, I think he was the inspiration for a game like Just Dance," said Key. "Now this comes along, where you're going to be able to dance just like Michael...[taking] the best moves from his dance videos [and] people will be able to do those routines, like the Moonwalk."

But you would have thought that in spite of that pedigree, Ubisoft would still have had to put a lot of energy into reaching out to the Jackson estate after the singer died and it became known that there was interest in making such a game. Instead, Key said, "the estate approached us and other publishers, looking to see who could do the right product, and since we were the leader, we were the ones that ended up getting it."

According to Key, the Jackson estate has been deeply involved in the creation of the game since discussions began last summer, weighing in on how Jackson would be portrayed, which songs would be chosen, the game's title and more. "They're very, very involved in the project," Key said, "and they're very excited about the project because Michael was always the type of artist who embraced new ideas and new ways to show off his music to his fans."

It is not known what the full roster of songs will be for the Michael Jackson dancing game Ubisoft will produce. But the publisher did announce the game will feature the mega-hits 'Billie Jean' and 'Beat It.' Ubisoft

Indeed, it was a sense that Jackson would have liked Ubisoft's approach to making a game based on his career that helped the estate's executors sign off on the selection of company as the one to make the new title.

"The estate has evaluated various things over the last...year, and has been very selective about the things that it's done, and has approved very few things," said Michael Jackson estate spokesperson Jim Bates. "The feeling is, we've wanted to approve things in the spirit of things Michael would have wanted to do for his fans."

Added Bates, "Michael was very interested in technology, and pushing the limits of technology for pushing his artistry to new levels, and this would have been the kind of thing he would have wanted to do."

Bates wouldn't address the question of why a Michael Jackson dancing game is only now being developed, rather than prior to the singer's death, nor would he say whether the Jackson family--which is not the same thing as the singer's estate--is involved in the game's creation.

But Key said that the estate has been instrumental in helping acquire the rights to Jackson's songs from Sony Music, and added that the estate has been "really helping make sure this is a great experience for any fan of Michael."

On June 24, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman and his Geek Gestalt blog will kick off Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my preparations for the project on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip.