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'Oz' fest: Chicago startup creates 'Wizard of Oz'-themed game

It's not exactly the Yellow Brick Road, but a proverbial hop, skip and a jump up the Kennedy Expressway from the wizard of Oz's birthplace lies the origin of a new kind of Oz creation.

More than a century after L. Frank Baum penned "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" in his Humboldt Park home, a Chicago-based high-tech start-up called Spooky Cool Labs has created a licensed city-building Facebook game, called "The Wizard of Oz," based on the adventures of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the rest of Baum's weird, wonderful creations.

It's impeccable timing for Spooky Cool Labs, because Oz is likely to be a hot commodity this year. A prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," titled "Oz: The Great and Powerful," hits theaters March 8. The big-budget animated film "Dorothy of Oz" is set to follow later in 2013. The original 1939 movie starring Judy Garland also is getting a 3-D conversion for its 75th anniversary restoration on Blu-ray sometime in the fall.

It's safe to think Spooky Cool Labs clicked their heels together and wished the deal with Warner Bros. to happen, but chief creative officer Brian Eddy said there was some foresight involved.

"We'd actually been thinking about it before, but once we talked to WB [and] they told us some of the things they had planned, we got more excited," Eddy said. "There's sort of a renaissance of 'The Wizard of Oz' going on right now."

And Chicago's historical ties with Oz? "Well, that's pretty much a coincidence," Eddy said.

The timing of the deal amused the company's marketing director, Bob Holtzman, who already owned a small terrier bred in Kansas he named "Oz" that happens to look like Toto. "It was like a match made in heaven," he said.

Once Spooky Cool Labs obtained the license for Oz, the small developer spent most of two years creating a social city-builder game for Facebook in the style of Zynga's popular "Farmville" or EA's "Sim City Social," but with a healthy dose of a 'Wizard of Oz' touch. The fully 3D virtual world puts players into the ruby slippers of Dorothy just after her house is whisked away from Kansas and lands on the Wicked Witch of the West.

But in this version of Oz, the Yellow Brick Road hasn't been laid yet, meaning you can't immediately take a jaunty stroll to see the wizard.

The goal, then, is to build a city for the tiny denizens of Munchkinland so they eventually will be up to the mighty task of forming the road.

"The Wizard of Oz" game is the first project for Spooky Cool Labs, a startup created in January 2011 and led by CEO Joe Kaminkow and chairman Larry DeMar--two Chicago tech pioneers who first made their names in the arcade, pinball and slot machine world. They helped create the classic arcade video game "Defender" and later founded Data East Pinball, now known as Stern Pinballone of just two companies in the U.S. currently making new pinball machines. After spending time creating popular slot machines like "Wheel of Fortune," they decided to try something different.

"We were looking at the vast quantity of players on Facebook, and as game designers we hadn't had the opportunity to approach so many players at one time in this massive space," Kaminkow said. "For someone who was used to getting people to play one quarter at a time it was kind of mindblowing."

Since the game went live on Halloween, it has amassed 1.1 million players, but work for the team at Spooky Cool Labs is far from finished. They currently are creating expansion packs, mini-games and additional features to keep players coming back.

Kaminkow is hesistant to call the game a huge success, but says he's proud of all the hard work. "We didn't want a generic game that wouldn't get noticed. And we felt like everything about 'The Wizard of Oz' is iconic and American. In the end, if you're going to build a city, wouldn't you rather build an Emerald one?"

BIG YEAR FOR OZ
Movies, and Blu-rays and pinball machines, oh my! In addition to the Facebook game created by Chicago's Spooky Cool Labs, 2013 is shaping up to be a huge year for Oz.

  • A man of many hats, actor James Franco is wearing an old-fashioned top hat in "Oz: The Great and Powerful," a prequel of sorts to the original "Wizard of Oz" opens March 8.
  • "Dorothy of Oz," a CGI-animated film based on the 1989 book of the same name by "Oz" creator L. Frank Baum's great-grandson is set for release later this year. Lea Michele takes a break from "Glee" to voice Dorothy for the film.
  • A newly restored, 3-D version of the original 1939 Judy Garland film "The Wizard of Oz" will be out on blu-ray in the fall to celebrate its 75th anniversary.
  • Jersey Jack Pinball has released its first pinball machine, "The Emerald City Limited Edition Wizard of Oz Pinball Machine."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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