Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The game that got away...

It's 2am on a Tuesday morning. I have to be up for work at 8... but I can't sleep. I'm no stranger to insomnia, as I lay in bed my mind swirls to a million different directions; work, life, family, my pets, and on nights like tonight... the past.

I've been playing Strangers Wrath HD on the Playstation 3 which is an amazing game I recommend anyone with the system to play. However that's not what I'm up writing about.... but before I get to far ahead of myself let me back up.

In the summer of 1997 my friend Carmine and I went to the local mall with money to burn. He had an agenda, to buy Castlevania Symphony of the Night. I wasn't the biggest Castlevania fan at that point and knew little about the game (remember the internet wasn't what it is today). So I just went along to do some browsing. While he was paying for Castlevania I noticed Oddworld Abe's Oddysee. I was immediately drawn to it's box art.

The cool purple title, the awesome glyphs, and of course the weird character. I remember reading something about this game in a magazine but I knew next to nothing about it. I took a chance...

When I got home to play it I was immediately blown away by the cg opening. This was an era where even cg intros looked god-awful not to mention how bad the in game art normally looked in games. This was rivaling the stuff I had seen in Pixar films!




The game, I was pleasantly surprised looked just as amazing (in it's own way), but it also played great too! Like a mix of two of my favorite games, Out of this World, and Flashback. I was hooked and played through the game even going so far as to save all 99 Mudokens! No small feat as anyone who has played can tell you!

Time marched on, I played and loved Abe's Exxodus, I was there launch day to pick up Munch's Oddysee, and was blown away as to how far their cinematics had come! This time I was in college, going to school to learn how to make games for a living. It was around this time I became friends with Phill Gonzales. He saw me doodling an Abe head in my sketch book and remarked that OddWorld Inhabitants (makers of the game) were located not far from his home town in San Luis Obispo California.

Fast forward 2 years and we are on summer break about to start our senior year, looking to make connections and get our foot into the industry. Phill did something crazy and emailed OddWorld and inquired about a tour! I was shocked to find out they agreed to let us come up to SLO and check out the space! We also snagged a tour with Blizzard in LA through one of our professors, I was excited about Blizzard to be sure, but OddWorld? I was beside myself with anticipation.

We first went to Blizzard, after a hellish all-nighter driving from SLO to LA and failing to find an affordable motel, we TRIED to sleep in Phills car. No dice. So come morning we show up at Blizzards doorstep and get the dime tour. Now at the time this was pre World of Warcraft. The main team there had just finished WarCraft 3 and were on vacation. There was a skeleton crew around working on WOW and we got to check it out. Pretty cool, but the tour was over in about an hour and we were on our way. We were a little deflated, especially after our trek down there.

Well we pick ourselves up and did the unthinkable (and dangerous) we turned right around and drove back up to SLO on no sleep, after all the very next day we had a tour of OddWorld.

Once back at Phills house I immediately crashed into bed! I woke up the next morning fully rested and ready to check out what in my mind had become a place of legend.

We came up to off all places a ROSS (a discount clothing store). I was wondering if we had the right address, but then Phill pointed us in the right direction. Nestled in between Ross and another storefront was this ornate art-deco door that read: OddWorld Inhabitants. It turns out OddWorld Inhabitants is located ABOVE the ROSS. Talk about inconspicuous.

 Me, Pete, and Phill in front of Oddworlds Entrance AFTER the tour (note the bag of swag)

This blog is getting long, so I'll move on, but suffice to say we were greeted with open arms. Shown around the studio, got to talk to a bunch of people on the team, and although we didn't get to see their new game (unannounced at the time) Stranger's Wrath. I felt like I had come home. THIS is what I imagined game development to be like. Amazing people, and inspiring work place with artwork all over the place. I was in heaven. I collected business cards and were on our way. Phill and I were so inspired that we collaborated on a thank you piece to send them. We worked on it for a week or two after we got back to school, I'm told it was proudly hung on the wall of their community managers office.

I think Phill flattered me with huge muscles but it made for a comical picture

Phills amazing illustration far outshines my crude 3d and coloring abilities but we were proud nonetheless!

If I was obsessed before, now I was driven, determined to work there. If there is one thing I learned early on in school it was networking. I emailed politely from time to time as I worked toward graduating. Just to keep myself in their memory. Then one day 3 months prior to graduating I noticed a job opening on their site for a environment artist. The very same role I was aiming for in school. I knew I was still a semester away from graduating. So I emailed the head of HR and asked what they were looking for in candidates. It was framed purely as an academic inquiry as I had no intention of applying. Imagine my surprise when he asked if I'd be willing to take an art test.

Willing? I was waiting for this since the day I waked up to that art-deco door!

They sent me some guidelines and a piece of concept art:



While touring I had learned that they used the 3d program Maya, I was knowledgeable in a different 3d program called 3d studio max. I stupidly decided to tackle the test in Maya, and not my strong suite Max (I came across this same situation when testing for my position at Naughty Dog... I did the test in max this time!).  They gave me 5 days to complete the test. I barely slept in those 5 days, coffee and caffeine pills were my friends. Ultimately I came up with this:


I was not happy with it, but with 5 days in a program I had never used before it was all I could do... so with fingers crossed I sent it in.

I got the email back... that they weren't going to hire me... BUT their reasoning was that they had re-evaluated their art pipeline and decided they didn't need to hire any more artists. I'd like to believe this was the truth, but part of me feels like they were just being nice.

I was down but not out, I would try again someday. In the meantime I graduated and got my first game job in North Carolina. While there Strangers Wrath came out (the game I would have worked on). It was AMAZING. Once again stellar CG but the in game art, was even better than before, plus the game was fun AND original! I knew that they would be starting a new game soon and HAVE to be staffing up! I would have my shot again!

Only that never came. Not long after Strangers Wrath shipped it was announced that OddWorld Inhabitants was shutting down and ending game development. I was crushed, but time heals all wounds.... sort of

That fateful day I toured OddWorld was almost 10 years ago now. I've worked at a variety of studios, and even now I am happily employed at Retro Studios, owned by Nintendo, and responsible for the Metroid games!

Which brings me back to today; Playing Strangers Wrath again. Almost 7 years since it released. OddWorld is back... sort of. Instead of being made in California all OddWorld games are now being handled by a company called Just Add Water in the UK... I'm happy that OddWorld games are coming out again, it's sort of like seeing an old friend after many years in a weird way. New games are all well and good, but Stranger's Wrath? It is and always will be....

The game that got away.



Postscript:
In 2009 I decided to model some more OddWorld stuff just for fun:
Scrabania

The irony? I modeled it in Maya as practice for my then new job at Naughty Dog. :P

Postscript 2:
Phill now works for Blizzard on the StarCraft 2 team.




2 comments:

Fenris said...

That was a nice anecdote. It's a pity you never had the chance to work there.

Koz said...

Thank you, yes I agree! I would have put my all into making game for them!