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Avalanche: From Mortal Kombat To Toy Story 3


Here are just a few of the folks from Avalanche. They are (from left) Marcus Fisher, creative director; Bill VanOverbeck, director of operations; Jonathan Warner, senior producer; Jeff Bunker, art director; John Blackburn, studio general manager; Jeff Gosztyla, director of development; and Rob Nelson, director of technology.

Six magazine pages seems like a lot of space when you’re writing a feature, but it’s not much compared to the amount of raw information you get during a day-long studio visit. When I came home from my trip to Avalanche, I brought back a recorder filled with about eight hours of audio. Even after discarding the gaps in conversation, the sounds of chewing during lunch, and frantic clicking noises from my hands-on time with Toy Story 3, I had hours of audio and lot of interesting bits of information that just didn’t fit with the story I was trying to tell.

Think of this as a supplement to the magazine feature. There, I told the story of how the Toy Story 3 game was first conceptualized after a meeting with Pixar, and how Avalanche took a few risks that seem to have paid off. Here, I’ll share some of the stories that the guys told of their early days working on the SNES, some interesting tales from their Mortal Kombat days, and how Tak kept the company afloat in some difficult times. They’re stories worth hearing, and I’m happy to be able to pass them along.

A few years ago, when Avalanche co-founder John Blackburn was dating his wife, he had a little reality check about how some felt about video games. To put it into context, this story happened right around the time Mortal Kombat was making headlines.

“She skied with a guy named Joel Hyatt, and he was the son in law of Senator Metzenbaum from Ohio. We’re having dinner one night with him and I’m a dumb kid at the time, literally like 21, and they’re like ‘What do you do?’ and I say I make video games. I’m thinking that their kids are going to think it’s awesome, and I wasn’t thinking that Tipper Gore is in the room. She didn’t say anything, because I don’t think she heard, but Tipper’s friend who was with her in the whole PMRC [Parents Music Resource Center, a 1990s initiative that resulted in explicit content warnings on music --ed.] thing was just on me. There’s a part of it that was kind of cool and a part of it that was kind of scary. I didn’t even think. I thought everyone was okay with doing this.”


Mortal Kombat Nitro was a running joke in the Mortal Kombat community, and even creator Ed Boon kept it going, as this image purportedly from his old site shows.

Tuning gameplay is as much an art as it is science, and Blackburn and Fisher cut their teeth in an unlikely place. Unlikely, that is, when you consider that the lessons they learned on one of gaming’s most notorious titles are still being applied to their family-friendly fare. Here, Blackburn explains how that happened while confirming the existence of the oft-rumored Mortal Kombat Nitro.

“Both Marcus [Fisher, now Avalanche’s creative director] and I had this unique experience with Mortal Kombat 1. At the end of the project, the programmer who programmed the Super Nintendo version of that didn’t essentially port the code, he didn’t copy the code, he reengineered the whole game. So when it went out to market, the timings were a little bit off, so none of the combos worked. When he started doing the game, nobody realized this, but by the time it came out there was a way to play it in the arcades that you wanted to play on the home systems. This was the same year that Street Fighter II Turbo had come out and it sold a lot of units right after that, so Acclaim came back to Sculptured and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do Mortal Kombat Nitro?’ The programmer who had done this first game was a contractor and he was gone. I’d been the junior programmer on Mortal Kombat, and they said, ‘How about you just go in and fix all this stuff?’ So there was this really interesting opportunity to go in and go through and dissect all of this stuff that had happened in Mortal Kombat.

"So the first thing we had to do was get excellent at Mortal Kombat. We had to know all of the combos and be able to do everything. Secondarily, we then had to go in and make the game do that. So it was this really intense environment of, ‘Why doesn’t this move here feel exactly like this one here on the screen?’ That kind of trained us both in how small, very subtle, changes in the size of a collision box or how many frames there are in an animation or a slight variation on how something moves can affect a game.

“With Johnny Cage, the reason that his fast punch was so much more powerful was because he had one less frame of animation before it got to the collision than everyone else did. And the actual size of the collision box was a little bit adjusted out so that everybody else’s would miss if you went over their heads, but the corner of his top would clip. So it was going through and literally putting all of the boxes on screen to get that kind of stuff. That’s really where we developed feel. You develop that feel on one of the preeminent fighters -- by the way, Mortal Kombat Nitro got killed as Mortal Kombat II came out. But you take that same sensibility into almost everything else that you do. Marcus is still the best guy at tuning our games. Things move in 3D, but it’s still about collision boxes and slight movements and that twitch feel and what you’re trying to get out of it. A lot of that comes down to once you learn it it’s not gone.”

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