Avalanche: From Mortal Kombat To Toy Story 3

by Jeff Cork on Apr 16, 2010 at 11:06 AM

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.”

Avalanche has worked with a variety of licensed titles, such as Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and more, but it also created the original IPs 25 to Life and the whimsical Tak series of platformers. Tak was the more popular title, spawning a television show on Nickelodeon.

“We’d been pitching that for a while,” recalls Blackburn. “We want to do this platformer, and the idea behind it is we think we’ve got this fresh look. We didn’t really like contrived things in video games. The thing we’d always use as an example was a lot of times in the original Lara Croft stuff. If there was a block in the room, you had to use it. You just knew that you were going to use it. And you were usually going to push it to get to the lever. We wanted a more naturalistic world, and the thought we had back then was, if we put these animals in the world and they actually have their own agency within the world, you could build puzzles around standard behaviors like that.

“We had a catapult in the middle of the jungle, and [Jeff] Bunker [Avalanche’s art director] was like, ‘Why the crap is there a catapult in the middle of the jungle?’ We’re like, ‘It’s because it’s a game, leave me alone.’ He was like, ‘Couldn’t we use an orangutan pulling on a banana tree?’ It was like, ‘That’s the idea.’”

That’s only one side of the story.

“That’s not what he said at first,” joked Bunker.

Once he had time to think about it, Blackburn realized Bunker was right. That devotion to the game paid off, with THQ picking up Tak: The Power of Juju and the subsequent games.

“During the fight that’s not what I said, but after the weekend I came in and ate my humble pie. That’s actually the key to this one. We knew that the mission system should have personality, and we felt that a lot of games took themselves way too seriously. It wasn’t about badassery, it should be about entertainment. We felt like humor was something that games should get into. This was about three or four years before Jak and Dexter and Sly Cooper or Ratchet and Clank had hit the shelf. Most of the other platformer games -- Lara Croft was the thing at the time, and there was Metal Gear and those kinds of things coming out -- were branching out into the dramatic and the suspenseful much more so than the humorous.

“So we created this character, we went out and pitched that around, and nobody wanted it because nobody had launched a successful platformer into the marketplace in years. ‘We’re not going there.’ But then THQ and Nickelodeon had had so much success with the Rugrats games and some of the other ones that they’d put out and they were like, ‘Let’s put out a games first franchise,’ because at the time Nickelodeon had thought that their demographic was too young and they thought video games were a way to get an older audience. So a lot of the companies that we always pitched against when companies put out their RFPs [Request For Proposal, a critical step in being signed by a publisher -ed.], we were pitching against them with our own idea. There was another game called Brave that got put out the same year that Tak did, those were the two finalists. THQ published both of them, but Tak: The Power of Juju was the one that got the TV series at the end of the day. That’s how that one worked.”

Blackburn says the Avalanche’s fate rested on Tak’s success. Fortunately for the studio, that gamble paid off.

“At one point we always felt like, as a studio, we were always one step ahead of the wolf that was nipping at our heels. We felt like in the late ‘90s we were still doing 2D when a lot of companies moved to 3D, and we barely got to 3D when a lot of 2D companies fell off the face of the planet. I felt like we were climbing a set of stairs, and as we took a step to the next step the stair below us crumbled and was gone. So anybody who was doing 2D games was kind of gone.

“The next step that I felt we took was we created our own engine and had proprietary technology that we could leverage from game to game. It almost felt like anybody who didn’t have that, well they closed from year to year. Realistically, when we got to the Tak game it really felt like a lot of the licensed work was drying up, and it really felt like at that point in time either we were going to make our reputation on this or it could mean the closure of the studio. From our perspective, we were working with a lot of companies, but THQ was our best client by far at that point in time. If that wasn’t successful, we felt like THQ would probably be pulling back by that point. It was literally a make it or break it scenario for us.

“A lot of people talked about that when we got purchased by Disney, and I think that there was a bittersweet kind of emotion that went along with the acquisition. It was great to know that we had created something like that and that it was actually pretty well received by the public. I think at the same time, the TV series was supposed to be out at the time of the first video game, which was 2003. The TV series didn’t come out until 2006, so we kind of felt like when is it going to get there, when is it going to get there? With that said, at that point in time, when they bought us, there was a ‘It’s the right time to move on' sort of feeling that I think most of us had.

“We’d done three of the games, and we didn’t really have an idea for where we’d want to take the next one, and we wanted a rest from it because we’d done three in a row. With that said, a lot of times we talk right now it would be cool to do this or that if we were still working on that. I think there’s always that place in our hearts for that franchise and the characters in the franchise. Realistically, there’s this whole other level in the people that we’re working with both at Disney and within Pixar are every bit as talented. You’re working with the guys on Toy Story 3, and you couldn’t ask for a better group of people to learn from. You get into some of those sessions with Tak and Nickelodeon and those were great, but I think that we’re learning so much from these guys that maybe this is where we learn to do it one better."

Some of Sculptured Software's most well-known releases included (clockwise from top left) NHL Stanley Cup, WWF Super Wrestlemania, the SNES port of Doom, and Super Empire Strikes Back.

Before Avalanche started, several of its employees started out at Sculptured Software, a company known for porting games during the NES/SNES era. There’s a lesson to be learned in Blackburn’s story: Treat your staff well, or at least keep some of your nastier opinions to yourself.

“Sculptured was actually pretty small when we started. I think I was employee number 34 or something if I remember right, but that’s back in the day. I was this novel concept of a junior programmer. There used to be one programmer, and they were adding a second programmer to help out. Right around that time, Sculptured was really starting to take off as far as their reputation in the industry and the games that they were getting. The guy that ran that studio was very business line oriented and loved to negotiate with people. The thing he’d done was he found a bunch of exceptionally smart programmers at the time and he treated artists really poorly.

“He kind of banked on having really strong programmers and the programmers and managers are going to get royalties, artists aren’t -- because artists are a dime a dozen. And he’d tell anybody this. So he ended up getting a crop of relatively good artists in, and the vice president of the company left and took the six best artists with him, and Marcus was one of those guys that left and went with him. His name was Hal Rushton. He went down and ended up in a company that was called Cygnus Multimedia, he changed their name to Sapphire.

“When these guys went down there, Hal -- who was the vice president guy who went down with all the artists -- he had this whole vision of turning Sapphire into a full featured game studio instead of just contracting art. They needed programmers. I think that was ’94. In large part, artists weren’t treated as fairly. It pissed off myself and the other guys who ended up starting Avalanche. It pissed us off because Marcus was a good friend, and even more so it was like all the good artists left that year. We ended up having maybe two decent artists left. And when you have one or two artists on your game, it mattered a lot. Kind of the genesis behind this was that these guys were down there working on some really cool stuff in 3D at the time, and we really hadn’t gotten there yet at Sculptured. So we were looking down there and seeing what those guys had going and talking to Hal. He wanted us to move down there to Provo, and we really didn’t want to, so he talked us into forming a company to subcontract the programming to. So we started Avalanche up here so we could do that and really shortly thereafter based on the connection that one of the original partners had with the guys back at Midway, we ended up getting all the Mortal Kombat games that year. That was really lucky, because Sculptured was sold that year to Acclaim.”

Sculptured founder George Metos eventually sold the company to Acclaim. As Blackburn tells it that deal set a chain of events into motion that led to Avalanche.

“So let’s go through a little intrigue there, because it was pretty cool. George sold the company to Acclaim for all stock. About a year after he sold to them, the share price was about 25 dollars or something like that when he sold to them. There was some sort of SEC violation that they had that they’d been flooding the channel with product, booking the revenue when they did that and not on sell through, so they were essentially keeping the stock price artificially high. So George basically sued them because it was an all stock deal and they were artificially keeping the stock price high. The settlement out of that was that he got to take a game and a game team. He got to take Stratosphere, he got to take the team of people and they were paying him off some undisclosed amount. So that’s how Kodiak started. And that’s how Jeff [Gosztyla, Avalanche’s director of development] ended up going from Sculptured to Kodiak.

Gosztyla started out hoping to work for Twisted Metal developer SingleTrac, but ended up at Sculptured. Sculptured Software’s eventual focus on wrestling games proved to be too much for Gosztyla, as he recounts.

“I originally interviewed with SingleTrac, because I was doing flight simulators in North Carolina, and when the PlayStation one came out I just loved console games. I was looking around for different jobs, and I saw that SingleTrac had done Warhawk and Twisted Metal, which were two of my favorite games, so I sent them my resume and came down for an interview. I’d started a startup company with Wild Bill Staley at Microprose. I wanted to finish a title and then leave, and I didn’t want to get into the next title and leave them hanging. So as a backup plan I interviewed with Sculptured and they assured me that even that even though they were owned by Acclaim and Acclaim didn’t have the best reputation at the time, they weren’t part of Acclaim and they retained their identity and all of those types of things. So I interviewed with SingleTrac and with Sculptured and they both made me offers, but SingleTrac said it was contingent on some investment money. That was really interesting because they’d sold so many copies of those games but they really weren’t profitable at that point, so they were waiting from Microsoft for some Games for Windows money at that time. So I took the Sculptured job and I was there for about a year and a half, and the entire time I was looking.

“It was a really good team and the people were really good and the project was actually pretty cool, but it was a PC original and Acclaim wasn’t really interested in it. During its development we were actually pitching it to outside publishers, so it just made sense when George left, since Acclaim didn’t really value it all that much, so he signed it with Ripcord. While I was at Kodiak it was supposed to be all original IP development, which is really what I wanted to do, but they’d already started negotiations with EA to become the wrestling studio. Growing up in North Carolina you either love wrestling or you hate it, and I personally hate it. Once we started to turn toward wrestling I was like I’m out of here. And that’s how I got here.”

How did the Salt Lake City area become such a haven for game development, anyway? As Blackburn says, it was a mixture of a solid university program and close ties to a pioneer in 3D computing.

“It kind of started out with Access. They were a standalone publisher on the PC and did Links, and they were very successful with that. They made a lot of money. They also had the Tex Murphy and Overseer games that were more Myst type games. The other big name was SingleTrac, and that came out of Evans & Sutherland and the University of Utah graphics program. At a certain point, when they got bought by GT Interactive. Scott Campbell broke off and formed Lucky Devil, though it was still within GT. Right about the time that everything was going bad for GT Interactive, Lucky Devil became Incognito and Sony funded them for Twisted Metal Black at that point in time. So you either came from the Sculptured branch of the family, the Access branch or Incognito/SingleTrac.”

The move to 3D shifted the Salt Lake area’s development landscape some, but it was where some of the biggest games were being made during its peak, as Blackburn recounts.

“The heyday might have been in 1993, 94, depending on how you look at it. They were doing a ton of high profile games, between the Nintendo sports titles, the Star Wars titles, all the Mortal Kombat games and wrestling. They were huge franchises that were cruising through year after year. After that, Attitude and WWF War Zone sold a ton right after that, but I think Links was huge at that point in time and Twisted Metal and Jet Moto were coming out. For a while, Salt Lake was starting to become a place to develop games. Publishers knew about it. There was at least a reputation, but over the course of the years it dwindled down. I’d say a lot of the responsibility for a lot of that was George. Give credit where it’s due. He grew Sculptured into one of the premiere developers on SNES, if not the premiere developer. But I think as soon as it went to 3D it shifted over to SingleTrac, and Sculptured still did a really good job on the wrestling titles.

“We bought one of our partners out in 2001 and at that point in time we took his partnership share and spread it out to a bunch of other people in the company. There have been a few things that I think we’ve done well over the course of time. I think the first is we’re kind of no nonsense in telling people how it is.”

Working on family entertainment brings its own rewards, according to Rob Nelson, Avalanche’s director of technology. And as he states, when the team starts working on a game they don’t try to dumb things down for their audience.

“From a technology perspective, one of the things I’ve always appreciated is that we don’t pander to the kids. We really are trying to make high quality games, we’re proud of our work. You never hear the comment, ‘Oh it’s just a kids' game, don’t do that.’ No, it’s a quality bar. We’re all playing the games that we want to be as good as, so that’s where we push ourselves. I like that. Plus, kids know good. Kids know quality. That’s one of the things I like is the culture here. I believe that working on kids' games the technical problems that we encounter are equivalent to the technical problems we encounter working on Halo.”

Everyone I talked with from Pixar was great, but art director Bob Pauley was especially fun. As one of the creators of the now iconic Buzz Lightyear and Woody designs, he had a few stories about the characters’ development.

“When I came on he was Lunar Larry, if I remember right. They were in development of the scale and the relationship with Woody, but the model built for the styling wasn’t there. A lot of it was Woody is a classic Western cowboy toy, and Buzz is a spaceman. So we looked at NASA images and the astronauts and so forth. At the time we were running over to the library. Nowadays I use Google and I look on the Web for stuff. There were a couple of inspirations. Mostly space program stuff and little things. You know his fingers have the purple tips on them? That’s what the astronauts have for grip. So we had to do that. I remember I took the train to the city every day before I worked at Pixar, and I had a picture of the train on my desk, and it had these white and red stripes on it at the end of the Caltrain, and John Lasseter said, “Those look great! They should go on Buzz, they’re great warning signs!” and so we put them on his wings. It was this fun collaborative environment. We all loved toys, and we’re making our own toys. The scoop on his back, I love cars, and I always loved the old ‘60s muscle cars with the hood scoops, so that’s kind of a hood scoop with a ram induction on the top of it.

“We used to go to a toy store and look for stuff. For a while the Power Rangers were out and then they sort of lost fashion and weren’t really popular, and then they got really popular again. But when they weren’t so hot we were working on Buzz and there was a cheap bin that I got a Kimberly figure -- the pink one -- and all the joints were great because it was a Bandai one. It was a pretty good toy. It was a great reference for Buzz in terms of the joints and how it articulated and everything. I don’t know where it ended up, but I still have the gun somewhere, which is kind of a funny reverse of Woody.”