Friday, January 29, 2010

From Picoulat to Tork, My story at Tiwak's studios.

Tork: Prehistoric Punk was release on the 11th of January 2005... 5 years ago already.
This is an Article I wrote a while back in French.
I tried to translate it in English, and added some links and videos for this occasion.
Thx a lot to Jen, who helped me for the translation.


There are as just as many reasons as there are individual destinies for choosing to work in the video game industry.
Beyond the main (and often deceptive) reason -- that one simply likes video games as his/her main entertainment, and that he/she believes that it must be fun to make what is fun to play -- my personal reason was my interest in creating and presenting gameplay experiences that might be better or newer than the ones I was already playing.

One of the many realizations that I had that led me to this job was a game named Populous from Bullfrog Production. After spending a few hours in front of this amazing new genre (god games) of game and gameplay, I realized how I would always be but the "master" of a world pre-defined by its actual creator, the development team, even with the extraordinary liberty they were giving us.
It became very clear that I wanted to become the one that created worlds, and not the one that explored and mastered them.

My first job in the video game industry was at the end of 1999, a little more than 10 years ago already, in the pretty city of Bordeaux, France. I was hired at Kalisto Entertainment and stayed there for 2 years. During that period of time, I got a taste of my first lessons and disillusionments, went through hard moments and disappointments, but I also met an impressive group of talented and amazing people and friends, that you will now find on top of their game in many big studios and big IP's as directors and leads.

It was during a lunch with friend, back in the summer of 2001, that I heard for the first time about Tiwak as a company. Back then, the company was called Yeti Interactive.
This new team were hiring for a new project, and because I had lived during a few years in the city of Montpellier when I was a student, my friends asked me if I had heard of them before. The main team that everyone knows in Montpellier is called Ubi pictures (with their famous director Michel Ancel (Rayman 1 and 2, BGE,…), but I was surprised to have never heard about this particular team.

Curious, I contacted a friend working at Ubi pictures and asked if he knew anything about them… Indeed, he did: Yeti Interactive had been created by 8 ex-members of Ubi Pictures and Rayman 2… and without knowing much more, "they seemed", he added, "to have a nice project for a big publisher already".
At this particular time, the future was far from being bright at Kalisto Entertainement. It was the beginning of what would be the last months of the company. The lead of my team was smart and suggested that we start looking for job openings in other places, or at least, to start working on our Resumes and demo reels, just in case something bad happened before Xmas.
To make a long story short, I heeded his words and few weeks later, in November of 2001, I accepted a job Offer from Yeti interactive as an INgame Maya Animator for their first Unannounced game: Tork, Prehistorik punk.
The game was still a total secret at that time, developed for Microsoft Game Studios and their future console Xbox that they just had revealed to the press. A few Devkits were starting to be sent everywhere at this time.

(I remember, Leaving Kalisto, that a team was Working on a first but never released prototype for "Nightmare Creature 3" (Ps2, but Xbox was the lead platform, a video is available here). This prototype (Engine and Graphics) was made from scratch, I think, in less than three months, after thinking about redoing the 1st one (ps1) with new graphics… but that's another story that Pascal . Mickail or Stephane (Nc3 webpage here) would know and tell better).

"Tork"'s first name was actually "Picoulat" (from small meatballs from Languedoc-Roussillon called "boles de picolat"). The game was developed with the thought that it would become a big AAA title for the Xbox and maybe even be the Mascot of the console. It was at least in the Short list of potential characters to become one. After few polls, the character was popular everywhere on the globe, and only Blinx, the cat from Artoon (Ex Sonic team members) with there "reward-time" concept was supposed to still be a contender.

THis is a pre-production video, showing the very first version of Tork.
Model by Denis Capdeferro, pauses and animations by Laurent Le Guellaut.

The console is not out on the market.
Back then, nobody knew yet that Master chief would become the actual real "Mascot". It was the beginning of a new era for video games: the public was changing and getting older, and big game sellers were orientated towards a more "mature" audience or subjects.
Back then, it was not obvious... So, the thought pattern was to get several big platformer games to beat Sony and Nintendo on this very particular type of game. Everything had been planned and the idea was to launch a big title every three to six months.
The Original order was to release Blinx in August of 2002, then Tork (end of November) , Psychonauts (march), Voodoo Vince, possibly another one from Japan in between (I barely remember an internal never released video of a pre production project with a small Indian kid…) then, when we would get to the end of the list, the plan was to create second episodes, each made one after the other (Blinx 2, Tork 2…), leaving one and a half years for each team to complete their second episodes.
The story and destiny of these titles of course is drastically different and did not occur as planned.
On the third party side, everybody tried to pick their share of this market, Vexx and Rayman 3 are in the pipes, Tak or Sphinx too… Sony is producing Jak II, Ratchet II, Sly cooper, Nintendo on their known Ip's… a very competitive arena with lots of good contenders in what was soon discovered to be a declining market, slipping out of fashion.

My first year at Tiwak was a blast, interesting and educational. The team was growing slowly, and the game was being made in secret. Everything was prepared for a big announcement during E3 of 2002. We were slow, the team was learning through mistakes, crunching a lot, but loving it. Even with delays, we were the main title for the game division of Microsoft, they were hoping a lot from the IP, speaking of a cartoon, of Marketing cross over to get the character everywhere, (toys, food…) and of a release in Japan, the Number 1 market where all best ages were coming from… the dreams of every young developers then… 10 years ago, things are changing fast…

teaser of the game release few weeks before E3 2002

The big challenge for Tiwak, like for any other start up, was the engine that we were building while the game was done too. The problems and efforts to resolve them were doubled, but the hope and promises were so high. To be working on THE next million seller worldwide IP was thrilling to us all, probably blinding us too, perhaps too much.
The first alarm rang at e3 of 2002. What was supposed to be THE big announcement of Tork would become a simple and shy presentation, with a few screen capture and one video trailer in a middle of a thousand others.

E3 2002 Trailer. the Framerate is slow, the game is not ready to be presented to the public

The game was late. It was beautiful and full of promises, but it was too early to be presented to the public and the press. Microsoft at the same time was facing their own problems after the release of the console - the European market was proving to be a disaster, lots of mistakes were made elsewhere, while Sony become the unbeatable leader.
GTA is out on ps2 and become the game of this generation, Halo is a huge success, and the mood and tastes of the public were definitely changing.

But everyone still believed in Tork. Microsoft decided to increase the budget and the time to develop the game, and asked us to improve the title's graphic possibility, (keeping the Anti alias, adding just new real time Fur shader - we barely were at 20fps, Microsoft asked from us a constant 60fps)

We had no sound or music yet (that was a disaster during the all production). The gameplay was vague and mediocre, what was suppose to be a a Next gen Crash Bandicoot was becoming an Action adventure a la Jack and Daxter. The new milestone was set, and instead of November 2002, we were now aiming for a release around march 2003.
Time flew and it became obvious that we would need more time.

March 2003: we're two milestones from gold, two to theee months from finishing the game if we're still able to crunch.
Microsoft was cutting and stopping lots of internal projects, Tork was stopped too, despite that it was so close to be there, to be alive, to be finished… But it's a fact, "Microsoft studios", the game and entertainment division, could not continue and needed to change their goals and adapt to the market and their consumers.

Lots of games were then stopped. They would keep only potential Million sellers (Halo 2, Forza, Fable, Brute force). Another really important change too was that Microsoft bought RARE studios, for a really, really high price. Those teams were doing the same type of game we were doing. one of them is Kameo, which was supposed back then to be released in September of 2003 (Kameo was finally released in November of 2005 on xbox 360).

With so many parameters against us, we had to face it, we were over after two years of hard work.
Without any publishers or other games in production, from dream to nightmare, Tiwak's team needed to become downsize, so we had to let some people go. We lost half of the team really quickly, and with what was left in the bank account, we had 6 months, maybe 9 to find a new project or someone that would like to finish Tork. During this time, we were still working on it while also sometimes working on fast playable demos for some potential other contracts and projects ( one for the Punisher for THQ and a Nightmare creature new prototype (cancelled after pre-prod) for Ubisoft).

I'm one of the guys that stayed in Tiwak during the whole year of 2003. We faced some moments of Hope and some dark or full moments of doubt. Lots of big publishers were interested by this almost finished title, visually strong and appealing, including Capcom and Sega as far as I remember, but some others too.

Trailer of the state of the game during summer of 2004 to find a publisher.
Edited by Gerard Lehiany,

Every time, the fact that it's an exclusive Xbox title poses a problem to us. The leader for our Market is the Sony Ps2 and we don't have an engine for it. It would take lot of time and would be hard to downgrade the game anyway. During the summer, A miracle happened: Codemasters decided to pick the game and publish beginning of December, they thought it wass a good deal, MIcrosoft was probably selling it for cheap, we were working hard during a few weeks, the game was set to be sent to its first Gold approval. But one weekend before, they turned back and decided to break the deal… One of the reasons was probably the catastrophic sales of Grabbed by the Ghoulies launched by Rare beginning of November… with lots of ads and a known developer, they were selling nothing.

Before backing up the data and stoping the game for good.
Cedric Toton and I are making a last video to say goodbye.

We were now a few weeks from closing, probably in January. Tork was ready to be gold, but was without a publisher. We were all tired, and this was the end…

Well, not completely. Behind the doors, the owners of the company were speaking with Ubisoft and they decided to buy the company: they were interested by the team and the Engine, our experience of the Xbox and the first Xenon (code name for what will become xbox 360) would arrive soon so… Tiwak's new mission was to start to work secretly on Ghost Recon 3 for the Next gen. The game will be known as Ghost Recon Advanced Wars.

We had 6 months to make the Pre production, it was a very important and ambitious game, the brand was known and fans were waiting for it. It was a big new challenge for Tiwak. Ubisoft trusted us, which was wonderful, and after so many hard months, working months in advance on “what Next-gen means, and will bring” is a blast. During this time, I would take care of technical Animation and travel to different Ubi studios to meet other leads to share our ideas and experiences.
My journey with Tiwak would stop soon though. I left the team end of September 2004… I Just received my h1b visa - a job at ready at Dawn studios was waiting for me since January, and I was going to work on Daxter in California - who would not try this new challenge?

Tiwak's team wished me well and helped me to prepare my departure. We had just finished Graw pre production and Ubisoft Manager was thrilled and launched the Production for a fast early release. (Tiwak would be helped by Ubisoft Montreuill in Paris, Red storm Entertainment studios (Multi) in North Carolina, and some Spain and Chinese studios too for graphical assets.)… They had 12 months to make the game for the launch windows of the console (It will take them slightly more, releasing in March for the best and the success we all now know).

Another good news too, Ubisoft N.A. decided during the summer of 2004 to publish the game early 2005. The data were turned backed and one or two programmers would work casually for a few weeks on cleaning the last of the bugs. We were sending the game for GOld approval and succeeded on the first try, with Microsoft Congratulations (we were the first game to pass the test on the first try).

Renamed "Tork: prehistoric Punk" (For © reasons), the game would be launched with nobody really caring in January 2005… not bad for a game ready in November 2003… But knowing that you could buy it for $29 bucks instead of never being released or played is an amazing reward for all of us. (the game is working on the xbox 360 just great since 360's launch if you want to pick it up :).

Tiwak's version (Jean-Christophe Alessandri) of the game's cover.
Refused by Ubisoft N.A. Marketing team.

Personally, I have my plane tickets ready, and on October 31th of 2004, I'm leaving France with two bags for a new challenge, and a fantastic new adventure at Rad, leaving behind me, three marvelous years shared with amazing people...

...To continue!

(Tiwak since worked on Beowulf and Raving Rabbits go home, they are now part of Ubisoft Montpellier after being merged with Ubi PIctures (Rayman 2, BGE, Raving Rabbits…)
(Ready at Dawn Studios Worked since on Daxter and God of War Coo for Sony's PSP, and Okami for the Wii, but that's another story :).

All Pictures, brands and characters are (c) to their owners.
This article is (c) to me.

Nico's Articles

I decided to create a blog where I will write and post only my long articles...
It will allow me to continue to post on my main blog as often as I want it too :).