As we've talked about before here, Utah is becoming a bit of a video-game hotspot. --- Several companies have decided to call the Wasatch Front home, including Electronic Arts, Eat Sleep Play, Smart Bomb and several smaller developers putting games together in pieces, each working in secret to bring you the latest in gaming from some of the best minds in Utah.
But one company that's been getting extra attention as of late is Avalanche Software. Founded out of the Acclaim takeover of Sculptured Software, a group of game techs formed the company and started to create titles for major companies before becoming one themselves. The company was acquired by Disney in 2005 but was left as a separate entity still residing in Utah, producing games for many of Disney's animated films. I got a chance to have a brief interview with Avalanche founder and CEO John Blackburn about the company and the work it's done so far, along with a brief mention of what's to come.
Gavin: How did you first get into video gaming and programming, and what first influenced you to get into the industry?
John: I was an avid gamer when I was young. I got my Atari 2600 when I was six years old. I played a ton of games on the Atari, then moved on to the Intellivision, then the Commodore 64, then the Amiga when I was 14. My brother started teaching me to program Basic on the Amiga. During high school, I took more programming classes and decided to get my engineering degree when I went to college. When I got to college, I decided I liked computer science more than engineering. At this point, I still did not realize that you could program games for a living.
Gavin: How did you first break into the industry, and how did you find your way to Sculptured Software?
John: I finished my CS degree at Weber State. My first programming job was in Chicago, working for a banking-software company. It was cool at first, but I quickly became bored and started to hate the job. It was more like being an accountant than programming a computer. I came back to Salt Lake to pursue a master's degree at the University of Utah. During my preparation and testing to get admitted to the program at the U, I saw a job posting in The Salt Lake Tribune that said “How would you like to program SNES and Genesis games?” It was from Sculptured Software. I was hired as a Junior Programmer in 1992.
Gavin: What was it like working there, from the time you started to the Acclaim buyout, and how did the idea come about to start up Avalanche Studios?
John: Working at Sculptured was really awesome. Someone was paying me to make games! I had no idea you could do this for a living in Salt Lake! I first started doing the menu screens for a soccer game that was in development for Nintendo. After a couple of months, I was pulled onto a title that was on a tight timeline. It turned out to be a huge break for me because it was Mortal Kombat for the Super Nintendo (SNES). After Mortal Kombat finished, I was promoted to a Lead Programmer and given my own game. The industry was so different back then. Something like that could not happen anymore. It was a great time to be doing games. Development teams were tiny, two to three programmers and a few artists. While I was at Sculptured, the industry was changing a lot. Teams were growing bigger and 3D was becoming the new standard. It was an exciting time because everything was changing so much. My salary almost doubled the first three years of my career. The year that Sculptured was acquired by Acclaim was interesting. We knew the owner was shopping Sculptured to be sold, but we thought we were going to be sold to EA. Because there were a lot of rumors in the company, myself and the guys I went to lunch with everyday started to talk with one of our friends who had left the previous year to go to Saffire in Utah County. Saffire needed programmers for a game they were going to take from Mindscape. We were interested, but did not want to commute to Pleasant Grove. The owner of Saffire convinced us to start our own company so that he could sub-contract the programming to us. We would open our own office in Salt Lake and that way we wouldn’t have to commute. It wasn’t really our idea to start a company, but it fit the needs of the situation at the time.
Gavin: What was it like for the four of you first setting up and getting the company rolling? And was it a challenge getting companies and platforms to work with you, at first?
John: When we started the company, we were totally naive. We had no idea how to run a business. My girlfriend at the time (later my wife) was a nanny for a lawyer at one of the better firms in Salt Lake. As a favor to my girlfriend, he helped us set up the company. He was a great guy that told all of the legalities we needed to watch out for and all of the agencies that we needed to register with. It really set us up with a solid foundation. We owe Cullen a huge thanks! After we had been in business three weeks, the Sculptured acquisition by Acclaim was announced. They also announced the acquisition of a British developer named Probe. This created an interesting situation where Midway had nobody to make their Mortal Kombat games because Acclaim had just bought both companies that had experience. One of the founders of Avalanche had a brother who worked at Midway. When Midway found out that we had already started our own company, they offered us the Ultimate Mortal Kombat titles on the spot. We actually lucked into working on some of the best-selling games of the year. We could not have planned a more advantageous circumstance. It set us up with a great relationship with Midway. We worked almost exclusively for Midway for the next five years.
Gavin: Over the years, you worked with other companies to develop established titles, but also created your own such as Tak. What was it like for you to grow and develop as a company over that time?
John: We started working with other companies as executives from Midway left and went to other publishers. We were never all that good at business development, but we did have a rock-solid reputation with the people we had worked with, and as people moved around, they wanted to continue to use us in their new companies. This actually helped out with Tak a lot. The VP of production left Midway and went to work for THQ. He offered us The Rugrats games, which were selling a ton at that time. We were always interested in big sellers because of the royalties that they generated. It was the first “kids” game that we had made, but marked a transition for us. We developed a strong relationship with Nickelodeon through THQ, so when they asked us to pitch a game that could work as a TV show on Nickelodeon, we pitched them the Big Juju idea that we had. Big Juju went through about nine months of presentations and was eventually selected by THQ and Nickelodeon as their first game-TV property. It was renamed Tak and the Power of Juju. During this time, the company changed substantially. We grew to a studio of about 80 people from the original four. We had to learn how to be a good business, as well as better managers. Teams became large enough that management and communication became necessary skills. It was a big transition for us that not all developers make it through.
Gavin: What was it like talking to Disney about working with them on video game titles, and what was the overall feeling from everyone when Disney acquired the company in 2005?
John: We all thought working with Disney sounded cool. We were really impressed with all of the success their big animated films had had over the years. One of the cool things about making games for films is that you get direct access to the creative team on the film about 18-24 months before the film releases to the public. It is really interesting to watch some of the best creative minds in Hollywood grapple with hard problems and learn from and with them at the same time. We didn’t understand it as well at the time, but working with them would make us better game makers. The feelings at the time of the acquisition were mixed. We were obviously excited by the new possibilities that working directly for Disney would offer, but we were also sad to give up working on the Tak franchise. Tak was finally being made into a TV series that year, so we didn’t quite know what we were giving up. On the other hand, making games was becoming so expensive, we realized that the studios that were working on the bigger games were all becoming internal divisions of publishers. We wanted to keep working on large scale projects, so we all believed it was the right choice.
Gavin: Since Disney came into the picture, you've worked on a lot of its properties like Bolt and Meet The Robinsons. How is it for you as a company getting to work with established properties that come with a built-in audience?
John: It is actually really cool. I talked about getting access to the film teams early. It is awesome to get to see the movies transform over two years. We get to see the “making of” feature on the DVD folding out in real time. We take working with these properties very seriously. Many of these films become people’s favorite movies. The fans expect us to stay true to the films and the worlds that the characters live in. Sometimes it is challenging to make a game that fits, but that challenge is one of the best things about the job.
Gavin: Most recently, you received a lot of press over the Toy Story 3 game, as well as the prequel game for Cars 2. What was it like working with Pixar and its team on those games?
John: Working with Pixar is awesome. It is a privilege to work with them and learn from them. They are some of the most down-to-earth and reasonable people that you will ever meet. At the same time, they are extremely demanding. They demand excellence of themselves and they expect it of us, too, but the way they get there is to understand what is truly hard and hit it head on. They are very honest with feedback. Sometimes that can be harsh if you are really invested in a concept, but they always give good reasons for their feedback. Being exposed to the creative culture and people at Pixar is one of the things I love most about my job right now. It has been a huge growth opportunity.
Gavin: The company has been around 16 years this October, still based in Utah all this time. How has it been for you having survived in an industry where companies usually fade away after 10 years, and to what do you attribute your longevity and creativity?
John: I always tell people that our success was based on equal amounts of luck and hard work. We have had some pretty good breaks come our way, but we have always worked our tails off to make sure we took advantage of the opportunities. It has been at times discouraging, and other times exhilarating, to be working in the games industry for the last 16 years. We have seen a lot of our sister studios in the valley come and go. That can be scary, at times. You definitely have the feeling sometimes of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Other times have been real high points that become almost surreal in a way. When you hear someone talking positively about one of your games when they don’t know you worked on it or you hear a child say the tag line from one of your titles is really gratifying. That feeling keeps a lot of the team going here. We feed off of the response to the games, good and bad. Good responses make us feel great, bad responses make us want to perform better. I personally love the feedback. In my opinion, though, the best thing about working at Avalanche is the people I work with every day. I couldn’t ask for a better group. I credit our longevity to the people who work here. They challenge and inspire each other to new creative solutions with every game we make. The people here care about the games and about our reputation as a studio. A lot of the people here make big sacrifices in their personal lives to make sure the games live up to the quality expectations of the players. That kind of dedication and passion is rare and it is a privilege to be a part of it.
Gavin: I realize you probably can't tell us a lot about what's in development, but what can you give us a preview of coming up over the next year?
John: We are working on our biggest project to date. We are doing something pretty bold in the gaming space, especially in the family segment. You’ll have to stay tuned for more news to come soon!
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