An Australian [game studio] Story

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  • souri's picture

At the closing of the Studio doors on Wednesday 10th August 2011, I had been with THQ Studio Australia since the very beginning.

In mid 2002 I was working in the London animation industry but my wife and I couldn’t stand the thought of another long cold winter and decided to return home to Brisbane by the end of the year. The TV animation scene in Brisbane at the time was ok but this whole new industry had sprung up, games, and it was thriving. If you wanted a stable long term job with decent pay then the games industry was the go. I got in touch with Pandemic Studios and landed a job on a prototype Xbox exclusive game they were developing, so we moved back to Brisbane and I started work on that character heavy game which seemed a perfect fit for my skills, even though I hadn’t a lot of game experience at the time. It was a cracker of a party game in my opinion, but Microsoft made an abrupt decision that they no longer wanted a party game exclusive at the time and it was promptly canned. Probably the best thing that happened as I recall the next thing we started on just before I left did pretty well for them, I guess the title said it all. Destroy All Humans!

It was at that time that an ex-colleague from years before, David MacMinn got in contact with me and asked me if I’d be interested in applying for a lead animator role for a new studio that was starting up. I recall loving the job and people at Pandemic but having just had a good project canned, I figured the opportunity to be involved from the beginning of a start up at a lead level was too good an opportunity to pass up.

It was 8 years ago in February 2003 and I was interviewed at the Elephant & Wheelbarrow pub in Fortitude Valley as there was no studio at the time. I’d never heard of the publisher and constantly made the mistake of referring to THQ as THX. I thought that would be the end of it, but Steve Dauterman and Roy Tessler were very forgiving and I believe they considered my cross industry experience valuable considering the project they had lined up was based on a kids animated TV show. They were pretty inspirational and knew exactly what they wanted out of the studio and how to establish and execute the studio’s first title.

I recall developing the first pass game design with David in my back yard, on an outdoor table under the breeze of a fan in the summer heat, gradually we shifted to the air conditioned comfort of Roy’s kitchen table for meetings and design reviews a few times a week. Then quite quickly other leads were hired and we found some office space on Astor Terrace in Spring Hill. This was really exciting stuff, I’d never been involved with a start up before and to watch it form and grow was amazing, my hat goes off to Roy and Steve in that regard. The studio, like most at that time, was rapidly growing and it was hard to find local developers that were out of work or looking for new opportunities, but we managed to round up some really solid talent both locally and from abroad. These were really good days! If I recall correctly the team was around 35 employees during that time and it was obvious that we were going to need more studio space if we wanted to expand further and produce multiple concurrent titles, which I believe was always the intention for the studio.

Development on that first game seemed to run pretty smoothly and by mid 2004 we were almost complete on our first licensed Nickelodeon title, Jimmy Neutron : Attack of the Twonkies. Sure it was no AAA blockbuster, but the intention was to establish ourselves as capable of developing a kids licensed title on time, on budget and beyond the quality expected at that time. I believe we delivered on all counts and THQ corporate were happy with the studio and the results.

The Australian dollar at that time was a huge draw card for publishers, we could produce these licensed titles at a much cheaper cost than the US and because we got stuff out on time and on budget consistently and these games were profitable, it made a great business model. We all knew that it was the reason the studio was built, but we always had hope that at some stage we would we allowed to develop our own IP or at least pick up a PIXAR license which other THQ studios were developing at that time (the animation team certainly wanted that anyway!). The next license lined up was a SpongeBob Squarepants title, which was cool by me as these character games are a lot of fun for animators

The studio was bursting at the seams and moved across the road to a larger office space taking the whole third floor of the new building. Those early days were good times, the team was powering on, there was a positive feeling for the success of the studio and obviously people felt very secure as a lot of us became first time parents during that year and we didn’t turn over staff unless there were special circumstances.

Unfortunately right at the end of our first project one of those special circumstances were mine. A devastating tragedy took me out of work for a good 10 months, after which THQ welcomed me back with open arms, first in a part time position for a few months then full time as a senior animator in October 2005. This really was an amazing company with the greatest people.

In that time away a few things had changed. Roy had returned to the US to work for THQ corporate, and the leads from our first game were now Directors. In fact Steve Middleton had moved from lead artist to art director and was now in the GM position. A whole slew of new people had come on and a few had left. The studio had grown massively in those 10 months and had finished up on the SpongeBob game and was powering on.

The facts are a little blurry at this time for me, I came back to work on the Avatar : The Last Airbender game which was in production and I recall we were looking at other concurrent titles. There were a few things at the time that I wasn’t involved with on next gen platforms that never eventuated and we had also started a tech team to build on our own next gen engine and tools rather than relying on a middleware solution. I couldn’t tell you exact numbers but I’m pretty sure the studio grew to around 120 people by the time we had two projects running simultaneously.

At this time it was decided to do something different, still a license game, but something challenging and not constrained to a yearly release schedule. Something that got a lot of people thinking was our chance to show the world that we could compete at a higher level than the kids titles we were pumping out. Ultimately there were a lot of good, talented people that believed it was possible and the choice had been made. This new project ran on our next gen engine which was mostly art tech at the time and not a lot of mature tools or systems. The team did a really good job at putting together a vertical slice, but not without a lot of growing pains, time and of course spending a lot of money to get there. In the end it wasn’t the project for the studio and our first major round of redundancies where made due to that. This in essence was the first failure the studio had had.

Over the same time period the licensed kids game team, including myself back in the lead animator position, had finished the next installment of the Avatar TV series and as the studio grew in size we moved down to the second floor to produce the third game of the series and start on the movie version. These games were a known quantity and quality, and a business model that I believed worked well for the studio and why I, along with a few others, opted for that option over the next gen projects

After the canned next gen title and redundancies, the studio continued on with licensed kids games and moved into a new lavishly appointed refit of the old Pandemic Studios building in Fortitude Valley. This was really nice, a real pick me up for the morale of the studio and alongside that I got the opportunity to move from my animation lead role into production, heading up my own very small (11 people) team creating the Wii SKU of the Megamind licensed movie title thanks to the confidence of management and a little helpful push from my long time mentor and director of production Jon Cartwright. We, along with the Avatar movie team were using variations of the very mature PS2 tech that had been enhanced for the Wii. The third and largest team which (including the engine coders) were creating the Xbox 360/PS3 version of the Megamind game and continuing to develop the next gen tech.

That little Wii project was by far the most enjoyable experience at the studio I had had since the early days, and made me realise what a small, highly communicative and skilled development team was capable of with solid planning, disciplined execution, mature tech and on the smallest of budgets. Again not a blockbuster by any means, but the journey was fun and I’m proud of that game considering our size and limitations. This is the hopeful future I would like to see for myself, running or part of a tight, talented game team developing smaller profitable titles.

In mid 2010 the Megamind and Avatar movie projects were wrapping up and we were starting on our new next gen project, we had a gained some early momentum pretty quickly with what we could salvage from the Megamind game. Within a few weeks at our first studio showcase we had characters running and flying around, smashing through physics walls, punching, charging, kicking and shooting targeting missiles at basic AI. Everything felt very much on concept and license and people couldn’t wait to get on board, there was a lot of excitement building.

Unfortunately early on we had a few technical hurdles due to our next gen tech being mostly designed for single player linear platform brawler/shooter type games and a lot of systems and online multiplayer framework would require building as they had simply never been created because of the types of single player game we had previously been making. This caused a slow start for the project in terms of functional gameplay whilst tech was getting sorted out. After a few months things started to develop and the tech team moved forward at great speed. By the end of May 2011 we had a vertical slice level that was pretty damn sweet.

We were told by management that THQ corporate were loving the game but concerned with how we were going to get it finished, this was no surprise considering the slow start but we seemed to be getting a lot more financial and internal THQ studio support during the final months. The licensor was definitely loving it, as was the team, we all felt this was a game that would put us on the world’s stage and I wish we were able to show the world the potential of what “could have been”. Even with the fantastic push forward we had made in tech and gameplay, in the end it was too little too late, production cost were escalating due to time constraints and the project was just not going to make the money needed and they called it a day.

It was definitely a roller coaster ride for me but all up I had a pretty awesome journey over the 8 years that THQ Studio Australia existed, worked with a lot of very talented people and made a lot of really good friends.

On to the next chapter I guess.

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Disclaimer - This is a personal weblog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer.

Comments

CharlesH's picture

I joined this studio and story at about chapter 11 and I have to say Geoff you are pretty spot on with the big picture stuff. It was a great place to work for 3 years and just a huge shame that we didn't get to show the world our baby.

souri's picture

I remember when we posted the job ad from THQ which had mention of that game (which was later moved to another studio). That ad created an incredible amount of press internationally, and it was definitely a project we hadn't seen from the Brisbane studio before. A whole lot of fans were really excited over it.

I remember seeing some leaked footage from a private showing of it at e3, I think. It looked incredible, but that video was taken down fairly quickly. It felt and played a bit like God of War, and you could chain multiple attacks. It was definitely disheartening to hear that it moved to another studio and that they were taking the game into another direction entirely.

gsuttor's picture

Hey guys, this is something I started writing down the day the doors closed, but I just sat on it a while.
I wanted people to have a summary of the studio history before it dissipated into nothingness.

Not a dig or a rant or a vent. It really is my perspective and I'm sure others will have a different perspective depending on their experience.

I also left out a lot of details that I just didn't have much involvement with, like we had a successful internal production team working out of the studio on hand held games and one of our titles was a Wii launch title and we won a team award after Spongebob (I missed that period you see). So if I missed anything that was important, sorry about that, but again... from my perspective only. Cheers.

Andrew McMillen's picture

Thanks for sharing this Geoff, very informative.

Marc's picture

Well said Geoff, I have very fond memories of THQ and the staff who worked tirelessly all for the love of the industry it is a shame to see the studio crumble to nothingness.

gsuttor's picture

Thanks Guys.