From the ashes of EA Chicago's studio closure, Robomodo was formed, and it wasn't long before the team of 23 had become a team of 70, developing skateboard peripheral-equipped Tony Hawk Ride
"We've grown quite a bit," CEO and creative director David Michicich tells Gamasutra. Situated next to Chicago's Flashpoint College, the studio also has the support on the QA side from student interns and recent grads.
Robomodo's founding staff was comprised of much of Fight Night 3
's core team, and Michicich asserts those staffers' experience in innovating on game mechanics is part of what made them so desirable to publishers like Activision once the EA studio closed its doors.
A New Project For A Close Team
"Every publisher kind of rained down on Chicago to try to pull all the talent... everywhere there was job offers flying back and forth," he describes. But primarily, the team wanted to stay in the city and keep the team together.
"When you have a team that you build over time, there's this synergy that you just can't build overnight," says Michicich. "It was really important for us to maintain and keep the team together. What we did was we put a packet together and we approached a bunch of publishers. It was Activision -- to their credit, they were able to really jump on us," he said.
Although the partnership was formed as Activsion finalized its Blizzard merger, the company was also interested in "reinvigorating" its Tony Hawk franchise. It wanted an innovative game mechanic, and Michicich says all the philosophies aligned for Tony Hawk: Ride
"Art supports gameplay supports art -- [we have] this looping philosophy," he says. "Game mechanics need to be innovative. That's a term that's thrown a round quite a bit in this industry, but we needed to give weight to that word and we think we've completely done that with the board -- is phenomenal. It's amazing. It's an experience."
That board is the special Tony Hawk: Ride
-specific accessory, and Michicich says it's not such a stretch for some combat game designers to start working with a sport peripheral.
"We have a lot of experience on the team, and some of us go back to the arcade days," he explains. "We go back to Midway and doing the arcade games and the full stand-ups, so there was a lot of interest in really selling the experience -- getting somebody to stand up on a board and use their muscle memory and their balance and really immerse themselves in the game."
That's why the team collectively jumped on Tony Hawk: Ride
, from among a few Activision portfolio projects under discussion. "We all jumped on Tony Hawk
because if seemed like a great fit; we all loved skateboarding and had a lot of interest there," he says. "You really need to be interested in what youre creating or it's not gonna work.
The skater himself is "amazing to work with," Michicich adds. "We work very closely with him, and that began pretty much right away."
Iterating Hardware And Software Hand In Hand
Lead designer Patrick Dwyer says that instead of being a roadblock, the challenge of developing the game mechanics alongside the board hardware is one of the most fun and interesting parts of developing Tony Hawk: Ride
"It was pretty interesting, in the fact that we knew we wanted to change the control mechanic of the skateboarding game and we also wanted to make the skateboarding game that represented Robomodo," Dwyer tells us.
"Most of the after-market products that go on top of [skating games] kind of work with the game, but you have to hold the controller," says Dwyer. "We knew that if we were going to go with this idea for a peripheral, we had to develop the software and the gameplay mechanics around what the peripheral would do, around a unique experience that you could not get holding the controller."
The question of appropriate input device is a particularly salient one in the current environment, as peripheral-equipped games become more popular, and gesture-controlled inputs are viewed as a way of increasing a title's appeal to new audiences.
So which comes first, the game mechanics themselves or the device used to interact with them? Bundling software with peripherals has played a significant role in Activision's business model, so does development of titles like these trend toward peripherals first, design later?
"Philosophically, it really depends on the game," opines Dwyer. "Before you develop a peripheral for a game, you kind of develop what your goals for the experience are... it wasn't about, 'we have to make a peripheral and then we're going to make a game because that's what gaming is leaning towards.'"
And despite the experience with stand-up arcades, the development experience was mostly new for many of the Robomodo staffers. "People that came from EA Chicago had never worked on a peripheral hardware system as a full team," says Dwyer. "So there was a lot of learning there, but around Chicago there were tons of resources available to us as far as hardware, lots of sources that could give us lots of information on how to better make this peripheral."
And strong prototyping experience in software naturally translates to hardware, Dwyer adds. "The number of iterations we put on just getting the board to feel right when someone stands on it... our level of iteration experience on software really helped us in developing this piece of hardware."
Rather than getting the peripheral design locked down early before the mechanics could be developed, Dwyer says that it was important to take the time to iterate on the board itself. "We really wanted not to be tied down to something until we fully investigated everything."
Early iterations of the board featured buttons, track balls and all kinds of experience. "They really ran the gamut of stretching your imaginations," he laughs. "We started out with wires everywhere, we took apart Xbox 360 controllers, we had the gyroscope from a PlayStation 3 controller... all Frankenstein-ed together. We took the prototypes that we made and really pulled out lots of good gameplay nuggets."
Former Mortal Kombat
designer Mark Loffredo became a go-to technology person at Robomodo as far as the peripheral's circuit boards, and played a key role in solidifying the hardware design. But that's not to say the process has been easy.
"The biggest challenge for any independent startup is taking on an AAA project like this head-on, and to ensure delivery of a good product, you really need not reinvent the wheel all
the time," says Michicich. "It's very challenging; it's a daunting task to do ... development is not easy, and then taking and doing a peripheral that's never been done before, we're creating hardware, we're creating software, we're creating a rendering engine, we're doing it for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii."
Making use of existing tools was a key part of Robomodo's process, then. "One thing that's really important is you know about what's available; you make other professionals out there work for you and with you."
"You want to form some strategic alliances -- we leaned on NaturalMotion's Morpheme runtime in our game, so we didn't have to create the whole animation tree, which would have been very, very, very difficult to do within the window we had to get this game done," he adds. "We leaned on Havok for physics, and that's just two examples. It gets the team the ability to just concentrate on making a good game and not reinventing a wheel."