Interview: Activision Deal Launches New Studio For EA Chicago Vets
Robomodo is a new Chicago-based independent development studio quietly formed in January 2008, and this morning it officially launched with the announcement of an unspecified title to be published by Activision.
The studio was formed by veterans of Electronic Arts' Chicago studio -- Robomodo president Josh Tsui, also the director of the unannounced Activision project, tells Gamasutra that a "good chunk" of the studio's team members formerly comprised the Fight Night Round 3 team.
The founding partners also include Robomodo CEO and project creative director David Michicich, COO and project management director Nick
Ehrlich, CTO Peter Sauerbrei and motion director Richard Ho.
Tsui, Michicich, Ho and Ehrlich began working together in the early '90s at Midway on titles including the Mortal Kombat series before Tsui, Michicich and Sauerbrei went onto EA Chicago together in 2005. When EA Chicago closed, Tsui says, "a group of us got together and decided it's in our best interests to stay together as a team."
"Between November  and January , we were talking to a lot of different publishers to show them what a strong team we were and -- ultimately we became an official studio in January, after striking a deal with Activision."
Michicich recalls that when the Chicago studio closed, EA took the "very respectful, very awesome" step of holding a large job fair for the discharged team members, and then opened their doors to other publishers in an attempt to help the staffers find new homes. But ultimately, 27 members of the team chose to stick together and strike out on their own.
The creative director says it's the team's long-standing mutual respect for one another's talent that made them want so much to stay together as a unit. "It was such a senior team that took years to build," he says.
"That synergy and that kind of team doesn’t happen overnight, so when you have 27 members of that team who all had a passion to still work together, we felt we needed to take the opportunity to keep them together."
Going independent "really wasn't a big leap of faith for all of us," Tsui says. "Even though [EA Chicago was] a part of EA, it functioned like an indie studio. Even before it became part of EA it was NuFX and independent before that, and kept the spirit of that studio alive."
Robomodo expects that initial 27-person staff to be up to about 45 team members in the coming week as the team gets ready to work on the project for the Activision deal. And the studio is eager to keep growing, actively seeking new talent, hoping to eventually weigh in at a little over 60 team members.
Though the studio spoke with many publishers in its formative stages, Tsui says that it was Activision's quick decisiveness that made it the front-runner for Robomodo's desired partnership.
"Once they saw the team and what we can do, they presented us with a bunch of different projects that they [wanted us] to work on," Tsui explains. "Like, 'here, here are three or four projects -- what would you like to do?"
"We liked that attitude of really supporting independent studios. Even with their own studios, they make sure they maintain their own personalities," Michicich says. And, says Tsui, talking with other people at Activision's studios confirmed for Robomodo that they'd be able to maintain their own spirit.
"They also know how to reach a broad audience," adds Michicich. "As an independent developer, it’s very important to align yourself with a publisher that knows how to lay that down... and it's pretty much a no-brainer."
While Robomodo was willing to be enthusiastic on the development deal, they were much less able to disclose any details on the project. But since much of the team is comprised of Fight Night Round 3 staff, and given the founding members' Mortal Kombat experience, can audiences expect a fighting game?
"Not necessarily," Tsui says. "I know our history... a lot of our base is in fighting games, but by no means does that mean it’s all we want to do. Even at EA Chicago, we were starting to branch into other areas. We’re not just doing a fighting game," he says.
Adds Michicich, "We're most definitely interested in doing something different, both on a personal basis for the individual team members and also for the studio itself. We’re a game company, not a 'fighting game company.'"
Robomodo's new official website describes the upcoming game as a "high-profile extreme sports title." While it's worth noting Activision is still the license holder for Tony Hawk titles, Robomodo says that whatever they're working on, Activision hasn't breathed word of it to the press or public yet.
And what about the tongue-pleasing studio name, Robomodo? "It's like robot-style," says creative director Michicich. "We liked how it just kind of rolled off the tongue; it sounds cool, it sounds fun, and that's very important to us."
And it ties into what the studio sees as its core philosophy, he adds. "The 'robot' could be more of the hardware and engineering, and the 'style' could be more about the art. We have a philosophy – art supports gameplay supports art supports gameplay."
And Michicich says the team's had experiences in the past where art and gameplay have been at odds. But now, "For Josh and I, and for the team in general, doing this is about changing that up and doing things right, and it’s a huge goal of ours. It’s all about harmony, with the goal of producing a very fun and exciting game."
Says Tsui, "Fortunately we’re in that situation with Activision that we share a common vision -- that’s the only way that this can work. If you don’t have enough time and resources to make a stellar game, and if both sides don’t share that vision, the game’s not gonna come out and do well."
"Today, people are just way too choosy in the games they purchase, so innovation is key."