From fatalities to flip tricks: Josh Tsui's 20 years of Chicago game development

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Robomodo's president chronicles two decades of working on some of the biggest franchises in gaming away from the industry's hotspots.

Chicago has its myriad small-to-mid-sized developers and intriguing indies brewing up fascinating creations, but the so-called Second City isn't even a runner-up when it comes to game design hotbeds, sitting comfortably behind Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and others. That wasn't always the case, however, with studios like Midway and EA Chicago enjoying prominent stints before shuttering.

Josh Tsui counts both as past employers during nearly 20 years working on games in Chicago, but he's also created his own opportunities, co-founding developers Studio Gigante and Robomodo and currently serving as president of the latter. Among the top games and franchises that have emerged from Chicago or made pit stops there along the way - such as Mortal Kombat, Tony Hawk, and Fight Night - he's had a hand in many of them, and even appeared in a few.

It's a point of pride for the industry veteran, having touched so many disparate properties without leaving his adopted hometown. As Tsui describes it, though, it's a fitting destiny for a kid who spent his formative years as an arcade rat.

Arcade snobbery turned career

Born to Chinese parents in Korea, Tsui spent the first five years of his life there before the family uprooted and moved to the Los Angeles suburb Arcadia. He was strongly influenced by his two older brothers, taking up skateboarding at a young age, though it was their positions at the local Showboat Golf and Games - the centerpiece of which was a three-floor arcade - that had a significant impact on his later career ambitions.

"My oldest brother managed that, and his idea of babysitting me was literally leaving me there for 12 hours a day with a sack of tokens," says Tsui. "It was awesome. I could not ask for anything better. It probably messed up my life for later on."

Freely able to soak in and master games like Star Castle and Sinistar, Tsui shunned the home console games of the time and their sub-par coin-op adaptations. "Really early on, I was a snob about arcade games," he admits.

After a stretch in Michigan following high school, he moved to Chicago in 1987 to attend Columbia College to study film, and as he wrapped up his degree, he began exploring animation, essentially creating sprites by digitizing real people. When a friend took a position with Midway to work on Mortal Kombat 2, Tsui attempted to follow his lead - and encountered resistance from an entrenched old guard across eight interviews with the company over the course of a year.

"At the time, they were just transitioning from hand-drawn pixels to this video technique, but their thinking was to be a video game artist, you had to have traditional illustration skills," he says. "And I wasn't an illustrator - I was a video guy." He credits his first boss, Jack Heager, with finally convincing Midway that he'd be a worthwhile addition. "[Jack] knew that they would need these other skills eventually," he says.

Josh_tsui_300"REALLY EARLY ON, I WAS A SNOB ABOUT ARCADE GAMES."
Josh_tsui_2_300Tsui with Wrestlemania developers Mark Turmell and Sal Divita, and wrestler Bret Hart Josh_tsui_3_300Tsui being picked up by wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow Josh_tsui_4_300Tsui (far right) promoting NHL Open Ice with hockey legend Gordie Howe Mk_mythologies_300Mortal Kombat Mythologies

Early days at Midway

On the day that the newly-married Tsui returned from his honeymoon in June 1993, he got the call to join Midway to work on WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game. "My wife has been a game dev widow ever since," he says.

As an artist on the game, he spent the first eight months of production photographing professional wrestlers on green screens as their touring schedule brought them into Chicago. Initial plans to use lookalikes and fake the portrayals - "a terrible idea," he concedes - were canned.

He next worked on NHL 2-on-2 Open Ice Challenge, essentially Midway's hockey version of NBA Jam, for which he helped introduce 3D effects to replace laborious sprite-based creations.

"WE ALWAYS HAD THIS FEELING THAT ARCADE WAS AT THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN."

Some of those techniques made their way into Mortal Kombat 3, and before long, he was working on the storied fighting franchise, doing level design on a pair of stages for Mortal Kombat 4 while stepping up as an art director to help tackle action spin-off Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub Zero with series co-creator John Tobias.

"I remember from day one thinking that Josh was willing to mix it up with the rest of us in terms of hard work and dedication," says Tobias. "He maintained that attitude for as long as I worked with him."

Tobias had long wanted to do an adventure game within the franchise, and a closed-door demo of the original PlayStation before its release convinced the team that the timing was right for Midway's first in-house console project - even if the studio's mentality railed against the idea. "We always had this feeling that arcade was at the top of the food chain, and everything else was consoles after that," says Tsui. "It really fed into my arcade snobbery."

Cameos in the "Wild West"

"Midway back in the day was like the Wild West - there just were no rules," Tsui says. "There were no producers; there was nothing. The teams were like, 'Here's five guys - go make a game and we'll see you in a year.' It was very successful because of that. Everyone felt very responsible for their product."

It's also a big part of the reason why you'll catch Tsui in a number of Midway games from that era, starting with a cameo as an unmasked Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat 2. "Tobias came by and said, 'Hey, can I take a quick picture of you?' Next thing I know, I'm in the game," he says. Eventually, Tsui wound up being the model for Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4, with his image used for the in-game character and even promotional materials.

"THE JOKE BACK THEN WAS THAT ANY TIME THEY NEEDED AN ASIAN DUDE AT MIDWAY, IT TURNED OUT TO BE ME."

He's also in the audience in WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game, and is a hidden playable character in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. "In Tournament Edition, there's [even] an advertisement in the background from my family's old Chinese restaurant from Michigan," says Tsui. "We just put it in there. Looking back on it now, [publishers these days] would be selling that ad space for however many thousands of dollars."

Tsui claims his ethnicity made him an easy choice when his colleagues needed a certain kind of character. "The joke back then was that any time they needed an Asian dude at Midway, it turned out to be me," he says with a laugh.

Tsui_sub_zero_300Tsui as Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat 2 Josh_tsui_300-1Tsui as Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat 4 Tsui_nba_jam_300Tsui in NBA Jam: TE Nba_jam_peking_palace_300Peking Palace in NBA Jam: TE

One intended appearance along these lines for the Aerosmith-themed light gun shooter Revolution X didn't quite make the final game. "Thank god," says Tsui. About a month into his tenure with the studio, he was asked to portray what ended up being a "ridiculously stereotyped Japanese businessman sitting on the toilet with [his] pants down," Tsui says, noting the resulting digitized images had the team second-guessing itself. "They didn't mean any harm by it, but I had a feeling that if done wrong, it would come off really badly," Tsui says.

As Tsui saw it, the studio's culture had certain negative elements, notably a royalty structure and competitive nature - subtly encouraged by management - that had rival teams talking trash about each other and not sharing information or technology. "You had to really love games to develop in that environment, but they weren't shy about using royalties and bonuses to help motivate, and that's where rivalries may have formed," says Tobias. "That worked with a small department and micro dev teams, but I think it proved unsustainable as the company and team sizes grew."

"It was like Lord of the Flies," says Tsui. "Looking back on it, we were all 20-somethings and almost unsupervised. We had the keys to the kingdom, and we would do whatever we wanted to. As long as the game was on budget and on time, it didn't matter."

From Midway to Gigante

Mkspec16From Midway to Gigante

After Mythologies shipped, the same team began a follow-up entitled Mortal Kombat: Special Forces. Planned as a full 3D adventure, it worked on it for a year before Tsui, Tobias, and two others from the team decided to part ways with Midway in August 1999. The publisher initially floated the idea of having them complete the project as contractors, but building tensions on Midway's side from the departure ultimately nixed the plan, and their version was wholly scrapped in favor of a widely lambasted isometric brawler.

For Tsui, leaving Midway after six years was about forging his own path outside of a company stocked with arcade legends, and also pursuing more console projects. "I felt like I'd done everything that I wanted to do," he says. "At the time, there was such a hierarchy there that it was going to be really hard to get past a certain ceiling. There were some giants of the industry in that building."

Initially founded in September 1999 as Studio Freestyle - an easily discarded name should Midway's non-compete clauses intervene - the group rebranded itself as Studio Gigante in 2000 and set to work pitching a new fighter for Microsoft. The resulting funding helped expand the studio, and Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus launched on Xbox in March 2003.

Despite mixed reviews, the game sold well on the platform, though the use of Tobias' Mortal Kombat lineage in marketing materials left some on the nearly 20-person team frustrated. "Some of us were really uncomfortable with it," Tsui says. "It automatically becomes a losing battle with some people."

Gigante was ready to roll onto a proper Tao Feng sequel, and Microsoft wanted it - but the proposed deal gave the team pause, as it didn't quite offer the resources desired to pull off the more elaborate design, which featured wildly destructible stages. Simultaneously, THQ swooped in with an offer to develop WWE Wrestlemania 21 - a richer contract that could not only help build up the studio further, but possibly also secure a lucrative annual franchise. After much agonizing, the studio principals opted for THQ's deal, leaving Tao Feng 2 dead in the water.

Tao_feng_350Tao Feng Wrestlemania_21_350Wrestlemania 21
Studio Gigante's Star Wars prototype Studio Gigante's Kill Bill prototype

"Our team was completely crestfallen by that," says Tsui. "We made the best of it; it's not like we didn't work our hearts out," says David Michicich, another Studio Gigante principal and longtime Tsui associate. "But that was my first experience where I'm working on something that I'm enjoying, but my heart wasn't into it. We should have found a way to do both deals." Michicich says exclusivity deals from both publishers prevented such a move.

Not only did the team lose its passion project, but the WWE deal backfired. An incomplete build of the game was accidentally pressed and released, leading to backlash and an eventual recall and revised release. Relations between Gigante and THQ had already soured prior to release, and the poor reaction was the final nail in the coffin.

The Xbox series was dead, and the studio was running out of money. Using a proprietary engine, Gigante prototyped potential Kill Bill and Star Wars fighting games and sought new projects, but decisions weren't being made quickly enough. By July 2005, just three months after Wrestlemania 21 shipped, the studio closed its doors.

Fight_night_round_3_800

A dalliance with EA

"The silver lining in the cloud was that EA Chicago was desperately looking to fill up its team," says Tsui. He and the other principals hung back to wrap up Gigante's affairs while many of its staffers signed up with EA, whose studio was at the time was located out in the suburbs in Hoffman Estates (and later moved downtown).

According to Tsui, EA Chicago head Kudo Tsunoda was surprised that the former Gigante employees spoke so highly of the former bosses that had recently laid them off. Intrigued, Tsunoda invited the ex-Gigante principals to EA Chicago, wining and dining them in the hopes of recruiting their talents. "At that point, I was ready to not deal with games at all anymore, after what we had gone through," says Tsui. "But Kudo showed me Fight Night Round 3. That's all I needed to see."

Much as the early Xbox 360 boxing simulation showed prospective buyers the power of current-generation hardware, it hooked Tsui into joining the publisher's Midwest outpost. He claims it was the "craziest crunch" he's ever been a part of, but praises the team. Round 3 launched to tremendous fanfare and sales figures. And then seemingly out of nowhere to Tsui, the franchise was pulled from the studio and sent packing to EA Canada.

Fight_night_round_3_300

"I WAS SO DISAPPOINTED. I WENT TO EA CHICAGO TO JUST WORK ON FIGHT NIGHT ... KUDO LITERALLY HAD TO TAKE ME OUTSIDE TO TELL ME."

"I was so disappointed," he says. "I went to EA Chicago to just work on Fight Night. That's all I wanted to do, and I thought they would hold onto it forever. Kudo literally had to take me outside to tell me."

His consolation prize was Marvel: Chaos, a comic-inspired, behind-the-back fighter with loads of characters - and too many high-level ideas. "It was one of those games where if there was a concentration on three features, it would've been an incredible game," says Tsui. "But there were so many things going on in that game that we spent an incredible amount of time and ended up with basically a tech demo."

Between the expensive downtown headquarters, the failure of sluggish hip-hop fighter Def Jam: Icon, and a lack of traction on the Marvel project, EA Chicago closed its doors in November 2007, leaving Tsui and crew once more out of a job.
Marvel: Chaos concept video

Activision's intriguing proposal

Tony_hawk_ride_300Tony Hawk Ride Tony_hawk_shred_2_300Tony Hawk Shred Tony_hawk_shred_300Tony Hawk Shred

Dazed by the sudden closure, Tsui soon got word from an Activision contact that the publisher was looking to establish a team to tackle a new entry in one of its venerable franchises: Call of Duty, Guitar Hero, or Tony Hawk. While many of the jobless EA staffers were interviewing elsewhere, Tsui rallied the troops to try and make a show of it and see what might happen. "We basically gathered up our Marvel team, went to Gino's East pizza, and laid it out," he says.

Tony Hawk was a dream project for Tsui; he recounts an anecdote from the day he left Midway, seeing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater for the first time at a friend's place and thinking he'd kill to make a game like that. He wouldn't have to.

"WE DEFINITELY BIT OFF A LOT MORE THAN WE COULD CHEW."

Activision signed a letter of intent to fund a studio for three months of prototype work on a Tony Hawk game in mid-December, as the team rushed to get the paperwork finalized before everyone dispersed for the holidays. "When I was at Office Depot, I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm faxing over a good chunk of my life right now; I could literally walk away from games and not do this,'" he says.

But he did, and Robomodo officially opened its doors in January 2008. Activision asked the team to prototype a board-based experience, all while building its own game engine and amassing a staff. "It was a lot of stuff," Tsui says, calling it the most challenging period in his career. "We definitely bit off a lot more than we could chew." Manufacturing issues with the prototype boards intervened, as did design bugs, and the studio waffled on the best approach for the game, attempting to blend traditional Pro Skater ideas and motion-centric concepts. "We were hedging our bets, which we shouldn't have done," he says.

Skylanders_300

.Locked into a holiday release and launching at a higher-than-expected $120 - "We were designing it with a $70-80 game in mind," says Tsui - Tony Hawk: Ride and its motion-sensing board peripheral launched in late 2009 to middling reviews. Production on a sequel, 2010's Tony Hawk: Shred, was already underway. "Shred ended up being twice the game at half the production time, so we had to go," he says. "There was no time to think."

Shred improved the controls and added snowboarding and a cel-shaded look, but also bombed at retail. Plans for a more fantastical third entry were underway - Tsui mentions daredevil Evel Knievel as a thematic touchstone - but the second game's dismal sales numbers killed that plan.

Tsui also says the RFID chip technology that eventually powered Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure's smart figurines could have debuted in the Hawk franchise.

"They wanted to do a board with memory in it so you could level up your characters and take your board to somebody else's house," he says, noting that the same Activision producers moved over to Skylanders when the Hawk franchise took a breather. "It's the same idea," he says. "When they brought that up, it's like, 'Yeah, it's a good idea, but the board's so big...'".

Deathstalker is one of Robomodo's current research projects. It may or may not see the light of day.

Seeking independence

Robomodo wasn't meant to be an indie studio. The original deal with Activision had the developer falling under its umbrella should certain conditions be met. Tsui's unwilling to elaborate on the details, but says, "It had nothing to do with our game ... as the industry evolved over the years, publishers needed to stay light."

Despite the odd origins, Robomodo isn't waiting for the next Hawk game to make its next mark. The studio is currently working on a bevy of projects, from a browser-based MMO for a Taiwanese publisher to a free-to-play iOS learning program, which it's calling a "babysitter app." Both are technology plays to help the studio enter new markets, and Tsui says the company is eager to escape sole reliance on traditional publishers.

"Robomodo has to do more and more self-publishing, and do less work-for-hire stuff," he says. "Because right now it's about owning people's eyeballs. It becomes less about access and more about design, which I'm really stoked about."

The studio is trying its hand at original traditional games as well.Bodoink, which it unsuccessfully tried to fund via Kickstarter as a downloadable Kinect game, may see fresh life as a mobile game. And staffers continue circling back to Deathstalker, a side-scrolling adventure that bears more than a passing resemblance to Xbox Live Arcade hit Shadow Complex. Other prototypes include a pirate-themed tower defense title and skateboard-centric concepts on iOS.

For Tsui, who spent many years in the employ of big publishers and most of the rest working on projects for them, maintaining his studio's independence at this point is key. "I think there's a certain part of me that's very immature, that I want to do what I want to do," he says. "I always want to stay independent because even in the worst of times, if something horrible really happens, at least it was under your control." He cites the EA Chicago closure as a key trigger here - a blindsiding event that killed a team that he repeatedly praises.

Nowadays, the father of two tries to stay relaxed in his day-to-day dealings and be a voice of reason when issues pop up around the studio. "I wasn't always like that, and I think that affected previous games and such," he says. "I felt like I had to be the rock star in the middle." Michicich, the CEO and creative director of Robomodo, adds, "Josh has learned over the years to delegate more as he takes on more of a principal role and liaisons with publishers, IP owners, and new emerging technologies."

As for weathering the ups and downs of the Chicago game development industry over two decades? Tsui credits entrepreneurial tendencies and claims he cannot imagine relocating for a job: "Why am I moving for something that I know is going to be temporary? I'd rather start my own thing and live where I want to live."

Despite the returning urge after completed projects to flee game development - a running joke among his friends - Tsui says he can never execute on the fleeting idea. "I know I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to make games, and so far each project has something that just hooks me in like a fish. I can't resist," he admits.

"Even after Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, I'm thinking, 'Well, that's a great way to cap this whole thing off,' because I feel like I've come full circle. But I'm sure something else is going to pop up as a challenge - and then I'm right back in again."

Image credits

Andrew Hayward, Josh Tsui, Richard Ho, Andrew Kudelka, Ken Fedesna, Jack Haeger, Midway, Microsoft, Studio Gigante, THQ, Electronic Arts, Activision

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