Game Director for Transformers: Fall of Cybertron reveals how High Moon saved the Dinobots from extinction
Matt Tieger has decided that what he wants in his next game is a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex from outer space who fights with a sword and a shield and breaths fire. And is a robot.
What he wants, in other words, is Grimlock, the Dinobot. All that stands in his way is the company who owns the Transformers, Hasbro, and they've decided that Grimlock (and the rest of the Dinobots) are being retired.
According to Hasbro, the Dinobots will not be in any Transformers movies. They will not be in any Transformers games. They will not be in anyTransformers anything. They are finished.
The people at Hasbro, in other words, tell Tieger that Grimlock will be done away with.
This is the story of how he tried to change their mind.
Me Grimlock king!
Matt Tieger wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up. And a marine biologist. And an artist. But mainly: Paleontologist. He loved dinosaurs. Knew all of their names. He wanted to dig their bones out of the Earth and tell their stories.
By the time he went to college, he'd changed his mind. He wanted to be a marine biologist again. He studied marine biology. Then, just shy of a Ph.D from Rutgers, he changed his mind yet again and left to make videogames.
Now Tieger works as Game Director for High Moon Studios, the company behind 2010's Transformers: War for Cybertron. For Matt, it is the best job in the world. Particularly because he is now in charge.
His new game is the sequel to War for Cybertron, Fall of Cybertron, and what Tieger wants more than anything is to let players be the leader of the Dinobots."As a fan of Transformers," Tieger told Polygon, by phone. "Grimlock is, if not my favorite, in my top three favorite Transformers of all time.
"IF YOU DON'T WANT TO PLAY A GIANT ROBOT THAT TRANSFORMS INTO A SPACE T-REX THAT BREATHES FIRE OUT OF YOUR MOUTH, I DON'T WANT TO KNOW YOU."
"[Actually] I would say he probably is my favorite."
Grimlock. The leader of the Dinobots.
If the Transformers are the gold mined from the hearts of young boys, then the Dinobots are a vein of pure platinum. Part robot, part dinosaur, they are, for many boys (boys like young Matt Tieger), the perfect combination of awesome meets awesome. Tieger calls them "peanut butter and chocolate."
Dinobots arrived in the Transformersuniverse early, appearing in the eighth episode of the original animated series from the 1980s. In that series, the Autobots (the good guy Transformers)created the Dinobots after seeing dinosaur bones in a museum. For the ever-evolving storyline of Transformers, Dinobots were the perfect vehicle. Simple, but complex. Powerful, but dumb. Honorable, but frequently challenging the authority of their Autobot creators.Each Dinobot was created in the form of a well-known dinosaur. Slag is the Triceratops. Sludge, the Apatosaurus. Snarl and Swoop, Stegosaurus and Pteranodon, respectively. Grimlock, the self-proclaimed "king" of the Dinobots, is the Tyrannosaurus Rex - the "tyrant lizard" in ancient Greek, which we know as "king of the dinosaurs."
"It was really easy for me to get behind Grimlock as a playable character ... for some very selfish reasons," Tieger said. "He was a big fucking space T-rex. Who doesn't find that interesting? He [is] a story driver. You don't even have to like Transformers to be interested in this character."
For Tieger and team, Dinobots were on the table as soon as they learned they were creating a sequel to War for Cybertron. They knew they wanted to explore the dynamic between Grimlock and Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots. Grimlock is fiercely proud, but volatile. Optimus, on the other hand, is honorable, but methodical.
In the various and sundry Transformers stories that have gone before, the two are occasionally like fire and ice. On the same team, but barely. Complementing each other in spite of the friction.High Moon flew from their studio in San Diego to the Hasbro headquarters in Rhode Island. Before they could begin work on their game, they had to make the pitch. Hasbro, which exercises absolute control over everything involving Transformers (up to and including the Michael Bay films) had to sign off.
"I went out with 10 black and white sketches that roughly told the story of what we wanted to do," Tieger said. "And the only color stuff that I took was a design for Grimlock. I was so excited about it."
Tieger laid out his story idea. Since day one of High Moon's partnership with Hasbro, the toy company has given the studio practically free reign to develop the story of Cybertron. What it was like, how the Transformers' epic civil war started and how that war migrated to Earth.Hasbro has been working with other creative teams to evolve the storyline of the Transformers on Earth (most notably with the afore-mentioned Michael Bay), but for the Cybertron story, High Moon got the nod.
"I WENT OUT WITH 10 BLACK AND WHITE SKETCHES … "
" … AND THE ONLY COLOR STUFF WAS A DESIGN FOR GRIMLOCK."
Part one was War for Cybertron. Part two would be Fall of Cybertron, and it would center around the creation of the Dinobots and Grimlock. The only color concept sketch Tieger brought to Rhode Island on his iPad. The only character he really wanted in the game.
"If you don't want to play a giant robot that transforms into a space T-rex that breathes fire out of your mouth, I don't want to know you," Tieger said. "That's the way I think about it. You don't want that, I don't want to know you. It's a fucking space T-rex. I mean come on!"
Tieger made his pitch, wiped his brow and closed his iPad.
Hasbro said no.
Gallery: Dinobots source material
The bad ending
What Matt Tieger did not know was that Hasbro had already sealed the Dinobots' fate. Before Fall of Cybertron had even been pitched, Hasbro had decided that the Dinobots no longer had a place in the future of the Transformers. Matt Tieger's dream of creating a game starring his favorite Transformer of all time had been all but crushed before he had even gotten a chance to start.
The bad ending to this story begins after the end of that first pitch meeting in Rhode Island. After Tieger unveils his concepts for a new Grimlock and Hasbro rejects it.
"I hadn't actually thought [about] if Dinobots don't work, here's what we're going to do," Tieger said. "I don't approach it that way.
"I'm not a guy who makes back up plans. I go in and whatever the thing is, and we plan for success. We drive as hard and as fast as we can towards something and if ultimately we get told no, obviously that hurts but ... that's when we create the new plan."
"I WOULD HAVE THROWN A TANTRUM. ON THE FLOOR AND KICKING."
There is a possible universe in which Tieger didn't have the grim determination to go back to the drawing board and try to find a way to change Hasbro's mind. In that universe, that Tieger takes "no" for an answer. He accepts Hasbro's rejection and then flies home to San Diego, crushed.
Asked what he would have done next, Tieger said: "I would have thrown a tantrum."
"I certainly wouldn't have given up easily but that's probably the best I can tell you. A tantrum. On the floor and kicking."
It would be a sad ending to this story. Tieger's boyhood dream, the collision of his earliest interests with the best job in the world, vaporized.
A terrible ending. An entirely possible ending.
Yet not the true ending.
"That sounds really exciting - to you - but for us, it doesn't really work."
That was the response from Hasbro to Tieger's first Grimlock pitch, as he paraphrases it.
It wasn't a "F-you;" it was just a "no." A perfectly legitimate "no." But still a "no."
In truth, it wasn't even a hard no. There was an understanding of the passion and enthusiasm Tieger's team had brought to the table. There was also recognition that introducing the Dinobots as playable characters would allow High Moon to shake up the gameplay of their sequel. These were all things Hasbro understood and was positive about.
But reintroducing the Dinobots as they were currently imagined: No.
Their reasons seemed perfectly valid. For one thing, the Dinobots, as originally envisioned, became Dinobots on Earth, after copying or being built into dinosaur form (depending on the version). For Hasbro, Earth was outside of the sandbox they'd created for High Moon's games. Earth wasn't on the table. So Dinobots weren't on the table.
Hasbro also understood that the popular perception of dinosaurs has changed in the years since Grimlock was "king." While an older audience, who grew up with the originalTransformers, may have nostalgic fondness for the Dinobots, newcomers to the story might not get it.
"In some ways I think Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park rethought what we think about dinosaurs," said Tieger. "If you think about what [Dinobots] looked like in the cartoon, they were the traditional tail dragging ... King Kong style. And that's not what we think about them today."In order to justify bringing the Dinobots back to life, Hasbro needed to see how they were going to be new and fresh to a fresh, new audience. The Dinobots couldn't just be brought back as fan service. As sensitive as the company is to its oldest customers, it is acutely conscious of continuing to grow the brand and keep it relevant. In Hasbro's eyes, Dinobots were not relevant.
So: They said no.
Then they said:
"This means something to you. This matters to you and we get what you're trying to do. So let's see if we can work it out. We don't see how it can work, but maybe we can figure it out together. We can keep [the Dinobots] ... and maybe we'll turn it around."Tieger left that meeting knowing he had to come back the next time with something that would change their minds, or he would lose. So he flew back to San Diego and got to work saving Grimlock.
Gallery: Fall of Cybertron Dinobot concept art
Me Grimlock need new strategy
High Moon went back to the drawing board.
"We need a story that makes sense for why [Dinobots] exist and can carry them into the future and does not [have] time travel and … alternate dimensions," said Tieger. "If I can create a story that doesn't have those two things in it I feel like it's believable. We have transforming, sentient robots from another planet. I think that's enough of a sci-fi stretch that I don't need to add time travel to it."
The gauntlet had been thrown. The lines had been drawn. Tieger and his team had a narrow window to try a new approach and come back to Rhode Island with a better Dinobot. Tieger went to work creating a new origin story, while the gameplay team went to work tuning how the massive Grimlock would play.
On the gameplay side, the Cybertron team had listened to feedback from critics and fans. They knew they'd fallen short of delivering a perfect game withWar for Cybertron. One of the most oft-cited reasons for this was a lack of variety. The game got boring. Repetitive. It wasn't as much fun to play after it ended as when it began.
To fix this, the team knew they needed to change up the way the game played, and this was one of their strongest reasons for wanting Grimlock as a playable character.
"We're a third-person shooter game and Grimlock doesn't have a gun," said Tieger. "He's a big, giant brawler with a sword and a shield. So you're playing for a while and you feel like you've mastered everything that the game has to offer you and you've bought and upgraded weapons and all this kind of cool shit. And then all of a sudden, 'Oh wait, I have to think completely differently about combat. I have to think differently about melee.'
"So he does change your way of thinking."
And of playing. If High Moon could shake him up, make him more modern, they knew they'd have a killer gameplay element.
Story-wise, the challenge was deeper. How to reintroduce the Dinobots in a way that wouldn't cross the streams with what Hasbro was doing elsewhere, or break the portrayal of the Cybertron side of the story High Moon had already established.
Tieger went to work with Dave Cravens, High Moon's cinematics director and lead writer, who as it happens is also a huge Transformersfan. Tieger and Cravens dug deep into the wealth of Transformers canon to try and find a hint of an answer."I think it's an amazing property to work on with so much source material that we can pick and choose and draw from," Tieger said.
"I really love looking through the old comics and the lore and staying true to the spirit of certain elements."
But at the same time he was aware that adhering too closely to the spirit of past incarnations might not be the best way to bring truth to a reincarnation.
"Nostalgia is one of those very interesting pieces of glass that you look through where your memory is not exactly what you'd think it is."
When he looked through his glass at the Dinobots, he saw a mash-up of two different Dinobot story lines. One, an origin story in which the Dinobots had been buried deep inside of a volcano for millions of years and then awoke when that volcano erupted. The second, an episode from the original cartoon series in which the Dinobots fight the Decepticon Shockwave on a pre-historic island, then fall into a tar pit.
"IT'S A FUCKING SPACE T-REX. I MEAN COME ON!"
When viewed head-on, these stories combined might seem completely ridiculous. Through the glass of nostalgia, they make perfect sense. Through High Moon's glass they would have to be something different.
"We started marinating on that for a while," Tieger said, "and we came up with this idea ... Shockwave made the Dinobots."
Grimlock no bozo!
Tieger recalls hearing of when the Japanese creator of Transformers explained where he got the idea. The explanation goes something like this: "Kids like robots. Kids also like vehicles. Put them together."
"That's the core of Transformers and I think that's just as true today as it was 20 years ago, and I think it will be true 20 years from now," Tieger said. "It's just innately cool that something can change shape from one to another, and both of those things are really interesting."
Shockwave is a robot that is also a giant laser canon. He is, in some Transformers stories, the evil mastermind behind the Decepticons (the bad guy Transformers). In other stories he is the guardian of the Transformers' home planet, Cybertron. In almost all of the stories he is a scientific genius and creator.
"IT'S ALL ABOUT LOYALTY IN THE DECEPTICON."Tieger and team decided that their Shockwave would be the protector of Cybertron and the creator of the Dinobots. As the "mad scientist" he would be the catalyst for all of the narrative voodoo High Moon needed to brew in order to weave together the multiple story lines that, through a certain glass, don't make much sense.
As Tieger explains it, it goes like this: "It's all about loyalty in the Decepticon.
"Megatron is obviously in charge of the Decepticons, [and has] three lieutenants: Shockwave, Soundwave and Starscream (which by the way is very confusing to people who are not big Transformers fans because they're all Ss), but it's all about loyalty.
"Soundwave is loyal to Megatron above all things.
"Starscream is loyal to Starscream above all things.
"Shockwave is loyal to Cybertron above all things.
"So Shockwave's plan is:
"'We're not going to leave Cybertron. I'm going to save it. I'm going to search the cosmos, find a world that is teeming with what I can covert into Energon (the Transformers energy source). And I'm going to suck that planet dry and ... use it to reboot my home.'"
Shockwave discovers the Star Bridge technology, uses it to find a world he can "suck dry" to save Cybertron, finds Earth, sees the dinosaurs and decides to capture some Autobots and rebuild them as powerful dinosaur robots to use as his personal protectors.
The Autobots he selects for this project are the Dinobots.
In order to update the Dinobots, but keep their flavor somewhat true to the original big, dumb and powerful versions, High Moon decided that they would essentially be normal Autobots that had been converted by Shockwave to be stronger, but less articulate.
"I didn't want to do the dumb Grimlock," Tieger said. "I wanted to do an intelligent guy who was deeper than that. ... So what we did is we said: 'Look, if Shockwave has done all this work to him and you imagine someone with a really debilitating stutter, that has nothing to do with how intelligent they are. It says nothing about how smart they are, it just means that sometimes it's hard to get the words out."That's our Grimlock."
Due to space requirements and for the sake of brevity, the author has taken the liberty of abridging Matt Tieger's riveting tale above of how the Dinobots were created by Shockwave in the upcoming Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. Should you have the time and the interest, Tieger's entire, unabridged version of the tale is included here. Enjoy. — The Editor
THE UNABRIDGED STORY OF HOW SHOCKWAVE CREATED THE DINOBOTS, AS TOLD BY TIEGER
As [Shockwave] looks through the cosmos, he finds this special blue/green world which is ultimately Earth and it's 70 million years ago when dinosaurs were still bumping around and he sends probes through as he's looking for stuff and he finds this world and he sees these shapes. Ok so thats his big plan, suck earth dry to reboot Cybertron. At the same time he is also the character who is the mad scientist. He is the progenitor of the Insecticons as well in this story.
Insecticons are this bastardization of Decepticons and denizens of the deep in Cybertron. We went into the underground of Cybertron and we found robotic lifeforms that were not actually Transformers but were actually something different, something that had more of a biological spin to it. That's what Insecticons are.
Shockwave makes them. The next step from there is, he captures some Autobots; Grimlock and crew, which have been on Cybertron fighting all of this time, and they had shapes that were traditional, tanks and planes and stuff like that, and he rebuilds them. He takes all of their higher brain functions and powers and reroutes that into raw strength and ability. His plan is that, 'If I reduce their cerebral power, I can control them and they can be my own personal warriors, my own personal squadron.'
Now that never works, we know that, but what that did, that did another thing for us as we continued down that path. What we realized is that we can stay somewhat true to speech patterns for Grimlock, because he's ... got a bit of a difficult way to communicate so that was important for us. What I didn't want to do was the G1 cartoon "me Grimlock smash." I didn't want to do the dumb Grimlock I wanted to do an intelligent guy who was deeper than that.
And actually if you look at the UK, comics their Grimlock version was much more intelligent. He sometimes had difficulty communicating but he wasn't dumb. I think that G1 Grimlock was dumb. He wasn't smart. So what we did is we said: 'Look if Shockwave has done all this work to him and you imagine someone with a really debilitating stutter, that has nothing to do with how intelligent they are, it says nothing to say about how smart they are, it just means that sometimes it's hard to get the words out.' That's our Grimlock.
So he's still got a bit of a nostalgia from what you would expect from G1. He more lines up with the UK Grimlock in terms of intelligence and it all fits nicely together in terms of Shockwave and the limiting factors on his powers and all that stuff.
So I think these ideas kind of snowballed. When you have so much history to draw from, decades of history, and you're not constrained by recreating it but what you are doing is looking for the best of it and finding new ideas and modernizing it. I think it's an amazing property to work on with so much source material that we can pick and choose and draw from.
He's this creation of Shockwave, Shockwave is loyal to Cybertron and that's set everything in motion. And as we play as Grimlock, what we're going to do is uncover our powers and uncover our buddies and the rest of our team and some of them like Swoop are thrilled with the change. He loves his new shape and new powers. Whereas Grimlock might not be so happy about it. Mostly because he can't communicate the way that he used to.
So that's the whole Grimlock package from a story point of view.
Gallery: Exclusive Fall of Cybertron screens
The good ending
Tieger had his story.
In the meantime, the gameplay team had been working on their end to reboot Grimlock's gameplay. Their solution: If Shockwave altered Grimlock, then his powers would be different. His abilities. His attacks. And also his ability to transform.
Grimlock would not be able to transform on command, like other Transformers. He would need to build up his rage meter, and could only transform when it was full.
"He's kind of the Hulk character in a lot of ways," said Tieger, "and we allow that to be part of the gameplay. In a game when you've been playing for a long time and can transform whenever you want to, having to rethink not just ranged combat, but transformation is pretty varied and is going to challenge you and push you in an interesting way.
"And it all wraps really nicely with the story about who this character is. It just innately makes sense."
Would Hasbro agree? Tieger practiced the new pitch and flew to Rhode Island to find out.
The result: "They loved it.""They were really thrilled that we had listened to what their concerns were and had solved the issues. We made them relevant."
This is the happy ending to the story. It is also the real ending.
Tieger got his chocolate and his peanut butter and Hasbro got a reinvigorated version of two things kids think are awesome: Robots and dinosaurs, all packaged in a third: a videogame.
Tieger began making games because he enjoys playing games and loves making entertainment. With Transformers, he knows the stakes are high. A lot of fans with a deep investment in characters they love will be watching to see if High Moon gets it right. Tieger believes that the reverence he and his team hold for the source material will win those fans over. Because he's a fan, too.
"Purely selfishly," he said, "it is a dream to be able to work on one of my favorite franchises of all time and then reinvigorate and rediscover my favorite character. It's fantastic. What other job [lets you] do stuff like that?"
High Moon Studios