For Aaron Ehasz, Saturday mornings as an 11-year-old were defined by the mystical worlds of action heroes and giant robots, and few captured that sense of awe more than 1985’s Robotech. With a grand sense of scale and lengthy, emotional character arcs, the animated series stuck with him. Yet after devouring every minute of the show, Ehasz knew he wanted to continue exploring its world, and was disheartened to find that toys and other merchandise weren’t readily available. For a determined minor, this just wouldn’t stand.
“I would literally watch the credits and try to figure out who the producer was, and then I would try to call them,” Ehasz says. “I’m this kid calling from California. ‘Hey, where can I get these toys?’ Our friends would talk about rumors. ‘Oh, the toys are going to be available here if you get your mom to take you,’ and there was nothing. I was definitely aware of the ‘missing-ness’ of that part of the franchise as a kid.”
For Ehasz, whose writing career began on Futurama and snowballed into a head writer position on Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, it was easy to get lost in the ephemera of his favorite shows and movies — even if, in some cases, he had to make his own.
Now that love for exploring made-up universes is what Ehasz and collaborator Justin Richmond hope to take with them as co-founders of a new studio called Wonderstorm, with a goal of creating video games and expanded media simultaneously (along with co-founder Justin Santistevan, former head of finance for research and development at Riot, and investor MWM). Alongside a new game, which they are keeping under wraps for the time being, the team at Wonderstorm (considerably smaller than the likes of Naughty Dog or Riot Games) is working with Netflix to produce an original animated series set in the same world.
Richmond, who led the development of Uncharted 2’s multiplayer and subsequently directed Uncharted 3, met Ehasz while the two both worked at Riot Games, the studio behind the massively popular League of Legends.
“Even though I’ve worked on a number of shows in my career, [The Last Airbender and Futurama] are the two that had some kind of spark of magic where it resonated with an audience, continues to resonate for longer than it was ever expected to, and where it feels like you made something meaningful,” Ehasz says. “You start to ask yourself ‘what’s the difference between the productions we’ve worked on that have been magical, that mean something, and the ones that were awesome but didn’t have that magic?’”
Living up to that promise can be a difficult task without some sense of authenticity and effort that fans can latch onto, according to Richmond.
The team at Wonderstorm is hoping to avoid the pitfalls that have hurt productions like Quantum Break, which divided the game’s story with four interspersed live-action episodes meant to flesh out its cast. While results were positive overall, critics noted that the narrative didn’t cohesively stick the landing thanks to a sense of disjointedness between the game and the show.
Rather than spout philosophies on fandoms and world-building, Ehasz and Richmond are attempting to integrate their approach into the studio’s daily work life.
“Writers and artists are literally working alongside designers and engineers, and we’re all engaged with these characters and this world,” Ehasz says. “It’s really a delightful situation. A lot of contributions are coming from corners you don’t expect.”
For both men, it took a simple bit of bonding over worlds like Robotech’s and Star Wars’ to cement their desire to go independent.
“We both really wanted to go and make a thing where we could really control it 100 percent and deliver on that promise of trying to make something magical,” Richmond says. “So if we’re going to mess it up, it’d be entirely our fault.”
It was Richmond’s uncle, who happened to own a bookstore in the '80s, that helped draw him into fantasy and science fiction worlds full of lore. After time and dwindling sales forced the store to close, said uncle delivered to him a box full of science fiction classics, including Ender’s Game and Lovecraft, as well as its fair share of objectively trashy pulp. Despite the mixed quality of the books, Richmond tore through each one, falling in love with each alternative universe, and exploring each in every way he could.
For Richmond and Ehasz, this hunger — knowing every little detail of a world, its ancient histories, its magical methodologies — stems from the relationship between an artist and their fans.
“The thing I take away from Futurama and The Last Airbender is that the audience is very, very smart,” Ehasz says. “All the details, nuance, and things you build into a story and characters? There may be people who don’t appreciate it, but there are so many out there who do and are paying attention. We’re spending all this time on this series and game making sure those details feel right, and that there are things to discover, and that things beneath the surface are worth it because there are tons of people out there who want and deserve that. We need to make something good enough for them.”
A major part of that also stems from fans being able to find a part of themselves in the characters they fall in love with, Ehasz says. Despite the inherently out-of-this-world nature of series like The Last Airbender, Uncharted, or Futurama, there’s a common thread of humanity that allows interstellar delivery workers, intrepid swashbucklers, or ancient mystics to connect with viewers.
For Ehasz, the impact of a relatively minor character from The Last Airbender on a viewer sticks with him to this day, roughly a decade later. Raised in a restrictive, emotionally neglectful home, the character Mai’s outwardly gloomy nature made her seem cold, until her perseverance paid off in the form of a confrontation with the treacherous Princess Azula.
“At some point, I received a letter from a younger woman who said she related to Mai as a darker, depressed character, and she said that of so many things she’d watched, that dark character is made fun of or loses in the end,” Ehasz says. “She felt like Mai had a happy ending without having to change her identity. She could have that identity and still find happiness without changing who she was. Those experiences are amazing, when someone takes a minute to tell you that something affected them, you just feel lucky you were able to have a positive impact on someone.”
Even with the decidedly “everyman” nature of a series like Uncharted, with Nathan Drake’s unflappable wit and ridiculous luck, Richmond developed an appreciation for the lengths fans would go to express their adoration. At a press event in Poland for one of the Uncharted games, a young boy found his way inside to speak with the developers.
“He was so excited to talk to us about Uncharted,” Richmond says. “His experience with it was like ‘this is what I play after school, it gives me an escape, and I want to be an archaeologist’ and all this stuff. For some reason, that one always makes me go ‘oh my god, we’ve provided this experience for this kid, and he was so thankful, can we please live up to this?’ How can we make sure we live up to this kid’s hopes and dreams for what this series is?”
While the team is still growing as necessary, it currently includes other former employees from Naughty Dog, Nickelodeon and Riot Games (and one director of The Last Airbender).
In the realm of television, it might have been a stroke of luck that turned a series like The Last Airbender into more than just a show. Nickelodeon afforded the team to take numerous creative risks, allowing writers and artists to turn it into something that might resonate more loudly, Ehasz says. Like most original series, it took some convincing to expand it beyond the borders of its weekly program and into toys, comics, and yes, even video games.
“I think in the end, most people would agree some of those successfully resonated, and some of them didn’t, but coming from where I was on the show, it felt like we got this audience’s attention, now how do we make sure everything else we’re bringing is worthy of their time?” Ehasz says, adding that this kind of question is exactly what the team at Wonderstorm fixates on during development.
In the end, both Ehasz and Richmond hope that the new worlds they build at Wonderstorm will not only entertain players, but invite them to create their own stories. For them, five hours spent watching Star Wars or a day reading Ender’s Game translated into hundreds of hours of time pretending on playgrounds and posing action figures, even if the results are a bit out there.
“For me anyway, when you were playing with Star Wars stuff, how many times did Luke, the Emperor, and an Ewok go have crazy adventures, right?” Richmond says. “That’s different than going ‘here’s the story of Luke Skywalker,’ and both those things are appropriate, and I think that’s a lot of what we captured here.”