Now that we have
finished introducing everyone, let's begin our first history lesson for
today: the pre-Retro story of founder Jeff Spangenberg.
Whether or not you agree with his inspirations in the voluptuous, Jeff
Spangenberg is a man whose name and aura have made an unforgettable
impact on the industry over the past decade. Like many visionaries,
Spangenberg disregarded a college education in favor of using his
incredible motivation to navigate and teach himself the intricacies of
programming and the computer programming industry.
By 1991, Spangenberg's name was officially put on the map when he
founded his own game studio. The studio, Iguana Entertainment, was
located in Santa Clara, California. Spangenberg gathered around 20 of
his most capable friends and acquaintances and quickly got down to
Iguana development support manager, Jay Moon, described Iguana's
formation during an interview with IGN in 1998, "...we were at another
development company at the time, and we were breaking away to form
Iguana but we didn't have a name. Jeff had iguanas in his office; he
would put them on his dashboard and take them up to Tahoe. He had
'Killer' and 'Spike,' these two big iguanas that were always walking
around the office. And since we didn't have a name for the company we
finally named it 'Iguana.' They were kind of like our mascots. We could
have been named 'Killer' and 'Spike' [laughs]."
Spangenberg soon realized that his small studio needed to move to a
location that would better promote its growth -- a place that offered
both the technology and people needed to make the kind of games he
envisioned. In May 1993, Iguana employees toured the bustling Sixth
Street entertainment district of Austin, Texas. After returning to
Santa Clara, the decision was almost unanimously decided to set up shop
in Austin. The move was made smoothly and Austin has been Jeff's home
Iguana quickly put its name on the map with titles such as Aero the Acro-Bat
and its sequel, for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Using the
money from the sales of these titles, Iguana quickly expanded, and in
1993 Spangenberg bought Optima Software (located in the United Kingdom)
and transformed it into Iguana UK. In 1994, with the release and
subsequent success of NBA Jam
as well as the beginnings of
development for next-generation consoles, Spangenberg caught the
interest of Acclaim Entertainment who offered to hire Jeff and purchase
Iguana. He quickly agreed and Iguana officially became a part of
Acclaim on January 1, 1995.
With the impending release of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo's
next-generation 3D console, Iguana began work on several titles. The
first was a first-person shooter based on a comic book entitled Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
. Nintendo of America began working closely with Acclaim and Iguana after seeing the technology in Turok
and the talent of the studio. Thanks to Iguana's impressive progress with Turok
Acclaim became one of the first publishers named into Nintendo's "Dream
Team" -- partners who would develop exclusive content for the Nintendo
64 and receive Nintendo's technical and game support in return.
Throughout the game's development, Spangenberg and Acclaim built a
healthy relationship with Nintendo.
Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
was released in 1996 and became an
undeniable hit for Iguana. The expensive transition from the 16-bit
(2D) generation to the 32- and 64-bit (3D) generation had taken a toll
on Acclaim. Luckily, Turok
and subsequent titles from Iguana
were able to revitalize and pull Acclaim out of the hole it
consistently found itself digging.
Iguana went on to develop several other blockbusters for the Nintendo 64 including NFL Quarterback Club
and All-Star Baseball
During the years that followed, Spangenberg was able to quickly move up
the ranks within Acclaim. He was eventually promoted to an executive
position, which allowed him to oversee all of Acclaim's software
studios. Things seemed almost too good to be true, until the summer of
1998 that is.
On July 8, 1998 Acclaim announced that it had ended its relationship
with Spangenberg. In October, Spangenberg filed a suit against Acclaim
and Iguana, entitled "Jeffery Spangenberg vs. Acclaim Entertainment,
Inc., Iguana Entertainment, Inc., and Gregory Fischbach", with the
claims of breach of contract and fraud. Acclaim's defense attorneys
denied Spangenberg's allegations.
Jeff believed that Acclaim was attempting to cut management and costs
by eliminating himself and any future obligations to him. "Acclaim had
also been on a mission to cut entrepreneurial managers in their
acquired units and replace them with more corporate types," he claimed.
In his suit, Spangenberg said CEO Gregory Fischbach urged Spangenberg
to buy $25,000 worth of Acclaim stock but then abruptly fired him in
July, which resulted in his loss of stock options. According to the
Austin Business Journal, Spangenberg had mentioned plans of creating
another computer game company once his contract with Acclaim expired in
1999. Apparently he had mentioned this to Fischbach in a conversation
prior to his dismissal from the company.
"We believe that his allegations are utterly without merit," replied
Acclaim attorney Dewey Poteet in a news release shortly after the suit
was filed. Acclaim cited issues such as his supervisory techniques,
delegated functions, and apparent failures to contribute to group
meetings as reasons for his dismissal from the company. However, Jeff
stated in his suit that no one mentioned any shortcomings in his job
performance before he was fired.
Jeff's attorneys said that he had no opportunity to use the "Cure
Clause" that is specifically listed in his contract. "In his contract,
there was a provision that if either party was in breach, they would
demand the other side cure -- or fix -- it within 30 days, before
either side could call the contract off," his attorney told the Austin
Business Journal. "We're saying that he was not given any effective or
fair chance to cure, because they [Acclaim] did not sufficiently notify
him what he was to do to cure."
The suit also brought up allegations that Gregory Fischbach pressured
Jeff to speed up production to cut costs of game development at Iguana.
Spangenberg "pled with Fischbach not to send out another game with
flaws and bugs due to insufficient development and testing," according
to the 18-page suit. It alleged that: "unfazed, Fischbach was
unrelenting in his demands for a product release -- with or without
bugs -- in an apparent effort to post short-term profits."
Although the final settlement is not
known, Spangenberg emerged from the conflict as a stronger and more
determined man. On October 1, 1998, Jeff announced that he had formed a
new company right out of his very own home. Much like Iguana, the
company was a video game development studio. Naming the fledgling
company Retro Studios Inc., Spangenberg wasted no time getting to work.
His motivation was likely fueled by a desire to prove, to himself and
others, that the success of Iguana was not just a fluke -- that he
could recreate that magic again.
The first thing on Jeff's agenda was to find a new location for the
studio. He quickly found an office in Austin, Texas, with the help of
the John Hanly & Associates real estate firm. Once situated, he
promptly gathered roughly 25 employees for his new company, several of
whom had previously worked at Iguana, and began development on several
projects. Things seemed to be moving swiftly. Spangenberg then made a
very bold move and pitched an idea to his friends at Nintendo of
America (NOA). His plan was to make Retro an affiliated studio of
Nintendo. He soon convinced the higher-ups at NOA, including then NOA
chairman Howard Lincoln, to fund the studio.
Nintendo found his proposition fairly appealing. After all, the company was
again on the verge of launching a new home console. Nintendo hoped that
with Jeff's experience and leadership, Retro Studios would be able to
provide Nintendo's new console with games targeted at an older
demographic, much like Jeff did with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter
during the introduction of the Nintendo 64. Soon after, Nintendo funded
the creation of a state-of-the-art facility for Retro Studios,
containing Austin's first local motion-capture equipment -- at an
estimated cost of over a half million dollars -- and an in-house
recording studio. Nintendo's investment in Retro was profound, but
Spangenberg was just getting started.
When Jeff set out to create a new development house, he took careful
time to seek out the best talent the video game industry had to offer.
Instead of sitting idle and waiting for talent to come and find him, he
went out of his way to seek it out and bring those individuals to
Retro. Nintendo exercised little to no control over Retro's hiring
process at this time. It wouldn't be until 2001, when Nintendo
purchased the studio from Spangenberg, that the Big N would begin to
push its weight around.
James Dargie, a former Retro Studios designer, recalls that the company
was heavily scouting for as much experienced talent as it could find.
"…I was lucky enough to get thrown into the ring," he explains. "The
hiring process for me was pretty easy going. I was working on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
at the time I was recruited to go to Retro. I wasn't really looking to
leave Hawaii or Square prematurely, but it was getting time to test the
waters. After my flight to Retro Studios it was a difficult proposition
to refuse. The assembled team was and is one of the best art and
programming teams in the industry. From concept art to animation, those
folks had it collectively together. My interview was more or less a
formality, to see if I would fit in personality-wise with the art
staff. Luckily for me I did and I started a few months later. I tried
to stay with Square as long as I could, but the productions at Retro
were ramping up fast."
Although it was certainly a wise move for Retro to gather-up some of
the gaming industry's top talent, at times, this practice came at a
high price. Former Retro employee, Jason Hughes explains. "As far as
the hiring process goes, it evolved. Being one of the early employees
at the studio, I was involved in most of the early technical hiring. We
brought on board a lot of talented, high-powered programmers with
outstanding skills and backgrounds. At that time, Retro was building a
reputation for being a powerhouse and paying well for talent, so they
drew resumes from all over the globe. After a number of the management
positions were filled, the hiring process took on the flavors of the
respective directors and leads."
Jason continues, "I'm told that artists had a particularly challenging
time getting hired, though I distinctly recall a three-month period of
desperate need where no programmers were hired because the Technical
Director had such high expectations. The bar for hiring had risen so
high that it even began to affect schedules."
It is likely that many of the rumors, which flooded the Internet
several years ago, about "trouble at Retro Studios" may have stemmed
from this very problem. If the bar for hiring was so high that it began
affecting schedules, then it is safe to assume that many employees were
placed under great pressure to complete tasks quickly and efficiently.
The phrase "understaffed and overworked" effectively sums up the
situation Retro employees were in.
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