Interview: n-Space

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Aug. 11, 2005

N-Sider's Kenneth Kyle Wade was recently invited to n-Space's headquarters for a preview of the game Geist and an interview with its creators.

Q: ...

Jeffrey Kalles: I am the moderator: the faceless voice coming from the great beyond. Im Jeff Kalles from Nintendo of America. We can give you 20 - 25 minutes. Well go ahead and I will let you know when we are wrapping up so that you can pick your last one or two questions. Once your time is up, then these guys have to stop talking about the game or else we cause the little explosives in their necks to go off.

Erick Dyke: I guess you did that last week, huh? [all laugh]

Kalles: So yea, fire at them. Feel free to ask them anything, although if you ask them some things, they may not be able to comment on them.

Q: Who was the mastermind behind the concept of Geist?

Ted Newman: Geist was originally started as an idea where we had heard that Nintendo was looking for a first-person game that had some sort of twist, so that it wouldnt be just a FPS, but that would bring something a little different to the table. The first idea we came up with was the idea of an invisible man game, where basically you play a character that is invisible and one of the things you would do would mess with and manipulate other people. We really liked that idea, but we felt that something was missing, so as a group we came up with the idea of "What if its a ghost?" You could still mess with people, but if you needed to interact with other things, like either shoot them or just work with things, you would just posses something. So it started with human possession and then of course animal possession came after that -- and then there was Miyamoto-san that came up with the idea about six months into development of object possession. Once we got Nintendo interested, it became a total collaboration effort with them.

Q: How long did n-Space hold pre-production meetings before actual measurable progress accrued in the production stage?

Newman: I would say we would bat around ideas for a couple weeks, and then once we honed in on the idea of being a ghost possessing things, we talked about that for a few weeks more, so maybe a two month process before we started creating assets. Thats a rough guess.

Q: The title "Geist" is clearly a nod to the word "poltergeist," which means ghost. Did you name your title "Geist" in order to avoid legal issues with the classic 1982 Tode Hopper and Steven Spielberg film "Poltergeist?" Geist was originally codenamed "Fear," before finally being renamed Geist. Did n-Space go through several other names before finally settling on Geist? Who thought of the name Geist?

Newman: It really wasnt legal issues; it was more that we wanted a different name for the game. We have an internal bulletin board where we bounce around ideas and we basically put it out there for the team and said, "Hey, give us some ideas for the name of this game." Geist was the one that we keep coming back too. It just had a certain ring to it.

Dyke: It was Josh, right?

Newman: Yea, I think it was Josh. Hes the lead programmer on Geist.

Dyke: Yea, it was Josh.

Q: Josh who?

Newman: Josh Crow.

Dyke: Yea, Fear was that name we wanted to go with and keep all the way through, but the "No Fear" people are extremely protective of that, which is probably why the current F.E.A.R. game has all the "F" dot "E" dot "A" dot "R" and it turned into an acronym.

Q: Was it generally agreed on by the key players in Geists production that this should be a fairly realistic game in the graphics department, or did you ever explore options to make Geist a more fantasy appearing title?

Newman: Yeah, I think from the beginning we always had a realistic style in mind.

Dyke: Yea, but it was always to be stylized in a Nintendo gritty way, which was what we were shooting for. Not photo realistic like it was done 100 percent on film... It was always some kind of Nintendo look.

Newman: Yea, brighter colors, brighter environments, and that type of thing.

Q: You mentioned to N-Sider on our last visit to n-Space that once you got far enough along in Geists production, that you would begin shopping the concept around to publishers. How did Nintendo get thrown into the mix?

Newman: We self-funded the first prototype we did and then we took it to Nintendo of America first and showed it to them. They gave us a little bit of feedback and we did some fine tuning and then at some point it made its way over to Japan. They latched onto it and they said, "Hey, we want to talk to these guys and fund an experimental stage."

Q: So Nintendo was basically the exclusive publisher to ever see this concept?

Dyke: In our business, in order for a project like this to stay alive, you have to show it to a lot of people. It was our first hope and first choice to go with Nintendo on this project. If for some reason we didnt shop this project to other publishers and Nintendo said they werent interested in it, then that is not very responsible. I got to make sure people can go home and eat and those sorts of things.

Q: Were you surprised at first that Nintendo was interested in publishing a title with such a mature theme to it? Did you ever worry that the GameCubes smaller user base would limit the potential sales of Geist?

Dyke: For us, we just wanted to do the best game possible. For Geist, doing it with Nintendo was the best way to do that.

Newman: Yeah, Nintendo latched onto the idea of a game about possession. Even the idea of it being mature didnt come into play until we were into development for a while. It just became clear that definitely some of the stuff were doing right now is going to push it into that mature genre. Everyone seemed fine with that because it fit the story of the game we were making. We never said, "Well, if were going to be mature, lets just add a bunch more content thats going to be mature and make it gratuitous." We just did it how we saw it and how they saw it and it just turned out that way.

Q: You told me last time I was here that Nintendo now is the sole owner of the Geist franchise. Does this mean that n-Space now no longer has any legal control of the franchise?

Newman: Yes, Geist is now a Nintendo franchise.

Q: So if Nintendo were to decide that Geist was worthy of a sequel; however, either Nintendo chooses to source the project to another studio or n-Space opts to pass on the opportunity, this is entirely possible?

Dyke: I would have to look at our agreements; I cant remember the details. The summary though, is that Nintendo controls the franchise. They may have other obligations that I cant remember.

Q: Is this situation similar to n-Spaces past deals with publishers? For example, is TigerShark and Bug Riders now the property of GT Interactive Software, even though the concepts originated from n-Space?

Dyke: Yea. Its interesting with those two. In those cases, GT owns -- see thats why I cant remember the Nintendo one, but in the case of those, we own the trademarks. We own the copyrights. We did not own the game IP, but we can explore them in other mediums.

Q: Like movies?

Dyke: Yea, Im pretty sure for those two franchises. For Nintendo, I havent reviewed in a while, because for us its become all about making great games. I havent thought about that in a while.

Q: Did you have any reservations about surrendering control of a franchise that could potentially become a major blockbuster?

Dyke: Scott Miller, who has been a great friend of mine over the years, always talks about developers managing to hold onto their IPs and how important it is for developers to hold onto their IPs. I agree 100 percent with him, that if you can pull it off as a developer, you should hold onto your IP. The problem is, that not all developers, even ones that have been successful financially like us, have the financial backing to hold onto our IPs or develop it far enough to be able to obtain it. So, we take the best deals that we can get. Im very happy with our dealings with NCL on our business matters.

Q: Once Nintendo showed interest in taking on the project, did you ever shop the idea around to other publishers to see if you could get a better deal? Why was Nintendo ultimately settled on by n-Space?

Newman: No. Once Nintendos offer was on the table that was what we wanted.

Q: Geist was originally unveiled to the public for the first time at E3 2003. In the press release that was issued jointly between n-Space and Nintendo, it states that Geist was positioned to be part of Nintendos 2003 holiday line up. Why has Geist been delayed for over 2-years?

Dyke: The Geist that was shown at that E3 was the early experimental version that we had done with Nintendo. Actually, multiplayer was playable in that version, but it required a second controller that never got plugged in, which is kind of an interesting back-story. That was a product that was on schedule based on it being a FPS with a possession mechanic. Nintendo thought this was a first-person adventure based on possession, and we thought it was a first-person shooter with a possession mechanic. It took us a lot of months to even realize the game that each other thought we were making. If you go back to that first E3 demo, it was very much a shooter-combat oriented game, whereas it has evolved into something very different from that. Thats the process it took, and we are very fortunate enough to work with NCL, who believes in us and believes in the idea and continued to work with us to create the shared vision between our two studios.

Q: Do you wish that it had stayed a FPS, instead of a FPA. If that's the way you had always envisioned it?

Dyke: Western-bias.

Newman: That was just our initial vision. As we worked with them more and saw the game evolve with new ideas from Miyamoto-san, Tanabe-san, Shikata-san, Goto-san, and Konno-san started to work their way in there, we just got excited the way the game was going.

Q: When development started on Geist, how many concept artists were assigned to the project?

Newman: Weve had several.

Dyke: Most of our artists have been traditionally trained, so a lot of them do concept art as well.

Newman: Yea, so even if a world builder has an idea for something, they can just post it and if it works, we will use it.

Q: How did you go about choosing who gets a certain position or task on the Geist team? What makes them qualified to build a certain aspect of the game?

Newman: We always have a main concept artist on our projects and they would drive the style. We were really happy with who we had at the time, and like I said, we would just mix in other people as we went and our main artists style would evolve and we would start to get new ideas.

Q: How did the approval of concept get approved through the core team? In all matters relating to art design, who had the final say in what stays or goes? Was it the Art Director, Erick Dyke, or maybe even NCL?

Newman: That comes down to a team thing too. A lot of times it will be me, but it can also be me and Erick or even Japan. A lot of the decisions will be strictly up to us, but if there is something in the game they feel is too this or too that, theyll comment on it.

Dyke: Take the Raimi character, the main character, for example. NCL is very involved in that character, because he was very important. To us, Raimi was a lot more like Jack Bauer from 24, or a similar character.

Newman: A hardened veteran-type character.

Dyke: They thought us the importance of making him a rookie that doesnt start the game with a gun, who isnt necessarily meant to be the combat soldier for this game. The player becomes him, and can relate to him better and grows with the character you have created in the game.

Q: Were there any particular inspirations for the name of the main character, John Raimi? What about Volks Corporation? The little girl, Gigi? Thomas Bryson?

Newman: The Raimi name, at the time I was on Evil Dead kick, which everyone goes through several times. That was definitely inspired by some movies. For other characters, its a funny thing, because there is always one person in the office that loves the name and another that hates it. In the case of Volks, we just said, "Hey heres our villain," I think we even had a sketch of him, and we just asked people here at the office to come up with an interesting name for him. Volks was just the one that stuck.

Q: Was Geists graphics engine built from scratch, or did n-Space modify an existing engine from a previous title?

Dyke: We have been working on game platform technology independently since Duke Nukem for the PSone. Our technology has been in-house and evolving.

Q: How many different enemy soldier models are featured in Geist? Was one "master mold" created, and then modified several times over to make multiple individuals? Will gamers meet the same soldier more than once during the course of the game?

Newman: No, there are different classes. Off the top of my head, there are about eight different soldiers.

Q: In the case of puzzles and tasks within the game, who was the main man behind the design of these obstacles?

Newman: That was another collaborative effort between Japan and us. We would write up our walkthroughs, send it to them, they would translate them, and then they would send us ideas back and forth. Usually any final puzzles was a collaborative effort.

Q: Other development studios have implemented a technique commonly referred to as "Blue Rooming." The basic idea is to build low-polygon rooms that can be used to test game play, but allow artists and modelers to build the details as seen fit. Is this how Geist was put together?

Newman: They had an internal process where they would have their task one room that would be in the game and they would check it for scale, color tone and all that. Then that would go through three more passes before it was finalized.

Q: How much control are environmental artists given when making a certain area of Geist? Are they allowed to just go with it and have fun, but are ultimately subjected to review and approval, or does the head concept artist on the title design all areas him or her self?

Newman: In some cases, an artist may feel inspired and just go crazy with the room where if they had an interesting idea, but a lot times it has to stack up to the other rooms and look like it's part of the same world. They were fortunate enough that the world in Geist is kind of ecliptic. If you get into the story, it's built by this woman who thought her dead husband was talking to her and telling her to build deeper and deeper into the underground.

Q: Like with Sara Winchester?

Newman: Yea, like the whole Winchester thing. We kind of borrowed from that. That gave our artist a lot of freedom, but they still had to fit within the general style.

Q: What type of software did you use to make Geist? Maya?

Newman: We used Macs. Completely Macs.

Q: Is there any type of technology you hope to highlight in Geist that makes it truly unique? Bullet-time? Special shaders?

Newman: A couple of trademark things, really. [laughs] I would say the vision filters, which are always a favorite. Just trying to replicate how animals are supposed to see, based on scientific research.

Dyke: Yea, but still making a game that is playable. We actually had a lot more real visions, like in the case of the rat and the bat, but they just became unplayable because they were too real. How can you translate something that is blind, but only sees with sonar? The bats vision filter probably isnt as impressive as it should be, but any ideas that got close to where it was heading got disorienting or nauseating.

Q: Geist features voice acting to further the story during cut-scenes. Could you tell us how you went about casting the actors for the game? Are these professionals or were some of the voices actual staff members here at n-Space?

Newman: Actually, we were real lucky to have a contact with a local radio station called Real Radio 104.1. Its all talk radio. We approached them and said, "Listen, we want to see if you want to audition for the voices." We got a couple hosts from several of the shows. I think there is like four shows that go on throughout the day. We thought they did a great job.

Dyke: Most of them are actors or comedians. Theyre on the circuit, the commercials or that sort of thing. They do the talk radio show as their day job. Theyre also on the XM satellite.

Q: What is the final cost of Geist? Psychonauts cost about $11 million. Metal Gear Solid about $10 million. What does Geist run?

Kalles: [laughs] NO COMMENT! [laughs]

Newman: I knew you would comment on that one! [laughs] I couldnt answer that one even if I wanted to.

Kalles: And you have enough time for about one more question.

Q: How does n-Space go about assigning tasks to team members? Take the main character, John Raimi for example; how did you go about choosing whom at the office would have the task of modeling him?

Newman: We just have certain people in all areas that specialize in certain things. We have one or two "go-to character" people, and they would build the model for Raimi. That would then go to our best texture person who would texture him, and then our best psyching person who would put in all the constraints of the psyche. It just goes down the line, really. The same thing with scripting, programming and all that. We just look at peoples specialties and say, "This guy is really good with physics. Hes really good with AI. Shes really good with this."

Kalles: There you go. Im sorry I couldnt be there in-person, but I would like to thank you for having the chance to pop in there and meet the guys. I guess now that you are going to take a few shots there for your database now?

Q: Yea, N-Sider is on a mission to have every Nintendo employee in our database.

Newman: [laughs] Good luck to you there! [laughs] That is a tall order.