|The Wizards Of MATA NUI|
Posted by on March 3, 2002 at 12:01 AM CST:
I conducted an interview via email with Peter Mack, President and CEO of Templar Studios, LLC, the studio responsible for the MATA NUI ONLINE GAME. My questions are in Blue and his answers are in Black.
Q: Would you please tell our readers a little bit about Templar Studios?
Templar is a game studio located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We produce Web and CD-ROM games for The LEGO® Group (used promotionally, like Mata Nui), and also for a variety of other clients such as Nickelodeon, National Geographic, and Intel®.
Q: How did you, Templar Studios, get involved with LEGO and the "Mata Nui" online game (MN)?
We'd done some games for LEGO already, and they noticed that we are very strong in the area of storytelling and character development in our games. This is versus, say, puzzle games — much more the forte of teams like the talented guys behind Junkbot. LEGO knew that they needed a really immersive experience that communicated the entire world of BIONICLE™, as well as compelling cinematic episodes.
Q: Are you currently working on any other BIONICLE projects?
Yes, and you will see the results very soon on BIONICLE.com.
Q: What are some of your other (non-BIONICLE) projects (past, present, or future) our readers might be interested in?
Templar's been making Web games with LEGO for about four years, starting with Stormrunner (1998), RoboHunter: Temple of the Serpent (1999), RoboHunter 2: Spy City (2000), and several smaller games such as the Jack Stone games, Racers Rally 1 and 2, and the recently released Drome Duel in the Racers section.
LEGO is about to release a game called Backlot that we're particularly proud of, since it uses the Shockwave 3D engine. It's in the Studios section of their site. A demo is available there now, and the full version should be live sometime in March.
We're also developing a PC game independently, although we do not yet have a publisher.
Q: How many people worked on MN? When did you start? When did you finish?
LEGO approached us around October of 2000. They knew they wanted to build a small teaser for people to start seeing in January, so we needed to get right to work! We spent several months working out the concept for the game, then we built the teaser, which turned out to be Program 1 — with the beach, the dream of the falling rocks, and the telescope.
At the height of production on Mata Nui, there were about nine people on the team, including a Game Designer (me), an Art Director, an Engineer, a 3D Animator, a 2D Animator, a Producer, an Audio Engineer, and two Art Assistants. Plus a Creative Director and a Senior Producer at LEGO who worked very closely with us.
Q: What parts of MN did LEGO provide or dictate to you?
There were a LOT of teams all over the world involved in bringing the BIONICLE story to life. Think of the GBA game, the comic books, the toys themselves — all handled by different groups. By the time we joined, they had evolved much of the basic storyline through 2003 (and beyond!), and had basic text descriptions (plus some concept sketches) of many of the areas and people on the island. But this was only in regard to the TOA, and did not deal much at all with what was happening to the TURAGA or the MATORANs. They also had a timeline of major events to take place over 2001 on Mata Nui — none of which we could show, because those stories were to be told in some form in other media (the non-Web games, the in-box CD, the comics). This is also how we knew what to put in the prophesies.
This is one of the reasons we focused Mata Nui a lot on the MATORANs; the TOA were being followed by other projects, and only show up from time to time on Mata Nui (until the end). We also only had vague ideas of what the island really looked like, and although we had descriptions of all the characters you see in Mata Nui, a great deal of storytelling had to be used to make them believable, watchable people.
But throughout the year, all of those groups were supporting each other, and I think everyone did a very good job of communicating new details about Mata Nui to each other, until all of the missing bits were filled in.
Q: Did LEGO provide to you real models of all of the creatures found in MN from which to work?
If you mean is our studio filled with BIONICLE toys, then yes, and our art director has made some pretty interesting dioramas on our shelves…. If you mean did we get 3D CAD from LEGO's factory, then also yes. But their process is much higher-resolution than what we can use (for producing vector art, too much resolution means unnecessary artifacts, which just make files too big for the Web). And sometimes it's easier for us to run out to the toy store than wait for a package from Denmark!
Q: Do the people of Templar have favorite BIONICLE characters?
Yes and no — we like all of them! Our art director's favorite is TAIPU, because he's so endearing. I like JALA because he's a good fighter, but also KOPEKE because he's so aloof and can be mean sometimes. Our engineer probably likes TAMARU the best, because he feels sorry for him, since TAMARU wants very badly to fly but isn't good enough for the Le-Koran air force. We also like HAFU because he's so egotistical. It's the flaws that make characters interesting, and overcoming them that makes them heroic — much more than facing down a bunch of RAHI.
Q: The music and sounds of Mata Nui were an important part of the game. Can you tell us more about them?
That's the work of our Sound Designer (Justin Luchter), who we are very proud of, and I'm glad for the recognition his work has gotten. He works with sampled sounds and original music, rearranged electronically, but also often plays songs on all kinds of instruments, and records them. And it's always fun for us to hear about how he works. (Did you know that if you put a bunch of unpopped popcorn in a pan and roll it around next to a microphone, it can sound just like an avalanche?) He faced huge challenges composing in Flash, as there is no timecode to depend on; how fast or slow the action is depends on everything from a user's computer, to download times, to when they decide to click the red arrow and go to the next scene. So he had to make music based on looping tracks that could play forever, but still be in sync no matter when the change comes in.
Q: Were updates supposed to coincide with the dates of prophecies on the telescope?
Yes. LEGO wanted a way for players during 2001 to know that what they were looking at wasn't the whole game, and that there would be more. Our engineer had a brilliant system for Flash to check your computer's time and give you an exact countdown based on that number. Unfortunately, the realities of producing a never-done-before game means that lots of events over the course of the year (changes in product releases, for example), affected our updates.
Q: If a player started the game when it first became available and then kept up with the updates, it played fairly linear. But players who started later or play now have a much more open-ended experience. Was that always the plan? Does it make the game more difficult to develop?
Yes! LEGO's desire for a game built episodically presented some unique challenges. It was like writing a book where some people might start in Chapter One, but others in Chapter Five. Making it more complicated was the fact that events on Mata Nui were to be, roughly, in "real time"; meaning, as each TOA were released in stores in the real world, characters on Mata Nui would talk about them landing on the island. We got into some complex tangles trying to figure out, for example, whether or not players (who play after mid-2001) should be able to go to Onu-Koro before seeing Po-Koro.
Q: How did the events of September 11th impact Templar and the MN project?
Very, very deeply. In a way, like much of New York, we're still reeling.
That was a very difficult day that none of us like to think about much, but shadows of it still linger in everything we do, and probably will for many years to come. Many of our employees were at the studio or enroute to it when the tragedy occured. Being in lower Manhattan, we could see everything quite clearly from our rooftop. After something like that, it's very hard to go back to your work, and you begin to question the value of life and what you do. But in the end I think many Templars realized that telling stories and making people laugh is perhaps more important now than it ever was.
Q: What was the most difficult part of working on MN?
The most dififcult part was NOT doing all the stuff we wanted to do. We could say it was the schedule, but it was more the problem of fitting what we wanted into it. We had the idea, for example, that the Onu-Koro program could have a mini-game where you throw discs at Wolf Rats in a tunnel (Tempest-style). We even had an economy worked out where players could buy discs and equipment at the marketplace. There was also a short-lived plan to let players build their own goats and other pack animals for carrying things! What made it so hard was that in many cases we even built a large part of this functionality, but there just wasn't time to put it in.
Q: What was the best part of working on MN?
Tell you the truth, it's you guys! We don't always get the chance to be involved in something with such a big following, and seeing the posts on the Bionicle forums really makes everyone feel that they're doing something worthwhile. After all, making games isn't nearly as fun as HAVING made them. This is for a bunch of reasons; getting to play it is one, and watching others play it is definitely another. Reading the theories that evolve whenever someone notices something special our art director threw in is always great fun — especially when it was a mistake! I should also add that working with a company like LEGO is also one of my favorite things. We find that sharing their creative team's vision for BIONICLE is very easy for us, as their aesthetic and dramatic ambitions match very closely with the kinds of stories we like to tell.
Q: MN had a few bugs from time to time. How were these identified and dealt with?
Several of the programs released over 2001 had some pretty serious bugs, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were minor things our engineer had overlooked and could easily fix, such as a value or parameter that had been set improperly. Some factors contributing to problems were beyond our control. Often, these bugs weren't noticed by the QA team because it really took people trooping around on the live server for them to become evident. The Forums and the contact link were our only way to find out if people were having trouble, but it never took long before a message showed up when something was wrong.
Q: Was the GOLD HAU in the pit of Onu-Koro part of the "Find The Gold Mask" contest? There was some question as to whether "RAHI" was a valid entry because it floated above the mask instead of below. The official rules said to translate the mask messages "found UNDER the Gold Mask" images.
Yes, it was part of the contest. The oversight wasn't discovered until the contest was over.
Q: Does Mata Nui rotate backwards? At the end of the game, VAKAMA and TAKUA look out over the water at the sunset. Since they are at Tahu's landing site, north of Ta-Koro on the east side of the island, that must mean the sun sets in the East!
There may yet be information released about Mata Nui's geology, physics, and ecology. Until then, I don't think there's much I can say….
Q: What tools, computers, and software did you use to create MN?
Macromedia Flash 5, of course, for the authoring environment. Much of our art was created first in 3D Studio Max, and then rendered to vector for import into Flash. Other graphic programs like Photoshop and Macromedia Freehand were also used. We built the BIONICLE font in Fontographer. Our Sound Designer uses Pro Tools and sometimes SoundEdit 16 for minor fixes when he's at the studio. Most of our team uses G4 Macintoshes, with the exception of our engineer and the 3D artist, who use Pentium® 4 machines.
Q: There is much humor in MN. I'm thinking of the writings in the BIONICLE typeface ("Taxi Crabs", "Gone Fishing", etc.) and also of the antics of the TOHUNGA. Where does the humor come from?
That would unquestionably be our art director. He had some late nights and it was the best way for him to let off steam.
Q: There are also some outside literary references in MN: e.g. a statue from "Adventures of Tintin: The Broken Ear" and a reference to Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide" series. What are some of the things our readers should look for in MN that perhaps they might have missed the first time?
That's our art director again. There aren't any other references really, although many people on the forum have wondered why the fans in the Po-Koro Koli stadium are talking about pies. Our art director is from England and there's a popular football chant there which goes, "Who ate all the pies? Who ate all the pies? You ate all the pies..." and so on. It's in reference to a football player who had gained a lot of weight during an off-season. English folks can be odd sometimes.
Q: Were there things you wanted to do but could not because of bandwidth issues?
Well saying the word "bandwidth" is a surefire way to make our audio engineer cry, since he always gets beat up worse than anyone on the download issue. But really, everyone has to limit themselves when it comes to bandwidth, even in Flash. As I mentioned before, the artifacts left behind by converting 3D into vector art can make even simple animations very heavy. And we had to use JPEGs very sparingly; TAKUA's KAHU flight sequence originally had a very rich overhead view of the island (for choosing where to go), but we had to change that to a simple vector-based map. Program 9's Episodes (the Visions and the MAKUTA) were done as efficiently as possible but still weighed in at about a meg. (But since these were the last ones in the game, we knew people wouldn't mind waiting a little longer for them!) As it is, we still feel the fight with the MAKUTA could have lasted much longer than it did, but it's hard to expect people to download movies that big.
Q: Could MN be distributed and played from a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM?
It could, and in fact LEGO has been entertaining ideas about this. If they decide to do that I'm sure there will be an announcement on BIONICLE.com.
Q: Are there things you would do differently if you had to do it all over again?
Well, for one thing, doing it again means we would have done it before, and that would help; the fact that our team (and, I think, no team) has ever done anything like this on the Web made this project very challenging, both conceptually and on the production side. We learned a great deal from doing this project. Specifically, we would focus more effort on pre-production, particularly as regards gameplay development. For example, our art department would sometimes add a door (because they needed to fill a space), with the intention that in some later Program it would be used for something. Remember: don't put a door in unless the player can go through it!
Q: BIONICLE and MN obviously appeal to young people. Do you have any advice to those kids who might like to be involved in that type of project later in life?
Books. Museums. Movies you wouldn't normally go see. And of course video games — but I wouldn't spend TOO much time with these. And, of course, people. Get to know as many as possible, because art is only important insofar as it occurs to people. And making games like Mata Nui, or any game, is as much an art as anything else, so the same rules apply. Even for the most technically-minded engineer, experiencing as much of the richness of life as possible will let you better convey its drama through your art, which in this case is rendered with code, rather than paintbrushes or on a stage.
Q: Is there anything you would like our readers to know which I have not asked about?
There's all kinds of things I would like to tell your readers, but of course a lot of things are being kept under wraps.
I would also like to add that you and your subscribers should not underestimate what you mean to us and, I'm certain, to LEGO. It's one thing to know that a product is selling well, but its another thing entirely to see such intelligent, creative activity as can be seen at Mask of Destiny and other sites.