Presto Directory

Presto Origins (1991-97)

PrestoOur core group was composed mainly of pairs of friends from various areas of southern California - San Diego, Laguna Hills, Tustin, and Pacific Palisades. In high school, most of us were closet intellectuals - you know the type - we could usually be found rolling-up D&D characters in the locker halls between classes, playing the latest Apple II game after school, or staying up all night on an Avalon Hill binge. True, a few of our founding members were aspiring athletes, but they soon answered the call of the nerd.

It wasn't until after college that our individual pairs of friends began to coalesce into a larger group. While attending the visual arts program at UC San Diego, Michel started a small client-based multimedia production company with a colleague. But after a while, he grew tired of client work, and longed to create something of his own. By this time, Michel had graduated from UCSD and rented an apartment in Cardiff with high-school buddy Dave Flanagan, who had recently earned a BA in English from UC Irvine. Between games of Cosmic Encounter, Michel often talked with Dave and two other friends - Farshid Almassizadeh and José Albañil - about creating something that would utilize their combined skills. José had a degree in art from UC Santa Cruz, and Farshid was working toward a degree in cognitive science at UCSD.

In the fall of 1990, the first of the CD-ROM adventure games, Spaceship Warlock, was released by a small 'garage band' production company named Reactor. Michel was impressed by the scope and quality of Warlock, but convinced that we could take the medium one step further. Michel's enthusiasm quickly eroded Dave's pragmatism, and the two began developing a plot for a massive time travel adventure game. José and Farshid, eager to use their computer powers for good instead of evil, eagerly joined the cause. Within a week or two, they had built a fully-articulated robot in Swivel Pro. Incidentally, that robot never appeared in the final version of Journeyman.

Greg Uhler, whom Michel had previously hired as a programming intern at his multimedia production company, was the next addition to the team. With Greg on-board, we began working on a demo to see if our idea would capture the public's interest. Soon we were living and working out of a house that we rented in Mira Mesa, attending our full-time jobs by day, and creating the Journeyman demo by night (warning, kids, do not try this at home!).

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

We pooled our efforts and concentrated on finishing the demo in time for MacWorld '92. But when the time came, our financial condition mandated that we would have to scrimp. So we carpooled up to San Francisco and snuck a dozen people into a single hotel room. Mike McNeil, a good friend and the owner of ClubMac, was going to loan us a corner of his booth, because we couldn't afford our own. But it didn't matter. The fact that we had made it this far and were finally ready to show the world what we could do (Greg literally finished the demo in the hotel room the night before the conference) had us all wired with anticipation. Our efforts were justly rewarded - the demo was a hit.

We returned from San Francisco with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. But then the reality of the situation dawned on us. If we were going to do this for real, it would mean making some huge sacrifices. For example, our jobs - and our income. There was no time left for such trivial things if we wanted to ship Journeyman before the end of the decade. This was the moment of truth, the pivotal point at which we had to commit to either moving forward or turning back. We bit the bullet. We all quit our jobs and survived as long as we could on our savings. When those ran out, we approached friends and family. Fortunately, many of them believed in us enough to invest in our future.

We hadn't gotten too far into production before we realized that we needed help in certain areas. Michel partly solved the problem by calling on two friends whom he had worked with on a project at his multimedia production company - art director Jack Davis and his musician friend Geno Andrews. Despite the 'Whimpy' compensation plan ("I'll gladly pay you later for work today"), they were happy to get involved. Jack's art direction and Geno's music and sound-effects filled those voids with stunning professionalism. Geno, who had been living in Pacific Palisades, even moved into the house in lackluster Mira Mesa - a fate he considered worse than death.

To fill the immediate need for a designer, the group contacted Phil Saunders, a friend of a friend who had recently moved down from Toronto to work for Nissan Design, Inc. in La Jolla. It was instantly obvious that Phil was a perfect match for the group - not to mention that his design was first-rate, and he was dying to get involved in the project (although he later admitted that this was mostly because he saw how desperately we needed help).

Finally, the need for aid in the areas of publishing, distribution, and accounting was later solved by the addition of Eric Hook, a high-school friend of Greg's who had just graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in economics. In addition to taking-on all these duties until we could find a suitable publisher (anyone willing to take a chance on us), Eric also helped-out with 3D rendering.

So the team rounded-out as follows:

  • Michel Kripalani - Project coordinator, lead 3D artist, programmer
  • Greg Uhler - Lead programmer, 2D artist
  • Farshid Almassizadeh - Lead animator, programmer
  • Phil Saunders - Conceptual design
  • Dave Flanagan - Writer, programmer
  • José Albañil - Lead 3D modeler
  • Eric Hook - Public relations, 3D artist
  • Geno Andrews - Audio Sculptor, 2D artist
  • Jack Davis - Art director, lead artist
  • Suddenly, we found ourselves outgrowing our 'home office,' so we rented a second house around the corner from the first. We moved our only television to the new house, which also had a swimming pool, and stuffed the first house with computer systems. The houses became known as the work house (or 'Presto North') and the break house ('Presto South'). There were computers in almost every room of the work house, and network wiring ran down every wall, giving the appearance of the inside of a Borg ship. Although, to be honest, it seemed as though the network was used more for Spectre tournaments than work-related purposes. Having the work house separate from the break house proved to be conducive for production, but did not altogether eliminate the distractions.

    From Chaos ...

    The early days of Presto resembled a scene from Revenge of the Nerds meets Animal House. We'd be working-away on our computers, and suddenly Geno would hop on his skateboard, ride it down the linoleum entryway, skid-turn just before the kitchen, and jump down the small stairway into the lower office. Afternoon basketball or pool breaks (including king-of-the-raft and roof-diving contests) were mandatory, and matches of dysfunctional indoor hacky-sack were a nightly occurrence. Invariably, someone would glance slyly toward his neighbor to make sure he was absorbed in his work before launching a rubber-band assault.

    But the child's play was more the exception than the rule. Actually, these were welcomed distractions to ease the tension of our 16+ hour work days. The long hours were necessary to help stretch our loan dollars all the way through production. We also had to cut back on entertainment (not difficult when you spend every waking moment working) and other living expenses. After tightening the belt, our idea of a gourmet meal was when Geno added garlic and oregano to the macaroni and cheese; a delicacy affectionately dubbed Genoroni.

    As few members of the team had ever worked together, and none had ever worked on anything like Journeyman, production was awkward at first. Story meetings involved every member of the team. We would all sit around outside in the sun, baking and racking our brains, hoping for some bit of inspiration that would lead to a story breakthrough. But the great concepts didn't come along very often. Most ideas were rejected, and many times feelings were hurt, but it was a democratic process, and everyone respected the wishes of the group. What we ended up with was a potpourri of ideas that slowly came together to form a patchwork quilt of a story. By the time the specifics of the plot had been worked-out, Michel and Dave's original ten time zones had been reduced to four - and another would be cut later as the production schedule tightened.

    We also had to adapt to the fact that no one's job was clear-cut - there were always gaps to fill, and everyone had to wear several hats. Jack, for example, was basically functioning as an entire art department, creating all of the texture maps and interfaces for the game, cleaning-up and adding shadows to every rendered frame by hand, and doing most of our print work. Through patience and trial-and-error, we finally got the bugs worked out of the production process - just as we prepared to tackle the final environment.

    We planned to ship Journeyman at MacWorld 1993, in early January. This meant finishing the game and sending it off for duplication by Christmas at the very latest. Because the development phase took longer than anticipated (the obligatory first lesson of the software industry), the game had a brief, but intense, beta-test phase that cut deeply into the time allotted for disc duplication and shipping. Greg frantically worked his way down the final programming bug list even as we headed into the Christmas season of 1992. With each passing day, it was looking more and more like we wouldn't have product at MacWorld. But this was the culmination of two years of hard work, and no one wanted to let go. In fact, a faithful few stayed behind on Christmas Eve to press the final disc, test it, and send it off for duplication. We made it!

    But even before the euphoria could set in, we were hit with the discomforting realization that our future now rested in the hands of CD duplication plant workers - on Christmas vacation. We went off and tried to enjoy Christmas while counting the minutes. After the holidays, and just a day before we were to leave for MacWorld, we returned to our house in Mira Mesa to find that the final discs never arrived. In an eleventh-hour tactic, we called the duplication plant and gave them the name and address of the hotel we would be staying at in San Francisco. At 9:00 AM on January 6th, as the last of us left our hotel rooms to attend the opening day of the conference, a truck pulled up and began unloading boxes. They were labeled "The Journeyman Project." We made our deadline by less than one hour.

    Two years, fifteen thousand man-hours, and three tons of Genoroni after it was begun, The Journeyman Project became the world's first photorealistic adventure game. Journeyman took the world by storm, quickly becoming the best-selling Macintosh CD-ROM on the market, and garnering numerous awards, including an Award of Excellence at the 1993 New Media Invision Awards.

    ... Springs Order

    Now that we had a successful title under our belt, it was time to turn our ragtag fleet of fugitive hackers into a real company. After a few months of self-publishing and distributing thousands of units out of our garage (the neighbors must have been curious...), we found a publisher to relieve us of these burdens. At about the same time, it occurred to us that we were really pushing our luck with the zoning laws. So as soon as we were able to manage a rent payment, we packed-up our computers and moved into a real office.

    At the office, work began on porting Journeyman to other platforms and languages. First was the PC version (of which there was later a 'Turbo' remake due to the original's slow speed), followed by the German, Spanish, and - no joke - Queen's English foreign language versions. But localization involved only a couple members of our crew, so after killing a couple more months "recuperating" (see "Nerf wars") we decided it was time to get serious about our future. That's when we started thinking about a sequel.

    Buried in Time

    The beginning of the development phase for Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time marked a period of change and growth for Presto Studios. We went through a change of publishers and hired several new employees - including mostly friends, relatives, and interns. Our technology base also grew, as we now had enough working capital to purchase Macintoshes that were an order of magnitude more powerful than the ones we used to create Journeyman. And finally, for BIT, Phil assumed the consumptive role of creative director and made it his purpose to ensure that Buried in Time would surpass its predecessor in every way - despite the fact that he was still working days at Nissan Design.

    Taking our cue from lessons learned, we made sure to be well prepared for the challenges that faced us in Buried in Time. Nowhere was this more true than with the video shoot. To put live actors into our computer-generated worlds, we had to shoot all of the live-action against a blue screen and later composite the actors into the environments digitally. The difficulty of blue-screen acting required both careful planning and the helping hand of technology. We had to be able to tell the actors exactly where to walk and where to stand while delivering their lines, because there was no second chance if we found out after the shoot that someone walked through a wall or a piece of furniture. To prepare for the shoot, we arranged to have a video monitor at the studio that would automatically replace the blue-screen background with our computer-rendered 'set,' allowing us to see a rough preview of the final product and to match both the actors' movements and the studio lighting to the artificial environments. The system worked flawlessly on all but the tracking shots, for which we relied solely on careful planning and precise timing of camera movements.

    As with the video shoot, establishing the paths along which the player would be able move through BIT's prerendered environments also required a great deal of planning. Specifically, the gravity-free AI lab presented a challenge to the designers and animators, in that they had to account for the possibility that players would now be entering nodes not only from the standard (compass) directions, but from the up and down directions as well. The difficulty here being that, without intervention, the player would now be seeing nodes and passages from a rotated perspective - creating a mind-boggling number of angles from which we would have to prerender the environment. The animators were pulling for artificial gravity. They might have gotten their way if the designers hadn't come up with plan B. The designers' solution was to twist the rendering camera while moving it through the AI lab, guiding it to a single plane of movement for each node. This way each node would be seen from the same angle, regardless of which direction the player approached from. Simple though it sounds, it still took weeks of planning to marry every node seamlessly.

    But Buried in Time wasn't the 'slam dunk' product we had hoped it would be. Looking to take advantage of our new resources, we designed a sci-fi adventure of epic proportions, a game that we ourselves would die to play. In fact, we went overboard - way overboard - and once again had to adhere to a rigorous production schedule. So, despite our original intentions, Buried In Time still took two years of ten to sixteen hour days to develop.

    The fact that Buried in Time took as long as Journeyman to create isn't surprising, though, when you consider the differences in scope and detail. The BIT world is easily three times larger than that of Journeyman, and fills three CD-ROMs. It has ten times as many rendered frames of animation, three times as much video, and an entire on-line data bank of clues, quips, and historical information recorded by professional comedian Matt Weinhold. It also represents an advance over the original in many other ways, including full-motion walking animations, a larger cast of professional actors, seamlessly integrated live-action video, actual historical time zones, and advances in the interface. The end result of all this work is a stunning epic that has claimed its own share of critical praise and numerous awards.

    Pegasus Prime

    While the primary team was working on Buried in Time, a separate crew, led by art director Jack Davis, began work on a brand-new and vastly-improved 'director’s cut' of The Journeyman Project. To be released for the Sony PlayStation and Power Macintosh, Pegasus Prime is a complete remake of the first game, utilizing today's technology to tell the Journeyman story the way it was originally envisioned. It features incredible new graphics, new interactions and games, and new video.

    One of the most important project mandates for the Presto Staff involved with the development of Pegasus Prime was to create a stunning interactive experience that would establish a new standard for multimedia excellence. Many innovations were planned for Pegasus Prime to set it apart from its original counterpart. An Artificial Intelligence was added as an on-line hint and help function to assist players when they felt stumped by puzzles. Also, the interface was greatly reduced and simplified to increase the feeling of total immersion for the player. To make the familiar Journeyman world feel new, the designers of Pegasus Prime demanded that incredible detail fill every part of the game. By using composited live-action video sequences, magnificent virtual environment walk-throughs in six different world environments, heart pounding fly-throughs and stunning panoramas, Presto Studios has succeeded in creating one of the most beautiful and challenging epic adventure games for the Sony Playstation, Pippin, and Power Macintosh platforms.

    Pegasus Prime is possibly the most important project ever undertaken at Presto, because it starts our hallmark series anew, christening the next generation of Presto titles on a machine with the power to reach a new generation of players. Those who have never played Journeyman will be astounded by the incredible graphics and sound, challenging gameplay, and intriguing novel-quality story. Those who have will simply gape in awe. Amazing new interactive sequences ensure maximum playability either way.

    Gundam 0079

    Following the release of Buried in Time, many members of our crew have begun work on Gundam 0079, a game based on the Japanese movie and television series of the same name, owned by Sunrise and licensed by Bandai of Japan. Although it's not well known in the U.S., The Gundam series is as popular in Japan as the Star Wars series is here. The game focuses on a series of future wars in which warriors piloting giant mechanized robots (or 'mobile suits') battle for control of Earth. It features incredible motion-captured graphics rendered entirely on Silicon Graphics workstations. Gundam 0079 has already enjoyed success with the wide release of Power Macintosh and Sony Playstation versions in Japan. Windows95 and Power Macintosh versions are to be released in North America in the fall of 1997 by Bandai Digital Entertainment.

    To The Future - And Beyond!

    However the future unfolds, one thing is for certain - Presto will continue to be at the forefront of the computer game industry. We are currently developing new technologies and concepts that will aid us in bringing to life the incredibly rich stories, characters, and worlds that are the hallmarks of Presto Studios. In addition to branching out into new realms of electronic gaming, Presto has also begun to spread into other media. The Buried in Time Strategy Guide (with an included 'making-of' segment by our own Eric Dallaire) has already been published by Prima Books, and there are even rumors that a Journeyman movie may be in the works ...

    And now teamed up with Broderbund's Red Orb Entertainment label, Presto games will be reaching into more homes to be enjoyed by more people than ever before with the upcoming Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time!

    The Journey continues: From Journeymen to Masters of the Game

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