In 2003, Manley left a job at Vivendi, moved from Boston to less-expensive Austin, Texas, and began working as a contractor. That move gave him the freedom to start the new company. “We were all working our day jobs and kind of trying to scheme on how to start this company in the evenings,” says Kaufman. “Jason [Manley] was the first to say, ‘the hell with it.’”
Manley solicited the work and fed assignments to Kaufman, Jones, Konig and Noxizmad, who was based in Paris.
They incorporated as Massive Black in 2003. “The idea was that we would grab the some of the best artists from around the world and pull them into one remotely-based team,” says Manley.
“That wasn’t the way teams were typically built in the videogame industry. They often use junior staff which surrounds a small core of veteran talent.”
Manley secured small jobs with important clients for the veteran artists, and in their spare time, the artists perfected their skills in 3D modeling, texturing, and animation. “No one outside the top developers was doing next-gen development at the time, so we had to figure it out by ourselves,” says Manley, “and we did.”
Their first huge job was Hellgate: London for the then new game developer Flagship Studios (formerly Blizzard North). “They gave us our break,” says Manley. “We’re still thankful for that.”
The artists created concept art, models, textures, animation, marketing materials, storyboards, creatures, weapons and environments. “We were their art staff for two years.”
With 18 artists now working with Massive Black, and Hellgate underway, it became clear that the dream of working as a remote-based company wasn’t happening. “Working as a remote-based company is great only until you get a giant job,” says Manley. “Just try to manage a few thousand pieces of concept work and 300 models and textures and 300 or 4,000 animations using conversations on IM. It doesn’t work and it wasn’t going to.” In addition to Hellgate, the team was also working on projects for id software, Sony, Nike, Blizzard, Activision, and others.
“It was driving everyone crazy,” says Kaufman. “Something that you could otherwise walk up to someone’s desk and ask for by saying, ‘Hey do you have that thing?’ could take all day. It became obvious we needed a studio.”
In December 2004, the 18 artists opened the doors to Massive Black in San Francisco and at the same time offered a North American Artist’s Workshop. Soon after, they opened a studio in Shanghai. “We faced the reality that we had to keep our rates competitive or we’d lose the company to whoever could make art at low cost,” says Manley. “And we wanted to keep our team together.”
Manley notes that the games industry pays only the minimum amount for 3D work right now and he understands why. “They have good reason,” he says. “Games aren’t more expensive than they were years ago even though they cost significantly more to make. The industry has grown, but the cost of making games is more than the market will bear. So everyone involved has to explore lower-cost alternatives. Just a few years ago, a team of 18 could make a triple-A title, nowadays it can take as many as 150-200.”
The company’s experience developing and holding training workshops helped bring Massive Black’s China-based team up to speed quickly. Now, under the direction of Dan Staton and producer Jenny Kim, the Shanghai staff plays a particularly important role in the studio’s 3D work as does a second team in Bangkok. “They did a great job on ‘Battlefield 2142’, ‘Hellgate’ and ‘Auto Assault’ and are now working on ‘Killzone 2’ and others,” says Manley.
“They also do beautiful art for our own creative projects.”
|What’s With the Name?|
Jason Manley: We all made a list of hundreds of potential names and the guys just could not agree when it came down to it. We discussed it back and forth and narrowed it down to two potential names: Pixeluffagus and Massive Force. It did not take long for us to realize these were horrendous choices. No one could decide on the right name. One of the guys cracked a joke. He said it should be Massive Black with a rooster logo and the tagline “serving all your biggest needs” --a name few would forget. We mocked up some cards in jest. Within an hour we had a surprise unanimous decision. After months of discussion about potential “Digital this,” Pixel that,””Imaginary this” and “Dynamic that,” we had the name that would stick.
In the end, we reasoned that Massive Black is the primordial void from which great ideas are pulled.
The overseas studios have helped free senior artists based in
San Francisco to work on pitch packages, which have become a centerpiece of Massive Black’s work. “We help companies get funding,” says Manley. “Companies come to us when they’re just getting started and have little to show other than a list of ideas. We take those ideas and deliver a cohesive package that makes the funder, whether a game publisher or movie studio, say, ‘yes!’ during greenlight”. Twenty-seven of 32 major pitches developed or assisted by Massive Black have sold at the publisher level, according to Manley.
As they developed pitches for other companies, the Massive Black artists learned what they needed to do to sell their own ideas. “We knew from the beginning that IP [intellectual property] is what makes your company valuable,” says Manley. “We know what the market needs to get our own worlds out.”
Andrew Jones now leads the R&D division to develop Massive Black’s own worlds and already has five properties in nearly pitch-able form. “We dumped all our profits from the last four years into our own worlds,” says Manley. “We have to make that next step.” The company will develop these worlds through a new division, Massive Black Entertainment, and hopes to license them to publishers. First hints of this new direction will begin appearing on the Massive Black website over the next two months.
At the same time, the founders plan to grow the studio a bit more to handle a steady flow of outsourcing work. About half these projects are licensed worlds for which the artists follow existing designs or re-design the work. For the other half, the artists bring new worlds to life from concept design through modeling, texturing, rigging and animation.
“We have between 12 and 15 projects going on at any one time,” says Manley. “Everything from cute, sweet, and beautiful, to omigod, that’s the nastiest, darkest, evilest, thing I’ve ever seen. We always seem to be working on a lot of space marines, heroes, monsters and dragons…the typical genre stuff. But in general, if you take a picture of what’s happening creatively in the entertainment industry, that’s our work.”
They claim to have the largest independent concept design team in the world now, and they expect to grow, hoping to place about 15 new artists in its various divisions this year and ready to scale up for larger projects in the future.
“There is way more need for concept design right now than there used to be,” says Kaufman. “The need is for games and also for movies. So we handle a big range. Our concept artists have a real aptitude for creating cool shit and that’s why we’ve gotten much of the work on pitches and in pre-production. It’s a dream come true from an artistic standpoint.”
And that is the bottom line. The ragtag group of artists who wanted to educate themselves and others and along the way create the top art for the top companies have, themselves, created a top company. “We’re artists,” says Manley, “but we’re not stupid.”
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