Beyond The Journeyman Project: a conversation with Michel Kripalani, Tommy Yune, Roland Gustafsson
First posted on 31 October 2009. Last updated on 31 December 2012.
All images are courtesy of Michel Kripalani, Tommy Yune, Roland Gustafsson, Kevin Baird © 2009 and Presto Studios © 2009.
About the interviews
The interviews with Michel Kripalani (CEO/President), Tommy Yune (Creative Director), and Roland Gustafsson (Lead Programmer) of Presto Studios were originally conducted between November 2008 and May 2009. Their assistance in the preparation of this article, including access to previously unreleased materials from Presto Studios, was greatly appreciated.
About the game
The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time Anniversary DVD-ROM is a remake of the original game of the same name released in 1998 by Presto Studios and Red Orb Entertainment. The remake supports Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later (including 10.6.2 with Rosetta) and features higher-resolution remastered graphics and other enhancements such as resolution switching and a new Easter egg.
For more information on The Journeyman Project, visit The Journeyman Project Trilogy.
About the author
Peter Rootham-Smith is a big fan of adventure games and is an active hobbyist in the adventure game community. He is the creator of the Puzzle and Adventure Game Online Database (Pagoda), a database archive of links about graphic adventure games.
Beside adventure games, Rootham-Smith also enjoys science fiction and fantasy, far eastern cinema, and French onion soup with melted cheese in it. He currently lives in England.
For more information on Pagoda, visit Pagoda link database.
In the autumn of 1990, Michel Kripalani was inspired by Spaceship Warlock to start developing video games. Spaceship Warlock was a CD-ROM adventure game released by a small, garage band, game company called Reactor. At the time, Kripalani had already started a small client based multimedia production company with a colleague while attending the visual arts program at the University of California at San Diego. He, however, had long yearned to extend his own creative ambition, so he recruited several friends and colleagues, including Greg Uhler and Farshid Almassizadeh, and started work on a game demo for the January 1992 MacWorld Expo—Presto Studios was born.
The founders of Presto Studios rented a house in a suburb of San Diego, continued their fulltime jobs during the day, and worked on the demo by night. The demo was for an adventure game later known as The Journeyman Project. Game development was very different back then—the atmosphere was that of a frat house; ideas came and went, unaccompanied by company bureaucracy, with just about everyone pitching in together and getting the project done at the last moment. The demo was a big hit at the expo, and Kripalani and the others decided to go for broke and gave up their day jobs to work on the game full time. Tommy Yune, who was among the first recruits joining the company, recalled those early days working there,
"The amazing things that were accomplished with such moderate resources and so little time...and everybody was so young! It was a wild west frontier back then and everybody was trying to get in on the entrepreneurial ground floor. Nobody was really sure where new interactive media was headed and everything in establishing user interface conventions was so experimental. Now that the game industry has matured, the budgets and staffs of major console games have really ballooned, but I see that entrepreneurial spirit popping up again in new platforms like the iPhone."
In January 1993, Presto Studios succeeded in releasing The Journeyman Project—2 years and 15,000 man-hours of development time later. The game was billed as the first photorealistic computer video game and quickly became a best-selling Macintosh CD-ROM. The game was also well received by critics, garnering numerous industry awards including the Award of Excellence at the 1993 New Media Invision Awards.
With this initial success, Presto Studios necessarily changed as a company and became more organized and less anarchic. Still, the sequel, The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time, released in June 1995, took another 2 years of 10-16 hour days of development time to complete. The game again pushed the envelope in game design by using live actors filmed against blue screen overlaid on computer generated backdrops that were then seamlessly joined by pre-rendered animated sequences.
The third game in the series, The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time, released in January 1998, moved the technology in game design forward yet again. The static graphics slideshow was replaced by 360° node based panoramic view, and the player could assume guises of other characters in different time eras and hold conversations. Sadly, this game was to be the end of The Journeyman Project series. This was despite the fact that, according to Yune, Presto Studios had already put much effort into developing a fourth game for the series, provisionally titled The Journeyman Project 4: Resurrection, before publisher Red Orb Entertainment unexpectedly pulled out of the project,
"We had actually assembled a game design with all the time zone environments defined for the new game. There were two programming sub-teams working on a new real-time 3D engine and a full-screen version of the pre-rendered VR engine as a fallback if the 3D engine proved to be too ambitious. The progress on the 3D engine was actually progressing really well and major portions of two of the worlds had already been constructed and were navigable in the prototype before it was shelved. However, a more advanced version of the VR engine was later used in Presto's development of Myst III. The Journeyman Project 4 had a neat concept which could still be usable if anything got resurrected in the future. So who knows?"
Indeed, Kripalani said that there would be still opportunity to develop the series,
"I feel that the games would translate well to iPhone apps. We are exploring if it makes business sense to pursue this. I also feel that the stories would provide a great foundation for a TV show or motion picture. We've had a few people speak with us about this, but nothing has solidified yet. I'm not sure if Journeyman 4 will ever see the light of day, but we did have a very good start on an excellent design doc."
After The Journeyman Project, Presto Studios began experimenting with real-time 3D game engines. In October 1999, the company released Star Trek: Hidden Evil. The game was an action adventure based on the film Star Trek: Insurrection, set approximately 1 year after the film ended. Critics' reception to the game was mixed, though the company benefited much from the experience of working with next generation game development tools and engine technologies.
Presto Studios then won the approval of Cyan Worlds to develop the third game in the popular Myst series, while Cyan Worlds itself concentrated on developing the failed Uru project. Myst III: Exile, released in May 2001, used a more advanced game engine than The Journeyman Project (for example, video could be played back as the player panned around). Unfortunately, even though the game was a commercial success, publisher UbiSoft Entertainment decided to sever its tie with Presto Studios and took the development of next Myst sequel in-house.
A number of other project ideas also fell through, as Presto Studios struggled to find sustainable funding for them. In late 2002, Kripalani took the difficult decision to close the company's doors. Yet, most remarkably, Presto Studios still managed to find funding to complete a XBox game called Whacked!, had no financial debt, was rich in great talent, and was making $2.5 million a year at the time when the company ended. The video game industry was changing fast and had become very competitive. Kripalani missed those days, as he recalled,
"I have such great memories of the Presto Studios days. Most of the time, the team felt more like a family than a business organization. We were young and naive. We learned a lot together. People worked hard, contributed greatly and everyone was held accountable for their portion. No one wanted to let down other team members. We were creative in story, graphics and in engineering. It was a time of great experimentation. We had our share of failures, but also lots of success. I am looking forward to finding a way to re-create the feeling of Presto Studios once again. Perhaps with my new venture, Oceanhouse Media..."
The game industry saw development budgets for video games soaring quickly, and game publishers hesitated to back the innovative titles that Presto Studios wanted to make. There was a lot of competition, and cheapness eventually won out over quality, as Kripalani acknowledged,
"We were at the point where we had so many expenses and such a high payroll that we started to lose passion in the games."
So, Presto Studio shut down as the game industry moved from being driven by anarchic artists to being driven by accountants. Fortunately, Yune said many alumni from Presto Studios had since enjoyed career success in both films and games,
"I don't have an exact number, but many of them have gone to work for the biggest game publishers from EA to Sony. The rest have literally become a who's who list in the film and animation industries with folks working at ILM, Pixar, Weta, and so on."
Not wanting the company's legacy to lay waste, Yune and other alumni decided to preserve much of the material from Presto Studios in an online archive (1) as well as at a secret storage facility. In January 2009, the 6-foot Chameleon JumpSuit, originally made for use in The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time and designed by Phil Saunders, was donated to the University of California San Diego's Science and Engineering Library. Saunders migrated into the film industry after Presto Studios and even worked on the suit for the film Iron Man. Yune spoke of the deep comradeship among the staff at Presto Studios,
"Many of the staff were longtime friends before Presto and continue to be close friends to this day."
The Journeyman Project reloaded
In February 2008, a number of Presto Studios staff began in secret a project to port The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time to run on the newer Mac OS X operating system. Beta-testing of the port began in October 2008 (for which I was invited to be a participant), and the finalized build was released in January 2009. This special Anniversary DVD-ROM would support Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later (including Intel based Mac) and would be released on a single DVD so no CD swapping would be needed. Roland Gustafsson recalled the inspiration for doing the port,
"One day my 8 year old daughter came into my office and asked to play Legacy of Time, which she had heard about somehow. Most of the Macs in our house are Intel based and all are running OS X, of course, so this was a problem. I thought to myself, I wonder how difficult it would be to Carbonize it... which is the glue-method that Apple provided back in the early days of 2000 to make the migration from OS 9 to X as easy as possible. I attended a "Game Developer Kitchen" at Apple back in 2000 because I was working on Myst III: Exile at the time and Apple was eager to get all of the big name games back then up and running on OS X as soon as possible... so I was immersed in the requirements of Carbonization. That knowledge stuck with me, evidently, because I haven't carbonized anything for nearly 7 years! :)
Looking at the source code and reacquainting myself with it was very enjoyable. Working on J3 was one of the most enjoyable projects, the team was excellent, the deadlines attainable, it was the most pleasant development experience of my career."
Gustafsson also explained the changes in the port that were needed,
"It was pretty easy, really. I had to remove a fair bit of optimization related code because 1) the optimizations were coded a bit too close to the metal for OS X, and 2) they are absolutely not needed with the screaming fast machines of today! The oldest Macs that can run OS X can run J3 faster than the newest machines back when J3 was released! I even added a new feature that switches the resolutions when launching...that was too dicey back in 1998 for some reason."
In fact, Yune said that developing the port was an adventure in itself!
"Tracking down the source assets of the game was like an archaeological adventure. When Michel Kripalani and I opened the Presto Studios vault (in a secure and undisclosed location), we were digging though archives of materials that we hadn't seen or touched in almost a decade. It's also a pleasure to see it spark the memories of closet Journeyman Project fans when they find out about this new version.
Porting was always in the back of our minds with the introduction of Mac OS X years ago, but took on new urgency as the Intel Macs were no longer able to run classic Mac applications. Windows Vista had already broken compatibility with a lot of classic PC games, so none of The Journeyman Project games were in a readily installable state anymore. Although the original crew had moved onto other greater things, it felt like the blood, sweat and tears of many people were being lost to the ages.
Polishing the user interface and installation process for Mac OS X didn't take more than a few spare weekends and really hit home how much more simple and elegant the Mac has become ever since Steve Jobs came back. The only hiccup that popped up was a bug in QuickTime 7.6, but that was limited to cosmetic playback issues and doesn't seem to crash J3 like other older games. Oh yeah, I'd love to see The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime updated for Mac OS X, but that's also another ball of wax."
Despite the low resolution graphics, the gameplay and cinematic vision of the port held up very well even when compared to more contemporary game titles. For me, playing the port (a beta version of it) was a real pleasure: the sense of being there in Atlantis or Eldorado, or Shangri-La was very vivid. Rarely was there such a game with such depth, craft, and humor (not forgetting Arthur, of course).
More than a decade later, the spirit of Presto Studios would live on, made possible by inspired game makers such as Kripalani, Yune, and Gustafsson. On many levels, The Journeyman Project represented the best of what the adventure game genre once offered—a final sentiment shared by Kripalani himself,
"I believe that there is a great sense of nostalgia with The Journeyman Project. It is the same feeling as when you think back to a book that you read and loved 15 years ago. I have many stories from my past that I hold dear in my heart. I feel the same way with a select few computer games as well. For me, it was the games that either a) had a great story or b) allowed me to create a great story. I believe that it is the story and the immersive aspect of Journeyman that holds up over time."