Kabam Studios Visit (May 30, 2017)
When you walk into the reception area at Kabam, a couple things grab your eye. The first is the incredibly friendly receptionist who greets you with a smile. Then your eye moves over to the right slightly and you are looking up at a six foot plus statue of Optimus Prime. Glowing with lights, holding a sword and standing guard, this statue embodies a lot about Kabam! They put on an impressive show, embrace playfulness while representing fine craftsmanship and professionality. On the other side you will find a set of old style wood and metal scooters. Next to that? A bowl of water for visiting dogs. Definitely not your typical reception area!
Kabam is a game company founded in 2006. It is headquartered in Vancouver, BC (where we visited) but they also have branches in San Francisco, CA and Austin, TX. They are a "freemium" game company that seeks to bring AAA console quality games to mobile devices. Perhaps their most well known product is Marvel's Contest of Champions which has been running for several years already. Transformers: Forged to Fight is their most recent move into the world of licensed properties.
Our group had to first register before entering the studio. Once we were all set we were ushered into a conference room which would serve as our command center for the day. Waiting for us in the room were several members of the Kabam team including Executive Producer Mike McCartney, Creative Director Cuz Parry, Director of Product Marketing Callie Jenkins and Product Marketing Manager Jamie Zhang. While McCartney did have a slide deck ready to present to us, instead our first meeting turned into an open discussion about the game. There was a lot of talk about the marketability of "reskinned" characters (think Starscream and Thundercracker) as well as some talk about choosing characters in the game. While much of the Transformers universe is open to Kabam, there are some exceptions such as 2001's "Robots in Disguise" series and "Animated". Given some of the oddball licensing issues around those shows, this is hardly surprising.
After a nice lunch, we were taken to several sections of the studio. Kabam's employees are largely stationed in large open areas with conference rooms in the periphery. However this is not some boring, stuffy looking office. Their bathrooms have Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man on them (a nice nod to the history of gaming) and each conference room has a theme. Perhaps the most fun one is the room with a TARDIS serving as the entrance while a Dalek stands guard. It is, legitimately bigger on the inside!
Our group was ushered over to meet Art Directors Adam Cooper and Pablo Greenham. Cooper showed us various high res renders of characters. This included an up close look at the Rhinox model in both modes. Seeing it close up on a large monitor really brought out a lot of the amazing detail. It was truly stunning and I was amazed that such a detailed model was built for a mobile game! The other model we got to see in high res was the Sharkticon, which looks fierce (seriously, I want an action figure of it now). We were also offered a look at the concept art behind the Sharkticon, which seems to blend elements of G1 Gnaw and "Beast Wars" Cybershark with a touch of "Energon" Sharkticon. It was great to see these models standing still. So often fans only get to see them running around the screen and battling. To see them on a much larger screen than any phone or tablet was a treat and a testament to the work involved in creating these models.
Pablo Greenham showed us another element of the game that could easily be ignored: the backgrounds. Each fighting board in "Forged to fight" is a 3D environment, allowing characters to move forward, back and side to side. The camera also pans around the board, so it has to be a fully realized environment. A lot of the design takes cues from existing influences. For instance in one board there is a crashed ship that resembles the Autobot ships from "Transformers: The Movie". The boards also have animated elements, such as molten metal pouring out of one building or water glistening in the distance. I told Greenham that it would be amazing to just have the ability to pan around the board. Fans would no doubt spend lots of time picking it apart for references and of course, taking screenshots!
We met two more artists whose names escape me at the moment, but they did show us the model for Drift, who was already teased in the game. While he could not transform into the licensed vehicle used in "Age of Extinction", he certainly looks close enough! The artists have had past experience with games like Need for Speed and Fast and the Furious so they have ample experience in creating cars that are close to looking like licensed vehicles while not actually being licensed.
Next up we met with the crew that breathes life into the game. Animation Director Derek Ng-Cummings showed us how they take the models created by the artists and turn them into moving, functioning characters. Kabam does not use motion capture of actors performing the moves. Everything is done in the computers by the artists. He also showed us the magic of the transformation sequences. While the models certainly look like they could transform like an action figure, in fact each character has a robot mode model and an alt mode model. When the character begins his or her dramatic movements to transform, there is always a key point where the alternate model is put in its place. Add in some flashiness including a few panels moving and the transformation effect is complete. He slowed the sequence down enough for us to see the exact point where the "swap" happens but even after seeing that, when you see the transform in motion it looks magical!
Models and animation are great, but there are a ton of touches that need to be added to form a complete character. That is where Nick Williams (Visual Effects Lead) comes in. When you play a fighting game, there are lots of visual effects that may only last seconds on screen, but they make an impression. Whether it is Bludgeon throwing "energy stars" or sparks as you strike a character they add to the overall feel of the game, giving it extra weight and impact. That is where Williams comes in. He showed us some fun video including Motormaster's fun tornado attack (which they joked originally included a cow flying around!). Amusingly, this special attack had been conceived when Williams was out of office, so he came back to a real surprise!
Much to do was made about one particular power. When you activate one of Mirage's special powers, he turns invisible like he did in the G1 cartoon, and then he "magically" appears across the screen to attack! So challenging was this particular animation/ability to generate that it was almost dropped. However all the teams worked together and made it happen, and the result is sure to make G1 fans happy!
After the tour of the studio, each web site representative was taken though a set of breakout sessions where we were able to interview team members in a more private session. This was a great way to have a good back and forth with the team members and I really enjoyed them. The breakout sessions also really helped demonstrate further just how passionate Kabam is about its games. For the most part game production is largely a creative and problem solving endeavor but the way this crew talks you can tell they are fans of the franchise and want to make sure that the product they release pleases not just casual gamers but hardcore fans as well. This level of care was very evident in every conversation I had.
I am currently still working on having these interviews transcribed and approved by Kabam. Once they are I will be posting those up separately. For those curious, the folks I met with were:
- Mike McCartney – Executive Producer
- Cuz Parry – Creative Director / Storytelling
- Adam Cooper – Art Director
- Pablo Greenham – Art Director
- Marcelo Matere – Concept Artist and Illustrator
- Darren Evenson – Game Design
- Nick Williams – Visual Effects Lead
- Derek Ng-Cummings – Animation Director
- Callie Jenkins – Director, Product Marketing
- Jamie Zhang – Product Marketing Manager
After the breakout sessions ended we were given some time to rest at hour hotel before getting together with the Kabam crew for dinner. We were treated to a fantastic dinner at Black & Blue. The food was fantastic and it was wonderful getting time to sit down with the Kabam crew and break bread with them.
Ben's World of Transformers would like to extend its sincere thanks to Kabam for taking time out of their busy schedule for this event. It was a unique look into the world of games and it was wonderful to be around a crew whose energy was inspiring.
TRANSFORMERS: Forged to Fight is a new high-definition, action-fighting RPG mobile game developed by Kabam and Hasbro. For the first time ever, Transformers fans and mobile gamers everywhere will be able to build their Transformers team and battle with the most iconic Autobots and Decepticons from nearly every era of the storied franchise’s 30-plus year history.
The game features authentic Transformers action set in a stunning 3D environment, challenging players to assemble the ultimate team of Autobots and Decepticons, including fan-favorite bots from previous and current animated Transformers TV series, Paramount’s blockbuster films, Transformers comic books and Hasbro's line of iconic action figures. As fans assemble their team, they will forge alliances, battle other players and dive into a unique storyline that goes beyond good versus evil.