Game

From Shogo to Shadow of War: Charting the chaotic, creative history of Monolith Productions

When you try to imagine how the developers behind Blood, one of the most glorious bloody games of the nineties, came to be, the last thing that comes to mind is a game studio known for games like Millie’s Math House. Perhaps the serene nature of educational game development has caused a pressure cooker for wild ambition among some of its developers, as the seven founders of Monolith began planning their entry into the games industry in Edmark.

It all stemmed from the love of the game. One of the founders, Toby Gladwell, recalls these early experiences. “We were playing Doom, we got together with a love of games and we wanted to try to build them,” he says. “Maybe it’s the arrogance of being in our twenties, but back then we thought we were the most creative group of our time.”

Naturally, many of the founders wanted to jump straight into game development, but Jason (Jace) Hall—the charismatic, big thinker who would make many of Monolith’s most lucrative deals—had another idea: a MegaMedia CD. The idea was originally from the nineties. An innovation called Redbook Audio meant that videos, game demos and music could all be stored on the same CD. Jace created some videos and music, and Brian Goble contributed a special version of the Microman game, among other things. In 1994, Jace left Edmark to become Monolith’s herald, using the Monolith CD as a gospel to attract important people.

It didn’t take long. Jace impressed Microsoft, which was working on the first iteration of DirectX, an API that would unleash the idle power of gaming PCs. Shortly after that, Monolith’s co-founders left Edmark and gathered at Microsoft’s prestigious compound for some contract work on Windows 95 game CDs. Monolith co-founder Garrett Price remembers this pivotal moment. “There were no Windows games back then, they were all DOS,” he says. “We left Edmark praying – it was much scarier for Brian. [Bouwman] He was a kid back then, but the rest of us were like, ‘We’re young, let’s do this!’ we were saying.”

Blood

While the Monolith team worked “out of a few lockers” at Microsoft, making sample CDs, Jace continued to make connections in the wider industry. They invest all the money they get from their work at Microsoft into Monolith’s starting pot. Jace’s growing network also paid dividends when a Japanese company called Takarajimasha invested substantial sums in Monolith. Later that year, the Monolith team moved from their Microsoft room to their first office – although perhaps ‘compound’ would be a more appropriate description.

“We’re renting a few buildings in this office park,” says Garrett. “I remember walking with my wife and saying, ‘How are you going to fill all this?’ he asked. We started to collect our friends from other companies. We had this whole team almost instantly.” With the studio complex established in 1996 – complete with a soundstage and other high-end extras – it was time for Monolith to make its first home game. Garrett was the original artist for Monolith and presented the rest of the team with an archived project from their art school days. This was Captain Claw, an anthropomorphic pirate cat who battled packs of ‘rooster Spaniard’ dogs in search of the Nine-Tails Amulet.

“I was obsessed with New Wave music, Adam And The Ants, all that stuff, and then all that romantic pirate outfit. That was right before Earthworm Jim came out, so it’s a good time for irreverent weirdo characters,” says Garrett, Monolith Proud of the pet project that will strengthen the ‘s resume.

humble origins

blood 2

old player

“He got a sculpting degree from Wazoo and he could make these amazing movie masks,” says Garrett. “Literally movie quality stuff. He sculpted all these characters and mock-ups for Blood.” As much as blood was loved, it represented the end of an era in PC gaming as its 2.5D graphics paved the way for fast 3D. Monolith knew it had to be a part of this revolution, and even while Blood was still in development, there was already a team dedicated to building an in-house 3D engine.

In 1996 Monolith received the Rendition Verite V1000, one of the first graphics cards with 3D acceleration. This heralded the birth of DirectEngine, which would become LithTech, the engine Monolith continues to use to this day.

Mental Health: Aiken's Artifact

“We had an exchange student and he gave us some Gundam magazines, Dancouga, and other things that inspired me for Shogo,” Garrett recalls. “The concept artists blew it up and made it great.” Then there were more modest 2D efforts. While Get Medieval was a flipping dungeon crawler based on the Gauntlet that most growing developers played in arcades, Gruntz was a real-time strategy game inspired by the team’s Warcraft II obsession.

Monolith was prolific between 1998 and 1999, releasing nine games as a publisher and developer. Self-published, published for others, the studio had a dedicated engine department and even a motion capture services wing called Monolith Studios. The idealistic young company was starting to get overwhelmed.

FEAR

This is where Toby believes company culture is changing. The focus on games increased, which meant that some of this chaotic creativity had to be drawn into a more managed and structured model. Monolith Studios and its publishing side ceased operations. Both Toby and Garrett admit they like Monolith’s earlier, more carefree days more, but the next few years will be one of the studio’s best.

In 2000, he released his first game on the new LithTech 2.0 engine, Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact – a top-down action game that sees you as a psychic special agent voiced by rapper Ice-T. While not Monolith’s most famous game, it was a breakthrough for the LithTech engine, powered by the release of Voodoo 2 graphics chips.

“Final Fantasy 7 came out recently, and I was blown away by the impact it had,” Toby says. “It made us realize that we could build a system that would allow artists to do these special effects, and that became the basis for Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact. This effects system has been used in almost all of our other games.”

solid strategy

Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor

Toby Gladwell

Sanity laid the groundwork for what would become two of Monolith’s most beloved titles: the cheeky sixties-themed shooter No One Lives Forever and Aliens Versus Predator 2 – Alien IP’s best use in video games is arguably the best. These games marked the maturation of the studio and the engine technology they had been working on over the previous four years.

Contrasting hues of the two games’ exaggerated sacrilege and cold sci-fi horror – witty authenticity and loyalty to a beloved IP – embodied the multifaceted spirit that was a crucial part of Monolith’s identity. The success of Aliens Versus Predator 2 solidified Monolith’s affiliation with Warner Bros., which would lead to the (unfortunate) Matrix Online and ultimately to the much less unfortunate acquisition of Monolith in 2004. The sequel to No One Lives Forever and Tron 2.0 was developed, which again was both a passionate project and a profitable business.

“Tron was solid in our childhood as the coolest thing ever, so we had the opportunity to build a game in the Tron universe and even meet Sid Mead – talk about fanboyism,” Toby recalls. “We were able to leverage our knowledge-generating shooters to create a game that was really well received.”

Monolith, Warner Bros. would remain a forward-thinking developer under it. While FEAR (2005) pushes the limits of artificial intelligence and graphical prowess, Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor’s enemy system is the most recently patented Warner Bros. was seen as an asset. But that gets to the heart of why the Monolith takeover is bittersweet.

As legacy and talent move into the new era, the nemesis patent is a testament to how tainted great game design can be by the cold accounts of publishers that often conflict with the interests of the player. This first decade of Monolith, on the other hand, was driven by an outstanding team of developers, and we were all winners.


This feature was first old player magazine issue 219. For more great resources like the one you just read, don’t forget to subscribe to the print or digital edition at My favorite magazines.


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From Shogo to Shadow of War: Charting the chaotic, creative history of Monolith Productions

When you try to imagine how the developers behind Blood, one of the most gloriously gory games of the nineties, first came together, the last thing that springs to mind is a games studio known for titles like Millie’s Math House. Perhaps the placid nature of educational games development caused a pressure-cooker of wild ambition among a few of its developers, because it was at Edmark that the seven founders of Monolith began planning their break into the games industry.
It all stemmed from a love of gaming. One of the founders, Toby Gladwell, recalls those early experiences. “We’d been playing Doom, we came together with a love of games and wanted to take a stab at building them,” he tells us. “Maybe it’s the arrogance of being in our early twenties, but at the time we thought we were the most creative group of our time.” 
Naturally, several of the founders wanted to jump straight into game development, but Jason (Jace) Hall – a charismatic big-thinker who would procure many of Monolith’s most lucrative deals – had another idea: a MegaMedia CD. The idea was quintessentially Nineties. An innovation called Redbook Audio meant that videos, game demos and music could all be stored on the same CD. Jace created some videos and music, and Brian Goble contributed a special version of his game Microman, among other things. In 1994 Jace left Edmark to become Monolith’s evangelist, using the Monolith CD as a gospel to attract the people that mattered. 
It didn’t take long. Jace impressed Microsoft, which just so happened to be working on the first iteration of DirectX – an API that would unlock the dormant power of PCs for gaming. Soon after that, the cofounders of Monolith left Edmark and piled into the prestigious compound of Microsoft for some contract work on Windows 95 gaming CDs. Monolith cofounder Garrett Price remembers this pivotal moment. “Windows gaming didn’t exist then, it was all DOS,” he tells us. “We left Edmark on a prayer – it was way scarier for Brian [Bouwman] who had a child at the time, but the rest of us were like ‘We’re young, let’s do this!’”

The Monolith team worked “out of a couple of closets” at Microsoft, making sample CDs while Jace continued to make contacts in the wider industry. They put all the money from their Microsoft work into the Monolith start-up pot. Jace’s ever-growing network of contacts paid dividends too, when a Japanese company called Takarajimasha invested a sizeable amount of money into Monolith. Later that year, the Monolith team moved out of their Microsoft quarters to their first office – though perhaps ‘compound’ is a more fitting description. 
“We leased a bunch of buildings in this office park,” says Garrett. “I remember walking through it with my wife and she asked ‘How are you ever gonna fill all these up?’ We just began rounding up our friends from other companies. We almost instantly had this whole crew.” With the studio complex set up in 1996 – complete with sound studio and other high-end extras – it was time for Monolith to make its first homegrown game. Garrett was Monolith’s original artist, and presented the rest of the team with a shelved project from his art school days. It was Captain Claw – an anthropomorphic pirate cat who fought through packs of ‘cocker spaniard’ dogs in his pursuit of the Amulet Of The Nine Tails.
“I was obsessed with New Wave music, Adam And The Ants, all that stuff, so that whole romantic pirate outfits thing. This was right before Earthworm Jim came out too, so a good time for irreverent weird characters,” Garrett tells us, proud of his pet project that would kickstart Monolith’s resume.
Humble beginnings

“He got a sculpting degree from Wazoo and could make these amazing movie masks,” says Garrett. “Literally cinema quality stuff. He sculpted all these characters and maquettes for Blood.” Beloved though Blood was, it represented the end of an era in PC gaming, as 2.5D graphics made way for 3D-accelerated ones. Monolith knew it had to be part of this revolution, and even as Blood was still in development there was already a team dedicated to building an in-house 3D engine. 
In 1996, Monolith received the Rendition Verite V1000, one of the first 3D-accelerated video cards. This heralded the birth of DirectEngine, which would morph into LithTech – the engine that Monolith continues to use to this day.

“We had an exchange student and she had given us some Gundam magazines, Dancouga and other things that I’d draw inspiration from for Shogo,” Garrett remembers. “The concept artists just blew that out and made it amazing.” Then there were more humble 2D efforts. Get Medieval was an irreverent dungeon crawler based on Gauntlet, which many of the devs played in arcades growing up, while Gruntz was a real-time strategy game inspired by the team’s obsession with Warcraft II. 
Monolith was prolific between 1998 and 1999, releasing nine games as a publisher and developer. The studio was self-publishing, it was publishing for others, it had a dedicated engine department, and even had a motion-capture services wing called Monolith Studios. The idealistic young company was beginning to overstretch itself. 

This is the point where Toby believes the company culture shifted. The focus around games tightened, which also meant that some of that chaotic creativity had to be reeled in towards a more managed, structured model. Monolith Studios and the publishing side ceased operations. Both Toby and Garrett admit they’re most fond of the earlier, more carefree days of Monolith, but the next few years would be some of the studio’s fi nest. 
In 2000 it released its first game on the new LithTech 2.0 engine, Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact – a top- down action game casting you as a psychic special agent voiced by rapper Ice-T. While it wasn’t Monolith’s most famous game, it marked a breakthrough for the LithTech engine, propelled by the launch of Voodoo 2 graphics chips.
“Final Fantasy 7 had recently come out, and I was blown away by the effects that it had,” says Toby. “It made us realise we could just build a system that lets artists do these special effects, and it became the basis for Sanity: Aiken’s Artifact. That effects system actually got used in pretty much all our other titles.”
Sound strategy

Toby Gladwell

Sanity laid the groundwork for what would become two of Monolith’s most beloved games: sassy Sixties-themed shooter No One Lives Forever and Aliens Versus Predator 2 – arguably the best ever use of the Alien IP in video games. These games marked the maturation of the studio and its engine technology they had been working on over the previous four years. 
The two games’ contrasting tones of campy irreverence and cold sci-fi horror – witty originality and loyalty to a beloved IP – embodied the omnidirectional spirit that was such a key part of Monolith’s identity. The success of Aliens Versus Predator 2 solidified Monolith’s Warner Bros connection, which would lead to the (ill-fated) Matrix Online and ultimately to the much less ill-fated acquisition of Monolith in 2004. Before the acquisition, there was still time for a much-improved No One Lives Forever sequel and Tron 2.0, which was again as much a passion project as a lucrative job. 
“Tron was cemented in our childhoods as the coolest thing ever, so we got this opportunity to build a game in the Tron universe and even meet Sid Mead – talk about fanboyness,” Toby recalls. “We were able to leverage our knowledge building shooters to make a game that was really well-received.” 
Monolith would remain a forward-thinking developer under Warner Bros. FEAR (2005) pushed the envelope of AI and graphical prowess, while Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor’s nemesis system was deemed to be such an asset to Warner Bros that it was recently patented. But that gets to the heart of why Monolith’s acquisition was bittersweet. 
While the legacy and talent crossed over into the new era, the nemesis patent is indicative of how great game design can get tainted by the cold calculations of publishers, which are often at odds with the interests of the gamer. That first decade of Monolith, on the other hand, was driven by gamers who happened to be an exceptional team of developers, and we were all winners from it.
This feature first appeared in Retro Gamer magazine issue 219. For more excellent features, like the one you’ve just read, don’t forget to subscribe to the print or digital edition at MyFavouriteMagazines.  

#Shogo #Shadow #War #Charting #chaotic #creative #history #Monolith #Productions


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