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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

Journeyman
by AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC ’97

"We were all... I wouldn't say hackers, we were quasi hackers... Hackers isn't even the right word. We were tinkered."

RELATED LINKS

Presto Studios

CSE-125

PixelActive

Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts

The Journeyman Project

Legacy of Time        



In 1991, a group of seven friends—one UCSD alum and two UCSD students among them—hunkered down in a rented house in Mira Mesa. Their goal: build a cutting-edge computer game like nothing the world had seen before. Their resources: scrappy know-how, a few Apple computers, and $70,000 borrowed from friends and family.

What came of it was Presto Studios—now closed—and a series of games that each sold better than the last. Michel Kripalani, Marshall ’89, who served as Presto’s CEO, says you can chalk up his company’s entrepreneurial chutzpah to youth.

“If we had known the potential pitfalls we could’ve hit, we probably would’ve never started,” he muses. “But it was because we were as naïve as we were that we said, ‘What the hell, let’s go for it!’”

Kripalani majored in visual arts with a specialization in media, photography and computer art. His colleague Greg Uhler, Warren ’94, still a student at UCSD when Kripalani recruited him, followed a similar academic arc. Uhler had started out in computer science, but found the major too focused on engineering. He was fascinated by graphics and animation—traditional mediums he could transform with computing power.

Farshid Almassizadeh, a former Muir student, also had started in computer science at UCSD, but switched over to cognitive science and lighting design by the time he helped launch Presto. “Everybody had a trait to bring to the company,”

Almassizadeh recalls. “People had artistic talent, and people had programming talent.  It was very much like the old Mission Impossible. We brought people with different skills to make the team.”

“We were all . . . I wouldn’t say hackers, we were quasi hackers,” explains Kripalani. “Hackers isn’t even the right word. We were tinkerers. We all had computers. We’d get together and tinker. We thought it was fun doing all kinds of different multimedia things.”

Presto’s first game, an immersive narrative adventure called The Journeyman Project, drew on staffers’ shared love of Star Trek and SciFi, says Kripalani. “Time travel seemed like a really interesting way to show multiple graphic worlds in one game. If you had a time machine and could travel through time, what would you do?”

The Journeyman hero of the game could transport himself from the year 2318 to different eras, both historical and imaginary. The original game, released on CD-ROM, relied on a series of static computer-generated images—click forward, get a new picture, click forward again. The player, cast in the role of the Journeyman, could travel through time to different locations—a space station on Mars or an underwater military base, for example. There, the player as time traveler could interact with other characters and solve puzzles leading to new adventures.

The team worked around the clock to pull it together.

“We lived in the house,” recalls Uhler. “We didn’t have much furniture. We took down some of the closet doors and laid them out as tables on filing cabinets in the living room. It was a good time. A lot of young guys with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and working really hard on one fantastic project.”

The company caused a commotion when it debuted its Journeyman demo at the 1992 MacWorld. By 1993, the final product was ready to go, but publishers were skeptical. So Presto decided to self-publish. They shrink-wrapped games in their garage and sold directly to wholesalers, who turned each around for $90 a pop, leaving Presto with a tidy profit
of $40 or $50 per unit. The Journeyman Project eventually moved more than 100,000 copies.

Two years later, the game’s sequel, Buried in Time, boasted a development budget of $400K and sold 225,000 copies. The third installment, Legacy of Time, which shipped in 1998, cost $1.8 million to make. With that big budget came considerable advances: the Journey­man now was immersed in a fluid, 360-degree panoramic environment. In 2001, Presto also published a popular sequel to the original Myst, called Myst III: Exile. (Exile was published by a different company than the two previous Myst games, and sold one million units within a year.)

Presto shuttered its doors in 2002—the founders cite sweeping industry changes as a primary reason—but this past January, Kripalani, Uhler and Almassizadeh donated the Chameleon Jumpsuit from Legacy of Time to UCSD’s Geisel Library. Six-feet tall and covered in green armor, the elaborate costume was designed by Phil Saunders, Presto’s former creative director who went on to work on feature films such as Spiderman 3 and Iron Man. Presto used the jumpsuit in behind-the-scenes production. An actor donning the Journeyman costume was filmed in action against a blue screen, then composited into computer-generated fantasy worlds. It’s the same technology employed in Harry Potter, Star Wars and a host of other Hollywood blockbusters.

The three UCSD alums continue to work in the gaming industry. Kripalani recently launched Oceanhouse Media, which develops iPhone applications. Uhler will be working with him on the new venture (“We are going back to our roots and bootstrapping another business,” Kripalani says). Almassizadeh is a vice president at Electronic Arts.

“UCSD is where I learned to learn,” says Kripalani. “It wasn’t as geared towards technical training as I would have liked at the time, but many years later I came to realize that the aesthetic and historical foundation that I received was much more valuable. Anyone can learn the technical skills. The question is how those skills are applied.”

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC '97, is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

"Publishers were skeptical. So Presto decided to self-publish. The shrink-wrapped games in their garage and sold directly to wholesalers."