Q&A With Joe Mirabello

Today brings a developer interview that has been a long time in the making, and one that I’m thrilled to be bringing to you guys. One of the bigger success stories in the circle of independent video games development throughout the eighth generation was the studio Terrible Posture Games. The company was founded in Boston Massachusetts by industry veteran Joe Mirabello, who previous to this had worked with 38 Studios, working on titles such as Titan Quest and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. After 38 Studios went bankrupt in 2012 following the release of Kingdoms of Amalur, despite the game’s overwhelming critical success, Joe and a number of programmers formed Terrible Posture, and together developed the breakout indie hit, Tower of Guns in 2014, which garnished positive reviews from critics and wowed gamers with its variety in combat, catchy soundtrack and quirky sense of humor.

The ideas perpetuated in Tower of Guns would then later be built upon massively with their subsequent release, 2018’s Mothergunship, which built on the basic premise of Tower of Guns but also introduced a number of new mechanics, such as gun building and a more cohesive story mode. Most recently, Terrible Posture has been developing an episodic gamed named 3 out of 10, described by terrible posture as a playable sitcom and centering around the ill-fated game studio Shovelworks, with the game being much heavier on story than the two former titles, but at the time still perpetuating the same level of humor that Terrible Posture has come to be known for.

With myself having been curious to learn more about Terrible Posture for quite some time, I reached out to the company’s founder Joe Mirabello and requested an interview with him, and he agreed, much to my excitement. So this is what Joe Mirabello had to say about Terrible Posture Games:

 

Where did your passion for video games originate from?

From playing games, of course! And from reading comics and watching movies. As a kid growing up, games and books and movies all kind of blended together into a creative mush; I had limited amounts of time I was allowed to stare at a screen, and so I filled up the gaps with drawing, writing, and creating my OWN games and movies… just on paper.

I can’t quite say when, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 10 I switched from enjoying experiencing stories/games to wanting to MAKE stories and gameplay for others to enjoy; whether that was writing my own Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, making levels in Hyper Lode Runner, or trying to teach myself QBASIC; I found the very act of creation itself to be addicting. Even today, when I get caught up in making something it feels less like work and more like play.

 

Did you have aspirations to develop art for video games from an early age, or was there anything else you wanted to design art for before you decided to go down that route?

Oh, I want to make everything. The lines between art and story and even code are very blurry to me since they all scratch that creative itch… and I feel like you could have flipped a coin and I just as easily could have ended up making comics or films instead of games.

That said, while I did love art from a young age and wanted to work as an artist in some trade, this was in the 90s and you have to understand that no one knew you COULD even be an artist for games back then. The idea that the games were made by people with jobs? Wild! Games were magic, made by magicians only. As I grew up I started modding PC games a little and gradually that route kind of began to reveal itself but it wasn’t until college that it really dawned on me that game art specifically was a valid career path. At that point, I was already studying art and had become quite proficient in working with computers… so it was a natural transition to start messing with game art pipelines.

 

Among the first of your works was designing the art for the Titan Quest games for Iron Lore Studios. What game in the series was your favorite to have designed for?

There was only one game in the TQ series, and then an expansion pack. While I worked on a lot of the art for both titles, the first one was my entry into the industry and it wasn’t until the expansion pack that I was trusted with more ambitious assets like characters, monsters, and some set pieces. I loved making monsters specifically.

 

Were there any elements of the Titan Quest series that influenced your later work?

Honestly, the biggest lesson from Titan Quest for me was that sometimes there is extreme value in quantity. I was tasked with building hundreds of weapons on the game. To hit my deadline I would have to make them fast. Really fast. Sometimes eight or ten of them a day. And the thing is; I wanted to spend days on each one, and could have…. I could have made those weapons look amazing… and the game would have been worse for it.

The leads knew that the game’s success relied on a large number of unique special items; not just a handful, but tons. “Quality not Quantity” is a nice and easy motto to remember.. but can be the death sentence for making an actually good game. The flip side of that phrase is recognizing precisely when “Quantity is itself a Quality” of importance. It’s not every game, but with a game like Titan Quest, that mindset was crucial. While I can work with either mindset, the mark of my progress as a developer has been learning when I need to be deploying one strategy over the other.

 

One of the biggest projects you’ve worked on to date was of course Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. What was it like to work on that game, and what approach did you take to designing what art you did?

I actually didn’t work on Reckoning! I mean, I guess I helped concept out the base world, and some zone concepts were shared between the two games technically but I can’t claim any credit for anything in the game. While the Reckoning team was working away on a single-player game, I was on the MMO team at 38 Studios.

 

What was it like to work with Todd McFarlane?

Todd was hilarious. All of us, including himself, would poke fun of him for wanting to put chains and skulls on everything. I didn’t get to know him too well; as he would only check in periodically with each team, but even still I picked up a few interesting art fundamentals from him. Having grown up loving his artwork, it was pretty cool to know he knew my name, even if only for a short while. I doubt he’d remember it now after all these years. 😀

 

Has Todd reached out to you at any point since the founding of Terrible Posture?

Nope! Every couple of years I get to either see or chat with RA Salvatore though, who was the NYT bestselling writer and third celebrity involved with 38 Studios. He’s very cool and offered some feedback on early builds of Tower of Guns.

 

How rewarding was it to see Kingdoms of Amalur garnish as much critical acclaim as it did at the time?

I felt really happy for the team down in Baltimore. They were kicking their own butts into high gear in order to get Reckoning out the door and it was a heck of a rough development cycle for them—predating that team’s relationship with 38 Studios actually. They should be proud of all the work they did.

 

Of course, 38 Studios folded shortly after the release of the game. What was the experience like on the last day in the office?

It was rough for a lot of people. There were people who were heartbroken. There were people who were in incredibly dire situations financially, medically, or emotionally. Curt Schilling, the celebrity that ran the studio, kept leading everyone on like there was going to be some last-minute financial solution to keep us all working, but it never materialized and toward the end, a lot of people felt conflicted and betrayed.

For my part, I felt guilty; like perhaps I hadn’t worked smart or hard enough. I also felt extreme guilt because there was so much stress and hurt amidst my colleagues… and I did not feel the same. I felt guilty because I was already thinking about “going indie” someday… and the whole closure of 38 was literally the kick I needed to start making Tower of Guns.

 

Were there any further projects planned by 38 Studios following the release of Kingdoms of Amalur, and any information about that which you can share with us?

Well, I was on the MMO project.. that project was the one that started it all, and then Reckoning came along while we kept plodding away on the MMO. There’s some video footage around the web if you look around enough. It was an ambitious project and I spent years working on the technical systems for the environment team, working closely with engineers on terrain, lighting, cinematics, dungeons… it always felt like I was working on something different there and I was quite proud of the visual richness of the world we’d created.

 

Do you still keep in touch with any of your former colleagues at 38 Studios, or have any of them since gone on to join you at Terrible Posture?

Oh, we keep in touch. When a studio as big as 38 implodes, which does happen from time to time in this industry, the team scatters all at once. In a way, it leads to a network of former coworkers, all looking together, and all sharing the same, well, trauma. I would happily work again with many of these people, and I like to think many would want to work with me again. And, in an instant, we scattered all over the world. This network was crucial to helping a lot of the team find new jobs at other companies, both right after the closure and then later, throughout our careers.

As for me personally, I did end up working with a couple of former 38 Studios folks. Most specifically, Chris Zukowski, Master of all things Tech Art and Beyond. He and I have worked closely for years now as a duo, both on Mothergunship and on 3 out of 10. I’ve also gotten a lot of them to help playtest, occasionally help with a little art or sound, and similar things. I would not be surprised if I work with more of them in the future.

 

How exhilarated were you to see Kingdoms of Amalur remastered recently for eighth-generation consoles?

I felt amused, actually. Reckoning’s rights were purchased by THQ Nordic, which used to be just “Nordic Games” or something like that… but they seem to be going around buying everything I’ve ever worked on. They bought the rights and remastered Titan Quest as well! And the rights to the THQ name itself, who published Titan Quest! It’s like they are chasing me! If they are true completionists maybe they’ll ask if they can remaster Tower of Guns someday!

 

Where did the name Terrible Posture come from?

I earned that name through years of hard work not sitting up straight.

 

The impression I got from playing both Tower of Guns and Mothergunship was that the team had a lot of fun during development putting a lot of humorous and random things into the final game. Is having fun one of the main focuses for you and the team while making a game?

Hah. I’m glad the games have that impression. Not all parts of making a game are fun, but generally speaking, if you’re not enjoying the work then that will be reflected in the final game. Enjoying yourself is crucial to making something that fosters, well, joy.. which is what we wanted from both of those games.

 

Of course, going from designing games for others to designing games yourself would’ve come with its own series of complications and challenges. But what was the feeling around Terrible Posture when Tower of Guns went on to become as successful as what it did?

Honestly? It’s been such a whirlwind that I haven’t been able to take a step back and take stock of it. I went from being solo and thinking that Tower of Guns was just a sabbatical to suddenly having a second career on my hands. It’s been a fun, wild ride and I have no shortage of other ideas to bring to people in the future, so I sure hope we can continue to do what we do.

 

I remember Mothergunship being a pretty big deal for an indie game at the time. What was it like seeing that game receive as much critical acclaim as it did; especially when compared to many of the mainstream games you worked on?

It’s interesting that you say that; we were seeing a wave of other excellent titles coming out around then and were intimidated. It was simply a more crowded place to make games than it had been when Tower of Guns was released. That said, I am pleased so many people have enjoyed the game, as it really was a blast to make. I still think future games could even go further though; Tower of Guns and Mothergunship were popular, but I don’t feel like they broke into the mainstream the same way a game with a multi-million dollar marketing budget does. It would be wonderful to work on that sort of game again someday.

 

What was it like for you and your team to make the transition from developing more traditional games to something a little more akin to a visual novel with 3 Out of 10?

3 out of 10 isn’t really a visual novel as much as a playable sitcom… and it was really a labor of love. We had wanted to work on something more story-based for a while and we had a blast developing a unique pipeline and content creation toolset. In a way, me and Chris Zukowski, saw an opportunity to do interesting things using Unreal 4, storytelling, and fast iteration animation, and when we presented the project to Epic, they saw the vision as well. That aspect of the project; working closely with Epic Games to make something completely different, was the chance of a lifetime.

 

What’s next for you and Terrible Posture?

We’re always working on interesting things, most of which I can’t talk about just yet, but I can say that we recently partnered with a company named DJ2 to start working on a television adaptation of 3 out of 10. The project is a natural fit for TV and we’re eager to see where that goes, but we also know that the TV industry moves at a much different pace than games… so we’re keeping ourselves plenty busy with other projects as well.

 

Is there any genre of game that you haven’t yet tried to develop that you might like to at some point?

Well, due to the nature of 3 out of 10 we were able to explore a TON of different genres; puzzle games, rhythm games, Zelda clones, pinball, platformers, car combat… heck, even a physics-based-stealth-quasi-golf-game where you put around a pet crate.  That said, I have always wanted to work on a stealth FPS.. so perhaps someday that will be in the cards (although I’m not working on one currently).

 

If you had the opportunity to work with another developer on any franchise of your choice, which one would it be, and why?

Oh, man. That’s a tough question. Honestly, I consider myself lucky to be working with Zuko, my coworker I mentioned earlier. He and I work very well together and we do pretty awesome stuff. That said, there are other developers I really admire and would love to work with someday. For example, I’d love to work with EdmundM on“The Maxx” game or a horror game with Kenneth Scott. I’d love the chance to make a Tremors game. Or to work on a new Thief game. Or to revive the No One Lives Forever franchise, a criminally forgotten series.

 

Do you have any advice for any aspiring developers who may be reading this?

Unfortunately, the route I took to get into the industry isn’t the same one most developers take now; back in the early 2000s you simply had to show up and be moderately skilled in a technical discipline (like game art is/was) and the industry would pluck you up.

The show-up-and-be-skilled part is still partly true, but the base skill level is much much higher these days. That said, another tactic I used; teaching myself as much as I could through tutorials, side projects, modding scenes, and online communities has become even more viable than it was 20 years ago. These days, the knowledge of how to make games isn’t nearly as gated and tools like Blender, UE4/5, and similar are ever-more accessible. So, today the trick is not getting discouraged. It takes time to gain skill. It takes work and momentum and motivation to keep going. Find ways to give that motivation and you’ll have half the work done.  For example; make a lot of smaller projects so you will finish them. Or, instead, enter game jams, which have a set deadline. Or, instead, join a mod team for some project, where you will have teammates. Or enter an art station contest. Or basically, do whatever it takes to fool your brain into not freaking out about what you don’t know and to just create—that’s the most important thing. Make terrible stuff and then edit your next thing to be a little better than the last. It’s easier said than done, but that tactic is still a valid route to improvement at most trades, game development included.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sorry, it took me so long to reply to you! Thanks for having me though!

I’d like to take this opportunity to give a massive thank you to Joe and wish him and Terrible Posture Games the best of luck for the future. Joe and Terrible posture have produced some of the most creative and addicting titles of the eighth generation in my opinion, and I can’t wait to see where the company goes next in terms of new ideas and new projects. With the many ideas that Joe has in the pipeline, I believe Terrible Posture has the potential to go even further than what they have already gone in such a short span of time, and It’ll be very interesting to see what they come up with next. If you’re interested, you can follow Terrible Posture by subscribing to their mail list via the link below:

https://www.terribleposture.com/

But in the meantime, I hope you guys enjoyed this interview because I certainly did.

 

Game on,

Scouse Gamer 88

 

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