Lego, Star Wars And Harry Potter: Traveller’s Tales Studio Profile
Licensed games are widely regarded as some of the most difficult and stressful to work on; rapid development cycles, limited source material and immense publisher pressures push development studios to the brink.
But for 20 years, Traveller’s Tales has worked with the world’s biggest brands and has thrived, and today remains one of the few studios to consistently deliver in this harsh and competitive field.
Its co-founder Jon Burton has survived with it, now acting as the company director. And like many budding developers, his first encounter with a computer was seemingly by chance.
“I remember I went on holiday and my uncle had a VIC-20 computer,” he explains. “I must have been 13 or 14. I had never used a computer before, so I typed in what was on the back, and it made this weird noise and flash, and I thought, ‘Wow, that just did what I told it to do.’ And that was it. That really interested me, and I certainly desperately wanted a computer at that point.”
From there, he was hooked. The Commodore PETs and VIC-20s at school allowed Jon to pursue his passion for programming, coming up with a platformer called Indiana Fred And The House Of Doom, an interesting starting point considering his company’s later releases.
His parents managed to scrape together enough cash for a Sinclair Spectrum, where he tried his hand at being published, submitting games to publishers like Firebird, only to get polite letters of rejection.
However, the Commodore Amiga, purchased with money supposed to be used for driving lessons, saw him pursue a slightly different path. “I started writing demos. What interested me more than the games – which were not brilliant at the start – were the way demos were put together by these people pushing what the Amiga was great for, which was this big box of chips that no one knew how they tied together. You could show off, show this many sprites or this many colours, so that was a great learning curve of what you could do.”
Leander was the first ‘proper’ game developed by Jon Burton.
Jon would spend many late nights hosting demo competitions with his friends, all sat with their Amigas, trying to outdo each other. He used to display his efforts in a computer shop in Southport, which he describes as “very geeky, but couldn’t be cooler at the time”, and became a location that would prove instrumental in his making.
It was here that he met fellow co-founder Andy Ingram, and the idea to create a game popped into his head once more. “I thought, ‘An artist! Great! Let’s put a game together.’
So we did a test demo, which was a scrolling background and a dragon with a programmed neck and legs. It looked nice. And someone who worked at the shop got us an interview with Psygnosis to show the game.”
Such a meeting was something the duo could only dare dream of: up until that point their best hope was to publish through a budget label such as Codemasters, let alone Psygnosis, which they regarded as “the pinnacle of games” at the time.
“We showed [the demo] to the director, Ian Headlington, and he said, ‘We’d like to finance and publish it,’” said Jon. And their response? “We said no! ‘We’re not sure we can make a game yet. We’ll come back in a month if that’s okay,’ and walked out. And looking back, how dumb was that?”
Thankfully, Psygnosis wasn’t offended: “They said, ‘Okay, fair enough,’ and we went back in a month and luckily they still wanted to publish it, because obviously someone else could have walked in with something better, but they went with it. Looking back, they might have been impressed that we didn’t just jump at the opportunity, so who knows how that tracked.”
Jon fondly remembers the many late nights in 1990 working on their first game, Leander. “Our whole time of day had just skewed so badly because we used to work all night, going to bed at eight in the morning, [then] go to Andy’s house for breakfast, which was at about supper, then sleep. You just lived and breathed it. It was such a passion.”
Puggsy is one of few titles developed by Traveller’s Tales that isn’t built on a license.
A year later the title was finished and published for the Amiga, an action platformer likened to a previous Psygnosis adventure: Shadow Of The Beast. “It rated really well, and sold okay as an Amiga game,” said Jon, impressing enough for EA to request a port for the newly released Sega Mega Drive (as The Legend Of Galahad), which he recommended demo scene friend David Dootson to help out with, and later hired into the company.
The team then worked on Puggsy, which started life as a demo from another team that found it difficult to translate into a fully fledged game.
Jon scrapped almost everything, keeping only the main character, and finished it in 16 months. At this point the company’s key members were in place: Jon and Andy worked on programming and art respectively, David worked on bringing the title to the Mega-CD, and friend Chris Stanforth worked on the unreleased SNES port.
“We really wanted to compete with Mario, but the game got lost in the wave of Mega Drive titles,” says Jon. Puggsy suffered from a poor marketing budget and failed to reveal its unique physics system until a few stages into the game.
Regardless, Psygnosis was impressed enough with the quartet to offer them Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the first of the studio’s many licensed properties. But like that first publishing offer, Jon didn’t jump at the opportunity straight away.
“I was torn with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I liked kids’ games, and personally I’m a Christian, but I thought, ‘If we don’t make it someone else is going to make it.
“They could make it an awful lot more gory and nasty, and if we make it, we can keep it on the right side.’” It was this offer that made Jon realise that the team needed to break away from the bedroom and set up an office, which Dracula helped finance.
Dracula proved Traveller’s Tales abilities at handling licenses.
“It sold well. That’s the first time we got a decent royalty cheque, and it was the first time we could pay the bills and build our company up!”
As Traveller’s Tales set up shop above a pet store in Southport, it was its next project that would see it noticed worldwide. “Sony Imagesoft was a new start-up company in Santa Monica, and they pitched to Disney the idea of Mickey’s Birthday Party,” explained Jon.
“They said, ‘We’re interested,’ but they realised that they couldn’t make this game.” Psygnosis, which was owned by Sony at this point, suggested that Traveller’s Tales give it a go, and the team pitched a demo.
The team’s expertise at pushing 16-bit hardware to the limit paid off. “We had screen-sized bad guys, all animated; we used silicon graphics machines to do 3D sprites; we had tower sections to spin around; and the first ever – forget Crash Bandicoot – into-the-screen chase.
“It was the first time it had ever been done in videogames full stop. Disney assumed that it was on the Mega-CD and all coming off disc, and we said, ‘No, standard Mega Drive.’ And that got us the gig.”
Working on Mickey Mania saw Jon first meeting one of the industry’s most renowned designers, David Jaffe, but it wasn’t a meeting of minds: “He didn’t get games. He came from a scriptwriting background at this point, and he hadn’t understood anything about the technological constraints on game machines, especially at the time.”
Meetings were filled with conflicts of interest, with Sony focusing on the narrative side, while Traveller’s Tales emphasised that gameplay must come first. “We had some interesting meetings. I know at one point one of them left the room in tears. They just couldn’t deal with the discussion.”
Mickey’s never been as well treated as when it was in TT’s hands.
It was here that Jon realised that his talent lay in the field of licensed products. With a huge amount of creative direction over the project, Mickey Mania was the first game he sat down and designed on paper before designing the systems around it.
“I’ve never seen myself given a blank sheet of paper; that’s too daunting in a lot of ways. I’ve always liked a challenge within some guidelines.
“I think that’s where licences and things really suited us well: here’s a set of parameters; now go and excel in that direction.” It was a huge success, seeing a worldwide release across a variety of systems, leading into a lucrative relationship with Disney from then on.
While Mickey Mania’s brainstorming sessions were filled with frustration, the next collaboration was the exact opposite. Working with the then-unknown Pixar, Disney had little faith in Toy Story and gave Traveller’s Tales seven months for a game. But it was challenge that he relished, cramming it with all kinds of visual tricks.
“I remember an absolute defining moment. We had met John Lasseter and I had written this Doom engine, but on the Mega Drive, which no one had done at the time.
“I said, ‘This is the viewpoint we should do,’ and he was saying, ‘Well I think it should be more this,’ and I suddenly had one of those ‘we’re not worthy’ moments. I’m debating 3D viewpoints with John Lasseter! It was great to meet and chat with these people that I had idolised when I was growing up.”
Despite the tight deadline, Toy Story hit shelves on time and gave the company a reputation to deliver. “Unfortunately, getting Toy Story done meant that was the expectation: that we could get games done in seven months,” Jon explained.
Toy Story was proof that great games with licenses can be turned around in a tight deadline.
“If no one else could do it, they would give us a ring. And we did it; we hit the dates. We might not have made a God Of War, but then we wouldn’t spend three years on it. We would have made something that was entirely acceptable – it wasn’t shovelware. Every game had a focus, innovation and concepts that were new and interesting.”
It was these concepts that caught the attention of Sega, which proposed a new project for the Mega Drive. At this point, the team was developing on the PlayStation and was keen to jump to the Saturn, until it learned that it would be working on a 16-bit Sonic game, which was something that they couldn’t turn down.
“Interestingly, it was Mickey Mania that made them talk to us,“ said Jon. “The producer, Kats Sato, was also the producer on Clockwork Knight, the game on the Saturn that we took the concept of to make Toy Story.
“And with Clockwork Knight, he saw Mickey Mania and had taken some of the puzzle ideas and put them in there. So we sort of fed each other from different sides of the planet. So obviously we were on the same wavelength.”
On Sonic 3D Blast, Traveller’s Tales worked on the concept and visuals, while Sega would send over level plans. The partnership saw the team travel to Japan, treat Sonic designer Yuji Naka to a meal in Knutsford, and learn a new philosophy in game design.
“They sent us this map and there were these bumpers. They said they light up. ‘Oh right, so what do they do?’ ‘It’s just for fun.’ And it was just that phrase, like a method, all the way through: it’s fine to put things in just for fun. They don’t have to achieve things. Since then, we’ve put things in our games that are just for fun.”
While Traveller’s Tales was collaborating with world-class publishers and working with superstar mascots, it was this ambitious and rapid growth that saw the company torn in two.
Being given the Sonic license to handle was an honour back then.
With Sonic 3D Blast well under way and another Toy Story and a project with artist Rodney Matthews in the pipeline, Jon was working 18-hour days to keep everything ticking over.
Jon said that business partner Andy had learned to balance work and social affairs better than he did, and it soon got to a point where he felt that he was doing everything.
He told Andy that he wanted to split the work force to effectively manage the deluge of projects, placing a team on the Rodney Matthews title and letting them split the profits between them.
Andy agreed, but came back the next day with a different arrangement. “He had gone to Psygnosis, and they said, ‘We’ll back you if you want to set up on your own.’ They took quite a few key people, and at the time I was quite upset about it. I was trying to make it work with everybody.”
Andy, Chris Stanforth and several others formed Tales2, soon to become Hammerhead. Looking back, Jon understood the move: “For the people involved it was their big break, their big opportunity. They had been [invited] to be directors of their own company, and Psygnosis would back them. So I could understand it, absolutely.”
Hammerhead finished the Rodney Matthews project, Shadow Master, for the PlayStation and PC in 1999, as well as an excellent PlayStation port of Quake II, but by 2002 the company disbanded. Never one to burn bridges, Jon hired its founders back.
“What they hadn’t understood was the pressures of getting the game in the box, and how stressful that is, and what publishers would do if you don’t deliver on time. And that’s a hard lesson to learn.”
Haven was a unique title that didn’t get much recognition.
Despite the exodus of talent, the company marched on, and in 1997 it saw its F1 project transformed into Sonic R, and was given seven months to complete a game on the notoriously difficult Sega Saturn, which Jon enjoyed.
“I love it; a brilliant bag of bits, just like the Amiga was. I could spend all day finding new, brilliant ways to push the hardware.” At this point the company was 25 strong, with around eight members focused on Sonic R and the rest on the doomed PlayStation platformer Rascal.
Psygnosis wanted to rival Super Mario 64, but instead of having directional controls, the publisher wanted them to be rotational, much like Tomb Raider, and with poor camera options, it was incredibly difficult to play.
It was a decision that ruined the game, but Jon admitted that he let it happen. “Because I was doing Sonic R, I thought, ‘Well, you’re paying the bills’. That’s the first time I thought, ‘We’ll just do that,’ but didn’t agree with it.”
Between running the company and acting as lead programmer on a number of projects, Jon worked 18-hour days, seven days a week. Despite the stress, he found it difficult to not have a hand in everything.
“I found that really hard, cutting down the hours and letting other people take control of things. I found that more stressful than if I had done it myself. That was a very difficult transition, and that took quite a long time.”
Knowing that he had to hang up his keyboard, Jon wanted to be directly involved in one final project, something he wanted to create since the Amiga days. Inspired by the Mercenary series, he wanted a space adventure with the same sense of scale, allowing you to explore ground-level dungeons all the way up to orbiting spaceships.
Lego Star Wars was a breakthrough success for Traveller’s Tales.
But like Puggsy a decade earlier, Haven: Call Of The King’s slow burn failed to capture the player’s attention: “I wanted to surprise people. But the problem is you have to start them in a cupboard for them to appreciate the scale.
“What we should have done was had a level in space and bust them down to planet level. It’s all we needed to do. But we didn’t. But that was hard. It was an original project with three years and a lot of learning.”
Getting the title finished placed great stress on Jon and his marriage. Hoping to get it complete before the birth of his second son, it culminated in an intense period working 140-hour weeks.
“That went on for four months solid. Just five hours a day to eat, sleep and argue,” said Jon. “I felt the side effects of that, physically, and that took a while to come back again, to stop buzzing because you’re so wired, directing everything.”
But true to the company’s reputation, the game was finished on schedule, and he finally channelled his efforts into running the company full-time.
The next few years saw the company expand through a series of new studios and acquisitions. It opened a new studio in Oxford, which handled two Crash Bandicoot titles on the PS2, but the arrangement didn’t work out.
The distance between the two offices meant that Jon couldn’t communicate ideas properly, meaning that they didn’t come out as polished as they should.
Because of Star Wars’ success, the Lego games have become a franchise all their own.
After offering its staff jobs in the main studio, the office was closed. Jon described it as a learning experience, and today the company successfully runs handheld studio TT Fusion a stone’s throw away.
Traveller’s Tales continued to produce more licensed products – Bionicle and Chronicles Of Narnia among them – but Jon was getting itchy feet. “I’d tended to get into these cycles, where something interesting would happen for three years, then I’d realise that we were just cranking out games.”
It was at this time that Lego took interest in the company. It offered the chance to develop a game based on a new toy line that was in development. Lego as a brand was flagging, and dedicating resources to it was a risk, but with a team free from Haven, Jon agreed to give it a go.
At the same time, Lego pitched Lego Star Wars to LucasArts, and in turn it was proposed to Traveller’s Tales. The timing couldn’t have been better.
“I had sent a demo of Haven to the head of LucasArts, saying, ‘Imagine this with Star Wars attached’, but he left,” recalled Jon. “I was desperate to make a Star Wars game, so we made the demo, and it worked.”
Business deals elsewhere saw Lego shift the licence to Giant Interactive, which was to become the publisher, but Jon wasn’t happy with the arrangement.
“I said okay, but at the back of my mind I was a little bit narked that they hadn’t said, ‘We’re a start-up, and we know there’s some risk involved, so we’ll give you some equity as a thank you for trusting us.’”
Even Lego titles have been paired with other games.
Six months later, Jon started discussions that led to Traveller’s Tales acquiring Giant Interactive and the rights to Lego in 2004, with the creation of publishing arm TT Games.
“That was our first self-published title. We did all the marketing and obviously it was the right one to back. It sold 7 million copies and we got all the publishing royalties. That had set us up then.”
Although the company continued to work on other licences, it was apparent that this franchise was a winner. After a number of Lego releases and several BAFTAs, Jon wanted a fresh challenge.
He sold TT Games to Time Warner in 2007, which he describes as a perfect fit – a strong library of licences, similar ideals, and the fact that Warner had little knowledge of the industry meant that it wasn’t going to interfere with development.
It would also allow Jon to look into films further down the line, which he has a passion and clear skill for between his handling of licences and running of award-winning side company TT Animation.
Having recently renewed the Lego licence until 2016, and with Warner working on a Lego film that the studio might have direct involvement in, Traveller’s Tales has a secure future and remains one of the few publishers to deal extensively in licensed products, especially those for younger audiences and families.
As well as the respect and understanding for what it takes to deliver such products, Jon cites his core team, almost all of whom are still with the company, for its success over the years.
“People you work with for 20 years, you know they’re safe pairs of hands,” says Jon. “It absolutely helps that I’ve had a set of people – the heads of art, programming, design and animation – that are all still here. You get people coming and going, but we’ve rarely lost a key person.”
And between surviving numerous crunch periods and working with some of the world’s biggest brands, Jon struggled to think of anything he would have done differently. And judging by the company’s successes, we’re inclined to agree.