"I actually met Ray Muzyka, who incidentally is one of the greatest guys in this industry, at the Australian Game Developers' Conference in Melbourne many years ago. We talked to BioWare about doing something on DS but it wasn't quite a fit, and a while passed before they decided that ME3 might look pretty good on the Wii U. As soon I heard about the opportunity I pursued it aggressively and over a few intense weeks we were able to convince them that we were the right studio for the job."
Tom Crago is the CEO of Straight Right, the Australian-based development team currently hard at work on the Wii U port of Mass Effect 3. The news came, seemingly, from nowhere. Where did Straight Right come from, and why the hell is an Australian studio still doing work for hire when everyone else has run for the hills?
"Straight Right is a sister company to Tantalus, the two labels share the same studio and technology," explains Tom. Well, that answers our first question.
Tantalus — the studio has been around since 1994. Its first game was Stargate for the SNES, and it has been working on a number of work-for-hire projects ever since — Wipeout for the Saturn in 1995, Unreal II for the Xbox, Megamind for the PSP as late as 2010.
In Australian development circles, and even amongst Aussie gamers, Tantalus was and is recognisable. Just. But a couple of years ago Tom Crago asked himself a difficult question: just how relevant is the Tantalus brand to regular consumers?
"The answer I came up with was, 'not relevant at all'," says Tom.
That's where Straight Right comes in.
"With Straight Right we're looking to learn some more about the core audience and trying to actually engage with them more directly."
Straight Right was founded, sans fanfare, in 2011 and released its first game, Need for Speed: Shift 2, shortly afterwards on iOS. It was Tom's first time working with EA and went a long way to helping convince Ray Muzyka that Straight Right was the best option for Mass Effect 3 on the Wii U.
:We had the relationship with Nintendo," adds Tom, "and as Tantalus we had worked with the Unreal Engine before, so there were a few things we were able to point to by way of strengths."
Straight Right — technically the studio is still running on work-for-hire dollars. Cash that most believed didn't exist in the wake of Australia's strong dollar. All other Australian studios bankrolled in this manner have either closed or moved on to mobile development — how is it that Tantalus and, by extension, Straight Right have managed to survive the purge?
"We're definitely survivors," says Tom, "and we've endured some extremely challenging times.
"Work for hire definitely isn't finished in Australia, we're proof of that, but absolutely it's getting tougher. As Tantalus we've been pretty good at articulating the value we can bring to licensed titles and, at times, to conversions. We feel as though we're among the best in the world at this type of work and as long as publishers want it, we'll be towards the top of many of their lists. That's just a testament to our team, our technology and to our track record."
But Tom Crago hopes that Straight Right will be flexible enough to move in multiple different directions at once.
"Straight Right is a different animal. We're trying to reach a core audience, across a range of genres, and in the future you can expect a mix of work for hire and original titles.
"We're doing a lot in the mobile space and we're investing heavily in our own IP. We recognise that this is vital and we want to be successful in that space. At the same time, if opportunities like Mass Effect present themselves, well, call me old fashioned but we're going to take them."
While Straight Right works on Mass Effect 3 for the Wii U, the entire team at Tantalus is putting together Funky Barn — a new IP also set for release on Wii U — and also working on an as yet unannounced port. It will be a big franchise. And you might be surprised.
"We've said we're working on another big Wii U title with a major publisher for release some time in 2013," admits Tom. "That's all we can say about that one right now. So with three Wii U titles in development, you might say we're extremely hopeful that the platform comes strongly out of the gates."
Tom Crago is also hopeful about the Australian industry as a whole. He believes both Tantalus and Straight Right can continue to be part of something significant.
"Ultimately, despite the pain we all endured, the shift that's taking place right now in Australia is overwhelmingly positive," he says. "Plenty of studios are doing better than us, but we certainly feel as though we're a part of something of a rebirth. I'm pretty optimistic about the future of the industry down here."