Josh Tsui | Interview
He spent his childhood wandering a boat-shaped arcade with a sack full of video-game tokens; now Josh Tsui is all grown up and creates some of the industry’s highest-profile titles. The Robomodo cofounder and River North dad talks with us about reso-looting the Tony Hawk franchise, how filmmaking and game design are converging, and more.
Aside from, obviously, the quality of the work, to what would you chalk up his interest in continuing to build this series of games with Robomodo?
In all honesty, I think it’s the Midwest thing. We know what we’re doing and we’re confident about that. We’re not out there trying to B.S. anybody. Coming from skateboard culture, [Hawk] likes people with credibility. From the beginning, we weren’t afraid to tell him no about certain things. I think that helped build a trust. We were still fanboys of his, we still try as hard as we can, but sometimes you have to say, “Look, this isn’t working.” That’s hard to do, of course, but it’s important.
Shifting gears, what was your path to game design? Did you come to it as a player?
You know, it’s funny: not really. I started in the industry 19 years ago, but I studied film and video at Columbia College Chicago.
As a Chicago native?
At this point I am—I’ve been here for 24 years now. But I’m originally from Los Angeles, I came here to go to school. So that was in the early ’90s and a friend of mine got a job at Midway Games, which used to be here. My last year in film school I was studying video and computer graphics at the same time, and that was my entry to Midway Games, because that [combination] was exactly what they were doing with Mortal Kombat.
Making video games that were more cinematic?
Exactly—it was the very beginning of that. I call those “the Wild West days.” You’d have six people making an arcade game, getting it out there and moving on to the next one. Now, some game teams are 200 people. So I started at Midway Games, worked on Mortal Kombat, worked on some wrestling games and stuff like that, and then me and some of my partners quit to form our own studio, called Studio Gigante. We did a fighting game for Microsoft and a wrestling game for THQ. That was around a strange time for the industry because the Xbox was dying and the Xbox 360 hadn’t come out quite yet. So we basically closed down [Studio Gigante] and a bunch of us went to EA Chicago, which used to be in Hoffman Estates, worked on the Fight Night games, Def Jam: Icon and were in the middle of a Marvel game when EA closed EA Chicago and we decided to form Robomodo.
Were you a gamer before working at Midway?
Oh yeah. Growing up in California, there were three things that I did: skateboard, play video games and read comic books. I’m lucky that I turned that into a career. [Laughs] My older brother managed an arcade, this gigantic, Mark Twain boat* with three floors of arcade games and, when he used to babysit me, I would be there ten hours a day with a big sack of tokens. When I got the chance to work at Midway Games, I didn’t even care about going back to film and video—I was like, “Holy smokes!” My heroes growing up were all still at Midway, the guys who did Defender and Joust and those classic games. The chance to be in the same room with them was amazing.
Do you still skateboard?
Yeah! I live in the River North area and, whenever the weather’s good, I skate the maybe 20-minute ride down here [to Robomodo]. Skating on the streets of Chicago, now, that’s pretty treacherous. My wife isn’t overly thrilled when I do that.
Do you wear a helmet?
Uh…most of the time. I really should.
Do you have kids?
I do: two girls, a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. Among all the skateboards you’ll see around here I have a long board and I’ll put them in front of me and we’ll scoot around. [Laughs]
Yeah, exactly. So do you want to see some of the game, what we’ve got going on?