Liguria, on the western part of Italy and resting close to France, is home to several immensely popular culinary specialties, like pesto, and wordly-celebrated landmarks the likes of Cinque Terre and, naturally, Portofino. Along with being home to Dynabyte software and, years later, Artematica, the coastal region was also the birthplace of another important software developer: Trecision. The multimedia industry flourished during the 90s and 00s, so much so that some jokingly referred to Liguria as “Basilicon valley” since Basilico (basil) is one of the main ingredients for pesto.
Trecision will go on developing several graphical adventures throughout the 90s, some of them with an international release in Europe and the US. Despite several successes, even among Italian software houses, it seems to be one company that is little talked about. Even back in the 90s, articles and interviews featuring people from Trecision were pretty scarce, despite the software house later going on to become the biggest in the country and among the first to start developing on the mobile gaming front.
Why didn’t they receive as much attention as other software houses and what was the story behind their more famous titles? I’ve reached out to several of the people involved with Trecision to find out what happened.
The beginning: Edoardo Gervino and his dream
When I reach Edoardo Gervino on the phone, the first thing he tells me is how rarely he agrees to be interviewed: this is maybe the second time in his life he has spoken with a journalist. “I agreed on this particular interview, mainly because I feel it is time to rectify a mistake that is often repeated when someone is interested in writing an article on Trecision.”
Gervino is referring to the early days of the company when there were three people (and not two as several articles seem to imply): himself, Pietro Montelatici and Gabriele Pompeo. The story goes that Edoardo, a post office employee, met enthusiastic commodorist Montelatici and graphic designer Gabriele Pompeo while scouting for someone that could help him with an adventure he was writing together with his wife. “I had already programmed several titles on the Commodore 64, but I needed someone to supply art to my project, along with helping me in doing slightly more complex gameplay.”
In 1990 the Commodore 8-bit computer, while still enjoying quite some attention in Italy, was slowly on its way out: Gervino felt it was time to jump generations and develop for the 16bit Amiga computer, but he needed help. “It wasn’t easy to meet someone who took programming professionally, for most people it was little more than a hobby. Montelatici and Pompeo seemed to be quite serious and were very passionate about video games.” Montelatici adds: “I was a fan of Lucasarts, naturally, but also was quite happy to play Sierra adventures.”
Thus, pretty soon the three would start working on a semi-textual adventure, with Gervino’ story taking place around the regions of Lazio and Abruzzo, with an overall medieval theme. Called “Corona Aurea” (literally Golden Crown), which was the item the evil Duke in the story wanted for himself, it will catch the attention of Genias, Riccardo Arioti’ software house. “Pompeo was quite capable as a graphic designer, pushing the project in the right direction. With a demo we made in a few months, we sent floppies with press kits to various software houses, like Idea and Simulmondo. We decided to go with Genias only because they were the first to get back to us.” remembers Edoardo. “While on the train to Bologna for the meeting with Arioti, we had to come up with a name for our company and we settled on Trecision. This is because there were three of us (“tre” in Italian -ed’s note) and we felt precision to be our strongest asset.”
Profezia & Extasy: Trecision and Francesco Carlà
The meeting with Arioti went well: the CEO of Genias liked the adventure, offered six million Italian lire (more or less the equivalent of today’s 5000€/$) having only one request: changing the title to “Profezia” (Prophecy), which Edoardo felt was the right call. There is a small mystery on who was briefly in charge of the PC version of the adventure, that, supposedly, never came out: neither Pietro nor Edoardo remember who was the programmer they contacted.
Profezia didn’t go on to sell great numbers, nothing very surprising for a market that was still being plagued by piracy. The few reviews that came out on Italian magazines were fair, then again it was one of the first Italian adventures to debut on the Amiga (magazine C/VG awarded it a 71%). With Genias unhappy about sales numbers, the three start working on something entirely different for the follow-up: a puzzle game, apparently starring the Amiga “ball” logo as cartoonish character. This time, they decided to pitch the project directly to the other software house in Bologna who had shown interest right after Genias: Francesco Carla’ Simulmondo.
Before the meeting, and while pondering about a PC conversion, the three meet Fabrizio Lagorio.
Lagorio had started very young as a MS-DOS programmer: while he was pretty handy at programming software, video games weren’t his forte, but he was quick to learn. Gervino mentions that in the course of a few hours, while explaining the idea behind their puzzle game, Lagorio had already memorized the concept and was merrily working away on the DOS conversion.
“I remember all four of us packed ourselves in a small Citroen AX to go to Bologna to speak to Carlà, this is where I came in the history of Trecision.” Lagorio tells me. “It was really his idea to change the original title, Sbaloop, to Exstasy. I think none of us were too happy about that proposition, we felt the feeble connection to the drug, MDMA, to be nothing more than shock value.” Another mystery: who designed the peculiar demoscene-like cover art? Apparently, it was an idea that Trecision pitched, after rejecting Simulmondo’s initial proposal but what exactly happened and who was the artist (it wasn’t Pompeo apparently) will probably remain forever a mystery.
Extasy didn’t bring in great sales numbers nor enthusiastic reviews either, despite Lagorio remembering that Federico Croci (PR for Simulmondo) had told them they were going to receive money from the sales. Asking Croci about it, he remembers that Extasy had a peculiar publishing history, he’s not sure Simulmondo actually had a hand in distributing it: perhaps it was a deal between publishers Leader and C.T.O. Still, the mood in the young software house, after another unsatisfying release, was definitely troubled.
In the meantime, by 1992, Simulmondo had started developing their series of comic book titles and Carlà decided to ask the four guys in Trecision to come to Bologna and assign them to work on an adventure game starring mysterious thief Diabolik. Work on the adventure started on the train on the way home, going on to last for several months. Things came to a grinding halt when, after showing Carlà a demo, the CEO changed his mind.
“He told us we were working too slowly, despite the game being around 80% done. Thus, he decided to go back on his word, since we never agreed to sign a contract. Naturally, he didn’t give us one penny: I remember we even went to Riccardo Cangini’s house to ask him to persuade Carlà but to no avail.” recalls Lagorio bitterly. “I think that story influenced me more than most other events: I decided that wasn’t my way of doing things. In every working relationship, things had to be honest and straightforward.”
Right after that incident, with Lagorio also being busy working for Dynabyte software on the soon-to-be left unfinished DOS conversion of Nippon Safes Inc., Gabriele Pompeo decided to quit the team, along with working on videogames altogether. “He was tired of the continuous problems and letdowns and, honestly, I don’t really blame him. Back then surviving as a sort of small independent software house was nearly impossible. I guess we were a bit ahead of the curve!“ comments Gervino. Contacted for the article, Pompeo declined being interviewed.
Back to being a trio, Trecision decided to go ahead and continue working on their latest project, after removing all references to Diabolik, thus creating what will become In The Dead of Night.
Using locations and characters drawn on paper by Roberto Risso, friend of Pompeo, the three manage to complete the game thanks also to the help received by the demo group scene Technoart: namely, Fabio Corica and Angelo Bordieri. The two will stay on with Trecision for the following projects as well, working on graphics, programming and soundtrack. At one point, remembers Gervino, Trecision had almost managed to sell In The Dead of Night to Dynabyte software but, as it happened, graphic designer Magnasciutti got in the way. “He was highly critical of our adventure, basically tearing it to pieces, so, in the end, he basically made sure there was no way we could sell it to them.” Thus, having tried all of the existing software houses in Italy, the three decide to move on to the international market by selling it as shareware on the internet (via BBS).
This decision would become the turning point in the history of Trecision.
Trecision being put on ICE
The three, back then, were working in a small room in Montelatici’s house, with Pietro in charge of organizing the work and keeping relationships with the press, Gervino being the main writer and Amiga programmer and, finally, Lagorio, in charge of programming on PC. Lagorio comments that this basic overall organization would last until the very end: the three with their own separate duties, while the graphic designers basically came and went.
Trecision, after seeing quite a lot of interest in In The Dead of Night especially from international players (“they would send us all this foreign cash that we didn’t even bother to exchange for Italian liras!” recalls Lagorio), decided to start developing a couple of demos for their next project, with the intention of gauging interest from foregin publishers. “After giving up on Italy, it was time to move on to the next step. Thus, we met Stewart Bell”.
A former executive and founder of Microprose Europe, Bell had made quite a few investments and founded International Computer Entertainment (ICE) in the UK. “Back then, they were being mentioned in every magazine: they had managed to acquire the license to develop a videogame for Akira, which was pretty sought after” remembers Lagorio. ICE had an ongoing publishing agreement with Vic Tokai, for distributing their games in the US and Eastern markets.
With Lagorio handling programming, Corica doing the graphics and Bordieri the music, the group managed to put together two demos that Trecision would send to ICE: a hotel management simulation and a graphical adventure, using the same In The Dead of Night engine. Bell was impressed particularly with the adventure: it is that very same demo that will become the prototype for Alien Virus, a first-person graphical adventure released, later, in 1995.
“The overall idea was that ICE worked on the design while we developed the graphical engine with Lagorio and Corica.” explains Gervino. “They sure did their homework: they sent us a huge design book that described how everything was supposed to work. But the story was really pitiful, anyone could have written something better than that! It is not a title I have much affection for.” concludes Gervino with a smirk. Martin Blackmore was the one in charge of the overall design, so much so that Alien Virus – continues Edoardo – almost felt like contract work, rather than something developed independently by Trecision. Montelatici adds “ICE said they were going to publish it all over the world, but I think it barely reached the UK. As of today, it is the only title by Trecision that was never even published in Italy.”
Alien Virus also saw the participation of Mario Ricco, an architect who was interested in broadening his interests by working on CG and had heard that Trecision was looking for people on a leaflet on a university bulletin board: “I bought a second hand 486 with 4MB ram: each 3D rendering took at least 40 minutes. Back then, Trecision were very passionate but worked in a rather amateurish way. They just gave me generic directions on what the characters and backgrounds were supposed to look like. For Alien Virus I did some pencil drawings that were subsequently scanned in.” Ricco would also stay for Trecision’s following project.
Asked about the apparently finished but never released PlayStation version of Alien Virus, no former member of Trecision seem to remember ICE ever mentioning it in the publishing deal. Lagorio says maybe it was the work of Anders Johansson, that he calls “ICE’s most talented programmer”, but that is little more than speculation at this point. Stewart bell says that the Playstation version was indeed in the works and also, saw a release in shops, but – in this moment in time – no copies of a Psx version of Alien Virus seem to exist.
With the adventure being published in the US by Vic Tokai, an unforeseen incident would come along to put a serious dent in the oversea sales. Lagorio mentions that they were told that the adventure had been accused of having a racist box art. “Frankly, they never even mentioned they had changed the European cover, Bell told us that the fact that the person of color was kneeling had been the topic of protests and discussion, despite the fact that everyone on the cover was kneeling! Anyway, Alien Virus ended up being withdrawn from stores in the United states, and that was that.”
As much as I have tried to find confirmation on the censorship story, nothing definitive has come up; at the very least, it does not seem to be a difficult game to find, in its US version. Also, as a personal opinion, nothing explicitly racist seems to jump out by looking at the cover. In the end, reached via e-mail, Bell denies that such event ever took place. Still, relationships between Trecision and ICE didn’t exactly start on the right foot and wouldn’t improve in the following years.
Time to get serious: Ark of Time
Despite the story in Alien Virus ending on a cliffhanger, Trecision had no intention to develop a sequel which ICE demanded. Instead for their next adventure game, Ark of Time, Gervino recalls: “While talking with Pietro, I came up with this idea of a fully 3D adventure with the player moving the character around on the screen by pointing and clicking. I thought it should feature only a handful of locations, but definitely a whole lot of puzzles. Later, while coming up with a story built around the myth of Atlantis, I realized that, perhaps, its overall tone could have felt a bit too serious so I decided to lighten things up a bit.” Dialogues were written by Laura Sicignano – a friend of Mario Ricco and presently director of one important theater in Catania – who also helped with the story. “She understood perfectly what I was going for with Ark of Time, she wrote great dialogues and added to my own quirky sense of humor.”
While Corica and Bordieri were still on board when development for Ark of Time started, both left before the work was finished. Lagorio explains what transpired: “they had done an interview for a magazine (apparently C/VG -ed’s note) where they ended up saying several not very nice things about everyone in the industry, including us.” Corica explains: “I think the journalist was rather unprofessional. Sure, we were very young and had never done an interview before, thus we were definitely naive. But, he just went ahead and published what he wanted, we were never even shown a draft to approve. He probably wanted to create some sort of scandal in the industry.” While Gervino tried to smooth things over by taking the two kids to dinner, Bordieri was having none of it and convinced Corica to leave with him.
Work on the new 3D graphical engine of Ark of Time was subsequently finished by Tommaso Bennati and Alessio Ricco, Mario’s brother who was also introduced to Trecision. Mario remembers working on several of the 3D models, but another modeler had also come in and Ricco would leave Trecision not long after the game’s release.
Published, again, by ICE in 1997, this time also with an official PlayStation release the following year, it was received with fair reviews by critics, with Gamespot noting that “it was nothing revolutionary” and other reviewers commenting on the quirky sense of humor. Sales were, once again, disappointing for Trecision that, by then, had grown tired of not seeing any further royalties for their adventures, beyond the initial payment. They were working hard just to try to stay afloat, pay all their programmers and graphic designers and survive long enough to develop their next game. “By that point it was pretty clear that, staying with ICE, we wouldn’t have had much chance to grow and improve our share of the market. Bell was a man who loved to hear the sound of his voice, but for all its talk, there seemed to be very little action” mentions Lagorio.
For their following project, they would abandon ICE and decide to aim even higher.
In the span of a few years, Trecision transformed themselves from a struggling software house of three friends working together on small scale Amiga games, to a developer that managed to publish games in the US and Europe, despite seeing relatively little success.
In the second part of the article, we will see Trecision working with an important UK publisher, then the big revolution in the organization that will bring the company to be the biggest in Italy, along with importing some serious talents to their offices and, in the third part, we’ll take a look at their most important projects, along with some unreleased games.
Sources & References
Interviews conducted via skype, telephone and e-mail by myself in 2021 with Pietro Montelatici, Edoardo Gervino, Fabrizio Lagorio, Fabio “Oscar” Corica and Mario Ricco
Magazines: K n. 36, C+VG n.9
Many thanks to all the people I interviewed, for the time they devoted to my article.