In the first part of the retrospective for Trecision, the software house tested the water of the Italian gaming market of the early 90s by releasing two titles for Amiga, then moving on to PC. Unfortunately, no Italian publisher seemed to allow them enough resources to invest and enlarge the team. In a country where software piracy was still quite a problem, investing in new ideas was considered too risky. Thus, the decision to branch out internationally, after their third game was sold as shareware internationally, finding a deal with UK publisher ICE.
Still, when it came time to work with the publisher for the third consecutive release, the Italian studio realized that the relationship was not bringing in enough resources to allow them to grow and reach a wider international market.
A divorce before marriage: leaving ICE
With their latest title, point’n’click adventure Ark of Time, reporting unsatisfactory sales, writer and programmer Edoardo Gervino mentions how their next project with ICE, and its CEO Stewart Bell, never even got off the ground: “as soon as I saw their ideas for the story, I realized the right thing to do was to part ways and for us to continue working on our own. It was a very simplistic narrative and, frankly, by that point, I felt we had to work on giving the public something more fleshed out.”
But the divorce from the English publisher wasn’t going to be as painless as Trecision had hoped: apparently, ICE had plans for the Italian company to start working on a possible sequel to Alien Virus. “They told us the fans were demanding it”, recalls Pietro Montelatici, “we even found out ICE had been selling t-shirts advertising the sequel, which is something I don’t remember ever discussing.” Asking Stewart Bell, he says “a fully detailed design for a sequel was provided to Trecision by ICE but terms to create the game could not and were not agreed [sic]”. To this day, everyone I spoke to in Trecision maintains that Alien Virus 2 never existed, not even as a temporary project.
Trecision agreed with ICE that they would leave the overall idea and design with them, while keeping the graphical engine. The studio, thus, tried to get the attention of several publishers, among them Blue Byte. Jurie Horneman, former programmer at the German company, comments: “it was around 1997 when Trecision pitched us what would later become Nightlong. Not being part of the decision, I think management wasn’t interested because, at the time, Blue Byte favoured a different style of adventure, less gritty and realistic.” Then again, at the time the German studio had just released Albion and The Settlers II.
In the end, Trecision did get in contact with English publisher Team17 which expressed interest in the demo that would become cyberpunk-influenced adventure Nightlong – Union City Conspiracy. On the English publisher side, Martyn Brown kept contacts with Trecision, he remembers: “we were already familiar with the Italian studio and their work, also by then we had already worked with several Italian software houses. We received a demo that caught our interest right away. It was our [Team 17’s] first foray into graphic adventures, hence I would define it as a learning process. Relationships with Trecision were pretty good overall, I don’t remember any particular problems.”
But, there was a slight incident at London’s 1998 ECTS: Montelatici recalls that Stewart Bell came rushing in Hasbro’s booth, complaining that ICE owned the rights to the game they were showing. “I guess he thought it was Alien Virus 2. The original project was probably 20% complete, so the deal with Bell was that we would leave with them the royalties of the abandoned project, while we would work on a completely different game altogether” Gervino explains.
Stewart Bell comments on the incident: “Sadly without our knowledge or agreement, they [Trecision] simply used this design [the Alien Virus 2 mentioned above] (almost in its entirety) to create the game and “sold” it to Hasbro. We advised Hasbro at ECTS that ICE owned the design and they removed the game from display. Hasbro later accepted that it was ICE’s design as we of course had kept copies.” What happened later is not clear, at this moment in time.
Programmer Fabrizio Lagorio comments: “Frankly, I think there must have been some big misunderstanding, because our project had nothing to do with Alien Virus 2 which, again, did not exist and was never part of our agreement with ICE.” Montelatici concludes: “a rather unpleasant incident, which probably affected our relationship with Team 17.” Asked about the incident with Hasbro, Brown said he doesn’t remember any legal issues between Team 17 and ICE.
Nightlong: a million flavours of graphical adventure
“I feel Team 17 had quite underestimated the market potential for Nightlong, it went on to sell quite well! It was our biggest success up until that point, for sure.” remembers Lagorio. “They even ended up paying us royalties, which was indeed a first for us.” While both him and Montelatici agree that Nightlong was Trecision’s most accomplished point’n’click adventure, Gervino seems to harbour a different opinion. “It was a project based on an original idea by ICE that wasn’t very interesting. The first hour of the game is still very much based on the mediocre story of that project, then I think it definitely picks up”.
Critics were generally kind to Nightlong, praising its graphics and overall quality point’n’click adventure gameplay. Some noted there was little actual cyberpunk, since the city was bleak and devoid of life and the main character, Joshua Reeves, seemed to incarnate the stereotypical gangster macho. The adventure was one of the few made in Italy titles from the late 90s to receive a worldwide release and is still quite remembered and appreciated. It has also been released as compatible on ScummVM.
Gervino remembers when Trecision was contacted for an improbable Amiga conversion: “One day we got an e-mail from a mysterious group of German programmers, called PXL computers. They offered us quite an interesting sum of money if we would give them the source code, thus allowing them to port Nightlong on the Commodore home computer. They came into the office, got what they wanted and we’ve never heard anything from them ever again. I have no idea how many people, by 2000, would be interested in playing Nightlong on the Amiga, but it got very good reviews on the magazines.“
Lagorio remembers that Trecision also developed a “streaming” version of Nightlong: “it was called the NetPub version. The player would use a single CD to install the game [the adventure originally came out on 3 CDs -ed’s note]: using mouse and keyboard, the player would interact with the game via server which would then stream the game, via WiFi, with a mpeg4 flux sent to a Windows Mobile PDA. We also planned other versions on PlayStation and Xbox. Seeing an adventure game, along with later a soccer game, run in 30 fps on a PDA that barely managed to connect to the internet was definitely impressive for the time!”
Nightlong also saw the collaboration of Dario Pelella, who had previously worked with Trecision in 1995: “I did work on the gameplay design and the script system, along with contributing to the 3D graphical engine, which was really my specialty. The guys in Trecision were real professionals and endlessly passionate about the job, along with being really humble and down to earth. But, with the benefit of hindsight, there was no standardized work organization. I would spend my day working by myself, modifying the source files, then implementing them in-game. Periodically, we integrated the source code manually, no tools were being used, quite a long way from today’s way of developing”. Lagorio confirms: “We had no version control, I was writing the code by myself, basically.”
Pelella would also create a full-3D prototype, constructed from the assets from Nightlong, using DirectX and the first GPU cards that could be found on the market. The so-called “T3D Engine” would later be used as a foundation for the engine in The Watchmaker which will go on to be the final graphical adventure released by Trecision.
The Watchmaker: Trecision's final adventure
In 1999, with Nightlong out of the doors, Trecision’s intentions were to continue their working relationship with Team 17 for a second project but, apparently, things never went far. Their project, The Watchmaker, was originally designed to be in full 3D since the technology was ripe and 2D graphics, by then, were definitely out of fashion. Martyn Brown mentions how the title was a bit too ambitious and, in the end, they withdrew from the project. “Team 17 didn’t seem to very much agree with the idea of releasing adventure games, they preferred arcade titles for sure” comments Pietro. Thus, the Italian software house found itself, again, without a publisher.
While looking for a publisher, development was going slow, especially on the overall design: the team needed a fresh new idea. “We even tried to use motion capture, but the tech was still relatively young, it was a no-go.” recalls Pietro. Between 1999 and 2000 two new developers would join Trecision, both of whom will go on to have an important career in the gaming industry: Christian Cantamessa and Tiziano Sardone. Fabio Corica, who had rejoined Trecision later (without Bordieri), mentioned Cantamessa to Pietro Montelatici, while Sardone met Lagorio through an internet forum and was on board, transferring from Varese to Rapallo, in Liguria.
In 1998 Cantamessa had been working as a database programmer in Rapallo. He recalls: “I knew next to nothing about databases! Somehow, after a weekend of desperate studying, they hired me. I had been there a year when I got a call from Fabio, telling me Trecision was looking for a story for an adventure game. I thought about it for a while then one day, passing by a video games shop, I was struck by the lightning that was Super Mario 64. Thus The Watchmaker was born: a story set in a castle (similar to Peach’s) with the duo of agents Mulder-Skully from the X-Files as protagonists. They liked it and, thus, I was on board.”
Of the time spent in Trecision, Cantamessa still has very fond memories, especially of sharing the workspace with Tiziano Sardone, Fabio Corica and Marco Castrucci.“It was almost like being back in high school!” comments Corica “we had such terrible eating habits, that we managed to spend one euro for several days worth of food”. Cantamessa continues “at one point, we had been frying so much random food that our bathroom door seemed to have been drenched in oil as well. It smelled terrible for days on end!”. Sardone also shares the fondness of the memories, saying that it was a unique time in his career: “we all met in my apartment which was on the first floor of the same building where Trecision’s offices were. It was a mess, but these were fun times: we were all so passionate!”.
Working on The Watchmaker‘s code were just Fabrizio Lagorio, Marco and Tiziano.
In late 1999, with work on The Watchmaker still unfinished, Trecision was, economically, going through a tough time. Montelatici recalls having tried to catch the attention of various publishers, but nothing seemed to materialize. Following Gervino’s warning that things were coming to a head, Cantamessa and Sardone decided to pack their bags, finding work in Ubi Soft pretty soon after. Cantamessa has never played The Watchmaker: “I never play any of the games I’ve worked on: I feel that I would have done too many things differently. In the end, what counts is not the finished product, but the relationships with the people and the way I improved myself while working.” Sardone comments “it was sad to leave an unfinished project on which we worked for so long, but I felt exciting things were happening in the industry and I thought it was the right time to depart. No one in Trecision opposed my decision, they actually supported me.”
By the turn of the millennia, Trecision needed a change and fast. “It was Marco Castrucci who put us in contact with AngelVentures, the investment fund associated with Cuneo & Associati. They would invest in our company, but, in turn, we needed to expand and enlarge our business: the only way we could manage that was by merging with other up and coming young development studios, really,” explains Montelatici. “Thus, our idea to create a platform (Launchpad) to entice young teams to work with us and also share our ten years of experience in the industry, by that point.”
Just before Trecision’s investment deal was concluded, Gervasio decided his time was up. “I didn’t like the idea of an investment fund giving us orders, also I felt it was time for me to start doing something else. I was an old school programmer and, by 2000, I felt I could not contribute much. Six years later, I had finally understood what happened to Gabriele Pompeo: I had enough of working so hard only to stay afloat, constantly living on the edge, after years in the industry. Despite my very firm intentions, Pietro asked me to stay on, thus for a couple of years I continued to collaborate externally with Trecision”.
First unveiled in April, at the Italian Lan Party in Florence, then released in June of 2001, The Watchmaker saw a partial European release (in UK, Poland and Russia), along with US distribution by Got Game Entertainment. It was met with mostly fair reviews, with several critics praising the graphics and robust soundtrack, while also mentioning the abundance of pixel-hunting and mediocre voice acting. Lagorio remembers that the team also developed a particular “Push and Play” version of the game: “the player would download only the executable, while graphics and sound would be stramed on-demand from an encrypted server, to save on bandwidth which, back then, was particularly slow. It was, indeed, a fully working streamable version of the game.”
The Watchmaker would be the final adventure released by Trecision, since, already by 2001, no one seemed to be interested in the genre anymore. “Wanting to develop an adventure game was like going around saying you had the pox, publishers would entirely avoid you” remembers designer Federico Fasce who joined in late 1999, “if you had a strong franchise, like Broken Sword, maybe you could persevere, but Trecision only had the experience, thus they were forced to abandon the genre, just to get publishers to pay attention to their other titles.”
In the third and final chapter of Trecision’s history, we will see how, thanks to the generous funding and after leaving behind the genre that they had developed for so long, the software house will become the biggest in Italy. Merging with other studios, Trecision would sign important international publishing agreements, while working on unique projects. But, unfortunately, also the swift and untimely conclusion to their history, in 2003.
Sources & References
Interviews conducted via skype, telephone and e-mail by myself in 2021 with Pietro Montelatici, Edoardo Gervino, Fabrizio Lagorio, Fabio “Oscar” Corica, Christian Cantamessa, Tiziano Sardone, Dario Pelella, Federico Fasce, Stuart Bell and Martyn Brown.
Images and materials from: K June 2001, Bonusweb “About the Watchmaker with its creators” article, Team 17 E3 cd (1996). Nightlong sketches by Mario Ricco.
Many thanks to all the people interviewed for the time dedicated to my article.