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Fireside chat with Joe Tresca, Creative Director&CEO of Eyeballistic

Who is Joe Tresca?

Joe Tresca is a former award-winning advertising creative director, entrepreneur, technocrat and classic video game enthusiast who currently leads a team of 10 through his company, Eyeballistic, to produce games for Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony video game consoles.

He is a classically trained artist who draws, sculpts and paints. Joe spent the last 7 years as a full stack web applications software engineer. Rarely do artists become programmers, but his appetite for learning and problem solving made the transition seem the next logical step in his career.

Joe graduated C.W. Post Long Island University with a 4.0 GPA in 2002 where he spent most of his time learning about 3D graphics and animation. 

What’s the story behind Eyeballistic?

I always say video games is a profession that chose me rather than I choosing to pursue it. It was October 2011 and I had been working my way through the ranks in advertising. Around that time I had helped develop a successful web app for Estée Lauder called “Let’s play make up”. The idea was that customers could import their own faces into the app and then apply Estée Lauder makeup products to their own face using some pretty groundbreaking tech for the time. The app wound up increasing makeup sales on a massive scale and in addition to winning numerous awards, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing with offers to lead creative teams for any ad agency with established or prospective clients in the cosmetics industry.

One particular ad agency offered me a creative leadership position and a staff of 7 direct reports. They threw a bunch of money at me and at the time I remembered thinking that this was a dream job and a dream opportunity. What they needed me to do was to develop a pitch for Avon worth $2M worth of work. I accepted the job and my wife and I celebrated by spending a few days in Vegas. 30 days into my new agency job I’m standing in front of the executives at Avon and delivering the pitch I’d worked tirelessly on with my team.

In advertising, if you make it to the stage where a client invites you to present in person, there is a very good chance they’ll sign on with your agency.

I remember feeling particularly confident that day. Every word of that pitch was carefully crafted and I’d rehearsed it in my bathroom mirror so frequently that it felt like I was executing flawlessly. When I finished the presentation, the room erupted with thunderous applause. 

After exiting the board room my team and I were asked to give the Avon execs a few minutes to come to a decision. One of the executives stepped out after what seemed like an eternity and said, “Joe I want to congratulate you and the team on presenting us with some truly inspiring ideas. Unfortunately after hearing them we’ve decided to go with another agency. Rest assuredly we’ll be keeping an eye on you and your team and you never know what the future will bring.”

Someone must have called my executive creative director and told him the news because it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later when I received a call to head back to the office so we could discuss what happened.

I arrived at the agency headquarters and was greeted by my boss Frank who asked me to follow him to his office and shut the door. My heart sank when I realized what was happening as I saw the head of HR waiting there with some documents for me to sign. 30 days into my dream job I was unceremoniously fired.

Now there is never a good time to be fired but for me this seemed a particularly bad time. My wife was pregnant with our first child and we’d recently purchased a house. I remember on the train ride home a wave of sadness and dread came over me. I think escapism is something we do to keep ourselves from falling into depression during tough times. Some people like to curl up with a good book. Some prefer to lose themselves in cinema. For me though, video games were always the guilty pleasure I’d partake in.  

One game in particular has always stood out for me throughout my childhood. It’s characters, lore and gameplay were where I’d choose to escape reality. That game was Mortal Kombat. I’ll never forget walking into my neighborhood arcade back in 1992 and witnessing these apparently real actors digitized into pixels and then performing unrepentant acts of gruesome violence on each other. I played so frequently that I actually held a record for having won 144 games in a row. I even went on to play and win a few local tournaments. Each character had a gruesome finishing move where they would tear their opponents heart out or rip their head off, spinal column dangling and all. The violence was shocking, but the mystery behind discovering the particular button and joystick combinations needed to perform the violent and humiliating acts for each character, drove my 14 year old brain into obsession. In 1992 the internet was not yet mainstream so knowing how to perform a fatality with any of the game’s characters made you a local legend.

So I’m surfing the internet on my first generation 4G cell phone while on the long train ride home to Croton-on-Hudson from Grand Central Terminal, when a notification pops up that the Mortal Kombat remake was cancelled. Warner Brothers, who was the IP holder, decided to kill the game for one reason or another. Even escapism was failing me on that day. Not willing to accept any more bad news, I found myself on a fansite for Mortal Kombat called The Realm of Mortal Kombat or trmk.org. The fans were livid as I was about the cancellation. If WB wasn’t going to remake this game then the fans decided they’d do it themselves. At first I merely “lurked” the threads that talked about creating a Mortal Kombat Kommunity Edition or a Mortal Kombat HD Remix. You see, by 2011 many people had high definition displays and MK fans longed for an HD remake similar to what Street Fighter 2 HD Remix had seen back in 2008.

I knew I could contribute to this fan project as I had at this point over a decade of experience with 3d graphics. I felt confident that I could reproduce many of the original game’s environments in photo-realistic 3D and I was about to have a lot of time on my hands. The fan community behind Mortal Kombat as it turned out had some stunning talent. Gabe Melendez, known on the site under the handle Bleed, reproduced and animated in full 3D the character Scorpion at such a realistic level that most of us as fans thought he must have filmed an actor in costume similar to how the original game was produced. Another fan, Justin Slaughter (his real name), produced indie movie soundtracks for a living. He completely re-orchestrated the original midi sounding music from the early 90s with real instruments. It no longer sounded like game music but rather a score you’d expect to hear in cinema. I immediately asked to join the project when I observed how it was gaining momentum. About a year later, a bunch of Mortal Kombat fans who’d never met or spoken a word to each in real life, collaborated over the internet to make a playable version of Mortal Kombat in high definition. Then on one fateful evening, Gabe received a call from Warner Brothers legal department. The conversation was short. I’ll paraphrase it as “Don’t make this game or we’ll sue you for everything you’re worth.”

Needless to say this scared Gabe and just about everyone else who contributed to the project away, but it really just made me angry. I decided right then and there that this side project wasn’t worth doing unless my team and I could be paid to produce it. So I took the project underground and began working in secrecy on it. We wouldn’t post updates on the public forums anymore as that was far too risky. The goal now was to keep WB off of our backs while we continued to produce the game so that we could eventually pitch a partnership and make money on our efforts.

In 2016 we finally had a fully playable prototype. I remember my hands shaking a bit with nervous excitement when I sent off an email to NetherRealm Studios, the company responsible for modern day Mortal Kombat games, indicating that we’d like them to play it in the hopes that a partnership could be formed to see it released to the public.

To my surprise, I received a response that they had seen it and were interested in talking more. A few weeks later I was pitching the creator of Mortal Kombat himself, Ed Boon, our concept on what an HD remake should be. Ed was incredibly impressed and he passed my team off to the executives over at Warner Brothers.

I pitched the executives from Finance, Marketing, Sales and Distribution for at least two years and finally in January 2018 I was told, “Congratulations your project is being given the green light!”. This moment was quite possibly among one of the happiest of my entire life. Unfortunately it wouldn’t last very long as about two weeks later I received a phone call and was told “unfortunately we’re going to move ahead without you or your team.” A movie script writer friend of mine who lived out in LA would describe this as “being Hollywooded”.

To translate more explicitly, they were going to steal my team’s idea and give it to their own more seasoned development team. I remembered something Ed said to me that at the time didn’t make sense but became instantly clear after hearing the bad news. Ed said, “We have to protect Joe and his team. We don’t want him in a situation where he ends up losing his shirt. If we do this though it has to be you guys. You get it. You truly understand and have a passion for what Mortal Kombat really means. I wouldn’t trust anyone else.”

Ed meant what he said as I believe he cancelled the project when he realized that WB was trying to remove my team and I from the equation. 

After we received the bad news, I asked my team of artists and programmers who had essentially worked for free up until this point, if we should try our hand at making our own game. Almost everyone said yes and that was how Eyeballistic as a game studio began to take shape.

What was the most difficult part of your experience in the early beginnings?

When I first was introduced to the WB executives one of them curtly interrupted my presentation to say, “I’m sorry who are you? Really, I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never had Ed Boon call me three times to say that I should speak with anyone. Yet I’ve never heard of you or your team and it doesn’t appear you’ve ever developed a game before. So tell me how this isn’t a complete waste of my time?”

Seeking funding and speaking to potential stakeholders and investors without having published any games was difficult. At that point you are not just selling your game ideas, but also yourself. I’d been laughed out of the room by more than a few potential investors before finally convincing Matt Karch of Saber Interactive to fund Eyeballistic’s first fighting game IP, Lawless. Matt’s partner, Andrey rather awkwardly tried to dissuade him from investing by saying, “Matt I think this is a bad idea.”, while my lead engineer and I were on the call.

What are you most proud of regarding your business?

Eager to prove what our team was capable of, we decided to develop an Oculus Go VR headset game in about 7 months. Beatron 2000 went on to become one of the highest rated games on the Oculus store. While the game itself didn’t sell a massive amount of units, reading all the positive comments from customers really gave us confidence to keep going. 

What is your vision for the future of Eyeballistic?

About a year ago we signed a contract with a well known publisher to remake a classic fighting game from 1985. That contract gave us access to difficult to obtain development kits for the Microsoft Xbox Series and Sony PS5 consoles. Having learned how to produce games on consoles, I anticipate our value in the game industry will continue to rise. 

I believe retro remakes of games from the 80s, 90s and 2000s are becoming Eyeballistic’s bread and butter. I wish to preserve and honor these classic games I grew up with by remaking them using modern game design sensibilities and state-of-the-art graphics and animation so that a new generation can enjoy them. 

We’ve developed some proprietary online technology, we call NetBlast™, which allows for players from different locations as far as 2,000 miles away, to play together or competitively as though they were in the same room. With the effects of the global pandemic factoring into a massive influx of new gamers, I believe our online tech will help bring players together even when they’re physically far apart.

I’ll continue to seek outside investment to grow the company. Making games isn’t cheap but our team is special. We’re particularly adept at creating fighting games which are notoriously difficult to develop due to the specialized knowledge they require. Our team has this knowledge as several of our team members play fighting games at a tournament level. I believe one day my team will develop a fighting game that will finally dethrone popular mainstays such as Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. The most recent iteration of Mortal Kombat has sold 12 Million units which translates to roughly half a billion dollars in profit. So the return on investment for a savvy investor could be enormous.

What’s your advice for the businesses that are trying to adapt to this economic climate?

Great companies are born from great opportunities. The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for companies to think outside of the box to reach consumers. I think businesses will need to be willing to change to meet the needs of consumers. Innovation in online technology or services will set forward-thinking businesses apart from their competitors. 

Please name a few technologies which have the greatest impact on your business.     

5G, Cloud Computing and Epic Online Services.

What books do you have on your nightstand? 

  • Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal
  • Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline
  • Blood Sweat and Pixels by Jason Scheirer

Because of the current economic climate our publication has started a series of discussions with professional individuals meant to engage our readers with relevant companies and their representatives in order to discuss their involvement, what challenges they have had in the past and what they are looking forward to in the future. This sequence aims to present a series of experiences, recent developments, changes and downsides in terms of their business areas, as well as their goals, values, career history, the high-impact success outcomes and achievements.

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