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Interactive Entertainment 1980 - 1996

I loved playing all kinds of board games when I was a kid. However, I would have never guessed that years later I would be a part of the creation of the first wave of what we called "interactive entertainment" that later morphed into the video game business with revenues of 44 billion dollars as I write this.


My path towards this chapter of my creative life began with little fanfare. I was in Hollywood working for a film production company, but bored to death that we were not making more projects. A chance lunch in 1980 with Charlie Weber, the CEO of Lucasfilm at the time, changed all that. The second Star Wars film had just completed its first run and the company had more money than God. George Lucas had instructed Charlie to survey the emergence of “new” technologies for opportunities for production and investment.


The “new” technologies included at that time were... satellite television, laserdiscs, VCR’s, video game machines, the first home computers and much more. I had always been interested in what was next. Charlie asked me if I wanted to spend a year surveying the possibilities and advising them on potential opportunities. This adventure took me many places, but the one that is the most relevant to this story was the Architectural Machine Group (later the Media Lab) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. There I had my first experience of playing with an interactive movie that used laserdisc technology hooked up to a main frame computer. It was an experiment they had created that let you drive around Aspen Colorado. I will go into the details of this chance encounter much more in my exit interview, but suffice to say, a very bright light went on. As a storyteller and film producer, this notion of interactive entertainment seem to offer unlimited possibilities to engage the audience in new ways.


This began 15 years of work for me as an interactive designer, director, producer and eventually running interactive entertainment production groups for companies like Time Warner, Disney and Phillips. Like the music business in the late sixties, we had to make it up as we went along, but being part of inventing a new storytelling medium was a very exciting place to be. Below are some of the projects that were key points along that path. Some were experiments, some were wildly successful like "Voyeur" which was featured in Time Magazine and winner of multiple Interactive Academy Awards. Each represents a significant advance in the art and science of Interactive Entertainment. I also ended up teaching what I discovered at USC, UCLA and the American Film Institute during the late 1990’s. You just never know where life will lead you.

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Ballblazer - Lucasfilm Games - 1981


I had come flying back from my research trip to MIT like a missionary on fire. I had seen the mountain top. This interactive entertainment was something I had to do. In my enthusiasm, I really didn’t consider the likelihood that the technology needed for this to be a home experience was nowhere near ready. Particularly any interactive story that featured real actors.


About the same time Atari, who was making millions as the first video home and arcade game company, came to Lucasfilm and gave them a pile of funding to do computer graphic video games based on the Star Wars mythology. Lucasfilm had a computer science group at that point with programmers and graphic artists. We set to work to design a game based on an airfoil sport (like soccer) that George had envisioned somewhere in the Star Wars universe. The split screen was an interesting innovation with Player 1 POV on top and Player 2 POV on the bottom. As you can see it was very crude computer graphics, but it was fun to play either against another human or against the computer. Ballblazer was the first game developed by the Lucasfilm Game Group.

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Freedom Fighter - 999 Game Group 1986


One thing became very clear for us film folks. Designing computer graphic video games was a computer programmers art. There was no script, storyline, or characters to speak of. As a result we went looking for somewhere else to experiment. That turned out to be one of the Futures Labs at Atari Games.


Atari thought they could use laserdiscs to create new types of arcade games. We spent the better part of two years shooting film tests and playing with different designs. However during that time period Atari, after ruling the video game business, started to falter. Our team had some ideas of our own for a new type of laserdisc arcade movie game. We raised the production money ourselves, partnered with a big Japanese animation company and created some new software and animation techniques that made this game truly interactive. The player had to navigate across a huge cityscape filled with robot aliens trying to kill you. It was the favorite game of Steven Spielberg at the time who hired us for interactive projects later on. 

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It Came From the Desert - Cinemaware 1988-1991


The laserdisc arcade market died in 1986 because the optical laserdisc players could not handle the dust in arcades. I thought I was going back into the film business. What changed that was the introduction of the Amiga home computer. The Amiga featured much higher quality graphics and allowed a little start up called Cinemaware to have their first home computer hit “Defender of the Crown”.


I wrote them a fan letter and we talked. From that conversation came the idea for me to design and direct "It Came From the Desert" for them. Even though we did not get to video or real actors until Desert 3,  it was Cinemaware’s sense of story and characters that made it work. The first ICFD game was very successful and that led to two sequels Desert II – Antmind and Desert III – Turbografx. Desert II won game of the year in 1990. The video to the left explains all. It was a mini-doc I was asked to do when director Marko Makilaakso and his Scandinavian film team made a movie of the game in 2017. No kidding.

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Disney's Cartoon Arcade - Disney Interactive



Early in the interactive business all the big companies and film studios were trying to get into the market in some way. It made for some weird technology. None stranger than Viewmaster’s Interactive Vision based on VCR tape. There was a giant installed base of VCR’s in homes and the Interactive Vision box plugged into the VCR. It offered video from the tape and crude overlaid game graphics. Disney came to Cinemaware because we were a hot start up. I was drawn to the project because Disney would give us access to their entire animation library going back years. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy in their prime. That sounded fun.


Cliff Johnson who was an ace puzzle designer came on board to design the puzzle games and I produced all the film segments. We ended up needing a “host” for the show and Disney had a character named Ludwig Von Drake that I had loved as a kid. He was also one of the few Disney characters that spoke to the audience. We had to re-dub him with our script, but it was really hilarious working with the Disney voice talent. All things seem to end up on YouTube, so this low quality footage of the first part of the game will give you some idea of yet another forgotten experiment during this formative period.

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Click on  ARROWS  to enlarge to full screen

Click on  ARROWS  to enlarge to full screen

Voyeur - Phillips POV Media - 1993


Voyeur was the project with which we took our next big step in interactive entertainment. The last version of “It Came From the Desert” had featured real actors shot against desert backgrounds using the green screen process, but the Turbograx system was crude. Over the four years our POV group was part of Philips Media the CD-I hardware made some headway, but also had some issues. Never the less we had more than enough to work with to take the next step in more advanced design and production.


The Alfred Hitchcock film “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stuart had always had been one of my favorites. The film made use of the dramatic device that Stuart could only see what was going on in the building across from him through the windows. Most of the time he only got snippets of the action taking place. From that limited vantage point he set out to reveal a murderer. The CD-I hardware could give us about a quarter of the screen for video at 14 frames a section. Enough for voice sync. I thought the Rear Window narrative device was the perfect idea for an adult themed game. My partner David Todd figured out how to do it technically and Robert Weaver joined us as the director.


From the beginning we wanted name actors. Robert Culp and Grace Zabriskie eventually agreed to star. Robert playing the murderer, as a would be presidential candidate. Grace, of Twin Peaks fame, his traumatized sister and partner in crime. Everything we did was for the first time. How to shoot and orient actors against a green screen? That included walking behind digital objects that were added into the scene in post-production as well as sitting on furniture that wasn’t on set. How to combine the video with graphic backgrounds. How to have different endings each time etc?

I designed the game, Robert Weaver directed from a script written by Lena Pousette and Jay Richardson.


The project garnered a lot of interest from the press, including being featured in Time Magazine with a three page spread and went on to win 7 interactive academy awards. They made us put an adult code at the beginning to protect children from playing. I always liked the weird combination of video and graphics it offered. It made the player feel uneasy. I think Hitchcock would have approved. Many said Voyeur was Interactive Entertainment all grown up.


The opening sequence and three scenes from the many that took place in the Hawke mansion are on the left.

Interactive Academy Awards Cybermania - 1994

Caesars World of Boxing - Designer/Director

Any new fledgling entertainment medium eventually starts giving out awards. The Interactive Entertainment biz was no different. We all became part of the Interactive Academy Awards organization and each year they would give out awards. This clip is me and David White accepting the award for Caesars World of Boxing - best sports game in 1994. We actually shot the whole thing in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. That was an experience. The actual TV show was called CyberMania and was broadcast on the TNT network. That year Voyeur also won seven interactive awards, among them for best actor, actress, director and design.

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Click on  ARROWS  to enlarge to full screen

Thunder in Paradise - Phillips POV Media 1995


Near the end of our time at Philips Media, they finally delivered full motion video capability on the CD-I player. That meant we could shoot a real television show and an interactive version of the show at the same time. This had never been done before and was a very complicated process.


We were lucky to get Hulk Hogan and Berk/Schwartz/Bonann Productions to agree to let us to partner on an episode of Hogan’s new show “Thunder in Paradise”. Berk/Schwartz was the same team that created "Bay Watch." You can see a few similarities. We shot all of it at the Disney Studios in Florida.  Robert Weaver directed, Lena Pousette and I wrote most of the script and David White line produced.


Normally a television show has an A crew shooting the actors and a B crew shooting the action sequences, particular on a show like Thunder with lots of combat stunts. Our production had four crews. A and B for the television episode and C and D for the interactive version. The actors and stunt men went back and forth between the four teams. It took a massive amount of coordination, but it was the final step in getting television to go interactive. A normal television two hour script is about 130 pages. Our combined script was over 500 pages with all the interactive alternatives. Thunder won an Interactive Academy Award for best action game in 1995.

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Click on  ARROWS  to enlarge to full screen

Light and Darkness - The Prophecy 1996


No matter what we did trying to combine real video footage with computer graphics it was always an uneasy proposition for me. One was always compromised over the other. That’s why when I got a chance to design and direct a story in a very advanced high rez digital graphic world, I jumped at it. That project became “Light and Darkness” starring academy award nominee James Wood.


The visual environments were created by an outstanding sci-fi artist named Gil Bruvel. He created the fantasy architecture that we assembled into a village of the dammed where all the action took place. The one exception was Angel played by real life actress Lolita Davidovich. Using real actors to generate digital characters movements through sensor rigs was in its infancy in 1996. Now with Avatar type films this mo-cap process has come of age, but at the time we were experimenting with Angel/Lolita with some decent results.


There was also lots of talk in 1996 about the turn of the century. There were lots of “doomsday” theories being thrown around of what might happen. Ken Melville and I constructed a story out of some of those memes with the seven deadly sins as the frame and using real historical villains to model the bad guys. Ken then wrote the script and I directed. James Wood voiced the dark lord and was hysterical to work with and play against in the game.


L&D marked the end of a chapter for me in terms of computer games and interactive movies. In 1995 the Internet had shown up and I found my curiosity wandering again to what was possible on the world wide net with millions of people connected. We did some download experiments in L&D where objects came from the Internet, but what was to come was going to change everything again and me with it. To the left is the trailer for L&D and a game play sequence, featuring some of the mysterious Angel sequences in the village and the click and travel interface.

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