Mediagenic SSI Lucasfilm Games Sega of America Propaganda CODE SegaSoft Electronic Arts/EA.com Ubi Soft
Sega of America
1992 - 1995
When I wanted to bail out of Lucasfilm Games, I contacted my friend Michael Latham at Sega of America. (This amused me, because when we were at Activision, we said Sega was for losers! Funny how I end up working for just about every company I deride.)
Sega needed more producers in their American division. The first Sonic the Hedgehog game had just shipped, and Sega was becoming a big thing. So I joined up.
Sega of America was located in San Carlos, CA (About 5 minutes away from our new apartment!) There were 400 people working in a few different buildings (we would move to 3 different buildings in as many years.)
Home Alone - Genesis & Game Gear
Producer and Co-Designer - 1992
My first assignment was Home Alone. First I was appalled I had to work on HOME ALONE (AHHHH!) When I stopped screaming, I saw that Mike Latham had done a pretty cool design and the game had merit (though the game was really too complex for kids).
I realized I'd have to burn the midnight oil to get this out for Christmas. Ultimately, I had to coordinate 5 teams in 5 different places across America to make it happen. I also made great friends with the programmers, Mike and Rob McCool, and Chuck Batson.
With licensed games, you sometimes have to get the actors (or "talent") to approve their cartoon characters. Joe Pesci thought his character was too fat, so I had to have the artist go back and shave a few pounds off him.
Actually, this was the least of my art problems. We had a fixed limit size for the game, 4 megabytes (roughly the size if 1/2 a floppy disk!) All the art that existed took over 12 megabytes! How do you shrink all that art down in less then a month? It wasn't easy, especially with all the technical limitations of the Genesis.
Here is a overview of the process in layman's terms: First, I went though every frame, and chopped out 1/3 off all the animations. Then, we scrutinized every piece of art, and took out ever bit that looked similar to another and/or cropped them so they never exceed a 64 x 64 size (even if it was 1 pixel over, it would count as another 64x64 frame of animation.) Finally, I had the lead programmer create a real-time software compressor/decompresser so we could fit what was left into the remaining space.
The AI was really complex, and when there was an error, the programmers had the screen go blank and print a funny message, like "Marv can't find a friggin' hook!" We thought we debugged the game completely, but I saw that error happen in a finished game. Oh well...
(The Game Gear version was nominated "Best Portable" by Cybermania '94. It was against Rhonda's Lion King game*.)
* Rhonda's note: Lion King won. But of course it's always an honor to be nominated... <gloat>
I had wanted to do an RPG for ever, and I finally got the chance with Shadowrun.
I took a similar approach as I did with BattleTech game at Activision. I re-designed the whole thing to exactly model the Shadowrun RPG rules and world, but ran it in real-time. It was as much work as BattleTech, too!
I wrote 85% of the text (John Fulbright, the one of the game's main programmers, wrote the other 15%, and all of his text was great!) The text was really important to the game; it added atmosphere, humor and lots of game choices.
Jaime Wojick did the marketing, but he also conceived one of the sub-plots. He thought it'd be cool to break into a number of computer systems, and get a password for a high-risk Shadowrun. It was a great idea, and we got it in at the last minute.
I'm very proud of this game and it's the one people tell me they liked the most. I've had people tell me this game made them go buy Genesis machines! It was awarded the "Editorís Gold" award from EGM, and nominated "Best Adventure/RPG" by Electronic Games
However, when I showed it to a reviewer once at E3, he took one look at the screen (with maybe 5 lines of text) and exclaimed "Too much text! What else do you have to show me?" Oh brother...
Go to Moby Games to read and rate Shadowrun
I followed up Shadowrun with Desert Demolition. I even used some of the programmers and artists from Shadowrun.
We wanted to do the impossible: create a game where the player could be either the Road Runner or the Coyote. To date, no other game had allowed you to be the Coyote, let alone either!
There was a reson for this... for the player to have any fun as the Coyote, he needed a fair chance to catch the Road Runner! Unfortunately, Warner Brothers licensing STRICTLY FORBIDS the Coyote EVER catching the Road Runner.
The challenge was laid... and I love a challenge!
Rhonda and I spent a weekend watching EVERY RR cartoon I could find. We noticed that many times the Coyote comes close to catching the Road Runner, but ends up grabbing a puff of smoke that the Road Runner leaves behind. So, that became my loophole. as the Coyote, the player hunts down the Road Runner using leaps or turbo runs, or whatever. When he grabs the Road Runner, the stupid bird technically zips off...but leaves a puff of Road-Runner-shaped smoke, dropping items and power-ups as if he'd been caught. I presented the idea to Warner licensing, and they accepted it!
Another amazing thing about this game was it looked and played like a cartoon episode. Normally, that would have been big news, but the bloom was off the Genesis, no one really cared about cel quality animation anymore. The game did well, but not the massive numbers that the Aladdin game had done the year before.
Go to Moby Games to read and rate Desert Demolition
Desert Speedtrap: Starring Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote - GameGear
Sub-Terrania - Genesis
Beyond Oasis - Genesis
Co-Producer - 1993-1994
These types of titles come to all Producers: games that either were developed for another company and need final guidance, or were developed initially for another country and need to be translated for American audiences.
Despite the simularity of name to my Gensis game, this was a completely different game, one where you could only play the Road Runner, and the game mechanic was similar to a Sonic style game, you zipped around the tracks, avoiding things that hurt you, and at the end of each level the Coyote was a kind of boss monster.
Desert Speedtrap was a simple job for me. The game was a port from the UK version, so all I had to do was just get it though test. Five days later, we were done.
SubTerrania just kinda fell into our laps. The game was done by an group of international programmers all on their own, not even using Sega approved hardware to develop (that's impressive!)
The basic game was a Lunar Lander style game, where you had a ship you moved around the screen by thrusting against gravity, while shooting at enemies and achieving missions. The game had some really nice technical tricks and was really pretty. Overall, it looked like we were picking up a sweet gem in the rough.
However, SubTerrania's gameplay was SO HARD! We changed the control difficulty three times to make it easier, and people STILL complained it was impossible! (Strangely enough, I found it challenging, but not impossible, so I was surprised by this accusation.)
Testing was also a bit stressful, since the programmers "winged it", there were many illegal writes and other wonky errors you would not have had if the game was programmed on a true dev system. Ultimately, we got all the bugs.
Jamie also marketed SubTerrania and had the tough task of coming up with a cover that both Sega and the developers liked. (The developers had received a "marketing materials approval" clause in their contract.)
After about 5 tries to appease both our and their tastes, Jamie came up with a killer cover and a big media campaign that cost a bundle of cash. We thought a hit was on the way.
When released, the game slowly died, under appreciated by the market. I don't really know why, perhaps it was the difficulty, perhaps it was the basic game mechanic, or just the fickle consumer tastes had changed. That's how these things go sometimes.
Beyond Oasis was another international game that needed a producer to port it over to English (but in this case, I was in charge of both American English and UK English!)
It arrived with a badly-translated Japanese story, one that made very little sense. So when it didn't make sense, I created my own version of what I thought was right. I think it came out OK, nobody every said anything!
I also changed the name of the Arabian Nights-type character to Ali in a jibe at Aladdin)*
Rhonda's note: sort of an in-joke for us. I was working on Aladdin at the time. :)
But the actual game is quite fun with some really cool animations and effects.
Wild Woody - Sega CD
Original Producer - 1994
A good friend of mine from the Activision days, Chris Shen, came up with a really cool original idea: the hero is a pencil, and he goes though game levels drawing his powerups. This idea was ultimately created and called Wild Woody.
I was asked to produce this game, and was quite delighted, both respecting Chris and his idea. However, this game was being produced internally, and unfortunately, the SOA multi-media internal development staff did not take direction well. This problem was compiled by unclear management directives over who was running the project, me, Chris, the art director or the technical director. So things did not get off to a good start.
Also, I felt Chris had a strong idea, but thought I could help him make it stronger. We had weeks of meetings/debates over the design, and while I did not pretend to be the designer, I did think many of my thoughts, comments and experiences were important and should be considered.
Over the months, exasperation, fights, arguments and other petty things happened between me and just about everyone. After about 4 months of this, I read the latest design draft, and realized all of my "contributions" had be removed from the game. At that point, I asked to be removed from the "dreaded pencil project" as I call it now, since I clearly was the wrong man for the job.
Time has passed since then, and I realize I made some big mistakes on the handling of this game. These mistakes caused a strain on my friendship with Chris, which I hope one day to smooth over. But knowing when to cut my losses was also a good lesson, as well as some other things to never do again (for example, NEVER build your final levels first - it makes it impossible to play balance them correctly!)
There was one good thing that came out of this game, I got to work with the legendary Merle Kessler. Merle is a comedian best known for his work in Duck's Breath Mystery Theater, and for creating the character Ian Shoals, a wry, rapid-fire "social commentator" with the trademark line "I gotta go." Anyway, Merle was hired by Sega at the time to be a creative writer, and he wrote the intro and ending cinematic scripts for the game. He came up with a fun "Indiana Jones" type character who was the catalyst for starting the whole game off. It was cool to talk with him and see him work.
The fate of the game? It was ultimately completed, but much later then first planned and it missed the CD window of opportunity. If it was ever released, it was in extremely limited quantities.
Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers - Sega CD
Producer & Designer - 1994
What is it with me and kid licenses?
Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers CD "Had To Be Out For Christmas." That gave me only 2 1/2 MONTHS to do a game from scratch!
Since there was no chance to shoot any new video, I had to come up with an interesting design that worked around the existing TV footage. No branching like I did with Rebel Assault, no new story ideas like I had with Beyond Oasis, I have VERY tight constraints to make this game happen. Others around the office even doubted if it was possible. And I have to admit, I was worried for a few days there myself when I had no clue how to do this.
It hit me one night to design a revved-up Dragon's Lair style game. The concept was familiar, but the way I wanted to do it was radically different.
My concept was to make the user react to the game every second, thus a three minute "fight scene" from the show would have about 150 moves for the players to complete (somewhat synched to the action on the screen). To facilitate that, the player would have a health bar that would shrink everytime you made a wrong move (simulating a "hit" from the enemy he was fighting). This was a far cry from other Dragon's Lair style games, where there were maybe 5-8 moves per scene, and missing ANY of them would end the scene and you would lose a life.
Other features I wanted that were unique were arrows that animated across the screen (visually showing the key to press and the amount of time you have to press the key), a point based scoring system at 3 different difficulty levels with saved high scores by difficulty level, a continue feature based on your accumulated points, and secret moves during the "cinematics" which allowed you to regain your health bar. Finally, when you finished the game there was a mode where you could watch the whole thing as a movie! (in retrospect, I should have enabled this feature immediately, so little kids could have enjoyed the game as a movie right out of the box.)
I needed someone to program it NOW! I called my expert Home Alone programmer, Chuck Batson, who had just started his own company in Illinois. I told him we had less then 2 months to make this happen, but I knew we could do it. I asked if he was up to the job, he agreed, we negotiated a price, and we were off!
Rhonda and I watched 30 HOURS of Power Rangers tapes and I compiled a editing list and final design changes based on the footage. Then I flew to LA and worked in the editing bay for 2 days, cobbling together 60 minutes of footage for the game that was a structured narrative. In the end, the game told the story of the Power Rangers Origin and the saga of the Green Ranger, plus two other "adventure episodes" (Trust me, this was NOT easy!)
We all worked like mad to get the game in and out the door before the time limit ran out. Chuck did an awesome job programming brand new technology, and he also created a "move recorder" that allowed me to play the video one frame at a time and record moves by using the Genesis pad! It also would playback and allow you to play the game or edit the moves. Without this hardware innovation, there would have been no way to match the thousands of moves needed to the action on the screen.
Finally, it all came together in less then two months, and I got it through test in 5 days, using 24 hour shifts! This was a new record for Sega, both for development time and completion time.
Believe it or not, this is one of my favorite games. Partially due to the time constraints and what we achieved inside them both productively and creatively, and partially because in the end its really fun and challenging to play! (ESPECIALLY on expert level!)
At the time, this game was the most advanced Dragon's Lair style game for its time. The mantle has since been passed to a new game that is sweeping the nation, Dance Dance Revolution. If you ever see MMPR Sega CD, you will be surprised at the similarity in base game mechanics.
UPDATE: Two fans (Brian and Eric) from Park Productions decided to MAKE THEIR OWN MMPR game, based on my Sega CD design and the new Power Rangers DinoThunder show! This is a first for me, folks. I've never seen any of my games re-imagined by fans! I'm very impressed by their efforts, and highly recommend you download their game, as well as check out their other games.
Screenshot of my game Screenshot of their game!
BTW, this screenshot was also provided by them! You can see more at their MMPR Sega CD Screenshot site. Thanks again, Brian and Eric!
Fahrenheit - Sega CD/32X CD
Surgical Strike - Sega CD/32X CD
Wirehead - Sega CD
Co-Producer, Additional Design - 1995 - 1996
After the success of Power Rangers, Sega management saw fit to dump the rest of their incomplete Full Motion Video games on me. These had been in development for almost 2 years, the footage had been shot, but the assembly was not complete, and the original producer had left under mysterious circumstances. I was told "Get Them Out ASAP."
So I did. This required a ton of organization, motivation, and management of the programmers struggling to complete Fahrenheit in under 60 days, Surgical Strike 30 days after that, and finally WireHead 30 days after that!
To make things more interesting for me, most of the video STILL needed to be compressed! This was the Multimedia Lab's area and a technician named Katy Weathers came though working night and day to ensure the video was digitized correctly, compressed correctly, and delivered to the programmers. She was a key ingredient to the successful completion of those games, and a godsend on this project from Hell!
However, there was a issue even bigger then the constricted time limit and lack of video. These games WERE NOT FUN! No one really cared, they just wanted them out. But I cared.
I squeezed in as many design changes as possible without completely jeopardizing our schedule. These changes and enhancements included numerous level re-designs, game play additions, and creative thinking to get around some serious problems.
Fahrenheit had a huge problem, I really felt the game was unplayable. With less then a month to final, I made the programmer add a "map" feature into the game, as well as a number of game play tweaks, and adding maps for all of the levels into the manual. The game still was not rose, but at least it was now playable!
Also, it shipped as a duel Sega CD/32X game, so we had to test BOTH versions in an accelerated time frame. FMV footage was rather grainy on Sega CD, but with the 32X enhancement (extra video memory and a fast logic chip for quick decompression), the video looked almost VHS quality.
For Surgical Strike, I proposed numerous level re-designs, game mechanic changes and extreme scene editing to keep the pace fast. The Code Monkeys (the developers) were weary from working on this game for the past year, but agreed with all the changes and implemented them in record time! We went from barely working and no-so-fun to fully implemented and lots-of-fun in under 2 months!
To top all this off, this title was in and out of test in an unbelievable 4 days, breaking my old Power Rangers record, and making the Fiscal Year deadline! This only happened because The Code Monkeys wrote some very bug-free code, hard to do under that kind of stress!
Surgical Strike was supposed to ship as a duel Sega CD / 32X CD game like Fahrenheit. I completed the 32X discs for Surgical Strike, but for cost control reasons, the company decided to make it so you had to send in a coupon to get those disks (note the callout on the box cover).
In the end, I think Surgical Strike ended up being one of the best FMV games ever released. Too bad hardly anyone ever played it.
WireHead was a paradox. It was basically a "Choose Your Own Action/Adventure/Comedy" that you had very little control over.
Its premise was you were "in control" of some guy with a receiver plugged into his brain. Soon spy's come after him to get the secret of this device, and its up to you to "control" him to evade their clutches.
It was a total "Dragon Lair" design rip-off, down to the archaic "only one right move at the right time or you are dead" game design, but without the flashing squares. There was no branching or alternate scenes (with minor exceptions that made no difference.) There were no "variable damage" or any of the cool things I had added to Power Rangers to evolve this kind of game play. It was frustrating at times to play.
However, WireHead was also the most professionally shot FMV game I've ever seen. I think they spent over 2 million dollars on the filming, and in this sole case, it showed. The 32X version looked almost film quality, it had a fairly funny script, good actors, and bunch of really cool action scenes, such as running around on the Queen Mary, wrestling with a bear, jumping out of a plane, fighting on a skateboard, and many other really fun stunts the player would see if he did the moves right.
Unlike the other FMV games I inherited, WireHead was so limited by its linear design, there was literally nothing I could do to make it better, I could only strive to get it done ASAP (in under 2 months again.) I did add one thing: the "RoboCop HUD" humor text that appeared when the non-interactive scenes played. I thought, if the player has to watch these scenes again and again, at least we can have some funny text appear to give them something else to look at. It also felt a little more "dynamic" to me.
Like Fahrenheit and Surgical Strike, WireHead, was planned to ship with a 32X version, which I even had working (but had not finished testing.) Despite it being the best looking FMV game of them all, Sega dropped the 32X support at the last minute, due to the decline in popularity to the Sega CD and 32X in general. This saved them the cost of goods of one more CD, but denied the world of the 32X version, which looked so good (for the time).
One interesting bit of trivia is the total "film" time was around 60 minutes, but the Sega CD could only hold 50. I ended up editing out a scene from the final footage so the entire game could fit on a single CD (decreasing the unit cost.)
For my all my FMV efforts, I received Sega's "President's Award", which is a nifty clear plastic thingy presented in front of the entire company, and a much-appreciated check for 1,000 clams!
Midnight Raiders (unreleased) - 32X CD
Producer, Designer - 1995
Sega had previously released a Sega CD FMV game called Midnight Raiders. This game had the coolest subject matter (flying an Apache helicopter, shooting down enemies, and then landing into enemy territory, running and gunning to rescue hostages!) It was a "sequel" in sorts to Tomcat Alley, one of the few Sega CD FMV games that sold over 100,000 units. However, it was perhaps the WORST CD game we ever released (yes, even worse then Fahrenheit, but not by much).
The game made no sense, was hard as hell to play, used all the wrong footage when weapons fired, and one minute you co-pilot is telling you how great a shot that was, and the next saying you suck! I saw so much potential wasted on this game!
Since Chuck Batson did such a fine job with Power Rangers and the company wanted more 32X CD games, I cut a contract with him to do it. But I would re-design the game almost from the ground up, he would re-program it from the ground up, and I would re-edit all the existing footage to what we wanted it to do, plus film new gunshot footage (cause the old stuff stunk).
We worked for about a month on this, and put together the prototype. Instead of mindlessly shooting enemy after enemy with no ammo limits and "3 lives", we created a map that you flew over, which told you how heavy resistance you should expect, gave you ammo, fuel limits and a way to create and change your flight plan, created critical hit areas on your craft so you could lose weapons or systems instead of going down, created "critical" hit areas on each enemy so if you were accurate you could blow them away quickly, and changed the damage on all the weapons so it made a difference using the right weapon with the right target, and created the correct "moods" for the co-pilot so he would make you feel good or bad based on your real performance.
We did all this for the prototype, and it played sweet. One more month, and we would have had the ground version complete.
But in that month, the forecasts for 32X came in, and Sega realized no one was buying 32X stuff. So, the project was canceled. I begged for the money to convert it to PC, pointing out how cool the prototype was, but Tomcat Alley had already released on the PC, and was dying a quiet death as an inferior PC port.
So that was the end of that.
X-Perts - Genesis
Producer, Designer - 1995
This game was supposed to be a cross between arcade fighting and an adventure game, all in 3D rendered graphics like the super popular SuperNintendo game Donkey Kong Country.
Mike Latham had started the concept, wrote the original design and hired the developers. He threw everything at it: SGI machines, 3D models, motion capture of martial artists, a 32 meg cart (the largest possible), and an in-cart battery backup to save the game with.
But the basic idea of trying to get SGI-quality graphics out of a machine that only did 16 colors was flawed. I had learned this on Wild Woody.
History note: Toy Story Genesis later did do 3D modeling quite well, but it was apples and oranges to this game.
Mike was promoted, and I was asked by him to take over production of this "hit in the making" and complete the design. And, after surveying all of it, I came to a decision.
For the first time in my career, I decided to kill a game. I said we simply could not do what we were expected to do. But Sega upper management would not allow it, since so much money had been spent up-front on the rendering machines, and it was the only wiz-bang game slated for Christmas. So we continued trying to make it work.
The developer, Abalone, tried their best to make it work, and I must admit, each pass (and there were a LOT of passes) the graphics and the game looked better and better, but it was never close enough to the Donkey Kong Country look, which was an impossible bar to reach.
I also hurt the project by designing a genre I knew nothing about (which is not a sin) and doing NO RESEARCH on (this is a BIG sin!) I figured I knew enough about the fighting genre (red flag here... I did not even know what a "combo" was!) I have learned to never make this mistake again.
X-Perts was finally completed after I left Sega by my Associate Producer, Greg Becksted. Sega yanked the battery-backup in a cost-saving effort, however, requiring you to punch in a 10 digit code to restore saved games.
While it's certainly not the best game you can play, it does have its interesting points. The 3D characters are quite nice, and the "adventure" system I devised makes the game interesting to replay.
As a final note, Abalone was run by Glyn Anderson, who had been a good friend of mine since Activison, and this beast of a game strained our friendship big-time. This sucks when it happens, especially since the deck was stacked against us in so many ways. However, time has passed and we're buddies again. Glyn has a new company called Matahari Studios, and I look forward to working with them in the future.
Rhonda and I packed up our belongings, rented our condo, and made a bold move to LA for my next job...
Mediagenic SSI Lucasfilm Games Sega of America Propaganda CODE SegaSoft Electronic Arts/EA.com Ubi Soft