From The Ar­chives: Dig­i­tal Pic­tures

Lodewijk Coen and Mark Klein re­veal how they gam­i­fied full-mo­tion video

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by David Crookes

Back in March 1995, in an ar­ti­cle penned for Next Gen­er­a­tion mag­a­zine, Tom Zito ex­pressed his feel­ings about tele­vi­sion. He said it was “no se­cret to any­one” that he hated the medium but he also ac­knowl­edged the irony. That’s be­cause he was the pres­i­dent of Dig­i­tal Pic­tures – a de­vel­oper ob­sessed with mar­ry­ing filmed footage and games. And it was he who led the FMV craze of the Nineties thanks to a de­sire “to talk back to your TV”. Dig­i­tal Pic­tures was born in 1991, but Tom’s in­ter­est in cre­at­ing in­ter­ac­tive tele­vi­sion emerged six years ear­lier when he was em­ployed at Axlon, one of Atari founders Nolan Bush­nell’s grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies.

He was work­ing on the AG Bear, a talk­ing toy that re­sponded to hu­man voice and he liked the in­ter­ac­tively. When the pro­ject was done, he ap­proached Nolan with a new idea to com­bine in­ter­ac­tive im­ages with a video stream. Nolan gave him the green light to de­velop a pro­to­type.

Tom gath­ered a for­mi­da­ble team. There was Rob Fu­lop, creator of the Atari 2600

clas­sics Mis­sile Com­mand, Demon At­tack and Cos­mic Ark, David Crane, co­founder of Ac­tivi­sion and Pit­fall! de­vel­oper, graph­ics artist and games de­signer Michael Becker, and Steve Rus­sell, the Amer­i­can com­puter sci­en­tist who coded Space­war! in 1962. They ex­am­ined the Cole­co­v­i­sion con­sole’s graph­ics chip and dis­cov­ered it could dis­play videogame im­ages over a clear back­ground.

It was the break­through they needed, but Nolan baulked at the $7 mil­lion Tom es­ti­mated to get such a ma­chine ready. Tom sought an al­ter­na­tive fi­nan­cial backer and found a will­ing part­ner in the toy com­pany Has­bro. More staff was brought on board and the team worked on the con­sole, co­de­named Never Ever Men­tion Out­side (or NEMO), un­der the watch­ful eye of Axlon. When Has­bro wanted de­vel­op­ment to quicken, how­ever, Tom faced a tough choice: to leave Axlon and Nolan or risk los­ing Has­bro’s fi­nan­cial back­ing. Tom promptly left and he cre­ated a new com­pany called Isix.

NEMO was an in­ter­est­ing con­sole as it utilised VHS tapes rather than car­tridges. This al­lowed com­puter data to sit along­side video and au­dio tracks, all of which could be switched to al­low for in­ter­ac­tion, branch­ing and switch­ing. To show off the new tech, three demos were cre­ated: a base­ball game called Bot­tom Of The Ninth In­ning, an in­ter­ac­tive mu­sic video for The Cars’ You Might Think I’m Crazy, and Scene Of The Crime which dab­bled with the idea of let­ting play­ers view the gam­ing ac­tion through a se­ries of sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

Among those who as­sisted with the cre­ation of Scene Of The Crime was tech­ni­cal wizard Mark Klein. “I was hired by Tom as a con­sul­tant to de­sign the op­er­at­ing sys­tem for NEMO,” Mark tells us. “And I de­vel­oped the script­ing lan­guage IN­TER­VAL that was used to im­ple­ment the game­play of Scene Of The Crime. The ti­tles were unique as the first ap­pear­ance of in­ter­ac­tive video at the frame-by-frame gran­u­lar­ity. We were pioneer­ing a genre.”

Scene Of The Crime was the high­light of Tom’s suc­cess­ful NEMO pitch to 22 ex­ec­u­tives at Has­bro’s head­quar­ters in Paw­tucket, Rhode Is­land in De­cem­ber 1986. Hav­ing been granted more fund­ing, Tom looked to take on more staff. His ros­ter would even­tu­ally in­clude writer Ken Melville, graph­ics artist Lodewijk Coen, busi­ness de­vel­op­ment ex­pert Anne Flaut-reed and Kevin Welsh, who Lodewijk dubs an “in­ter­ac­tive video and tech­ni­cal wizard”.

Tom also threw him­self into two key productions. The first was Night Trap which grew from the con­cept of Scene Of The Crime. Shot like a Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion in Cul­ver City, Cal­i­for­nia us­ing ac­tors over 16 days in 1987, it cost a staggering $1.5 mil­lion. Jaws dropped fur­ther when Tom spent $3 mil­lion cre­at­ing Sewer Shark, a first per­son, on-rails shooter writ­ten by Ken Melville. All was go­ing well. “We fin­ished the hard­ware and soft­ware de­vel­op­ment and the sys­tem was al­most ready for large-scale man­u­fac­tur­ing,” Mark Klein says.

But then, in late 1988, two months be­fore the con­sole was due to be re­leased, Has­bro axed NEMO – or the Con­trol-vi­sion, as it was to be called. Ex­ec­u­tives feared the $299 price tag would cause it to tank in a mar­ket dom­i­nated by the cheaper NES. Tom’s team was also hit by the ill­ness of Has­bro’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Stephen D Hassen­feld, who died in 1989 of pneu­mo­nia and car­diac ar­rest aged 47. Stephen was a big sup­porter of the NEMO pro­ject.

“I was sur­prised the Con­trol-vi­sion was can­celled,” says Mark. “There had been other mile­stones that we barely made or barely missed and yet the pro­ject had not been can­celled then. Only once we had vir­tu­ally com­pleted ev­ery­thing was the prod­uct shelved.” The Isix team was dis­banded and the em­ploy­ees went their sep­a­rate ways.

Tom bought the rights to the games and stored the as­sets, in­clud­ing the filmed footage, in a ware­house in Rhode Is­land. There they lan­guished, gath­er­ing dust be­fore dis­cus­sions got un­der­way with Nin­tendo in 1991 to port Sewer Shark to its pro­posed new Cd-based Play Sta­tion. Tom cre­ated a new com­pany called Smart TV – swiftly changed to Dig­i­tal Pic­tures – and he ap­proached Mark, Ken, Lodewijk, Anne and Kevin to help him.

“I think Sony was in­ter­ested in us­ing its mas­sive en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness as­sets in in­ter­ac­tive projects, es­pe­cially mu­sic videos, which were still huge in those days of MTV,” re­calls Lodewijk. “The hy­brid na­ture of the medium – of watch­ing a movie pas­sively and play­ing a game in­ter­ac­tively – posed some chal­lenges but we re­ally did some pioneer­ing work in game de­sign.”

Un­for­tu­nately, the plans hit the buf­fers when Nin­tendo fell out with Sony and the Nin­tendo Play Sta­tion was scrapped. But, as luck would have it, Sega was work­ing with CD-ROM for a Mega Drive add-on, con­vinced the for­mat was the fu­ture of gam­ing me­dia. Needing unique con­tent, Sega and Tom be­gan talk­ing. An agree­ment to port the un­re­leased FMV games to the pro­posed Mega-cd was struck.

One of the first tasks was fig­ur­ing out how to work with CD-ROM and this was, as Mark ad­mits, a dif­fi­cult task. “We de­vel­oped a video com­pres­sion al­go­rithm tai­lored to the needs of full-mo­tion video,” he tells us. “We digi­tised and com­pressed all the footage, frame-by-frame but, be­cause CD-ROMS were in their in­fancy at the time, we faced and sur­mounted many tech­ni­cal chal­lenges.” One is­sue was that the Sega CD wasn’t de­signed to dis­play video (“It was far from high def­i­ni­tion,” Mark says). Mak­ing life eas­ier, how­ever, was that footage for the two games was al­ready filmed.

“Kevin Welsh did an awe­some job re­birthing Night Trap for the Mega-cd,” says Lodewijk. Based on the orig­i­nal con­cept by Rob Fu­lop and James Ri­ley, Kevin pro­duced the game along with Ric Lacivita. Mean­while James di­rected it and Lodewijk cre­ated the com­puter graph­ics. Ex­tra footage was shot for the in­tro­duc­tion which ref­er­enced Sega’s prod­ucts and the game was ded­i­cated to Stephen Hassen­feld. “We had to jug­gle the trade-offs re­lat­ing to the length of video, the qual­ity of the image, the user in­ter­face, au­dio and game­play on this tiny CD and that was the main chal­lenge we were fac­ing,” says Lodewijk. “Ini­tially, we ba­si­cally blew our com­peti­tors out of the wa­ter with that tech­nique.”

Sewer Shark was also ported. Pro­duced by Joanne Michels-ben­net and Amanda Lathroum it picked up on Melville’s work and Fu­lop’s orig­i­nal con­cept. “Amanda Lathroum was a Har­vard PHD and she started out as our re­cep­tion­ist when Dig­i­tal Pic­tures was based on Hamil­ton Avenue in Palo Alto,” re­calls Lodewijk, whose own team was re­spon­si­ble for the graph­i­cal user in­ter­face of the games. “She’s in­cred­i­bly smart and she

was the one who re­birthed Sewer Shark, work­ing day and night to re­design the game on a new plat­form from raw movie footage. The video had to be con­verted to a very lim­ited color pal­ette, re­sult­ing in heavy pix­els and band­ing. I think a pal­ette of 16 colours was set aside for the UI and 200 or so for the video.”

Both games sold well and Sewer Shark, with

100,000 sales, was bun­dled with the Mega CD shortly af­ter its North Amer­i­can re­lease in Oc­to­ber 1992. It was a mega tri­umph, gross­ing about $18 mil­lion at re­tail, and a vin­di­ca­tion of Tom’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to make a suc­cess of FMV. Yet trou­ble wasn’t too far away.

Night Trap caught the at­ten­tion of US Se­na­tors. The game was deemed to be ul­tra­vi­o­lent: “In the scene played at the news con­fer­ence, the at­tack­ers get their scream­ing victim and at­tach the blood-drain­ing de­vice to her neck with a high-pitched drilling noise,” a news­pa­per re­ported on 2 De­cem­ber 1993.

Se­na­tor Joseph Lier­ber­man led the is­sue. “We’re not talk­ing Pac-man or Space In­vaders any more,” he said, adding that he would, if pos­si­ble, ban the likes of Night Trap and Mor­tal Kom­bat from be­ing sold. Yet Night Trap wasn’t all that vi­o­lent and nei­ther did it con­tain sex­ual con­tent and nu­dity de­spite such claims. “It was po­lit­i­cal grand­stand­ing,” says Mark. “Most of us thought they were com­i­cal – the game and the politi­cians who called it out as an ex­am­ple of a vi­o­lent videogame.”

Even so, re­tail­ers such as Toys ‘R’ Us and the Kay­bee chain took it off the shelves and Sega de­cided to

the video had to be con­verted to a very lim­ited color pal­ette, re­sult­ing in heavy pix­els and band­ing Lodewijk Coen

pull the game it­self in Jan­u­ary 1994. The game was later rere­leased with new box art and it was also ported to the Sega CD 32X, 3DO, PC and Mac. But the furore had led to the cre­ation of the En­ter­tain­ment Soft­ware Rat­ing Board in Septem­ber 1994 and a mass re­al­i­sa­tion that games were not al­ways aimed at chil­dren.

In the mean­time, Dig­i­tal Pic­tures had ploughed on devel­op­ing new ti­tles, among them a gam­ing se­ries called Make My Video which let play­ers take a song by INXS, Kris Kross, or Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and pro­duce a new mu­sic video for it us­ing preshot clips and ‘snazzy’ spe­cial ef­fects. None of the games sold or in­deed re­viewed very well, leav­ing Dig­i­tal Pic­tures out of pocket. Lodewijk be­lieves the prob­lem was down

to the lim­i­ta­tion of the medium. “Too low-res video, too low-res in­ter­face, an edit­ing timeline with tiny video screens, low-res au­dio – it was a tour de force that we even did this,” he says.

Bet­ter was Dig­i­tal Pic­tures’ sec­ond wave of games, among them Ground Zero: Texas and Dou­ble Switch. Flush with cash from Night Trap and Sewer Shark

(“Our fund­ing came from a com­bi­na­tion of rev­enues and in­vest­ment,” re­veals Mark), Dig­i­tal Pic­tures spent $2 mil­lion mak­ing Ground Zero: Texas, us­ing a full Hol­ly­wood film crew (the game also starred Steve Eastin, who had ap­peared in many TV shows in­clud­ing The A-team and TJ Hooker). “Pro­duc­ing video, in­clud­ing hir­ing tal­ent, was a ma­jor com­po­nent of the cost of our games,” Mark says.

De­spite the large in­vest­ments needed, the com­pany was grow­ing fast. It moved to larger premises on Page Mill Road,palo Alto. “We also worked on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, in the Quadrus cam­pus, sur­rounded by beau­ti­ful na­ture in the foothills and amaz­ing art,” Lodewijk adds. Dig­i­tal Pic­tures had hired around 80 peo­ple at its peak in 1993. “We kept on grow­ing, devel­op­ing new con­cepts and ti­tles,” Lodewijk says.

The com­pany ap­proached its games in much the same way. “Usu­ally we’d start with off-site meet­ings – gath­er­ings in nice re­mote set­tings that were con­ducive to cre­ativ­ity,” Lodewijk re­mem­bers. “Ev­ery­one from the re­cep­tion­ist to chair­man would ac­tively par­tic­i­pate and we’d fil­ter the best con­cepts in a demo­cratic way.” They would then cre­ate con­cept boards (“I some­times hired story board artists es­pe­cially for those jobs,”) and these would be lam­i­nated “af­ter they were colour printed on in­cred­i­bly slow inkjet print­ers”.

“Some­times movie snip­pets were shot, any­thing to make a con­cept as clear as pos­si­ble,” Lodewijk con­tin­ues. “They were then ei­ther taken to pos­si­ble in­vestors or tested on fu­ture au­di­ences via fo­cus groups.” Some of this was done in-house. “We had great tal­ent on staff like Cuyler Gee who I col­lab­o­rated with for so many years,” Lodewijk re­mem­bers. Steve Rus­sell also took a job at Dig­i­tal Pic­tures. “He had a great game sense and he was a good de­vel­op­ment man­ager,” Mark ex­plains.

That said, some of the games retrod themes from Dig­i­tal Pic­tures’ games. Dou­ble Switch was very sim­i­lar to Night Trap, for in­stance, hav­ing play­ers study cam­eras to avoid or set traps (I briefly met Deb­o­rah Harry on the set,” Lodewijk says). But oth­ers were rather unique. “Prize Fighter was rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” ar­gues Mark of a black and white FMV game that had gamers play­ing as The Kid from a first-per­son per­spec­tive, fight­ing in the ring against var­i­ous op­po­nents.

“I just re­mem­ber focusing on how the graphic over­lays, sprites and in­ter­face would work with the film­ing to get a ‘nat­u­ral’ ef­fect,” says Lodewijk. “For Prize Fighter, I had to go to the movie set in or­der to help film the box­ing gloves for the first per­son pointof-view box­ing moves. Those were shot sep­a­rately on a green screen, to be ex­tracted later and turned in to sprite over­lays for the POV fight­ing scenes. The idea was for the player to feel that he was re­ally fight­ing the op­po­nent which was dif­fer­ent to, say, Street Fighter where you fought side­ways.”

» [Mega-cd] Mid­night Raiders was as Nineties Hol­ly­wood as it could be, com­plete with exploding chop­pers.

» [Mega-cd] The key to beating Prize Fighter was press­ing the right but­ton at the right time.

» Stick the Mega-cd disc of a Dig­i­tal Pic­tures track two to hear a record­ing game into an au­dio player and se­lect of a zom­bie-like chant. Then play it back­wards.

» [Mega-cd] The vi­o­lence in Night Trap was not as bad as some peo­ple made out.

demo of Scene Of ex­ec­u­tives watch­ing the NEMO » This video clip of Has­bro Trap as an Easter egg. The Crime ap­peared in Night

» [Mega-cd] Sewer Shark was a rail shooter that was bun­dled with the Mega-cd and later ported to the 3DO.

» [Saturn] Jeremiah Bir­kett played Win­ston in Corpse Killer. in movies in­clud­ing LA Con­fi­den­tial. He’s since starred

» [Mega-cd] The writ­ing and act­ing in Night Trap was rather cheesy but the game was in­no­va­tive to a point.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.