Hi, folks! Here’s the playlist and transcript for my interview with John Cutter. Enjoy, and thanks for supporting Matt Chat!
Matt: Hi, folks. I am here with the great John Cutter, Employee #1 at a company called CinemaWare, which I’m sure you’ve heard of if you had an Amiga when you were growing up. He’s worked on classics such as Defender of the Crown, TV Sports, and one of my favorites, King of Chicago. He’s also worked for New World Computing and Dynamix, where he was lead designer on Betrayal of Krondor. He’s also served nine years as the creative director at Big Fish games. How are you doing today, John?
John: I’m doing just great, Matt, thanks.
Matt: So I was wondering, you know, we talked a little about this, but what sort of projects do you have in the pipeline? You know, what’s in your future?
John: Well, I actually left Big Fish games just recently, and I’m currently taking a little bit of a break from game development and hoping to get back into it pretty soon. I’m actually considering working overseas. I think that would be kind of a fun adventure at this point in my life.
Matt: So do you have any plans to launch one of these Kickstarters and resurrect a title?
John: I – you know – actually Neal and I had thought about that for Betrayal of Krondor. Unfortunately the rights for Ray’s universe were tied up by some other company, so we weren’t able to make that happen.
Matt: You can always go back to Antara, huh?
John: Yeah, I don’t know if you heard the whole story on that. It was kind of interesting. Did – did – maybe in Neal’s interview some of that came out?
Matt: Maybe. I’m sure it’s something I would have asked about, but I’d always be happy to hear your side of it, too.
John: Well, my side of the story is that we launched Betrayal of Krondor. It was initially not a huge seller for Dynamix. And then they did a CD-ROM version of the game as we were starting kind of a sequel. I pitched the sequel and a budget to Tony Reyneke who was the CEO at the time, and unfortunately Tony didn’t like how much the sequel was going to cost, and he fired me. So, the CD-ROM version went ahead, we finished – er, the company finished that up and launched it, and all of a sudden, Betrayal of Krondor started winning, you know, FRP of the Year Award and Game of the Year awards, and I think, I think before that happened, I think Ray went to Sierra and said, hey, can we, you know, kind of get the rights back? And they said, “Yeah, you know, we’re not planning to do more sequels, we’re not planning to do anything else with it, so, yeah, we’ll give you the rights back.” And then the game went out and started selling like hot cakes and started winning all these awards, the company tried to hire me back, but I had already started somewhere else.
Matt: (chuckles) Somebody had to eat some crow over that, I’m sure.
John: Yeah, yeah. In the mean time, Ray took the rights to his universe and made Return to Krondor with a company called Seventh Level, and, Sierra – Sierra Dynamix said, hey, well, we want to make a sequel as well, but we don’t have the Krondor license anymore, so we’re going to take the word Betrayal, and we’re going to do Betrayal in Antara, and it was – both of those games were made with completely different teams from the original title. Although Neal and I did consult a little bit with Seventh Level on Return to Krondor, which was a lot of fun.
Matt: Alright. Well, let’s talk about your – your early days, John.
Matt: I was reading some stories, found some other interviews, and of course looking at your – that really nice, what did you call it, the portfolio? I guess that you –
John: Eh. Portfolio, blog, website –
Matt: Huh, blogolio – (chuckles) that you put together there. I was kind of interested – I wanted to hear a little bit more about these Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that you would run. I was – I read that you liked to play the game but I guess when you were playing, you kept thinking to yourself, I’d rather been making my own rules, and you know, making my own sort of role playing game system. Have you always had that – that sort of itch? You know, you play a game, and somewhere you’re burning to stop playing and start making? I mean – (chuckles)
John: Oh, it’s terrible –
Matt: – are they opposing forces?
John: Yeah, no. It’s terrible, actually, because I can’t enjoy games anymore. If I’m playing a game that’s just sort of mediocre, I’ll play it and I’ll finish it, but if I’m really, really enjoying the game, I get so inspired I don’t want to play anymore. I want to go make something of my own. And yeah, we used to that with Dungeons & Dragons back in the days. I was in love with the idea behind Dungeons & Dragons, but when I first heard about it, it was just, it was this whole idea of playing a game, you know, with your friends, kind of in your head, and you’re making up, you know, in my mind, we’re sort of making up some of the rules as we go along, and it involved this fantastic, kind of role-playing adventure, but when I actually tried to play the game, I realized there was this great big thick rule book, and tons and tons of stats and numbers, and I was not as much into that as I was into the creative part of it.
So I just kind of came up with my own rules: I simplified things a bit. I remember thinking it was more fun to sort of let players roll the dice, rather than sort of rolling it behind a screen, and I know that some of the newer role playing games actually I think would do that. I would tell my friends, “Oh my gosh, you’ve just, – you’ve fallen into a pit, and to escape the pit, you need to look at your dexterity, and you need to roll a 7 or higher on these two dice. And then I would give them the dice, so there was kind of this dramatic moment where they’re shaking the dice, and then – (gasps) – “Yes, I got a nine!” and they’d be real excited, rather than me sort of quietly saying, “Ok. You’ve climbed out of the pit.”
Matt: Yeah, I think your way sounds a lot better to me. Do you remember any of those stories you created or any of the campaigns?
John: Not really. You know, I always loved the puzzles. That was kind of a favorite part of mine. And I think it was actually those puzzles that inspired the locked chests in Betrayal of Krondor because I loved riddles, and I was trying to figure out a good way to get riddles into the game, and we had talked at one point about possibly doing a console version, of Betrayal, and I thought, I can’t do a riddle if we’re going to have console. You don’t want to be typing something in with the controller. And that’s when I thought, what if we put the answer to the riddle on little tumblers and then allow people to just tap on those little tumblers and the side benefit of that is – I think riddles are kind of a binary thing. You either, you know, you think about it for a second and you either get it, or you don’t get it. And if you don’t get it, there’s not really, you know, unless someone’s willing to give you clues, there’s no help. There’s nothing you can sort of figure out or puzzle out on your own. And fortunately, with our lock chests, players could actually kind of see what the letters were, and at least start – kind of start to get an idea of what the answer might be.
Matt: Hmm. Yeah, I’ll never forget, that’s probably the only role playing game that my wife would come in and ask me to play. She’s like, “Can’t you play that game again, the one with those chests?” You know what it was? I’d be playing along, and I’d get to the chests, and, you know, I would just say, “Hey, come in here,” and she’d sit down and figure this out, and sometimes she’d spend, you know, hours – well, I don’t know about hours, but, anyway, you know, a lot of time trying to guess that, and that was – I thought it was kind of neat.
John: We heard that story so many times. You know, I’d be out at a store or something, and someone would find out I’d designed Betrayal of Krondor, and I can’t tell you how many times somebody would say, “Oh my god, my – my wife, every time she heard the puzzle music come on, she would run in from the other room, and we would sit there together and try to solve the riddles.” But that – that was interesting. It was fun.
Matt: Yeah, It’s a lot of fun. I was also reading that one of your favorite games is M.U.L.E., and I was wondering kind of what you liked about it but also if you had ever met the designer of that game, Danielle Bunten-Berry.
John: Yes. I did get to meet Dani once. It was at a GDC, and somebody that knew her was coming out of – I was with them, and Dani was coming out of the conference. And I saw her and he said, “Do you want me to introduce you?” And I was like, “Yes, please” and so we got to chat for a few minutes and, of course, I probably just sounded like a raving fanboy and didn’t make much of an impression, but – Yeah, M.U.L.E. was a great game. And I’ve told people in the past that M.U.L.E. was really the game that convinced my dad that game development was really a viable career. He was, you know – I was a senior in college, was studying radio and television broadcasting communications, but I was spending most of my time playing games, designing games, thinking about games, and my dad used to get kind of angry at me that I was not focusing on, on, you know, my career, and thinking more about the, the stupid games. And they were out visiting us, for Christmas, and –
Matt: What did your dad do? Just, I wanted to –
John: He was a petroleum engineer, pretty conservative guy. Is. Well, he’s still alive. He was a petroleum engineer. He, they were visiting – My parents were visiting for Christmas, and my wife had picked up a copy of M.U.L.E. for the Commodore 64, and I had somehow convinced all – all three of them to play. And so we sat down on the couch, the four of us – my mom, my dad, and my wife and I – and we played that game for hours. Hours and hours, and just laughed. We would, we would cry, we were laughing so hard. My mom had a hard time controlling the mules, trying to get them into the pub and into the little areas where you would, you would outfit them, and, you know, she would “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” And yeah, we had a great time. And my dad never gave me a hard time about game development after that. I think he finally got it. He understood why I liked games so much.
Matt: Yeah, I remember with that game, you always had that little race at the end to get back to the gambling. What was it – the pub?
John: The pub, yeah.
Matt: The pub before the timer ran out. It’s such a great game. You know, I don’t think, to my knowledge, it’s never really been remade.
Matt: I guess people try, but just, none of the remakes I’ve played have really lived up to the – lived up to it.
John: No, they never capture the magic of that original game. Even simple things like the fun music as the characters would march back in and climb up the screen, and you could see who was winning. And it was just – it was magical. It was genius game design.
Matt: So, I guess, playing M.U.L.E. is, is that what got you interested in programming computers? I guess you had a Commodore 64 that you were learning to program on, right?
John: I did. My very first computer was a Timex Sinclair 1000 with a little chiclet keypad, and I taught myself to program in BASIC on that, and I started writing little games for my friends and I, but it only had 2k of RAM in it, and I was running out of room, so I went out and spent $49.99 on a 16k RAM expansion unit, which was about this big, and I plugged it into the back, and I never ran out of room after that. Sixteen thousand bytes. I couldn’t believe how much memory that was. Of course, now that’s a JPEG on a website about that big.
Matt: So, what was it about the Commodore 64 that attracted your interest?
John: Ah, I think it was just, it felt like a serious computer compared to the Timex, which was very small and hard to type on. The Commodore had a real keyboard. Of course, it had sprites, it had better graphics. It was just an all-around better system. Although, when we first bought it, we didn’t have the disk drive, we just had the little cassette tape recorder, so it would take about 20 minutes to load and save anything that I was playing or working on.
Matt: Yeah, I can’t imagine what that would have been like, trying to program, having to wait – (chuckles) – so much. I guess you had plenty of time to make coffee or something.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Matt: I’m just trying to ima – how old were you at this point?
John: Let’s see. I was a senior in college when I bought the Timex Sinclair 1000. I graduated, again, with a degree in radio and television broadcasting, and I got a job as a disc jockey at a radio station in Ventura County, California. I went to school at Pepperdine in Southern California, and I was working the midnight shift, and it was a boring, boring, boring job. When I was in high school, I worked at a radio station, right out of high school. I just lucked into a job, and I could do voices, I was writing little, you know, scripts and stories, and could play whatever music I wanted within certain guidelines. Just had a great time. and then I went, finished my school, got a job, out of college now. And my first job was at this station midnight to six, all the music was on big reel-to-reel tapes. So I would – I would put on a reel, hit a button, play three songs, then I would switch that tape out for another one, play three songs on that one, and every now and then I would say, “Rock KSTAR FM 96,” and that was my job all night long.
John: And that was the point where I actually got into computers and computer games. Unfortunately, I would come home at about 6:30, 7:00 in the morning, have breakfast with my wife. She’d head off to work and send me off to bed, but I would get up and start playing with the computer and messing around with it, totally lose track of time. It’d be about 3:30, and I’d go, “Oh my gosh, I gotta get back to bed,” and I’d run, jump back into bed. She’d come home at 5:30, thinking I’d been asleep all day, would wake me up so we could have dinner together, and then I would drive in at 11:00 at night, back to the radio station, and would be falling asleep on my way into work. That’s how bad it was.
Matt: I’m just impressed that you taught yourself machine programming – er, machine language on that thing. I mean, that – that seems like a pretty serious undertaking.
John: Yeah, I was, I was quite proud of myself. There was a company in Santa Barbara called Gamestar, and I was talking to those guys about a little tool that I was working on that would allow you to redesign character sets and then place them down on the screen, so you could make scrolling games that way. They were gonna publish – possibly publish that tool, and then decided, you know what? I went out one day, and they said, We don’t want to publish this after all. We’d like to use it internally, and we’d like to hire you as a junior programmer for $27,500 a year, and I just about had a heart attack.
Matt: (chuckles) Was that more than you were making as a DJ?
John: I was making $400 a month as a DJ.
John: Yeah. It does not pay well. So yeah, I was – I was thrilled. And that was kind of my entry into the games industry.
Matt: So who were you working with at Gamestar? Anybody that we would recognize?
John: Troy Linden, who went on to work with Ele-, He – . Let’s see. He was involved with John Madden, football games. He was at a company with a guy named Mike Knox called Park Place Productions, and they did a – they did a bunch of work. I think they were entrepreneurs of the year or something there for a while. Scott Orr was actually the guy that started Gamestar, and he went to Electronic Arts, and I think was kind of one of the major players in their sports division.
Matt: So, when you were at Gamestar, you were making games like Star Rank Boxing, GBA Championship Basketball, sports games. I think you had said somewhere that you and your dad liked to watch a lot of sports.
Matt: So it wasn’t like you were coming into this (chuckles) – I’ve talked to people before that worked on sports games, and they had never even – they didn’t know anything about the sport going into it, but (chuckles) it sounds like that wasn’t the case with you.
John: Ehhhh – I knew a little bit about sports. I was not – I don’t think you would – anybody would hire me today to work on sports designs, other than golf. I was, I was a golfer on our college team, and I still play from time to time, but not as much as I used to. I watched football. That was one of my favorite memories when I was a kid, watching Monday Night Football with my dad, you know, with Andy Don Meredith and Howard Cosell and, those – those were some great memories. So I knew a little bit about football, but not a lot. Yeah, Gamestar was a strange company. They had this niche back when people didn’t really need or have niches. They just did sports games.
Matt: Did they do pretty well?
John: I think they did ok. And then they got bought out by Activision, and that’s when I left the company, and shortly after that is when I started at CinemaWare.
Matt: What happened after Activision bought ’em?
John: I think I actually wound up getting laid off. I don’t think – I was running product development, basically, at Gamestar, and they had people at Activision to do that. So I went off and I heard about this guy Bob Jacob who was a – trying to become a software agent – and I pitched a game to him, and he made a bunch of promises about how excited he was he was going to sell it, and then nothing really came of that. And then a few months later, eh, maybe six months later, he called me up, and he said, “Hey, I’ve started this new company. I want to hire you. I want you to be the guy,” and I was, like, “Yeah, I don’t know.” And he said, “Oh, well, just come talk to me. Just come talk to us.” So I thought, “Well, alright. That can’t hurt anything.”
So I talked to my wife, and my wife was very skeptical. Bob kinda had a reputation for being kind of a player a little bit. I mean, a lot of talk, but not a lot of action, and she was concerned, quite concerned, actually, about me taking the job ’cause she just didn’t know if he had the right reputation and wasn’t really gonna go anywhere. And so I – I – we went down there, and Bob let us in – they actually had an office, which was nice – and Bob led us into a little room, a little dark room, and he took out a floppy disk and put in an Amiga, and I had not seen an Amiga up to that point. He put the floppy disk in, and after a few seconds – he turned the lights out – after a few seconds, the Defender of the Crown title screen came up. You know, with the light sweeping across the metallic letters, and I had never seen anything like that before. And I am not kidding: within half a second, my wife leaned over to me and whispered, “Take the job.” And I did.
Matt: So is your wife a gamer? Or –
John: She is!
Matt: Did she do any computer work at that point?
John: No, she actually did some voices for us at CinemaWare. I think she might have been the love interest in Rocket Ranger. She does like to play games. She’ll play the same stuff that I do other than more hard core first person shooter type games. But we play MMOs together. She plays a lot of casual games. So I’m kind of fortunate that way. I know a lot of people out there their significant other isn’t a gamer, and it’s kind of tough sometimes.
Matt: Yeah, that can make it tough sometimes. So tell me a little bit more about this reaction you had, I mean, it’s just a title screen. It might be hard for people today to really appreciate, you know, the shock you must have had. What was it about it that just mesmerized you?
John: Well, you have to remember that state-of-the-art back then was, you know, Apple IIE and Atari 400, Atari 800, Commodore 64 graphics, which were very limited in colors, and I think the pixel density was a lot less than the Amiga, and even people that were making some of the early Amiga games were using the same artists that they were using for their Apples and Commodore titles. And a lot of those guys were just programmers that, that kinda knew how to draw. Jim Sachs was, I mean I’ve been in the industry making games for 32 years, making games, and there were only a few people I’ve met that I can just flat out say, “That guy was a genius,” and Jim Sachs was definitely one of those guys. The art work that he did at the time for Defender, it was just – there was nothing like it at the time. I mean, it was – it was a beautiful image anyway, even without the light sweeping across the metal letters, but the sum of all of that – the stones in the background and every – again, I had just never seen anything like that before. I was blown away. So was my wife.
Matt: Yeah, I just remember how beautiful the castles and everything were in that game. I was thinking, at the time, you mentioned, it was the first time you’d seen an Amiga. I remember around the time we got our Amiga 1000, my neighbor, he had some type of PC that he had spent thousands of dollars on and he was just – he was just blown away by the fact that his PC had color. You know, it was like EGA graphics, and he was showing me games like Police Quest and Leisure Suit Larry. And I brought him over, and like, “Look, I’ve got something I want you to see.” So he came in, and I put in Defender of the Crown, and we just watched the whole title, you know, the whole title sequence, and I could tell he thought that I was trying to pull one over on him somehow, like maybe I had a VCR connected to it or something. I mean, he just could not believe that box was putting those graphics onto the screen.
John: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. But I do that now. I can’t remember which game I was playing, but I was playing a role playing game not too long ago, and I stopped moving for a minute because I was in this really beautiful area, and the lighting was incredible, and the trees, and the buildings and the characters, and I sat there and just looked at the, essentially the still image for a second, and I thought, “It wasn’t that long ago that if somebody had told me that that was just a digital painting that somebody had done, I would have been blown away. But it wasn’t a digital painting. It was actually 3D modeled, and I could move through that world. And it just – it just boggled my mind. It’s incredible how far we’ve come.
Matt: I hope one day, I can get Sachs onto this program to talk to him because you know, I do think that there’s some – I don’t know what to call it exactly – a, his spirit, I guess, or his sort of character comes through in his artwork. I mean, yeah, it’s pixelated, but I still consider it to be art.
Matt: I mean, I could take any of those paintings – I guess you could call them paintings (laughs) – that he did for those games, and put it ’em up in my house somewhere and admire it.
John: Yeah, it was – it was amazing. He actually got started, I think, on the Commodore 64 doing art. And rather than using an art tool – and I don’t remember what people were using at the time. Of course, we used Electronic Art’s Speed Paint, which was a phenomenal tool, but there was another art tool that people used to use. And it didn’t give him enough control over the pixels and the colors and everything, so he actually took a piece of graph paper and wrote down every single pixel, what color he wanted it to be and what, you know, how it related to the surrounding colors and pixels, and that’s how he did some of his early art, which, even on the Commodore 64 was pretty incredible.
Matt: Well, here’s a question – and I think I know the answer to this, but one of my viewers named Thamer wrote in – I told him I was interviewing you – he wants to know: What was your favorite computer back in these days?
John: Well, obviously, it had to have been the Amiga. That was, you know, that was – I think if the Amiga had taken off, I think CinemaWare would have survived obviously a lot longer than it did because we really got that machine. I mean, it just – it gave us, it gave us so many tools to work with, you know, the sprites and, you know, the audio. For the time, it was revolutionary.
Matt: What was it like working on Defender of the Crown? I mean, you talked about it a little bit already. I just think how seminal that title was for the Amiga. You know, I’m guessing there must have been quite a bit of excitement around development for it.
John: Yeah, it was, it was pretty amazing. And I think, actually, most of the CES shows we would go to for the next two or three years after that, people would come and see us from all the other game companies. It was a kind of special stop to come into our booth, and to come into our meeting room to see what we were doing now. We were the company that everybody kind of wanted to be. And it really, you know, I – the gameplay in some of those early titles was not great. A lot of it was just the presentation and the art I think that made them as successful as they were. And Defender in particular, it was just kind of magical how it all kind of – it came together. The programming – when I joined the team, the art was amazing. Jim’s, you know, art that he was working on was fantastic. He had some great music that was also being done. The design from Kellyn Beck was coming along – it was looking really fantastic. But the code was, was kind of in trouble, and at the last minute, Bob and I kind of said, we’ve been promising that this game is going to be done on this date, it’s got to get done. It’s not going to happen with this company that we’re using, so Bob went out and found RJ Michael, who was one of the guys who actually designed the Amiga, and RJ said, “Yeah, I can finish the game for you in three months.” And he did, but it was, it was a struggle. I remember Kellyn actually flew out to be with him, to work with him a little more closely, and you know, give him disks because, of course, the internet wasn’t around, so whenever Jim would finish some artwork, he would put it in a FedEx envelope, drive it to the airport, and I remember him telling me these horror stories that he’d be up, you know, for like 20 hours working and would drive to the airport to drop this thing off to try to get it to FedEx on time, and on the way there, all of a sudden, he wasn’t seeing the road and trees, he was just seeing pixels.
John: It’s a true story. it’s – I think he almost had a nervous breakdown working on that game, worked on it so hard. But anyway, he –
Matt: This would make a great documentary.
John: Yeah, yeah. He would deliver this stuff to Kellyn. Kellyn would drive it over to RJ’s place, and RJ was so concerned about being distracted, he would stand on the other side of the door, and he would say, “Feed it through the door.” And Kellyn would feed it through the door, and then they would chat at the door for a few minutes, and then he would say, “Ok. I’m done.” And then he’d go back, and would keep working. But he got it done. He finished it all.
Matt: That definitely fits the profile of the eccentric genius, I guess.
John: Oh, yeah. Yeah, RJ’s another guy who’s obviously, really, really brilliant.
Matt: Lots of masterminds around this product. When I talked to Bob Jacob, I had him – I don’t know, it’s been a while. I don’t – must have been about 2011, I guess. But he said when you were making this game, you wanted it – you wanted it to be somewhat like the board game Risk?
John: Mmhmm. Yeah, that was, Bob and Kellyn, I think, were kind of the principle guys behind that. Kellyn, actually, his original design, his original plan was to make what would perhaps have been the first real-time strategy game. Through most of the development with RJ, everything was happening in real time, and I think we were coming down to the final month, and we were having all kinds of strange issues, like, a dialog box would pop up on the screen, and you’d get ready to click something, and then something would happen in real time in the game, and the dialog box would go away, and I just thought we are never going to fix all of these issues, and I stepped in as the producer and made the call, “We cannot do a real-time game. It’s just too complicated. We’ve got to turn it into a turn-based game, which was maybe a little closer to their original vision of a kind of a Risk-style, a Risk-style kind of adventure. But yeah, I made that call, and I always felt a little bad about it.
Matt: I’m trying to imagine how it would have worked as a real-time game. I mean, that’d be quite a different experience, I’m sure.
John: Oh, yeah. As you were making your, taking your turns and making your moves, the enemies were also moving into territory, and they weren’t waiting for you to finish. They would – though I think there was probably timers. And after a period of time, they would take over an adjacent territory, for example. And, it didn’t matter what you were doing at the time. It could happen, you know, whenever they were kind of ready to do it. But yeah, it just – it complicated things a lot.
Matt: I’ve got a copy of it. I don’t know if you can see it back here. (chuckles) I remember one of the things that Bob talked about: he had a thing for chesty women. I think was how he (laughs) –
John: Oh, yeah.
Matt: That’s how he put that. Do you have any feedback on the box?
John: (chuckles) no comment. (chuckles)
Matt: I mean, it’s really slick, though, with the popcorn inside. I mean, this was – I remember the excitement with this game ’cause we had just got our Amiga 1000, brand new computer. I rushed out, everyone was talking about this game. You get it, you opened it up, the box – it’s just so cool! You know, you can’t wait to play this, and then it blows you – You know, it actually, it actually manages to live up to all the hype, which is, incredibly rare. Hey, there’s a picture of – looks like Kellyn, there.
Matt: Do you have your picture in here somewhere that I might have missed? (chuckles)
John: Don’t remember if it’s in there or not. Yeah, that was exciting. It’s, it’s a little hard, I think, in the climate today – as I was kind of thinking about some of our early CinemaWare games, and we definitely had a knights in shining armor, you know, rescue the damsel in distress kind of a plan for all of those games. That was sort of our modus operandi. But now it just sort of feels like digital misogyny. It’s kind of hard to think about some of those games.
Matt: I was wondering if you had a favorite damsel.
John: Favorite damsel. I guess I’m still kind of partial to the, the – I don’t remember any names – the blonde woman in Defender, I think, was always one of my favorites. I don’t know if we were –
Matt: Let’s see. There was a blonde, brunette, redhead, and a – are there, is there three or four?
John: I think there were three. I don’t – I don’t recall.
Matt: Were those based on real women, or were those just Jim’s creations?
John: I think they were just his creations. I don’t think he based them on anybody, but I’m not positive about that. We – did you play SDI?
Matt: I have played that one. I’m not nearly as familiar with it as the other ones, I’ll have to admit.
John: Yeah, probably not one of our better games, but, talking about damsels, I remember there was a sequence in that game where you would have to invade a Russian space station that had been attacking. That was back in the late 80s when all this was happening. And there was a scene that, with a, with a female Russian cosmonaut, where they would – as they did in Defender of the Crown – they would come together and embrace, and then after that, he would hop into – the main character would hop into his space ship and take off. And as a joke, the artists, after that scene happened, had put in, like, this big red lipstick mark on his cheek and ruffled his collar, and, and put a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. and they forgot that it was in there. They put it in there to surprise me, and I hadn’t been testing the game for a while, and we almost launched with it.
Matt: (chuckles) It would have been pretty cool to leave it in!
John: It was a little terrifying. At the time, it would have been – doesn’t sound that bad now, I think, with the way games have evolved, but at the time, I think that would have been a little too much.
Matt: Yeah, I was sort of curious about that. I was reading about Sinbad – I know I’m kind of skipping around here a little bit – some of the stuff about Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon. I was reading a review of that, and I guess, I don’t know if it was you guys doing it, but it seemed like there was an effort to say, “Look, this is an adult game.” Not necessarily pornographic, but just, you know intended for – it’s not for kids, right? I mean, was that sort of a vibe that was going on at CinemaWare? Quit thinking of games as being just for kids, and let’s cater to an older audience?
John: Yeah, I think we definitely were trying to, to appeal to an older, more sophisticated crowd with our games. And again, a lot of that was Bob’s inspiration – Bob and Phyllis, who – who co-founded the company together. Bob was always in the movies, and he really wanted to kind of bring that cinematic feel to games. In fact, I remember one of the things that really inspired him before he even got into the computer games business was – he was working on a terminal at the library, and there was a kid, I think next to him playing Wizardry. And he had lost, I guess he had gone down into the dungeon and got killed, and I – if I remember right, you could lose characters permanently in that game. And he lost this character, and started crying –
John: – right there in the library. And just tears were running down his cheeks, and Bob thought, “Wow! If games can affect people emotionally like that, that’s a business that I want to be a part of. I mean, again, he wanted to tell cinematic stories.
Matt: It’s amazing how often in these interviews Wizardry comes up. I mean, that title – I don’t know what the landscape would look like without it.
Matt: So what about this Three Stooges game? I remember that – I remember, I remember that game was very difficult. That’s mainly what I remember about that game. At least for me. (chuckles) I don’t know if – somebody else breezed through it. I guess I read the idea for that somewhere was that you wanted to make it like a board game?
John: Yeah, that was really the inspiration. my friends and I used to play Life. I grew up in Wyoming, and summers in Wyoming can get kind of hot sometimes, and we had a very cool basement, and we would go down there on hot summer days, and my mom would bring us popsicles, and – another one of my favorite childhood memories. And one of the games we liked to play was Life. And I was trying to think of ways to incorporate all these different components and – the things that sort of made the Three Stooges the Three Stooges, you know, the punching and slapping, and some of the crazy adventures they had. I thought maybe, maybe the board game Life would kind of suit that as kind of a structure. So that’s, yeah, that’s kind of how the Three Stooges came about.
Matt: Were you a big fan of the Three Stooges?
John: I was not a huge fan. By the end of the project, though, I definitely was a fan. And that’s happened with several things over the course of my career, including Wings. When Bob told me he wanted me to design a World War I flight simulator, I just thought, I don’t know anything about World War I, I’m not a history buff, I’ve never played a flight simulator, don’t know anything about ’em. So, yeah, that – but – in working on these games, I always get extremely passionate about the subject matter. Stooges and Wings were no exception.
Matt: You know, that’s amazing. Yeah, Wings – I was just playing the remake a while, earlier today. I don’t know if you’ve – Have you played that? The remastered edition?
John: A little, a little bit. Yeah.
Matt: How do you feel about that?
John: I think it’s good. It’s always kind of hard to go back. And I, you’re never quite sure, do you want to cater to the crowd that remembers the original game and loved it, or do you want to try to do something kind of new and modern, kind of give it a fresh, fresh spin, and finding the right balance there is incredibly difficult. I think, I think they did a good job.
Matt: Yeah, I always loved Wings. I think I played it two or three times on the Amiga. I liked the way that – I always enjoyed the character in that and the, the sort of the way the, all the – everything kind of, (chuckles) I guess the story line. You know, I really got into the – It sort of had a unique feel to it. It really did feel like some – what I would imagine anyway – a World War I pilot must have felt like. I don’t think – it’s almost hard to believe that you didn’t know anything about this. But I guess I was reading you and Ken Goldstein, you got access to some kind of archive –
Matt: – with like old photos and stuff? Oh, that’s true?
John: Actually, what – what really happened with Wings is that after, you know, and some of the early CinemaWare games were things that I – you know, I came up with the original concept for, my ideas, but in that case, Bob actually did walk in one day and said, “Hey, I’ve got this guy who does 3D games. I want to – I think we should do a World War I flight simulator, and I need you to design it.” (groans)
John: I went to the library because this was pre-internet. You couldn’t really do research, there was no way to do research on the internet. I drove to the library, you know, kind of slamming the car door – I wasn’t very happy about it – and I found some books in the library about World War I pilots. You know, Manfred von Richthofen and the Red Baron, Albert Ball, Eddie Rickenbacker, bunch of those guys. And I started reading some of their stories, and within half an hour, I was completely hooked. I mean, these guys – the airplane had not been, had only been invented, like, 15-20 years before World War I, and it was still this brand new, crazy thing that, you know, people were crazy enough to go up in the sky, and they’re not only going up in the sky, they’re actually shooting at each other! And I just got totally – I mean, I was so into the stories I was reading that when I drove home that night, I could picture the cars coming at me on the freeway as airplanes that were attacking. It would – yeah, it was phenomenal, some of those – some of those stories. And I really wanted to capture that in the game. I wanted people to understand what it must have felt like to be a pilot back in World War I, which is why why I wanted to do the diary as a way to sort of do a narrative.
Matt: Yeah, it worked perfectly.
John: Well, good.
Matt: I still get goosebumps from that sort of opening cinematic, with Wright, was it Orville Wright, I guess, the inventors of the airplane. It just looks so crude and everything, barely lifts off the ground, and then (chuckles) like a minute later, you see the, you know, the World War I airplanes. I mean, it must have – it’s one of those things I struggle to try to imagine what it must have been like and how revolutionary it really was.
John: Exactly. And as you mentioned earlier, Ken, Ken and I when we were putting the manual together – and, you know, I wanted to do a really nice manual. And I can’t remember how it came about, but we, we found out about these archives in San Diego, I think. It was some sort of a museum –
Matt: The Air and Space Archives.
John: Yes. And we actually got the rights to go down there and use some of their photographs and read through some of the books. And it’s, it’s, – it was a private archive, at least the section we were in, so that was a real treat.
Matt: That’s pretty neat. So they weren’t bothered that, “Yeah, we’re just, we’re making a game.”
John: No, not at all.
Matt: (chuckles)They probably thought it was cool, huh? (chuckles)
John: Yeah, and I think they could tell, you know, how excited Ken and I were about the subject matter, I think that probably helped.
Matt: I just wanted to briefly mention Sinbad and the Throne of the Falcon. I had Peter Oliphant on –
John: Oh, great!
Matt: – back in 2012. I was, I was kind of wondering, you know, a little bit about that. How did that – how did things go with Peter at CinemaWare?
John: Things went well with Peter. He was always a very creative, funny guy. I don’t know if you played TV Sports Football, but he, he and I, and I think it was mostly Peter, came up with a bunch of the ads. We had funny little ads like, “In and Out Brake Service: We won’t slow you down,” and that kind of thing. And Peter came up with a lot of those. So he was, he was fun. And we’re still pretty good friends. He’s, he’s a great guy to work with. The original designer and programmer, and kind of the one triple threat guy, was Bill Williams, the guy who did the original Sinbad for the Amiga. He was –
Matt: Bill Williams.
Matt: He’s not the Bill who – Is he the one who did MindWalker?
John: Might have been. I know he did a game called, I think, Alley Cat? Yeah, that might have been his game, too. I’m not, not sure. But he was, he was a really, really nice guy. Lived in a geodesic dome in Minnesota or somewhere, and just a very gentle, you know, he was one of those guys that every time you would talk to him, you would come away in a better mood.
Matt: Hmm. One of my favorites, I mean this – I like a lot of the CinemaWare games, as you can probably tell by now, but King of Chicago! You know, it doesn’t seem like people talk about the game as much as I think they should (chuckles). I mean, I really love this thing. I really like the whole gangster 30s, you know. It’s just kind of a favorite era of mine to look at. And it seems to me, thinking back on it that it really seemed pretty far ahead of its time. And now, of course, we’ve got Grand Theft Auto – that, that sort of thing. I think there’s even one of those Grand Theft Auto games that is set sort of in the 30s. Film noir, can’t think of the name of it off the top of my head. (chuckles) Can’t believe I can’t think of it.
John: LA Noir?
Matt: Yeah, that’s it. That’s it. Yeah, that one kind of reminded me of King of Chicago.
John: Mmhmm. Yeah, King of Chicago was an interesting game. It was originally developed on the Macintosh.
Matt: On the Macintosh? Why was it, why? Why? (chuckles)
John: I, I don’t remember exactly. A guy named Doug Sharpe came up with that game. He programmed it, did all the writing for it. he was a big Macintosh fan, and, yeah, the black and white Macintosh is, is the first place that we actually launched that game. We redid it later, improved the graphics with Rob Landeros who went on to do Seventh Guest and a bunch of those games with Graham Divine. I think he did a lot of the art, he was the art director at the time. So we redid it all, but I think it lost a little bit when we ported it over. The original version had these very -0 I think they were clay heads. I think Doug was actually modeling all the characters with clay, and then actually digitizing them and animating them into the computer.
John: Yeah, onto the computer. They were very crude, crude looking characters. You know? And I remember we hired a marketing guy at CinemaWare, and I remember having a conversation with him, and I said, “King of Chicago is this awesome little gem of a game. Why aren’t we spending more of our marketing dollars on that? Why are we spending all of our marketing money on Defender of the Crown, which everybody already knows about. We’re getting tons of press coverage, we’re getting – “ and I remember he just kind of shook his head and said, “You just don’t get marketing, do you?” And I kind of understand that now. At the time, it didn’t make sense to me. But I think, again, the thinking was, if we can spend a million dollars on marketing to get something from 100,000 units to 300,000 units, it’s better than getting something from 15,000 units to, you know, 45,000.
Matt: I always wonder with that game if there had been plans to actually have voice actors do all the dialog. Because I mean, it seems like that would be ideal.
John: Yeah, I think it needed that. There was too much dialog, and the disks were, you know, we didn’t have a lot of room with all the graphics and everything to have a lot of voices in there. but yeah, I think that definitely would have benefited the game.
Matt: Yeah, that’s a good one to – a good candidate for a remake, I would think. You could do a lot with that! so I remember talking to Bob about the TV Sports games – we’ve mentioned them a few times. It seems like I remember him saying that those were by far and away the best sellers for the company. Is that true? Was it, do you remember it being more of – sounds like you think Defender of the Crown might have been –
John: Defender I think was definitely our bestseller. Bob –
Matt: – I could be misremembering, too. I didn’t look this up.
Matt: I just seem to recall him saying that.
John: Bob may – I mean, Bob had a much tighter grasp on all of the sales numbers, of course. Bob and Phyllis. So that could be right, but I think Defender had to be a bigger seller. But they did well, the TV sports games, especially TV Sports Football, did very well for us.
Matt: Yeah, I would be shocked if they – I mean, those were really, really good sports games. And they definitely nailed – felt a lot more realistic. I mean, that’s what the sports genre’s always been about, right? Is the realism?
Matt: So they really seem to hit home. what about Rocket Ranger? Now, I like that game, too. I never was able to master the fine art of the takeoff. (laughs)
John: Oh, it was so hard!
Matt: So what’s going on with that? There was no connection to that movie The Rocketeer?
John: You know, I don’t remember – definitely not the movie. There was a graphic novel, I think, that the movie was based on, and I do believe that we were in talks with the, the, the developer, the writer of the novel, but we couldn’t come to an agreement, and I think at that point, we went off and decided to do, you know, to do Rocket Ranger. They both were – Bob was a big fan of the old movie serials like Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen or something – I can’t remember the name of some of those. And I think those were the same serials that inspired the Rocketeer guy. So they kind of come from the same source material. But yeah, Rocket Ranger was – Rocket Ranger was a lot of fun. I think that was one of our better – after Defender and, and maybe the TV Sports games. I think that was one of our better, better titles. That was another Kellyn Beck design. I had a few – threw a few ideas of my own in there, but that was Kellyn’s design.
Matt: I just, I love that idea of going back to that era and pulling out these sort of concepts we don’t really see anymore, you know, Rocket Man type character. It’s kind of a mix of nostalgia, but it’s also new because nobody’s made a game based around that, so it’s, it’s really fun.
Matt: So after CinemaWare, is that when you did a stint at New World Computing?
John: Yeah. Actually, going back to CinemaWare for a second – one of the things we were trying to do with our CinemaWare games, was, we wanted all of the games to appeal to those, kind of, base childhood fantasies that we all have, or that we, we used to have: knights in shining armor, you know, rescuing princesses, all very misogynistic now, but, I think with Rocket Ranger, one of the childhood fantasies we were trying to capture there was flying. I mean, we all wanted to fly when we were younger, and the idea of being able to run along and then just kind of, you know, jump in the air and fly somewhere is, is very powerful.
Matt: I’ll admit to being a kid and playing that game for a while then putting on a backpack and running out in the driveway. (laughs)
Matt: (laughs) Ah, it’s fun, fun – fun memories.
John: Yup. Sorry, what was your other question?
Matt: Oh, I was – So, after CinemaWare, you went on to New World Computing.
Matt: I’m wondering – I’m kind of wondering why did you leave CinemaWare? What was in the – how did you get this job at New World Computing?
John: Well, CinemaWare, actually, again, I was Employee #1 at CinemaWare, and, we had, we had a real good run. We were a little slow transitioning to the PC, which, which hurt us. And I think it was, there was kind of a deal where we were trying to get a PC version of TV Sports Football done, and it was late, and I think that hurt us, and I think Bob sold part of the company to NEC, which also turned out to, to not be a good move. And then, Electronic Arts was gonna buy us, and, and then that fell through at the last minute. Apparently, Trip Hawkins was pushing for it, but the board of directors said no, and CinemaWare shut down. And that’s actually when I left CinemaWare, and I remember I interviewed at Electronic Arts, and they liked me, and they called me back for another interview, and, and we were getting ready to sign an agreement, sign a deal – I was gonna go work for them as a producer.
And something happened in that second interview. Somebody I talked to, I rubbed them the wrong way or something, and they called me back and said, “You know, we’ve actually had a change of heart. we – we’re not gonna hire you after all.” And that – and I kind of panicked, and I called up Dean Gordon or somebody, some big muckety muck at Electronic Arts, and I said, “Look, I’m going places, and if you guys want to go with me, you can go with me, but I,” you know, and I gave him a big hard sell, and they said, “You know what? You’re right. We should never have withdrawn that offer. We’re gonna take you up on that. Why don’t you come back out, and we’ll, we’ll sign the agreement?” Well, in the mean time, I had interviewed at New World Computing, and they were looking for a director of product development, so they made me an offer, and they were just down the road. I didn’t, you know, I wouldn’t have to move my family to, to, Northern California. So I had to call Electronic Arts back after I’d made this big, passionate speech, and tell them, “Eh, ok. Sorry. Nevermind, I took another job.” That was a little bit unfortunate, but –
John: Yeah, New World was fun. I got to meet John van Caneghem and Ron Spitzer, who was kind of the business guy there. but it was a pure product development role, and I realized after I was there for a short time that I really, really like, I like the creative side, you know. I don’t like just managing projects. So I’d been there, maybe, six months, seven months, and I was at a trade show, and Jeff Tunnell at Dynamix came up to me and said, “Hey! I, I remember you from CinemaWare. I would love for you to come out and be a creative guy for us.” And I said, “Oh, like a designer, producer?” He said, “No. Just a creative guy. Your responsibility would be to make the game fun. That is your whole job.” And I said, “How much do I have to pay you for this job?”
John: And he said –
Matt: And this just came out of the blue? This offer?
John: It did! It did. And I thought, that is what, that is what I want to be doing. So I – he hired me, and I went to, I went over there to, to Dynamix and then immediately approached Neal Halford, who was one of the best writers that I’ve ever, that I’ve ever met. I met him while I was at New World.
Matt: I think he did – you must have worked with him on Planet’s Edge?
John: Yes. Yeah, Planet’s Edge was, I think, I think Neal – I can’t remember if Neal was the designer. I remember he was the writer on that game. and then a couple other titles there. Yeah, that’s, that’s where I met Neal.
Matt: So what was it like working with Neal at Dynamix? Working on Betrayal of Krondor?
John: It was, that was a pretty crazy project. Betrayal started out – but I’ll tell you a quick, kind of a, kind of a funny story. So, Jeff Tunnell called me, made me the offer. I decided to come out and join Dynamix. And we had that classic, “What do you want -” he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I dunno. What do you want me to do?” And he said, “No, you can do – sky’s the limit. What kind of game do you want to make?” And I said, “Well, what kind of game do you need me to make?” So we had that, that back and forth for a little while. And then I went off for about a week, and I came up with this crazy story. The company – we were owned by Sierra at the time, and of course, they were known for their adventure games – Dynamix had done a few adventure games as well, and I thought, alright, well, I’m going to make an adventure game. It’d be great to do an adventure game about a tabloid news reporter ’cause then you could, you could go off and do any kind of crazy story, you know: My dachsund stole a jet airplane! You know, “Fluffy was always such a friendly dog.” You know, and just do these crazy, weird stories about aliens and… So I wrote this pitch document, and, and I, and I dropped it off on Jeff’s desk and, and left. I was real excited about it, and as I was going down to my office, I ran into a friend, and he said, “So what are you – what game you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I just had this great idea for an adventure game about this tabloid reporter,” and I told him about it, and he said –
John: “Well, that sounds exactly like Zak Mc –
Matt: – McCracken (laughs)
John: – McCracken.” I thought, “Well, that figures,” then, “Oh, God! Damnit!” So I ran back up to try to quickly grab the proposal off the desk, and I couldn’t find it! So I’m rifling through all of these papers, and, and I was just about to go through the drawer in Jeff’s office, when I look up, and he was standing in the doorway with, with this kinda look on his face, and I thought I was going to get fired for sure. But I explained what was going on, and he had apparently taken the paper with him to read it somewhere, and so I grabbed it and said, “Don’t read this,” and went off. Shortly after that, he said, “You know, I’m reading – you know, I don’t really want you to do an adventure game. But I’ve been reading this fantasy series by Raymond Feist called the Rift War Saga, and I think it’d make a pretty good game.” And he gave me a copy of one of the books, and I read it, and I thought, “God, that was amazing! Yeah, this’d make a, this would make a fantastic game. So I called Ray’s, Ray Feists’s agent and found out how much money he actually makes and thought, “Well, that’s not happening. We can’t afford that.” But he called back and said, “Oh, I’m interested, maybe, in working on a game with you guys,” and so that’s, that’s how that happened. And then, yeah, once I knew that we were making a very heavy story-based game, I knew that I needed Neal. So, I hired Neal away from, from New World.
Matt: So you didn’t – did you ever work with Ray on the game, or did he give you feedback on it?
John: Ray was pretty hands-off with the initial game. Neal and I came up with the story line. Neal did, you know, 98% of the writing and the scripting, and he did all the low-level design. And when we were done, we had a great big, thick design document, and kind of a story treatment, and we sent it all to Ray to get his approval on it, and Ray circled a lot of stuff and gave us a lot of notes, and some of it was pretty harsh: you know, “This is stupid,” “Why would you do that?” and I noticed a lot of the complaints that he had about the writing, I remember I had written – I had added some kind of a crazy poem at one point, and it used something about – ah, I can’t remember what it was, but it was pretty bad, and Ray circled that, and most of the stuff that he circled I had found out later was things that I had written that he didn’t like, so I let Neal do most of the writing on the game. But he gave us a lot of great notes, and we took all those notes, and I don’t think he really saw the game until he joined us at one of the trade shows, probably CES, which is E3 now, to show, to show the game off, and he really liked it. He really, really liked it.
Matt: Yeah, I read the novel that he wrote about the game – what’d he call it? It was Krondor, the Betrayal, I think. Did he, I think he flipped his title, right?
Matt: Did you ever read that?
John: I think I did. Yeah, I think I did read through it. And I think it was nice that he actually called out Neal and myself, and, I think he may have dedicated the book to us or something. That was nice, yeah –
Matt: He gave you a nice shout out in the intro –
Matt: – intro to that. I forget what he said. I think he said you were – he gave you credit for the idea for the game or something like that.
John: Yeah. Well, again, the story was, really was something that Neal and I came up with. Of course, based in – based in Ray’s universe.
Matt: Yeah, here’s the box copy, back when games had nice, big boxes like this.
Matt: So this one, the – it’s got a little sticker here that says “Best Fantasy Adventure Role Playing Game 1993.”
John: Yeah, that was – that was a fun project. It, it was pretty scary. I made some design decisions in there that I was so concerned about, as we were getting close to finishing the game up, I almost took my name off of the box –
Matt: Oh ho, wow! Why? What wa –
John: I just – it wasn’t – Well, there were, there were some – features –
Matt: It was based on a flight simulator technology, right?
John: Yeah. Yeah, I had originally wanted to do more of a 2D game, but everybody thought that we should use the flight sim engine and do something in 3D, and I think Ultima Underworld came out during the development of our game, which kind of helped support the idea that, yeah, 3D was the right choice here. But I remember we digitized a lot of the actors. And we assumed when we were taking pictures and digitizing them that they were going to be so pixelated that, that the makeup and the costumes didn’t have to look that great – they’d just kind of have to be close. But I think before we launched the game, the technology had improved, and – yeah, you could see the elastic bands on the fake beards, and it was just – it was pretty bad. So I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the graphics in the game, and I had made this, this decision – Neal and I had made this decision – that we wanted the game to feel like a novel, so we have certain characters in the first chapter, and some of those characters go away for the second chapter, and I thought, “People don’t want to play a role playing game where they build up these characters, and then suddenly they go away and you can’t play with them anymore. Even though that was an idea that I was particularly excited about, I got very nervous. I got cold feet, late in development that, “What was I thinking? People are gonna hate this!” And I don’t think I heard, I don’t think I heard a single negative comment about that particular feature. I knew, I knew we were on to something when our testers – our internal testers – started staying late to play the game to just get a little bit further.
The other, the other thing that we did, and I think this was sort of a mistake on my part as the producer, we were using some beta testers, some focus testers – er, not focus, but beta testers that were outside the company, and I thought we were closer to launching. When we were about three months away from what I thought our launch date was going to be, we started sending the game out for people to look at it. And as it turns out, it was probably nine months before we actually launched the game. So we had a very extended period of people looking at the game and sending us comments. And a lot of the comments, when we would get them back, we would go, “Well, that’s not that important,” and we would write it off, and other things we would fix. But when we started seeing the same comments over and over and over again, the programmers finally said, “You know what? I’m tired of shoving this comment somewhere else. Let’s just fix it, and people will stop complaining about it.” So I think by the time the game came out, it was – a lot of those issues, those niggling issues and the bugs I think were gone, and I think that really helped the game a lot.
Matt: Mm. I always liked the magic system in that game. Is that your –
John: I think I had a big hand –
Matt: – your design?
John: Yeah. There was a guy named Bob Lindstrom, who I think was running product development at the time, and we were, I don’t know, four or five months away from shipping, and he said, “You know, I like the magic system, but your interface doesn’t feel magical enough.” And after I thought about it, I agreed with him. So that’s when we actually redid our UI. We put the little globes in, and we added the special effects, like having, you know, when you give an item to somebody, it kind of goes into the globe and sort of sinks down, and I think it was at that point that we added the kind of little morphing lines when you cast a spell, so, yeah. Some of that, some of the polish, I think was – came about because Bob Lindstrom had suggested it.
Matt: Was there any discussion about making it a real-time combat?
John: You know, I had always liked the turn-based combat. Looking at it now, it feels, it feels pretty crude. But I used to love a game called Archon, back –
Matt: Oh, yeah. Another great classic.
John: And I wanted a game that almost felt like it was being played out on the grid, and you were moving the characters around. So that’s kind of where the combat came from. And the little puzzles, which didn’t work out quite as well as I was hoping.
Matt: Yeah, I got Archon here behind me. I don’t know if, you probably can’t see –
John: Oh, yeah! Yeah, I remember –
Matt: (chuckles) It seems like we have very similar tastes in games, which –
Matt: – doesn’t surprise me. Well, let’s – I think I got – was there anything else about Betrayal of Krondor that we haven’t talked about?
John: I do have sort of a funny story that came out of Betrayal at Krondor. I’m not going to mention any names here to sort of protect the guilty, but there was a person on the team that was, was a little difficult to get along with. Kind of scary, actually. And this person, when they left the company, they called me on the telephone – this was maybe a few weeks before Christmas – called me on the telephone and said, you know, “Look,” – and I think I had an unlisted phone number, so I’m not sure how he even got my number, but he called me up and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, I’ve left the company now, but I’m not gonna go all postal or anything.” And I was like, “Okay. Thank you for calling me (?).” and I hung up, and maybe – he was, this guy would come in and scream at Neal and I for no reason. And then come back ten minutes later like, “I’m so sorry I was yelling. I just, I get so upset,” and, “you know, veins are, my head just is pounding.” Almost like an abusive husband kind of situation: he would scream and yell and then apologize for it later and try to make sure, “Everybody’s fine? No, we’re good. Everything’s good,” and then he would turn right around and do it again like a week later. Anyway, so he’s gone, it’s right around Christmas time, I’m sitting in the living room, watching television. It’s late at night, it’s probably 11:30, 12:00. And all of a sudden, from the front door, I hear this SCRATCH. And I thought, “What? Is there an animal out there?” So I kept hearing it, and I got up, I walked over to the door, and I was expecting, you know, if it was a dog or a cat wanting to get in the house for some reason, the scratching would be coming from, you know, down low. But no, it’s like eye-level. Scratch –
Matt: What the –
John: Scratch. And so I turned the lights on, hoping that that would scare whoever it was away. And of course, I knew it was this guy, just waiting out there, getting ready to kill me. And it just – it kept happening, and I was turning the lights on and off, and started talking. And my wife came out of the bedroom, and – I don’t know what woke her up, but she saw me, and my face probably was just white as a ghost. “What’s wrong?” I said, “I think there’s somebody outside.” And I don’t know what got into her head, but she walks over to the door before I could say or do anything and throws the door open. And it was the Christmas wreath that we had hung out on the door that day, blowing in the wind, back and forth. Just about gave me a heart attack, though. I almost lost it when she threw that door open. I don’t know what got into her mind – I couldn’t even tell her not to, I was just – I was so scared. Yeah, that was a bad situation.
Matt: Man, this guy –
John: – great game developer
Matt: – must have really been a, been a head case.
John: Yeah. He wore a black jacket into the office every day. I found out later that people – other artists, on days when they were gonna have to work with him, would call in sick that day. They just did not want to –
Matt: How did he even get the job?
John: He had – he had a very good resume. And I remember the first time he blew up at me, I remember I went in to a manager – his manager – and said, “Look, this is not going to work out.” “Oh, no, no everything -” and he kind of put a bandaid on it, and – I just. You know, we were in Eugene, Oregon at Dynamix, and I thought, if I leave this company, I’m going to have to move. There are no other game companies in this area. I’m just going to have to find a way to work with this guy. And we did. And, you know, overall, I think he did a good job. He just – it was, it was difficult at times.
Matt: He wasn’t, he wasn’t from Australia, was he?
Matt: Okay. (chuckles) Oh, so after, after I guess you left Dynamix, you worked – I’m not sure exactly how long, but you worked for Cavedog Entertainment for a while?
Matt: I guess you must have met Chris Taylor there.
John: Yeah, Chris Taylor and Ron Gilbert. I didn’t work directly with Chris there, although I think he was in the office next to me, and we used to chat a lot. They were making Total Annihilation at the time. I didn’t really have anything to do with TA, but he would come in, we would bounce ideas of each other a little bit sometimes. Yeah, he was – Chris is, he is a crazy guy. He is very charismatic and bigger than life.
Matt: Yeah, I’ve decided one of my favorite interviews is with him. And it was, right around the time – do you remember when he was doing that Wild Man –
Matt: – Kickstarter project, and that wasn’t going too well. You know, he just really – you know, you could really see the passion, and it wasn’t just business for him. He just, he got really emotional. You know, I get a little choked up watching, watching it it myself. You can just tell he’s a really great guy.
Matt: So did you do some work on Dungeon Siege 2?
John: I did. So you had mentioned Cavedog. I actually worked – I hired Neal again to work at Cavedog to work on a game, which unfortunately never got released, called Elysian. It was a, an episodic game set in a dream world, and the idea was that I wanted to put little CD-ROMs like up by the cash register at game stores that would have the next installment of the game, and the goal was – or maybe something you could download over the internet, which had just kinda – was just coming into its own. I wanted to have all of the components and pieces sort of in the initial installation of the game, and then we would just use those as data, and we would sort of upload or make these little data files available to tell new stories within the same universe. And we had all these – Neal had did a great job coming up with all these crazy stories sort of set in this world, and Sci-fi channel was even interested in making a TV show about it.
John: I was also producing and, producing a game called Amen: The Awakening with John Maber, who is now working with Bob Berry, who I also met at Cavedog at Uber Entertainment when they did, well, they’ve done a bunch of – I don’t know if you’re familiar with Uber – they’ve done a bunch of games over there.
Matt: What happened to this Elysian project? Why was it canceled?
John: It was, it was behind schedule, and Ron Gilbert called me into his office one day, and we’d been working on it for a couple years, actually, and said, “You know, this whole dream world RPG thing? I’m not sure I really get it,” and so they canceled it that day and fortunately didn’t fire me. I got to continue working there for a while and pitch some other ideas I was pretty excited about, but, Cavedog eventually, well, Cavedog and [couldn’t understand] kind of,kind of imploded. So that’s how I left there.
Matt: Well, that’s a little sad. I guess Ron just wasn’t feeling it, huh?
John: No, ah, I wish he would have told me two years earlier. I think a lot of it was just – it was very slow. It was one of the first big 3D games that I had worked on, and I think as a producer, I’m a really good game designer, so I probably dropped the ball a little bit on the producing side.
Matt: So after this, you went on to Big Fish?
John: Yeah. Let’s see, there were a couple of stops before that. I was at Gas Powered.
Matt: Oh, right, right. Again with Chris Taylor, right?
John: Yeah. So I worked on Dungeon Siege 2. I was never a fan of that particular game. I was playing EverQuest and World of Warcraft at the time. I just kind of wanted a UI and control scheme to feel a little more like that. But I did a lot of work there, and Chris made me design director.
Matt: Ooh. There you go!
John: Chris made me design director, but I was kind of having a hard time pitching new ideas to him. He told me that he sort of has a hard time liking other people’s ideas – he likes his own a little bit better, and I was looking for something where I could be a little more creative. So I left there and went to work at a company that was making MMO’s. I actually had applied for a job at Big Fish because my wife was a big fan, and they didn’t really need somebody who actually, who actually couldn’t be a coder as well as a designer, so I took the job at SecretWare studios, working on MMOs, was there for about three months. Big Fish called me back and said, “A position just opened,” and I said, “You know, I can’t. I just took another job.” And he said, “Oh, just come talk to us. Just come talk to us.” So I did, and really liked it, and I love casual, the casual space, so I went to work at, at Big Fish, and I was there for about nine years.
Matt: I’ve got some questions about that, but I just want to back up a little bit. So what were some of these ideas you had for Dungeon Siege 2 that Chris wasn’t –
John: Oh, well, wait. They weren’t for Dungeon Siege 2; they were for new, actually new titles.
Matt: Oh, brand new titles! Oh, ok.
John: Yeah, as design director, he was looking to me to come up with new IP, and he had his own ideas, which I thought were, were really interesting, but, again, I was kind of at a point in my career where I wanted to do my own thing, and he needed someone who could do a better job supporting his vision, so I left.
Matt: Well, on to the Big Fish. You know, my wife’s a big fan of them, too. I’ve probably given those folks more than any (chuckles) games publisher. That’s what it feels like sometimes. You know, once you get kind of hooked on – you can sort of get hooked on those sort of hidden object and casual puzzle games pretty easily. I saw an interview – I think this was an interview with where they were – yeah, this was in an interview, and you were talking about how you were kind of fed up with other publishers: you felt like they were too conservative; they weren’t taking any risks, and it was kind of, things had moved, I guess devolved a lot since you got your start in the industry. But you thought the, for some reason Big Fish seemed more like that Wild West of development. I’m kind of wondering if you could elaborate on that.
John: Well, you know, when I was, when I first got into the industry, working at CinemaWare, there were not even a lot of established – not even a lot of established genres in the computer game space. certainly not a lot of tropes, and, things that sort of people expect, you know, feature sets that people expect from certain genres. So it was kind of sky’s the limit. You could do whatever you wanted. I remember, I designed a boxing game while I was at CinemaWare, and I thought, you know, we can do a better job since we were limited in the number of sprites and the number of moving objects we could have on the screen, we could do a better job showing off the boxers and the punches if we only show them from the waist up. So I think we put, we put stats and other things down below, and in the upper half of the screen, we showed the upper, you know, the upper bodies of the boxers, and you got to see facial expressions and kind of focus more on, you know, blows to the body, blows to the head kinda thing.
And you could do that back then. I was feeling like, before I got into casual, I was feeling like the core gamer space was much more about sort of modeling reality and sticking to, again, kind of sticking to certain tropes within, within the genre, and there was a lot less room for any kind of innovation or creativity. And even if you suggested something that was kind of new and different and better than people were used to, the publishers would say no ’cause it’s just – the games were getting way to expensive to just try something new. And with the casual space, that wasn’t true anymore. And it did, you know, working at Big Fish reminded me of what it was like back in the early CinemaWare days, where we could, we could do anything.
Matt: You’ve done quite a few games for them, right? I was looking at some on the website. I’m almost afraid to install some of these ’cause I know they’ll probably (chuckles) suck up a lot of time, a lot of my time playing ’em, right? I think, was it Fairway Solitaire –
Matt: Which, as soon as I thought about that concept, I thought, that’s, that’s a – what a great concept! (laughs) Golf meets solitaire. I dunno – how did that idea occur to you?
John: you know, again, I’ve always been a hu– avid golfer – played at Pepperdine – I love golf. My mom was – we used to call her Madame Shanghai –
Matt: (laughs) Madame Shanghai!
John: Yeah. Madame Shanghai. Because she used to play Shanghai – the Mahjong game – would play it every single day, for hours, hours at a time. And I wanted to come up with a game that – and my dad, you know, would also play solitaire and other games like that. And I wanted to come up with a game that combined my love of golf with a game sort of like a Mahjong or a fun solitaire game that even my mom and dad could enjoy. Ah, and it was kind of a crazy combination, you know, a little bit like sardines and chocolate. Golf and solitaire don’t seem like they would go very well together, actually. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I don’t like golf, I’m not a big solitaire fan, but I love this game!” And that’s, that’s been very gratifying. I, I kind of have this theory that things have a better chance of being hugely successful if they are sort of outside what people are wanting or expecting. And I sometimes use Star Wars actually as an example of that. And I don’t know if you remember it, but science fiction was not a big – was not very popular at the box office. I mean, there were movies like, you know, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that was very artsy and it wasn’t a huge financial success, I don’t think. science fiction was –
Matt: Star Trek: The Motion Picture didn’t do all that well either, huh?
John: No. No, but then Star Wars came out, and it was, it was revolutionary. It just, you know, it was something people weren’t expecting, they didn’t know they really wanted it, and they just couldn’t get enough of it. I was sort of hoping that Fairway would be like that. It’s like, “Why on earth would I want to play that game? But then everybody’s telling me, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve gotta play this game!’” And I think people are more likely to spread, you know, word of mouth on a game, good word of mouth if it’s something they have never seen before or if it’s something that surprised them in some way. “I didn’t expect to like that game, but I love it! You’ve gotta try this!”
Matt: And it’s done really, really well for you. I think you – it was, top ten –
John: Yeah, it was.
Matt: – out of all Big Fish games, and I mean, these guys – I don’t know if people necessarily appreciate how profitable this company is! (chuckles)
John: Yeah, Big Fish has done very well. I think Fairway Solitaire is the most successful of the internally developed, games at Big Fish. So yeah, that’s, that’s gratifying. It’s, it’s done very, very well. Although, it’s a difficult game to advertise. Because when, when you see an ad for it, it just doesn’t look like something that – I mean, people don’t click on it. If you’re, if you’re, trying to advertise a match three game, for example, people will see the ad with the little picture, and they’ll say, “Oh, I know what that is,” and they’ll tap on that link, and they’ll try the game out. But what we were finding with Fairway is that the ads were costing us a lot more because a lot of people would see the ad, but they wouldn’t click on it, so we were spending more money to get fewer click hits.
Matt: Hmm. Well, I guess that’s an interesting problem, I don’t know –
Matt: How did they solve that to get people to –
John: Huh. I don’t think they did.
Matt: Or was it just word of mouth advertising?
John: Yeah. I think a lot of it was word of mouth, and you know, I think that if Big Fish decides to do another game like that, I suspect they will try to choose a subject matter that’s a little more mainstream – something that would have greater, kind of broad appeal.
Matt: What about some of these other games, that you did there – Mystic Inn, I think you’ve got one – Asada, Ancient Magic – you know, are there any other ones you’re especially proud of?
John: You know, I think Big Fish actually hired me to – to work on their online community site. They had, they were trying to get a site going similar to Electronic Arts’ Pogo. I don’t know if you’ve been to Pogo, but, it’s an online game community: little casual games that you play, you can chat with other people, you can earn tokens, spend tokens on avatar items, things like that. I think we had maybe 70 or so games on our community site from developers all over the world, and they were looking for somebody to come in and sort of manage the internal development of some of those games. And I think after two years, I had designed eight games, and I think seven of them were in the top ten.
John: So that –
John: So that was, that was exciting.
Matt: You got the Midas touch.
John: Yeah, it’s I – they were, they were kind of limited before I got there. They had a very small footprint that they wanted these games to be, and I shook my head, and I said, “No, that’s – come on. I need more room to make better games.” they also – I was coming to it from a little bit more of a hard core background, and as I mentioned, I’d been playing a lot of EverQuest and World of Warcraft, and I knew that people were willing to spend a lot of time doing simple, mundane things in order to earn some kind of a reward, and the timing in a lot of those early, community games, you know, they wanted to make games that somebody could finish in a couple of hours. And I said, “Why? Let’s make it a 50-hour game. You’ve gotta grind and grind and grind playing this game to earn the stuff you need to eventually finish it.” And I think they all thought I was kinda crazy, but they agreed to try it, and, sure enough, people, people don’t mind that. And especially if they’re in an environment where they can chat with other people.
I did learn, I did learn something from them, though. They, some of the early games that the company had worked on, there were bad guys. They did, a Wizard of Oz, card game – no, it wasn’t Wizard of Oz, it was Through the Looking Glass. And they had the Evil Queen that would randomly pop up in the game and make you lose the hand and she’d steal some of your tokens that you earned. And I said, “Well, how do you stop that? What is the, you know, what can you do strategically?” And they said, “No, it just randomly happens.” And I said, “So, randomly, with – you have NO control over it as a player – randomly, she’ll pop up and just do bad things to you and then laugh and run away.” And they said, “Yes!” And I just kind of shook my head, and I said, “You guys! Come on, that’s just horrible, horrible game design! You cannot do that.” But they were right! Because what those things were were chat catalysts.
John: Because every time that would happen, somebody would go, “The stupid queen just stole all of my stuff!” And everybody would say, “SS,” “So sorry,” “So sorry,” “So sorry,” and it worked. And so we had, we had villains like that in all of our games. And Fairway Solitaire has a gopher that will kind of randomly pop up and do bad stuff to you.
Matt: Kind of reminds me of the, what is it, the Fell Reaver in World of Warcraft? Stomps you every now and then. It does, it does give you something fun to chat about.
John: Yeah, absolutely.
Matt: Alright, so I just got two last questions here for you, John. Hopefully you’re not too worn out?
Matt: (laughs) Okay. So I was reading that you were – I guess this was back in 2011, an interview you did in 2011, where you were really excited about the Oculus Rift. I was wondering if you still have that level of excitement, and if you’ve looked at some of the stuff that’s come out since then, the, what is it – Microsoft and the Hololens? And, there’s a couple other ones. I don’t, can’t think of the names of them right now, but, you know, what’s kind of gotten you most excited?
John: I definitely think that’s the future. I know there’s a lot of people that are kind of, kind of naysayers, and, you know, “Who wants to strap a big thing on your head and sit around the living room, or stand in the living room and kind of move around,” but I remember thinking the same thing about the Wii, thinking nobody was gonna do that. I don’t know if you remember the Eye Toy or Magic Eye or something that came out on the PS2?
Matt: I think it was the Eye Toy.
John: Eye Toy? Yeah, you put it on top of your TV, and these little games where you could see yourself, and it somehow knew how you were moving, and you could interact with the things that were happening on the screen that you could see yourself in. And when somebody showed, somebody showed that to me at work, and I just thought, “That is the coolest thing I have ever seen!” And I stopped by on the way home, and I bought one, and I set it up, and we played that thing for hours. And I woke up the next day, and I was so sore. And I don’t think we ever used it again. We used it that one time.
John: And I thought the Wii, and then later, you know, the K’nect were gonna be kind of the same thing. I just thought they would be sort of flashes in the pans. You know, to some degree they were a little bit, although K’nect is still popular, and the Wii was popular for a lot longer than I expected it to be. So I think that there are people that think that the Oculus Rift is going to be a little bit like those pieces of hardware, but – I don’t know if you’ve tried it?
Matt: I’ve tried it a couple of times. I haven’t got to play any games with it.
John: Yeah. I haven’t played any games, but I saw the latest demo. it’s, it’s incredible. I’m really, really excited about the future of gaming with the VR stuff that’s been coming out.
Matt: I can’t remember – it might have been Paul Neurath. I was just talking to somebody recently about it. And he was saying that what really troubled him was when you reach your hands up and you don’t see your hands. And for him, that was a deal breaker. But I don’t see why they can’t just create some kind of gloves or something that you could use with it, right? I mean, there must be something in the works.
John: Yeah, in fact, I think somebody has been experimenting with something like that. And I know some of the guys over at Oculus, and I think their take on that is that it’s nice to be able to see your hands – it does feel strange to not see them, but there’s no tactile feel. There’s no – I mean, yeah, you can see your hand moving around in the scene, but if you’re going to do anything with it, it just feels like a ghost. And it, so it doesn’t help as much as everyone thinks, I think is their feeling.
Matt: That seems like a pretty significant challenge that needs to be overcome there. I can’t even imagine how it would work where you could actually feel something.
John: Exactly. Yeah, maybe a haptic glove or something? There’s probably something in the works. Yeah, I think the control, what kind of a controller you’re gonna use with these things is a big issue. I remember the very first demo of the first Oculus Rift that I got. You know, I sat down in the chair, and my friend put it on my head, and then he had to, like, take my hands and actually put them on the keyboard so I could actually move around, and I thought, “Well, that’s kind of awkward.”
John: But yeah, it’s – I think it’s going to be huge. I remember, I remember – I was gonna say, I remember telling my wife when we first started playing EverQuest and both got really, really addicted to EverQuest. And I remember telling her, “If there ever comes a time where I can strap something on my head and be in this world, swinging a sword and throwing fireballs, I will stop going to work.” And, I don’t think we’re far away from that, actually.
Matt: Yeah, I’m, I’m the same way. You know, if these worlds could just, if it could be that immersive, it makes you kind of wonder, why would you want to leave and quit playing and go do something? But I guess you still have to eat? (chuckles)
John: Yeah. You know, it’s funny. I remember when I was, when I was playing EverQuest and playing World of Warcraft, I just thought, “Why would I ever want to play a single player game again? This is, this is the future.” I was so addicted, and I don’t play them as much as I used to anymore. In fact, I’m not playing an MMO at all right now. And I think one of the things that I missed was actually being able to finish a story. I loved being in the world. I love being immersed in the world and exploring and adventuring, but sometimes I just kind of, you know, I want to complete something. So I’m sort of back to single player games now.
Matt: Yeah, I agree with that. It’s nice when you complete a game, and it’s like “Check! Done. I’ve done that!” Like Pillars of Eternity, I don’t know if you’ve played that one, but –
John: I haven’t.
Matt: Beat it! (chuckles) You know, I can go back and play it again if I want to, but you just have a feeling of accomplishment.
Matt: Whereas in a game like World of Warcraft, sometimes it really just feels like you’re doing a – I’ve got a friend who jokes about doing the daily chores. (laughs) It’s like it’s never gonna end. You know, there’s always gonna be these endless chores.
Matt: Alright, so here’s the last question I’ve got for you. This one’s from a viewer. You might know who the viewer is after you hear the question, I don’t know. Let’s see: “John, are you into dogs?”
John: (laughs) I don’t know why he thought that was so funny. yeah, that’s, that’s funny. That’s sort of been a catch phrase between Neal and I for years. I was, we were both big fans of Dean Koontz. I have since moved on to fantasy writers, and it’s sort of hard for me to go back and read Stephen King and Koontz and some of those guys, ’cause the stories just feel so simple now, and, but anyway, at the time, we were big fans. And, there was – my favorite book of his, one of my favorite books of all time, was called Watcher. And I think Neal had been, had just discovered Dean Koontz, or maybe had been reading some other stuff. And The Watcher is about this very, very intelligent dog, and I remember walking up to Neal because he was talking about books, and I said, “Neal, are you into dogs?” because I wanted to tell him about The Watcher, and he – he’s got this very, you know, bigger than life laugh, and I remember he just started laughing. I think he laughed for five minutes. It just caught him the wrong way, and that’s sort of been a phrase between us ever since. Every time we see each other, “I’m into dogs, John.”
Matt: (chuckles) Well, John, is there anything else that you wanted to mention or that we haven’t covered already?
John: you know. I’ve been in the industry for a long time, I’ve got lots and lots of stories. That’s partly why I put that website together.
Matt: That’s a great website. I’m gonna direct everybody that watches the video to go check that out.
John: Great! Thanks. I just, you know, the problem is that I’ve just been so focused on making games that I’ve never collected, you know, awards that my games have won, I don’t have – I think I’ve probably got a copy of Betrayal of Krondor, maybe Defender of the Crown around somewhere, but I don’t have any of my old games. I’ve just, I’ve always been focused more on the future, you know, than kind of looking back. Now that I’m getting a little bit older, I, I thought, “You know, I want to kind of remember some of those things.” So, I’m hoping that the website will be a place that as, as these things occur to me or as I remember something else or a funny story that I can go there and keep track of that stuff and sort of keep it all in one place.
Matt: That’s great. I guess I do have one more question.
Matt: I noticed you’ve got some, looks like, maps up on the wall back there. Is that from games? Are those real maps? What are those?
John: This one is actually the province of Skyrim.
Matt: Oh, ok.
John: Back when I was playing Skyrim, we, I had some friends of the family that, that put that together, that put that in a nice frame, and these are actually – this is a Ultima Online map, and I think that was one of the expansions for Ultima. My wife and I were big fans of UO. I don’t know if you ever played it, but – a phenomenal game.
Matt: I’ve played it a little bit. Is that – So it sounds like you’ve played pretty much all the MMOs. A good slew of the most popular ones.
John: certainly, certainly for the first few years. I haven’t played, again, I haven’t played them a lot recently, but yeah, I mean Ultima Online, EverQuest, World of Warcraft –
Matt: I always felt like there’s a big, you know, when you go from Ultima Online to EverQuest, that was a big leap, and from EverQuest to WoW I think was also a big leap. If you would have told me back – how long ago did WoW come out – like 2007 or so?
John: Something like that. I don’t remember.
Matt: I’m just amazed it’s remained. I would have thought by now there would have been something else that did what they did to EverQuest. But I don’t know what it is about that game’s staying power.
John: Well, I think it’s, it’s so hard. I mean, that’s a game that now has, what, 15 years or something of content. Ten years, or – I feel like they just celebrated an anniversary, like eight years or ten years? Anyway. It’s got so many years of content that it’s just hard for anybody else to compete because any other MMO that comes out, they will compare it to WoW. And if it doesn’t have, you know, as much stuff, as many dungeons, as many zones, if the world isn’t as big, then it doesn’t compare very well. I mean, so it’s really, really hard. I think I heard in an interview, somebody had said if you wanted to compete, you know, really compete against World of Warcraft as an MMO, both in terms of development dollars and marketing, it would cost you a billion dollars.