The CinemaWare Story
Master Designer Software charts new directions in computer entertainment.
by Arnie Katz
"We had a unique opportunity to rethink what a computer game could be on the 16-bit computer," says Bob Jacob. And when the president of Master Designer Software (MDS) speaks these days, he commands the attention of the entire entertainment software community.
Success does that. In less than two years, MDS has become the hottest design house in home computing with its Mindscape distributed line of CinemaWare arcade adventures.
The softspoken Jacob is no newcomer to the field. Prior to starting Master Designer Software, he headed the Robert Jacob Agency, which represented many software authors. "I thought that I was a pretty knowledgeable guy about software," he recalls, "and I was growing disappointed with most of the games I was playing." Characteristically, he decided to do something besides complain. Aided by wife Phyllis, Jacob forsook agenting to launch Master Designer Software in January 1986.
Mindscape introduced the first three CinemaWare titles: SDI, Defender of the Crown and King of Chicago. Each game made its debut on a single system, but the company supports five computers: Atari ST, Amiga, Commodore 64, Apple II GS, and Macintosh. The process of extending all titles across the full range of machines has taken a year, because Jacob approaches conversions much differently than most other producers.
"We are unusual in that we've never done a straight port of any of our games," Bob boasts. When MDS tackles a new edition of an existing game, they approach the project as a fresh opportunity—not just the expressway to a quick profit. "Too many publishers turn out assembly line conversions," notes Jacob. "We completely reprogram for each machine." This greatly benefits gamers, because CinemaWare products almost invariably improve with each version.
Defender of the Crown offers a perfect illustration. "We learn something from each version we do," asserts John Cutter, vice president of product development. A successful author and producer, Cutter joined MDS in time to help finish the first wave of games, and has guided the development of all subsequent projects.
Although players generally liked Defender of the Crown on the Amiga, there were a few criticisms of the solitaire adventure. The main one was that the strategic part of the game seemed a little thin. Accordingly, lead designer Kellyn Beeck beefed up this aspect of the program when Defender moved to the Commodore 64, and more recently, to the ST. For instance, Beeck underscored the difference between the Saxon and Norman lords by allowing the player to get "safe conduct" through the lands of fellow Saxons.
The ST action sequences, which are the heart of any CinemaWare epic, are also much better than all previous versions. If the player decides to lay siege to a rival castle, the catapult now throws a choice of boulders, Greek fire or disease bombs. It is now possible to parry as well as strike in the swordfighting sequence, and strength bars now monitor how fast attackers and defenders expend energy. Even jousting got a facelift. Now, the player moves the mouse to align the mounted knight's lance and pushes the button at the precise instant of contact to thrust at the target.
According to Jacob, MDS's desire to make maximum use of the ST's potential dictated other changes. "The size of the game was one thing we addressed," he explains. "Data compression technology puts everything on two, one-sided disks for the ST. The Amiga original was two, double-sided disks.
"We wanted the best audio possible," says Jacob. The company turned to Musicon Design Limited of England to do all sound and music for Defender of the Crown.
The CinemaWare method.
It all starts with a concept, and most of the concepts start with Bob Jacob. "It took a while for the rest of us to get to the right mindset," says John Cutter, "but Bob had it right from the start.
"We believe that a concept is best if it comes from one person," explains Cutter. "Bob has done a lot of this. Then we bring in many people to develop it."
What is the right mindset? "We look to the movies, not old software for our inspiration," Bob Jacob says. The establishing shots, jump cuts, long non-interactive animated sequences and pervasive theme music testify to the influence of film on CinemaWare games.
Sinbad, for instance is Thief of Bagdad, and a dozen other Middle Eastern romances rolled into one.
Stalking the mass market.
Some design houses cultivate an intensely loyal coterie of customers, but MDS unabashedly courts the broadest possible audience. Like a thrilling adventure movie, CinemaWare titles are readily accessible to virtually everyone. "We want to appeal to the casual gamer. That's why you can get right into one of our games without even reading the manual," says Jacob. That's why CinemaWare games avoid keyboard input. "We have tried to simplify the adventure game user interface. We want our games to make an emotional breakthrough with the player," continues Jacob.
"People can relate to our games," adds Cutter.
Like all entertainment moguls, Jacob avidly studies the demographics. "We instinctively felt that our customers would be older, and we designed accordingly. We weren't interested in doing games for kids," Jacob says. In fact, the typical buyer of CinemaWare's ST products is 32 years old and male.
The structure of their action adventures reflects the needs of this group. CinemaWare titles present the most dramatic moments as arcade contests, linked together by the overall plot and bridging animated sequences.
Jacob and crew don't look at arcade games like any other design group in the entertainment software industry. They don't try to make them outrageously challenging. That would only frustrate players who no longer have the lightning reflexes of their youth. Instead, their games require some timing and quick thinking. The goal is to let the player enjoy the experience, not set scoring records.
Romance is integral to CinemaWare games, as befits adventures aimed at adults. The sensitive love scene in Defender of the Crown is as appropriate for CinemaWare as it is unusual in a computer adventure.
Like a movie, a CinemaWare game blends the talents of many specialists. They pool their talents and abilities to create the finished work of art, each doing what he or she does best.
The higher memory computer systems like the Atari ST virtually demand such specialization. In earlier days, a competent programmer could whip up the few necessary beeps and boops which served as computer game audio. Only a skilled musician could write CinemaWare's stirring scores. Another example of the complexity of these programs: the graphics for the ST edition of Defender of the Crown took more than six months.
Once Bob Jacob approves a preliminary design proposal, he and John Cutter assemble the implementation team. While the main designer works with the project's producer to firm up the multi-pathed plotline, other members of the team draw sample illustrations and work on the non-interactive portions of the game.
Storyboarding keeps the many elements of each game in proper sync. "We probably do more storyboarding than any other software publisher," claims Cutter. Artists sketch each screen planned for the game, and the designer clearly establishes its relationship to every other screen and bridging segment.
Linear plotting is a major no-no at Master Designer Software, so the storyboarding is particularly useful to insure that no anomalies or paradoxes creep into the overall structure as fine-tuning proceeds. Many times, studying the storyboards prompts the team to change the plot, include extra animated interludes, or add more sound.
Once a project gathers a little momentum, the producer coordinates the activities of all the people working on the game. The producer, most often John Cutter, orders adjustments and revisions as he fits the pieces together. Other members of MDS's resident staff—like Kellyn Beeck, and, of course, Bob Jacob—review work in progress.
Throw a hot game concept into the MDS hopper, and a beautifully polished piece of entertainment software rolls out the other end in approximately one year.
Some software publishers, after setting new standards, have lapsed into a static period. They ride the success as far as it can go and leave innovation to newer, leaner competitors. MDS doesn't plan to fall into that trap. The company expects to improve upon its first batch of games and explore fresh territory.
"It has taken us a while to get into the groove," says John Cutter. "We started with four different design teams. Our next group of games will have the best features from each team.
"Most of our games feature characters who are larger than life," Cutter states. "We need to develop characters with more human dimension." In that way, the player can identify more intimately with the protagonist of the game and enjoy a more intense vicarious experience.
Bob Jacob sums up the Master Designer Software philosophy in a few incisive words: "We want to make emotional breakthroughs." That's quite an ambitious goal, but don't bet that Master Designer Software won't make its president a true prophet.