Playing Catch Up: Night Trap's Rob Fulop
Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Imagic co-founder and co-creator of the infamous interactive full motion video title Night Trap, Rob Fulop.
Fulop began working with computers in 1975, while in 11th grade maths class. “Our math teacher installed two terminals that linked to the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley,” he says. “I was immediately drawn to the puzzle like nature of writing BASIC computer programs. The very first program that I wrote was a tic-tac-toe program. It just occurred to me that programming and gaming went together like peanut butter and jelly.”
Beginnings At Atari
Fulop pursued this interest in programming, and ended up as an intern at Atari in 1978, just one year after the company released its Atari Video Computer System – later known as the 2600. Atari was a dream job, given my inclination to use computer programming to make some sort of game,” he enthuses. “I was hired on the spot by Steve Calfee, who at that time was the software manager for the coin operated games division. My summer project involved making a sound effects editor for pinball machines. It was my first project using 6502 assembly code, which was the basis of all the Atari projects I would later do.”
Fulop’s first few games for the company were ports of arcade hits like racing title Night Driverfor the 2600 in 1980, Space Invaders for the Atari 400 and 800 later that year, and a very faithful port of Missile Command for the 2600 in 1981. “Missile Command proved to be exceptionally challenging,” he notes, “given that the Atari 2600 only provided hardware support for two moving objects at a time, it was very challenging to try to replicate the ‘feel’ of the original coin operated version.”
”Given the severe technical limitations of the Atari 2600 machine, and the highly constrained nature of the work, it was extremely helpful to have the game pretty much worked out ahead of time. It's a lot easier to get somewhere if you know precisely where you were going.”
”Atari was one big game lab,” Fulop says of the company at the time. “Games were individually authored, and we had very little formal supervision. Programmers would sit in a large shared space, working on their individual games. As a game became playable, people would wander by and pick up the joystick, providing daily continuous feedback. Sometimes code would be shared. As the game got closer and closer to completion, it became very clear if the emergent experience was worthy of ‘release’ or needed to be worked on some more.”
“Good games were popular with the lunch crowd, and suggestions would be flying by on a daily basis. On the other hand, if nobody was playing a particular game, it obviously was not ready for prime time. There was a tremendous amount of informal peer pressure to make something that resonated with one's peers. We were always playing games, and always talking about which games were good, and why. Since it only took one person to make a game, there were plenty of new games around, exploring all sorts of different play patterns. It was a very fun environment.”
However, Fulop was faced with a lack of recognition, born from the company’s refusal to credit developers for their work on games. Faced with few options, like many others he hid his initials within the games he produced for the company. In his port Space Invaders, Fulop altered the design of the bottom two rows of aliens just enough to resemble an “R” and an “F” on their sides. In Missile Command, his initials can be found by selecting game number 13, and scoring zero points.
Missile Command went on to become one of the best selling Atari 2600 games, with over 2.5 million copies sold. But, if Fulop was expecting acknowledgment from the company for this achievement, he was sorely disappointed. “Our bonuses came out, and to my surprise, I was given the exact same bonus that Atari gave to the secretaries and manufacturing people - a free turkey courtesy of Armor Star,” he muses. “Meanwhile, the executives in the front office were given lavish six figure bonuses.”
Setting up Imagic
At that point, Fulop decided to leave the company, along with Dennis Koble and Video Pinball designer Bob Smith, and went on to co-found Imagic, the second independent games company, after Activision. Fulop notes that setting up the company was “not very difficult”.
“There was a lot of venture capital around, and it was a proven market,” he recalls.
Fulop’s first title for Imagic was 1982’s Demon Magic for the Atari 2600, a shoot ‘em up inspired by Galaga. The game was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies, and went on to win the Billboard Video Game of the Year award. More importantly, though, Fulop received recognition for the game’s success – not only in terms of the royalties he received, but also in terms of coverage in mainstream media like Newsweek and Evening Magazine.
His next 2600 game for the company was Cosmic Arc, a science fiction game “set long ago in the past, instead of in the future, ala Star Wars”, which saw players navigating a flying saucer through asteroids in an attempt to rescue two of each creature on the game’s various planets. Cosmic Ark sold over one million copies, but the reaction from fans was not strong enough for Fulop to develop the sequel to the game that he had intended. Nonetheless, the title represented the beginnings of a change in mindset for Fulop, who wanted to push the boundaries beyond the shoot ‘em ups he had previous worked on.
“I had grown tired of making games situated in ‘outer space’,” Fulop comments. “I wanted to make a puzzle game.”
Work began on Cubicolor, a sliding panel colour matching 2600 game inspired by the Rubik’s Cube. Unfortunately, after completing development on the title, Imagic “decided that the game was not worthy of release”, and Fulop ended up with 100 EPROMS sitting in a box in his closet.
Instead, Fulop decided to try and continue to push boundaries in other ways, by focusing on story. Fathom cast the player as Proteus, a member of Neptune's Court who is able to turn into a dolphin, and later a seagull, in order to rescue Neptina, Neptune's daughter. At over 150 screens, the game ranks amongst the largest games for the Atari 2600. Fulop admits that “the Atari 2600 was hardly a platform where any type of real ‘storytelling’ could take place”, but suggests that he did “did try to move a little bit in that direction”.
“Games are about the player having some sort of ‘objective’, and something standing in the way of achieving such,” he says. “If you want to tell a ‘story’, the thing standing in the way of the main character's goal is typically some sort of ‘villain’, like Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Big Bad Wolf, etc.”
“It's very challenging to establish a real ‘villain’ in an Xbox game, let alone the 2600,” he continues. “This is because it doesn't work to simply announce to the player that Doctor Doom is a villain, for you to really buy a character as a villain, you need to see that character do bad things. The Wicked Witch only becomes wicked when she takes Toto away from Dorothy early on. That's why we hate her. That's how we know she is a true villain, worthy of being melted by a pail of water. Since in Cosmic Ark and Fathom there really was no ‘villain’ to speak of I really don't count them as ‘stories’, in the classic sense of the word.”
Nevertheless, Fulop’s efforts were once again recognised, winning Billboard's Video Game Designer of the Year award in 1983, an accolade he describes as “great”, adding that he was proud of his work, and “it was nice to have it recognized”. Soon after, though, the “videogame crash” of 1983 occurred, and Imagic, as with the rest of the industry, began to fall apart.
“We had a public stock offering cancelled moments before going public,” Fulop explains. “The management of the company was devastated, and the whole place sort of fell apart after that.”
Gambling At Rabbit Jack's
Fulop left the company, and pitched the idea for an online casino game for the Commodore 64 to Steve Case, head of marketing for Quantum Link Computer Service, who would later become AOL. The game went into development shortly after, and was released in 1985 as Rabbit Jack’s Casino.
”The challenge was that there were no models for how an online multiplayer environment should be set up,” comments Fulop. “Also, testing was a real issue, as there were so many potential bugs that can arise due to the fact that each player could shut down the game if their computer didn't respond in a timely fashion.”
Fulop notes that “a version of Rabbit Jack's Casino still is running on AOL”, adding that he believe the game has “survived the test of time because it was built around on the most reliable play patterns in the world”.
”I mean let's face it,” he muses, “it wasn't like I invented the game of blackjack, slots, bingo or poker. People have always loved these games of chance, it's little wonder liked them in 1985 when Rabbit Jack's was released, and just as little wonder that online poker has became a major business at this point.”
Armies Of Remote Robots!
Following Rabbit Jack’s’ release, Fulop began working as a consultant with Tom Zito and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell on TECHFORCE, an ominous sounding product that he describes as “an army of remote controlled robots which received their commands through digital codes inserted in the encoded 'closed caption' portion of any televised broadcast”.
“The product was never brought to market,” he adds.
However, Fulop and Bushnell continued working together after Bushnell’s company Axlon “signed a deal with Hasbro to develop an interactive videotape based product” – the VHS based NEMO console. Fulop’s venture at the time, Interactive Productions, was asked to develop software for the platform.
“Our first project with NEMO was to craft a demo that showed off what the system was capable of,” he says. “[Director] Jim Riley and I went to see an interactive theatre performance of Tamara, which involved putting 100 spectators in a mansion full of actors, and letting the spectators wander around while the story unfolded. The action took place in six different locations, so if you watched the scene of the maid and butler conspiring in the kitchen, you would miss the scene of the Master of the House arguing with his mistress in the bedroom. Tamara inspired us to develop an interactive mystery game called Scene of the Crime, a five minute mini-game where the player needed to figure out who stole the jewels. The finished demo inspired Hasbro to put up the funding for the entire NEMO product.”
Fulop worked on two games for the system: Sewer Shark, and a “’long form’ version of Scene of the Crime” named Night Trap. With a combined cost of almost $4.5 million to shoot and develop, they were far and away the most expensive games for a number of years.
“The goal was to create a compelling interactive video experience where the player felt like they had realistic ‘control’ of a cinematic experience,” says Fulop. “I think this goal was achieved.”
Unfortunately, just prior to the time the system’s January 1989 release date arrived, the project was cancelled, most likely due to the cost of manufacturing the individual machines, which would have seen them retail for almost $300 – a small fortune, compared to the NES, which was retailing for $100 at the time.
Fulop moved on once more, and began “creating interactive advertised based demos - basically floppy disc based advertising”
“Interactive advertising was all basically the precursor to the banner ad business,” he explains. “I have accepted the fact that I'm typically a bit ‘ahead’ when it comes to interactive media - or more accurately, I've rarely been ‘too late’.”
Also around this time, Interactive Productions began working with Philips on titles for their CD-i platform, which was eventually released in 1991. “It was primitive,” notes Fulop. “No full motion video, limited graphic overlays, slow CD access time. I liked that we were finally on a CD with all the memory available, and the ability to stream audio on the fly. I didn't really like the fact that given it was so new, there were so few tools available to let us develop software reasonably on schedule.”
Among the titles developed for the console at the time were “interactive ‘game show’” Third Degree and electronic magic kit Max Magic. “The CD-i platform was not envisioned as a "gaming" device,” Fulop muses.
Before the end of decade, though, Fulop remembered one more thing that needed to be taken care of. While packing in order to move house, he found the box containing his 100 Cubicolor EPROMS, and decided to sell them himself, at a price of $100 each through videogame collector’s magazine 2600 Connection.
“I quickly sold all but five copies,” he says, “which I still have in the same box in my closet.”
Nowadays, the game is regarded as one of the most valuable Atari 2600 titles, with prices on eBay regularly beginning at $300, and often selling for well over $1000.
1990 saw Fulop founding a new company with John Scull, which he named PF.Magic, though he notes it was, in many ways, “basically a renaming of Interactive Productions”. The company’s first project was developing “an electronic device which would allow two people to play Sega and Nintendo games over the telephone”. The product, Edge-16, was due for release in 1994, but never actually made it to stores.
In October of 1992, the Sega CD was released in the US, along with ports of the games that Fulop had developed for the NEMO published by Tom Zito’s Digital Pictures. While Sewer Shark was largely ignored by the mainstream, Night Trap, which Fulop had intended to be “the equivalent of a cartoon version of the ‘horror’ genre - a very dumbed down version of Nightmare on Elm Street”, caught the eye of concerned parents and politicians alike. Stories were passed around, mostly by those who had not actually experienced the game, about the skimpy underwear sported by the female characters in the title, and the violence inflicted upon them by the game’s antagonists – the vampiric Augs.
Controversy Over Night Trap
“The subsequent witch hunt led by Joseph Lieberman regarding Night Trap was just politics, plain and simple,” says Fulop. “He never personally saw Night Trap, nor did anybody on his staff bother playing the game. I know this because I met him and asked him if he had ever seen Night Trap and he said, ‘no’!”
“Politicians search out ‘causes’ that will get them a lot of favourable publicity without angering a lot of people. Such are a politician’s dream. And in the case of videogames, it's unlikely that any large group would get together to protest putting ratings on videogames. Personally, I have no problem with putting ratings on videogames, who would? The fuss over Night Trap had nothing to do with the actual game, it was simply politics.”
Just over a year later, the game was pulled from shelves, and re-edited. Just months later, in early 1994, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was established, in order to deal with titles like Night Trap, and the equally controversial Mortal Kombat.
Despite this, Fulop says he wouldn’t have altered the game’s content in any way, noting that it features nothing that couldn’t be shown on television. “We decided early on that we would use broadcast television as our ‘line’ in terms of what we would show happening on screen,” he explains. “We stopped well short of this line. No blood, no sex, a minimum of direct conflict between two people. Any episode of Beverly Hills 90210 goes way beyond Night Trap in terms of titillating content. Any episode of CSI goes well past Night Trap in terms of violence.”
From Ballz To Dogz
Meanwhile, PF.Magic was about to release their first title – a fighting game for the SNES and Genesis that features characters comprised entirely of rendered spheres. “I worked with Keith Kirby defining the functional spec for Ballz,” says Fulop, adding that “the game itself was pretty much standard ‘fighting game’ mechanic, and I had little to do with it”.
The next year, the company reworked the graphical engine of Ballz in order to release the Windows based pet sim, Dogz. “I had wanted to do a virtual pet for about ten years prior to starting to work on Dogz,” notes Fulop. “The original notion was to create a computer pet that was unique to computers, but John Scull, my partner convinced me that we should start with a puppy dog.”
“Basically we took the Ballz engine, and built a puppy dog instead of a fighter. The advantage of building a character out of spheres is that a sphere is the only 3D object that looks the same wherever the camera is placed, thus you could represent a sphere-based character simply by recording the center of each sphere, it's radius, and it's color. Thus animation was extremely compact. It's the lifelike quality that gives Dogz and Catz [released a year later, in 1996] their charm.”
The company went on to release sequels to both games in 1997. The success of the Petz franchise made PF.Magic a valuable company, and they were purchased in 1998 by The Learning Company, at which point Fulop decided to leave. Though he didn’t move into education software at that point, Fulop still has strong feelings on the subject.
“To me, there are two types of educational software,” he says. “One type is the stuff sold to schools to be used in classrooms. This is mostly educational content, with a sprinkling of ‘fun’ used to sort of make the kid think he's playing. But the reality is the kid knows he is sitting at school, and basically anything beats listening to their teacher drone on about history, so the Oregon Trail game becomes the hottest thing since the introduction of the Xbox, at least until the bell rings.”
“It's sort of like the 'educational films' we were shown when I was in school. They never in a million years would have deserved a viewing at home, since The Brady Bunch was so much better, but at school, any film was better than listening to Mrs. Hubbard. The other type of educational software is sold into the home, typically to the parents, never to the little ones. This is mostly ‘early learning’ stuff, the interactive equivalent of Sesame Street.”
”I've been involved in a few ‘educational’ titles for older kids, and as such, I tried very hard to redefine the goal,” he continues. “I think the goal of "let's make learning fun" is not right for older kids who can always turn off the game and play Grand Theft Auto at any moment. For older kids, the goal has to be ‘let's make a fun game, maybe a little bit enriching’. The best example of this in today's market is the game Bully, which takes place in a schoolyard, and has a few little ‘school lessons’ thrown in as minigames.”
Recently, he adds, he has begun working in a design capacity with “a start-up casual games company” where he is “trying to craft original interactive entertainment experiences that best leverage the ‘try before you buy’ business model”, though he declines to reveal the name of the company just yet.
”I'm very excited about electronic distribution of interactive media - it's always just 'made sense' to me that digital thingies are best distributed digitally,” he says.