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Playing Catch Up:  Conflict 2500 's William Volk
Playing Catch Up: Conflict 2500's William Volk
April 19, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

April 19, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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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 William Volk, developer of Conflict 2500, former VP of Technology with Activision and technical director on the company’s groundbreaking CD-ROM title Return to Zork.

Volk first encountered video games in college the late ‘70s while working a “study job” at the University of Pennsylvania. As well as playing Steve Russell’s Spacewar on a PDP-11 mainframe, Volk also had access to a copy of Don Daglow’s Star Trek which had been ported to the Commodore PET and “various arcade games”. In 1978, he was asked to take a microprocessor applications class at Moore College of Engineering because there “wasn't enough students”, and ended up creating a version of Lunar Lander for the Cromenco microcomputer.

Starting With Avalon Hill

While attending Graduate School at the University of Maryland in 1979, Volk began working with Avalon Hill, a strategic board game and wargaming company which had recently started working on ports of mainframe text games like B1 Bomber and Nuke War. Initially starting in quality assurance, Volk tested titles like Chris Crawford's Legionnaire and 1980 game Lords of Karma, “a text adventure with a great 'book' in the package”. Eventually, Volk moved into a position that allowed him to create his own titles, and came up with the idea of a “game with graphics that had the play of the classic Star Trek game but with more complex scenarios”.

“At the time I was a big fan of the animated show Star Blazers [also known as Space Battleship Yamamoto] and borrowed the themes for Conflict 2500,” he says. “2500 was a turn based strategy game where you could set up the number of enemy ships, your bases, planets, and ships. Ship to ship refueling was possible. It was an ambitious game for its day.”

The game was released in early 1981 for Apple II, Atari, TRS-80 and Commodore PET. Later that year the company released Volk’s Voyager 1, a 3D maze game with a four levels and 144 locations which he describes as his “favorite” game developed for Avalon Hill.

“Wireframe 3D and all,” he grins.

In 1982, the company released Controller, which would prove to be the last game Volk developed for Avalon Hill. “I loved working with the Avalon Hill folks,” he enthuses. “Great people.”

Moving Across To... Epson?

However, Volk ended up working with Epson the next year, avoiding the industry crash. “The story behind that,” he explains, “is that I had written some graphics packages for the Atari 800 - Forth Turtle Graphics Plus, Val Graphics and Val World - and I wanted to sell Epson's Rising Star division the 3D drawing stuff. Instead they gave me a "name your price" employment offer and within a year I was running the West Coast programming group. I moved to California and have been here ever since. My best effort was a complete CAD system that ran in a 60KB address space with some great features called ValDraw.

Volk worked within Epson until 1985, when co-founded Mac software publisher Aegis with Dave Barrett, Michelle Mehterian, and John Skeel “I wanted to do Macintosh software,” he says. “I was so impressed by the system.”

The first product from the company was The Pyramid of Peril, a 3D adventure that took Volk’s ideas from Voyager and “extended them into a richer first person shaded 3D real time shooter/adventure” inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Both Voyager and Pyramid had some cool features; a 2D map of the game that was based on what you had seen, random level generation, etc.,” he recalls. “Pyramid was ‘fixed perspective’ in that you could only look in 4 directions, but it was a fun game.”

Impressively, the game was “designed, programmed, duplicated and packaged” in just 30 days. ““I fondly recall heat shrinking boxes the night before the first Mac World show in 1985,” Volk laughs.

Building Up Aegis

The game was followed later in the year by the “unluckily named” Mac Challenger, a wireframe 3D shuttle landing simulator featuring a multi-camera replay and an auto-pilot function. However, the recent release of the Commodore Amiga inspired the company to change its focus to desktop video production, and saw Aegis producing 2D and 3D animation, video titling and music composition programs. Aegis also published Rolf Dieter-Klein and Martin Ulrich’s Ports of Call in 1987, which Volk labels “one of the best economic simulations - in this case the business of ships - ever released”.

Later, the company also began work on a Mayan themed “intensive graphic adventure” for the Philips CD-i, even going so far as to shoot footage for the project. “I can tell you that in 1988 everyone in the game business wanted CD-i to succeed,” Volk says. “The disappointment was the incredible delays and poor management at Philips and [Philips’ software arm] American Interactive Media. In a way Microsoft played a role by pushing RCA to show the full motion video DV-I system at the 1986 CD-ROM conference. Philips delayed CD-i to figure out what to do about the DV-I challenge, although DV-I never shipped. This was the first time I encountered Mr. Gates and I was impressed at the brilliance of this business strategy - they effectively used DV-I to delay CD-i to the point of non-relevancy. By 1989, most of the game companies had lost faith in CD-i and American Interactive Media decided they didn't need the game companies to succeed. We all know how that worked out.”

A&R For The Manhole?

Volk had well and truly left the company by 1989, though – leaving the previous year due to “personal issues”, leaving the CD-I project unfished. Having met Richard Lehrberg, Vice-President and General Manager of the entertainment division at Activision, a few years earlier while working on Mac Challenger, Volk decided to ask for a job with the company, and was hired as Director of Technology. “The week I arrived,” he says, “on Richard's desk was a blue box with five 3.5" Mac floppies.”

This box contained The Manhole, a HyperCard adventure by brothers Robyn and Rand Miller which had just released by mail order through their company Cyan Inc. “Perhaps the best thing I ever did in this business is push for Activision to publish [The Manhole],” Volk muses. “Sherry Roach was also a strong advocate for this title. Activision had a line of Hypercard products called Ten-Point-O, so that made sense. The title was well liked and having the opinion that CD-i was never going to happen for at least a year, I decided that we should push for a CD-ROM version for the Macintosh. It became the first CD-ROM game ever released.”

“We decided to focus on adding a full digitally recorded score to the game - not MIDI, but actual recordings,” Volk continues. “We shipped basically the same title as the five floppy version, but with a slew of backing digital audio tracks. What's interesting is we scripted this by breaking the audio into eight second segments that were randomly accessed from the CD as the game was played. In that, the game wasn't 'locked' during the playback of the digital audio.”

The game was released in early 1989, and Volk spent the rest of that year and much of the next working on ports of the title for various platforms, including PC, the NEC 9801 and Fujitsu’s FM-Towns. “I went to Japan with Paul Kohler and Toshio Fujioka - the head of Activision Japan at the time - and helped to sell this game to Fujitsu and others,” he explains. “The Fujitsu FM-Towns deal was quite lucrative for its day.”

Volk was promoted to VP of Technology for the studio as a result of the game’s success, but Activision was going through a number of financial issues, including an ill-advised decision to get involved with non-gaming software under the name Mediagenic, and the continued monetary fallout from a 1985 patent lawsuit from Magnavox in regards to Activision’s publishing of “ball and paddle” games.

“The saddest thing about the patent judgment is that it almost put Activision out of business,” Volk sighs. “Almost everyone was laid off and we lost Cyan as a developer. We could have been the publisher of Myst! Amazing.”

Activision's Near-Death Throes

The company changed management, with former Four Kids Entertainment CEO and Director and then-BHK Corporation head Robert Kotick stepping in as Director, Chairman of the Board and CEO in after acquiring a controlling interest in the company in February 1991. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and lost the majority of its staff at this time, but still managed to develop and release a number of titles – most notably, Steven Meretzky’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2, which Volk helped program, since the company was down to just 12 people at the time.

“It was designed to be a funny easy to play game and what we learned is that this not what the market wanted,” he says. “It was the last title I worked on at the Menlo Park address [before the company moved further to the south of California].”

Volk was retained, he believes, due to the fact that he and Kotick had met a few times in “the Amiga days”, with Kotick actually holding an controlling interest in the publishing of Ports of Call by the end of the decade.

“I also think Bobby believed in my vision on the multimedia adventure stuff,” he muses, “and Return to Zork proved him correct.”

Building Return To Zork

Activision had been working with full motion video technology since 1989 – Volk points out that the only game to use the technology before Return to Zork was “the DOS version of Joe Montana Football” in its opening – and the company decided to combine this with the technology developed for The Manhole and Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2. With former Electronic Arts employee Eddie Dombrower working as the game’s producer, Volk once again worked as technical director and aimed to create an interface that “would give the game the rich gameplay of a text adventure in a first person full motion video format”. The result was a point and click interface that he refers to as “the diamond reverse-parser”.

“The interface represents some of my best work,” he says enthusiastically. “For example you could take pictures in the game and ask NPCs about the picture. Every conversation was recorded and you could ask characters about that as well, objects too. The object to object interface allowed for elaborate puzzles such as setting fire to an object or putting water on a object. The graphics were generated on banks of Mac Quadras and we shot green screen footage of actors.”

“I wanted to create the best adventure game possible,” he adds. “I believe we had some brilliance in the game, but the puzzles were often unfair and the story a bit uneven. The actors were funny, but in a way it showed just how limiting the use of video can be in a game.”

Nonetheless, the game was one of the first titles to sell exceptionally well on the CD-ROM format. “It sold 2 million units,” Volk exclaims happily, “helped to bring the company out of bankruptcy; building it was an adventure in every sense of the word. What a great team of people. Eddie has to be one of the best producers in the business.”

Onward To Lightspan

Volk wanted to continue to work with the Return to Zork interface, but Activision had begun to move more towards Myst-like gameplay, which Volk laughs is “ironic when you think of it”. Leaving the company, he was soon recruited at the first 3DO Conference to run game development for the Lightspan Partnership, an educational multimedia company with plans of distributing content to schools. “Their challenge was to produce the equivalent of 100 titles in a very short time,” Volk explains. “I had done several children's games at Activision - The Manhole, Rodney's Fun Screen, Richard Scarry - and I wanted to do something for education since I had children of my own. It was a very good time,
lots of fun.”

Utilizing ideas he had developed regarding design and asset management, as well as the “experience of top level animators like Dave Hamby”, the company began to successfully work along its tight production schedule. Unfortunately, its plans of releasing Macromedia Director produced content for “interactive television set-top boxes with video on demand” quickly fell apart. “Now, this was the mid 1990s,” Volk notes, “and it became clear that this was never going to happen.”

By the end of 1995, the company had over 60 titles developed with no way of getting the content to schools, as well as over 300 employees and over $60 million invested in the Partnership.

“What I'm most proud of,” says Volk, “is that I worked to convince management to move everything to the Sony PlayStation and ran the effort to make that happen, with help from some very talented individuals like Sergio Garcia and Margy Hillman. We started in January of 1996, created an offsite 'skunk-works' and by the summer we had for first titles out.”

“The key to this was a game engine created by Dave Warhol's Real Time Associates. I worked with Dave - who had worked for me at Rising Star – and we added the functionality needed for these educational titles: readable text, motion video etc. The tool allowed programmers to build titles on a PC that would run on a PlayStation. It enabled us to scale up development, although it was not a pretty system to use. Eventually, we would have 100 SKUs for the PS1 that were sold directly to schools and are still in use today.”

Interestingly, the games were only sold to schools due to Sony’s own determination not to repeat 3DO’s mistakes. “3DO tried to be too many things to too many people so Sony wanted the PlayStation to be all about games,” Volk explains. “So, we weren't allowed to sell the Lightspan titles to the public at first. Of course some of us wanted to sell them as a ‘game package’ but that never got approved. Lightspan's titles won awards are were well received; unfortunately, the initial public offering occurred right before the tech market crash of 2000.”

Volk moved on from the company, and began consulting for other educational companies in 2000. After finding himself “frustrated with faxed proofs” he founded ZipProof, “a service for web based proofing of designs” for which he is still CTO and Chairman.

Why Mobile Distribution Is Tricky

After working at James Cameron's Earthship TV in 2000 and 2001 and at Teknik Digital Arts in 2003, Volk also founded Bonus Mobile – a mobile game developer - with Sherri Cuono. The company had a reasonable degree of success with The Dozens, a multiplayer mobile “poker/war game” based on an idea by the Wayans brothers. Volk remains critical of that side of the industry, though, noting that the main “problem with mobile gaming is ‘distribution is destiny’.”

“Games are sold on the ‘carrier decks’,” he says. “These are the game menus on the phone. You are basically selling to Cingular, Sprint, Verizon, etc. and people see the game offerings as a line of text, so licenses and franchises absolutely dominate. With The Dozens we tried to launch direct purchasing of the mobile game from the card decks. A card in the deck had instructions on how to buy the game with a text message or from a web site. We had SMS, WAP, Java, and even a Brew version of the title, but marketing issues hurt the sales of the game. It did win awards, it was a great multiplayer game. You could even turn off a phone, turn it on again, and be back in the game with another player.”

“Mobile gaming is disappointing,” he sighs. “MMetrics reports that 70% of mobile game buyers never buy a second mobile game. The poor software platforms - porting is a major expense - and the limitations of the distribution systems are much to blame. I could create a richer experience on the Amiga in 1986 than I can on most mobile phones today. Bloated interpreters just don't make sense on this sort of platform. It looks like that no game developers were ever consulted on the initial versions of these software platforms.”

In 2005 he left the company to run MyNoMo, “a web portal that allows independent artists access to the mobile market for ringtones, wallpapers, and videos”.

“And yes,” he adds with a smile, “we do produce and develop games.”

As for a return to more traditional games development, Volk is unsure. “Magic-8 Ball says, ‘maybe’,” he laughs. “I'd love to bring back adventure gaming. I miss it. I teach a game design class at the Art Institute of California, and 20 year old students still talk about great adventures like Monkey Island even today. We have physics models, great 3D engines - why can't I be MacGyver in a great fantasy story?”


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