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Playing Catch-Up:  Bubsy 's Michael Berlyn
Playing Catch-Up: Bubsy's Michael Berlyn
October 3, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi

October 3, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi
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More: Console/PC, Indie



Todayís Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, sits down for a phone chat with Infocom pioneer and Bubsy the Bobcat designer Michael Berlyn.

An author by trade, Berlyn was first exposed to computer games on the same Apple II he used to author his third novel, Integrated Man, way back in 1979. The game was The Colossal Cave, the first piece of software ever produced in the text-only genre that would come to be coined "interactive fiction." Berlyn was so impressed by the potential of the medium that he founded his own company, Sentient Software, and wrote his first of many games - a sci-fi romp called Cyborg, two years later. Cyborg didn't net him a fortune, but it was certainly enough to get his foot in the door at Infocom - considered by most to be the cream of the crop of interactive fiction publishers - in 1982.

There, Berlyn authored - either by himself or with co-author Jerry Wolper - a number of interesting adventures, including Infidel, Cutthroats, and an experimental fusion of computer and board games, Fooblitzky. Because of Infocom's policy of not hiring employee spouses, Berlyn and his wife Muffy founded their own company, Brainwave Creations, in 1985. Together they authored a handful of titles, including an offbeat and hilarious exaggeration of 1980s culture called Tass Times in Tonetown, before packing their bags and moving to Cape Cod, California and accepting a producing role at a modest studio called Electronic Arts. "I produced a couple products of them, one of which was notable because it's the first product by the guys who did Crash Bandicoot," he said. "They were just college kids at the time." The developer was Naughty Dog, and the game was the spoof RPG Keef the Thief, the adventures of an amateur thief who destroyed killer chickens, spent far too long looking for adventures at pubs, and attempted to pillage everything in sight. Eventually Berlyn accepted a job offer at Accolade, producing their first graphic adventure - Steve Cartwright-penned Search for the King, as well as his own original adventure, Altered Destiny, before being burned out on the genre.

"I kind of got tired of adventure this and adventure that," he said. "I saw this game called Sonic the Hedgehog and said to myself, 'Oh, I can really get into this, I can really see something.' So I played Sonic for nearly 14 hours a day for a week. I was just overwhelmed by it. And out of that came Bubsy." Bubsy in: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, a 16-bit platforming game with an obvious ode to classic cartoon ethics, was released with aggressive marketing and favorable reviews in 1993. Berlyn, with Muffy in tow, moved to Oregon, reuniting and founding a small development company with Infocom co-founder Mark Blank. That company, Eidetic, produced a number of early products for the Apple Newton line of computers before the draw of the console market and Berlyn's feline friend hooked Eidetic back up with Accolade. "They had put out Bubsy 2," he said, "and just about killed the franchise. So we came on-board and did Bubsy 3D." That game, one of the first experiments in bringing platform game design to a 3D world, shipped at just about the same time as a little game called Super Mario 64. "I took one look at Mario and said, 'Oh, crap.'" he said. On its own, the game may have had its chance with early 3D adopters, but it just couldn't keep up with its now-legendary competition.

"We learned a lot about 3D design and coding and the environment and what could and what couldnít be done," he said, "and we went to Sony to pitch them on doing a product. We brought a prototype for Bubsy 4, which was really just nothing other than a calling card. And they could see where we had taken it, and said, 'Oh yeah, weíd be interested in doing a product with you. Absolutely not a furry animal product, though, we already have one of those." At this time, the Sony marketing machine was busy placing their new mascot, Crash Bandicoot, into pizza commercials. "So we said okay, pick a product any product, and by mutual consent, we agreed to do Syphon Filter." Syphon Filter, a 3D action game obviously inspired by Metal Gear Solid, would prove to be Berlyn's last. "I will say this as nicely and tactfully as I can: I did not like what the game business had become, the people who were driving it, or the nature of the product. I left before it was done and said, 'Do not put my name on the product.' I walked away from my own company. When you tell me you want to put a monk or a nun in my game and have them standing there holding guns so I can justify having the players shoot them, I think that crosses the boundaries of good taste. It doesnít offend ME, but itís got to be in bad taste, and you have to know that."

After founding a small book/interactive fiction re-publisher, the Berlyns made the trip back to their home state of Florida, where most of their family remained, and started a successful dot-com business with Defender of the Crown and Centurion designer Kellyn Beck. "So here we sat, having fun, drinking margaritas by the pool, playing craps once in a while, doing nothing special and nothing exciting. And one day, someone from the United States Treasury Department decided to burst the dot-com bubble, and there went my money." Berlyn now finds himself back in the games industry he swore off years ago. "It's either this or make hamburgers," he said. "I'm back by default." His first game since Syphon Filter, an entry into the casual PC games market called Triblettes. "I find that [casual games] are less offensive in every way shape and form. Iím not a highly ethical moral person, or anything, but this market just answers all of my problems with where the business had gone when I was still working on Syphon Filter." Berlyn coded and designed the game himself, wrote all of the music, and even did the cutesy character designs and animations with his wife and longtime collaborator, Muffy. "Itís all a lot of fun. And the products arenít small by any means! Nor are they unsophisticated. But you can wear a lot of hats, you can do a lot of things, and thereís nobody to say no. And I donít have to manage a $2 million budget with a team of twenty people, most of whom couldnít even write a check because theyíre so dysfunctional."

Triblettes is being published by Big Fish Games, and is available for download as of last week. Michael Berlyn has already moved on to his next product, another game for the casual crowd, which is rapidly approaching alpha and should be unveiled in the not-too-distant future.

[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website. He thanks infocom-if.org for help in compiling this article.]


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