The Replay Interviews: Bob Jacob
December 15, 2010 Page 1 of 4
[In the writing of his history of the video game industry, Replay, author Tristan Donovan conducted a series of important interviews which were only briefly excerpted in the text. Gamasutra is happy to here present the full text of his interview with Bob Jacob, who helped push games to their cinematic destiny with his Cinemaware studio.]
Bob Jacob's Cinemaware was a company ahead of its time, exploring the connections between film and games in the years before CD-ROMs through games such as Rocket Ranger, It Came from the Desert and, most famously, its 1986 debut Defender of the Crown.
He also started one of the first developer agencies and his career has now come full-circle as he is back representing developers across the world.
In the latest in a series of interviews carried out for Tristan Donovan's book Replay: The History of Video Games and being published by Gamasutra, Jacob explains how and why he sought to marry Silicon Valley and Hollywood -- and how that became the story of the company's demise.
You formed the Robert Jacob Agency back in the early days of the game industry. How did that happen?
Bob Jacob: In 1982 my wife and I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. And I sold our business in Chicago and moved to California with no job, just some time to think about what I wanted to do.
So I started hanging out at the Thousand Oaks California Public Library and they had just gotten in a bunch of computers. I noticed all these kids were hanging out in this computer room and I said, "Well, this is sort of a phenomenon, this is kind of interesting."
So I made my way in there and befriended some of these kids. I was in my early 30s and they were about 12 years old -- my wife was very curious as to what I was up to (laughs). But I was trying a lot of games. I became a fanatic arcade gamer. I became hooked.
I bought a PC and I joined some local Southern California user groups and I met some programmers who I thought had some interesting software projects they were working on. But these guys were not very articulate, they really had no chance of trying to sell themselves or what they were working on. So I thought what these guys really need is an agent, someone who can talk and hopefully be persuasive and knowledgeable about software.
So what caused you to move from being an agent to running a games company?
BJ: It was 1984. I got a call from a company called Island Graphics that had a contract to develop three graphics programs for the Commodore Amiga. This company and Commodore had a falling out, so Island wanted to place the project elsewhere.
I went up to see them and I had never seen an Amiga before. It was really cool. After seeing the Amiga I figured things were going to be different and I wanted to take a more direct approach to game development.
Cinemaware had two names. Cinemaware was the brand, but the company was Master Designer Software…
BJ: The initial name was Master Designer Software. I guess, my rationale for that name was I wanted to appeal to the egos of game designers (laughs). About a year into the company though, Cinemaware was what we were known by; everyone was calling us that anyway. So it seemed reasonable to just change the name of the company to our successful brand.
So what was your vision for Cinemaware?
BJ: Well the vision was I wanted to tell stories, but I wanted to give people a movie-like experience. So what does that mean exactly? There were a lot of implications to that, both subtle and not so subtle. I've never really explained this to anybody in an interview before, but I became obsessed actually with the idea of trying to create games that had the mood-altering quality of an arcade game, but had a story and some minor RPG aspects.
What I really liked about arcade games was that when I was playing a game I couldn't think about anything else. I couldn't think about my problems with this thing or that thing. It took up all my attention and it definitely became a mood-altering experience.
At that time, I thought computer games were very crude. A lot of them had keyboard interfaces, ugly graphics -- a whole host of elements that would really serve to kick you out of the experience. They were slow.
So I thought, "How do I address some of these issues and come up with games that I would want to play on a computer?" I wanted games that had a faster pace and put pressure on the player. I had a breakthrough creatively with the idea that I wanted action games but I didn't want action by itself. I wanted the action elements and the success or failure in those, to branch the story, to move things along. Action for a purpose. That was important to me.
I wanted to throw in some romantic elements. I just wanted to create a different feeling kind of game. I was in my early 30s at the time. I wanted to have a game that could appeal to more than just 12-year-old boys. So creatively that's essentially what I was trying to do and if you consider movies as a goal, then creatively it was great because we had all kinds of genres of movies to shoot for.
You know, we had knights in shining armor with Defender of the Crown, we had gangster movies with The King of Chicago, the Sinbad movies, the old-time family serials like Rocket Ranger, we licensed The Three Stooges. It became a really nice collection of creativity.
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