I've read that you got your own likeness into each Cinemaware game - a bit like Hitchcock appearing in his films. Is that true?
BJ: It's true actually. But it was not a mandate that I dictated -- it was something that the employees did as a lark.
So when did you first find out?
BJ: I think I first found out in TV Sports Football. There was a cutaway scene to a crowd shot and there I was in the middle of the crowd screaming my head off. It was quite satisfying to my ego at the time.
TV Sports Football is interesting because it's where video game sport has gone -- rather than trying to simulate the sport it simulates the TV coverage.
BJ: (Laughs) I think of EA Sports and I go "Yes, that was my idea." (laughs) Early on I saw that people relate to sports through television and the way to do it was to emulate the TV broadcast.
Like in TV Sports Football we had the scores in other games around the league in progress, we had a halftime show, we had marching bands, we had announcers, we had everyone. It was way ahead of its time.
With your choice of the Amiga as the company's primary focus, the European market must have been particularly important to Cinemaware…
BJ: It was. We were typically selling more action games in Europe than we would in North America. The UK and the German market in particular were very strong.
How well known is Cinemaware in North America? The Amiga was a mainstream format in Europe, so you were a mainstream company in Europe.
BJ: Don't forget, we also did games on other platforms. All our games were cross-platform. All of our games were released on PC and Atari ST. And most on the Commodore 64 and some on the Macintosh. So we weren't exclusively tied to the Amiga.
We generally used the Amiga as the target platform for original development. Here's a thing that I was right and wrong about. I was absolutely right that the machine that would revolutionize the game business was released in 1985. It was. But it was the NES, not the Amiga. (laughs). You know, I had opportunities to get involved early on in the NES and I didn't.
Everything's easier with hindsight…
BJ: It certainly is.
Cinemaware also imported European games to the US…
BJ: Spotlight Software? Yes, we were a company, at one point, of over 50 people and we weren't releasing enough titles to be able to support that number without selling more games. So to help alleviate that, we created a company called Spotlight Software and we bought some pretty hot UK and European built titles for sale in North America. Probably the best-known title was Speedball. It was quite successful.
What did you make of the games being made in Europe then compared to those in the US? They were still very separate territories at the time.
BJ: Fortunately, the games that we were doing were able to sell around the world, which was unusual in those days. I mean, the themes were pretty universal, so everywhere from Japan and Europe to North America were successful territories for us. Back when Japan was big, most European games were being built for the European marketplace. That's still true of, like, Germany. A lot of games built in Germany stay in Germany.
It Came from the Desert
It Came from the Desert became Cinemaware's first CD-ROM game and was one of the earliest CD games. What was the appeal of working with CD?
BJ: It was clear the CD-ROM was going to be the future of games. We saw that early on. At that point in time, people like Sierra were releasing games with like 10 disks in it. It was getting crazy. So clearly we needed more storage and we could see that CDs were going to be the future. And so we thought, "Well, if this is going to be the future, why not jump on it early?" So we did, and it was one of the first CD-ROM titles.
How did it change the development process?
BJ: With the addition of CD we were able to dramatically increase the amount of voice that we had. Voice had been in a lot of Cinemaware titles, but we were obviously constrained by the limits of floppy disk-based media. But once we got to a CD-ROM, we could open it up and so a lot of the stuff that was done through text in the floppy disc version of the game was done through voice on the CD. I think it made a much more movie-like experience.
There must have been very few actors with experience on video game work. How much of a learning curve was it?
BJ: We got actors that had experience in radio. So it was still kind of crude and they weren't big-name people, but they knew how to operate around a mic and a sound studio. So we took advantage of that. By today's standards it was very crude, but for the time it was a breakthrough.
My understanding is NEC funded It Came from the Desert because they wanted it for the PC Engine. What's the story?
BJ: In retrospect this was the decision that killed Cinemaware. We sold 20 percent of the company to NEC in Japan. Why were they interested in investing in us? Well they saw us as a high-quality developer and they were going to be releasing the PC Engine in the United States under the name TurboGrafx-16 to compete with the Genesis and Nintendo.
So at the time I thought, "Hey, getting some money for this would be good" and being partially-owned by a Japanese company that could acquire us all at some point for a bunch of money, what could be bad? So we said yes and did the deal. We obligated a significant proportion of the resources of the company to doing development for NEC on the TurboGrafx-16.
Well, ultimately, the TurboGrafx-16 failed miserably. The Americans who directed the involvement with Cinemaware were all summarily fired and we had run up some debt for the company doing some of these trial games in the expectation it would pass. All of a sudden we were in very bad straits.
How much funding went into the CD version of It Came from the Desert?
BJ: It was a pretty expensive project and I think it cost maybe $700,000, which in those days was a large amount of money.
How many times more is that than your normal development budget at the time?
BJ: On Genesis cartridges, you could do a really good game for $150,000. So I would say it probably cost four or five times more than a typical cartridge game.