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Interview: Bob Jacob On The Cinemaware Era
Interview: Bob Jacob On The Cinemaware Era Exclusive
January 5, 2010 | By Matt Barton

January 5, 2010 | By Matt Barton
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In 1985, Bob and Phyllis Jacob founded Cinemaware, a company whose Hollywood- and TV-inspired games are some of the most memorable ever designed for the Commodore Amiga and other platforms of the era.

Classic Cinemaware titles like Defender of the Crown, Wings, and the TV Sports series revolutionized the industry by demonstrating the potential of film and television techniques to make games more exciting.

Cinemaware also pioneered highly accessible games that we might call "casual" today, with low learning curves. But games like Wings and Rocket Ranger go beyond graphics and action, investing the player emotionally in richly evocative dramas inspired by classic Hollywood films.

(A subsequent incarnation of Cinemaware, in existence as a standalone entity from 2000 to 2005 and the producer of a console version of Defender Of The Crown, was unrelated to Jacob.)

In this interview, based on game journalist Matt Barton's original video interview, Gamasutra caught up with Bob Jacob to discuss the history of the company, the Amiga, and several of Cinemaware's greatest hits.

You've had a long and fruitful career in the games industry and made an impact that few others could hope to match. How did you first get involved in the industry?

Bob Jacob: I've been involved in the game industry since 1984. I got in fairly early, started off as an agent, and then did some independent producing of games on the Commodore 64, which I sold to Activision and Epyx.

It was a situation back then when you had a programmer and maybe an artist, and you could do a game. So I would fund a game on the Commodore 64, maybe throw 10 to 15 thousand [dollars] into it, and then sell it, which I did successfully.

Then, in 1985, I got my hands on one of the first prereleased Amigas. And I thought, okay, this is going to revolutionize everything -- this is going to be cool. So I spent a year in Salt Lake City, Utah, talking to Mormon doctors and dentists to raise funding for a series of games and a publication company I wanted to start, called Cinemaware. I raised a few million bucks to put some games in development, and the first set of titles we did all went to number one on the 16-bit charts back then.

Cinemaware is certainly one of the most celebrated of all publishers for the Amiga. Can you tell us about the early days of Cinemaware and the state of the industry when Defender of the Crown was being developed?

BJ: The industry was still in its infancy back then, and games looked pretty lousy. The graphics weren't very good. Most games were designed by programmers and didn't really have a strong mass market sensibility.

I was a hardcore gamer myself, but I developed certain concepts for what I liked about games -- and I wasn't seeing them in the games that I bought. I was a fanatic arcade gamer, and I realized that there were certain things about the fun in arcade games that I wanted to bring to the home marketplace.

I also decided that movies would be a great and creative motif for doing games--people like movies, right? It gave us virtually an inexhaustible supply of ideas. I was smart enough and cynical enough to realize that all we had to do was reach the level of copycat, and we'd be considered a breakthrough.

The original concept of Defender of the Crown was actually pretty simple. It was my original concept. I didn't design the game, but I knew pretty much what I wanted to do with it. Essentially, I took the game Risk -- I loved the board game when I was a kid, and I liked the idea of conquering territories. We replaced the dice rolling in Risk with your success and failure at certain action sequences in the game.

Up until that time, the action sequences lived and died by themselves -- they weren't in the context of a story. If there was anything revolutionary involved, it was the idea of incorporating action into a game where your success or failure actually did have an effect on the story and how it progressed.

The other thing I threw in there was a little bit of RPG -- a small role-playing element, the action sequences. We put the player under time pressure, which I tried to do in most of the games of Cinemaware. And we came up with a hybrid kind of game that looked great.

I was able to get Jim Sachs, who was the artist for almost all the scenes in Defender of the Crown. He was just a fantastic, amazing artist. The results spoke for themselves.

We were also fortunate that Electronic Arts came out with Deluxe Paint, which was really critical for our success. Our best-selling games were not on the Amiga -- they were on the Commodore 64. But we could take the 320 x 200 graphics we did on the Amiga and convert them down to 160 x 200 on the Commodore 64 just by removing every other pixel, and the results were astonishing.

What inspired the famous romantic scenes in Defender of the Crown?

BJ: I was a movie buff. What can I tell you? I really wanted to add a sense of romantic byplay to our games because no one had done it. The whole idea of adding sex was new. No one had ever pulled it off before. But I think it helped the vibe of the game; it was something I was interested in doing, and you know what? I always liked chesty women, so we just went for it.

Can you talk a little about [mob movie-inspired] King of Chicago? I'm surprised that we don't hear more about this game today, especially considering the popularity of gangster movies and TV shows today.

BJ: This game was created by Doug Sharp, a school teacher in Minneapolis. When I was an agent, I had repped a game he created on the Commodore 64 called ChipWits, which had a crude but interesting programming language that people could learn how to use [to move a virtual robot around a maze].

When I put the first four Cinemaware titles in development, no one really knew what an interactive movie should be. We were all just guessing. We tried different things.

The Mac version was interesting because we digitized potato heads, basically -- the characters are all lumpy looking. It was another effort to try to do an interactive movie, sort of a choose-your-own adventure thing. What I thought was great was that whether you were there or not, the game kept playing. If you didn't make a decision, it kept moving right along.

Back then, we did use some digitized voices, particularly in Rocket Ranger, my own personal favorite of all the Cinemaware titles. But when you're shipping floppy disks, there's only so much you can do, even with the great audio compression we had back then.

Rocket Ranger?

BJ: I thought Rocket Ranger was the best blend of everything we really tried to come up with. It was a cool story, memorable characters, a classic kind of 50s serial [feel to it].

There's an interesting story behind Rocket Ranger. I knew I wanted to do a game based on the old serials, so my first thought was to go to Republic Pictures, which existed only as a licensing entity at that time. They came out with all the Rocket Man serials back in the 40s and 50s, like Commando Cody: Sky Marshall of the Universe.

I wanted to license Commando Cody, and I thought I had it all worked out, but then Steven Spielberg stole it from me. He didn't do anything with it, though. Then, the other rocket-suited guy at the time was Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer. So I had conversations with Dave Stevens about licensing The Rocketeer for a game, but then Disney came along and they did the movie.

So I said, to hell with it, we're going to create our own character, our own universe, we're just going to do it. Then, about 7 or 8 years after Rocket Ranger was done, The Rocketeer film came out, and I had lunch with Lloyd Levin, the producer of the film. And he actually admitted to me, that if you go back and read The Rocketeer comic books, there never were any zeppelins, ever. They really took the idea for the zeppelins in the movie from my Rocket Ranger game, which I thought was really cool.

Can you tell us about Sinbad: Throne of the Falcon?

BJ: Sinbad is an interesting story. It was solely created by one guy, Bill Williams, who was one of the holdouts of the "one-guy, one-programmer, one-artist" kind of guy. That's the way he was.

Bill was an extremely talented guy. He was living in a geodesic dome near Flint, Michigan. He was a very sweet guy. He subsequently got out of the video game business and became a priest--went from being a programmer to priest. He also had cystic fibrosis, which he was dealing with. He was just a great guy.

When I was a kid, I was always a big fan of all the Sinbad movies, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and all. So it's a Sinbad kind of tribute that appealed to me. It was another of our efforts to find the right format for an interactive movie.

The Three Stooges is certainly one of Cinemaware's most recognized titles and has appeal well beyond the Amiga. Can you tell us about it?

BJ: The Three Stooges was a slam dunk. I really wanted to do a game that was 100 percent pure to the license, and that was the only goal we had. The game was designed by John Cutter, who was involved with all the Cinemaware stuff. It was John's idea to design it basically as a board game that we brought to the computer. It had some great digitized voices.

All the arcade scenes came directly from their movies; they were based on famous bits from The Three Stooges. It was incredibly successful. We actually ended up licensing it to Activision [to port it] to the NES. We really nailed it pretty well.

What drew you to the Amiga? Did that platform's steady decline hurt Cinemaware?

BJ: I was drawn to it because, graphically, it was superior to anything else in the world. I really thought it was going to be a successful hardware platform. It had a limited success here in the U.S.; it was more successful in Europe. Probably the majority of Cinemaware games on the Amiga were sold in Europe.

Commodore was a notoriously badly managed company. If the Amiga had taken off it would have been great for us, but it never did. We were late as a company making the move to the PC.

What really killed Cinemaware was that I made the decision to sell 20% of the company to NEC. It sounds great to have this great Japanese partner. The problem is, NEC came out with the Turbo-Grafx 16.

Movies aren't the only inspiration for Cinemeware games; television also played a role. Can you tell us about the TV Sports games?

BJ: What could be more natural than doing sports games based on TV? One of the things that really hurt us was trying to bring TV Sports Football over to the PC; it was a complete disaster.

What is the relationship between games and movies?

BJ: That's a major topic of conversation. If you look at some of the best-selling games right now -- if you look at Uncharted 2, the recent Call of Duty games -- they are extremely cinematic games.

Twenty-three years ago I knew that was going to happen. There was no question; that's the way it had to go. We had to make the games more movie-like. Until Cinemaware, they were anything but.

The first game I bought was Deadline, by Infocom, with a lot of typing. I quickly came to the realization that trying to guess what was going on in a programmer's mind as a form of entertainment was not something I was interested in. That's why I wanted easy interfaces: no typing, get you right into the game, no manual.

As far as games and movies -- there are inherent problems. The basic reason why so many bad games have been made on film licenses is simply because of a business reality that no one has been able to overcome yet. That reality is that the time it takes a film to [hit theaters after being green-lit] is never more than a year. What kind of a game can you do in a year? Generally a piece of crap.

EA can get around that a little bit by throwing a few hundred guys at a project. But for the most part, it's been a pretty sorry history, and until we can solve the basic timing issues it's going to be tough.

We shouldn't forget about Wings, my personal favorite.

BJ: I'm very proud of Wings. Wings was a direct reaction to me going out and buying Falcon. Falcon came with a 365-page manual, and I quickly realized I was not going to invest the time to learn this thing in order to enjoy a flight simulator.

So I thought, "What kind of flight simulator should Cinemaware do?" It'd have to be one that didn't require a manual. The manual that did ship with Wings was all about the history of air combat in World War I; it didn't have anything to do with the controls of the game.

We wanted to do a game that was more than just an arcade game. What do you do? What we came up with was a diary of your adventures in the war to put it into an historical context -- it gave it some emotional context. The other idea was an RPG component and the idea of winning medals, improving your rank.

Of course we had an interesting combination of 3D combat and the strafing done in 2D. It's a title I'm very proud of, and I'm glad you like it!

Finally, how about It Came from the Desert?

BJ: It Came from the Desert was probably the one Cinemaware title that I had the least creative involvement with. It was the brainchild of David Reardon, a guy who had worked at Lucasfilm.

He was into some of the early games like Dragon's Lair. He had a certain creative sensibility, and I loved the idea of a big-bug game like Them! It was a terrific title for the time. We came out with a sequel that was actually embedded in the original game's code.

What effect did illegal distribution have on your company? Did it contribute to the company's downfall?

BJ: Piracy was a problem. Back then, we had a much smaller installed base, so any piracy is an issue. But piracy isn't the reason Cinemaware went down. It went down for many other reasons. Piracy may have hurt our profitability a bit, but it didn't bring us down.

Look, I've got to tell you something here. I had a five-year rush. Imagine being in a position where you could put any game you wanted into development. At that time in the industry, if you were an innovator, you were gold. It was a great time, probably the most fun five years I've ever had in my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Do you have any advice for aspiring game developers today?

BJ: The games industry has changed somewhat. It's harder to get into, it's harder to make an impact. But it's not impossible. There is clearly always a market for a truly original concept that has mass market appeal.

Battlefield 1942 is a perfect example of that. Up until Battlefield, no one had seen a real-time combined land, sea, air combat game [in] multiplayer. It was original.

The guys who started that company were 27 guys on the south coast of Sweden [who had been] doing pinball games. They had this idea. That idea eventually made all those guys over a hundred million dollars. It can still be done.


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