1. What years did you work with HVS and what do you do now?
I started with HVS in 1993. At that time, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were mature platforms. While I was at HVS we worked on (not in order) the Genesis, Super Nintendo, Sega GameGear, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn, Sega 32x, Matsushita M2, Windows 95, Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, Playstation 2... what else? I'm probably forgetting a few.
I left on 9/9/1999, which happened to be the day the Sega Dreamcast was released. Just a coincidence :) it wasn't like the Dreamcast was the last straw or anything :)
After that, I started making games independently for the Palm Pilot. That was great fun, did that for a long time, until Palm completed the transition to FacePalm. I worked at another game studio for a while after that, and now I still write software, but not in the gaming industry anymore. Every now and then I think about kicking out a new iPhone game, but haven't gotten around to clicking XCode->File->New Project yet, so that probably won't happen for a while!
2. What can you tell us about the company? Did it not get its start with Atari?
HVS was a straight-up independent video game company. Originally we were working on Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo games for publishers. I had somewhat of a corporate programming gig out of college. I knew Kerry (HVS founder) in a roundabout way from the Chicago BBS scene. He knew I was a programmer from that scene, from some demos I had done. Somehow he tracked me down on a BBS, and I can't tell you how blown away I was by this whole idea. This may sound naive, but at the time I really didn't have any idea that anybody in Chicago was making video games for Genesis or SNES, or that you even could. HVS had maybe 3 people at the time. I would take off early from my other job and go check things out at the original HVS office. I was sitting there modifying Sonic the Hedgehog on the SN Systems Genesis dev kit, disassembling code, giving myself infinite free lives, and playing for hours on a little TV next to a computer. Needless to say I quit my job and joined forces with HVS. It's still exciting to think about today.
There was no bootstrap from a big publisher. It was entirely a leap of faith. The basic model was - find a publisher at E3 (or CES, in the early days), pitch them your own games or see if they have a game that needs to be made. They pay for the development and promise royalties. The game either gets published or the publisher goes broke or the game is published and the publisher pretends to be broke so they don't have to pay you, standard game industry stuff. Rinse and repeat.
3. HVS first game as a company was White Men Can't Jump. That was done for Twentieth Century Fox. I'm assuming somehow as a newborn company you guys were gotten ahold of by Twentieth Century and asked to do this game for the new Atari Jaguar? Do you know if this is how you guys got Atari's attention as a company?
White Men Can't Jump came via Trimark Interactive. They had acquired the video game rights for the movie. The sequence of events is a bit hazy for me. We had a really good relationship with Bill Rehbock at Atari, and also with the guys from Trimark, but I don't recall exactly what came first. As far as I know, this all came out of a CES blitz (CES is the Consumer Electronics Show, where video games were shown before E3 existed. It was twice a year, once in Las Vegas and once in Chicago - I had been going to the Chicago show since I was 16, another long story...). We would take trade shows by storm, talking to anyone and everyone. Kerry would book meetings with EVERYBODY, we were always running from publisher to publisher. I would give very impassioned pitches about how we could and would do anything under the sun. If I had to guess, we may have connected with Atari first at a Chicago CES, and the Trimark relationship came after that, but I really don't recall the exact sequence.
The idea of a "license" back then was really important. There was quite a bit of "common knowledge" in the business, all of which was totally flawed of course, but one of the bits of wisdom was, if you wanted your game to sell, it had to have a "license" attached. Of course, you wanted a license like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles", but hey, in a pinch, here's a movie that some people have probably seen, better than nothing - I think that was Trimark's strategy. For us, it fit our model - you'll pay us to develop it, we'll learn a new system in the mean time, grow our skill set, grow our portfolio, build relationships, etc., and hey, if it sells 50 million units somehow, icing on the cake. And of course it gave us a nice relationship with Atari.
There are some famous reviews of that game out there, but developing it was a really fascinating experience. We were all into rotoscoping back then, that was the cool technology because of Mortal Kombat. All of the moves in the game were actually done by real dudes jumping off a small trampoline. I mean... when you see a guy in the game jump in the air, do a FLIP, and slam dunk, a dude actually DID that in real life. There is a locally-famous organization in Chicago known as the Jesse White Tumblers (in fact I just saw them perform on the 4th of July this year!) and they have kids who can do these amazing things. We hired them.
We just videotaped it, and our artists had to cut out all the frames in Deluxe Paint. There was no blue-screen... we filmed it all in a gym...
It was all good experience for things we did down the line - in later years we were always very efficient with mocap studio time because we learned the hard way how many different motions you really need... we learned to come prepared with a COMPREHENSIVE move list and burn through it with time left over for do-overs...
The programming for that was all done by Adisak, he did the 3D work with a doom-style perspective-correct basketball court.
4. HVS second game as a company was Ruiner, is that correct? It seems Atari contacted you folks to do a Pinball game for them? Can you tell us about that arrangement?
We pitched the idea of a pinball game to Atari. I liked pinball, we all liked pinball, we liked the idea of doing a pinball game. I loved Raster Blaster and Night Mission Pinball on the Apple ][ as a kid. Both of those games are still incredibly awesome! The way we pitched the game is how I've basically done everything since - make a demo, and they can't say no. Kerry gave me free reign to make a demo of a pinball game. I wrote one in a few days. We pitched the idea of the game with a working demo, they said ok, I was really pretty excited. If I ever need to pitch an idea these days, the demo comes first - It's easy to say no to a sketch, almost impossible to say no to something that is already running...
We started working on the game, at some point Atari said they needed a name for the game. I think they were releasing a list of "coming soon" games to promote the Jaguar, so they needed a title. I looked at my stack of CDs... Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral was on the top. I told Kerry "Ruiner" was the name, he faxed it over, and there you go. I still like the name :) (btw if you look at the track listing for that album, almost every other song title would make a hilariously BAD name for a game... e.g. "I Do Not Want This" :)
THAT game was another very cool development experience - the game gets criticisms, if you ask my wife what really drove me nuts about the game (she was my girlfriend at the time), she'll say "the flippers"... I had two ways to do the flippers, one which leveraged the collision detection of the rest of the board, and one which would have worked much better :) time constraints left version one in place. What can I say, it was my first game.
You can kind of tell that a lot of work went into the Ruiner board, and the Tower board feels a bit less refined. The original idea was to just have one awesome board. But it was the publisher's strong opinion that two were needed, so the second board was added. When the publisher is paying the bills, you do what the publisher wants.
The artwork for the Ruiner board was actually hand-painted. It's incredible. The artist, Mike Baker, hand-painted the whole thing on a huge board. We scanned it in, which was not easy, because there was no scanner that large! So Mike had to piece all of it back together in Deluxe Paint, and of course none of the pieces were exactly rotated right, so he had to fix it all in DP. Rotating a large image in deluxe paint a few degrees probably took 10 minutes to finish processing. Unbelievable. Whatever the critiques are of the game, there were certain things that we wanted to do, and we just did them. We wanted the thing painted, Mike wanted to paint it, and he did. I wanted him to paint it, because it looked cool. I mean, you wouldn't just decide to make a computer game out of something hand painted, normally. But that's what we wanted to do.
I don't even know if people actually played Ruiner all the way through... if you get far enough, a nuclear armageddon is nigh, and hordes of little tiny people start panicking and running out on the playfield... if you hit them with the ball they squash and die... good fun.