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Technician of Suspended Disbelief: Rick Dyer, Shadoan and the Frontier of Animated CD Entertainment

At 41, the game designer and inventor has been developing interactive video games for the CD-based and coin-operated markets for as long as just about anyone, and his successes are now legend: Among them is Dragon's Lair...

Santa Monica, 6 p.m. Rick Dyer is one hour late. From somewhere on a jammed and rainy freeway the President and CEO of Santa Ysabel, Caliifornia-based Virtual Image Productions calls on his cell phone; he's turned around. Taking a nearby exit, he describes what he passes and I confirm his location, all the way to our rendezvous. As an everyday example of the interplay of technology and improvisation, the situation is mildly amusing. But at another level, this very interplay is what Dyer is all about.

Rick Dyer and the Hologram Time Traveler © Virtual Image Productions

At 41, the game designer and inventor has been developing interactive video games for the CD-based and coin-operated markets for as long as just about anyone, and his successes are now legend: Among them is Dragon's Lair, the world's first full-animation video game and one of only two games on display at the Smithsonian Institute and Hologram Time Traveler, the world's first holographic video game.

Dyer has come to present his latest creation, an interactive CD-ROM adventure title called Shadoan. The adventure genre is by now, of course, well-canvassed territory. The quality and extent of animation Shadoan incorporates, however, is not. Slated for release this June on Sony PlayStation, Saturn, Macintosh, CD-I and PC platforms, the game has engaged a feature-sized-and-then some team of 300 animators working steadily over a 9 month period. Shadoan might just rank as a breakthrough project, which is why Dyer is betting a $2 million bank on it. The breakthrough is this: Shadoan has the richness of a high-quality animated feature. Its animation is smooth and compelling. Oh, and it boots up quickly, and occupies only two CD's worth of space.

Dragon's Lair, the pioneering game that featured animation

In other words, as far as adventure games go, Shadoan's format is something new. A milestone comparable in its way, perhaps, to a Snow White? Or, if the public doesn't catch on, nothing more than a lavish dead end?

A hard-to-pinpoint something seems to animate Dyer's voice and manner. Not anxiety, despite the stakes involved. Sure, Shadoan is a big deal. But Dyer's feelings about his story seem to run to the deep and personal. He speaks tenderly of his Swords and Sorcery otherworld: What's at stake is the validation of a sizable chunk of his imagination.

That might account for pride he takes in Shadoan's many little niceties - details that impart a high level of finish.

There's the parental control option, for instance, that allows the deletion of violent scenes. And then there's Dyer's use of famous Hollywood composers Martin Erskin, Doug and Brian Besterman, and Andy Brick to create 30 completely original musical tracks including a lush theme song, "Where Do You Go From Here?," that just might find its way to the radio -- another interactive first.

The game is up and running in a matter of seconds- and this on only a standard 8 megs of RAM. Gratifying. Dyer's background in coin-op art and the crucial importance of the quick come-on haven't been wasted. A few minutes later I'm shuttling pretty comfortably between Shadoan's various locales. I challenge a group of ruffians in a tavern brawl, join a military campaign and die several deaths, some quite dramatic. Standard Swords and Sorcery fare, perhaps, but newly compelling in VIP's carefully crafted format. In all, Shadoan provides maybe 20 hours of play before the scope of its fantasy world begins to seem finite. Shadoan, Dyer informs me, was 17 years in the making.

So you were trying to make this game, and the technology didn't exist? That's why it's taken this long, yes. Only very recently have we acquired not only the technology but a big enough base of consumers to justify producing something like this. Up until then, I was fighting an uphill battle, trying to create a technology that wasn't there. We were trying to create the hardware as well as the software to make it happen.

It was during this period, wasn't it, that you introduced Dragon's Lair?

As a matter of fact, Dragon's Lair came out of Shadoan. It was a spin-off. We never imagined, in our wildest dreams, that it was going to be the popular hit that it was. Up until 8 months ago, Dragon's Lair was up in the top 10 selling titles in the world. And it's a 13-year-old game.

But in terms of Shadoan, what was it, 17 years ago, that compelled you to tell this story, to take on this project, in the first place?

It came from two things. First, back in the early Seventies there was this computer game called Adventure. It used a kind of pseudo-artificial intelligence, and it was cool. (It evolved into what came to be known as Zork..) At the same time, I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and said, "Wow! Can you imagine creating an interactive world like Lord of the Rings?"

So, let's just imagine the interactive rights to Tolkien were up for grabs and somebody said to you, "Here they are. They're yours." Think of it, the classic story! What would you do? Set aside Shadoan? No. The Lord of the Rings is an old story. It came out, what, 20 years ago. What we're creating now is just as rich - and it's fresh and new.

The Plague Magician from Shadoan © Virtual Image Productions

So is Shadoan a story? Or rather, is it a set of experiences. I mean, does the storyline exist only as a set-up for the game?

One of the things that's unique about what we do is that we're developing the story on two levels. One is what I call the novel -- it's a linear version of the narrative. The other is what I call game design. Two separate groups work on these two versions of the story. This month, the novel that's the sequel to Shadoan, Journey Into the Primal Abyss, will be published. It's been in development for two years now, and it's a can't-put-it-down, riveting story unto itself. At the same time, the game design is underway. The two groups communicate with each other very closely, but in the end they work independently because the goal is to have both a great novel and a great game.

Once that process is finished, we weave them together like a tapestry. That's when we go to the third design phase, and a rewrite of both. However, at that point the novel stands on its own. From there, it might be adapted into a feature film. Right now, however, that's not the focus. We spent years on the foundation-designing the characters, the story, the plot, the game-before we ever got into the animation. That's what makes this thing so rich. Most grown-ups say they don't play video games that much; this one they will.

Shadoan is a family product. Family in the true sense of the word family. Not just something the parents go out to buy for their kids, not just something that's parent-approved, but something the parents enjoy playing as much as the kids.

Is that an assumption, or do you have some kind of market research to back you up?

Yes, that's based on focus groups. What you'll see in virtually every case is Mom and Dad and the kids all playing at the same time. They're playing by consensus. You'll hear things like, "Should we go over here?" "No, they warned us about this and this and this - so what do you think?" A social process is taking place as they move through the adventure.

A novelty? The title du jour?

I believe Shadoan has a shot at the immortality factor, much like Dragon's Lair. Ten years from now the game interface or game design might be considered primitive, but until we reinvent television the animation is as good as it can get, the music is as good as it can get, the entertainment value and the content are as good as they can get. The same was true with Dragon's Lair. We started with hand-drawn cel animation, and you can't get any better than that.

Hand-drawn cel animation over computer animation?

The best, the absolute best, example of computer animation that's being done today is Toy Story. It cost a fortune -- a lot more than traditional cel animation. They pulled out all the stops, and yet it still can't measure up to the kinds of expressions and feelings that can be transmitted to the viewer through hand-drawn animation. You're talking about a medium that is 60 or 70 years old.

It comes down to this: At this point in time, computer animation has its forte and 2-D animation has its forte. Two-D is not going to go away. Don't think that for a second. It has survived the test of time. Three-D will not replace 2-D; it will simply augment animation as a new form.

If I remember correctly, you do in fact use some 3-D animation in Shadoan as well.

We used 3-D animation for what it's best at: a virtual environment. The rest of Shadoan is done from a third-person perspective, but when you enter Daelon the Wizard's chambers, which is a 3-D environment, you switch to a first-person perspective and you're looking at a scene where there are no other characters. Showing characters is where 3-D animation comes up short. It's hard to create lifelike figures that move in a realistic, believable manner-unless you're going to go into "dummy dolls." But when you take 3-D animation and put it into a first-person perspective and create a fly-through environment-well, that is where it shines. So what we're doing is using both mediums for their respective strengths.

Is there any way to characterize the resulting experience you've created?

It's probably the first version of an interactive movie that works.. I know, "interactive movie" is a buzz word -- no one knows what it means because no one has ever done it right. There have been lots of attempts at an interactive movie.

I agree, no one knows what it means. But not everyone would say Shadoan defines the term, either. Take the live-action CD-ROM title Johnny Mnemonic, which came out last year: It's told in real time, from a first-person point of view, with very little discernible interface-a different set of criteria for interactivity.

Yes. Actually, the term interactive movie now has something of a negative connotation. And certainly there are many variations. Some would say the first was Dragon's Lair -- it was certainly a form of interactive movie. And Shadoan is another. Or maybe not. It's a little bit of everything: a book, a game, an adventure, a movie-elements that have evolved over the past 20 years.

If I have one thing over other people in this industry, it's this: I've made more mistakes than anyone else. You're seeing people repeat the same mistakes we'd already made years ago. I could even show you a product that attempts to do what Johnny Mnemonic does. It's called Secrets of the Lost Woods. It was a failure. It didn't work with people.

That's the key, isn't it? No matter how well the title works technically, it doesn't matter if people can't connect with it.

There are so many human interface considerations. Did you notice how things flowed for you? The interface is intuitive. That's not easy to accomplish. It requires an incredible understanding of all kinds of little nuances. For you -- the person experiencing this -- all you know is that you had fun. You're not thinking about the nuances that make the interface as transparent to you as possible, that preserve the suspension of disbelief.

Let's turn to the animation itself. First, you had to find some animators...

Before I started the animation, I went to eight or nine companies and showed them the game script, the design, what we wanted to do. I toured their facilities, looked at their work. The ones I liked were invited to submit a bid package. I went to some excellent houses that do outstanding work, but I found their prices extravagant.

Was it hard to find animators willing to buy in to what you were proposing? From the companies' point of view, Shadoan must've represented something of an unknown. And we're talking about a really big project here. One you could lose your shirt on, if you bid it wrong.

I've essentially made my living by operating on the frontier. Because of my track record, I've been able to attract the level of talent to keep operating there. For the companies I called on, Shadoan represented a change from the everyday, bread-and-butter work, which mostly turns out to be advertising of some sort-a grind for them.

Shadoan © Virtual Image Productions

So, who won the assignment?

Sports & Entertainment (based in Boulder, Colorado) is the firm we ended up using. Their work was very good and they're a $2 billion conglomerate. We liked that because we knew if they ran into cost overruns they'd be able to absorb them.

The animation style seems clean and competent but not really edgy. What were you looking for in terms of the style, the sensibility of Shadoan?

Shadoan is a family game designed for all ages. To use an "edgy" style would exclude a large part of our audience and date the material.

You've said, "The animation is as good as it can get." What specifically do you mean by that?

That it will keep its value. Most companies use computer graphics that leapfrog every 6 months in technical quality. We use cel animation, the highest level of animated film. Snow White is over 50 years old and is still just as good as when it was first released. Our game may not have that long a shelf life, but it will definitely outlast computer games using graphics that will be obsolete in months rather than years. And unlike most Saturday morning cartoons, it's richly detailed and the backgrounds are lush.

What lies ahead, in sequels to come?

We are moving to a more ambitious style of animation because we need to stay ahead of the pack. The budgets for these projects are just going to rise and rise.

Are you concerned about maintaining consistency?

The consistency is in the story, in how the characters and situations of one game are connected to the next. No one is going to complain if we take the game to a higher level.

Eric La Brecque is a Los Angeles based writer who specializes in design and popular culture.

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