Charles Platt investigates whether Acclaim will make it to the next level.
Outside the shaded windows lies Audrey Avenue, a quiet little shopping street in Oyster Bay, New York. Civilised, fortyish, East Coast types greet each other politely as they shop in quaint little places like the Next to New Boutique or Buckingham Variety Store.
But in here, the room is full of game noise. Teens in T-shirts and baseball caps sprawl in office chairs, resting their sneakers on cheap Formica desks while they clutch Sega and Nintendo controllers and stare at video screens with unblinking intensity.Chucka-chucka.Here's a boy named Steve who looks so young, he could be cutting school. What's he doing in this darkened room? He puts the game on hold and tries to focus on the question. "I saw an ad in The New York Times," he explains. "It said there was this company that would pay people to play videogames. I thought, Wow, that's too good to be true!"
Steve is playing NBA Jam. He's been playing it all day, every working day, for the past six weeks. His sessions are videotaped from start to finish; whenever he finds a glitch, the tape is sent by FedEx to the development team that wrote the program. The bug is fixed and the program is modemed back here to be burned into new EPROM chips so Steve can play it some more.
He and the other kids in this room are beta testers at the bottom level of a game development pyramid at Acclaim Entertainment Inc, a company best known for selling millions of copies of Mortal Kombat to teenagers across the globe. Acclaim develops videogames, but it doesn't originate them. It waits to see which games emerge by natural selection from the hostile environment of amusement arcades, then buys the home rights and hires outside teams to recode the software. It also picks up game rights to blockbuster movies such as True Lies and TV series like The Simpsons. In seven years, its annual net sales have leapt from zero to $481 million. And this year could be even better. For the six months to February, the company reported revenues of $318 million, 31 per cent up on the same period last year.
Acclaim started operating out of a storefront in Oyster Bay in 1987. It overflowed into temporary offices up and down Audrey Avenue, and the company is now moving into a big, new building on the edge of Glen Cove, another quaint Long Island town, about an hour away from New York City. In its new beige-concrete-and-mirror-glass corporate headquarters, the company has already built what it boasts is the most sophisticated motion-capture studio in the world. Here, movements of actors or stuntmen are taped and digitised in such a way that they can be replayed from any angle, and new layers of synthetic flesh can be added to transfigure the human form. This way, a robot or even an extraterrestrial can be made to move with an eerie sense of realism, and the technique is being used not only in games but in movies. Some of the special effects in Batman Forever were created using Acclaim's new facilities.
Blurring the line further between videogames and other media, Acclaim has initiated a joint venture with cable giant Tele-Communications Inc (TCI) to develop and market entertainment directly to the home. It has also created Acclaim Comics Inc, a subsidiary that bought comic-book rights to the popular card game Magic: The Gathering, and is now venturing into coin-operated arcades via yet another subsidiary guided by Thomas Petit, the former head of Sega's coin-op division.
With disconcerting speed, Acclaim is moving out of the videogame niche into the wider world of comics, video and movies, toward a new destiny as an entertainment conglomerate. Yet these bold plans may be premature. Acclaim still relies on home gaming to pay the bills, and in 1995 it has lost future rights to some of its biggest hits.
Williams Bally/Midway, the arcade game manufacturer, originated the megahits Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam. The company's new home division will be working independently from Acclaim in the future, marketing its own home versions of Mortal Kombat III. And gaming rights to The Simpsons will be repossessed by Twentieth Century Fox later this year. Acclaim still has rights to Marvel characters such as Spider-Man (featured in Maximum Carnage, a title contrived to delight kids and terrify parents everywhere), but Marvel has now started its own competing game division.
Some observers wonder if Acclaim might suffer the fate of Atari, which dominated the game market during the early 1980s but was ruined when fickle kids got bored and abandoned its products. But even if the world's teens stay game crazy, Acclaim faces its biggest hurdle: it has never created its own hit. Can it continue buying licences to other companies' creations fast enough to support its appetite for growth and diversification?
Sam Goldberg, vice president of marketing, feels that the advantages of doing tie-ins with other people's creations easily outweigh any disadvantages in not originating and controlling the product. "Some motion pictures get a tremendous amount of promotional support," he points out. "It can be as much as $20 million, which is more than any packaged goods or consumer electronics product. This means if we do a movie tie-in, a good part of our marketing effort is being done for us."
Acclaim also reaps its own publicity through its policy of developing all the main versions of a game in advance, then mass-releasing them simultaneously worldwide to create the same kind of splash as a movie opening. The technique incurs significant upfront costs: Mortal Kombat II entailed a $50 million investment. But it grossed that much within its first week.
So far, this marketing machine has been sustained by an audience of young males. Goldberg seems a little uncomfortable about this. "Some girls do play Mortal Kombat," he says defensively. "And our sports games are appealing to an older audience - parents as well as their children."
Does he play them himself?
He hesitates and gestures vaguely. "I watch videotapes of the games, to find out what our production teams are doing."
Before he joined Acclaim, he was in the toy business. His voice shows a trace of regret as he notes how children's play patterns have changed. "Action figures like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to appeal to boys aged 4 to 10," he says. "Now, the target audience is 3 to 7. After that, videogames are the main attraction.
"You have to understand," he goes on, "this is a selling operation, pure and simple. Marketing is our main strength, and we still approach it from a guerrilla point of view." He turns to some shelves and pulls out a book titled Guerrilla Marketing Attack: New Strategies, Tactics, and Weapons for Your Small Business. He riffles through the pages. "I learned a lot from this book. I can't recommend it, though, because I'm not sure I ever finished reading it."
Acclaim's digital animation studio is painted a pure, saturated, video green. Under bright lights stands Peewee Piemonte, a burly movie stuntman over 6 feet tall wearing a grey suit and exotic face makeup. He waits patiently on a green ramp in the middle of a green floor against a featureless backdrop of (you guessed it) green.
A cable runs from a piston powered by compressed gas up to a pulley, down to Piemonte and in through a slit in the back of his jacket to a body harness under his clothes. A stunt manager throws a lever. There's a smacking sound as the gas rams the piston down in its cylinder, the cable snaps tight and Piemonte is jerked off his feet. He flies backward through the air and lands in a pile of strategically placed green cushions.
Surely, you've seen those games in which the bad guy gets hit on the jaw so hard he sails through the air and lands on his back like a felled tree. Well, this is how those images are created: they are digitised from life. The video is shot on a Betacam. The frames are digitised in 24-bit colour at 640 x 480 resolution, and the whole sequence is held temporarily on an Accom unit fitted with a couple of gigabytes of disk storage. A Silicon Graphics Indy uses Ultimate software to scan each frame, erase the green background and pick out the human figure with a nice clean edge that needs minimal retouching.
Piemonte has done this before, for other games. "I was in Ground Zero Texas," he recalls. "I was a bad guy. I got shot and killed a couple of times."
Has he been in any fistfights in real life?
"Yeah," he grins. "Too many. But this isn't the same at all. It's an E-ticket ride."
The edited frames showing Piemonte falling on his back are reduced to 256 colours and saved on a PC. The data is sent by modem to a small British programming workshop hired by Acclaim for this particular game, and there, Piemonte is turned into a "sprite" - a figure made of little coloured dots to be integrated into the game scenery.
It seems a huge amount of trouble and expense just to get a five-second sequence of a bad guy being knocked off his feet. But even this elaborate process is becoming obsolete, suitable only for games in which the action slides back and forth against a scrolling background. The watchword at Acclaim these days is "3-D", not because viewers will be using special glasses to create the illusion of depth, but because 32-bit consumer-game platforms are powerful enough to move the action freely between foreground and background while the viewpoint pans, zooms and circles. Figures are no longer flat assemblages of pixels; they are rendered as "polygonal" wireframe structures that can rotate freely and be viewed from any angle while their surface colours are filled in "on the fly".
To create this fluid cinematic effect, human figures must be specially scanned so their motions can be stored as a sequence of positional data in all three dimensions. And this is what Acclaim has now started doing in its new motion-capture studio.
The studio is a bare, empty space measuring 40 feet by 60. Walls, floor and ceiling are all painted black. Big doors at one side open onto a basement garage, while doors at the other side open onto a parking lot.
In each corner of the big room, high-intensity floodlights are bracketed beside special monochrome video cameras on vertical tracks. The cameras are aimed, now, at a tall man standing in the centre of the floor: baseball star Frank Thomas, clothed from his ankles to his neck in black spandex.
The skintight fabric is studded with tiny reflective spheres, "witness points", that gleam under the glaring lights. Thomas swings a baseball bat, then runs, and each bright-white point traces the path of his muscle movements.
In a control room overlooking the studio, the camera signals are processed by a mixing board, then recorded synchronously on four Betacam decks. From here, the frame data travels via underfloor cables to an adjacent computer room where air conditioning roars constantly, cooling four military digitising units and an SGI Onyx computer the size of a vertically stacked washer-drier. This formidable hardware converts the paths traced by the bright-white points into a series of numbers.
The computers are not just mapping body motion. Using complex proprietary code, they're inferring the inner positions of joints in Thomas's skeleton. This has the advantage that a motion-captured human being can be given an entirely different body - of an alien life form, a robot or even a dinosaur - and as all these creatures possess the same skeletal motions, they will still move with fluid realism.
Wes Trager, vice president of engineering and advanced technologies, developed the motion-capture studio and supervised its construction. He's a soft-spoken, grey-haired man in his 40s who seems quietly competent and completely self-assured.
"Three years ago," he says, "we had all the tools to do 3-D games except 3-D character animation. There were some capture systems available - sonic, magnetic and optical - but all of them had problems. For instance, the sonic system used little clickers mounted on a person, with three audio receivers tracking the positions of the sounds. But you could only use eight clickers, because the motion was being sampled at the rate of 30 frames a second, and the clickers had to fire in sequence, separately from each other, so they could be picked out individually. The speed of sound was the limiting factor: if there were too many clicks too close together, they couldn't be tracked reliably."
Trager decided that there had to be a better way. He knew of a company named BioMechanics in Atlanta that had spent 15 years developing algorithms to describe the rotation of bones in the body, mainly for medical and scientific applications. Acclaim bought an exclusive licence to apply BioMechanics's algorithms to entertainment, and Trager started putting together the necessary equipment.
"It turns out," he says, "to describe human body motion, you need to monitor just 23 bone rotations. We know the skeleton size to start with, so we don't need positional data, we just record the rotations of each joint - such as the knee joint, which rotates around only one axis, or the neck joint, which swivels in all three axes."
Using this system, Trager ends up with 55 sixteen-bit numbers that are updated 30 times a second. That's all it takes to map the distinctive behaviour of an entire skeleton.
He admits that the studio cost a lot more than he originally predicted, but he believes its capabilities are unequalled. "Warner Brothers [Batman Forever] will do a rough motion capture someplace else," he says, "where they track only external body movements. They come here to do the final take."
Robert Holmes, Acclaim's president and chief operating officer, sits in a conference room with Gregory Fischbach, chairman and CEO. They're an amiable tag team, finishing each other's sentences, capping each other's jokes. Together with Jim Scoroposki, they created Acclaim.
"I was involved in legally representing rock-and-roll bands," Fischbach says. "I met Rob and Jim at Activision in the early 1980s. Then I left to join RCA and -"
"Bertelsmann bought RCA," says Holmes, "and Greg found himself unemployed."
Fischbach smiles. "I met up with Jimmy in Oyster Bay, where he had a sales company, and we talked about things we could do. Jimmy said the videogame business looked pretty good: it was coming back. We called Rob and asked him to join us -"
"Mainly because we could use his fax machine and copy service for free," says Holmes.
"It was our own money," Fischbach explains, "not venture capital, so we needed to turn a profit real quick. We took a game that had a Japanese name on it and retitled it for the US market. This was in 1987, the first year Nintendo tried to go for national distribution with a game machine."
"Our main philosophy," says Holmes, "was that if we could supply more product, we could tie up the shelf space at Kmart."
"So we collected a whole lot of Japanese products," Fischbach goes on, "and we sat on the floor playing them, looking for characters who had a reasonably Western look. Most of them had overly complicated plot lines. We wanted the 'twitch' factor that game players look for."
Holmes recalls that he was sceptical of the whole enterprise. "I had a one-month contract," he says, "and a return ticket."
But at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 1987, Nintendo wanted to demonstrate a new hardware prototype. "The president called me and asked me to present the product in their booth," Holmes says. "Since we didn't have a booth of our own, we were pleased to co-operate. We found a father-son gaming team in Chicago, put them in Acclaim jackets, and pretended that we were a real company. At that time, retail couldn't get enough software, and we found ourselves in the wonderful position of having software and being able to supply it. As a result, that first year, we did $39 million in business."
They were in just the right place at the right time to ride the new gaming wave created by Nintendo. Still, the spectre of Atari's failure was on their minds. Fischbach recalls: "We were saying, 'This looks pretty good, but we've been here before and what happens next year?' We did a business plan, and we thought the new generation of games might reach five or six million households and taper off after that." He laughs. "We were wrong by a factor of five."
From the start, they believed marketing was the key. "We quickly learned that we had to have some sort of an icon on the package," says Fischbach, "such as World Wrestling Federation or NBA."
Regardless of how cutting-edge its new motion-capture studio is, in current and upcoming titles, Acclaim is sticking with established characters and tie-ins: a Judge Dredd game, a Frank Thomas baseball simulation, The Amazing Spider-Man, an NFL simulation, a True Lies tie-in, The Simpsons and Batman Forever.
"It's the retail system," says Holmes. "Retailers ask: 'How much money can I generate from this amount of shelf space?' You can do quality software like Sierra On-line, but retailers won't judge it on the quality. They'll complain that it doesn't churn quickly enough. Great software without distribution and marketing is Mystic Pizza, a good movie few people have seen. Compare that to Crocodile Dundee. Paramount put its arms around that and made it a hit."
Consequently, Acclaim has followed a conservative policy when it comes to content. The move to diversify looks much riskier - but Holmes insists that they're following a careful, co-ordinated policy. He goes to a white board and draws a picture of organisational links. Acclaim sits at the centre, with five entities ranged around it: TCI (a joint venture), the new coin-operated games subsidiary, Acclaim's own distribution company, the comics subsidiary and the motion-capture studio.
"It should work like this," says Holmes. "We take a comic-book character, turn him into a 3-D character with motion capture, take it into coin-op, then take it into Acclaim Distribution for the home marketplace, then use either traditional retail or TCI for electronic distribution."
In other words, the point of diversification is to exploit one product in every conceivable way. The deal with TCI is still so new at the time of this interview, a CEO for the joint venture has not yet been appointed. Holmes isn't even sure, yet, what the look and feel of electronic distribution should be. "Sega already does it via Time Warner," he says, "but its system is nothing more than a repository for old game code. You have a modem that downloads the game, and after you switch off your system, it's gone. And there's no feedback, no way to find out which game is being played most often. We're hoping to redefine the whole process. Should it look like a library, or should it look like MTV? Should you download a game, or should you be able to play it online in a universe that you can drop in on any time?"
TCI has bought a 10 per cent interest in Acclaim and a seat on the board. The joint venture will be owned 65 per cent by Acclaim, 35 per cent by TCI. Beyond that, the details are sketchy; but it's a fair bet that the initial products will follow the familiar Acclaim formula. There'll be sports simulations, race-car and flight games, and good guys mangling bad guys with lots of blood, horrible screams and colourful explosions.
Fischbach and Holmes both seem to be sophisticated men with literary tastes more highly developed than those of the average Hollywood producer. Aren't they getting tired of marketing blood-soaked, reflex-driven action games for kids?
"In 1987, we started out as just a toy business," Holmes says, sounding a little touchy. "It's true that we get frustrated to some extent, and we have not yet created an entertainment experience that brings a tear to your eye or makes you laugh out loud. But we're prenatal as an industry."
Advances like 32-bit game machines and motion-captured human action may certainly help to move games to a new level of realism, but in the immediate future, neither Holmes nor Fischbach believes the fundamental situation will change dramatically. "Three to five years from now," says Holmes, "you'll still have dedicated hardware systems sold at retail, you'll have a slightly broader audience participating, you'll have just the beginnings of broadband distribution, but you're not going to have enough cable boxes to become meaningful till the turn of the century. And where content is concerned, you have to bear in mind that it can take four to five years for the art community to develop software that takes advantage of new hardware."
"Someone once came to me and suggested a game that involved no violence," says Fischbach. He laughs and shakes his head, adding: "Producing it would have been commercial suicide."
Some people might object that in games such as Myst, the "art community" has already made full use of existing hardware - and has made a handsome profit at the same time. But the Acclaim philosophy seems to leave little room for these kinds of creative ventures, perhaps because they still consider publishing them too risky, or because they see no reason to deviate from their proven sales formula.
"But in the future," says Holmes, "Who knows?"
And in the meantime...
Charles Platt (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes science fiction books and science articles. His most recent work is The Silicon Man. He writes frequently for Wired.