The lights are on
When Trilobyte founders Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros sat down to make their first game together, they knew they had the perfect idea. Using the untapped potential of CD-ROM technology, they planned to incorporate full motion video of live actors into a horror-themed puzzle game. Their intuition proved correct. Upon its release in 1993, The 7th Guest was heralded as a technical marvel, selling more than two million copies and pushing sales of CD-ROM drives through the roof. Bill Gates even called it a “new standard in interactive entertainment.”
However, behind the scenes, The 7th Guest was the eye of a developmental tornado. Fraught with delays, budget issues, and technical challenges, the game drove apart the two friends who came together to create it. Devine and Landeros set out to design one of the best horror games ever made, but the development process turned out to be the most terrifying experience of all.
VIRGIN INNOCENCE Graeme Devine: In the early ‘90s, Mastertronic– which was eventually bought by Virgin Games– called me and said, “Do you want to come out to the States for six weeks? No one there knows how to turn on a Commodore 64. It's all business people.” I was, like, “Sure. That sounds like a ton of fun.” That was 24 years ago. I never went back.
Rob Landeros: I met Graeme while working for Virgin Games. He was head of the programming department and I was head of the art department.
Devine: We were stuck in a room for nine months together, almost 18 hours a day. We got along great. We had a lot in common. We would sit and watch movies like The Shining over and over and over again, and when we'd come to the end of it we'd look at each other and say, “Let's watch it again.”
Landeros: Graeme and I decided to make ourselves the self-appointed heads of new technologies. [Laughs] We might have even had cards printed. We’d have our boss pick up our ticket and hotel room, and we’d jet off to Chicago, New York, L.A. – wherever they were holding a convention.
Devine: We were at a conference in New York, and everyone was demoing CD-ROMs. A lot of people were touting their fast text search engines, which could search encyclopedias in two seconds. They weren’t tapping the technology. Both Rob and I saw it was capable of doing much, much more.
Landeros: After going to four or five of these things, I was feeling a little conscientious about having such a good time on my boss’ dime, and I told Graeme that we should really file a report or something.
Devine: We got out a paper napkin and wrote down some ideas.
Landeros: We both loved David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. We wanted to create a weird, scary, off-the-wall, mystery like that.
Devine: Virgin Games had also just bought Melbourne House, which had the rights to Clue. So at the airport in New York City, we sat and thought about making a game of Clue based around Twin Peaks.
Landeros: It was Graeme’s fault that we didn’t stick with the Twin Peaks thing. He came up with this outline of an evil toy maker who trapped children’s souls in dolls. I don’t know where he got that, but in a few weeks we had a 20-page document about the story, the game design, a few puzzles. The game would be in black and white and go to color as you moved the mouse around. We handed that pitch to Martin Alper, the president of Virgin Games, when he came in one morning. He walked back 45 minutes later and said, “Let’s go to lunch.”
Devine: Basically he said, “I'm going to have to fire the two of you, because there's no way in hell you're ever going to make that game. It's got failure written all over it. Cartridges are going to be the future of Virgin Games.” Then he went, “But I will give you a contract to go make this game.” Virgin thought it would be, like, a calling card product – an experiment with brand new media – like a trophy product.
Landeros: I thought it was strange that he let his head of programming and his art director to go form their own company. But by the time we got back from lunch we realized we were free agents.
Devine: Martin said, “I will let you go make this game on the following conditions: One, we actually make a floppy disk version of this game. That's what will make profit. Two, I can come visit you all the time, so you will not move more than 30 or 40 miles away. Three, you only have six months to make this game.” Those were the three rules. We broke them all.
SETTING UP SHOP
Terror in the Trenches
Graeme Devine did not enter into the world of game development easily. Before he moved to the United States and started working for Virgin, Devine tried to start his own company in England. The trials of game development were nothing like what he expected.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of Devine’s trials. His partners took all of this money out of the bank account without talking to him, which prompted the budding programmer to leave the company. Devine packed up all of his equipment and left, but his partners weren’t happy to see their star programmer walk out the door with most of the company’s computers.
Devine: We didn't know of anyone else doing what we were doing. People on the board said, “The 7th Guest is impossible! It’s entirely impossible to have animation come off a CD-ROM with any kind of quality.” CD-ROMs at the time gave you 150k/second. Now if you get that downloading from the Internet, you get upset. It took the full power of the CPU to give you 150k/second on most machines. The general thinking was that we were doing a fool's errand.
Landeros: Graeme wrote a video player program that would play double normal resolution and played smooth even after video compression. That was the basis for our game engine.
Devine: We filmed the live action sequences in two days above a comic book store in Medford, Oregon. We hired a Shakespeare Society in Ashland, and a film and video society that was an offshoot of that.
Landeros: We were kind of hands-off because we didn’t know about filming and video. It was very much like we were playing the role of executive producers. There's no way you can pull off that kind of production today. Today it would take weeks of planning and weeks of casting and costumes and so forth. But somehow, we managed to get it together inside a week for only $24,000. It was absolutely incredible. It was so cheaply done.
Devine: The actors performed against a terrible blue screen that wasn't even blue; it was blue paper. That's why the ghosts in The 7th Guest have this fuzzy line around them; we couldn't actually get rid of the entire blue background. In the end, it became a feature.
Landeros: Graeme handled all the programing, but I was a fan of puzzle game magazines so I worked on all the puzzles. Our team was small; there were only a couple other people on staff. Six months in, we were still struggling to finish. Then we went to CES in Las Vegas, because Graeme had decided to demo the game for Martin Alper. That’s when everything sort of changed.
Devine: Martin didn't want us to show the game at CES, but we turned up with a build, and Martin wanted us to show him the game using a computer that was demoing Monopoly. However, we were out in the open, so people started to crowd around us. Soon the booth was crammed full of people.
Landeros: I remember showing up late to the show – around 1:30 in the afternoon. Before I even got to the conference somebody said, “Rob, congratulations, man. You’ve got a hit.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Everybody is talking about The 7th Guest. There are crowds around your booth.”
Devine: Along came Roberta Williams from Sierra and she was blown away. She came back with her programmers and said, “See, I told you this stuff was possible, and you didn't believe me!” That’s when Virgin realized that we really had something here.
Landeros: Leaving the show, Graeme and I looked at each other and said, “Well, my gosh, we are sitting on something. We got a tiger by the tail here.”
Devine: During the plane ride back to Oregon, we were both absolutely distraught. Now we really had to finish this thing.
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