Episode 8: Virgin Interactive Entertainment

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Virgin Interactive Entertainment is responsible for some of the most memorable 16-bit era video games.  They also created the RTS genre and were sprite creation innovators.

Join us as we dive in to the Virgin catalog and history of the developers and company itself as we explore the work of some if the studios that helped shape the video game industry.

Enjoy!

 

Virgin Interactive Entertainment Notes

Virgin Interactive Entertainment was the video game publishing division of British conglomerate the Virgin Group. It was formed as Virgin Games Ltd. in 1983.  Initially built around a small development team called the Gang of Five, the company grew significantly after purchasing budget label Mastertronic in 1987.

Virgin was home to renowned developers who went on to create successful franchises with other studios like Westwood Studios (Command & Conquer series) and Shiny Entertainment (Earthworm Jim). As Virgin’s video game division grew into a multimedia powerhouse, it crossed over to other industries from toys to film to education. To highlight its focus beyond video games and on multimedia, the publisher was renamed Virgin Interactive Entertainment in 1993.

As result of a growing trend throughout the 1990s of media companies, movie studios and telecom firms investing in video game makers to create new forms of entertainment, VIE became part of the entertainment industry after being acquired by media behemoths Blockbuster and Viacom, who were attracted by its edge in multimedia and CD-ROM-based software development. Being centrally located in close proximity to the thirty-mile zone and having access to the media content of its parent companies drew Virgin Interactive’s U.S. division closer to Hollywood as it began developing sophisticated interactive games, leading to partnerships with Disney and other major studios on motion picture-based games such as The Lion King, Aladdin, RoboCop and The Terminator, in addition to being the publisher of popular titles from other companies like Capcom‘s Resident Evil and Street Fighter and id Software‘s Doom II in the European market.

VIE ceased to exist in mid-2003 after being acquired by French publisher Titus Software, itself was acquired by Interplay Entertainment in 2005. The VIE library and intellectual properties are currently owned by Interplay Entertainment as a result of its acquisition of Titus. A close affiliate and successor of Spanish origin, Virgin Play, was formed in 2002 from the ashes of former Virgin Interactive’s Spanish division and kept operating until it folded in 2009.  (wiki)

Company History

Nick Alexander started Virgin Games in 1982 after leaving Thorn EMI. It was headquartered in Portobello Road, London. The firm initially relied on submissions by freelancer developers, but set up its own in-house development team in 1984, known as the Gang of Five. Early successes included Sorcery and Dan Dare.

Virgin Interactive’s history spans two decades in which it was at the forefront of the home console revolution that spread video games to the masses. It evolved with an ever-changing industry into a sophisticated interactive entertainment maker with the aid of its close ties with Hollywood and the entertainment media. Virgin pioneered an era marked by increasingly sophisticated games that combined popular franchises with computer animations and laser discs. These changes turned the video game industry from a small operation into a multimillion dollar business and weaved video games in popular culture.

Throughout its history, Virgin developed and published games for every major platform, including PC, Mac, home consoles and handhelds such as Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, C64, Master System, Mega Drive/Genesis, Game Gear, NES, Game Boy, Super NES, Saturn, PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast.

Virgin was home to many talented developers, including Brett Sperry (co-founder of Westwood Studios, makers of the Command & Conquer series and the PC port of Resident Evil) and Robert C. Clardy, founder of Northwest Synergistic Software. Earthworm Jim creator David Perry got his start at Virgin before founding Shiny Entertainment. Also among Virgin Interactive alumni are famed video game composer Tommy Tallarico, artist Doug TenNapel, designer David Bishop, animator Bill Kroyer, animator/artists Andy Luckey and Mike Dietz and programmer Andy Astor.

1987 marked a turning point for Virgin after its acquisition of struggling distributor Mastertronic. Mastertronic had opened its North American headquarters in Irvine, California just a year earlier to build on its success at home, though growth exhausted its resources after expanding in Europe and acquiring Australian publisher Melbourne House. Branson stepped in and offered to buy 45 percent of Mastertronic stake, in exchange Mastertronic joined the Virgin Group. The subsequent merger created Virgin Mastertronic Ltd. in 1988 with Alper as its president which enabled Virgin to expand its business reach overseas. It was owned by Virgin Communications, Virgin Group’s media subsidiary. Mastertronic had been the distributor of the Master System in the United Kingdom and is credited with introducing Sega to the European market, where they expanded rapidly. The Mastertonic acquisition was Virgin’s ‘real’ entry in the gaming business, whereas before they were a small developer mostly for personal computers, they now had Sega’s business which enabled them to compete with Nintendo in the growing home console market. To gain a foothold in its newly established market, Sega Enterprises, Ltd. acquired Virgin Mastertronic In 1991 and changed its name to Sega Europe Ltd. Virgin retained a small publishing unit, which was renamed Virgin Interactive Entertainment in 1993.

The nineties were a period of entertainment technology convergence, with cable companies, movie studios, telecommunications firms and computer and video game makers merging with other industries to create new forms of entertainment. Hasbro, the world’s largest toy company, who had previously licensed some of its properties to Virgin, bought 15 percent—later increased to 16.2 percent—stake in VIE In August 1993. Hasbro wanted to create titles based on its brands, which include Transformers, G.I. Joe and Monopoly. The deal cut off competitors like Mattel and Fisher-Price who were interested in a similar partnership.

As more media companies became interested in interactive entertainment, Blockbuster Entertainment, then the world’s largest video-store chain, acquired 20 percent of Virgin Interactive Entertainment in January 1994. It acquired 75 percent of VIE’s stock later in 1994 and purchased the remaining shares held by Hasbro in an effort to expand beyond its video store base. The partnership ended a year later when Blockbuster sold its stake to Spelling Entertainment, a subsidiary of Viacom. Viacom is the owner of Paramount Studios and MTV, which made Virgin Interactive part of one of the world’s largest entertainment companies.

Blockbuster and Viacom invested heavily in the production of CD-based interactive multimedia—video games featuring sophisticated motion-picture video, stereo sound and computer animation. VIE’s headquarters were expanded to include 17 production studios where expensive SGI “graphics supercomputers” were used to build increasingly complicated games, eventually becoming one of the five largest U.S.-based video game companies.

One result of this investment was the creation of a new technology called “Digicel,” which could scan hand drawn animation cells into digital software, originally for an unpublished game called “Dynoblaze,” which was managed by Andy Luckey, Paul Schmiedeke and Bill Kroyer in 1993. Key to developing the process were Dr. Stephen Clarke-Willson, David Perry, designer David Bishop, animator Bill Kroyer, animation producer Andy Luckey, technical director Paul Schmiedeke, animator Mike Dietz and programmer Andy Astor. The technology was first released to the general public in Disney’s Aladdin for the Mega Drive/Genesis and subsequently on such projects as The Lion King video game.

In late 1993 Virgin Interactive spun off a new company, Virgin Sound And Vision, to focus exclusively on CD-based children entertainment.  In January 1994 Blockbuster Entertainment, then the world’s largest video-store chain, acquired 20 percent of Virgin Interactive Entertainment in an effort to expand beyond its video store base.  The partnership ended a year later when Blockbuster sold its stake to Spelling, a subsidiary of Viacom, Viacom had planned to sell Spelling and buy Virgin Interactive out of Spelling before the sale. While it abandoned the Spelling sale some time ago, the collapse in the games market appears to have killed off any interest in buying Virgin.

The worldwide operations were acquired by Interplay Entertainment in a majority stake buyout backed by Mark Dyne, who became its Chief Executive Officer in 1998. Tim Chaney, the former Managing Director was named president. The U.S. operations were divested to Electronic Arts as part of its $122.5 million (£75 million) acquisition of Westwood Studios that same year.

VIE’s equity shares were sold to Interplay (43.9%) and Titus (50.1%) in February and October 1999, respectively. Titus took control of all assets and IPs while Interplay got distribution rights of Virgin’s titles in the Americas. VIE ceased to exist as an independent entity after all assets were transferred to Titus Software in 2003.

The Company’s assets were acquired by the French publisher Titus Software—its name was changed to Avalon Interactive on July 1, 2003. Titus/Avalon became defunct in 2005.

In May 2002, the Spanish division of Virgin Interactive, known as Virgin Interactive España, was purchased by Tim Chaney along with former Spanish president and founder Paco Encinas. The branch was then separated from the main Virgin Interactive company, already part of Titus Software, and kept its own identity as a Virgin brand. Renamed Virgin Play in October 2002, Chaney left in 2008, it then entered liquidation in 2009.  (wiki)

 

Virgin Interactive Games (wiki)

Titles Developed

Titles Published

 

Dune II – 1992 PC

Genre:  Real Time Strategy

Developer:  Westwood Studios

Publisher: Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Ports: PC, Amiga, Genesis

Story:

Emperor Frederick IV of House Corrino is desperate for the harvesting of the valuable drug melange (also known as “the spice”), found only on the planet Arrakis, to pay off all of his debt incurred on internecine wars with family members. To achieve this, he now offers the sole governorship of Arrakis to whichever of the three Houses (Atreides, Harkonnen, and Ordos) delivers the most spice for him. War begins as deputations from all three Houses arrive on Arrakis.

The player is a military commander from a House of their choice. In the first few missions the objectives are to establish successfully a base on an unoccupied territory of Arrakis, to harvest spice, and to defeat intruders. Later, when the three Houses divide Arrakis among them, the player has to assault and capture enemy territories. When the player dominates Arrakis on the world map, the two other enemy factions ally against their common enemy. The ultimate final showdown is the battle between the player’s House against three enemy sides, among them Frederick’s forces the Sardaukar (an unplayable elite force whose heavy infantry are particularly powerful). The introductory, mission briefing and endgame cutscenes are different for each House, in keeping with their very disparate world views. The weaponry and units also vary from house to house.  (wiki)

Notable Releases in 1992:

Notes:

While not necessarily the first real-time strategy (RTS) video game, Dune II established the format that would be followed for years to come. As such, Dune II is the archetypal “real-time strategy” game. Striking a balance between complexity and innovation, it was a huge success and laid the foundation for Command & Conquer, Warcraft, StarCraft (1998), and many other RTS games that followed.

Gameplay

The player takes the role of the commander of one of the three interplanetary houses, the Atreides, the Harkonnen or the Ordos, with the objective of wresting control of Arrakis from the other two houses.

House Ordos is not featured in the Dune novels and is mentioned only in the non-canon Dune Encyclopedia. The basic strategy in the game is to harvest spice from the treacherous sand dunes using a harvester vehicle, convert the spice into credits via a refinery and to build military units with these acquired credits in order to fend off and destroy the enemy.

The game map initially starts with a fog of war covering all area which is not covered by the player’s units range of view. As the units explore the map, the darkness is removed. Unlike later games such as Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, the fog of war is lifted forever with initial exploration, it does not become dark once more when units leave the area.

In addition to enemy incursions, there are other dangers; like the marauding gigantic sandworm, capable of swallowing vehicles and infantry whole but blocked by rocky terrain. The player can only build on rocky terrain, but must build concrete foundations before to avoid deterioration of the structures due to the harsh weather conditions although in general, structures will gradually decay over time regardless of the presence of those concrete slabs due to the aforementioned weather conditions, though the concrete saves repair costs in the long run. Spice fields are indicated by orange coloration on the sand, darker orange indicating high concentration. Some spice may be concealed as bumps on the terrain (a “spice bloom”) that become spice fields when they are shot at, or when a unit runs over them (the unit is destroyed in the ensuing “spice blow”).

The player is presented a map of the planet Arrakis before most missions, where they can choose the next territory to play in among two or three. This affects primarily the enemy house fought in the next mission, as all missions except the first two require the complete destruction of the enemy. Nine territories must be fought, irrespective of house, to reach the endgame.

The Dune II interface was the template for subsequent RTS designs

Some key elements that first appeared in Dune II and later appear in many other RTS games include:

  • A world map from which the next mission is chosen
  • Resource-gathering to fund unit construction
  • Simple base and unit construction
  • Building construction dependencies (technology tree)
  • Mobile units that can be deployed as buildings
  • Different sides/factions (the Houses), each with unique unit-types and super weapons
  • A context-sensitive mouse cursor to issue commands (introduced in the Mega Drive/Genesis version)

Completing higher missions gives authorization to use improved technology and higher-order weaponry unique to each House, ensuring varied game play. For example, House Harkonnen may be able to construct their Devastator tanks with heavy armor and ordnance but cannot build the similarly impressive Atreides Sonic Tank. The Ordos have access to the Deviator – a specialized tank firing a nerve gas that switches the allegiance of targeted units to Ordos for a limited period of time. The three Houses also are restricted in their production capabilities—House Ordos cannot build Atreides-style trikes, instead making the faster “Raider” trikes, while House Harkonnen constructs heavier but more expensive quad bikes.

A player can gain access to other Houses’ special units by capturing an enemy Factory and manufacturing the desired units at the captured Factory (House Atreides’ Heavy Vehicle Factory for Sonic Tank, House Ordos’ Light Vehicle Factory for Raider trikes, House Ordos’ Heavy Vehicle Factory for Deviator tanks, or House Harkonnen’s Heavy Vehicle Factory for Devastator tanks). Note that a Deviator not owned by House Ordos still switches control of targeted units to House Ordos, and not to the side that owns the Deviator. Apparently Westwood was aware of this feature, since capturing a Sardaukar Heavy Vehicle Factory allows the player to build both the Sonic Tank and Devastator, but not the Ordos Deviator.

Buildings may only be built in rocky zones and connected to another existing building. To protect them from constant wear, the player must first place concrete slabs in the construction areas. Production buildings can be upgraded at a cost several times, allowing the production of more advanced units or buildings.

The final prize for the commander is the building of the House Palace from where superweapons may be unleashed on opponents in the final closing chapters of the game. The House Harkonnen superweapon is a long-range powerful but inaccurate finger of missiles called the Death Hand, whereas House Atreides may call upon the local Fremen infantry warriors, over which the player has no control, to engage enemy targets. House Ordos may unleash a fast-moving Saboteur whose main purpose is the destruction of buildings.

The AI of Dune II was one of the first used in RTS games, and while better than that of Herzog Zwei, it has various drawbacks. Examples include only attacking the side of the player’s base facing its own, general inability to perform flanking maneuvers, and not rebuilding defenses. Recent research into the game’s engine by fans revealed that the AI is in fact capable of more advanced strategy, but that a large part of these capabilities is unused due to consistently repeated errors in all of the game’s mission scripts.  (wiki)

Development

According to Virgin Interactive vice president Stephen Clarke-Willson in 1998, the development of Dune II began when Virgin Interactive planned to cancel the production of Cryo Interactive‘s adventure game Dune, after which he was given the task of figuring out what to do with the Dune license. After reading the original Dune novel, he decided that “from a gaming point-of-view the real stress was the battle to control the spice,” so a resource-based strategy video game would be a good idea. It was around this time that employee Graeme Devine (who later founded Trilobyte) introduced to everyone at the Virgin office a real-time strategy game on the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive console called Herzog Zwei (1989).

Clarke-Willson described it as a game where the player “kept clicking on stuff and then zooming off to another part of the screen. It was very hard to keep track of what was going on as an observer. Still, everyone liked it, it had fast action, and it was a strategy game.” Virgin staff, including Clarke-Willson and Seth Mendelsohn (who later worked on the Ultima series), then went to Westwood Studios to talk about making a Dune game. According to Clarke-Willson, “Westwood agreed to make a resource strategy game based on Dune, and agreed to look at Herzog Zwei for design ideas.” It later turned out that Cryo’s game of the same name was not cancelled, and Westwood’s real-time strategy game was called Dune II as a result.

Westwood Studios co-founder and Dune II producer Brett Sperry said in 2008 that conceptualization for the game began when Virgin president Martin Alper approached him with the offer of using their Dune license to produce a game, with the understanding that Cryo’s Dune had been cancelled. In terms of video game design, Sperry stated, “The inspiration for Dune II was partly from Populous, partly from my work on Eye Of The Beholder and the final and perhaps most crucial part came from an argument I once had with Chuck Kroegel, then vice president of Strategic Simulations Inc … The crux of my argument with Chuck was that wargames sucked because of a lack of innovation and poor design. Chuck felt the category was in a long, slow decline, because the players were moving to more exciting genres … I felt that the genre had a lot of potential – the surface was barely scratched as far as I as [sic] concerned, especially from a design standpoint. So I took it as a personal challenge and figured how to harness realtime dynamics with great game controls into a fast-paced wargame.” He also stated that, while “Herzog Zwei was a lot of fun,” the “other inspiration for Dune II was the Mac software interface,” referring to the “design/interface dynamics of mouse clicking and selecting desktop items” which got him thinking, “Why not allow the same inside the game environment? Why not a context-sensitive playfield? To hell with all these hot keys, to hell with keyboard as the primary means of manipulating the game!”

During production, he found out that Cryo rushed to finish their game first, leading to Virgin publishing their game as Dune and Westwood’s game as Dune II, despite Sperry protesting against this decision.

Other influences cited by Joseph Bostic (also known as Joe Bostic), the co-designer and lead programmer, and Mike Legg, one of the game’s programmers, include the turn-based strategy games Military Madness (1989) and Civilization (1991), along with Herzog Zwei. According to Bostic, a “benefit over Herzog Zwei is that we had the advantage of a mouse and keyboard. This greatly facilitated precise player control, which enabled the player to give orders to individual units. The mouse, and the direct control it allowed, was critical in making the RTS genre possible.  (wiki)

 

Global Gladiator – 1992, Sega Genesis

Genre: Platformer

Developer:  Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Publisher: Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Ports: Master System, Sega Game Gear, Amiga

Story:

The game stars the titular Mick and Mack, who are sucked into a comic book by Ronald McDonald. The game has an environmental theme to it, with the protagonists fighting enemies and machinery that represent pollution. Mick and Mack’s weapons closely resemble “Super Soaker” water guns. (segaretro)

Notable Releases in 1992:

Notes:

The game engine is the same used in other Virgin Interactive games such as Cool Spot and Disney’s Aladdin, as all of them (Mega Drive/Genesis versions) were handled by David Perry’s programming team, which eventually turned into Shiny Entertainment. (wiki)

There are only four levels; Slime World, Forest, Toxi-Town, and Arctica. There is only one boss, and it’s at the end of the game. Like most western platform games, it’s a rather long game, requiring around 1 hour to play through. Gameplay is pretty typical with jumping, running (autorun kicks in after some steps) and and shooting, although the high recoil of the guns used was pretty unique. Bonus stages can be accessed to collect further score, with the game commenting on the player, e.g. not very successful attempts result in a quote akin to “was you mothery playing?”

The game seemingly established or at the very least fortified a certain design philosophy: Lock the stage exit and let the player unlock it by collecting items, in this case, small spinning “M” McDonald symbols. Further games that used this setup were Cool Spot and The Ottifants. It was also one of the first games to have a dark skinned protagonist.

Like most Virgin Games releases, this game has speed up music for the PAL release but gameplay speed was unchanged. Playing the game at 60Hz makes the music play too fast.  (segaretro)

 

The Terminator – 1992, Sega Genesis

Genre:  Run n’ Gun/Platformer

Developer:  Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Publisher: Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Ports: Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Master System, Sega Game Gear

Story:

You know…The Terminator.

Notable Releases in 1992:

Notes:

The game is a side-scrolling platformer, and follows the same plot as the first film. The player is Kyle Reese, who travels into the past to find and protect Sarah Connor, and stop the Terminator.

There are four different missions in the game, each representing key scenes from the film. The player starts in the future, then continues to the city streets in the past. The player must then escape a police station, and fight the Terminator in the factory.

This game was also released on the Sega Game Gear and Master System, and a revamped version was released for Sega CD.  (wiki)

 

Cool Spot – 1993, Sega Genesis

Genre: Platformer

Developer:  Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Publisher: Virgin Interactive Entertainment

Ports:  Game Gear, Amiga, Super NES, Game Boy, PC

Story:  

None.

Notable Releases in 1993:

Notes:

The title is a single-player platformer in which the player controls Cool Spot, who can jump, and attack by throwing soda bubbles in any direction. Cool Spot can also cling to and climb various things by jumping up in front of them. In each level the player must rescue other cool spots, who look exactly alike, from their cages. In order to do so, the player is required to collect a certain number of “spots” that changes (usually increasing) as the game progresses. “Spots” are placed around the level in large quantities. The player’s health is monitored by a humorous Cool Spot face that gradually bends forward and eventually falls from its position as damage occurs. Damage is taken by touching enemies and their projectiles and certain other obstacles. There is also a time limit for each level. The game has no save feature but does include checkpoints in the form of flagpoles.

If the player successfully collects enough Spots to enter the Bonus Stage after defeating a level, it is possible to collect Continues by grabbing a letter hidden within the stage. Depending on the version of the game, all letters either spell “UNCOLA” (7 Up’s slogan), or “VIRGIN” (the game’s developer). If a Continue letter is collected, Spot will be able to restart on the level he was on at the time of losing his last life, although his total points will be reset.  (wiki)

 

Aladdin – 1993 Playstation

Genre: Platform

Developer:  Virgin Interactive Entertainment, Disney Studios

Publisher:  Sega

Ports:  Amiga, SNES, Game Boy

Story:  

You know…Aladdin.

Notable Releases in 1993:

Notes:

Disney’s Aladdin was developed for the Mega Drive by Virgin Interactive‘s studio of Virgin Games USA and published by Sega in 1993. This was due to the fact that Sega had both obtained a license for publishing video games based on Disney’s motion picture and established a collaboration deal with Disney’s feature animation studio (a first in the video game industry), so Sega of America tasked the Virgin Games USA development team with the programming duties because of their successful previous efforts with McDonald’s Global Gladiators and 7 Up’s Cool Spot. The game has been noted for its use of traditional animation, which was produced by Disney animators under the supervision of Virgin’s animation staff, including animation producer Andy Luckey, technical director Paul Schmiedeke and animation director Mike Dietz, using an in-house “Digicel” process to compress the data onto the cartridge. The game also featured some musical arrangements from the film, along with original tracks composed by Donald Griffin and Tommy Tallarico.  (wiki)

 

The Lion King – 1994 Sega Genesis

Genre: Platformer

Developer:  Virgin Interactive Entertainment, Disney Studios

Publisher:  Sega

Ports:  Amiga, SNES, Game Boy, NES, Master System

Story:  

You know…The Lion King.

Notable Releases in 1994:

Notes:

The sprites and backgrounds were drawn by Disney animators themselves at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and the music was adapted from songs and orchestrations in the soundtrack. In a “Devs Play” session with Double Fine, game designer Louis Castle revealed that two of the game’s levels, Hakuna Matata and Be Prepared, were adapted from scenes that were scrapped from the final movie.

The Amiga 1200 version of the game was developed in 2 months from scratch in Assembly language by Dave Semmons, who was willing to take on the conversion if he received the Genesis source code. He assumed the game to be programmed in 68000 assembly, since the Amiga and Genesis shared the same CPU family, but turned out to be written in C, a language he was unfamiliar with.  (wiki)

 

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