Features Interviews

Interview: Dr. Stephen Clarke-Willson (Virgin Int. VP of Product Dev.)

Chances are, if you were a Genesis gamer during the 16-bit era, you played the hell out of Virgin Games’ line up of platformers. Whether it was Global Gladiators, Aladdin, or Cool Spot; there was something for everyone. Add to this the company’s diverse library of titles for both the Genesis and Sega CD, and you had yourself one of the best third party developers available, standing among the ranks of Konami, Renovation, and Capcom.

One of the men responsible for Virgin’s prominence in the gaming market was Dr. Stephen Clarke-Willson. Under his leadership, the size of the company expanded immensely. Staff was beefed up from a mere eight people to over 180, and sales rose from $30 million in 1991 to $180 million by 1994. He produced several titles, working alongside such notable Virgin Game alumni as David Perry, engineered the purchase of Westwood Studios, and helped make the Virgin brand a gaming powerhouse.

Dr. Clarke-Willson had a lot to say about his time at Virgin Games and what it was like to work with great talent like Tommy Tallarico and David Perry.


Sega-16: You were instrumental in making Virgin Games one of the big guns in the Sega Genesis’s third party arsenal. Staff was greatly increased and new branches were opened in Las Vegas and London. All of this was done in a remarkably short amount of time. What was the state of things when you first joined the company and how did you manage to pull off such a feat?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: There were about 30 people in the US and there was a group of about 10 people in the UK when I joined the company. The thing that attracted me to join the US operation was the first Spot game programmed by Graeme Devine. In 1989, most NES games were very blocky, and here Graeme had programmed a system where the character literally jumped off the screen. Virgin had just bought the company, but the Virgin Group wasn’t rich yet – Branson hadn’t sold the record company for 800 million dollars yet. Most of the projects in development refused to be completed. The Amiga business was doing well I think but just fading out. The company had a couple of cash cows with Monopoly and Risk on CGA DOS. I was bored at my current software architect job and I was looking for something more fun to do when I was hooked up with Martin Alper at Virgin Mastertronic by a mutual friend, Carol Berry.

The first year was spent getting contracts in order so they were milestone-based so that there was half a chance of projects finishing, and also getting internal development organized. Most of the internal development at that time was taking care of itself. The M.C. Kids team (Gregg Tavares and Dan Chang) were fairly autonomous and Ed Magnin who wrote the Game Boy Caesar’s Palace game was also fairly autonomous. Darren Bartlett, who now runs Liquid Development, was doing the art for both games!

One lucky break for me happened when Martin was talking with Warner Bros. They had Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in development with Kevin Costner. Virgin had an existing Robin Hood game in development with Sculptured Software in Utah that was kind of meandering and had some structural problems. Martin gave me that script and told me to fly out to Sculptured to get a Prince of Thieves version done in twelve weeks for Christmas! I did a design on the airplane flight out, reorganizing the game mechanics they had, and putting it all down in a two page storyboard. The Sculptured guys worked their asses off for twelve weeks and got the game done. The famous Tommy Tallarico was the lead tester on that game! Tommy has an incredible work ethic and helped get the game tested and through Nintendo. Seth Mendelsohn was a big help too, since he loved RPGs and was able to tell me everything that was wrong with the existing game; I made sure every issue was addressed in the new design. The game sold well for our little company and Nintendo Power gave it sixteen pages of coverage! It was a big boost for Sculptured too, who went on to do the Star Wars SNES games.

I had no game experience when I joined – my main skills were in technology management and project management. But as a “Disney Freak” I had been paying attention to show business my whole life, so I had some clue about story structure and pacing and that kind of thing. Also, as a software architect for interactive graphic systems I knew about basic interactivity, although not at sixty frames a second. The first year I spent a huge amount of time playing games at night with my infant son on my lap. I had to get my thumb adjusted by a chiropractor because I pressed too hard on the controller. So the Robin Hood experience suddenly gave me a lot of credibility in the company. That was my first real “producing” vs. “just project management” experience in games.

After that, Robert Deveraux, who was Richard Branson’s brother-in-law and entrusted with running our section of the Virgin Group of companies asked me to come up with an expansion plan. That’s also when we started to look at acquiring Westwood in Las Vegas . And then Virgin Mastertronic in the UK sold off the Sega console distribution business, which left behind some great producers in the UK, and they were integrated a bit better into the overall business.

The next thing that boosted me along in my career was the Cool Spot game. Martin asked me to make an adventure game actually, but I decided to misinterpret what he said and we started developing a SNES platform game with Spot inspired originally by Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse. Spot was the greatest deal ever – Martin is a genius for pulling this off. Basically for something like $.25 a unit we got access to $10 million in advertising by Seven-Up at Christmas time. (Most people said Seven-Up should be paying us for promoting their brand…). This is the game I had the most design input into. This is in Orange County, CA, which was not exactly a hotbed of console development. In fact, console development in the entire U.S. at that time was pretty weak. So I hired people who hadn’t worked on games before. One guy, Bill Anderson, was working in a garage as a mechanic. He ended up designing all of the levels! Mike Dietz, an amazing animator, was self-taught and was working on commercials when he was brought on board. Our storyboard and layout artist, Stan Gorman, was this amazing illustrator who worked in Hollywood.

Of course, Dave Perry was the machine that made internal development crank. He had this interpreted engine that ran on the Genesis. After he finished programming Global Gladiators, Dave took our Spot animations and plugged them into GG levels, and so the game, which was struggling on the SNES, came to life on the Genesis. David Bishop was also a huge help on that game. He was working in the UK office as a producer and had designed an Alice in Wonderland adventure game for PC. I asked him a few questions about game design and pathing through levels. I didn’t really care what the answers were so much as about his reasoning process. I liked the way he was able to verbalize his thinking process and so we moved him from the U.K. to the U.S. It is one thing to be a good designer but it’s a whole different level to be able to verbalize so other people “get it.” I don’t think he had worked on a platform game before Cool Spot. That game sold a million copies.

Sega-16: Did Virgin Games have any specific hardware preference in terms of releases or were both the Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System given equal share?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: We went where the money was (most of the time). At first, because of Dave’s engine, we supported the Genesis more. Later after the engine was ported to the SNES by Mark Kelly (which people said would be impossible because of the slow processor in the SNES), we did dual development. The assets moved between the machines reasonably well. Of course, each team wanted to show off what the hardware could do. So Dave would switch on a crazy screen mode that allowed him to do translucency, which compressed the character art, so we had to account for that. On the SNES, we would have three layers of scrolling with genuine (hardware) translucency. But the differences were manageable.

Sega-16: What was it like to make the transition from game producer to V.P. of Worldwide Development?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: It was of course terrific right up until the end. I thought, given our rather stellar growth, that I would have some reasonable credibility when I said that it was going to be tough to transition from 2D games to 3D games. The 3DO, Jaguar, Nintendo PlayStation (remember that?), Sony PlayStation, Sega 32, the Saturn, PC with 3D hardware looming, of course (and other platforms I don’t even remember anymore because they died or never came out) were all on the horizon. But the company was being positioned to go public and the story that “it will be tough but we’re smart and when we come out of the other end of this transition we will be kicking ass” was not a story that anyone wanted to present to investors. Instead, continued exponential growth was expected, which was simply not going to happen. I was ready and willing to manage that transition, but the bosses wanted to pretend it wasn’t going to happen at all, with the attendant results that the company crashed and burned.

Sega-16: Virgin Games was especially known for its excellent platform titles during the 16-bit generation, like Global Gladiators and Aladdin. How did it manage such consistency of quality in an era where run-of-the-mill Sonic the Hedgehog clones were rampant?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: Well, of course, Dave Perry, who has done a terrific job over the years of promoting himself and his engine, were big factors. But I think one of the things I did that made Dave so successful was build an entire operation that fit Dave and his engine like a glove. Contrary to what Dave likes to say, he didn’t “make Aladdin in four months.” About fifty people made it over a period of about seven months, and a lot of R&D on how traditional animation could go into a console game had been done the year before that.

A fellow named Andy Luckey, who is a minister now, and whose father is Bud Luckey, the character designer at Pixar who did Buzz Lightyear, happened across our path. I think he was related to Martin’s second cousin twice removed or something. Martin asked me to meet with Andy and I thought, “Shit, this is awesome! This guy is perfect!” Andy had been brought up literally painting cells for his dad in the basement of their home. He knew a ton of people in Hollywood. He hooked us up with Bill Kroyer, who was a former Disney animator that loved computers and was doing innovative work with Ferngully, The Last Rainforest. Andy hooked us up with Metrolight who had a system for scanning and painting cells. (Disney had one too, “CAPS,” but it was still a secret.) Of course I knew a lot about image processing from when I worked at Northrop on mission planning for the Stealth Bomber. And then the Virgin name opened doors at Disney. So basically it was (1) a ton of work over an extended period of time and (2) success breeds success, so we got more money and more resources, and (3), the Virgin brand opened up a lot of doors for us.

Sega-16: You were involved with many games programmed by David Perry. What was it like to work with him?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: It was good. Even at the end when he wanted to take his team and move offsite and build some fresh IP, I was in favor of making a deal with him. We would have had Earthworm Jim, but the bosses thought he wanted too much money and control. So he took his team anyway and moved on! Oh well.

The most important thing I learned from Dave was the importance of getting art and design and music and sound assets into the game, running on target, as soon as humanly possible. Dave would stay up all night sometimes getting the latest animation or background art into the game. The result was a team that was on fire! Remember, this is 1992 and 1993, and for a kid to see his art running on the Genesis on a TV set was magic! So everyone worked really hard to get stuff to Dave. And Dave reciprocated by working really hard to get it on the screen.

Later, at Amaze Entertainment, our engine was built around this principle, minus the staying up all night part. It was a 99% automated build process with continuous, simultaneous, staggered builds going on all day (and sometimes at night).

This is the single biggest thing I think anyone can do to improve quality and team productivity – get stuff working on target as soon as possible. It’s amazing to see big companies like EA still make this mistake, especially since some of those people used to work for me and should know better! The art and design pipeline is not a secondary concern. It is the primary concern. It is the life and soul of your project and your team. The more frequently and reliably you can build your game, the more often you can play it and tune it and tweak it. This is so important.

Sega-16: Aladdin raised the bar for platform games during the 16-bit generation with its fluid animation and great presentation. How exactly did the Disney/Virgin collaboration come about?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: As I mentioned, it started with hiring Andy Luckey. Andy took me around to meet all kinds of Hollywood people. I had a tour of Pixar where I met Ed Catmull. That was humbling. We went to ILM to check out using their commercial division (since closed) to make game assets. We were lucky when we met Bill Kroyer, because he had just finished Rainforest and had some time to help us experiment with traditional animation on consoles. Robert Devereux, God bless him, cut a big check to Disney for the Jungle Book license, which got us in the door there. One time we were meeting with Patrick Gilmore, our producer there, and I happened to have our test cartridge with the Kroyer animation in it. We showed it to him and the light bulb went on over his head! Patrick started the whole process going at Disney that led to Aladdin. We met with Jeffrey Katzenburg whose sponsorship of the project was key: he made the whole Disney organization, which can be ah, a bit bureaucratic, turn on a dime. I sent Mike Deitz and his wife to live at Disney World for a few weeks at a time to work directly with the Disney animators there on game console animation timing, which is different from the timing used in traditional animation.

I can tell you – these things don’t “just happen.” A thousand things had to fall into place to make that game so successful.

Sega-16: Were you surprised that Aladdin was such a big seller (over 4 million copies)?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: I thought two million was an easy number to achieve given where we were going, but at four million it is still one of the top ten video games, sales-wise, in the last fifteen years. One factor was that Sega distributed the game for us. That alone could account for twice the sales. Sega had amazing distribution back in the day. You need to remember when you compare sales figures that the Aladdin game on Genesis was a single game on a single platform – not a series, and not across several SKUs. The SNES version was made by Capcom and doesn’t count in our sales figures.

Sega-16: At what stage in the development of Global Gladiators was the decision made to add the McDonald’s license?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: Actually, M.C. Kids was the name of the NES game, and after working with McDonald’s a bit, they wanted the next game to be an environmentally friendly game… Barf. So the next game was Global Gladiators. The game actually tanked, sales-wise. Luckily Sega distributed it and they have ways of handling that, thank goodness. If we had distributed it ourselves, it could have killed us. Still, Cool Spot was basically Global Gladiators with actual gameplay and much more variety, so GG was a good practice run. The M.C. Kids NES game was good but hard, which limited the appeal, and the McDonald’s license did not help it at all. I think it hurt it quite a bit.

Sega-16: Why was the name changed from “M.C. Kids?”

Dr. Clarke-Willson: The whole McDonald’s experience was fux0r from beginning to end. The people we worked with at McDonald’s were nice but the whole idea was a bad idea. Not all licenses should be made into games. I think ultimately McDonald’s was very confused about how they wanted their characters to show up in video games if at all.

Sega-16: Tell us a bit about the acquisition of Westwood Studios.

Dr. Clarke-Willson: It’s pretty simple. They were great! Actually the deal had fallen apart but I was in London and I met with Robert Deveraux, and kind of sketched out what I thought would be acceptable to the Westwood guys, and he thought that wasn’t too crazy. We’d been more successful so we could afford a little more.

Dune II was the key thing. People who played it loved it. Unfortunately, not very many people played it. Martin kept wanting to cancel their follow-on strategy game, but I kept pushing for it. Fun is a rare commodity. That game became Command and Conquer.

Sega-16: Westwood was a favorite developer among PC gamers. What did you think of the whole situation with Electronic Arts that resulted in its dissolution?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: Not much to say except it happens to everyone that EA acquires eventually. Westwood kept their identity longer than most and there are still key executives from Westwood at EA.

Sega-16: What’s your fondest memory from your time at Virgin Games?

Dr. Clarke-Willson: Nearly every day was filled with joy. Even if I was arguing with someone I think both of us felt we were on a crusade to make great games. I was so spoiled. Later I was shocked to find out that most publishers are a grind. We were so lucky to be privately held and to have the freedom to invest in our own growth without having to hit crazy P&L numbers for a quarterly report. I had incredible financial freedom, which I was given because I’m actually pretty tight, so I was trusted with a lot of money. That was fun. Working with major Hollywood talent was fun. Putting Stallone and Snipes into a video game was fun. Discovering new talent like Mike Deitz, Tommy Tallarico, Bill Anderson, and many others was fun. Some of my producers, like Lyle Hall and Dave Luehmann, now run entire game studios. Working with top brass from Disney and Warner Bros. was fun. Working with Graeme Devine on 7th Guest was fun. Working with the Virgin Group management was fun. In fact, one of Richard Branson’s tenants is that if the staff isn’t having fun, then your customers probably won’t either.

The only un-fun part was when I knew we were going to hit a brick wall and because we had been so successful nobody believed me. My last day was the day we were purchased by Viacom/Blockbuster. My timing couldn’t have been better.


Many thanks to Dr. Clarke-Willson for taking the time to share his experiences with us.

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