Category Archives: My Career

Michael Lieberman: In Memoriam

The year 2016 feels like it had more than its share of celebrity deaths and news-making tragedy, but none struck me harder than the recent death of Michael Lieberman. What’s that, you say? You never heard of him? That’s a pity, because he was someone worth knowing. Mike Lieberman was one of the original employees of Edu-Ware Services, the first video game publisher I worked for.

Edu-Ware founders Sherwin Steffin and Steven Pederson met at UCLA, where Steffin was working as a faculty advisor to the campus radio station where Pederson worked as a student. When Steffin was laid off in the spring of 1979, he and Pederson decided to form a software publishing company specializing in educational software for the Apple II. Working out of his Woodland Hills, California apartment, Steffin programmed educational software, while Pederson favored games the games he created while completing his studies at UCLA.

The company expanded beyond the two founders when they hired Mike Lieberman, who, had also worked as a DJ at UCLA’s student radio station, as sales manager.  Now, back in those days, there was no GameStop chain, and WalMart did not sell video games.  If you were a video game publisher, you had to reach out to each of the thousands of individual mom-and-pop computer stores across the country and try to convince them to carry your product.

Mike would do his cold calls from Steffin’s bedroom while Steffin and I worked in the living room of his small apartment creating the games that Mike was responsible for selling.  I vividly remember hearing his voice on the phone behind me as I programmed: “My name is Mike Lieberman from Edu-Ware.  Lieberman.  L-I-E-B-E-R-M-A-N.”  Mike would make hundreds of calls each day, trying to convince stores to carry our games.

And, man, was he successful.  Within six months we had a real office in Canoga Park, California, with our games frequently making SoftTalk magazine’s best-seller lists.  A couple of years later, we moved to bigger offices in Agoura Hills, where our staff swelled up to over fifty people.

And then tragedy struck.  While Mike and a friend were driving Las Vegas in advance of Edu-Ware appearing at the Consumer Electronics Show, their vehicle overturned.  Mike was left a paraplegic.  We were all devastated when we received the news that this good man and dear friend would never be able to walk again.

After a recuperation period, Mike returned to his job at Edu-Ware.  There was no elevator to our second-floor office, and so each morning some of us would lift carry him and his wheelchair up the stairs, and then back down at the end of the day.  Yet never did I see him lose his dignity or his good humor.  He made the best of a terrible situation.

The doctors said that he would live only another ten or twenty years due to his injury.  He eventually succumbed to his injuries last week, a decade or so longer than the doctors had predicted.  During that time, he managed to lead a full life.  After his sales career ended, he did voice-over work and recorded textbooks for the blind.  He also loved music and was never at a loss for a dance partner, I am told.  And now he is untethered from his broken body, and as we celebrate the year coming to an end, I like to think that somewhere he will be celebrating too, as he is finally able to dance on his legs again.

 

How Halloween Influenced My Career In Game Development

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas. As a child I loved dressing up in costume and going trick-or-treating. It wasn’t so much the collecting candy that I enjoyed but going out at night and visiting unfamiliar houses, which were made even more foreboding with cobwebs, skeletons, and graveyards on the lawn. It felt like I was doing something dangerous, and trick-or-treating was about as dangerous a think that this straight-and-narrow kid during his middle-class, suburban childhood.

Since I couldn’t walk amongst vampires, werewolves, and mummies every day, I developed an interest in the Universal Monster horror film franchise and watched the ghoulish adventures of Frankenstein, Dracula, and my favorite, the Wolf Man.  I begged my mom to let me stay up past midnight on Saturday nights to watch a late night horror film show on a local television program, and that introduced me to zombies, demons and other supernatural creatures.  Later on, as a teenager, I’d go to the movie theater with friends to watch films coming out of the new slasher horror film genre: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare On Elmstreet.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to be a member of the audience, I had to be an active participant in the horror genre.  No, I didn’t become a serial killer, but I did buy myself a Ouija board for contacting the Other Side and tried to hold seances.  When no one from the Other Side showed up, I built haunted house attractions in my garage and charged them a quarter to pull them on a wagon through scenes of bubbling cauldrons and simulated horror.

Eventually I moved on to college and discovered how a computer could be used for a storytelling medium.  What a perfect way to tell a horror story, I thought!  A computer was able to create an environment that was both immersive and surprising, yet do it in a way that was completely safe.  What better way to lure in my unsuspecting victims?!

Unfortunately, fantasy and science fiction were the favored genres for video games, not horror.  When I joined The Walt Disney Company as a game producer, I wanted to produce a video game based on my favorite Disneyland ride, The Haunted Mansion.  However, it was a tough sell.  Instead of recreating the “frightfully funny” experience of the ride, I wanted to explore ways to make a computer game actually frightening, just as I had experimented with my earlier game The Prisoner in making players feel trapped and manipulated.  But Disney wasn’t willing to take such risks at that time — especially not with one of their more cherished attractions, and I was never able to get the project beyond the talking stage with developers.

I found a more receptive employer for my more macabre ideas when I joined Cyberdreams, a small game publisher specializing in game developed in collaboration with famous names from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.  One of my first projects was to produce a sequel to the award-winning horror game Dark Seed, based on the artwork of H.R. Giger.  I put together a Dream Team of horror writers: Raymond Benson, who had designed Stephen King’s The Mist for MicroProse; Keith Herber, who had written scenarios for the H.P. Lovecraft horror RPG Call of Cthulhu (which I played quite extensively while I was at Disney) to write dialog; and horror novelist John Shirley to critique the story, which chronicled protagonist Mike Dawson’s descent into madness as he crosses from our normal world to the Giger-inspired Dark World.  Alas, the game turned out to be less than the sum of its parts, and it received mediocre reviews.

Much more successful was another game that I produced at the same time, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, based on Harlan Ellison’s classic short story about the last five people on Earth, kept alive and psychologically tortured by a malevolent, all-power computer.  We embellish the short story by telling the backstory of each of the characters, each about such horrific topics as cannibalism, physical abuse, rape, and the Holocaust.  This game was a mishmash of science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but it all came together somehow and went on to win many awards.

I thought I would have similar luck when we signed a deal with Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and other horror films.  He provided us with a scenario about a house that came alive, but being a very busy person, allowed us to take the concept from there.  I got as far as producing a prototype of the game to show at the 1997 Game Developers Conference,  but even though it won About Games magazine’s Bronze Medal for Interactive Fiction, Craven’s agent was not impressed and she cancelled the project.

My greatest success in the horror genre came when I joined Activision, and I was assigned to produce the in-progress development of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.  The developer, Troika Games, was behind schedule since they were using Valve’s Source Engine, which was still in development.  I managed to get the game on track, but it was so overdue that we run out of funding when it still needed a couple more weeks of polishing.  Fortunately, the fans took over with mods to fix some of the problems after it was launched, and the horror game has since been recognized as one of the best computer RPG’s of all time.

Still, I haven’t felt I had a chance to fully experiment with how to best design a game to create a frightening experience, as all of the games I produced relied more on a horrifying premise for telling their story.  Perhaps some day I’ll be given a chance to develop game mechanics that create the sensation of fear.  After all, the night is still young.