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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 James Bond Influenced My Career

Last week I wrote about the pervasive influence that Star Trek has had on my life and career. With the twenty-fourth James Bond film Spectre debuting last weekend, this week I’m writing about how the James Bond films impacted me. While this creative franchise didn’t have quite the same degree of influence on me that Star Trek and Lord of the Rings did, it still was one of the three primary pop culture influences on my childhood.

Because the Bond films are not child-friendly films, their impact on me was indirect during my early childhood in that they influenced many of the shows I did watch. James Bond creator Ian Fleming himself helped develop the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which followed the adventures of an American and Russian secret agent, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, who worked for a secret international counter espionage and law and enforcement agency. I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, used exotic international locations to emulate the James Bond films. An especially favorite show of mine was the spy spoof Get Smart, starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, who was a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. One recurring gag on the show was that telephones are concealed in over objects a necktie, comb, watch, a clock, and most frequently, Max’s shoe phone, which he has to take off to answer calls from his superior.

Spy adventures and secret agent gear comprised a lot of my make-believe play. I bought and studied books about how to make codes and ciphers, such as using lemon juice as “invisible ink” to send secret messages. I played with all sorts of secret agent toys such as radios and cameras that turned into “guns”; the Johnny Seven gun that had seven different weapons including a grenade launcher and anti-tank rocket; and the Secret Sam attaché case that featured not only a gun with silencer but also had a secret button on that fired a bullet out one side of the briefcase. With me playing with all those guns, you might think that I was a blood-thirsty little tyke, what actually fascinated me was the ingenuity of how they were designed, and there ability to transform from one thing to another — much like kids that grew up after me enjoyed Transformer toys.

My favorite spy toy was a die-cast model of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. Like the film car, this toy from Corgi featured retractable front-mounted machine guns, bullet-proof rear screen, revolving number plates, tire shredders, and best of all, a working ejector seat that would send the occupant flying out of the roof. Now, I had never actually seen a James Bond film at this point, but I have a vivid memory of my Dad calling me over to the television showing a scene of Q showing off the Aston Martin’s features to Bond.

I didn’t actually see my first Bond film until I was 11-years-old, when my Dad took my brothers and I to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the local movie theater. I didn’t know George Lazenby from Sean Connery at this point, so the opening scene where Lazenby’s Bond loses a fight and breaks the fourth wall by saying to the camera, “This never happened to the other fellow” was lost on me. I immediately loved the film for its clever gadgets, exotic locales, exciting action sequences, and supervillians with hidden lairs and elaborate plans for world domination. However, at that age, the sex (and sexism) was a bit over my head.

I caught up on all of previous Bond films that ABC would regularly broadcast on television, and although he wasn’t my first Bond, Connery became my favorite because of his suave and debonair approach to the character (which I later learned was due to director Terrence Young coaching the scruffy Connery in the ways of being dapper, witty, and cultured). Connery’s Bond was also as ruthless as he was charming, for he could just as easily slide a knife into a female adversary as he could make love to her to gain her loyalty.

During my teenage years, my best friend, Andrew Weber, and I would ride our bicycles together to the movie theater to catch the latest Bond film. By this time, Roger Moore had taken over the role after Connery’s departure. Although all Bond films are ridiculous to some degree, I did not like Moore’s approach to the character, which Connery said differed from his in that “I would leave the scene laughing, while Roger would enter the scene laughing”. I wanted my Bond to be a bit more serious when saving the world.

I found the grittiness I was wanted by reading the original Ian Fleming novels, in which the literary Bond was not as handsome or unflappable as the film versions. I was put off by some of the racial insensitive of the books, but we were reading Huckleberry Finn at the same time in high school, so I took Fleming’s use of the “N-” word as a sign of another, less enlighten time. Ian Fleming saw himself as part of an elite class, and he undoubtedly saw everyone who was not a member of British upper society as beneath him.

My reading then turned to American spy stories. Watergate was happening at the time, and so I read a (very mediocre) spy novel written by Watergate conspirator and ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. When I was older, I started reading Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller books, most of which centered around CIA intelligence officer Jack Ryan. Although I greatly enjoyed the technically details of his espionage and military science storylines set during and after the Cold War, I eventually grew tired of Clancy’s heavy-handed conservative views in which all the right-leaning characters were pure and good and the left-leaning characters were flawed or evil.

I preferred my fiction to be more thought-provoking, and our of all the spy-themed movies, books, and television shows that most captured my interests was The Prisoner, a 17-episode British television eerie first broadcast in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s but rebroadcast on PBS while I was attending college a decade later. The series follows a British former secret agent who is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Although the show was outwardly a spy thriller, what appealed to me was its surreal settings and 1960s countercultural themes about maintaining one’s individuality despite society’s pressure to conform.

I was so enthralled with the show that when I joined Edu-Ware Services as a game designer/programmer after graduating college, I convinced my boss to let me develop a game based on the show. Over a six-week period I designed the game as I was programming it, devising situations based not just based on the show’s themes and spy genre tropes, but also incorporating famous experiments, like the Milgram experiment, that I learned about in a college psychology class.

Because we didn’t acquire a license to The Prisoner, my game was only loosely based on the show but incorporated its themes about the loss of individuality in a technological, controlling society. The player’s role is that of an intelligence agent who has resigned from his job for reasons known only to himself, and who has been abducted to an isolated island community that seems designed to be his own personal prison. The island’s authorities use coercion, disorientation, deception, and frustration to learn why the player has resigned, and every character, location, and apparent escape route seem to be part of a grand scheme to trick the player into revealing a code number representing the prisoner’s reason for resigning.

The game turned out to be my greatest personal creative achievement. I programmed a text parser so that the player could communicate in English with his captors, which one game reviewer described as “the best example of artificial intelligence seen in or outside of any game.” One of my more nefarious attempts to get the player to reveal the reasons why he resigned was a simulated game crash which includes the error message “Syntax error in line ###”, where the line number is the player’s resignation code. I also had game occasionally break the fourth wall by acknowledging that a game is being played and the player has chosen to imprison himself by agreeing willingly to play the game.

The game was both a financial and critical success, sufficiently so that I wrote a color graphics sequel called Prisoner 2 that was equally well-received. Unfortunately, that was the last opportunity I had to developed a spy-themed video game.

Still, my interest in the spy genre never waned, and Bond somehow always impacted my life, in addition to me watching the films through the Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig years. During one trip to Las Vegas, I volunteered to go up on stage during a performance of Pat Collins, “The Hip Hypnotist”. She “hypnotized” me into believing I was James Bond, and so I pulled out an imaginary “gun”, leapt off the stage, grabbed an cocktail waitress by the arm, and escorted her off to safety.

I had another Bond encounter when I was working at Cyberdreams, producing the game Dark Seed II with H.R. Giger. Because I had my hands full designing another game, I brought on a freelance designer to work on the Giger game, and the person I hired was Raymond Benson, who had designed a number of text and graphic adventure games for Origin Systems, MicroProse, and Mindscape, including games based on the James Bond films A View To A Kill and Goldfinger. Raymond was also the author of the non-fiction book The James Bond Bedside Companion, which is an indispensable resource for Bond fans.

In 1996, when official James Bond novelist John Gardner resigned from writing Bond books. Glidrose Publications hired Raymond to replace him. Raymond wound up writing six James Bond novels, three novelizations, and three short stories (he was the first writer after creator Ian Fleming to write a Bond short story). I, of course, read all of Raymond’s Bond works and am lucky enough to have several autographed copies of his novels, which occupy a treasured space in my library.

Knowing of my mutual love for Bond, Raymond invited me to a James Bond convention in Los Angeles where he was appearing as a speaker and performer (in addition to being a phenomenal writer, Raymond is also a terrific pianist). After attending Raymond’s session, I saw my “first” Bond, George Lazenby, in person, along with Richard Kiel (“Jaws” from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) and Bruce Glover (“Mr. Wint” in Diamonds Are Forever). Raymond has since gone on to writing his own very successful mystery novels, and I try to see him whenever he is in town for a book signing or business meeting.

As for my own spy adventures, although I never had an opportunity to work on any spy-themed videogames since The Prisoner and Prisoner 2, I did some work on a spy-themed live action game last year. Two entrepreneurs interested in staring up an Escape Room franchise hired me to design some scenarios for them, including a spy-themed scenario in which players find clues hidden in secret compartments and use them to break codes and solve other puzzles that will ultimately let escape from a locked room. It was great fun to work on, although the project never advanced past the design phase.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work on an actual James Bond game, but I never expected Sean Connery to return to the role in Never Say Never Again or Eon Productions to hire a blonde-haired actor like Daniel Craig to play Bond, so maybe some day I’ll have an opportunity to virtually join Her Majesty’s Secret Service as an agent creating works rather than as a spy viewing them.