The state of CD-ROMs, September 1991 Essay category

Stack of CD-ROMs

Denise Caruso, a writer for the 1990s trade journal Digital Media, uploaded an archive of the magazine’s articles. One particularly fascinating issue from September 1991 featured a few lengthy pieces about the CD-ROM, storage mediums, and the future of the “new breed of interactive developers” who used them. This is invaluable information that explains why developers made interactive movies and flocked to the new device and captures the early days of the format in microcosm. What follows is a summary of that information so you don’t have to comb through it. With, of course, added commentary and additional sources.

Some background

“Interactive CDs” were originally seen by the industry as the beginning of an entirely new wave of media that could be accessible on most any machine. The discs originally started as a spinoff of media discs used in classrooms, but as consumer models became available, the industry figured they could integrate them into computers and televisions. This was the origin of the CD-i and the ill-fated Commodore CDTV: they were driven by envious, excited developers’ demands for more platforms to explore exciting possibilities on.

An array of DVD and CD-ROM drives

Coming to an office park near you

Yet developers also acknowledged that there wasn’t a market for interactive media discs. Not only were graphically intensive projects expensive to build (most averaging $200,000 per project), but investors and consumers alike were skeptical about buying into an experimental format that could die out without an install base. As the story eventually goes, Myst broke this barrier and made optical media a worthwhile investment. But before this happened, big companies refused to push, and the few small companies willing to take the financial risks needed a way to recoup their losses.

Computer tech was compared to a hypothetical “electronic piñata.” The surface appears stable, still physically tangible and accessible to everyone. But the unseen, empty space inside is what really fills out the piñata – in this case, the technology behind-the-scenes. The example cited is the Xerox machine; there’s little actual technology at play, and most of the piñata is still made from the physical medium of paper. But as computers become more powerful, the space inside the piñata grows, and the technology becomes more complex. And the expansion is rapid, its volume expanding magnitudes faster than its surface. The interface might be the same, but the machinery holding it together is changing.

It’s a clumsy metaphor, but it makes its point. Douglas Adams once called this problem “the impenetrable barrier of jargon” that stands between the user and usable software. Even as the industry upgrades the tech, a sensible, tangible interface stays in place to support it. This is the challenge that faced CD-ROM developers. The Xerox machine was a no-brainer to operate, but high-concept interactive media needed one hell of a frame to be usable. Developers had to bridge the gap between the unfettered potential of endless interactive storage and ease of use. Users were to become not only “readers” but also “editors,” letting the software do its work while at the same time requiring some input and direction. As one writer put it, “it is to tame raw new technologies into compelling media of expression.”

That’s the issue so many developers tackled when making the leap into the new and exciting world of multimedia. Make technology that’s accessible for the average consumer – but still run a business. And an interesting dichotomy developed between those who wanted a killer app to spread the new technology, and the developers who treated it like a niche, waiting for the CD-ROM to catch on.

The CD-i and sponsorship

One way to make CD-ROMs attractive to consumers was to broaden their audience as widely as possible. This meant finding someone else to foot the bill for new technology while another group made interesting, appealing software. Oddly enough, many developers turned to the Philips CD-i as the solution. Rather than viewing the system as a gaming console, a group of developers saw it as a dedicated optical drive which could become a commercial platform for digital magazines and applications. PC CD-ROM drives were still a novelty at the time and had very low adoption rates, so it made sense to push a single-purpose console with some serious corporate backing and truckloads of money behind it.

Philips CD-i menu screen

The future of technology? Probably not

Take Fathom Images, an interactive movie company. Company founder Garry Hare realized that the market for CD-based software and games didn’t exist, and that to create one, rather than releasing hundreds of products, he just needed “targeted, market-driven applications” that would sell the platform for niche audience. Part of this plan involved corporate financing that would help smaller developers break even only by selling a few thousand units. The greater problem, he saw, was generating the money needed to lure that money to developers. And so Hare started developing exclusively for the CD-i, taking subsidies from Philips to create products for their system. Fathom ended up working with ABC Sports, the NFL, Warner Bros., and Lucasfilm, with further projects in the wings for the pharmaceutical industry.

By combining a single platform with a strong, active publisher, Hare believed the CD-i could instantly find a market that would expand as more niche titles were produced. He just happened to be the one producing them. Without results from these CD-ROMs, Fathom would go out of business. “There’s a lot of blood on the floor here,” he acknowledged, “much of it mine.”

Interactive Productions, another digital media upstart, drifted into the CD-i crowd too. The company still couldn’t afford to make CD-ROMs full-time, given the overheads and the tiny market, but the few under development were backed by Philips. “Philips is who’s coming to the table actively, soliciting titles to get done,” founder Rob Fulop explained. “We could talk to Sony and Nintendo forever, but the Philips people write a check.” The CD-i might not have been the best disc-based device on the market, but it was the one that they could develop for cheaply and that would appeal the most broadly to consumers. Or so they hoped. “We’re all trying to make TV shows before there’s a television,” Fulop said. “There is no industry. And it’s a couple years before there is an industry.”

Even those looking further into the future saw the corporate-backed platform as a possibility. GTE ImagiTrek, a media company specializing in the Internet and digital delivery, began developing for the CD-i, hoping to follow its expansion to the average consumer. “We’re a long way from platforms becoming moot,” said Alan Rinkus, the company’s business development director. “There will always be some form of offline delivery that’s optical-based.” Rinkus couldn’t predict what format would survive, but at the time, he believed the CD-i would become the best option.

Of course, this model presented problems. Sponsors took hefty royalties, and after deducting Philips’s investment, developers weren’t left with a whole lot beyond breaking even. And needless to say, thanks in part to the $700 price tag, the CD-i was a tremendous flop. None of the above companies survived.

So where does that leave developers? Shooting for the same results while cutting costs as much as possible.

Quick, cheap, and painless

In contrast to the companies that wanted to produce high-profile bestsellers that would push platforms, a few developers made no pretenses about the CD-ROM market. They weren’t the ones to widen audiences or introduce the technology the mainstream; if they stuck to their operating budget and account for every penny by selling to niche tech enthusiasts, that was good enough for them.

Screenshot from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony CD-ROM

One of Voyager’s first titles, a 1989 annotation of Beethoven’s Ninth

The greatest example of such a group is The Voyager Company, originally responsible for launching the Criterion Collection and preserving films on LaserDisc. Even as a leader of the disc media industry, Voyager cofounder Bob Stein took a “brutally realistic” view of his format of choice, spending no money on advertising and simply pushing out small multimedia discs with as minimal resistance. Over its lifetime, Voyager ported a number of movies and albums to CD-ROM, as well as multimedia art, reference materials, and annotated literature. Rather than banking on a dedicated multimedia console, Voyager published its titles for whatever personal computer platform was most viable at the time. “Can you imaging reading Shakespeare from your TV?” Stein asked. “That’s completely the wrong direction.”

The cost-cutting paid off: Voyager spent as little as $20,000 per project, nearly a tenth of what other companies invested. Some of their later titles completed the production cycle in less than five weeks. The investments were marginal, but so were the returns. And Stein didn’t try to build out the piñata and invite anyone else in.  That wasn’t his department, nor any other developer’s. “I don’t think a publisher can jump-start the market because the hardware isn’t there,” he said. “We have a few years worth of interesting, elegant work that people are excited about, but that aren’t breakthrough products in terms of market share. That’s it.” The hardware needed to do the work, not the software. (Of course, Voyager was no stranger to niche products; they sold color Mac games before colorized Macs even existed.)

Brøderbund, one of the other leaders in multimedia (and the eventual publishers of Myst), pursued CD-ROMs for a similar reason: they could be cheap. An enormous level of effort went into the first attempts to convert older games like Carmen Sandiego into audio-visual extravaganzas, but per byte, they cost nearly seven times less to produce than their floppy-based brethren. Instead of worrying about cramming in video clips and hi-rez graphics like their competitors, Brøderbund chairman Doug Carlston enhanced projects as simply as possible. “A lot of content can be acquired at low cost,” he explained. “It’s not very hard to take a graphic material, scan it, touch it up and animate it.” One particularly successful Brøderbund brand, Living Books, added voiceovers to graphics from kids books. Each conversion cost half the price of most CD projects – and a fraction of what the company typically spent on floppy disk games.

It was cheap and effective solution that later influenced companies who made a quick buck from jazzed-up re-releases and  “talkie” versions of classic games years after their release.

Brøderbund’s minimalism had another purpose too. Saving resources worked on the business end, but at the same time, it made CD-ROMs more navigable to the average consumer without the need for brand names or massive capital.

Simplicity as a design ethic

All the full-motion videos, colorful high-rez graphics, Red Book audio, and general sense-candy that accompanied the rise of the CD-ROM presented developers with a tempting offer. Give your customers a boatload of intense multimedia unlike anything they’ve yet experienced. Except only a few hundred people might buy your game, and the production costs ran as high as some mortgages. Something had to drive down costs but keep the end product just as approachable to the average schmuck with a CD drive.

Screenshot from Spaceship Warlock

Spaceship Warlock sold for $90 and could command that price

According to Brøderbund’s Carlston, the flashy FMVs and high-quality graphics that drove multimedia projects also chewed up most of their budgets. Instead, he decided to invest their efforts into digital audio, which – back before celebrity guest appearances and orchestrated scores – was cheaper to produce and harder to find on other formats. That would be enough to ship products, nevermind live-action acting or cutscenes. “Textual content is more expensive than voice, so we don’t worry about it. We use lots and lots of audio instead,” Carlston said. “To the consumer, it’s like the movement from silent movies to talkies.” By forgoing the visuals, Brøderbund could fill CD-ROMs for a fraction of the typical production costs while still providing enough draw for consumers testing out the medium.

Spaceship Warlock, a 1991 interactive movie by the partnership at Reactor, Inc., put all these design principles to the test. The game had its share of flashy, over-the-top 3D imagery, which made the game “worth buying just for the graphics and effects” (as far as two-decades-ago standards go). It was a landmark for pioneering the interactive movie genre and questioning what form, challenge, and structure games need to use to be fun and well-received.

But most significantly, Warlock applied the shortcuts developers came up with – mostly truckloads of text and sound with an uncomplicated interface – to appeal to the inexperienced consumer and bridge with the ultimate gap between the technology and the consumer: the CD-ROM’s slow speed. I’ll quote the Digital Media article directly on this one to give some perspective from the 90s:

This title definitely subscribes to the minimalist school of user interface — for everything from moving through the scenes to acquiring and using objects, only a bare amount of instruction is given. The rest is up to you to figure out, with wildly fluctuating results.

For example, you may be given a warning about some impending danger: “You feel intense heat coming from your left.” You look left and sure enough, the floor is on fire. Using only the map of the tunnels through which you are traveling, you must figure out whether you can get around the fire (you can’t), or some way to put it out.

If you have some familiarity with the video game world, however, the next roadblock you meet with Warlock is the slow access time of CD-ROM. … But the creators of Spaceship Warlock have taken great pains to compensate. A big part of this workaround is the catchy soundtrack. Rarely are you left waiting in silence for the screen to change, which has a remarkable effect on the way the game feels. With the sound turned down (you cannot turn the sound off), the waiting becomes much more apparent and annoying.

This disc, then, is an object lesson in how to use sound and sound effects effectively, without making them appear as useless or gratuitous as they so often do. The drawback to the soundtrack is that it can get annoyingly repetitive because the music relies heavily on short sampled clips that loop over and over again. This is one way to minimize the amount of data that must be processed by the computer from the CD.

It wasn’t perfect. Given the intensity of the resources on display, the game chugged during fast-paced action sequences. But it took a few important steps. Compared to DOS games coming out at the same time, Spaceship Warlock‘s visuals were a revelation. The intuitive, transparent interface and the low-rate music smoothed the experience. Naturally, Warlock got critical acclaim, and although it didn’t move CD drive sales, it was the first product that made people outside the technosphere wonder if this CD-ROM business could really work.

The rest of the story…

As the legend of the CD-ROM goes, it wasn’t until Myst and The 7th Guest appeared in 1993 that publishers threw serious credibility behind disc media. When you consider what games catapulted the the format into the acceptable mainstream, they’re not far off from what these guys were shooting for. Both of the breakthrough hits had simple interfaces and an abundance of inexpensive, resource-light multimedia. Most interestingly, neither had immense money-flow, corporate backing, or a drive for commercial success. Like Spaceship Warlock, they were made by entrepreneurs working out of their attics or having just formed a new company.

Screenshot from Myst

The screenshot that launched an industry

That was the push the CD-ROMs needed: a group of young people willing to go all-in on a simple, comprehensible multimedia title… just maybe not too expensively. In some freak act of creative alchemy, out of the thousands of potential projects, Myst and The 7th Guest tapped into just the right balance of cost-cutting and jaw-dropping effects to lure customers to invest in the medium. Even so, the other business models kept going. Plenty of big properties (magazines, bands, TV channels, etc.) gave tiny developers blank checks to churn out brand-name CDs, though the now-wider install base ensured a bigger return on these investments. And Voyager continued reworking existing content into reference disc form that sold perennially well (this did eventually recruit some impressive, new talent).

Moral of the story? The industry didn’t arrive suddenly. A number of companies went before, most collapsed, and the CD-i’s “something for everyone” approach completely bombed. But a few general ideas stuck, and after a few smash hits cracked the market open, the pioneers and sacrificial lambs from the years before found at least three decent ways to make something that people will understand and enjoy.

The electronic piñata problem continues to this day with new tech gambles like tablet computers. At least in the case of CD-ROMs, they just needed something accessible and inexpensive, but also elaborate with high production values. Simple enough, right?

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