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Jump Raven was so successful CyberFlix promised a Jump Raven II. Instead they took a hard turn in a very different direction.
It was Appleton's idea. Dust: A Tale of the Wired West would be a cyber-western. They likened it to the movie Westworld, but it was really more like High Noon, a classic western set in 1882 New Mexico, with enough quiet to elicit a sense of dread. The only thing cyber about it was the medium, which allowed the viewer to interact with the characters, duel with them in gunfights, even play real poker games with random odds. There was a subtle wit to the game rare in fast-paced, adolescent-oriented computer games.
If you wanted to, you could just sit down and play poker. Or go upstairs and chat up the prostitutes. The sound of wind whispering over the sand masked the threats around the next corner.
One feature that made Dust different was the animation: the 40 characters all had real human faces, with real expressions, albeit somewhat choppy ones, and words that responded to what the player said or did. CyberFlix hired actors to performthat is, model for the video cameras. Some were professional actors, grateful for this work, as weird as it wasbut most were just friends of the company.
Chet Flippo, the well-known music author then living in Knoxville, appeared as the local newspaper editor. Rock singer Brian Waldschlager played gunslinger Jackalope Jones. The CyberFlixters indulged themselves, as well. Martha Hume appeared as Oona Canute, the tavernkeeper/madame. Scott Scheinbaum played a used-horse salesman. Rand Cabus was Buick Riviera, a continental wheeler-dealer.
With a menacing sneer, Bill Appleton himself was a dangerous outlaw known as the Kid. Everyone remarked on how much he enjoyed the role.
Dust got raves in the interactive press; Cabus says 90 publications reviewed it, only two of which didn't recommend it. It also earned a spot in Macworld's 1995 Game Hall of Fame. It's still in production today, through another company. Scheinbaum's especially proud of Dust. "I still get e-mail about it," he says. "Strangers say, 'That gunfight thingI felt like I was Clint Eastwood.'"
However, Dust didn't sell as well as they'd hoped. "Sales were abysmally small," says Cabus, estimating Dust sold about 30,000 copies. "To this day, I couldn't tell you what happened." Scheinbaum wonders if the typical cyber-personality wasn't ready for a western; also, the title Dust, meant as an ironic play on the pioneering cyber-adventure Myst, may not have been ideal for maximum sales.
CyberFlix had other irons in the fire, though; they had a lucrative contract to finish GTE's over-budget adventure game, TimeLapse, which became a classic. "CyberFlix is the reason that title made it to market," Scheinbaum says. Later, CyberFlix would do other contract work, notably for Disney, working up a computer game called Aladdin's Math Quest, starring the voice of Robin Williams.
Their own games were what CyberFlix bragged about. Dust had a few rough spots; CyberFlix was sure they could do something similar, but even faster and better.
Andrew Nelson came up with the idea for a game about a sinking ship. Scheinbaum recalls it came up over a conversation in a bar in Boston, while they were there for a trade show in '94. It would be a you-are-there voyage on the Titanic's last night, punched up with a subtle and complicated spy story. You are not just a passenger, but an agent who has the opportunity to prevent World Wars I and II. Parts are as complex as any novel; the "game" opens not on the high seas in 1912, but in a lonely London flat in 1940, during the Nazi blitz. Walking around the room, you learn that you're a remorseful agent ruminating about the most dramatic night of your life, that last night on the Titanic, 28 years ago.
Appleton was skeptical. "Initially, Bill didn't have much faith in it at all," says Kennedy. Nelson persuaded him to go forward with the idea. It was one of few times Appleton heeded a dissenting opinion.
"You've got to give Andrew credit for tenacity," Cabus says. One of the obvious advantages about Titanic was that its limits seemed natural. Most people who've tried Dust have noticed that it doesn't allow you to wander out of town; you can see the desert, but you can't go there. "On Titanic, it was a confined environment, but it wouldn't feel like a confined environment. It was just a ship."
When CyberFlix went with Titanic, they went full throttle. "We read all the books, listened to tapes of survivors, looked at 750 different pictures," says Scheinbaum. They set out to re-create the Titanic in cyberspace, accurate all the way down to the wallpaper design. You could walk up and down the stairway, exercise on the Edwardian exercise equipment, even visit the engine room. It was so impressive that divers to the real Titanic, on a controversial salvage operation in 1995, used the CyberFlix prototype to familiarize themselves with the ship. Cable documentaries also sampled CyberFlix's recreation.
Finishing the project was grueling, round-the-clock stuff. Scheinbaum remembers several crises. For the British voices, they'd gotten English expatriates living in Knoxville. The problem was that America had diluted some of their accents; English test audiences noticed it right away, and complained. "The British testers said the ex-pats in Knoxville were not British enough," he remembers. With one month to go, some of Nelson's friends in the BBC re-read the scripts.
Producer Michael Kennedy sounds exhausted just remembering the Titanic year. "It was a tremendous amount of work, a tremendous effort," he says. "It was an exercise in staying alive. Sometimes I think, 'Gosh, I'll never do anything like that again.'"
Days sometimes stretched to 16 hours, weeks to 70 or more. At CyberFlix, overtime pay was as unknown as a 40-hour week.
Salaries weren't high; Scheinbaum and others remember that Appleton would urge them on with statements like, "This is your company, too!" or "We're all in this together." During some lean times, Appleton did without his own salary to pay the others.
Several who worked there volunteer the word "family" to describe the company, and their motivation to work so hard. "We were a big, dysfunctional, drunken family," says Bob Clouse. "But in a good way."
While finishing Titanic, CyberFlix released an old project, Skullcracker, an old-fashioned side-scrolling arcade game. "Every company makes mistakes, and that was ours," says Scheinbaum. "It should have come out a year and a half before it did." In 1996, there was nothing staler than 1994 technology.
Meanwhile, Viacom, which had swallowed Paramount, turned Titanic down. Several remember the people at Viacom didn't seem to know what they were doing. "To them, we were the red-haired stepchild," Cabus says.
GTE picked it up. CyberFlix finished production in November, 1996, the only time they ever finished a game on time. "There were enormous amounts of hell and high water getting it therethe politics, the emotional rage," Cabus recalls. The actual gameof all CyberFlixes products, the term "interactive movie" is most appropriate in this casewas finally released in late 1996.
The release came with a gala holiday party at the Lord Lindsey, where parts of the dramatic video, including the hull of the sinking ship, were shown on a big screen. A fatalism swarmed among the revelers. Titanic had been so lengthy and expensive to make, Clouse recalls, some were predicting that "If we don't sell 200,000 copies of Titanic, we'll all be looking for jobs."
Nevins recalls that Appleton had been especially gloomy about the company's prospects. He offered unusually big bonuses in '96, saying they may be needed because "We may not be in business next year." Several of Appleton's old colleagues remember that he often made rash statements for effect. "Bill was never on an even keel," says Nevins. "It was always, 'We're going out of business,' or, 'We're doing great and we're gonna be rich.'"
They didn't know they'd be getting a shot in the arm in the form of the top-grossing movie of all time.
The CD-ROM Titanic's sales were respectable right out of the chute; even in December, '96, it was on the national bestseller charts. It sold 43,000 in one month, more than Dust's entire history. "It was time to celebrate, break out the champagne, baby," Cabus says. Then, on Jan. 6, distributor GTE closed its doors without a chance to enjoy what would have become its all-time biggest seller. Cabus credits Appleton and Quist with saving the company by going to GTE's California headquarters. "Erik had prepared this document," Cabus says, giving them rights to recover Titanic and a refund on their investment. Erik warned the boardmembers about Bill's anger, comparing him to Hannibal Lector. "He said, 'Just sign it, and we'll go away.'" They signed. He says CyberFlix was the only GTE client to get money back from the sinking distributor. CyberFlix got a new distribution deal with another distributor, and was off to the races again.
That was all before the movie came out. But then the movie came out. James Cameron's Titanic was released on Dec. 19, 1997, just over a year after CyberFlix's Titanic.
Most call it serendipity that the movie Titanicthe "camera movie," as some Flixters distinguish it from their interactive movie, almost condescendinglywas released while CyberFlix's most expensive product was on the shelves.
Some, like Clouse, credit Nelson's canny sense of timingthat, soon after the discovery of the real Titanic, there was something in the air in the mid-'90s that both Nelson and James Cameron picked up on, a fin-de-siècle urge to see that great ship go down again.
In any case, CyberFlix's Titanic rode high in the wake of the movie. It sold more than anyone expected: more than a million, by some accounts. It broke into the international market, selling well in Britain; the CyberFlix product was eventually translated into seven other languages, including Japanese.
CyberFlix was showing up on everyone's sonar. Fascinated cyber-author J.C. Herz spent a week in town living with CyberFlixters, and devoted a whole chapter to CyberFlix in her 1997 book Joystick Nation. "In their own slightly deranged way, the 3-D modelers, animators, and programmers of CyberFlix belong here in Knoxville," she wrote, "where the three largest employers are the University of Tennessee, the TVA, and Oak Ridge National Labs..."
Titanic was selling like amazon.com stock, but the cybergods were still rolling dice.