The Act's twenty-year journey to create an emotion genre
How Omar Khudari's long-in-development arcade game dream quietly came to iOS.
The Act was never meant to be an iPad game. If things had gone as planned, arcades would be a profitable market and The Act would be that market's most popular game. As fate had it, arcades fell apart and so did The Act.
The "emotion" game was conceived and canceled before anyone knew what an iPad was. And yet here it is, available on the iTunes App Store. Today. Right now.
You're probably wondering what an "emotion" game is. The Act, far as I know, is the only one. You control the emotions, obviously, of an on-screen character, navigating them through a series of dramatic scenes, ultimately completing a story. In this case, the character is a lovestruck window washer, and the story is his slapstick pursuit of a sexy nurse.
Emotion games are like playable movies. You would probably mistake The Act for a feature cartoon from the early 1990s, if it weren't for the "game over" screen that appears when someone doesn't properly man the controls.
The Act feels simultaneously familiar and foreign, like you've seen it before, but plays nothing like it. Which is weird, though not as weird as how it got here. On our iPads. This is the story of two very different men: the former, who acted on a 25-year-old vision of the future of entertainment, and the latter, who transformed it into an affordable mid-day distraction for your tablet computer.
The story of Khudari
You could say The Act wouldn't exist without Dan Aykroyd.
In 1993, a man named Omar Khudari was invited to Aykroyd's home for a conversation about video games. Khudari had done well for himself managing Papyrus Design Group, a game studio that specialized in auto-racing simulations. He wasn't accustomed to making house calls, but when a friend put him in touch with Aykroyd, he made an exception.
So Khudari sits at the comedian's dinner table fielding questions about the games industry. Aykroyd, he learns, is considering using his wealth to invest in games. Somehow. The former Conehead doesn't know much about the space.
The topic drifts as the night progresses and the two begin reminiscing about the star's glory days on Saturday Night Live. "Why not make video games with the same appeal as a comedy sketch?" says Khudari.
The question has a Proustian impact on Khudari, propelling the programmer into a flashback, right there at the dinner table of Elwood Blues.
In this flashback, it's 1986. Khudari, who has yet to make his first racing game, is at a panel in Seattle titled "Going to the Movies with a Steering Wheel." The big shot on stage is Stan Cornyn, CEO of Warner New Media.
Cornyn has seen the future, he tells the crowd, and he calls it "The Convergence" - the point at which video games and film will become one. He says "the convergence" will change the way stories are told. Not too long from now, viewers may take control of the films they watch. Just grab the wheel and drive.
"A lot of us in the audience thought about watching a movie and turning a wheel," Khudari said in an interview with FMV World, "and what would happen if you turned the wheel. We hit a problem: All our ideas were about controlling physical movement. But movies are about more things than physical movement. My favorite movie wasCasablanca. That was about love and honor and faith and betrayal. How could you turn a wheel and make love and honor and faith and betrayal happen?"
The entirety of this past experience splashes Khudari like a water balloon full of inspiration. It's 1993 again, and Khudari's back in Aykroyd's apartment. He had had it all wrong with Casablanca.
He explains his idea to Aykroyd, what he had heard that day nearly a decade ago. What if the building blocks of sketch comedy - characters, personalities, and story - served not just as the setting of a video game, but also as the actual gameplay? A game of emotion and acting.
"MY FAVORITE MOVIE WAS 'CASABLANCA.' THAT WAS ABOUT LOVE AND HONOR AND FAITH AND BETRAYAL. HOW COULD YOU TURN A WHEEL AND MAKE LOVE AND HONOR AND FAITH AND BETRAYAL HAPPEN?"
Khudari never sees Aykroyd again, but the idea of an emotion game makes a permanent space for itself in the programmer's brain. The actor had played his role, setting Khudari's story in motion.
Two years later, in 1995, Sierra Entertainment acquires Papyrus; Khudari leaves shortly afterward to pursue his ambitions.
Financially comfortable following the acquisition, Khudari goes into private equity, playing the role of angel investor to a number of late-'90s dot-com startups. But more pertinent, with a small portion of funds, he hires a programmer and an artist to begin work on a demo of his big idea. The converged experience.
Khudari calls the startup Cecropia.
The idea isn't that different from what had been prophesied at the Seattle Convention Center. He will create a controllable cartoon film. Not an action game, like Dragon's Lair, but a comedy in which the player will direct the hero's behavior.
Says Khudari, "I finally had the resources to say, 'Well gee, I've been thinking about this idea for a long, long time.' I now could actually try and make it happen." He calls it The Act, and plans to release it in arcades across the country.
The programmer and artist begin work on a demo in 2001. By 2003, Khudari has convinced himself the project is possible, that he can actually create a game in which the player controls a character's behavior. More funds are funneled into The Act, and the team begins production on the full arcade game. First, they rewrite the entire engine.
"I really did not have the expertise," says Khudari, looking back on that decision, "or the knowledge or the skills at my disposal. Or even access to the skills that were necessary to make this project happen. But I didn't realize that."
Hard as it tries, the small and inexperienced team cannot get the cartoon characters to properly emote in a way that guides the player. The characters, in theory, need to serve like puzzles, which can be solved by reacting truthfully. By improvising.
"I could sort of picture that," says Khudari, "but I couldn't make it happen." Instead, the characters were lifeless. Two more years pass. Nothing changes. Bunk.
It's 2005. Walt Disney and Pixar release The Incredibles, which attracts critical praise and millions of moviegoers. A shift is about to occur, and 2D cartoons are less relevant than ever. That same year, Walt Disney Animation's Features Studio quietly shutters, releasing a tidal wave of talent on Orlando, Florida.
These animators are the best of the best. If they can't save The Act, who can?
A SHIFT IS ABOUT TO OCCUR, AND 2D CARTOONS ARE LESS RELEVANT THAN EVER ...
Khudari goes on a hiring spree. Not just the low-level key artists, but big names like Anthony Michaels, Bruce Johnson, Rusty Stoll, and Barry Temple. As Khudari describes them, "a whole different class of animator," with credits on films likeBeauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Khudari uses the term "actor" to describe that rare, special animator who knows how to make a drawing emote and behave in a scene. Just the way he needed. The way he had pictured in his head. The way he couldn't figure out on his own.
In all, Khudari signed 40 of the ex-Disney artists to Cecropia, half full-time and half as contractors. "There's a lot of different jobs in the animation process," he says.
... THAT SAME YEAR, WALT DISNEY ANIMATION'S FEATURES STUDIO QUIETLY SHUTTERS, RELEASING A TIDAL WAVE OF TALENT ON ORLANDO, FLORIDA.
"A half dozen are the actors, roughing out drawings of the characters doing their thing. They're followed by clean-up artists or lead key animators, draftsmen who draw clean lines over the original sketches and also fill in the frames between sketches. They're experts at making every drawing be the same character, whatever angle it's being seen from or whatever expression it has on its face. They're experts at consistency, that finished look."
Then there are the other roles, support staff responsible for scanning and record keeping. "Oh my god; there were so many drawings," says Khudari. "It was a nightmare keeping track of everything." Everything was done by hand, piling up day by day.
It's July 31, 2006, when animation wraps. The group has produced a tremendous amount of animation. Enough character animation, Khudari says, to fill an entire feature film.
This is The Act
Here's what The Act looks like: The art, despite being drawn by former Disney artists, calls to mind the work of Don Bluth, known for the seminal animated Laserdisc game, Dragon's Lair. Bluth's characters are all limbs, with comically expressive faces. The men have tough chins; the women have thin waists; the villains are bloated or rattly sacks of steam.
The story is set in a 1940s metropolitan hospital, where a scrappy window washer falls for a sexy nurse. By pursuing her, he gets himself and his dopey brother and fellow window washer in a mess of trouble.
Or, better put, the player gets them in a mess of trouble. In tandem with the creation of the art, scenes are programmed not to a controller or joystick, but to a dial - like the volume knob on a stereo. Fittingly enough, it's like a miniature wheel, one that controls the movie on screen.
The direction and intensity with which players turn the dial produces unique animations. Take, for example, the first section of the game. In one of his daydreams, the window washer tries to woo the nurse in aCasablanca-like bar (another nod to that conference so long ago). The harder the dial goes right, the more aggressive his pursuit; he adjusts his cuffs, wiggles his hips, or shoots his fingers the nurse's way. The harder the dial torques left, the weaker his pursuit; he looks down, slumps into his chair, or directs his body to the back of the bar. Succeeding requires a balance, alternating between being coy and making moves - actually reacting to the nurse's behavior. As she looks your way, you play it a little aggressive, showing eye contact, then back off. As she leans in, you flash a smile.
The Act, at its best, is something games rarely are: subtle.
THE ACT, AT ITS BEST, IS SOMETHING GAMES RARELY ARE: SUBTLE.
The problem with arcades
"Any kind of coin-operated machine will eat quarters at a certain rate," says Khudari. "It's fairly scientific and fairly easy to test. If you can make a machine eat quarters at a rate that will justify the manufacturing and distribution and all that, [and] leave enough money for the location owner and the operator, then you can sell coin-operated machines. And if you can't hit that threshold, then you can't. No matter what."
It's the end of 2006 and all Cecropia can do is hope for the best, that The Act will attract players and churn through their quarters at a fast enough rate.
Bars, pizza joints, and family restaurants around the New England area were happy to participate in testing. Places like CitySide Bar & Grille and The O'Connell House Student Center. Not "subtle" places, per se.
For this story, I reached out to these various venues. An employee at King's Boston didn't remember the game's brief stint in the bowling alley, but was excited to learn the place would appear in the game's credits. In fact, no one at any of the locations seemed to remember the game. It had been a blip.
Khudari would later write on Cecropia's blog:
"We sought advice from coin-op industry experts Eugene Jarvis and Andrew Eloff of Raw Thrills and Andrew Pines of CosmoDog."
"Their unanimous assessment: though they personally loved playing The Act, the game violates a cardinal rule of coin-op game design: coin-op games should be easy to understand and hard to play. The Act is the opposite: difficult to understand but easy to play."
Passersby show interest in the machine, but they don't generally play it. Not unless they see someone else try first. In a 2006 interview with CGSociety, Khudari says, "The coin-op strategy is going forward, but it might get pre-empted ... We're experimenting with a console controller ... We want to reach a broad market." By early 2007, The Act is canceled.
Cecropia, suddenly without a game or business plan, flails for a life preserver and believes they've found one in the form of online ads. The remaining programmers hurriedly convert the technology behind The Act into web tools, which can create playable advertisements that behave similarly to the game.
Khudari says they lacked the resources, the experience, and the stamina. "At that point it was just too late," he says, before adding, "I still think that idea could fly."
A few months later, Cecropia closes. Twenty years, one idea, and all Khudari has is a set of eight arcade test units and a couple dozen demo kits. What good is a story without the means to share it?
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ARCADE UNITS?
The first cabinet sold to Brendon Zeidler, a dentist and Laserdisc collector in California. He then convinced colleague Keith Elliot to purchase the second. Elliot became an evangelist, taking the game to the annual California Extreme arcade convention, where Chillingo's Levi Buchanan saw it and decided his company needed to publish an iOS port. The rest of the cabinets were put on eBay, where they sold to a collector's market, and have since gone for over $10,000.
Considerably more demo kits - operable versions of the game without the full arcade setup - were also made available via eBay. The best-known kit is owned by collector Adam Pratt (pictured left), who keeps it at The Game Grid Arcade in West Valley City, Utah. Its knob controller has since been replaced with a trackball, and Pratt says it doesn't attract much attention: "People walk by it, but some people don't know what to do with it. When they watch someone else play it, then they become interested."
The Story of Kraus
"We saw the potential [in The Act's engine] for a system that could repurpose and reuse existing 2D animation assets and turn them into games," says React Entertainment's Daniel Kraus. "We said, 'Wow, The Act is the first example, but what if we could take this further? What if you could take an episodic 22-minute animation show?'"
"'TakeThe Simpsons. Take Family Guy. Take whatever. And choose four scenes from that. And for a reasonable price make those interactive and launch those and monetize those in HTML5 off a server at the same time you launch the linear episode. What would that be worth?'"
React Entertainment is founded in 2009 by Daniel Kraus and Alain Laferrière. The company, operating from Montreal and Miami, has two initial goals from the start.
First, to port The Act to iOS. Kraus had met Omar Khudari years ago while working on licensing deals. He was interested in Khudari's project then, particularly the back-end. When Kraus learned that the licensing rights were available for both the game and the technology, he struck a deal. Khudari would retain the IP and be involved in an advisory role, essentially shepherding assets from one company and platform to the next. And React would have exclusive rights to everything.
The second goal of React is to repurpose the back-end technology in new ways. In that sense, it is taking over where Cecropia left off. The moment you first speak with Kraus, it's clear he has a more modern business swagger than Khudari. Kraus talks about the future of technology and demographics and business partnerships - like the one React has formed with Chillingo, which he describes as, "In a word: fabulous."
TIMELINE PART 1
1986 - Omar Khudari attends the CD-ROM convention in Seattle and hears Warner New Media CEO Stan Cornyn talk about the convergence of film and games. Khudari speculates that a converged video game might be a drama, like a playable Casablanca.
1989 - Khudari's Papyrus Design Group releases its first successful racing simulation game,Indianapolis 500.
1993 - Khudari has dinner with Dan Aykroyd and realizes his converged video game should be a playable comedy.
1995 - Sierra Entertainment acquires Papyrus Design Group. Khudari leaves shortly afterwared and invests in various dot-com startups.
2001 - Khudari hires a two-person team to begin work on a demo of the converged comedy. He calls the game The Act and the business Cecropia.
2003 - Happy with The Act's progress, Khudari tells the team to create a complete product, but first to rewrite the game's engine.
2004 - Cecropia struggles with The Act's animation and the project stalls.
Selling The Act
That's not to say Kraus doesn't love The Act. Rather you get the sense it's step one in a master plan. An important step, but one of many. Like everything he says about The Act is preemptive marketing for his own dream that we'll see some time from now.
"The best way to describe The Act these days is as an interactive comedy," he says. "It is a game, but it is a game that follows very different rules and principles than most games do. The controls are very simple. The reason they're so simple is because the purpose of the experience is to become the character. To lose yourself."
This is Khudari's dream, and what's next will be Kraus'.
"We preserved 100% of what was originally [there] from an animation and content perspective," Kraus says with reverence, before diving back into the intricacies of the tech. How the engine must pull sequences of animation from thousands of high-resolution images without a moment's lag. It runs in eight languages now, he tells me of what appears to be the most significant addition.
Under React, The Act doesn't have any significant hiccups. No decade of lost development. On June 21, 2012, The Act is released on iPhone and iPad for $2.99. The price of roughly six or so tries at an arcade machine.
Playing a game that looks like a movie on your smartphone. Call it convergence.
TIMELINE PART 2
2005 - Walt Disney Studios lets go of its animated features division, and Cecropia hires 40 former employees of the mouse.
July 2006 - Animation wraps on The Act.
August 2006 - Testing of The Act begins in bars, bowling alleys, and arcades on the East Coast.
2007 - Cecropia cancels The Act and sells the remaining arcade machines and demo kits. After a swing at creating online marketing software, Cecropia closes.
2008 - The Act develops a cult status amongst hardcore arcade collectors.
2009 - Daniel Kraus and Alain Laferrière found React Entertainment and license the rights to The Act and Cecropia's back-end technology from Omar Khudari.
2011 - Chillingo content scout Levi Buchanan sees The Act at the California Extreme arcade convention.2012 - The Act is released on iOS.
Kraus hasn't celebrated, yet. First the game, then the technology.
"We have to produce something that's great," Kraus says. "That people love. That's compelling. That shows consumer reaction to provide a baseline for taking the technology forward."
As for Khudari, he says he too still hasn't celebrated the fruition of his dream. The release hasn't really hit him. Talking to Khudari about The Act is like talking to a soldier about the war they served in. The tales are exciting and a little foggy, filled with boisterous praise for loyal colleagues and self-effacing regret in misguided decisions. Distant stories of a former life.
After Cecropia closed, his wife went to back to school, and he helped raise their children. Age and regular exposure to the outdoors have defined his once-soft features. While on the phone, his child practices the piano. Khudari's a partner on a sustainable farm now. There are fewer if any celebrities and prophetic convention speakers. Farmers plant and nurture the seed; the crop grows and is harvested. On paper, it's less enticing than a futuristic video game or interactive marketing software, but at the same time, the results are more reliable.
Adam Pratt, Cecropia, Dennis Munsie, Brendon Zeidler, React Entertainment
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