I wasn’t allowed to have a tamagotchi as a kid. This was a bitter blow, but that fad blew over and I got something even better: Catz 2.
Dogz and Catz technically predated tamagotchi by about a year, making them the first virtual pets. The early games were pretty basic. You could adopt and play with dogz and catz (always with a z) on your PC. They could actually leave the game window and run around on your desktop, because this was the 90s and that was cool.
In retrospect, the AI for these little critters is pretty clever. They would do tricks in response to specific mouse gestures, and react to a whole host of objects. They would play with each other, too. And it was freaking adorable.
Petz wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if the pets themselves weren’t so cute and reactive. But the timing of the release was also perfect for Rob Fulop, the game’s developer.
That was because he had just been through hell after the media backlash to Night Trap.
Think of the children!
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when I was just a wee baby solving math problems in Super Solvers: Treasure Mountain!, video games were widely seen as kids’ toys.
News segments from the time tried to explain the fad to parents across the country. Please watch this 1991 report on the upsetting price of the SNES:
You might think the funniest part of this is the reporter being greenscreened into a racing game and driving backwards but you’d be wrong. It’s the very existence of the sentence, “The Japanese toymaker Nintendo has come out with a new set of electronic video games.” An alien wrote that sentence.
Maybe your parents were cooler than average, but the wider cultural conversation wasn’t. The news programs mostly covered kid-friendly Nintendo games, and treated the games as toys; albeit ones that might make your kids go “brain dead.”
But in 1992, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were both released. The conversation pivoted to bigger concerns: violence and sex.
With Mortal Kombat it was a question of excellent (for 1992) graphics which were used to display astounding (again, for 1992) levels of gore. Night Trap was different: it was a full-motion video game, in which real actors played the characters.
It had begun life as a narrative experiment, and in the words of director James Riley, became “a combination of bad notes over time.”
Hasbro was interested in putting out an FMV game because in playtests parents responded well to interacting with video. Here was a medium that everyone understood, unlike the pixelated sprites that resounded so effectively with children.
But the demo that was pitched to Hasbro was a Clue-like game called Scene of the Crime. That concept evolved into Night Trap, and was ultimately published by SEGA.
In Night Trap, a gaggle of teen girls are invited to a mansion for a sleepover. Unbeknownst to them, their friend and her family are all vampires, and other vampires called augurs continually invade the house throughout the game. Double twist, one of the girls is actually a secret agent who works with the player.
The response to Night Trap is a perfect storm of bad taste and misunderstanding. In a congressional hearing about video game violence and the necessity of a rating system, senators were presented with out-of-context footage of Night Trap, from which they gleaned that they purpose of the game was to murder scantily clad women.
They were corrected, but regardless of intention Night Trap is a game in which the player uses hidden surveillance cameras to spy on young women — for their own good! The whole thing has a schlocky, voyeuristic tone to it. Which was, of course, the point.
Parents were shocked by the idea that this kind of game could be played on “toys” like the SEGA CD. The fact that real women — actors — were dying in Night Trap made it worse. Bill White, the vice president of marketing and communications for SEGA of America, tried to appease the Senate by revealing just how many adults were playing video games.
“The average SEGA CD user is almost 22 years old,” he told them.
His testimony only seemed to make the congress members angrier.
“Shame on the people who made this trash,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) in a blistering statement. “It’s child abuse, in my judgment.”
After Night Trap and Mortal Kombat were dragged through the mud, the Entertainment Software Association came together to form the ESRB.
But Rob Fulop’s life had changed forever when Bob Keeshan decried Night Trap on TV.
“Understand that these are not harmless toys,” Keeshan said. “That they can indeed cause great emotional and other damage to a child.”
Keeshan wasn’t just some luddite. He played Captain Kangaroo on the eponymous television show, and had been on the air since 1955. He was beloved by kids and parents.
In an interview with Tristan Donovan for the video game history book Replay, Fulop described the fallout from this “horrible” incident:
“My parents and my girlfriend didn't really get games. All they knew was that a game that I had made was on TV, being talked about as being bad for kids.” (We reached out to Fulop for comment, but did not receive a response by time of publication.)
While Fulop didn’t agree with the case brought against Night Trap — the game was “just a victim of silly politics,” he reiterated in 2017 — he didn’t entirely disagree with Keeshan’s assessment of the medium.
“After 12 years of making these games, I'm worried about what they might be doing to kids,” he told Wired in 1994. “That's why I want to make games that involve other human beings. I want the thing to be a relationship. That to me is more real.”
“And, what can I say, I want to atone for the sins of Night Trap.”
To Donovan, he identified Keeshan’s rejection of Night Trap as the impetus to make a cute, unobjectionable game: “It was, like, sarcastic — what's the cutest thing I could make? What's the most, you know, sissy game that I could come out with?”
This new vow went hand-in-hand with a yearly visit which Fulop made to a mall Santa, to find out what the hot toys would be. As he told Donovan, he learned some simple wisdom from Santa: the most popular toy isn’t a toy at all.
It’s a puppy.
And so Fulop’s company, P.F. Magic, began work on a little game called Dogz.
Dogz launched in 1995 with five breeds of dog(z). The company used technology from a fighting game called Ballz, which they had also developed. Every character in Ballz was made out of interconnected spheres.
“We had a patent on that,” said Fulop. “Then we made it into a pet. We built it into a dog.”
Where are they now?
Dogz, and the eventual Catz, were both hits. The original sold 1.5 million copies, and over time the franchise (which is now owned by Ubisoft) has sold 24 million. That puts it squarely in the same territory, sales-wise, as Kingdom Hearts and Far Cry.
But if Petz has faded in your memory, there’s a reason. The most recent Petz game came out in 2014, and the games no longer use the tech pioneered by Ballz. Instead, the dogz and catz are more photorealistic.
That doesn’t mean that Petz, as we knew them, are dead — because some of the online communities built around the games still exist. As reported by The Mary Sue, online Petz communities started popping up in the late 90s, after the 1998 release of Petz 3.
I remember these communities, because I was a part of them. People formed “kennel clubs,” and launched rudimentary websites to show off their petz. Modders created new breedz — based on real breeds or based on fantasies.
This was a playground for me. While the online kennel that I used to frequent is now defunct, I still remember applying to “adopt” a puppy from one of their litters. I think it was a Havanese.
Those communities were “validating,” said Fulop in an interview with The Mary Sue.
“I would think any creator/author [would] always be delighted to learn that their work influenced others in a positive way.”
I can only imagine that after the saga of Night Trap, that validation must have been sweet indeed.