April 2001|The National Museum of American History, part of Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution, is widely regarded as one of the nation's most treasured museums, housing artifacts that document not only this country's historical progress, but its popular tastes as well. So it should hardly come as a surprise that the Smithsonian's vast collection also includes 1980s arcade games such as Pac-Man, Pong, and Dragon's Lair. Though veteran gaming enthusiasts may remember Dragon's Lair as the industry's first animated video game, many of today's players are either unfamiliar with the long-lost game or unimpressed by what was touted as truly cutting-edge "participatory video entertainment" at the time of its release in 1983.
But just as with fashion, political ideologies, and even musical tastes, the old adage that what's new is old and what's old is new again applies to arcade games too, thanks largely to the Internet, portable and home video game players, and DVD. In fact, the versatility and power of DVD has spawned the recent rebirth of classic and long-forgotten video games such as Dragon's Lair and Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp, Space Ace, and Hologram Time Traveler. And all have been made readily available to a new generation of gamers by a Toronto-based company known as Digital Leisure.
Founded in 1997 on a mission to make DVD gaming possible, Digital Leisure today publishes interactive DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, and PlayStation 2 titles for PC and TV gamers. More specifically, Digital Leisure acquires and remasters existing video-intensive gaming titles that would benefit from the superior video and audio quality of DVD.
Certainly, the company's biggest coup has been securing the rights to Dragon's Lair, a fantasy adventure game developed in the early 1980s by Rick Dyer and Don Bluth. (Dyer, who conceived the concept for Dragon's Lair in 1979, is the creator of Kingdom II: Shadoan and Hologram Time Traveler, as well as co-creator of Space Ace. Bluth, a former Disney animator, is best known for his work on the films The Land Before Time, An American Tail, and The Secret of Nimh.) The original laser disc-based arcade game—which redefined the gaming industry in the 1980s with its feature film-quality animation—gives players the illusion that they are playing a movie, presenting different branches of action based on players' reactions to different events. The game's hero, Dirk the Daring, is sent on a quest to rescue Princess Daphne from Singe the Evil Dragon. Along the way, the player (as Dirk the Daring) faces more than two dozen sets of decision points in which he or she must make the right moves in fighting off adversaries, or be forced to replay the entire scene leading up to those decisions.
Bringing this and other games to DVD begins with David Foster, general manager at Digital Leisure and a 22-year veteran of the gaming industry, who researches the rights availability of past arcade and home video games, then determines whether they would benefit from an upgrade to DVD. "We target games that seem to be a good match with DVD technology and what it can do," Foster explains, as well as "games that have disappeared or aren't otherwise available." For gamers, he continues, "our products provide an opportunity to get reacquainted with games that may be 15 to 20 years old and long since off the market.
"The tricky part is nailing down who owns the rights," Foster continues, then convincing them to sell for the right price. "Most games don't come with marquee-type nostalgia, so we have to be wary of [owner] requests for big payouts." In general, he says, Digital Leisure pays an average $10,000-$20,000 for ownership rights to these games. Once a deal is made, Digital Leisure's next step is to test the "critical elements" of the game, including its current coding and transitioning, "to get a sense of how to go about coding it for DVD," Foster explains. After cutting a test disc on DVD-R and testing it on a variety of current players and drives, Foster's development team jumps into the time-consuming work of coding for DVD-Video or -ROM. "It depends on the style of game as to how we build," he says. "In most cases, we'll put the framework together first, then fill it in. After that, we encode the video, put cell breaks and overlays in, as well as links to make all of the elements interconnect. We may do a bit of menuing and a few miscellaneous graphics, but basically, we just use the assets that come with the property. The development process generally includes fairly tough and time-consuming coding," he adds, "but we're getting more proficient at it."
A big part of building that proficiency has involved working through the limitations of both the DVD-Video specification and the authoring system Digital Leisure uses. "At the time we bought it, Sonic's DVD Creator was the best," Foster recalls. Since then, Foster and his team have worked through the kinks of DVD Creator and know what to expect from the 1999 version they currently use. "Rather than having the latest bells and whistles, we want something we know will work. It's a nice authoring system and pretty stable," he says.
His only complaint: its pace. "Things slow to a crawl when you put a massive project into it. It doesn't crash very often, but when we're in the final stretch of development, it can take as long as two to three hours to load the project and another four to five hours to save it. It's just the way it's designed. If you're doing a movie, it's no big deal. But when you start putting all of the decision points and overlays our titles contain into the system, it just seems to take forever. We've grown accustomed to that, though, and we work around it," he adds. "We may eventually look to move to a newer version, but for now, we know we've got something that works."
Another development challenge the company regularly faces is inherent in the DVD-Video specification itself. The problem, Foster says, centers on DVD's inability to seamlessly process conditional branches—the point at which the user inputs the next move using the video player's remote. "It's really more of a limitation of the hardware, and it goes beyond what we can do in authoring," Foster explains. "In 99% of the DVD-Video players out there, our games will pause at those decision points. It's really just an optimization issue, but it's entirely on the backs of the people who make the hardware to optimize their firmware to eliminate those pauses." The length of the pause varies from player to player, he says, but generally will not affect the game's overall operation.
So far, Foster says, only Apex Digital's AD-600A and AD-700 DVD-Video players run Digital Leisure's games without pauses. Samsung and Aiwa DVD-Video players won't run the games at all. The DVD-ROM and CD-ROM versions run seamlessly on their respective hardware, though.
Since its incorporation, Digital Leisure has transferred four titles to DVD-Video and -ROM from start to finish, with the amount of time involved varying by project. "With a full-time effort and no interruptions, we could spend one to three months on a title," Foster says, "but the reality is that it takes longer than that because we're not always going full-time on one project." Indeed, the company shares its DVD Creator system and facilities with a nearby DVD authoring studio, which provides access to tape decks, encoders, and other authoring equipment.
In addition to developing DVD games in-house, Digital Leisure also oversees the publishing, packaging, and distribution of gaming titles, in addition to coordinating all sales and marketing efforts. According to Foster, about half of Digital Leisure's titles were developed internally, with the remaining half coming from outside labels (including Aftermath Media's Tender Loving Care). Disc mastering and replication is handled primarily by Infodisc Technology, based in Taipei, Taiwan. Order fulfillments are managed by south San Francisco's CAV Distributing Corporation. Digital Leisure products are also available through traditional retail outlets, including Best Buy, Micro Center, Circuit City, and Babbage's. All games are priced in the $30-$60 range.
In the immediate future, Digital Leisure will continue to seek new projects and acquisitions, having recently completed the DVD-ROM and CD-ROM versions of Hologram Time Traveler. "Our customers are pretty vocal about what they would like to see on DVD," says Foster. "We're excited to be able to bring them the best in laser-disc classics that they enjoyed in the arcades, and we'll continue to do just that."
(Digital Leisure, 33 Cedar Ridge Road, Gormley, Ontario, L0H 1G0 Canada; 905/888-9550; Fax 905/ 888-9440; http://www.digitalleisure.com.)