Wings: Remastered and Revisited

Wings_coverA few decades back, before I became a software and media executive and long before I returned to writing, I wrote the “screenplay” for a succesful computer game called Wings.  That “interactive movie” — as it was marketed — was a World War I flight simulation that followed the lives of the very first fighter pilots, trying to make combat sense of fragile biplanes curiously equipped with machine guns.  It was published by an early innovator in gaming known as Cinemaware, which set out to make games look, feel, and tell stories more like movies.  Recently the Cinemaware brand was resurrected via a Kickstarter campaign to fund a mobile version of Wings, that if successful will contain the entirety of the many pages of story and dialogue, plus a lot of new material.  I have no financial interest in the new Wings, but it does bring back fantastic memories, a slice of life from an earlier time.  The new team asked me to do a text interview to support their campaign, which I decided for nostalgia to publish here as well.  Enjoy!

Please provide a brief bio of yourself.

At the moment I’m a first time novelist, my book This is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness just released last month to good reviews.  I’m also an investor, a start-up board member, an executive coach instructor, a blogger, and former corporate executive.  I was CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive VP of Disney Online, and VP Entertainment and Education at Broderbund Software.  I read a lot, follow the L.A. Dodgers, study wine, and am active in children’s welfare issues as well as local government.  If that’s not brief enough, cut everything except the part about reading and the Dodgers.

How did you originally join Cinemaware and get to work on Wings?

I met some of the Cinemaware team at a UCLA conference called The Future of Television in the late 1980s.  They told me they were creating interactive movies.  I had just written a spec screenplay called Miniatures about radio controlled model aircraft that sort of predicted the U.S. drone program.  It was the first thing I had written on a computer, a monochrome XT.  They asked me if I ever thought about working on a computer game.  I said No.  They showed me Rocket Ranger and It Came from the Desert on the Amiga.  Then I said Yes.  Quickly.

How was it working with the Wings team on the Amiga?  What do you remember most about that time?

It was a magical time, a time of possibilities.  I had experienced five years in traditional media of hearing why we couldn’t do certain things, how everything had to be done a rigid way, and how little respect there seemed to be for the writer.  Everything at Cinemaware was, yeah, let’s try that and see if we can make it work, why not?  I also remember writing on a Mac SE/30 for the first time, and I couldn’t believe why anyone would use anything other than that — so much for my XT.  And I remember when our competitor, Origin Systems, leaked a demo of their outer space saga Wing Commander, and our team was like, hmm, that’s a pretty compelling 3D engine, but our story is way better, so back to the drawing board, and they completely rewrote our flight simulator in about 2 weeks to be more state of the art.  Oh, and I remember when someone brought in the first Amiga with a 20MB hard drive and we could install both floppy disks without having to play with disk swapping or a slow seeking second external floppy drive, and that just seemed like the best possible gaming experience you could ever have — until we heard rumor about something coming called a CD-ROM.

How did you go about doing research for the game?

John Cutter, the game’s visionary designer, and I got ourselves invited backstage at the Air & Space Archives in San Diego, where we discovered a lot of the old U.S. Army Air Corp files were stashed.  We were blown away by how welcomed we were there, the military librarians spent hours with us digging out old files, it was a smorgasbord of history, and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  They kept bringing out boxes and boxes of dusty old papers and black & white photographs and let us have at it.  It was a super find and let us dig deep into a very special time of innovation, courage, and pain.  We devoured stacks of books on World War I (we even included a bibliography in the Aviator’s Briefing Manual, I’m guessing the first bibliography for a computer game).  We watched the 1927 silent movie Wings — winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture — and The Dawn Patrol (1930) so many times on VHS by our QA release date I think we could recite the storylines in realtime without anything on the monitor — then we chose to borrow only the atmosphere: the title, the sets, the costumes, font styles from the text cards, but none of the stories or characters.

What do you think makes Wings such a special gaming experience?

I think it really was the first computer game to try to tell an epic story that was more theater than shoot ’em up, but we kept plenty of shoot ’em up.  We tried extremely hard to make the character role-playing real, to get inside the head of a 19-year-old kid who probably had about as much chance coming home alive as he did surviving enough sorties to live long enough to become squadron commander.  We obsessed on details of the period, used every pixel wisely, created a true sense of responsiveness in the story, something that would set off endless discussions about the true nature of interactivity.  We also kept the game controls immensely simple.  It wasn’t a super complex gravity based simulation where you had to be an engineer to takeoff and land the plane or fight virtual physics to keep the contraption airborne.  We simply “cut to” you in the air and said Just Fly and Shoot.  We brought in a lot of non-gamers with that simplicity, but funny enough, the hard-core gamers praised us for it as well.

Can you tell us what the team wanted to implement in the game, but didn’t have the time or resources to do?  Any special hidden gems or trivia for Cinemaware fans?

First you have to remember what we were dealing with getting the game to ship on two 512K floppy disks, as if any big blockbuster developer today could comprehend how little data that is.  Our programmers were masters of compression, and kept squeezing and squeezing.  The music  was astonishingly intelligent, but the short redundant loops made our composers crazy, so I’m sure they will be delighted with the enhanced score on the remastered version.  Every screen shot was a big hit to storage, and I remember the artists begging to include more storyboards, but that wasn’t possible.  Luckily for me text was as economical to store then as it is now, so I didn’t feel the same thrashing.  I do remember the branching tree logic making me nuts and having to write multiple outcomes for every mission, wondering if it was humanly possible to cover every fork in the story and how many people would care that on a given pass through the game they would only see fractions of the screenplay (we positioned this as a customer benefit, creating replay value).  I remember when the marketing folks “requested” we cut from three floppy disks in beta down to two in order to improve gross margin on wholesale, which almost created a revolution in the hallways.  Our indefatigable producer, Jerry Albright, reminded us it was OK for them to ask, and that we had to respect them for trying, then emphatically told them not a chance.  Then somehow our miracle programmers pulled it off and we shipped the master on Reel 1 and Reel 2.  I also remember a few brainstorms we had after we realized what a unique product we had developed, one for a CD-ROM version with recorded spoken dialogue that of course never happened, and one for a Wings sequel that would have been set in WWII, and who knows where that would have taken us.

If Cinemaware had a chance to expand on Wings, what do you think could be better developed or explored?

That’s sort of like asking the creative team who made the original movie version of Wings how they would have made it a talkie.  The remastered version being funded on Kickstarter is doing all the right things — improved graphics, enhanced music, more missions, improved physics in the engine — all of that brings out the best in what we did so long ago.  The important thing is that we gave the game heart, layered grounding in reality staying true to the source material, emotional resonance woven through a role-playing experience.  As long as you remain true to heart, the polished production values will fully bring out the best.

Ken, you also pledged for this campaign, thank you so much for the support.  What made you do it?

It is a very small sum of money to let an entirely new generation of gamers see where we started as an industry, and maybe a few grown-up parents will get to share the experience with their kids.  Really, it’s not much money for a lot of game, and it is a fun game, part of what got us here.  It’s kind of like the silent movie version of Wings we watched over and over — what if someone hadn’t bothered to preserve it, can you imagine having lost a gem like that?  I can’t, no way.  We all come from somewhere, it’s important to remember that and even more important to share the memories.

Pilot Shot

On a Mission or Just Staying Awake

One of the themes I explore in my forthcoming debut novel, This is Rage, is the notion of motivation.  This is a subject I hold dear, and one I focus on a great deal in the executive coaching workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli.

mission-statement-vs-vision-statementIf all a mission statement is meant to do is fill a half page in your human resources handbook, it is probably not worth the time to write it down.  One of my former teachers and board members used to say he had a vision of all the great mission statements in the world collected in a single volume, and there could be no possible better bedtime sleeping remedy than trying to force oneself through those pages with one’s eyelids open.  Again I agree, if a mission is just a string of words — Buzzword Bingo without a juicy prize — it will not motivate, but let’s consider a few potential examples of applying a personal leadership mission in attempting to inspire a team.

Here are three choices I offer participants in the workshop, all of which we’ve heard in some variation, from the absurdly failing to the boldly aspirational:

Choice 1:

To make this department much more efficient and profitable!

Choice 2:

To overcome market forces and prevail over our competition!

Choice 3:

To provide my team with the support and resources they need, to the very best of my ability, to collaborate and do the very best work of their careers.

My response to Choice 1:

Not gonna inspire, management by fear is so not cool.

My response to Choice 2:

You’re starting to get my attention, through an occasional yawn.

My response to Choice 3:

I’d build you a log cabin in the arctic if you asked me.

Call me an optimist; people like to be inspired.  It’s not a sleight of hand.  Real leadership means rallying people around a cause, to subordinate their own personal quirks to the shared agenda adopted.  The leader’s job is to create the environment for sharing.

Is it the business leader’s job to make her or his department more efficient and profitable?  Do we really need to ask?  It goes without saying, so don’t seek glory in the obvious.  Is it the business leader’s job to respond to market forces and win market share from the competition?  Once more I ask, where’s the question?  Any answer to this presupposes a complete lack of faith in the common sense of why we are employed by our company and not another.  Is it the business leader’s job to rally, help, support, test, and muster the collective wisdom of those assembled to form a team and work together?  That should be just as obvious, but try saying it aloud and look at the surprised gazing around you.  That’s what people want to hear.  Uttering the manifesto is the first step toward building trust and accomplishing the impossible.  True, it’s just the first step, and trust is easily shattered when actions upend words.  Yet it’s an important step, and it does fire up hearts and minds much in advance of a spreadsheet.

It also connotes vulnerability — to the very best of my ability — which again is all in fact you can ever do.  Not proclaiming more makes you human, perhaps a form of life other people are more willing to follow.  Be honest, not only about what you can do, but in admitting that you are not de facto possessive of superpowers.  Try it out, it just might give you superpowers.

In my novel, a few clever and powerful people are trying to make a whole lot of money.  That is not a bad thing, until they forget that how you make the money is the difference between taking along a deserving set of others and leaving almost all of them behind.  Most of the people in the story just want to do their jobs, to find a way to love their jobs, to shake off the demoralization that has come from the illogical separation between task and income.  When a job is a paycheck, you don’t need a mission statement or real leadership, you just keep your head low and get through the day.  When a job is about something more, it’s still a paycheck — we all need a paycheck — but the purpose of the work is a much more substantial driver, creating better outcomes and better paydays.  Improved business comes from more engaged employees, and getting those employees engaged is a soft skill that in the hands of a master can conquer most obstacles.  That’s when work is fun, when we believe in something, when we believe in the leaders and their values and their rallying cries and we choose to be a part of innovation’s path.

The promise of the start-up is to build something new with heartfelt values at its core, and in closely held companies at modest scale it is much easier for founders to maintain the kind of personal mission and creative culture that reflects this entrepreneurial DNA.  When an exceptional start-up enters a period of hyper growth, hands on sustenance of idealized culture becomes considerably more difficult.  Should the start-up go public, it too easily can take on the shape and form of the goliaths it sought not to be, and then the challenge of maintaining a mission grounded in shared values is often put on trial.  The disconnect between what was innocently envisioned and what inertia morphs can be terribly upsetting to the grasping loyals, who hold their idealism in longing, hoping at length for the pledge to retake honest meaning.

Still it is important to remember than the personal leadership mission can endure.  Indeed it might be less than a grand corporate mission statement, but I believe conviction is almost always within a business leader’s reach at all levels of an organization.  Committing to a personal leadership mission is a choice — a brave choice with its own risk — and while rare, a good one in the spirit of Choice 3 has a decent shot at creating significantly more employee engagement and long-term value than the other two slug lines.  It’s all a matter of executive style, setting a tone for the broadest possible positive, tangible outcomes.

It is too easy to check out, and once people check out, try getting them to check back in.  As my story compounds, an awful lot of people check out — because they don’t feel valued, because they don’t feel inspired, because they see what they do each day as separate and divorced from the actual process that creates income for the business and value for the shareholders.  Tie those pieces back together and real innovation comes a good deal more naturally.

Leadership is not so much a word as a behavior, a walking example of what it means to be intertwined with the enterprise.  It does begin with words, words that are grounded, words that do something.  Choose those words carefully, lead by example, motivate by inclusion, dole out support without reservation.

You want to keep things humming, make it a little less comfortable and a little more complicated — for yourself, not those you guide.  In the book, I take you to the extremes of this world view, heroic and cowardly and all that binds the spectrum.  The words did not come easily to me, but I committed myself to resilience and found them over time.  You can, too.

About This Book of Mine

Pre-Order on AmazonI have mentioned now and again that I have been working on a novel for a few years.  It’s time to share a few more details.

First of all the title: This Is Rage.  You will discover why I called it that if you read the sample excerpt on my teaser site and other fine channels we will be utilizing in the coming months, like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, where you can currently place your pre-order that will be shipped when the book is officially released on October 8, 2013.  Shameless, I know, but I am officially in the pull marketing business effective immediately.

There are two protagonists in the story, who are also both antagonists, at least to each other.  They are each hero and villain in the broader context of economic turmoil, which they aspire to improve, but not surprisingly mess up on high-octane, mostly by accident.  Kimo Balthazer is a disgraced radio talk show host, who seeks redemption in the obtuse netherworld of internet webcasting.  Daniel Steyer is a venture capitalist at the top of his game, looking to go out huge with the deal of a lifetime, but market forces have other plans.  That’s not the order in which you will meet them, and you’ll find out why.  At the outset they don’t know each other exists.  They don’t even know each other’s world exists.  But they soon do.  And they don’t like each other.  At all.

I am going to do the right thing and not toss out any spoilers, but I can say that you will spend some time in Silicon Valley, some time in Los Angeles, and some time in Washington D.C.  You will be introduced to the world of Investors, Bankers, and Operators, the three points of an ever-forming triangle that comes with its own hierarchy, rule set, chaos, and politics.  You will also meet a curious politician with a tangential agenda, a conflicted movie studio boss, the co-founders of one of the most successful tech-start-ups ever, and a pair of would-be entrepreneurs turned criminals whose interpretation of thinking different is not quite what their families had in mind.  You will be invited into board meetings and venture partner meetings.  You will hear the voice of Kimo in your head.  You will see what happens when ego and presumption run amok, and the notion of control spirals into hyper normalcy, where random boo-boos add up big time, and the consequences are strangely real and familiar.

My key influence for this book is Tom Wolfe, whose first novel Bonfire of the Vanities blew my mind in ways that still shake me to the core.  I didn’t know what a bond trader was the first two years I was in college.  Then I saw a bunch of guys my age lining up in blue suits to be interviewed to become one.  They went to Wall Street and became extraordinarily wealthy selling paper promises to their clients.  Then came the broad implosion of junk debt.  Michael Lewis, whom I also tremendously admire, made his debut as an author writing about this phenomenon.  I saw the impact on my friends, I saw the impact on New York, and I felt the impact on our economy.  What I admire to this day about Wolfe’s work was how he wove storytelling through the observational narrative, migrating the educational lesson to character development, and burying the polemic in a moral tale for the ages.  I was studying theater at the time, without notion of how I might fit into the business world, or even if I could make a living given what I valued.

A quarter century later we seem to have forgotten the fall of the junk bond kings.  The miracle of Silicon Valley has replaced the lustre of Wall Street and the allure of Hollywood.  I have played my whole career in this fantastic environment of innovation, the arranged marriage of technology and media brokered by the matchmaker financiers, and the output had been invigorating.  We have created jobs, opportunities, and a good deal of wealth — but not for everyone.  In the same way that Wolfe and his New Journalism looked beyond the restaurants and clubs and luxury high-rise suites, I have seen the scary trailing the good.  Where there is big money there are big personalities, and where there is a win-lose battle fought daily, often those who lose are the secondary foils who play by the rules without insight into the eccentric ecosystem.

That is the story I wanted to tell.  That’s why I wrote a business novel instead of a non-fiction set of adages.  This was something I needed to do, part of the continuum of my journey.  I started my career in storytelling, then helped bring storytelling into computer games, then found my way into profit and loss, and now I come full circle.  I needed a way to bring these elements together, to find a synthesis of my passions, which include the theatrical, the financial, the philosophical, the hope of justice, and a touch of dark humor (hopefully more than a touch!).

In the coming months I will tell you more about the publishing journey, but I cannot conclude this project announcement without a sincere thank you to my brilliant editor, Lou Aronica, under whose independent imprint The Story Plant my book is being published.  Lou is a Mensch in every sense of the word (Google it if that’s unfamiliar to you).  He has been a steadfast believer in This is Rage since we met each other last year on Twitter.  It’s not just the notes that he gives me, it’s the way he communicates his viewpoint that makes me want to rewrite a fourth time when he is only asking for the third.  I think Lou, a bestselling author himself, is at the forefront of New Publishing in the same way Wolfe wanted New Journalism to embrace the opportunities of Creative Destruction as a positive force for change.  Wherever this journey takes us, I am delighted to be paddling alongside a friend on this whitewater river of 21st century digital publishing — with a paperback to boot.

So that’s the introductory story of my novel.  It’s my first, I hope not my last, and I welcome you to come along and share the journey with us.  It’s for you, and it’s about you.  I hope to entertain, and maybe share an idea or two as the whitewater rises.

This is Rage.