Interview:Tom Sloper

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Tom Sloper

Tom Sloper is a long-time video game industry veteran, working mainly in a design or production capacity, most notably for such companies as Western Technologies (designing games for the Atari 2600 and Vectrex) and Activision (where he was involved with the Shanghai series and many other titles). This interview attempts to hit on most parts of his career.

GDRI: What was Western Technologies? What was the difference between Western Technologies and Smith Engineering?

TS: [Founder and president] Jay Smith billed it as a "toy think tank." I used to know the difference in intent between the two company names, but the distinction has faded over time.

GDRI: What was Datascan?

TS: A company whose specialty was to scan text and convert it to electronic data files. Jeff Corsiglia and Alan Cobb left Western Technologies and joined Datascan to help the company expand its business to include games - games for CP/M computers and also Vectrex games.

GDRI: What games were developed at Datascan?

TS: Maybe two or three Vectrex games (one of which was 3D Narrow Escape), a Pac-Man clone for CP/M computers with text display monitors, and my game Spatial Madness.

GDRI: What was Sega's presence in America at the time you were working there (this was before Sega of America had been established, but they obviously had a division in the US)?

TS: I see on your website that you have this written about Sega Enterprises, Inc.:

"American subsidiary in the early eighties. Published and supervised the ports of Sega games to home computers and consoles. Did they have any in-house programmers? Did they make any arcade games of their own? Shows up on arcade flyers and home releases from 1982-1984."

Your site also mentioned Sega Electronics, Inc. That would have been the arcade company. After David Rosen and Hayao Nakayama formed Sega in Japan as an amusement machine company, the first US operation was in the San Diego area - Sega and some other arcade company initially merged, but I'm blanking on the name of the other San Diego company [Gremlin Industries]. I'm pretty sure Sega Electronics, Inc. is the company that made the Star Trek arcade game, if that helps.

I don't know if this is entirely correct, but it appears that Sega Electronics, Inc. went away when Sega Enterprises Inc. (hereafter, "SEI") was formed as a result of the acquisition of Sega by Gulf+Western (slash Paramount Pictures).

[ED: Didn't Gulf+Western buy Sega in 1969?]

The company list on your website doesn't mention the closure of SEI at the end of 1984 and the creation of "Ages" (Sega backwards) to clean up the remaining financial issues, IP ownership matters, etc. SEI was headed by Jeff Rochlis (he was from Disney Imagineering), and one of the SEI VPs was Gary Niles, who'd been Jay Smith's VP at Western Technologies.

Yes, there were in-house programmers at SEI and yes, they were working on an arcade game (Congo Bongo III). My design for Congo Bongo III, in which the hunter pursued the gorilla through a lost valley of dinosaurs, was rejected because Rochlis wanted the game to take place on amusement park rides. Sam Palahnuk wrote an approved design, and it was being worked on at the end when the video game industry crashed and burned.

The Japanese office, Sega Enterprises Ltd., saw the writing on the wall and bought itself back from Gulf+Western before the boom fell. SEL then opened its new American office in northern California in '85 or '86. My friend Steve Hanawa was an SEL employee. He'd originally worked at Sega in Japan, then was transferred to San Diego. He moved to L.A. after the Gulf+Western acquisition. His office was across the hall from mine at SEI until I was laid off, and Steve moved up north when SOA opened. I interviewed with David Rosen for a job at the new SOA, but it wasn't one of my better interviews.

That said, I don't know if I've actually answered your question. My job at SEI was "game designer," but mainly what I did was work with external developers on ports of arcade games to consoles and personal computers.

GDRI: Congo Bongo III? But there wasn't a Congo Bongo II - was there?

TS: You're right. Please change the III to a II. I called my treatment "The Revenge of Congo Bongo."

GDRI: Do you recall any of the external contractors that worked on the Sega arcade ports (Tapper, et al.)?

TS: Yes. I remember Beck-Tech up in Berkeley and McT (they may have been called Zip Technologies or something then) in Santa Monica.

GDRI: Could you tell us about your time at Atari Corporation?

TS: That was the worst job I ever had in games. But it was also the best learning experience I could have asked for. The company "structure" was basically a bunch of little independent kingdoms. Every interdepartmental request was a negotiation. Sam Tramiel would say, "Just talk to so-and-so, and he'll help you with that." I'd go to so-and-so, and he'd say, "Oh yeah? What's in it for me?" I had to solder my own devkits! And getting my developers paid. Hoo! Don't get me started.

GDRI: The Sega Master System games you produced at Activision say on the front of the box "Distributed by Activision." Did Activision and Sega have a special deal in place (i.e., Sega published, Activision merely distributed)?

TS: Sort of. [Then head of Activision] Bruce Davis met with Nakayama-san and hatched a deal so Activision (Mediagenic) could be the first publisher on all three platform holders' systems at the same time. Until this, Nintendo apparently held a tight rein on its licensed publishers. Publish on our system and our system only, that kinda thing.

The games were developed by Sega and published in Japan by Sega, but published/distributed by Activision in North America. I worked (by fax) with Sega R&D2 on localizing the games for North America. One thing I remember in particular was the cockpit-view outer space game (title escapes me at the moment) [Galaxy Force]. It had a flaw in that it was hard to know when you'd been hit by enemy fire. All of a sudden, you'd unfairly be dead. So I went back and forth with them (by fax, remember) a few times until we hit on a solution - I wanted them to make the view of black outer space flash white, and that was too hard technically, so they made the whole screen flash white whenever you got hit. That fixed the problem.

GDRI: So was Sega R&D2 the division charged with developing those Master System games?

TS: You surmise correctly.

[ED: Our research shows Bomber Raid was developed by Sanritsu, but Sega R&D2 may have still been in charge of it.]

GDRI: Why did Activision release those Master System games instead of Sega (or Tonka or whoever decided what came over to the US)?

TS: Bruce Davis and Nakayama-san got to talking, and they both wanted to break Nintendo's exclusivity stranglehold. Bruce wanted Mediagenic (Activision) to publish games on all the major consoles, and Nakayama-san wanted to get some of the big Nintendo third party publishers to publish games on Sega consoles. I have no idea what this Tonka reference is about.

[ED: Tonka was the distributor of Master System products in the US for a time.]

GDRI: Did Activision ever intend to release "original" SMS titles?

TS: Not that I know of. We were all "chomping at the bit" to ride the 16-bit wave at that time. The Mega Drive was in full development -- the Genesis.

GDRI: Was Joe Montana Football/Hyperball [GEN/MD] being developed completely internally?

TS: Yes.

[ED: Find out what happened with Activision/Mediagenic's version of Joe Montana Football at Sega-16.com.]

GDRI: You co-produced the Genesis version of Mondu's Fight Palace (which eventually was released as Slaughter Sport). Do you know who developed that? Can I assume that was another victim of the problems at Mediagenic?

TS: It was developed completely internally. Bruce had the studio kick off development on video game consoles internally and at the time, I was the only producer in video games. I was the guy who was supposed to oversee all those internal projects and all the video game projects we were doing in Japan. I was sent to work in the Japan office, thank goodness, so I wasn't present for the fun that followed.

GDRI: Were NES Galaxy 5000 and NES Ultimate Air Combat developed internally at Activision?

TS: Yes.

GDRI: The ending for NES Ghostbusters has been made fun of in recent years for its bad English. In another interview, you said you "produced the reverse localization (from Japanese back into English)." Why was this not fixed for the US version?

TS: It was. This isn't the released US version depicted. See how the Gatekeeper (the character portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the movie) looks to be topless? I fixed that. I asked the development team to dress her top. They put a colored band across her breasts. And I never would have permitted that "conglaturations" to go through to Nintendo, and Nintendo never would have approved it. Either these videos were made from the Japanese version, or they were made from a pre-release ROM.

[ED: "The Angry Video Game Nerd" appears to be playing an actual US cartridge in his review (WARNING: crude language), yet the topless Gozer (portrayed in the movie by Slavitza Jovan, not Weaver) and "bad English" ending still appear.]

GDRI: What was the deal between Pack-In-Video and Activision? For example, NES Die Hard was designed in the States, but it came out in Japan first.

TS: At this time (1988 to 1993), Activision was actively engaged in sublicensing properties to Japan as a way of synergizing licenses for games. We called them "Knight Rider deals." Someone licensed the TV show Knight Rider for games [Acclaim] and then, instead of starting off by spending money to develop the game for North America, took the rights to Japan and sublicensed them. The Japanese sublicensee would develop the game for the Japanese market first, then we would localize the game for the North American market. It was a way of reducing development cost, but it had some disadvantages in terms of creative control and such.

GDRI: Did Activision have a deal with Tokyo Shoseki (NES Tombs & Treasure, et al.) as well?

TS: Yes. That whole period we did dozens of deals with a whole slew of Japanese companies. I flew to Japan, like, 3 times a year back then.

GDRI: Do you know who developed the Game Boy version of Alien vs. Predator?

TS: I don't remember offhand, but that project is one of my favorite horror stories I tell to my design/production students at USC.

GDRI: I ask this not knowing if you were privy to what was going on at these Japanese companies (our research indicates that the Japanese publisher of the Super NES version [IGS] outsourced development to another company [Jorudan]).

TS: I don't remember the details offhand. Maybe we sublicensed AvP to one company for the two platforms. I vaguely recall working with two different Japanese companies to get the SNES and GB versions localized and approved for US publication.

[ED: ASK Kodansha published the Game Boy version in Japan.]

GDRI: What was Activision Japan? Was anything developed there, or was it merely a production/publishing house?

TS: When I was there in 1990, we were actually Mediagenic Japan. But since my games always bore the Activision logo, I just always refer to the company as Activision.

I was the first American to work at Activision's Japanese operation. Our mandate in 1990 was to facilitate licensing. "Licensing in" referred to licensing US or UK titles to Japanese publishers, and "licensing out" referred to licensing Japanese titles for publication in our other markets. Because my experience was in production, I also facilitated localization efforts.

Bill Swartz replaced me in Japan. After Bobby Kotick and partners acquired Activision in 1991, Bill became the head guy of Activision Japan. The office employed producers and marketing people, but not programmers and artists. It wasn't a development studio, if that's what you're asking.

GDRI: A company called Home Data made a version of Shanghai for the Mega Drive in Japan (Dragon's Eye Plus: Shanghai III). Any reason for not just releasing that instead of making a new game (Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye)?

TS: Home Data's game stunk. The graphics were ugly, and the game didn't have any interesting features to add. Bill Swartz hated it and didn't want us to publish it on our own label. So I hired Brian Rice, a Chicago developer who'd been involved in some previous Shanghai development on Amiga or something [DOS]. Producing that version opened my eyes to the possibilities in an evergreen franchise like Shanghai and revitalized my design sensibilities.

GDRI: Some of the naming of these Shanghai games is a bit of a mess. I'm looking at a list here, and there's Dragon's Eye Plus: Shanghai III, Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye, Shanghai III: Dragon's Eye, Super Shanghai: Dragon's Eye (which was released in the States as Shanghai II: Dragon's Eye)...Is there an explanation for this?

TS: Bill and I noticed that, too. Every time we made a new Shanghai of our own (as opposed to licensing to a Japanese publisher), the marketing folks wanted to bump up the Roman numeral, but Bill and I knew that Japan was already out of synch with any numbering, and that numbering no longer made any sense whatsoever. Bill and I talked, and he proposed two rules: 1. No more numbers; 2. The word "Shanghai" should always be first in the title. But Bill didn't want to play the bad cop with the Japanese publishers. He asked me to do that. By this time, I'd been through the Alien vs. Predator mess with 20th Century Fox, and I knew exactly how the bad cop game ought to be played.

But even though we'd established this naming protocol, I had to make an exception with Sanrio Shanghai [SFC]. There was no denying that Sanrio had the bigger name and had more clout. I did have to enforce some design rules on that one, though - they weren't going to implement the most user-friendly features, and I insisted that for kids, those were imperative. But now I've wandered.

GDRI: The arcade version of Super Shanghai: Dragon's Eye has "adult material." Did Activision ever object to that?

TS: There were license deals that were done before Bill Swartz and I put our heads together to set rules on what Activision Japan would permit in regards to Shanghai licenses.

GDRI: What happened to the PlayStation version of Shanghai: Triple Threat?

TS: I assume you mean, "Why didn't Activision release the Playstation version of Shanghai: The Great Wall [Shanghai: Banri no Choujou] in North America?" The Triple Threat games [3DO, SAT] were created from the same Shanghai: The Great Wall design that Sony's game was programmed from. This comes down to the differences between the Japanese and North American video game markets at the time, and it comes down to the differences between the Japanese and North American management at Sony at the time.

In Japan, console players enjoyed a wide variety of game genres, and there wasn't really much of a computer game market there. In America, console players were into action games, and the computer game market was better suited for casual games and adventure games than the console market. Also, SCEA had a very narrow view of what games they were going to permit on their new console. They didn't want to have any casual games, so they rejected our request.

It was ironic because the game was published by Sony in Japan, and Sony in America rejected our desire to publish the game over here.

GDRI: What is a Brand Manager?

TS: The role is defined differently by different companies. Sometimes it's a marketing person who's responsible for a line of games. Because of my nine years' experience with the Shanghai brand or franchise, with a number of marketing people who came and went, I regard what I did, managing the licensing, as essentially a form of brand management.

GDRI: What was the Japanese involvement with SNES MechWarrior? It came out there first (as Battletech), 'Mech designs are credited to Victor, and a Japanese composer was involved, apparently.

TS: We had done Battletech and MechWarrior on computers, but when we went to consoles, it was essentially a Knight Rider deal. There were two licensees in Japan, Victor and some other company, for different platforms. The game was developed by Beam Software in Australia. I had meetings with FASA in Chicago. The biggest issue for FASA was the Japanese need for 'Mechs that looked good to Japanese eyes (you know, the land of Gundam). So FASA approved one set of 'Mechs for Japan, but we had to use specific FASA 'Mechs in the non-Japan versions.

GDRI: You were also the producer of a Super NES game called X-Kaliber 2097 [Sword Maniac in Japan], whose soundtrack and storyline was changed dramatically for the American version. Would you have been the person responsible for those kinds of decisions?

TS: Yes. Activision had recently moved to Los Angeles at that time, and our staff was very small - just the core members who'd made the move. Kelly Rogers was our QA guy, and he'd started getting into the L.A. club scene. He recommended a band to me for this game. I gave them a listen, and I agreed that their sound would be good for the game.

GDRI: If you don't mind me asking, why did you leave Activision?

TS: I was regarded as a casual game producer, and the new studio VP didn't want to carry my high salary further, given the company's new focus on high-profile (AAA) titles.

GDRI: What is the Samurai arcade game on your product list?

TS: Toshio Fujioka, who was the head of Mediagenic Japan, formed his own company, Four Winds, after he left. He hired me to localize the text for an arcade game he was working on.

GDRI: Having worked and interacted with American and Japanese game makers, did you notice any differences between the two in terms of developing games?

TS: Of course. They called artists "designers," and they called designers "planners." But more significantly, they didn't believe in writing game design documents. Case in point: Alien vs. Predator SNES. I needed a GDD to provide to 20th Century Fox to get design approval. It took quite a bit of back-and-forth and a little arm-twisting to get them to write me something. And when I got it, it was just three pages of bullet points. Reading it, it seemed like a reasonable concept. Not spectacular, but reasonable. And I didn't have time to ask them to do more.

Fox approved it, but when we got the actual game from the developer, we (Bill and Fox and I) were surprised (and I don't mean that a good way). It was a fighting game. The Predator (the player character) was punching Aliens most of the time in the game. Going back and re-reading the design, I finally saw that I could have figured this out if I'd been better at reading between the lines. The document said that the Predator would run into pickups which would give him cool Predator weapons and as an aside, when the weapons were gone, he'd have to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Aliens. It wasn't at all clear that most of the time, he'd be punching the Aliens. I asked the Japanese what they were thinking, and they said, "Fighting games are very popular in Japan now."

Also, if you give a Japanese developer a GDD, they don't treat it as a guideline. GDDs are taken literally there. Tony Van wrote a design for Die Hard NES and when I got the game back from Pack-In-Video, I was blown away by how the game was exactly like the design. Give a design to a developer in any other part of the world, and you'll see all kinds of liberties taken. But not in Japan.

My first experience with that was the story I tell on my site in article 19 about the scrolling landscape in Space-N-Counter [game calculator]. I'd laid out the landscape in my GDD as a series of frames. The Toshiba programmer took that literally and said there wasn't enough ROM to program it that way. I asked, "If the landscape was one long piece of data, and the screen was like a 'window' moving along it, would that fit?" He said it would, but when I asked him to just visualize it that way, he asked me to give it to him that way. I used scissors and Scotch tape to make him a paper image of the game's landscape, and he was able to implement it from that.

We would like to thank Mr. Sloper for taking the time to talk to us. Since leaving Activision in 2000, he has worked as a freelance game development consultant under the name Sloperama Productions (see his website here). He also teaches a game design and production class at the University of Southern California.

Interview conducted via e-mail by CRV in August 2008.