>> Monday, November 19, 2007
John Szczepaniak got the chance to interview the creator of the two first Zelda CD-i titles. Dale DeSharone: "I just sort of fell into it by accident. In 1987 I moved from Northern California to Boston, Massachusetts, to help build a CDi team for Spinnaker Software. Spinnaker had a deal with Philips to produce seven launch titles. I eventually became manager of the development group. I had originally planned to be at Spinnaker only one year as Philips was planning to release the machine in 1988. That one year turned into four, due to constant delays with the hardware emulation systems and the operating system. It was dreadfully slow and severely limited what was possible. If you look at the scrolling in Link or Zelda you'll see that you can only scroll about 2 or 2.5 screens horizontally. This was dictated by the video memory available.
It was just obviously not a game system and Philips was actually very clear in telling us that they didn't believe the market for this device was games. There was a subtle hostility toward games that I noticed from the upper echelon of execs at AIM (American Interactive Media... Philips' CDi software publishing arm). Philips thought that people would buy the machine for home educational purposes. This all changed after the launch of the CDi platform because the only titles that actually sold were the game titles. After the launch of Spinnaker's seven CDi titles I left the company. Spinnaker did not have plans to continue CDi development. I chose to start a new development company and was able to get development funding from AIM. Most of the CDi team from Spinnaker left to join this new group.
This is where the Link and Zelda story begins. Somehow, Philips got a deal with Nintendo to license 5 characters. As I understood the arrangement it wasn't a license of five games but 5 characters. A number of developers pitched AIM with ideas. I think AIM chose to go with the biggest names that Nintendo had at the time. We pitched separate ideas for a game starring Link and a separate one with Zelda. The development budgets were not high. As I recall they were perhaps around $600,000 each. We made a pitch that we could maximize the quality of the games by combining the funding to develop only one game engine that would be used by both games. This was in 1991-92 and even at this time a U.S. technical employee cost about $100,000 per year to support (salary, taxes, office space, equipment, insurance, administration costs). This was also a time when a 1GB hard drive cost $3000. We had a team of three programmers (other than myself), one audio engineer/composer, four artists and a producer. We had a single freelance writer who wrote the scripts and helped design both games.
We had just left Spinnaker, we had a new group of people, so we were creating an office in Cambridge. At the same time we had this group of animators in a couple of apartments. As I recall I would be going back and forth from the office in Cambridge, working with programmers, working to build the engine, back to the animators, going through the script and teaching them the process of how they were going to get the animation done. Also, hiring the U.S. based artists who were working on the game artwork itself. We had, maybe just a little over a year to produce them. So it was pretty tight.
We created the music in our studio. Our composer was Tony Trippi, [He spells it out], who had worked with me at Spinnaker and then came on board, and worked with me at the new company. So he created all the music for both games. We were working on the games simultaneously, so we were working on the script, on the design and the artwork, and the animation to both games at the same time. Of course, we auditioned local union actors, AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] actors, and chose the voices for the game. There's about 10 minutes of cinema in each game, so there was a fair amount of audio to edit.
AIM was of course expecting some type of full-motion animation in the games and I was trying to figure out how we were going to do that on the budgets. A mutual friend put me in touch with Igor Razboff. Igor was also interested in starting a new technical company at this time (1991). He had a PHD in Higher Mathematics and Computer Science from the university in St. Petersburg, Russia. He had been in the U.S. for twelve years and had worked at Bell Labs and Computer Vision. The Perestroika was beginning and the Berlin Wall was coming down. Igor wanted to return to St. Petersburg for the first time in twelve years and build a company there that would provide some type of service to U.S. companies.
We came up with the design for Philips and then...Did you ever look at the other Zelda game, that the different developer produced? They went with a very different type of design look. No, Nintendo's only input was we ran the design document and character sketches past them for their approval. They were mostly interested in the look of the Link and Zelda characters. I think the Link and Zelda characters were in somewhat of a formation stage back then. Because really, the characters didn't appear very detailed in the Nintendo game. They were mainly visible, you know, on the box covers. (Author's note: I believe he was referring to the Japanese box art, which featured character designs, in comparison to the low resolution graphics found in-game on the NES). And Philips, they didn't have a lot of input into the design either. One of your questions was why we didn't go with the top down, and I think Philips would never have approved that. Because they would have thought that looked old, and wasn't making use of the CDi capabilities. If Philips had seen a top down design, they would have said that it didn't... They would have looked at it just visually, as opposed to gameplay. And that was what they were most concerned with. Does the CDi game look visually different from other game or computer systems, and are we making less use of the graphics? The possibility that the top down might have been more fun for gameplay, wouldn't have affected them. So we definitely pushed for the side view.
What came from Nintendo... of course the two Nintendo games that had come previously from Nintendo, and um... Then box art from Nintendo in terms of the design of the characters, and booklet artwork. Otherwise there wasn't anything that came from Nintendo. Yeah, we had been aware of criticism following the release of the games. I can understand that people were disappointed, I think probably in terms of... I guess they made comments about animation, but also in terms of gameplay and design. Given the amount of time we had, and what we were creating at the time in terms of company infrastructure, I thought we did a good job. You know, we weren't Nintendo."
With great thanks to Dale Desharone, John Szczepaniak, Devin and all the others involved to bring this interview to the CD-i Community.