The field didn’t exist during the 14 years that Tobi Saulnier ’84, CEO of 1st Playable Productions, spent at Rensselaer studying for her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. She did not grow up with computers, nor especially enjoy them when she came to campus in 1980 and encountered a clunky mainframe that took punch cards and a mysterious code to access.
But during work/study assignments Saulnier saw how efficiently computers analyzed and stored information. She began work as a programmer for General Electric Research and Development Center, using the new language called Ada. Eventually, she designed software for GE appliances. Saulnier then became vice president of product development at Vicarious Visions, where she was responsible for bringing the games to market. It was only then that she bought a Game Boy and became hooked.
“I became the unconventional person who came in at a high management level without years of experience with games. I had a lot of homework to do,” she says. “I started out there with people who were probably born about the time I was graduating with my B.A.”
Saulnier left Vicarious Visions this year to launch 1st Playable Productions. Her goals include devising educational games for children, who she says are largely overlooked in the fervor to sell to teenagers and young adults. And she has returned to her roots in Rensselaer’s business incubator.
“It’s kind of funny. I didn’t think I’d be back here,” she says. “I’ve come back with a different perspective.”
Americans have played computerized games far longer than most households have had a PC. The first, introduced in the early 1950s, were played on television sets. Video games became a popular form of entertainment about 20 years later when Atari released the simple, if addictive, “Pong” in bars and arcades. Another early popular game was “Donkey Kong,” introduced in 1981.
By the end of the 1980s, coin-operated games were on the wane and hand-helds such as Nintendo Game Boy caught fire. Soon, students arrived at Rensselaer with a nomenclature faculty members were not entirely familiar with, though the school had welcomed the computer age decades earlier.
The first computer, an IBM 601, arrived on campus in 1957. In 1968, the school added a megabyte of memory, housed in a unit the size of a phone booth and costing around $1 million. (Today, four times the amount of memory can be purchased for $80.) Ten years later, the first mainframe was installed, followed in 1982 by Gopher, an early Internet application introduced on college campuses. Terminals gradually replaced keypunch machines.
By the close of the 1980s, Rensselaer began to access the World Wide Web, though the significant information browsers had not yet been developed. The college used a text-based network operated by the National Science Foundation.
“RPI was one of the early adapters at the university level of pervasive Internet and network computing. They saw the Internet was a cool thing and they were right there,” says Michael Lewis ’93, developer of “City of Heroes,” one of the fastest-growing subscriber-based games. “I saw a huge number of things happen in a short time.”
Dorms were being wired for the Internet when he was a freshman, and Lewis recalls playing multiple user dungeon (MUD) games. He admits that playing games distracted him from his studies. But it also promoted the collaboration and strategy-building that would be key to “Heroes.”
He and a partner he met in the Rensselaer computer lab started a game company in the incubator after graduation. They worked on creating a video card with the 3-D graphics that would provide the illusion of being inside the game environment rather than just watching.
Three years later, the revolutionary 3-D game “DOOM” was released. But Lewis persevered for another four years. The result, in 1999, was a graphics-chip company which earned him $17 million when he sold it to Broadband. His next company, Cryptic Studios, based in San Jose, Calif., began work on a role-playing game spun off the MUDs Lewis played at Rensselaer. He guessed that the superhero genre, a la Spider-Man, would catch on. He was correct. Launched less than two years ago, “City of Heroes” has about 130,000 players in the U.S. who follow the monthly plot twists Cryptic introduces in Paragon City as if they are characters in their own movies. Players choose their costumes, weapons, physique, and powers. At any moment 15,000 people might be doing all of this.
The ability to create such worlds has evolved so quickly that the innovations of even 20 years ago are treated like ancient history.
“I was at it long enough ago that I get asked every year to lecture at the Classic Gaming Expo,” says Lee Actor ’74, who broke ground in the industry. “My friends and I are the honored alumni. I hear someone 30 years old say, ‘Way back in the early days when I started, in 1996, and I think ‘Oh brother. I started in 1982.’ ”
Actor designed some of the popular coin-operated video games of the 1980s. Among them were “Hat Trick,” “Snake Pit,” and “Street Football.” “Hat Trick,” a hockey simulation, was ranked No. 1 in Replay magazine for eight weeks in a row in the mid-1980s. It provided the major plot twist for the acclaimed movie The Accused, based on the true story of a horrifying rape in a Rhode Island bar.
“In the movie, they showed the high score screen that proved the guy was there at the time,” says Actor, 52. “If you look at the names, the first one is ‘Lee’ and all the rest are my friends, except the name of the guy who committed the crime.”
By today’s standards Actor’s arcade games appear simple and one-dimensional. They reflect the fact that three or four people, not dozens, worked on them. And before he worked on those, Actor designed games for home consoles entirely on his own.
“I did most of the art and the sound effects and this was a very difficult system to program,” he recalls. “We had to reverse-engineer the hardware. This entire game took up to 4K in memory. Nowadays, you can’t do anything in 4K. We only had 128 bytes of RAM.”
At Rensselaer, Actor remembers seeing one of the earliest video arcade games, called Space War. He took numerous computer courses using the school’s IBM 360 mainframe. He incorporated programming this into his electrical engineering studies. Just as important, though, he indulged in his first love: music.
Actor, a violinist, took every music course available. He was concert master for the RPI Orchestra and the first Rensselaer student to perform with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Later, he studied composition when he and his wife, Geri Actor ’75, moved to Boston and then to California. He bought an Atari computer and wrote some software to help him program music. Atari bought the product, called Advanced Music System, and Actor began designing games for the company.
Eventually he also created games for Sega, including popular versions of “PGA Tour Golf” and “Sonic Spinball,” which sold 2 million units. After working for himself and several creative groups, including Universal Digital Arts, Actor left game-making rather than follow it into the era of large teams and big money. He still works in music, serving as assistant conductor and composer-in-residence for the Palo Alto Philharmonic. He looks back fondly at the career course he plotted on his own.
“I had such a good time running my own company while my kids were growing up. I was at home and didn’t need to work for somebody else,” Actor says.
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