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Alex Louie: Bad Mojo and the "Booger Principle"
Adventure Gamers got this mail the other day: A classic title from gaming days of yore, a mythic game--one that everyone wants, a proud few own, and even fewer have played--was being re-published.
Yep, "the roach game, Bad Mojo" was going to be re-released. They asked if I wanted to talk with Alex Louie, the lead on the project. I said, “Oh sure! Who wouldn’t!”
So I whipped out my search engine and looked around the web to see what was out there on Alex Louie, the Bad Mojo team, etc. What I found was...nothing. Not a Q & A, interview, live chat--nothing!? So who were these guys? Where had they gone? Why re-publish now? Would I tell them I hadn’t actually played the game until a few hours before the interview? And most importantly, why a freakin’ cockroach?!
Well, I followed up on the e-mail, set up the interview and made the call. Alex turned out to be a smart, accessible guy and wasn’t put off by my ravings about cockroaches. See for yourself; it's good stuff.
LM: Hi Alex, nice to talk with you. I’ve got to ask, who are you guys? I can’t find word one about the team for Bad Mojo, except for what’s in the credits. Why the stealth mode?
Alex: Well yeah, the only interview we ever gave was to MacWorld magazine. It was online for a couple of years and then they updated their content and all the old stuff got ditched. So when the game shipped we did do a lot of interviews, but they were with local papers, people on the streets.
LM: Ohh, so like Uncle Ed and Aunt Mildred would come talk to you.
Alex: *laughs* Right.
LM: So what was your role on the game?
Alex: Well, Phill [Simon] and Vinny [Carrella] are kind of like the creative force behind the project. I am just the straight man. I kind of keep everything on schedule. That was our M.O. the whole time.
LM: Ok, I have to admit I hate cockroaches…hate them. So I never played the game until...uhhm...yesterday before this interview. And I felt dumb for waiting so long, 'cause it really is bizarre and amazing. But, I still have to ask. Come on…why a cockroach?
Alex: This happened before I was actually involved with the project. They had just finished Iron Helix and they were sitting around brainstorming in Vinny’s apartment about what to do next. Drew Huffman, who was also the founder of Drew Pictures before they merged with Pulse, had this idea; it’s called the Booger Principle. He says, “Whatever is disgusting, tends to generate its own notoriety. It’s not always negative publicity--but it does generate this word of mouth.” So the grosser you make it, the more notoriety you’ll get out of it.
So they thought--well Jeez, what could we do that would go along those lines? They started thinking about, well, the limitations of the technology; that they have this very small image on screen that they are constantly updating. So, what is really small? …hmm, they thought, insects. And then suddenly the conversation got onto cockroaches.
LM: Everyone HATES cockroaches.
Alex: Yeah. Drew had this fabulous cockroach story. Basically, he woke up one night, when he was like a teenager and hears this banging inside his head. He can’t figure out what it is. But, it is excruciating! So his Mom drives him to the hospital. Once he gets there, the surgeons basically float a cockroach out of his ear with some oil.
So this baby cockroach was in there dancing on his eardrum. Sooo, Vinny and Bill Zettler, who later was a lead engineer on this project, were going “Oh my god! What a gross story!” And then it just hit them. Hey! What we want to do is a cockroach! The code name for the project is actually “Booger.”
LM: What! So it really isn’t the Roach Game, it’s the “Booger Project”?
Alex: Yes, “The Booger Project.” You know, it’s one of those crazy stories. I had known Drew, Vinny and Phill from working with them for over 2 1/2 years, back before I went out on my own. So I had known them for a long time. I had gone my own way because I figured I can’t hang out with everybody forever, ‘cause I‘ll never learn anything new. So I went out for a couple of years and did some other things. Then Drew called me up one day and he said, “You know we’ve got this project and it’s super-secret. Come on over and talk about it, BUT! You CAN’T tell anybody!” So I come in and he tells me about “Booger” and I am like…”It’s a game about a cockroach?!” I am like scratching my head and saying “well okay, uh huh. All right, sure.. I can do this.”
And when I went to the office, they had a cockroach aquarium. Basically, we needed a bunch of them to study the locomotion of a cockroach.
LM: Ohhh god.
Alex: Really *laughs*. So one of the 3D guys there purchased twelve German cockroaches. You feed them weekly with a little kibble. The next thing we know, this tank is swarming with cockroaches.
LM: Oh no, this is like re-living some nightmare. Ewww.
Alex: It gets even funnier! One day, Dan Meblin, the lead 3D lead animator, looks in there and says “Ohh god, I have to get in there and clean out all that crud and dead roaches. How am I going to do this?” ‘Cause the second you open the tank, they are all just going to come scurrying out! I can’t remember how they figured this out. But they stuck the aquarium in the lunchroom icebox. The roaches would crawl into their little huts that were in the tank. Then they would kind of slow down. I guess we basically froze them for a couple of seconds. They took all the stuff out, washed the tank and then put the hut back in and the roaches came out. I could NOT look into that tank.
LM: Did you ever have anything try to get at the cockroaches?
Alex: In the game we actually had a cat do that but we never had anything happen. We never fed a cockroach to a cat.
LM: So no cockroaches were actually “harmed during the making of this game.” There are a few animals in the game, aren’t there?
Alex: We actually have a bunch of animals. Well, honestly...some animals were harmed. But they were going to be killed anyway...uhmm.
We didn’t actually go out and murder things. But, like there is a rat in the game that is trapped. This is early on in the game. It’s trapped inside a rattrap, but it’s still alive. And this rat is actually a rat that we scanned in. Vinny Carrella called a bunch of exterminators around town. He said “We need a rat. We kind of need one that’s not dead. ‘Cause once it's dead rigor mortis sets in and you can’t pose it. So we need one that we kill.” SO these people would just hang up on him. They thought he was crazy.
LM: Well yeah! *laughs*
Alex: One time he finally says, “Well, we are making this movie, with this freshly killed rat.” The exterminator on the other end of the line was this guy from Australia. I can’t do an Australian accent, but it is really funny when you hear it told that way. But, he was so enamored by the fact that “Ohh this is going to be in a movie!!” So he says, “Yeah, all right.” He calls Vinny up the second he gets the rat. Vinny runs down on his motorcycle, gets across town and the rat is still alive. And Vinny goes, “Uhhmm, yeah we kind of need it dead.” So the exterminator guy just takes it and bangs it against the side of the truck.
LM: Ahh gee, well it was dead then.
Alex: There’s another story about the catfish, which is great. We needed some live catfish to film this one part of the game. So Vinny goes and asks for two catfish from this Chinese butcher. I didn’t go down with him and I probably should have since I can speak Chinese. So Vinny is trying to give the guy hand signals to tell him “No, we want him alive.” And the butcher says, “Alive??” ‘Cause usually the butchers kill it for you, gut and clean it right there. So he’s saying, “You want it alive? Can we do that?” Finally, they got two catfish and took them back to the office. We put them in a 50 gallon garbage can filled with water and we would kind of walk them around in there.
Alex: I mean, if you have ever seen porpoises when they are stranded and they get rescued; it was kind of like that. We were moving them around so they would breathe for a while. We would take them out, ‘cause we had to photograph them. You have to take them out of the water and put them under these hot lights, photograph them and then put them back in the water. It was kind of crazy. For one of the scenes we had to chop the head off of one of the fish. But you see they were going to die and be someone’s dinner anyway. It wasn’t like we were going to purposely catch them and kill them just to make the game.
So, we do have a lot of different animals in the game. Even a cat and a banana slug. The other cockroaches are important in the game, as they give you clues to how to finish the game.
LM: Oh, that was one of the things I really like in Bad Mojo. That first time when you run into the mystic cockroach, I was thinking, gee this is so pre-Matrix. With the little cockroach going “Go into the light or take the high wire of pain,” I was wow, this is so “Oracle.”
Alex: You know, Vinny and Phill’s influence for this game is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Searching for your Dad on the quest and that sort of stuff. At the time, we had the whole cult Star Wars thing going on, too. So we were really into George Lucas. I can’t recall how we found out, but Vinny found out that Lucas was a real student of Joseph Campbell. So, being students of filmmaking and literature, we went out and got the book. This was right at the point we were figuring it all out. So that is another early influence on this game. Aside from the Kafkaesque elements.
LM: Well yeah, but Metamorphosis is a sad and allegorical tale using a bug as a device. But Bad Mojo is a visceral, in-your-face cockroach adventure.
Alex: Well, we wanted to make it as realistic from a cockroach’s perspective as possible. We went for this hyper-realism. I have to be honest; I think it is the best piece of work that we as a group have ever done. I, personally, have had other kinds of successes on other types of products, like system software and stuff like that. But the thing I am most proud of is this game.
LM: The gameplay is the most imaginative. I mean you have no hands, but you can just about survive anything, crawl up all sorts of surfaces, and hang upside down. It opens up areas of the playing interface that doesn’t exist in any other game. How was this to work with?
Alex: We had to come up with some sort of challenge or impasse in the game. In real life, they can basically go wherever the heck they want. So we had to make these contrived barriers. We also had to make the world smaller. Originally when we were more ambitious, we were thinking like a six-story building; tons of other stuff.
LM: When you did this, were you even thinking about who would be playing your game? It isn’t an action game, it’s pure adventure--but the subject matter and environments are definitely out there. So who was your intended market?
Alex: Well, we were just thinking gross stuff and who loves that? Our market tends to be 19 to 25 year olds. I think that’s what we were thinking.
LM: Ok, so why re-publish and why now?
Alex: Somebody in France actually called Pulse up and was interested in re-publishing the game. They emailed Pulse, which is not releasing any more games at this point. And they thought, well who would know about this? So they decided that the only person who knew anything about the technical aspects of this and could pull it all together was me, at that point.
They said, “Are you interested in seeing if this thing could be done?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll take a look at it.” And then the French guys flaked out. So then I thought, well, since I have already put all this effort into it, it is a cult classic and so on. Maybe I can find another publisher. I mean, Myst is still being published by Ubi Soft.
Some people were kind of interested, others not interested. Then I got into a conversation with Got Game and we just clicked. We talked for about a half hour and I kind of knew then that if I could pull it together these were the guys I wanted to do it.
Got Game also asked me if we were going to do anything else with the game. So I called Phill Simon, who’s the other producer on the game and asked him what he thought we could do. He said, “Why don’t we make a ‘making of’ segment?” I recalled that we had this extra footage of behind-the-scenes stuff we had shot on high 8. And I still had that tape. So we thought, well, maybe we could put together a DVD with a ‘making of’ director’s commentary on it. Like when you get a video and it has all these special extras on there. I always loved hearing all that stuff; why they made the decisions they did or used this process; what happened during the production.
LM: Sometimes the special features are the best part of the DVD.
Alex: Yeah. And fortunately, this is one of the best-archived projects I have ever had the fortune to work with. So Phill is going “This is great stuff! Great stuff. If we could finally do it--that would be wonderful.” We had planned on this back when the game first released, but we didn’t have a medium for it. Now that the game is being re-published with a DVD, we can include this.
The main theme of the "making of" segment is to tell everyone what it was like to make the game and also put faces to each member of the team. Actually we only have the one photo in the bar. There’s a photo of us as a football team inside the bar level of the game. We are all painted in as football players. Nobody really knows who each of us is. I am making a screen right now, which highlights each face and says who it is.
LM: Did you have any further plans for Bad Mojo back when it first released?
Alex: Well, I did think about putting the game online. Vinny, Phill and I actually got spun out of Pulse Entertainment as Jinx. But we had a contract with them to do another game. The three of us picked up that contract and finished it. You might have heard of it. It’s called Space Bunnies Must Die. It’s not our best effort.
LM: What! *Laughs* I forgot that you guys did do Space Bunnies. It’s in my circle of hell shelf. How did you go from Bad Mojo to Space Bunnies?
Alex: You know given what we had...we didn’t have a lot of technology; we were trying to make the game with technology that was still developing as we were shipping. And then they spun us out. So we looked at it and said, well we could probably finish the game. It is a testament to my team to say that we actually shipped it.
I think that game could have been real good. The difference between Bad Mojo and this game is the character control. In Bad Mojo, you are driving around as a cockroach and you don’t even think about it. ‘Cause it just works. When we did Space Bunnies, it was herky-jerky. If I could do it all over, maybe I would.
LM: One of the things I really liked in Bad Mojo was the tongue-in-cheek stuff. It’s just a fun game. Sometimes, people do tend to take their gaming way too seriously. I think a few of them need better meds. I want to post at them… “Hey, griefer – it is a game – A GAME!”
Alex: I read a couple of reviews where they said the acting wasn’t that great. I wanted to say, “There’s a reason why we have shot campy video." We wanted it to be that way. We are not talking about trying for some Oscar award-winning performance. We’re talking about a game here.
LM: Well it’s not a category yet as far as I know, Oscar performances or not. When Bad Mojo was released the first time, did you make any money?
Alex: I personally didn’t make any money off of it, but Pulse did pretty well with it. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I am pretty sure we sold over 200,000 units.
LM: Whoa, 200,000 unit sales are phenomenal, particularly for 1995. Speaking of the timeline on this, what have you done to bring Bad Mojo up to today’s standards?
Alex: The only thing we are really trying to change is the compatibility with QuickTime. Which is the reason why the original game doesn’t play well on computers right now. If you try and play it on today’s machines, sometimes you have a problem with the movies after they play. It kind of pauses for a long time. If you had a Mac, it would work perfectly.
LM: Well yeah, everything works perfectly on a Mac.
Alex: *laughs* The Mac version is really beautiful. Even though the game screens are in 8-bit, the movies play in millions of colors. So they come out better in the game on a Mac. In the new version, I have made the movies 20% larger. So you can actually see more of the detail.
LM: Well, the screen size is fairly small.
Alex: It’s still going to be 640 x 480. We don’t have the ability to re-do the art and make it larger. It’s actually compiled in a 16-bit compiler, although systems today are 32-bit operating systems. Which is another part of the problem. Technically the game is going to be roughly the same. Just the movies are going to be a little bit larger and have MP3 sound. And on the Windows version they will now play in thousands or millions of colors. The overall quality of the movies will be better.
LM: That sounds very good to me. Is there anything you’d like to throw out to people or have them take note of about Bad Mojo?
Alex: I think the one thing I really want gamers to think about is the type of games they actually like. When we were making this game, there weren’t a lot of 3D shoot ‘em ups. There weren’t a lot of pre-packaged feeling games. Now, they are all the same. Shoot ‘em up, go to this level, collect all this stuff. You just can’t keep on making formula games. And I hope one day, gamers realize there’s something to be said for having unique games. Like Bad Mojo.