Sometime during early 1990ties, I remember reading a review about strategy game in the style of Railroad Tycoon called A-Train. I think the version I read was A-Train published by Maxis from 1992 but details are hazy. I didn’t play the game at the time but the concept was intriguing, heck everyone loves trains, so the review stayed somewhere in the back of my head. Little did I know that A-train series has produced over the years almost 20 titles and one of them is also quite significant from a Full Motion Video perspective. C.E.O. aka A4 Networks used real footage from serious business TV and printed media and using famous actor James Coburn as introducing character in the game.
Back in 1995 Infogrames/I-Motion was looking into additional and alternative sources of revenue. They came up with an original idea of searching for already developed games in Pan Pacific area that could be published without any significant changes to the gameplay. They decided to acquire a source code, rebrand a game and put some sort of creative “spin” on it. This was the beginning of a co-publishing deal between Infogrames and Artdink. Japanese company provided source code and that was adjusted by the local Infogrames team in Lyon. The team was under the supervision of producer François Lourdin.
You play a perspective new employee of A-IV Group. The CEO of group mysteriously disappeared and stocks plummeted, your mission as interim CEO is to get stocks up and put company back to profitability. From a gameplay perspective, your mission is to manage various bus and train routes and by using supplied data and events to predict and act on how the stock market will behave. I must be completely honest here, business sims are not my strong suit so I have had no idea what was going on half of the time I sampled the game. If you would like to learn more about the game mechanics I recommend reading some of the reviews on the mobygames review page.
The above mentioned “spin” to the franchise was to put the sim in real life scenario to enhance immersion. François have coined a term for it and called the game, “realistic fiction”. Infogrames started looking for real media brands that could be associated with the game. After shortlisting few TV and print media companies they have started reaching out to them. CNN was number one choice and this is where came into play Scott Givens. Scott was recent hire at I-Motions. He was a marketing director, he liked the idea of realistic fiction and had enormous connections within the entertainment industry. He went through his connections and was able to secure the rights to use CNN brand. CNN opened doors to everyone else. “Investor’s Business Daily” from the USA, “Les Echos” and “Le Progres” from France and other local newspapers joined the club and granted approval to use their brand inside the game. The deal stipulated usage of their logos in FMV segments, game events and also on game packaging. They also had their hands in final say in approval of the game.
FMV usage could be divided into two groups. One is standard FLC videos (the popular file format used in 1990ties) played at various events during the game. They are live news footage showing disasters, changes in political situations etc. Second part consisting of introduction and outro cinematics involved famous Hollywood actor James Coburn. Already mentioned Scott put together a list of possible actors. One of the big name considered was Martin Landau. However, Martin Landau won that year the Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood biopic and his value skyrocketed. This put him out of reach of Infogrames budget. Kit Hudson was approached by Infogrames due to his involvement in the production of commercials for Sega and Virgin Mastertronic. He suggested the name of James Coburn. James became interested in the project, he was available and within the budget that Infogrames could offer (precise day rate number is not known, but it is believed to be around 50k + 3% per unit back deal).
At the time James Coburn was one of the most, if not most, prolific actors to appear in a video game. At the time, he already withdrew mostly from acting due to his declining health but worked occasionally until his death in 2002. Kit Hudson who worked on video production of C.E.O remembers how he was thoroughly fascinated by the process and felt like a kid with a new toy. Due to technical limitations of the time they had to limit the movement of the actors in order to avoid the artifacts. James felt limited by this as he thought his character could bring much more to the game than was technically possible. On the other hand, this limitation helped in masking his ongoing problem with arthritis. The scene was lit and filmed in a semi-static way so well that you might not even notice it.
“He could not believe the speed at which we work in the commercial and game production discipline. He and I would go to his trailer and work out the blocking and line delivery for the next scene and by the time we had run his lines the crew had finished the scene set-up and we had him right back on stage. He was the consummate pro. He never failed hit all of his marks and remembered every line delivery nuance that I gave him. We had a teleprompter available but he said that it just got in his way and he flawlessly delivered his lines from memory.”
Kit Hudson recalling cooperation with James Coburn.
The game also used interesting musical concept. Francois worked together with Thierry Caron, an external music producer. They came up with the idea of drawing inspiration from Vivaldi’s 4 seasons to match the ingame changing weather effects. While talking to the game press they pitched the 4 seasons modern concept and subsequently created a music CD that was distributed as a marketing tool.
Everyone who ever worked in gaming industry knows it can be the most grueling business with endless overtime hours. Developers are trying to create something special for players and don’t limit themselves and use head-on approach. When I asked about a funny story back from the days of C.E.O. development François did not disappoint me. Stories like one below show the amount of dedication that these people had.
“I remember spending 3 days non-stop at the office without much sleep living off pizza and soft drinks to get a build ready for the first E3 in 1995. I got something showable about one hour before my plane was scheduled to leave and drove straight to the airport without going home to shower and pack. The guy sitting next to me on the flight from Lyon to Paris almost died. I bought fresh clothes at the duty-free shop and begged to be allowed to take a shower at the Air France VIP salon in Paris.”
François Lourdin about E3 1995 demo preparation
E3 itself started as a disaster. Due to bad scheduling on PR agency part, only 3 journalists showed up. What started as complete disaster got turned around thanks to Coburn star power. He decided to walk the floor to the booth where the game was shown and people started coming up to him. They wanted to have a picture taken with him and ask him couple questions. In the end, the disaster was averted and the game got ultimately noticed.
As usual, within the gaming production tight budget, tight schedule, and technological constraints allowed only so much. Infogrames didn’t want to change source code too much as it was poorly documented and could significantly delay even derail (see what I did there?) the whole project. In the end game did ok, but not as good as management hoped it would do. This led to an end of the co-publishing deal. I-motion tried to initiate another project with KOEI, but the deal, in the end, didn’t go through. François sees retrospectively the problem was in embracing someone other technology. The amount of time needed for such approach was not that commercially viable as originally thought. The project helped François in giving him visibility within the company and he made a great career within Infogrames (he eventually worked as marketing director and executive producer).
CEO was an interesting concept of how to broaden audience with few interesting tweaks to any game (adding a star power and enriching fictional game with the real environment). A concept that could make a lot of games much more interesting if used correctly (if we didn’t have oversaturated market with sci-fi and fantasy games). I think the usage of FMV was very unintrusive and added a nice flavor to the game.
I would like to thank François Lourdin and Kit Hudson for availability and for providing the answers about this unique game. Screenshots take from mobygames.com.
Kit Hudson, worked primarily as TV commercial director. He has worked on the Mattel/Nintendo co-opted projects, shooting commercials for products like Capt. ‘N the Game Master and Nintendo Power Magazine via his own company Kit Hudson Productions. Over the time he got involved with SEGA and Virgin Mastetronic commercials and that led him to C.E.O. He is currently woking at Tactical Media.
François Lourdin, a veteran of Infogrames who held various positions in production, marketing and business. Apart C.E.O. his credits include titles such as Independence War, Outcast, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare or Terminator 3: Rise of Machines. He is currently co-founder and managing director of Inooit. A SaaS educational solution focused on speech therapy.