Press 6 to move right – the world of phone in video games (Part 1, ITE)

Recently, I’ve been watching Bob the Fish’s brilliant chronicle of UK Saturday morning TV “Watch and Smile”, which in its 5th episode talks briefly about the ITV’s (wrong) answer to Live and Kicking, Tricky, amongst other ITV missteps (look, I’m still bitter about the cancellation of WOW, but that’s another story).

Watch and Smile mentions that Tricky was co-credited to a firm named RealTime Animation (some more information can be found here), but the setup reminded me of the look of the interactive phone in games of the era, from companies like the former Interactive Television Entertainment, makers of Hugo the Troll. They had branched into ‘live’ animation at the time for their various game shows with a very similar appearance, but to get there (and make it relevant for this blog) we need to go back to the beginning…

Pre ITE – SilverRock Productions

In 1988 Jesper V. Jørgenson created the concept and graphics of a simple Amiga platformer called OsWald in which the titular character jumps around the screen avoiding falling ice. The next year Ivan Sølvason’s SilverRock Productions who released the game arranged for it to be used on television over the phone, with a customised version of the Amiga game connected to a modem to convert DTMF tones to inputs. Seeing its success, Sølvason wanted to explore this further, with a 2 player Super OsWald arriving soon after, and the more famous Hugo the Troll released in 1990.

The Hugo name (changed from Max at the last minute) led to some legal dramas on export due to Hugo Boss, but these did not seem to hold things back. As with OsWald, the game mechanic was intentionally simple to work with the phone based input method, with commercial releases of the games selling well in their native Denmark. It is at this point that the first forays into real time animations were made, superimposing pre animated mouth movements from Hugo’s voice actor directly onto the sprites via a library of Deluxe Paint animations. At this point the Hugo games started to be exported to other countries, with the hardware being packaged up as the ITE System 3000 (SilverRock having changed to Interactive Television Entertainment in 1992). This contained the Amiga and broadcast hardware needed in a self contained unit. This could be a little temperamental, as the phone system in different countries needed different degrees of processing to make the inputs clear. At the basic level this could be a simple noise gate, in other cases whole additional processors were needed to compare the sound samples to known good examples to then feed back into the machine.

Despite these issues, the company continued to develop titles for export using a PC platform, including the similar timing based Crazy Cartoon Soccer, which featured a live commentator made using the Animation Mask System (basically a capture helmet and microphone coupled with a remote control joystick). This device enabled rudimentary control of the animation via the control, with speech and facial expressions synced using sensors on the helmet. Later titles introduced 3D CGI characters that could be interacted with in real time, such as Throut and Neck, a competitive double act. In total 190 titles were released for TV shows and as commercial releases.

However, as the demand for these kinds of titles dropped away, the company was sold on to venture capitalists in 2002. An attempt to expand further into the US, UK and Asia seemed to founder not long afterwards. This seems to coincide with the Tricky character being relaunched as Roarry on POP!, but the adoption of digital television and the delays associated with transmission meant that the firm had to adapt or die. In the end, the firm became the Danish division of the NDS technical group, with the original Hugo mine chase reworked as a mobile app by the new Hugo Games company.

In Part 2, the other UK attempts to get into this market will be covered, including the legendary Joe Razz, while Part 3 will take a look at the BBC and ITV home grown endeavours.

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