Original article posted here.
The untold story of why 1987's Mad Max: Autorama just ran out of gas.
by Adam Redsell
AUGUST 3, 2013
At E3 2013, Warner Bros revealed its Avalanche-developed Mad Max game to the world, but did you know there was a Mad Max game in production in the late '80s that came perilously close to seeing the light of day? It was called Mad Max: Autorama, and I found out about it during a recent interview with Ken Melville about the genesis of full motion video games. How did the subject of Mad Max come up? Because it’s intimately tied to the birth of FMV games.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome came out on VHS in 1986, the same year Hasbro funded the development of “Project Nemo”, a VHS-based console built around FMV games. Ken Melville worked for Isix, the company responsible for Nemo hardware and software. To Melville, a Mad Max game made perfect sense.
“The Mad Max series was still big in 1987,” says Melville, “and Mel hadn't melted down yet. I knew the Isix/Nemo system could do two things well: branch video and use its 8-bit graphic overlay to aim and produce blast impact effects. [Mad Max] was vehicle/road-based and roads do nothing but branch.”
Melville wanted to shoot a live-action FMV demo to demonstrate first-person driving that branched seamlessly for turns at decision points. To do this, he needed four things: a desert, a camera, a car, and a madman to drive it.
“I got a hold of the famous Hollywood stunt driver John Ward and he set me up out at his huge ranch in Agua Dulce with tons and tons of fire roads we could bomb all over hell on, do whatever we wanted," he says. "He had a nice little Toyota Tacoma."
“I strapped a 16mm camera on a tripod in the bed looking over the cab and got just the right lens on it, and I stood up back there holding on for dear life. Now John, bless his adrenally-enhanced heart, is a f--king madman and went careening around the trails at impossible speeds and these are dirt fire roads with rocks and bumps and all manner of funky s--t. So it was a wild ride to say the least.
“We had to go back over the same roads taking all the alternate turn-offs and hope we could get them to match in editing. Then we took an old car and drove it off a high cliff and blew it up in mid-air for effect. This would be the FAIL scenario if you took the wrong turn.”
Needless to say, the filming experience was one worthy of Mad Max. Once the video was edited, branched, and working on the Nemo hardware, Melville brought the demo to series director George Miller and Beyond Thunderdome producer Doug Mitchell in Sydney. The meeting went well.
“He and Doug totally got what the implications were for gaming, and they loved it," says Melville. "I explained I was going to write and design the game called 'Mad Max: Autorama'… George was adamant that Mel would do it; he thought Mel would love it… We had a handshake deal, he set me up with Ed Verreaux – his [Mad Max] storyboard guy – in LA. George would direct and it would be a Kennedy/Miller production for Hasbro.”
Production would be done in Australia to keep costs down, as there was no union presence and locations were essentially free (and authentic).
Melville mined the Mad Max mythos for his interactive script, ensuring that the characters, dialogue, and terminology were in-keeping with the spirit of the series. He backed the script with flowcharts, flagging potential outcomes for each scenario.
“Interactive scripts are freaking nightmares!” Melville explains. “I plunked all this s--t down in front of George Miller and he just smiled and said, ‘Right, you're dealing with all that, mate. I'm just gonna direct it.’”
As promised, Ed Verreaux storyboarded the entire script in colour, which Melville has kept to this day.“Ed's boards were spectacular. Really give you a kinetic sense of the action.”
Melville sent the materials off, and Miller’s excitement for the project grew. Hasbro signed off on Autorama, and it seemed everything was on track for a Mad Max game. When I asked Melville what held it back, I expected scheduling difficulties with Miller and Mel Gibson. But he placed the blame squarely on himself.
“What stopped it was my own misguided sense of corporate loyalty and diligence as a producer,” he says. “ In other words, I was an idiot… I stupidly checked in with Barry Alperin of Hasbro to make sure Hasbro was cool with the violence level of the Mad Max series. Turns out they thought Mad Max was some kind of Saturday morning kid's show or something. When they realised what it was about, they went nuts and killed it.”
This event hinted at one of the Nemo’s greater problems: the veritable gulf between Hasbro’s intended audience and the system’s capabilities. Hasbro had conceived the Nemo as a “Nintendo-killer”, and Nintendo’s demographic cast video games in a kid-friendly light.
“Hasbro insisted our content be kid-friendly. Which when you think about it, is fine when you have abstract 8-bit graphics – they are relatively age-independent. But the moment you have FMV, you've got a huge market issue. You make video little-kid friendly, and it's going to be hopelessly childish and trivial for anybody older. Video must be demo-targeted, it's not that universal. And that was a major problem back in 1987 when the console market was perceived to be kiddie-driven.”
Mad Max: Autorama was a vehicular combat game, with bandits chasing the player in cars and firing at them from the side of the road. The player’s position on the course was shown on a map overlay. The design was in many ways a precursor to Melville’s own Sewer Shark, an FMV rail-shooter with branching tunnels that eventually released on the Mega-CD.
“I even added a hawk called Corroboree so you could see through his eyes in the sky for reconnoitring," says Melville. "Kind of a drone concept ahead of its time.”
Sewer Shark would later feature a small robot called Catfish that scouted ahead to give the player directions.
It was Sewer Shark and Mad Max: Autorama that would ensure a future for FMV games, long after Project Nemo was cancelled. Ken Melville joined Cinemaware in 1990, and during that period Mickey Schulhof (chairman of Sony USA), Peter Guber (CEO of Columbia/Sony Pictures Entertainment), and Bob Iger (President of ABC Entertainment, now CEO of Disney) came to discuss the purchase of the company. When they realised that the only assets they were interested in – Make My Video, Sewer Shark, and Mad Max: Autorama – were produced by the Isix team and not Cinemaware, they passed on the opportunity. The company folded and Melville called Tom Zito to arrange a meeting with Olaf Olafson, the president of Sony Games, in New York.
“Long story short, Tom and I founded Digital Pictures mainly off the advance from Sony, and we subsequently made a deal with Sega for my Sewer Shark game.”
Sony’s connection to Mad Max and video games is almost serendipitous. In 2007, God of War 2 director Cory Barlog left Sony Santa Monica to collaborate with George Miller on a video game tie-in for an animated Mad Max film. It’s widely believed (and strongly denied) that Barlog brought the project with him when he moved to Avalanche Studios in 2010. It is strangely fitting that Sony would be the one to announce the new Mad Max game at its E3 press conference, even if it is multiplatform.
George Miller and Doug Mitchell have shown renewed interest in video game development in recent years. In November 2011, Doug Mitchell revealed that their company Kennedy Miller Mitchell Interactive had absorbed the remnants of Krome and Team Bondi.
"With the government's support we can immediately go forward with two games," said Mitchell at the time. "It's not immediately obvious but the potential in the video games sector is massive. Just from the statistics people are showing me, it's a $60 billion industry fast-tracking towards $90 billion… [P]eople are drifting to game acquisition because of the budgets. The cost of a film may be $170 million – twice that to market it – whereas the basic cost of making a game might be 10 per cent of that."
It’s since been revealed that one of those two games is Brendan McNamara’s Whore of the Orient, the state of which remains mysterious. In April the team working on it was shut down, although in June KMM received a AUD$200,000 grant from New South Wales' Interactive Media Fund for the game (a 60-second clip from the game. The other, we presume, is Avalanche’s Mad Max (back in 2011 it was being reported KMM planned to bring the project in-house from Sweden.
So when you’re smashing cars in the post-apocalyptic Aussie desert, spare a thought for Autorama, the Mad Max game that nearly was.
Adam Redsell is a freelance writer based in post-apocalyptic Australia. Blow up his HYPERLINK "https://twitter.com/teh_red_baron"Twitter and HYPERLINK "http://people.ign.com/teh_red_baron"IGN page.