Hi reader, this is the CD-i Queen. As you may know, I consider myself to be one of the most dedicated and passionate fans of the game Laser Lords, most notably for my Zendo maquette.
In the last year, I was lucky enough to get in contact with Keith Lehman and Paul Day, two fellows who worked on the production of the game. They agreed to answer a plentiful array of
questions related to the game, Dale Desherone, Startribes and a few other topics. Keith was my main point of contact and answered the majority of the questions.
It was an honor to be able to pick these guys’ brains. They were working on these games before I was born!
I hope you all enjoy reading my interview as much as I enjoyed coming up with the questions.
CDIQUEEN: Keith, you told me that you were an engineer for Spinnaker software. You were the first CD-i “Wizard” there, so you were involved with the technical aspects for their games, including for the production of Laser Lords. While the game is not as notorious as The Faces of Evil or Hotel Mario, Laser Lords is definitely a fan favorite. What the fanbase lacks in size, we make up with our passion.
Anybody reading (or watching) this interview will already know how big of a Laser Lords fan I am, and so I’m going to ask you many questions about the story and the characters, knowing
that you might not be able to answer them. I hope that we can generate some interesting conversation, whether it’s here or in discussions about this interview.
Some of the questions are admittedly a little out there, because they are things I’ve always wondered about, figuring I wouldn’t ever get answers. I’ve also had some questions asked on
behalf of Omegalfa, the frontman for The World of CD-i site, and a personal friend of mine. You’ve given me some background on your work, but would you like to give an introduction for your fans?
KEITH: It really seems like an overstatement to call them “my fans” – but my ego thanks you nonetheless. I was using C and 68000 assembly language to write programs (this was before C++ even), working with the Sun systems we used for emulation, and eventually these very large, very noisy CD-i emulators (about 6’ tall and 4’x4’ wide – my ears are still ringing from the noise they made when we turned them on!). Since then, I’ve been sort of a serial technical entrepreneur and for the past 20 years I have focused on what I like to call the intersection of
the green economy and IT. Back when it all started, CD-i was really way ahead of its time. You have to realize that the CD-ROM hadn’t really taken off yet, so the idea that a set-top box could have such rich content was truly revolutionary. At the beginning though, all we had was a specification: there were no emulators, no hardware that could run CD-i software. At Spinnaker, the initial team was very small. At first, I was the only programmer there involved in CD-i at all. Michael Edge joined at about the same time we received the first emulators, and others soon after.
CDIQUEEN: Michael Edge is a name you mentioned a lot in our conversations. Also Dale Desharone, the creative genius behind Laser Lords who, sadly, is no longer with us. Paul Day, who we are lucky enough to have answer questions here, as well. Also of note is Ron Valentine Joyce, who created all the clay maquettes. Unfortunately, Ron is also no longer with us.
KEITH: Michael Edge joined about the same time we received the first emulators. He’s brilliant, and was the real expert responsible for the video compression technique we used for the clay animation. He went by “Medge” back then, and I still call him that. He and I went on to found Ledge Multimedia not long after Spinnaker exited the game industry. I’ll have to check with Paul, but I am pretty sure he joined Ledge when we were finishing up Laser Lords and the other CD-i titles we did for AIM. I should also mention John Wheeler and Normand DesMaris. John did much of the programming on Laser Lords. Of the four of us (me, Medge, Norm, and John), he was the only one who stayed with gaming. In addition to working with Dale, I am pretty sure he worked at Papyrus and then founded Blue Fang Games.
PAUL: Medge is old friends with my wife. I was an unsuccessful actor with a new child. I knew Medge from [the] South Carolina crowd. It was brought up that Spinnaker needed
someone to test Laser Lords and I got hired. The whole Davey and Goliath meets Interstellar god-knows-what unsettled me. The game shocked me on occasion, especially with “I gotta take a leak.” I know there are a few bugs that crash the game that involved jumping into walls in certain places. I’d write them up and they’d come back to me and say, “we can’t make this happen.” I’d pick up the controller and crash the game. I guess I was the only one who could do it. I felt pretty ignorant of the technology. The whole games-on-CD thing seemed odd to me.
Keith and Medge left to form Ledge Multimedia. They got a contract to do Spanish and Dutch versions of Laser Lords and also Alice In Wonderland and, since I knew the games, brought me along . As a result, I know that “effe pissen” means “I’ve got to take a leak” in Dutch. Also, after I was given a CD-i machine to take home, I could stay up as late as I wanted and when my wife would complain, I’d say, “Well…if you want our baby to starve….”
CDIQUEEN: I’m going to dive right into the questions about Laser Lords. Later, we’ll talk a bit about Dale DeSharone, other games and the CD-i, too.
Did you have anything to do with Philips, or were you strictly employed by Spinnaker?
KEITH: Initially, I worked for Spinnaker. They decided to leave the gaming industry in 1991, so I started freelancing for Philips. My first two contracts for them were to finish Sargon Chess and to port the GNU C compiler to OS-9. Those contracts allowed me to set up Ledge Multimedia in 1992, and Medge and others came on board soon after.
CDIQUEEN: I know this is a broad question, but generally speaking, what was working on Laser Lords like?
KEITH: We had a lot of fun. Once we really got into production, there were artists, a writer, voice actors, a sound booth, and musicians. Working with such creative people was exciting. We were also pushing the envelopes for what was technically possible. I am pretty sure that Laser Lords was the first computer game to use stop motion animation, blue screen, and lots of other techniques. Medge had to write his own screen grabbing and animation software, which was pretty awesome. While it might look old today, there really was nothing else like it back
then. I am fairly certain that Laser Lords was the first game to ever use clay animation and blue screen video techniques.
CDIQUEEN: How big was the entire staff, and were you all in the same facility?
KEITH: We were working on 5 titles at the same time: Laser Lords, Sargon Chess, Paint School, Alice In Wonderland, and Story Machine. There were never more than three or four
programmers, plus one to three artists, a sound technician/musician, the writer, and our game designer/producer (Dale). We were all at Spinnaker’s offices in Cambridge, but we were spread
out and with the exception of me and Medge, rarely worked in the same room.
CDIQUEEN: The music was composed by Toni Trippi. Did you work with him at all?
KEITH: Toni had a small office of his own where he could work on his music, so we didn’t spend much time together. He and Bill Havlicek did the music and sound effects for Sargon Chess and most of the other CD-i games, and I worked with them fairly closely on those.
CDIQUEEN: I’m sure you know about the CD-i Zelda games, and how they had sublet the animated sequences to Animation Magic. Was any part of Laser Lords sublet to another company?
KEITH: Spinnaker exited the contract with Philips before any of the CD-i titles were completed. We all worked as contractors to finish them, and most of the final work was done at Ledge Multimedia. Ledge also did the foreign language ports for all of Spinnaker’s CD-i games and a few others, so Laser Lords was a big part of that company too. Dale went on to start Animation Magic. Most of the work for Zelda was done in Russia – probably the first foreign software company to work there after the collapse of the USSR.
CDIQUEEN: How long was it in production? Do you know the day it was completed?
KEITH: It took a very long time. Probably 5 years from conception to completion, perhaps even longer. I would think I would remember the day we sent off the final tape for the “gold master”, but I don’t. Medge, Paul, or John might.
PAUL: Really, the thing I remember most was how finicky the burning software was and how the hard drive had to be completely defragmented or it was an 85% failure rate.
CDIQUEEN: It’s been about 30 years since the game was released. How does it feel to know people are still loving and playing it?
KEITH: I think it’s great! I wish I still had a working player and could have played it with my daughter. I’ve also really enjoyed watching your videos on it. I’d forgotten all of the double entendres and innuendo. But there are some interesting stories I remember that go along with a few of the props…
PAUL: Every year or two, like The Godfather III, Laser Lords pops up and sucks me BACK IN. It’s almost always Europeans. I remember one said “we played it as a family during winter break.” Keith will email “Do you still have the maps of…” or “Do you remember how this worked?” At first, I sort of did but age is making those memories fade. I should look for the
CDIQUEEN: Yes, yes you should. I know I speak for the rest of us Laser Lords fans when I say we would love to see any kind of obscure relic!
During these last few decades, have you spent much time thinking about the game, or is it just another gig that’s faded away?
KEITH: It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had working in software. I keep a framed poster on the wall of my home office. I wouldn’t say I spend much time thinking about it though – my life is busy and very full.
CDIQUEEN: How was work given out to you? For example, was Laser Lords something you chose to work on, or was it just another assignment from Spinnaker; “You’re working on this
KEITH: My primary focus was actually Sargon Chess, but there was no real engineering or technical management, and I’ve always had a tendency to simply set about solving problems when I can, so I ended up writing bits and pieces and helping out with all of the titles.
CDIQUEEN: Do you have any idea what the game’s budget was?
KEITH: Budgets back then were a small fraction of what they are today. It started out at about $200,000. All of the early titles went way over budget. Fortunately, Philips stepped in and helped out so nobody went out of business.
CDIQUEEN: Do you know how many copies were sold?
KEITH: I don’t, but I don’t think it was very many. Certainly not enough to cover the costs of Philip’s investment.
CDIQUEEN: Does anyone still own the source code?
KEITH: The source code would have been owned by AIM or Philips. I’ve no idea if anyone still has copies though.
CDIQUEEN: Conversations have popped up here and there about an early beta version of Laser Lords called “Startribes: Myth of the Dragon Lord.” There are a couple of supposed
screenshots from this game as well as a printed advertisement, but nothing is concrete and nobody knows anything else about it. Do you know about this? I know there are fans that would
love to hear more about it, myself included.
KEITH: Startribes was written for the PC. John Eric Olmstead wrote the program. We ended up using the game engine, most of the story, and most if not all of the worlds in [Laser Lords]. The outer space gameplay was unique to [Laser Lords] though. The main [Laser] Lords character was also the character from Startribes. He’s buffer than I ever was, but I posed for the Startribes artist so she could create the fight sequences – she was having trouble getting his fighting poses to look anything close to realistic. I’m really not sure if that’s something I should be proud of or embarrassed by…
PAUL: Don’t listen to Keith. He was pretty damn buff. I remember when Ledge got bought he literally did a backflip from a standing position.
CDIQUEEN: The Startribes game appears to be intended for PC. Do you know why Laser Lords was only released on the CD-i?
KEITH: CD-i was far more capable than anything the PC had to offer back then. We could never have produced the video sequences on the PCs or Macs of the day. Nor could we have
counted on players having a CD-ROM drive, so it simply wasn’t possible to produce computer games with such rich stories and graphics – let alone the rich full color stop action animation.
CDIQUEEN: To me, the title “Startribes: Myth of the Dragon Lord” suggests it was going to be a series. Do you suppose they intended to make more than one game in that universe?
Considering how much is going on in the game, I think it could easily have a sequel or prequel at the very least.
KEITH: A sequel or prequel would certainly have been fun, but I don’t think any of the ideas for either of those were ever fleshed out to any degree. There are enough questions left unanswered though that either one could have been made. Where do the Star Lords reside?
Have these cycles occurred before? Will they occur again? When and why did the rules prohibiting a Star Lord from manifesting come into being? Those rules can clearly be broken, which implies a reason for their creation in the first place.
CDIQUEEN: What is your favorite part of Laser Lords?
KEITH: The interstellar animations – there’s no contest.
PAUL: I always liked the sound of the guy walking. I need to go back and watch your videos to refresh myself.
CDIQUEEN: Which story do you think is the most tragic?
KEITH: Dale’s. He was a really good friend. I was in Japan when he passed away, and am sorry that I couldn’t be there. Ron’s story is also tragic. He passed away before the game was released.
CDIQUEEN: Do you have a favorite character? Personally, I like Colonel Hemeprotus. I think he has a lot of potential to be an interesting character with many rich stories to tell.
PAUL: The mechanic was my favorite and although I don’t remember the exact dialog, I still think of it about once a month.
CDIQUEEN: For those of you reading along at home, you may recall Astal saying, “Where the zook is that soot-sucking, nose-thrasin’, mother spittin’ tool?”
What element of the game, whether it be a character, a planet, an item, etc do you find to be the most unique and intriguing?
PAUL: The claymation was wild. I have to go back to Davey and Goliath which always kind of creeped me out.
CDIQUEEN: I think the backgrounds are well designed. What software was used to make them, and how did you get them to animate?
KEITH: Do you mean the backgrounds for clay animations or for the on-planet adventures? The world building engine was a custom engine created for Startribes. I am pretty sure that it included a simple paint program for creating the individual building blocks used to draw the scenes. Medge might remember how the backgrounds for the clay animation sequences were
created. My recollection is that they were all drawn or painted by hand, then combined with the animation sequences using a custom production tool that Medge wrote. There was nothing
comparable back then. We wrote our own software to grab the images from a digitizing board, strip out the blue backgrounds for the clay animations, and stitch it all together.
CDIQUEEN: Who came up with the concept of the elevator-like beams that you use to go up and down floors? Did they have a name?
KEITH: Floor to floor elevators were a pretty common technique in 2D games back then. I don’t think we ever named them.
CDIQUEEN: Again on the backgrounds; I like the color schemes. Who decided to make Tekton all pink and purple? I would generally lean towards a droid-world being all gray.
KEITH: Ron provided artistic direction for all of the visuals, although Dale likely had final say.
CDIQUEEN: Who drew the Bel Air and the desert from the opening sequence?
KEITH: I think that was done for the original Star Tribes. We had an artist named Corey, and another named Tanya working on that project. I believe that one of them might have made those graphics..
CDIQUEEN: Are there any secrets, any easter eggs hiding in the game? I know there’s a secret door to the Gongor’s fountain hiding in the Bibliotech bookshelf, but that’s all I’ve been able to find.
KEITH: I asked Medge and John this the other day. As far as any of us can remember, there are no easter eggs in Laser Lords. There is one in Sargon Chess though. There is even a text file hidden on the disk that contains a clue as to how to find it. If someone asks me, I can give them the hint… although you will need a working copy of Sargon to find the egg.
CDIQUEEN: Do any inside jokes among the staff come to mind?
KEITH: Certainly! The purple crystal that Sarpedon holds in the opening sequence knew many secrets…
CDIQUEEN: The voice acting is all pretty bad. Did you work with the actors? Were they trying to be bad on purpose?
KEITH: We actually built a sound booth and hired professional voice over actors for most (if not all) of the audio. But there was always a playful/silly/sometimes cynical attitude in the air. Before designing games, Dale taught kindergarten, and so I believe the over-acting was deliberate.
CDIQUEEN: I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I only recently learned (from a viewer on my livestream) that you can easily defeat Dysseosus by giving him Nectar. I know it’s digging back into the vault, but do any tips and tricks like that come to mind?
KEITH: I’ll have to pass this one over to Paul and John. They would be the most likely to know what other tricks are available.
PAUL: The biggest tip is to have the maps and scripts in front of you 😀 If I remember, I had to play it through without at first. That knowledge [is] so buried in my subconscious.
CDIQUEEN: You do realize that the in-game fighting is a joke, right?
KEITH: Tanya had a tough time with the graphics for the in-game fighting, the controllers of those days were quite limited, and Dale was almost (but not quite) a pacifist, so… yes, the fighting is a joke.
CDIQUEEN: “All of life is a misadventure” says Jaxus, the captain of the Seminum Omegan. The whole game is pretty much a joke, right?
PAUL: It’s not Breath of the Wild. But it definitely has value since here we are talking about it. I suppose the same could be said for The Room, too.
CDIQUEEN: Are any characters modeled after members of the staff?
KEITH: Tanya, the artist who drew Warrior, asked me to pose for her. As far as I know, that’s about as close as we got to modeling any characters on staff members.
CDIQUEEN: I played the heck out of this game as a kid, so much that I actually managed to find the Bronze Star hiding in the sewers without being told to find it first. I was only able to win it after finding a walkthrough that someone managed to put together. Did you ever expect people to win the game?
KEITH: I was so disappointed by the Philips rollout of the whole CD-i line that I really didn’t think anyone would ever finish the game. It’s really great to learn that you and so many others had fun playing it!
CDIQUEEN: Once upon a time, I got myself trapped by selling the Ship Receipt to the Bizarre Bazaar, thus being unable to get off the Seminum Omegan. There are many instances where you can get stuck. Do you realize how unforgiving the game can be?
PAUL: Yes. I do. Believe me, I do. And this is a good place to do a quick PSA about game testing. It is not glamorous. Kids, testing is a long, hard slog. You will come to hate the game you’re playing unless you really want to get into the industry. Alice in Wonderland pushed me to the point where I was hearing “waarom doe je dat?” in my sleep.
KEITH: LOL! Everyone who worked near me got sick and tired of hearing “It gets dark so early… aren’t you a little afraid?” and other one-liners from Sargon Chess.
CDIQUEEN: I read an article that claims the temple guard on Luxor, Menkh, is married to the dominatrix on the Seminum Omegan. You know the fake password, “Daphne Dances”? They
seem to think you can jog her memory with that password, but I’ve never been able to figure it out. Is there legitimacy to this?
KEITH: I don’t know for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Dale and I were both part of the Dance New England community, so that sounds like something Dale would have fit into the story in some way.
CDIQUEEN: The same article said, in jest of course, that “Laser Lords is the best Star Trek game out there.” Your thoughts?
PAUL: I’ve never been a sci-fi person which kind of makes me an anomaly.
KEITH: The Laser Lords universe has no relation to the Star Trek universe. If anything, it draws more on The Last Starfighter for inspiration.
CDIQUEEN: Okay, I want to talk more about Dale Desharone, the main brain behind the game.
Sadly, he passed away some time ago, but I’ve been told he was the visionary behind the game.
I have heard nothing but good about Dale. What was working with him like?
KEITH: In many ways, I knew Dale better out of the office than in the office. In the office, he was focused on the story and spent most of his time with the writer Jonathan Merritt, the artists (especially Ron), or working hard to get us the resources we needed to complete the titles. I remember he was fairly hands off as long as you were making good progress. Out of the office, we were friends and were both a little active in the Dance New England community. He, my wife Robin, and I would often see each other at one or the other weekly dances.
CDIQUEEN: How much control did he have over the visuals? Did he control every bit, or were you allowed lots of artistic freedom?
KEITH: Dale was not at all controlling. He would push for quality, but everyone had a good deal of latitude to create the characters and tell the story the way they wanted to.
CDIQUEEN: Having worked closely with Dale, how do you suppose he would respond to my absolute love for the game?
KEITH: I think Dale would have laughed a big laugh and smiled. A few summers before I met Dale, I spent a lot of time playing an earlier game of his called “Below The Root.” Dale got a big kick out of it when I told him I had completed that game.
CDIQUEEN: Having known Dale personally, what do you think would be an appropriate way for us, as fans, to honor his legacy?
KEITH: Celebrate Life. Pursue Peace. Embrace Adventure.
CDIQUEEN: Damn, if that doesn’t make you emotional, I don’t know what will. There is definitely a common theme throughout the planets of greediness destroying peaceful societies. Do you suppose Dale was trying to tell us anything, or was he simply making what he found to be an interesting story?
KEITH: Dale was certainly trying to reinforce the message that cooperation is more effective than competition and that greed eventually leads to ruin.
CDIQUEEN: In my spare time, I’ve been working on a novel based on Laser Lords. I’ve been thinking about making a video where I explain the synopsis and what I plan to do with the story, since I probably won’t ever finish it. What are your thoughts on that?
KEITH: You’ve shown that you can complete projects that you start, so what makes you think you won’t ever finish the story? I am confident you can do it – and strongly encourage you to do so. Let the video come later.
CDIQUEEN: How does it feel to know that Laser Lords served as the base inspiration for all of my artistic outlets, and how do you think Dale would feel about that?
KEITH: There’s really very little that would have made Dale happier. Did you know he taught kindergarten before becoming a game designer? He wanted to create games that taught people and encouraged people to have faith in humanity and in life.
PAUL: I am so happy for that! Inspiration is anywhere you look for it!
CDIQUEEN: I find the dialogue system in Laser Lords to be really cool and extremely ingenuitive. Who came up with the idea of continuing dialogue by selecting highlighted words, plus essentially using words and songs as key items?
KEITH: This was a fairly common technique back then. Before CD-i, most games didn’t have voice audio, just silly music and sound effects. So this sort of interface was used. What was really unique for CD-i, was that we could control CD quality audio with sub-second resolution – meaning that we could tell the device to play the audio we wanted.
CDIQUEEN: Is there anything you would like to share regarding any other games you worked on?
KEITH: I’ve been waiting for years for someone to ask me about the Sargon easter egg…
CDIQUEEN: As a kid, I definitely played Alice in Wonderland much more than Laser Lords, but nothing seems too memorable about the game. Is it worth revisiting, or is it essentially just a kid’s game running on a simplified Laser Lords engine?
PAUL: I thought Alice in Wonderland was dull after testing Laser Lords. I don’t remember anything particularly interesting about it. But given your dedication, you never know what you’ll find.
CDIQUEEN: Which title was your favorite to work on?
KEITH: Definitely Laser Lords.
CDIQUEEN: Which do you think is the best actual game, gameplay wise, you’ve worked on?
KEITH: Laser Lords again.
CDIQUEEN: Of course, that’s assuming you’ve played them. Do you actually play the games you work on, and do you consider yourself a gamer at all?
KEITH: I didn’t have much time to actually play any of the games I worked on. My gaming days essentially ended when we finished those games. I did play Zelda on the Game Cube and Wii, and a few other games, when my daughter was old enough.
CDIQUEEN: Obviously, time has proven that the CD-i was a failed system. Working on the inside, what was the climate like? Did people suspect it was going to fail, or were they generally excited to be working on the software, expecting it to be a big breakthrough in the technological world?
KEITH: We knew it was an uphill climb – especially once the Multimedia computers became popular. Most of us thought that AIM, Philips, and Sony were too conservative, and would (at best) end up as a niche player in the educational market. Beta had only recently lost out to VHS in the home video market, and the “dirty little secret” was that porn was always the “killer app” driving sales of most new media technologies. But while CD-ROM and VHS porn began to flood the market, it was completely off limits for CD-i.
CDIQUEEN: Do you know about Nobelia, the CD-i homebrew game created by Jeffrey Janssen? What do you think about people making new CD-i games in the modern age?
KEITH: I am quite impressed. You would have to be very dedicated to collect enough tools and old hardware to pull this off.
CDIQUEEN: Speaking of, how do you feel about the modern CD-i community? It’s not very big, but there are absolutely a lot of hardcore fans out there.
KEITH: I think it’s great! I would love to play with some of the old games again.
CDIQUEEN: I don’t know a whole lot about software and engineering, but what kinds of programs, resources etc did you utilize for CD-i that was a positive experience?
KEITH: Nearly everything, other than the platform itself, had to be written from scratch. So we got to play with aht at the time was pretty advanced tech. We had early screen and audio grabbing hardware, a coaxial TCP/IP network, and “oodles” of hard drives – some even as large as 650 Mb. Today, of course, a tiny sim or $20 flash drive has nearly 2,000 times as much storage – but back then it was unheard of to have that much. As a young nerd, it was really great!
PAUL: Once Ledge started, I learned from the ground up. Keith explained how token ring networks worked, [threw] the cable [at] me and said “Go.” I remember feeding the floppies into our brand new Novell 3.1 server. Later, when it started crashing a lot, I remember going to Keith and telling him it would keep crashing unless we got another 16mb of RAM. “We can’t afford that,” Keith said, “it’s like $3200!”
CDIQUEEN: Same question, only what was negative? What really didn’t work?
KEITH: Definitely the first emulators. We had two of them, and when they were turned on it was like trying to work next to an airplane. Loud didn’t begin to describe it.
PAUL: Burning things was horrific back then. The external hard drives had to be completely defragged first. People were afraid to look at the burner because it seemed really sensitive. We held our breath after each burn. And blank CDs were $10/ea.
CDIQUEEN: How often do CD-i fans reach out to you?
PAUL: I’d say I get an email every year or three from Keith saying “Hey! Someone wanted to know…”
CDIQUEEN: To wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to add that I didn’t touch on?
PAUL: Ledge was an amazing place to work at. It literally started me on an IT career. Keith came to me and said “Hey, do you know how to swap out a hard drive in a Mac?” I said, no, I didn’t. He said, “You do it like this. Now you do it. Are you gonna run?” It was a friendly challenge rather than some kind of power thing. A few months later, I was basically running the network. Keith and Medge were always fun and supportive.
Thanks for your time! I hope you enjoyed answering these questions as much as I enjoyed coming up with them. I know it was a lot, but it’s been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask them! It means a lot to communicate with someone who was involved with something I love so much, and to get answers to things I always wondered about.