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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Obscusion B-Side: The Full Motion Vita of American Laser Games with Robert Grebe

While the concept of the FMV/Full Motion Video Game technically debuted in 1983 with Sega's Astron Belt, the first laserdisc game, & became popular for a short period due to the success of Dragon's Lair, it kind of died down until the 90s, when it made a resurgence that lasted for, more or less, the entire decade; the surge died down around 1995, but the FMV genre was still used to a notable extent up up through 1999. The company that put the genre back into the spotlight was a small group from Albuquerque, New Mexico called American Laser Games, which made its debut in 1990 with the arcade light-gun shooter Mad Dog McCree.

This is the second logo, which most gamers associate with the company

American Laser Games saw its fair share of success during the early-90s with its variety of FMV rail-shooters, which used completely live-action footage in place of traditional graphics of the time (i.e. sprites). Around the time the FMV genre started to die out, though, so too did ALG, eventually being bought out by spin-off company Her Interactive, which is still in business to this day & makes the Nancy Drew series of adventure games for girls; ALG titles still see the occasional re-release nowadays by way of Digital Leisure, though. With FMV making a slight comeback in the past couple of years, with indie games like Her Story, Contradiction - Spot the Liar!, & Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, I was curious if there was any sort of retrospective on the company that brought the genre back to the gaming populace for its biggest run, and there was none. I decided on a whim to look for a way to contact the man who founded ALG, and once I did I sent him an e-mail asking for an opportunity to talk about the old days... For some reason, he said "I would be happy to."

I now give you two ways to experience the conversation/interview I had with Robert Grebe:
-Watching it on YouTube, with video of various ALG titles accompanying it, by this link
-Reading a transcription of the entire thing, by simply continuing to read. In this text version, I added in some post-interview clarifications, which will be housed in italicized brackets.

Could you just introduce yourself, what exactly you did at ALG, and what you're doing now?

My name is Robert Grebe, and I am currently the CEO of a start-up company called TraderzTV. TraderzTV is an online marketplace where we bring the best instructors in the world together with students who want to learn how to trade forex currencies. Previously, I was the CEO & President of American Laser Games. That was a company that started back in the early 90s, & it actually grew up from another company that I started that created a firearms training system for police departments & the military, and that we started in about 1989 or so.

[Note, the training system was the Institute for Combat Arms & Tactics, or ICAT for short.]

Did the FMV games of the 80s, like Dragon's Lair, Cliff Hanger, & Bega's Battle, influence the company in any way or was that just coincidental?

Yeah, I think it was pretty much coincidental. We were out here in New Mexico, and pretty much the only game company in this part of the country. You know, [the gaming industry] had companies in California, but we pretty much did our own thing, enjoyed some success with it for a while.

What exactly lead to Mad Dog McCree being the debut title for ALG?

Well, because we are in the Heart of the West, it seemed to make sense to start out with a Western cowboy theme. That was supported by the fact that there is a fairly well used motion picture set that exists about 40 miles north of Albuquerque, which is very accessible. So it made it kind of a no-brainer to go in that direction.

Who Shot Johnny Rock? featured some interesting changes to the usual formula for a rail shooter, like you had removed the health & infinite ammo, and you replaced it with a money system so you can pay a doctor to heal you; you also had to buy ammo for your tommy gun, which itself was a change from the usual reloadable gun of that genre. Were these an experiment in gameplay, or were they just chosen to match the 1920s motif?

A little of both. I think that we, early on, began to recognize some of the limitations in gameplay that we faced in producing this type of product, so we tried with each successive game to introduce additional gameplay & make it a little more interesting, to the extent that it could match the theme of the game so much the better.

Pretty much almost every American Laser Games title came off as kind of campy, as if it was meant to be the game equivalent to a silly B-Movie, and probably the best example of that was with Space Pirates. Did you & ALG aim to be campy, or was that just a side-effect of the FMV genre in general?

I don't know that we necessarily aimed to be campy. Certainly that term, I don't recall, ever coming up, but I think that we did strive to introduce some level of humor into the games, and to a large degree that came across as campy, and that's just the way it was. But, to some degree, that was not largely scripted in that way. It was just stuff that we would, on set, come up with & then decide to make it into the game.

Okay. I'm not saying it was a bad thing. I enjoy that kind of entertainment in general. It's just some people always look at that & kind of wonder if you were being serious.

Nah, it was a game.

Mad Dog II: The Lost Gold was the third, & last, ALG title to feature the actor Ben Zeller (The Prospector in Mad Dog I & Paralax in Space Pirates). Was there any reason for the repeated use of Zeller?

A great actor & great guy... And local. Many times we had to reach out to the LA market & bring in actors from there, but Ben lived right here in the community & was just a wonderful person & a great actor.

How in the world did Gallagher's Gallery come about?

Hmmm... Just a bad idea.

[I burst out into laughter]

At that time he was perhaps at the height of his career. I had caught some of his shows & thought that he was pretty funny. So we decided that it might make an interesting game, just something a little bit out of the ordinary. So we reached out to him, and he was going to be in Albuquerque for a show, so he said sure, he would participate, and he pretty much turned out to be a total prima donna; just a pain in the ass to work with. We ended up selling, I think, 10 of those games; I mean it was a total flop.

It is obvious that the budget for each ALG game was progressively larger than the last, and the Crime Patrol games, like the sequel Drug Wars, had a lot more to them visually, with special effects & stunts, than was like in the original Mad Dog. At this point, a lot of other developers were saying that their FMV games were costing like $2-3 million to make. Did ALG ever spend anywhere near that much to make their games?

Uhh, no. Interestingly enough, I think we produced Mad Dog McCree, the original, for $70,000. Some subsequent games we spent a lot more, but I don't recall ever spending more than five or six-hundred thousand dollars. Games at that time were starting to become much more expensive, not only in their production costs but in the costs to promote them, so that was just a transition that was occurring in the industry, but I don't think we ever spent, in production & in marketing, anything close to a million dollars.

The Last Bounty Hunter, Fast Draw Showdown, & Shootout at Old Tuscon were all filmed at the Old Tuscon Studio in Arizona. Were these filmed simultaneously, or one after another in sequence, or was that just a reliable location to film at?

As I recall, we shot two of them in one shoot, and we went back a year later or so & shot the third one. I think we shot Fast Draw & Shootout at Old Tuscon during the same event. That was just representing another movie location, different from the Eaves Ranch which we had used for the Mad Dog series, so it presented another opportunity just to get a little different look. At that point, again, we were continuing to try to come up with new types of gameplay, just to change things up a little bit.

Speaking of Shootout at Old Tuscon, would you be able to explain the concept behind it & what made that game different than the other ALG rail shooters? It was the last arcade game the company ever got out, it was given a very limited release &there's no console port, even today, so there's no information about it. The most video on YouTube, for example, is just the opening trailer/attract mode.

That was a game that, I don't think in many respects, was so very different from any of the games that came before it. The reason why you don't see much about it, the reason why you don't see much of American Laser Games after that period of time, is because the market reached a tipping point & the arcade business just basically fell off a cliff, and with it that game &, for the most part, American Laser Games.

I'm looking through the different advertisements you can find online & there were three other games, Mazer, Orbatak, & an arcade port of [Naughty Dog's] 3DO game Way of the Warrior, & I guess those were all cancelled because you cut out the arcade industry. Do you remember if any of them ever had machines made, at the very least?

Well, they didn't have many, if they had any. I think we made some 3DO products...

[Robert then moves into answering a question I had planned for later, which was about the demise of American Laser Games]

American Laser Games, in May of 1994, was set to do a public offering & become a publicly traded company. We had an evaluation of $40-50 million & we were looking to raise $20 million, as I recall, and that coincided with the tipping point in the video arcade market. The gameplay that you saw in home consoles had been improving & just reached a point where the video game player turned to home consoles & turned away from putting coins into arcade video games, and the arcade market virtually collapsed at that point in time. Not that we had anticipated that, but we had definitely seen that the home entertainment market was growing & becoming a force, so we had been working to develop games for home platforms. There really wasn't much there at the time, but we did develop for Sega, we did some stuff for Phillips, for IBM, & for 3DO. So we were moving towards moving the full motion video games into those platforms, but we were also looking to try to develop non-full motion video games just to be able to broaden our reach.

Mazer, which was on 3DO, was an arena shooter, with digitized actors instead of FMV. Was this always going to be the direction ALG was heading towards, with digital actors, or was FMV gonna try to stay around in some way or another?

Well, we were gonna ride that pony as long as we could, because it worked very, very well. You're up there in Jersey, back in the heyday of Mad Dog, it was bringing in $3,500 a week at the Jersey Shore, so it was an extremely successful series of games for a period of time; the operators of arcades, they loved us. So we were not going to step away from that, but we were also going to look at other platforms & other styles of games to try to branch into.

In 2008, Unseen64 showcased images of a 1996 preview of an ALG title for the PlayStation called Shining Sword. Do you remember that, and would you be able to explain what was planned for that game?

No. I exited from American Laser Games in 1996; I was asked to leave by the venture capital partners that I had at that time. This was a game that we had in development, so I never was around to see how well or poorly it fared.

Just on a quick aside, what brought about the creation of Her Interactive? It's kind of odd to think of a game like McKenzie & Co., which is essentially a FMV dating simulator.

That was actually the brainchild of my wife, Patricia, who was our marketing director, and she was, she is an extremely creative person. We were always looking for new opportunities in full motion video games, and certainly at that time there was no focus on games for girls whatsoever. So we thought it presented an opportunity to put a foothold into that market, so we created that game. It enjoyed limited success, I would say.

Well, the company's still around, so it was a good idea in the end. Just for quick trivia, do you remember the last product released with the ALG logo, by the time you left?

This is the original logo, used up through Gallagher's Gallery

The last products that we had that had any traction were the full motion video games, like Fast Draw Showdown or, perhaps, Shootout at Old Tuscon. We were developing some non-full motion video games & they were in some stage of development, so I guess the short answer is not beyond that.

Around the same time ALG was around, there was Tom Zito's Digital Pictures, which nowadays has kind of become the poster child for FMV games of the 90s, and how they're looked at nowadays. If you remember Digital Pictures, how exactly would you say ALG differed from them?

Because you can't talk FMV without bringing up Digital Pictures

The fact of the matter is, George, I'm not familiar with their product, quite honestly.

Okay. Well, their biggest one was the game Night Trap, and that was part of a big controversy when it came to violence in video games, back in the early to mid 90s. And yet ALG's products, which were all about, in a sense, "shooting real people" never seemed to get in trouble. Was ALG ever affected in any way by that violence controversy that lead to the creation of the ESRB?

Well, it was something that, twenty years ago, the rating of video games was really just in its infancy. It had been created by the marketers, as I recall, the trade associations as a way to try to bring something similar to ratings the movie industry is controlled by. So it was an issue, but it wasn't really an issue for us. I mean we began to have to rate our games & I'm not sure that anybody at that point in time necessarily paid a whole lot of attention to it, and if you compare the level of violence in our games to what they have today it's kind of a joke.

Yeah, there's no blood or anything like that in ALG titles. It was kind of funny, because there is a video on YouTube taken from an old Today Show interview with you & someone else from ALG, and it's about Mad Dog McCree with Katie Couric playing, and she's having a ball.

Yeah, that was a fun day. That was with myself & Pierre Maloka, who was the gentleman that did a lot of the early software work for us & was quite a key asset for us at the time. We had a good time, and Mad Dog was just a hugely popular game. As a matter of fact, we ended up selling more of Mad Dog than we did all of the other games put together.

What would you say is the legacy of American Laser Games after all these years?

We certainly enjoyed an enormous popularity for a number of years in the arcade business, and to that extent I probably justify a page or two in the annals of video game history. I don't know if there's really any legacy beyond that.

Okay. Like you indicated, you guys were in your own little area, while everyone else was doing their stuff.


If you had the chance to re-live the existence of American Laser Games, would you change anything the second time around?

The demise of American Laser Games came from the collapse of the arcade video game market; certainly nothing that we controlled. We were working to produce home games, and we could probably have gotten started on that a little earlier. But, you know, the game is business is tough, and once we lost the leg of the arcade game, that put us on pretty tenuous footing. In the end we just couldn't produce at the level of some of the big houses, like Electronic Arts, Sony, & Sega, who were much better financed and had a much greater well of creative talents than what we had.

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.

Pleasure, George.
Again, I want to thank Robert Grebe for taking the time (no Labor Day, no less) to speak with me about a company that most gamers tend to poke fun at & look at with disdain now, as it's part of a time in gaming history that hasn't had the best reputation since its heyday. Why talk about American Laser Games, in that case? Because someone has to, and because it deserves at least one opportunity to stand up for itself.


  1. I guess the Gallagher game doesn't spray you in the face if the timer runs out. That would've been 'Interactive' enough!

    1. I guess not, as I've never seen a unit in the wild. It's an extremely rare & impossible to find video, probably more so than Shootout at Old Tuscon. Also, I highly doubt Digital Leisure could even port Gallagher's Gallery to console or whatever, so it's truly an arcade-exclusive.