Interview with Martin Alper of Virgin Interactive

This is an interview with the former president of Virgin Interactive, Martin Alper.

Martin Alper co-founded the british games publisher Mastertronic in 1983. When Mastertronic was later purchased by Richard Branson, Alper became president of the new company. This is a transcript of an interview conducted by phone in 2013. The interview was conducted as research for an article on The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour, so the focus of the interview is on the story behind these games. Martin Alper sadly passed away in 2015.

The interview was conducted by Erik André Mamen. The transcription was done by Joachim Froholt. You can hear an audio version of the interview here:


Here follows the full text of the interview:

When Trilobyte was formed, Graeme Devine and Rob Landroos were at Virgin, right?

Yes.

This photo of Martin Alper was published in Popular Computing Weekly (1984-07-19).
This photo of Martin Alper was published in Popular Computing Weekly (1984-07-19).

Why did you decide that they should form their own company instead of working at the game inhouse?

Well, it’s very simple. When they approached me, I said to them: I hear everything you have to say, but you are fired. That’s the truth, that’s what I said. They just looked at me very strangely, wondering what was going on. I said, well, I want to support you, I want to produce this game, but we can’t do it inside Virgin because it would be disruptive to everybody else who were working on much less ambitious projects.

So the only way to that we can do this is to do it from outside Virgin, you have to do it from outside Virgin. You have to move out of Virgin and set it up as a separate entity, because you won’t be able to conform to the rules that we have about production etcetera, because it’s all new ideas, new technologies, new everything, and it may take longer or it may not work, so we don’t want to do do it inhouse where normal games were being made.

Those two were the only ones from Virgin, right?

Correct.

It was an independent company, right?

Yes, they set it up as a completely independent company, but we signed a contract with them before they set it up for them to produce the game, so that we would fund it, so there would be a flow of money for them to hire people, get offices and make it work.

And you were to publish the game?

Yes, that was the deal, we would publish the game.

I would think that this way would be more expensive than doing it in-house?

No, not really, because it was their company and they were on their own, they had to make or break. Everything was at risk, and they no longer had a job. If they believed so much in what they were doing, they had very good reasons to make it work because their livelyhoods, their jobs [were at stake]. If they were working inside the company we could be tolerant, they would still have health benefits, they would still have everything that their colleagues had, but when they were on their own, they had to WORK.

So it was about distributing the risks?

Absolutely, I think the risk was even.

So, The 7th Guest was one of the revolutionary games of that year, I can’t find any examples of earlier CD-ROM-games.

I don’t believe there was. I think there were many examples of games that were ambitious, using multiple floppy disks, but putting it on a CD-ROM was somewhat revolutionary.

And Bill Gates used it in one of his lectures at Microsoft, as an example of what could be done with CD-ROM.

That was a great moment for all of you, I guess.

Yes it was, absolutely.

The 7th Guest. Screenshot from Mobygames.
The 7th Guest. Screenshot from Mobygames.

Another game came out about six months later, Myst, that also used CD-ROM. It became one of the best-selling games of all time although it didn’t have live action or animation. Why do you think that was the «winner» in this duel of sorts?

Well, I don’t know if it was a winner or not a winner. We had a secondary market for the CD-ROM-version of The 7th Guest, and in the end, I cannot remember exactly remember how many copies we sold, but there were probably something like a couple of million into circulation. Some would give it away as a special promotion, etcetera.

But you know, I really can’t answer the question, I don’t know about Myst … I can’t remember who published it. […] I don’t know, I mean I think our marketing was excellent, the anticipation for the game was good. I think that like every first generation game that tries to put everything in it, animation, live-action, green screen etcetera, maybe it disappointed some people. It was definitely a very beautiful looking game, a great innovation, but was it a satisfying game to play? Maybe not as satisfying as Myst, who knows?

I also read that Nintendo signed an agreement to get the exclusive console rights, do you know anything about that?

Ah, yes, but I don’t think anything ever happened.

I’ve seen some speculation that they bought it just to keep it away from Sega…

Correct.

But a CDi-version was released, do you know how that came to be?

You know, that I don’t remember. Sorry! You know, this was … which year was this again? You know it better than me because I have published so many games. […] ’93, yeah, 20 years ago, I can’t remember. I did so many deals, hehe.

Screenshot from The 7th Guest Anniversary Edition.
Screenshot from The 7th Guest Anniversary Edition.

I also read that Twin Peaks was an inspiration, but I can’t really see it. Do you know anything about this?

Well, I think that Graeme Devine liked the director of Twin Peaks, admired his work as both of them did. But why there would be any connection I don’t know, other than admiration for the director’s work. I can’t see any of that in the game particularily.

Moving on to 11th Hour. It was a big budget game. I don’t know if you can call it a fiasco, but somehow I believe Trilobyte found it disappointing.

Aye, they did, and perhaps everybody involved in the project found it disappointing. And part to understand what went wrong, I think they put all their ideas in The 7th Guest, in terms of technology etcetera that they had available, and 11th Hour didn’t really have a strong enough story og gameplay. We commissioned it … I commissioned it because obviously whether missed beat 7th Guest or not, 7th Guest was a strong success at Virgin. So naturally, like anybody, we’d commission a sequel.

But, and no disrespect to Graeme and Rob, they probably failed at creating something that was MORE compelling than 7th Guest.

It wasn’t unique enough.

It wasn’t unique. It was just a «me too» game, I think people were expecting so much more, and it didn’t deliver.

It wasn’t a complete disaster, but all the later Trilobyte-projects were…

I don’t remember whether we worked with Graeme and Rob after 11th Hour. You’d know better than me, did we produce a third game with them?

The 11th Hour. Screenshot from Mobygames.
The 11th Hour. Screenshot from Mobygames.

No, I know that they tried to publish games themselves, and they regretted that because they couldn’t do marketing et.c. So that might have been the last games of theirs that you released.

I think it was, yes. And I think that there were some friction in Trilobyte, between the partners. A lot of friction. And we sensed that, or I sensed that, and I don’t think we wanted to be involved. I don’t think it was Graeme as much, it was Rob who wanted to be a publisher. I think he had a resentment of publishers. He felt that publishers were not really neccessary and that games should be published by their authers. And I think that was it.

So you at Virgin noticed the friction (that they didn’t speak to each other et.c.)?

Yes. I used to go up to [Trilobyte in] Oregon to check on the progress of 11th Hour. And you know, Graeme was a good friend of mine. Rob and I never really became friends. But Graeme was very much… I brought him from the UK and he became a confidante of mine. Rob I never formed a strong relationship with, and I believe that the friction was generated by Rob more than Graeme. And we didn’t want to be a part of it.

The board of directors wanted to fire one of them. Graeme wanted to leave, but they convinced him to stay and Rob had to leave. Were you involved with that in any way?

Not at all. This was something that we witnessed at a distance.

Are you aware that Rob is now trying to Kickstart a third game in the 7th Guest saga?

No. [laughs] Wow, that’s a long shot with today’s technology. He’s a very good artist. There’s no question Rob is an excellent artist.

Graeme thinks that because the team is missing, the intellectual property isn’t really worth much.

I agree.

I think that the people who buy games now probably don’t know anything about The 7th Guest.

By the way, where are you now?

I live in California at Laguna Beach. I haven’t been involved in the videogame industry for many many years. I’m currently semi-retired, but my wife has just started up an organic juice company making cold-pressed vegetable juice which we distribute throughout California.

So a totally different business, then?

Yeah. Healthier!

Thanks for your time and good luck!

Thank you very much, and say hi to Norway for me!


Interview by Erik Andé Mamen. Transcribed by Joachim Froholt. Two of the screenshots are from Mobygames.

Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.