By Michael Roberts
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Subby the Submarine is an awfully nice vehicle, and environmentally friendly, too--he's solar-powered. He and his best friend, an Arctic tern named Terrence, are enjoying a lovely day when they hear a strangled voice calling, "Help! Help! Help!" The calls are coming from a dolphin trapped in a drift net, and it's going to wind up the most intelligent creature in a jumbo container of tuna fish unless Subby takes action, and soon. But will he?
Bet your next can of Starkist on it--because Subby to the Rescue!, an interactive CD-ROM for children set for an early 1995 release, is the first in a planned series of so-called "violence-free software" being developed by Colorado entrepreneurs John Thibault and Don Cohen. And if you assumed that a company like theirs must be based in Boulder, you're right.
"It's true that Boulder's image is very `politically correct,'" admits Thibault, whose enterprise is called BOLDer MultiMedia Inc. "That's changing to some degree, I think, but if the idea of looking at the world in a more sensitive, concerned way is synonymous with Boulder, then that's a nice side effect."
Still, Thibault wants to make it clear that he's no knee-jerk, pie-in-the-sky idealist without any interest in profit. Rather, he's a businessman with a long background in the movie industry. A screenwriter and graduate of UCLA's film school, Thibault spent ten years as the vice president of Los Angeles's Pebrook Enterprises, which specialized in acquiring scripts and other properties cast off by major studios. Over most of this period, he was mired in what he calls "development hell," but he insists his screen career is still alive. "We just got turned down by Julia Roberts," he notes, laughing.
In 1990, after a year spent as a consultant to the Walt Disney Company and Columbia Pictures, he moved to another movie studio, MCA, and became half of the corporation's governmental affairs office. His duties involved coordinating visits and fundraisers for visiting dignitaries, be they touring international leaders (like Margaret Thatcher) or U.S. senators eager to get their pictures taken next to Tom Cruise. It was a cushy job that took place in a rarefied world seemingly far removed from the riot- and disaster-torn environs of L.A. But Thibault learned that this was not the case when, in May 1993, a sniper set up across a boulevard from MCA headquarters in Universal City and began shooting.
"I was just sitting in my office, and suddenly there were bullets flying through it," he remembers. "He didn't hit anybody directly, but a couple of people were hit by shrapnel. And that was when I said, `Do we really need to live like this?'"
Shortly thereafter, Thibault relocated to Boulder and hooked up with Don Cohen, the founder of Cimarron International, a multimedia production company developing products for Macintosh, Windows and interactive systems. The twosome promptly decided to create a slate of interactive video games on CD-ROM, but neither wanted to emulate such big-selling titles as Mortal Kombat, a game in which heroes can be made to rip out the still-beating hearts of their enemies. "I've heard from thirteen- or fourteen-year-old gang members that after watching thousands of hours of TV and video games, they don't differentiate between what they see on TV and cruising down the street picking off people," Thibault asserts. "That's one of the reasons why we think there's such a need for violence-free programming."
Hence, Subby, based on a thus-far unpublished children's book by Dale Woolhiser. The first Subby CD-ROM, which includes six original songs and a variety of different levels and stages, is nearly complete, and Thibault and Cohen are so pleased with the results that they're working with California's Keith Wertz and Associates (the company that built the animatronic Abraham Lincoln that's been disturbing visitors to Disneyland for a generation) to complete work on computer-activated stuffed toys to accompany the CD-ROM. According to Thibault, the toy--perhaps Subby, perhaps a turtle--will be a high-tech version of Teddy Ruxpin, a talking bear that was in vogue several years ago. "It'll talk to you while you're playing the game, and the computer will trigger dozens of different responses. You'll be on a certain screen, and it might point in one direction and say, `Hey, look over there.' It's kind of like Chucky," he says with a smile, making reference to the demonic killer doll from the three Child's Play horror movies. He quickly adds, "Just kidding."
BOLDer MultiMedia has also retained the rights to Musti, an already completed CD-ROM based on a popular European cartoon character; On the Brink, a game that teaches youngsters about endangered species; and Dollar Power, a lesson in economics that's associated with Young American's Bank, a brainstorm of Denver cable pioneer Bill Daniels. But the company also has a pair of more traditional games on the drawing board: Thunder Scan, based on a story by Ron Shusett, whose credits include the movies Alien and Total Recall, and the action adventure Shadow Run. "Not everything we do will be `violence-free,'" Thibault says, "but even on those that aren't, we'll give players options before they have to resort to violence. That's the kind of tool they can take with them into the rest of their lives.