Circuit’s Edge: A conversation with Michael Legg
Michael Legg was still fairly fresh at Westwood Studios when he was assigned as the programmer for a new graphics adventure game based on the Cyberpunk novels of author George Alec Effinger – the game that would become Circuit’s Edge. During development, Legg ended up working closely with Effinger and contributing a lot to the game’s design. This interview focuses on Circuit’s Edge.
The interview was conducted by Gunnar Lott and Christian Schmidt on Friday, March 6th 2020 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on www.stayforever.de. Here’s the full audio:
The audio interview was transcribed by Stay Forever community members Brotrinde and Anym, our resident super-transcribers – many thanks to them! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
The interview was a supplement to our playthrough of Circuit’s Edge, published as a series of podcast episodes. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading retro gaming podcast.
Stay Forever: We’re here with Michael Legg, who started at Westwood Studios as a programmer in the late 80s, then spent more than a decade at Westwood working on seminal games such as the Kyrandia series and Blade Runner, before co-founding Petroglyph Games in 2003. Seventeen years and many games later, such as Star Wars: Empire at War and Universe at War, Michael is still with Petroglyph today, serving as the company’s president. These days, Petroglyph is working on the remastered version of Command & Conquer. Definitely something to look forward to! Michael, we are very happy to have you on the show today.
Mike Legg: I’m very excited to be here, thank you!
Stay Forever: Today we’d like to speak about one of the earliest games that you have been working on, and that’s Circuit’s Edge. We’ve played through the game and dove very deeply into the game world and its mechanics. And now, Michael, we need to talk!
Mike Legg: Excellent!
Stay Forever: Because we have lots of questions….
Mike Legg: Excellent!
Stay Forever: …about how the game came to be and why it is the way it is. But before we go deeper into that, let’s set the frame. When and how did you get started at Westwood?
Mike Legg: Oh wow, let’s see. A lot of us from Westwood were going to University of Nevada, Las Vegas here in town. In fact, a lot of us met and used to hang out at this computer store called Century 23 when we were all in high school. And so a lot of us knew each other. And then a lot of us started working at Century 23 when we were in college. That’s where I met Louis Castle, who is one of the co-founders of Westwood.
And then I met Brett Sperry one night at Caesar’s Palace, playing Gauntlet at midnight on a Tuesday night. We were playing Gauntlet together in this massive arcade, and I got to know Brett and then found out that he knew Louis. And then they were getting Westwood started up.
Westwood was already working on some games for SSI [Strategic Simulations, Inc.] and Epyx. I was studying Computer Science at UNLV, and I was just delighted with what they were doing and the fact that they were making games. The Amiga was coming out, the Atari ST and the PC was barely just starting to happen. And so I met those guys and just loved them. They’re just fantastic people.
And so in the fall of ’86, they let me come, even though I was still going to school full-time. I got to join up and be part of the fun.
Stay Forever: Was this your first experience in the games industry or did you work somewhere before?
Mike Legg: When I was in high school, my buddy Richard and I wrote a hockey game on the Apple II. We actually took it to Electronic Arts. We drove to the Bay Area. We had a friend that also worked at Century 23 who left to be one of the first employees of Electronic Arts, a guy named David Gardner. And because we knew him so well, because he had Las Vegas roots as well, we were working on this game, and he said, “Well, you guys can come and show it.” And so we took our hockey game to EA and showed him the game. But at that time, they weren’t really ready to do sports games.
The game was pretty cool, it was pretty fun: You had a red team and blue team a little Zamboni that came out at half-time. We were programming it all in assembly language on the Apple. It was really a cool learning experience, because we had no internet back then, so it was hard to learn how to do all this stuff. And at the same Brett and Louis were doing very similar things.
But what was funny was that even though we couldn’t get the game published, we got job offers, that once we graduated high school, we could come and move there and be junior programmers at Electronic Arts. This is when they had their very first office on Campus Drive in San Mateo. And we were like: “This is awesome! We’re going to work for EA, this is fantastic!”
And then we went back and told our parents, and our parents were like, “Are you crazy? That’s not a real job. You’re going to college!” So our parents begged us, “Please get a college education and then go to EA after college.” Well, as luck would have it, I stayed and studied Computer Science. And as I was studying Computer Science, I worked part-time at Century 23, met Louis and Brett, Westwood started up, and so I was able to work at Westwood while going to college full-time, working on my Computer Science degree. And then ultimately Westwood got bought by EA, so eventually I did become an EA employee.
Stay Forever: How did you get involved with Circuit’s Edge? How did that project start?
Mike Legg: Brett and Louis ran all business development. They were talking to Infocom, and Infocom wanted to start doing graphic adventures. I don‘t know if they were hooked up with George Alec Effinger or if Brett had found him, because we were really getting into the whole cyberpunk thing, William Gibson and so on. This is all late 80s. They came to us or we went to them and said, “We want to do a graphic adventure for you guys.”
And then we got copies of the book When Gravity Fails. Brett had already read it, because Brett was reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Neuromancer, so he was ahead of the game on a lot of stuff. I read When Gravity Fails, and I just loved it. It was so evocative, it was a great detective story, and the characters and the setting are just incredible. I just went nuts over it – “This is awesome!” And then we found out immediately that George Alec Effinger was just finishing the next book in the series. That was A Fire in the Sun. It all just came together, and they were like, “Yeah, you guys go ahead and make this game.”
Stay Forever: What year was that when you started working on Circuit’s Edge?
Mike Legg: Let’s see, I’m pretty sure it released some time in 1990?
Stay Forever: Yes.
Mike Legg: We did games pretty fast in those days. When I did California Games, I would spend a week or two on an event. I wrote California Games on the Amiga; probably took me four months tops or something like that, being one person, and then art and audio. But Circuit’s Edge, I think we started it – I want to say late 1988. But it could have been early 1989, it’s kind of a blur. I think we spent about a year on it to make it.
Stay Forever: Was that the first original game that you were involved in at Westwood?
Mike Legg: The first games I did were Phantasie III: The Wrath of Nikademus on Atari ST and California Games on Amiga … yes, I think it was the first original title. And what was so much fun about it was that I got to work so much on the design and work with George. Because it was a game, and George writes fiction, so I got to create a bunch of characters and locations and things like that to enhance the game itself. It was really neat, because in the third book, The Exile Kiss, George took characters and locations that we had come up with for the game, and then they went into the third book, which was really cool. So that was a really fun thing to see the game progress and continue on in The Exile Kiss.
I was working on this also with Michael Moore. He was on the Infocom side, which had been bought by Activision. I guess they were called Mediagenic at that time. Mike was an associate producer over there, and he also worked on some of the design elements with me. So he and I had a ton of fun. Of course this is all through phone calls and faxes, we didn’t have e-mail.
But yes, so it was the first one, I think. And I had so much fun, too, because I got to work a ton on the game design and not just programming.
Stay Forever: Can you guide us through the inception process? First of all, how did you actually get involved with the project – did you get to choose a new project at Westwood, or did somebody point at you and say: “You, Mike, you now work on Circuit’s Edge”?
Mike Legg: You know, it was funny. Back at the time we were all in our early 20s. When I started at Westwood, I wasn’t even old enough to buy beer. And we were there day and night. The office was like a clubhouse. It was like, “Why wouldn’t I want to be there? It’s an office filled with computers and technology and Amigas and PCs, just all this great stuff. And tons of games!” There was so much enthusiasm that whatever projects came along, all of us just embraced whatever. And of course, it depended on who was available, working on what at what time. It was like, “Okay, Mike can work on this now and then Louis can come over and help with that when he finishes up his thing over there.”
I think it was also because I got so excited about the book. I had a lot of talks with Brett about it, and he got me really fired up. I was very new to the genre of the whole cyberpunk thing. And so, I think a lot of my enthusiasm just got me fired up on it. I was set to be the programmer, but then I had so much fun getting involved in the design, like mapping out the Budayeen. We drew it all out on graph paper, and we figured out where all the locations were, and we showed George, and then we’re like, “Well, there’s an alley that doesn’t have anything. Let’s put something down there.” But I think we were all just so excited about everything we were working on. I didn’t care what project I was on. I was having so much fun.
Stay Forever: This was your first thing as a game designer. Was there somebody to check your work? Or did you just go wild with everything and check back with Infocom, and if it’s okay for Michael Moore, then it’s in the game? It sounds kind of free-flow.
Mike Legg: It was very free-flow. Brett was great, because Brett was a great guide, so I always ran things through Brett. And Louis, too. Louis and Brett were incredible programmers. So Brett and Louis were awesome from a technical point of view. Plus Louis did a ton of art. So Louis was not just a programmer, he was also an artist. And then Brett did a lot of design. So Brett was always a great mentor to check in with and go, “What do you think of this, what do you think of that?” We kind of worked on it as a team, and then we’d pass it over to the guys over at Infocom.
And then of course, we had George, too. From a fictional point of view, he’d chime in and figure out the narrative and how the story would play out, who are the key characters and what happened where.
Stay Forever: Speaking of George – so that’s George Alec Effinger, the author of novels –, where was he located at that time?
Mike Legg: He lived in Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Right downtown New Orleans. The Budayeen is really an interpretation of Bourbon Street, and a lot of the people in the books are based on people that he knew in real life – you know, the prostitutes, the drug dealers, the bars. A lot of these people were based on real people who he knew, friends of his. Because he really loved the community of Bourbon Street. And the Marîd Audran character is based on George. When he did the narrative of Marîd, it was really like: That’s George, that’s how George would have dealt with it.
Stay Forever: Did you meet him?
Mike Legg: Oh yes, multiple times. We had a lot of phone calls, and he came out to Las Vegas a few times.
Stay Forever: What was he like?
Mike Legg: He was … definitely artistic and very creative. He wasn’t technical. But man, I loved the time I spent with him. I mean, his stories, he made me realize how few life experiences I had, because I was spending all my free time in high school working on this hockey game, and George was out in the real world dealing with … I don’t want to use the term “underbelly”, but more of the unsavory characters that actually are really cool characters in his world.
And so we went out gambling, we went to a strip club, we went and ate out a lot. He loved to eat, we loved to eat. George loved it, too, because he was out on Infocom’s dime. We didn’t go to crazy expensive restaurants and stuff, but we went to bars and went out to restaurants and to a couple of strip clubs. It was great. I just had so much fun just listening to his stories. Oh man, have I ever had a sheltered upbringing compared to what George has been through! And he’s lived to tell about it! (laughs)
Stay Forever: In another episode, we spoke about a game called Amnesia, which was written by another novelist called Thomas M. Disch. The creation process of that game was that Disch created the entire script for the game and then dumped it on the development team and essentially said: “Okay, here’s the text, now build the game.” In your case, how did this work? Did George Alec Effinger do the same, did he basically create all of the text and hand it over to you? Or was it more an evolutionary process?
Mike Legg: Yes, he wrote all the text. Eydie Laramore did additional text, because there’s always things in games where you have to plug the holes. A book is a linear experience and a game is kind of free-form, so we have to fill in holes. George primarily did write all the text and he did develop the plot.
We all agreed that the game would take place in Budayeen and that it was an enclosed experience, so it wasn’t like this big free-roaming world. So he put in all the key beats that were supposed to happen as we progressed through the story and progressed through the mystery. And then we did a lot of filling in: “Oh, let’s make up some new moddies, let’s make up some new daddies.” We filled in gameplay-wise on things that weren’t in the original narrative.
Of course we’d always run it by George and Mike over at Infocom. They were just great, they’re like: “Oh, that’s a great idea!” And then Mike would come up with some new idea. It was like: “Oh, let’s put that in, let’s do that. Oh, this sounds really cool!” It was nice because it all fit. Everybody saw the vision and everybody knew the books, everybody knew what fit and what didn’t fit.
And then we decided we want to have a real-time clock, even though we didn’t have the graphics or the memory or anything to show like day and night. But everything was really running on a real clock behind the scenes. That was part of the whole simulation.
Stay Forever: We do need to talk about that simulation in a minute. But before we go there, one last question on Effinger. How much understanding did he have about games and how games work?
Mike Legg: He didn’t really, he was still running on a typewriter. He didn’t have a PC, he didn’t have a word processor; at least I don’t think he had. I may be wrong on this, but I seem to recall that when we got the draft of A Fire in the Sun, it was typewritten. George really wasn’t a technologist. But it was a grand opportunity for his works and his world to become part of interactive fiction and become one of the first graphic adventures, as limited as we were with our capabilities back then.
Stay Forever: Did he care about the game mechanics that you put in?
Mike Legg: Yes, he did. I was like, “What if we got in fights with muggers, and if you had certain moddies or daddies or you get amped up on drugs, it’s easier to defeat them?”, and he was like: “Oh yeah, that’s fine!” We kept him looped in on everything, and he’d sometimes ask questions.
Then Joe Bostic hired on at Westwood. Joe is one of our co-founders here at Petroglyph, and Joe went on the create the Command & Conquer series with Brett. But Joe hired on as a programmer and worked with me, he was like an assistant programmer with me. He wrote the gambling games in Circuit’s Edge. We had Blackjack and … Roulette?
Stay Forever: Baccarat.
Mike Legg: Baccarat, yes! That’s why I learned how to play Baccarat. We actually went to a casino to play Baccarat. Thankfully we’re in Las Vegas. I actually had to get dressed for that. But that was neat because we got to fill out the game with some gambling elements. And that was something that we just went to George with. He didn’t say, “Oh, you guys got to have gambling in this game”, but we were like: “Let’s put some gambling in!”
And then the thing I loved about the game, too, was that you could just load up on the narcotics. Your health bar was like a fake health bar, because you’re so amped up. And then you’d come off of the drugs and your health would just drop, practically to where you’re likely to die. I remember you could just stay loaded on drugs to keep your character going without getting healed up. This is crazy! (laughs)
Stay Forever: The mechanics that you just described with the drugs, that didn’t make it in the final game, did it? Because that’s not how it works in the version that we played.
Mike Legg: Wait a minute, did we…
Stay Forever: If you take any of the drugs, there is no effect at all. And then a couple of hours later, Papa’s thugs come by and beat you up because you used drugs. In the manual, Effinger describes that you had to tone down the entire drug aspect.
Mike Legg: Oh my gosh, I entirely forgot about that. Because we had a full drug system. I forgot that that got removed. It must have been a last-minute thing, because my brain still has the full active use of the drugs going in the game. But yes, I guess for the rating they pulled it. Now I’m remembering that. Wow! Because we had the drugs in through the whole game.
Stay Forever: Too bad! You sound very excited about it.
Mike Legg: You know, I don’t condone drug use. But again, coming from my world that I live in, to engage into this underworld game and be able to go to bars and go to prostitutes and go to strippers and take drugs and chip yourself with these moddies … I was pretty fascinated by it. So I’m like, “Wow, this is really fun!” I don’t do any of that in real life. So I guess it was kind of living vicariously through the game. (laughs)
Stay Forever: We wondered, because the drugs seemed underused now. They are in the game, you can take them and they have no effect. It feels like an abandoned system.
Mike Legg: They were fully incorporated. All the different ones with different effects.
Stay Forever: Let’s move on to the simulation which you already started describing, because that certainly is the most puzzling thing we discovered when playing.
Mike Legg: Yes, you could actually catch characters on the street. They wouldn’t just vanish from a location and reappear somewhere, they would follow paths around the Budayeen.
Stay Forever: Right, and as we mentioned in the introduction, we’ve been playing Circuit’s Edge quite intensively for about six weeks. I think it was in about week four or five that we reached a point where we said, “Okay, I think we need to understand how some of the aspects of this simulation actually work”, because we were puzzled by characters sometimes appearing somewhere and sometimes not.
So I dove into all of that and spent hours and hours waiting in front of apartments trying to see who shows up at which time, stuff like that, and slowly pieced it all together. When I was done with that, I checked all of the reviews and all of the walkthroughs of Circuit’s Edge that I could find. And no one, not a single person had understood the simulation. I think it’s fair to say that most players wouldn’t even notice that it exists.
So the question is: Why make all this effort and put the simulation in if it’s not really visible in the game, and it’s not used for anything sensible at all?
Mike Legg: Well, we wanted the world to feel like a living world. And we actually originally had the characters animating and walking through the world. You’d see them come out of the location, they’d move down the street, they’d turn. You’d actually see them walk from square to square, they’d animate.
But there was a problem with memory and RAM in our system specs and our graphics. We didn’t have barely enough memory to put in all those animation for instance, especially with all the characters. If we wanted to have Chiriga leave her nightclub and go walk somewhere, we wouldn’t have anywhere near the memory or the capacity to have a character that looked like Chiriga walking along the street. So we had these generic characters in hoods and things, we had a male and a female. Of course in Circuit’s Edge, sometimes there’s a thin line: What are they? Are they male or are they female or are they both? That’s another fascinating part of that world.
So we had all these characters that looked alike, and they were moving around, and it just felt wrong. It was like: “Well, this is pretty cool, but everybody looks exactly the same. Oh, here we have fifty male characters wandering around, and they all look exactly the same.” And we lost so much memory and graphic memory to that, that is was easier to just have a stationary figure that wasn’t animating.
So the whole simulation was originally written around the characters actually being able to walk, so you could bump into them on the street. The idea was that you could follow them, and things like that.
The other great thing was when we were at the Game Developers Conference in Santa Clara. Louis went so some talk and came back all fired up on this “knowledge information exchange system”. It was really neat, because behind the hood we had bunch of clue tracking going on. The characters could pass off bits of knowledge to each other as well if characters just happened to pass each other. It was stuff that was behind the scenes, you really didn’t get an appreciation for. And we never really fully fleshed it out either. But we were able to do that more in Blade Runner.
Stay Forever: It makes a lot of sense if the simulation was originally based on the idea of people moving in real time and that would have been extremely cool if that had been realized in Circuit’s Edge. By removing that you’ve actually created something that’s really wonderfully strange in the sense that, if I step out into the streets of the Budayeen, then everything in the game world is frozen. And as you’re walking through the streets, you’re stuck in the snapshot of the Budayeen at that particular point in time, like a freeze frame. And if you – for instance – see Saied in the streets and talk to him; in reality, since the simulation goes on in the background, he’s long since gone. He’s somewhere else, he might be in a bar, he might be at home in his bed. But the specter of him is still lingering in the streets, and you can interact with him, and as long as you don’t enter a building, it will forever be like that. Everything in the Budayeen will be stuck in this moment in time.
Mike Legg: If they were out of your view, we had it where they’d move when you move. So everybody would move on the grid as you moved on the grid. And then they’d freeze while you’re sitting there; and if they were in your view, they would stay stationary. That’s how we originally had it when we switched over. So you could see somebody standing there, and you could walk up to them. But if you walked past them and they were no longer in your view, they moved on.
And then maybe we just made them continue moving on when you’re in and out of buildings, like you were saying. Because I definitely know that they were running when you were in a building. They were going on about their stuff. But they really were moving from square to square, you know, exit a location, go down the street, go to another place. And sometimes our paths would split off. It’d have randomness on their paths. I don’t think anybody noticed that either. That’s okay as long as people had fun.
Stay Forever: I did notice actually. There are some random locations that they can visit. As I mentioned, I spent many, many hours trying to make sense of the simulation.
Mike Legg: That’s awesome. I love that. (laughs)
Stay Forever: Yeah, it was kind of rewarding. (laughs)
Stay Forever: About the technology and the limitations of the technology: What was the engine that you used? Was that from a previous Westwood game or was it built from scratch for this game?
Mike Legg: We just had a Westwood code library. There weren’t a whole lot of us at that time. It was like one programmer per project. There was an engine that we had that worked on Amiga and Atari ST. It was originally architected by Louis and Brett. We did have stuff on Apple II and Commodore 64 and Apple IIGS, but that was kind of a separate engine. And then we started working on this engine that could share code across the platforms. We called it WWLib or Westwood Libraries. So when we did Kyrandia for example, it just went right over to the Amiga. That same code library could render the graphics specific to that platform.
So yeah, we used our own internal engine and added new things as we needed per game. Like for Kyrandia, I had to write an invisibility effect; you’d get this predator-like shimmer effect. And then Joe Bostic was like, “Oh, cool, I can use this for stealth units in Dune 2!” We made it this repository of different things that we were doing, and so everybody’s code was pretty much in every game we ever did, because it was a shared technology base.
Stay Forever: If you’d ask me to describe what kind of game Circuit’s Edge is, I would probably say it’s a cyberpunk adventure game with maybe some RPG elements mixed in. But at the core it’s an adventure game.
Mike Legg: Yeah.
Stay Forever: Now most of the adventure games of that time have that classic sideview perspective, like the Sierra games and the LucasArts games. However, you chose a first-person view, which is rather uncommon. Why did you opt for that perspective?
Mike Legg: I think at the time that we hadn’t made Eye of the Beholder yet. Because we were starting to work with this 3D perspective system. Eye of the Beholder being grid-based and step-based like a dungeon crawler.
Stay Forever: But you had made Mars Saga before. Wasn’t that already with that first-person view?
Mike Legg: Yeah, Mars had – we called it 3D-Pack and Louis created it. It was Mars where he originally did it, and then it really took off with Eye of the Beholder. So I was using a variant of what Mars did.
We hadn’t jumped into doing scene-based games like a Monkey Island or, well, for us it would have been Kyrandia. For Kyrandia we were so inspired by the LucasArts games. We have so many Monkey Island inside jokes in the Kyrandia Series, because we loved LucasArts and we loved the games they were making. And we enjoyed King’s Quest, too. So we hadn’t really started.
So we thought it’d be cool to go out and move around the world. Because we wanted to do the simulation, have characters moving around on a clock, and that was why we thought that would be kind of a fun way to realize it.
But of course, another nice thing George said was, “Well, the Budayeen, you know, in the future we’re in this Arab ghetto and it’s kind of bladerunner-esk, where everything is night down on the street.” So we were like, “Okay, well then we don’t have to worry about daylight, sunshine and all that stuff, we’ll just keep it dark around the clock!”
Stay Forever: One of the strong benefits of this first-person-perspective is that it’s more immersive, because you’re really on the ground and you’re moving through the game world, as you mentioned. One of the things which also struck us as a bit odd is that in that game window, in that viewport into the game world where you’re actually seeing where you are and moving through the streets and viewing the locations, the game doesn’t do anything with that. It’s completely non-interactive. You don’t see the items in the locations, you don’t see the persons in the locations, they are in a separate window. You can’t really interact with the game world through this viewport at all, all of the interaction happens with the menu bar at the top of the screen. That seemed strange as well. Why have this immersive perspective as being down on the ground and then having the controls all located in the menu bar?
Mike Legg: Because really, it was a text adventure. If you think about it, the idea was: Let’s make a text adventure, but with graphics. So the menu system, the conversational choices and things like that was to be very ‘text-adventury’. We decided to have this thing where you move through the world to get from location to location, but we didn’t have any system like “Oh, do we put items in the world.” Because George wrote the narrative for all things that happened within the locations themselves, that was his world. And so that was our interface to dealing with his narrative and his choices.
Stay Forever: You said you were very enthusiastic about the entire creative process, that a lot of ideas popped up left and right and there was this creative spirit of just putting stuff in the game, just making it happen … and I guess the same is true for the combat system as well. Because if you look at it from a distance, combat is really vastly underused in the game. Not counting the random encounters in the streets, you have to fight exactly two times in the main storyline, and those two fights are dead easy. But at the same time, the combat system itself is rather elaborate – it has lots of weapons, different attack types, the mod chips that unlock new proficiencies. So you built this relatively complex combat system and then you didn’t really use it.
Mike Legg: You know, that’s funny because that’s the programmer in me. We love as programmers to write these overengineered systems. “Oh man, our system can do this and this and this, and it does this, too, and you know, we also have the ability to do this!”
I remember you could run away, too, and I think the muggers could catch up to you and start combat again if you just stood there. Maybe I’m wrong.
Stay Forever: No, they don’t do that.
Mike Legg: The drugs played a lot into the combat, too, because that way you could boost your abilities and things like that. But when we pulled the drugs, it had a ripple effect. There was some stuff that afterwards, we had to adjust the ramifications for that.
Stay Forever: Well, what’s still in the game is the impact of alcohol. So, you can go to the bars and have a drink and that will actually boost some of your stats.
Mike Legg: Oh, right.
Stay Forever: And that’s something that I discovered only after we had already finished the game and I just went through a couple of things because I wanted to understand them. But it’s one of the many, many examples of features in Circuit’s Edge which are in there, but they’re never fully realized.
Another one, just for completeness’ sake, is that NPCs can have different moods. They can be happy if you compliment them, you can also insult them and then they get mad and might even refuse to talk to you. And to put it bluntly – I’m sorry –, this is completely pointless. Or maybe we didn’t understand this aspect of the conversations.
But I mean, there’s really a long list of cool and creative systems in Circuit’s Edge. It’s a very feature-heavy game, which ultimately don’t really add much to the game world. Or they’re hidden or they’re not really fully realized.
So, if I look at the credits of the game, there are two associate producers from the Infocom side. There are two producers from the Mediagenic side. There is Brett as the director, there is Louis as the director. Why didn’t any of these people at some point say, “Stop, it’s too much! Take some features out and realize your core vision.”
Mike Legg: I don’t know. It was just the way that the game evolved. Working with Mike and Tony and Brett and Louis and George and how we were trying to realize the vision. So I don’t know. Not being a producer, just being the programmer and designer, that was the world that I lived in.
Stay Forever: Everybody could make a wish, and everything seemed to be realized. Which is a nice way to go about things.
Mike Legg: It was also a very much what George wanted. You know, things that he wanted to see come into the game, like the conversation system. George wanted all the conversation hooks. And we kept him looped in on everything we were doing and what we were trying to accomplish. It was a very iterative process; we put things in, we take things out, we try this, we try that. Like I said, the whole people walking around the Budayeen, we were so excited about that before realizing that it just does not work.
Stay Forever: When we play these old games, these kind of forgotten old games, what we really appreciate is ambition. We like it if we can feel as players that someone was excited about what they were doing, and for some reason or other it didn’t pan out completely in the end.
And the thing is with Circuit’s Edge, we really enjoyed the game a lot. I’d say it clearly is an underrated game. It may not be perfectly executed, but at its core it is a compelling and fairly unique play experience. It’s kind of an open-world adventure game which encourages and rewards exploration and which requires you to be observant and pay close attention to what people say.
I think this latter part is most important, because where typical crime investigation games are mostly about searching locations and collecting items and interrogating suspects, in Circuit’s Edge, detective work consists to a large degree of being out in the streets actually talking to people, asking about leads, thinking about clues. To us that felt refreshing, and it was surprisingly effective. We had a lot of eureka moments as we played the game, and I think that was very rewarding.
Mike Legg: I’m so happy that you guys had that experience. One of the magazines gave us ‘Adventure Game of the Year’ for it, and they did call out some of those things. I looked last night, I was trying to find the article, but we still have that cool trophy. It’s a really neat trophy that they sent us that sat in the trophy case. It might have been ‘Computer Gaming World’. [It seems it was Game Players – Ed.]
Obviously we didn’t have the internet, and we couldn’t really go on and sell that behind the scenes the game does this, it does this and it does this. So it had to come down to the player’s perception. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really easy to miss. That’s why, when I looked at your notes on the document that you guys created, I was like: ‘Whoa! Wow, this is great!’
Stay Forever: Thank you.
Stay Forever: While we’re on the topic of reviews, one of the gripes that we had and that many reviewers seem to have shared is that there’s only a single save game, and that in a game which has dead-ends and a quest with a very tight time limit. Why only one save game?
Mike Legg: I have no idea. I don’t know if it was disk space. Maybe we just didn’t write the UI to have multiple save slots or something like that. It was so early on. I thought the game auto-saved on your progress.
Stay Forever: Oh, totally not! (laughs)
Mike Legg: Okay, so you actually would go in and save and then you could reload your save game?
Stay Forever: Yes, but you had only one spot in the game, and that’s the apartment of the protagonist. So you have this ritual where you achieve something, then go back to the apartment and save there in your single precious save game.
Mike Legg: Wait, you could only save in your apartment?! Oh! Okay.
Stay Forever: Uh-huh. And now you realize what you have done to us! (laughs)
Mike Legg: You know what, no, I think that was a conscious decision. I’d have to ask Louis about this. I think to have some element of danger, of making it back to safety.
Stay Forever: Yeah, that worked.
Mike Legg: Because originally you could save anywhere. Maybe it was only inside interiors, not out on the street. But I don’t know why we did not have more save slots. That’s a great question! Maybe we just ran out of time. It could have been also just a pattern that we were following from our past games where we just weren’t thinking, “Oh god, we really should add more save slots.”
Because a lot of times what we’d do is, we’d be playing other games that other people were doing and go: „Oh god, that’s a great idea! Let’s support mouse cursor!“ I think when we started initially, you didn’t have to have mouse. In fact, I think you can play the game without a mouse. Because originally, we didn’t used to have to support mouse. You could do it all through keyboard.
Stay Forever: I think you can play the entire game though keyboard. I don’t think you need a mouse.
Mike Legg: Yeah, I think because the mouse was kind of a new thing back then. So we have one save slot, but we got the mouse working, so that was good! (laughs)
Stay Forever: Was Circuit’s Edge a successful game for Westwood?
Mike Legg: Yes it was. I don’t have sales info, but I remember Brett was saying, “Okay, yeah, good, we’re making money.” At the tail end of the project, Infocom was transitioning to Activision/Mediagenic. They’d been bought. So, there was this kind of changeover going on and the publishing, I’m not sure if it was handled by Mediagenic or if that was handled by Infocom at the time, because things were starting to get a little nebulous.
Stay Forever: Yeah, I think it must have been Mediagenic at that point, because they closed the original Infocom offices in 1989 and moved the remaining people to California.
Mike Legg: Then that would have been the Activision offices, probably.
Stay Forever: Right.
Stay Forever: What does the name Circuit’s Edge mean?
Mike Legg: We were trying to come up with some kind of cool high-tech cyberpunk name and “circuit” came in from the moddies and the daddies, being the chips that you could plant in. I don’t remember who thought it up, it might have been one of the Infocom guys, but it was really an homage to the moddies and daddies.
Stay Forever: I already mentioned why we liked Circuit’s Edge and the interesting game experience, but there’s another aspect of the game which I particularly liked, and that is the art. I think it’s difficult to create interesting and even beautiful EGA art, but Circuit’s Edge manages that, in particular for the character portraits. There’s a ton of really beautiful characters in the game. Do you remember who created them and why that was such an emphasis?
Mike Legg: Yeah, Aaron Powell. I remember he was doing a lot of the environments, but he was dying to do some of those dancers and the prostitutes. And Maurine Starkey, she was also a whiz and at that time was doing gorgeous stuff on the Atari ST and the Amiga. And then coming over to the PC we were more limited, but Maurine did most to all of those characters. And I think Aaron did mostly all the environments. If I’m seeing a bullet hole in something, it was Aaron. Because there were so many things with bullet holes, everything had bullet holes. We were always teasing Aaron: „Aaron, this whole place is shot up, what’s going on here?“ Aaron just loved putting bullet holes in stuff.
But what we did for a lot of the dancers was, Aaron and I ran out and went to Walden Books or Borders at our local mall and picked up some of those Playboy’s Book of Lingerie. It was so great to have a legitimate reason to go buy Playboy content! I think we still have them. You can actually go, “Oh, that’s the girl from this one shot!” You look at Playboy’s Book of Lingerie, you can actually spot them, because they’re just ripped off from those pictures as references.
We really wanted to animate everything, too, everything in the window. But again, the limitations that we were on. We wanted more variety, too, out on the street, because the street was pretty nondescript, except for when you came up to an entrance. And then we put a mech out there, because we were working on BattleTech. So we stuck a mech out in the street.
Stay Forever: Right! In front of the electronics store! So that’s why there’s a mech there!
Mike Legg: Yes! Was it „Electronique Boutique“ or „Electronique“?
Stay Forever: Electronique.
Mike Legg: I think we originally called it „Electronique Boutique“, because we were all addicts of Electronics Boutique back in the time [today EB Games, a subsidy of GameStop], which had a store in same the mall where we bought the Playboys. And I think we called it „Electronique Boutique“, and then somebody at Activision was like, „What? Are you trying to get us sued?!“ And we’re all: „Oh, okay, sorry!“ (laughs)
But, the music – we supported the Roland Sound Canvas and the Roland MT-32. Not many people had those sound cards. But boy, it sounded so cool with that music playing with more real instruments.
Stay Forever: Again, what an ambitious game! And I can only imagine what kind of game this could have been if you had had more time to realize that vision fully and maybe balance it more. But the setting is still fairly unique even today, the game experience, what the game feels like is still fairly unique even today. I mean, now that you’re remastering Command & Conquer, how about a remaster of Circuit’s Edge next?
Mike Legg: That would be awesome! Or a remaster of Blade Runner! Everyone is always saying we should remaster Blade Runner as well.
Stay Forever: That would be cool as well.
Mike Legg: Because we all worked on that. Aaron [Powell] worked on Blade Runner and I worked on Blade Runner, Louis [Castle] and Brett [Sperry] worked on Blade Runner. So it’s like, „Hey, we could do Blade Runner, too!“ Ah, that would be really cool.
Stay Forever: So, you’ve heard our opinion on Circuit’s Edge. Now we’re curious: If you look back, how do you feel about Circuit’s Edge?
Mike Legg: You’re probably right, we probably did overdesign the hell out of it. And to be fair, I was definitely more of a programmer, and I had the opportunity to work on the design, so I definitely was not a great game designer. I just loved making games. That was such a fun time in my life. And it really was my introduction to cyberpunk and George. I went back and re-read some of the short stories. He has a collection of short stories, I think it’s called Tales from the Budayeen [It’s called Budayeen Nights – Ed.], that I had never read, because they came out later. They were a bunch of short stories with those characters.
And the other thing I just thought was so neat was when you read Exile Kiss, you’ll catch characters and locations from the game in there. He’s like: „I’m going to take some of this stuff and start putting it into the next book!“, and we’re like: „Oh, that’s so awesome!“
It was an incredible time to be making games, because man, we didn’t have big budgets, we didn’t have much time to make the games. We were working insane hours. Insane hours! And we loved it. We loved every minute of it. There was no such thing as mandatory crunch, because everybody was there all the time, day, night, weekends. In fact, we worked on the games, we’d finish, and we’d go to the Gold Coast, which is a hotel-casino next door, and they had this awesome 99 cent breakfast at midnight. And it was fantastic! Pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, side of ham, we go have the massive breakfast at midnight, and then everybody would go home and go to sleep, and then we would just get back up and race back to the office.
I remember at one point in my first couple of years at Westwood, I was working full-time at Westwood – full-time plus, I mean, we were working crazy hours. And I was also working on my computer science degree at school full-time as well. So, man, there was no sleep! And after a couple of years, I really started to burn out. I went back to my parents – because I think even at this time, we were all still living at home, nobody had houses yet or anything. I think Brett had an apartment. So I go to my parents, and I said: „You guys, I have got to figure out what I’m going to do here. I have got to ease off on one or ease off on the other.” And my parents, the ones that said „Don’t take the job at EA, go to college!“, my parents were like: „Well, you really love Westwood, we can clearly tell. So just put school on hold.“ And I’m like: „What?!“ I think it was because they knew the Westwood staff, they knew Brett and Louis, and they loved those guys. They saw the bond and how much everyone loved working together and how passionate and committed we were and just how much fun we were having. My parents were like, „Ah yeah, kiddo, just finish school later.“ So I’m like, „Okay, cool! I’m going to go to school part-time and I’ll do Westwood full-time.” Eventually I finished all my core requirements for my computer science degree, but I had maybe like another semester and a half to get my degree, and I just never finished it because we got so busy at work.
But like I said, it was such a magical time. I love the guys we worked with, the whole team. And like I said, too, George was really neat. I loved all my time with George, because he led such a different life than I did, and I was just so enraptured with his tales. It was fascinating. Then we even went out and walked about back alleys in Las Vegas. He was like, „Let’s check out some alleys downtown!“ We were like, „Oh, okay …“ We even did a team photo in one of the alleys. We went out in the back of the hotels and casinos trying to find the grubbiest alley we could find. And I remember we did like a team photo with the little group of us that were out there. It was really fun.
Stay Forever: Mike, that was great fun. Thank you very much for taking the time.
Mike Legg: Alright, thank you guys so much. It was my pleasure.