Rube Works’ David Fox Developer Interview

Husband and wife team Annie and David Fox started Electric Eggplant in 1992 in order to support their work in educational software, mobile device apps, and other award-winning multimedia endeavors. GIZORAMA recently had the pleasure of reviewing Rube Works: The Official Rube Goldberg Invention Game. We couldn’t get enough! So we reached out to video game developer David Fox of Electric Eggplant about his work on Rube Works, as well as what’s next from Electric Eggplant.

Mariah Beckman: First off, I really appreciate you making time to answer my questions. It’s a real pleasure to have a chance to grill you, and I want to make sure I hit all of the points that you’d like me to cover.

David Fox: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk about Rube Works! I’m David Fox, the Rube Works game designer and executive producer.

MB: What got you started in game design? What was your muse or motivator? And what studios, what other body of work, do you aspire to today?

DF: When I was growing up, there were no video games. Penny Arcades had games, but they were generally mechanical (but I still loved them). When I was in college, we took a field trip to Stanford Research Institute where I saw my first computer game, Space War. It consisted of a black background with just a few dots that you can move around on a CRT and then shoot more dots at each other, but it was a blast. Something clicked, and I knew what I wanted to be doing… eventually. This was in 1972, and it took a while for the industry to develop, but I was ready when it was.

MB: Who are you making games for? What audience do you have in mind? Do you see that changing, or do you have any pet projects in the works you’d like to share with us?

DF: I make games that I would like to play. But I really want kids to play them as well. Rube Works is for kids around age 9 up through adults. I’ve been saying 9-99 since those on the senior end of the spectrum will actually remember reading Rube Goldberg’s cartoons in newspapers and magazines.

I’ve also always had a big interest in fully immersive gaming experiences… when I first got into developing games back in the mid-1970s, I wanted to create an interactive Disneyland—a theme park where all the attractions were totally interactive rather than passive. I got to work on a great project during the last two years I was at Lucasfilm called Mirage. A joint venture with Hughes Simulation, it was a two-person pod that was networked with seven other pods, had a huge 120° field of view, surround sound, secondary screen, and the prototype game we played took place in the Star Wars Universe. Orson Scott Card helped me with the scenario and writing. Unfortunately, other than a brief appearance at an IAAPA conference in 1992, it never saw the light of day.

Now that VR technology is becoming affordable (and actually practical at low cost), I hope to create some great VR games in the future.

MB: Why Rube Goldberg, in your words?

DF: I’ve always loved Rube Goldberg’s contraptions. I remember reading them in the Sunday comics when I was a kid in the 1950s. I liked tracing the steps with my finger to see if I understood their logical flow. And of course I loved his wacky sense of humor.

During my time at Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts in the 1980s, most of the games I created or worked on (all those graphic adventure games) were essentially huge Rube Goldberg chain reactions. You picked up an object somewhere, had to use it with another object to trigger an event which gave you another object which you could give to someone to get something, etc. And they were all comedies or comedy-adventures. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to create as my first mobile game, I thought about all the “Rube Goldberg-like” apps I had seen that I enjoyed but felt they had missed the mark in one area: none of them were funny.

After researching all the available Rube Goldberg-like games, it became clear that none had actually gone to the source. They were essentially derivatives of The Incredible Machine, a great chain reaction building game that first came out in 1992. But even “TIM” wasn’t really intended to be funny.

I wondered why no one had actually licensed Rube Goldberg’s actual cartoons, found, sent them an email, and got a call the next morning from Jennifer George, Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter! We hit it off immediately, and agreed on how to proceed. Jennifer is my co-executive producer on Rube Works.

MB: What was the process for finding someone who could capture the Rube-ness of Goldberg’s inventions? Do you have any plans to expand on current content?

DF: After I had the Rube Goldberg license, I created a prototype 2D level that I could show around to get funding for the game. When I showed it to Tony Garcia, an old friend from LucasArts and currently the Executive Vice President Business Development at Unity Technologies, he thought he could help. He told me about the plan to create a game publishing arm, Unity Games, and we eventually became their first iOS title.

I knew that the scope of the game was beyond my own programming abilities. Rather than building my own team, I asked Tony if he could recommend a great Unity3D development group. He told me about Kalani’s company in Austin, TX, Kalani Games. Since Kalani and I had already worked together on projects (even though it was 25 years ago!) this was clearly a great fit. He showed me some of the animation from their recent games, and we had a deal.

I’d love to add more levels to Rube Works, or even create a sequel. We’ll continue to watch how the game does in the marketplace and Unity Games will decide this later on.

MB: How did you get started with Electric Eggplant?

DF: After I left Lucasfilm in 1992, my wife, Annie Fox, and I wanted to create our own consulting/development company, so Electric Eggplant was born. Through it we’ve developed apps, designed games for other companies, published books, and more.

MB: What do you see yourself working on next? Any projects in the works you’d like to share with us? If we want to check out any of your other games, which would you recommend most highly?

DF: I’m finishing a couple of story app projects that I put on hold while developing Rube Works. First, there’s book 3 of the Middle School Confidential series, then an interactive version of Annie’s “People Are Like Lollipops” children’s book.

All of the games I created while at LucasArts are no longer being published, but they’re available on eBay, and can be found as well as at the usual places. They were all built for the computers of the 1980s (Atari 800, Commodore 64, PC-DOS), but there are emulators that will let you play them on your desktop, or even mobile devices. My favorite all time game that I created (other than Rube Works) is Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.

MB: Among your competitors and peers, what studios should fans of your game be on the lookout for? Is there anyone you’d like to work with, and if so, why?

DF: I still love the work being done by my ex-colleagues from LucasArts: Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman. I’d love to work with any of them again. Actually, both Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein spent a couple of days brainstorming Rube Works with me during the early stages of the game design.

MB: What’s your favorite hobby, outside of being a general wizard and educating youngsters with awesomeness?

DF: Hah! I love hiking the hills of Marin County with Annie and our pup, Gracie. I love science fiction films and books, recently became hooked on The Walking Dead and Orphan Black, and am totally intrigued by the whole Maker Movement. I also play trombone in the 45 piece Novato Milestones Wind Ensemble and co-founded a weekly garden swap in our town. Finally, I’m looking forward to being a grandpa for the first time in a month.

MB: I want to create a Rube Goldberg style marriage proposal. Any ideas for me?

DF: Yes! If you want to do it right, hire a pro! Either Joseph Herscher or Zach Umperovitch. Both are seasoned Rube Goldberg machine builders in real life, and both designed levels 13-18 on Rube Works.

MB: Tell me something juicy: what’s your darkest secret? For example, I some days wake up and wish that I could only bark at people all day. Literally bark. I yearn to woof. Any weird compulsions you’d like to share?

DF: I think you may have woken up in your dog’s body… I suggest you close your eyes again and find that familiar-looking human body sleeping nearby.

For me, not too much darkness inside, though my favorite Rube Goldberg cartoon is the one we used for Level 2, Simple Way to Slice a Turkey. Once you’ve played that level, you’ll know what I mean. Actually, maybe I have a love-hate relationship with chickens? We weren’t so nice to the rooster on Level 7 either… and I’m known for coming up with the hamster in the microwave bit in Maniac Mansion. Maybe I just have a dark streak when it comes to cartoon animals?

Many thanks to David Fox for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find out more about David Fox here, or more about Electric Eggplant here.

Mariah Beckman

Mariah lives in Seattle, and is really 3 midgets inside a lady suit.

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