Rocket Science Games

From Sega Retro

Rocket Science Games Inc. was an American game developer based in California's San Francisco Bay Area. Active from 1993 to 1997, the company generated a significant amount of hype with their Hollywood-style production and celebrity development team. With near-limitless investment from Silicon Valley venture capital funds, and staffed by very few who understood video games, Rocket Science Games spent millions of dollars in the production of expensive "interactive movies" - only to see their games sell less than a few thousand copies each.

After this failure, the company spent the next year languishing in financial issues, and in late 1996 would end up being virtually acquired by SegaSoft. While Rocket Science's later titles did see moderately more success, their performance was still far below expectations, and the developer would be forced to close its doors in April 1997.



The Sega CD's use of CD-ROMs saw it become a target for numerous full-motion video games.

By the early 1990s, improvements within the CD-ROM industry eventually resulted in the technology becoming cheaply available to mass consumer market. With this came a massive wave of hype from both corporations and venture capital firms trying to invest in "the next big thing" as early as possible. Fueled by speculation, investors unfamiliar with the game industry saw potential in including full-motion video in traditional game genres (as a way to "blur the lines" between movies and video games), and eagerly dumped money into companies which promised to use FMV to transform the market. Early speculation soon evolved into a popular fad among venture capitalists, as having a multimedia company in a firm's portfolio was a surefire way to impress competing investment companies.[9]

One of the more familiar realizations of this idea, and one often touted as the "future of gaming" by its supporters, was the use of full-motion video to create so-called "interactive movies"; similar in gameplay to Dragon's Lair, but with live-action footage. While these types of games could be successful, their success was usually relegated to very narrow gameplay profiles, such as seen in light gun games like Mad Dog McCree. Most early attempts at the genre were met with lukewarm critical and commercial reception, and even during its heyday, full-motion video games performed surprisingly poorly.

Despite this, these failures were viewed by some developers as not the result of poor gameplay, but poor video quality: that if the video didn't look so compressed, or if they could fit more footage into a CD-ROM, the games would play so much better. As such, these developers stuck to their guns and produced a glut of full-motion video titles (particularly for the Sega CD), convinced that if they could keep burning money for a little while longer, consumers would wake up and realize the multimedia revolution was here - and their expensive gamble would pay off. Their investors frequently thought the same, and by continuing to fund these developers, they unwittingly validated their decision to stick to a failing business model. As a result, most companies who had built themselves around full-motion video would not survive the end of the decade.


Rocket Science Games was first conceived by businessman and avid gamer Peter Barrett around January 1993.[10] When he pitched the idea to his close associate and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank, Barrett recalls the latter being initially disinterested. But once Barrett began to describe the would-be company's high concept of "Hollywood meets CD-ROM", Blank grew much more engaged.[9]

Peter described the first company in which ‘Hollywood meets Silicon Valley’ and we were enthralled. When he elaborated how CD-ROMs were going to change both the nature of gaming and the economics of the content business, we were certain he had a brilliant idea and by the end of the meeting convinced that this was a company would make a ton of money.

Co-founder Steve Blank[9]

After the meeting, the two spent the next month gathering about $4,000,000 in capital[9]; Blank recalled that acquiring funding was so easy[11] that numerous venture capital firms were competing over them[9], and that investment capital was so plentiful he could run the company for 5 years without profit.[12] In July 1993, Rocket Science Games was officially opened[1], headquartered in the University South neighborhood of Palo Alto, California - in close proximity to a number of software publishers, including Sega of America. A second location in nearby Berkeley was also established to serve as the company's design and production facility.[8] Peter Barrett, being the more passionate gamer between the two, was tasked with managing the development of video games and software tools, with Steve Blank handling the company's marketing and financing.[11]

The filming of Loadstar was given the expensive budget allocations of a major Hollywood film.

The company's "Hollywood meets Silicon Valley" concept was easily digestible by the media, with this marketing angle netting the company stories in Fortune, Forbes, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and a number of smaller outlets[11]; at one point, Rocket Science Games even held a promotional event at the Playboy Mansion.[13] According to Blank, "the theme of our press blitz was all about how we were going to show the old tired game companies the right way to make video games. Our press infuriated the established companies who had spent years building games that sold well, but had zero press recognition."[11] Blank would go on to describe the company as "Industrial Light & Magic and Disney combined!”.[12]

To bolster their concept of a Hollywood studio, the company began by investing heavily in a celebrity development team; a "supergroup" which Blank compared to the likes of the 1960's band Cream.[12] Consisting of well-known Hollywood artists like Ron Cobb and Mike Backes[14], and game development veterans such as Will Wright[14] and Will Harvey[15], further staff was drawn from famed American special effects studio Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts. Brian Moriarty and David Fox were two such hires. Additional talent would also be recruited from Amblin Entertainment, Marvel Comics, and Apple Computer.[16] Blank recalls Peter Barrett's credentials being a major factor in convincing staff to join. Having developed the Cinepak format, Barrett was an expert in video compression, and his presence helped instill confidence in a new company building itself around the tepidly-received concept of full-motion video.

A key premise of our new company was that our video compression and authoring technology would revolutionize how games were made and played. We believed that by putting full motion video (i.e. movies) into video games we could tell stories, build characters, have narratives and bring all the 100 years of craft and cinematic experience of Hollywood to the sterile “shoot and die” twitch games that were currently in vogue.

Co-founder Steve Blank[17]

Rocket Science Games's actual business was split between video games and software development tools. The company had plans to produce an easy to use CD-ROM authoring system that would "revolutionize how games were made" - specifically by using efficient video compression technology to bring a cinematic element to a much wider range of video game format. To this end, Barrett convinced several key members of the Apple Quicktime team to join Rocket Science Games. These plans never came to fruition, as by Blank's account, the company was so passionate about the development of the tools that it had not asked itself why customers would want to buy them in the first place.[17] While plans for the authoring tool ultimately fizzled, another internal software project experienced markedly better success. A 3D world interaction system originally known as V3O, the technology was eventually sold to Attitude Software in 1997[18] and retitled 3D Anarchy; later it would be sold again to Adobe and renamed Adobe Atmosphere only a few years later.[19]

With their big-name staff assembled, Rocket Science Games went all-in developing full-motion video games; specifically, investing in creating Hollywood-style, big budget interactive movies - and with their target platforms being the Sega CD and personal computers. Like Hollywood, production was exorbitantly expensive, with the company having expected each of its titles to routinely cost anywhere from $600,000 to $1.2 million dollars.[14] All this investment occurred while FMV games were visibly in decline, and with the company aware that this genre generally had sold quite poorly in the past - assured that their elaborate presentation would surpass previous attempts at making FMV profitable. Blank recalls the company was focused too much on appearances and too little on gameplay, claiming none of the executive staff were gamers[20][14] and that everyone legitimately believed nothing was amiss.[21]

“When I looked around at our executive staff, there wasn’t a single founder who was a gamer. Worse, there wasn’t a single person on our executive team who had come from a game company. Nor was there anyone with game experience on our board. […] When I pointed out my rising apprehension, Peter Barrett's response was, ‘I’ve been playing games since I was 10. I know what’s great and what’s not. We agreed this part of the company was my responsibility. Don’t worry the games are going to be great.’

Co-founder Steve Blank[22]

A developer at the Berkeley facility works on graphics for Loadstar, mid 1994.[16]

Shortly after Rocket Science Games's games were developed to a point which could be shown to test markets, Steve Blank began to conduct direct testing with his target audience: 14-22 year old gamers. While the feedback undoubtedly provided insight into an industry he was largely unaccustomed to[17], it was then that Blank realized he lacked an emotional connection to his customers or his product. Even worse, the feedback received by the company's games was regularly poor. To quote Blank in a conversation between himself and a young gamer, "what do you mean you don’t want to hear about features?"[17]

Regardless of the warning signs[17], Rocket Science Games still had plans to expand. In mid 1994, Blank and a business associate travelled to Japan to meet with potential investors, with the intention to work out potential distribution or licensing rights. Despite appearing in person with a number of firms, however, the company was not able to work out any deals, squashing any plans to bring their games to Japan.[23]

Despite the poor reputation of full-motion video, the developer's focus on highly-marketable presentation and industry hype eventually garnered a significant amount of interest from both investors and fellow game companies. In May 1994, Rocket Science Games was awarded with $12 million in funding from Sega Enterprises and the Bertelsmann Music Group[24] in exchange for exclusive North American and European publishing rights, respectively. Around this time, the company's two development facilities were consolidated together and relocated to San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.[7]

Later that October, Rocket Science Games hired a vice president of marketing directly from Sega of America, Richard Burns.[25] One of his first tasks was to continue gathering early feedback on their first two Sega CD games directly from customers, something which again faired poorly. After only two weeks with the company, Burns began to voice strong concerns about the lacking gameplay - stating the games lacked the addictive power to actually keep gamers wanting to play.[22] His pleas were unfortunately ignored by the executive staff.[11]


Even with the developer's significant investment in making their vision of FMV gaming profitable, their first games (Loadstar: The Legend of Tully Bodine and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs: The Second Cataclysm) were released to mixed reviews and extremely poor sales. Despite production budgets in the millions of dollars, the company was shocked to see their flagship games sell less than a few thousand copies each.[26]

We raised $35 million and after 18 months made the cover of Wired magazine. The press called Rocket Science one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley and predicted that our games would be great because the storyboards and trailers were spectacular. 90 days later, I found out our games are terrible, no one is buying them, our best engineers started leaving, and with 120 people and a huge burn rate, we’re running out of money and about to crash. This can’t be happening to me.

Co-founder Steve Blank[22]

Steve Blank clarifies that the failure of Rocket Science Games as a whole was something the company's executive staff and investors became unequivocally aware of around January 1995, roughly a month after the botched releases of their first two games.[20] To compound matters, the venture capital firm who had been backing Rocket Science Games thus far declined to fund the company further, leaving the developer with nowhere enough revenue to produce the games it had built itself around.[27]

Although ambitious, InterARC would ultimately end up as another one of Rocket Science Games' many unrealized projects.

Despite their looming financial issues, in February 1996 Rocket Science Games announced a partnership with CyberCash, Inc. to launch a virtual arcade service based on micropayments. CyberCash, a virtual currency company, would provide the financial infrastructure for the platform and use it to jump-start their "electronic coin service", and Rocket Science Games would develop the service's games. This announcement was heavily circulated by the media and was occasionally heralded as the "next big thing" in internet commerce. Later receiving the name InterARC (Internet Arcade)[28], the service was advertised as allowing players to "pay for games on a per use basis-- just like the arcades!"[28] Ultimately, InterARC was never given a firm launch date, nor were any specific titles mentioned, and after the initial flurry of excitement the partnership was never heard from again.

Acquisition by SegaSoft

By the middle of 1996, the situation at Rocket Science Games was dire. With sales virtually nonexistent, the company was struggling just to stay in operation[22] - and its attempts to commercialize its CD-ROM development software had proven fruitless.[29] Thankfully, in August of that year the company would receive much-needed funds from SegaSoft, who entered into an agreement to become the developer's sole publisher.[30] According to company investor Kathryn Gould, however, the agreement was more of an acquisition, stating "we ended up selling to Sega for nothing".[31] The company underwent heavy restructuring, ceased to become a publisher itself, and was refocused solely around personal computer game development. A staff of 100 was downsized to 35, including gutting most of upper management, and the studio was built around the actual game developers, all in the hope Rocket Science Games could assist Sega of America in supporting both the PC and Sega Saturn markets.[12] Peter Barrett left during this restructuring, placing some of the blame on Sega and the Sega CD - claiming "they had backed the wrong horse".[32] Steve Blank also stepped down as CEO, replaced with Bill Davis, a senior animator within Rocket Science Games.[12]

A number of in-development games were cancelled during this downsizing, including a sequel to Loadstar (for which the live-acting filming was reportedly complete) and a roller coaster simulator titled DarkRide.[26] Also shuddered was InterARC, the company's planned micropayment-based online gaming platform (despite this, SegaSoft would later partner with CyberCash for their online gaming service). Lastly, SegaSoft would entirely acquire StarHill Productions, a budget label previously affiliated with Rocket Science.[30]


Unfortunately, this tightening of an already-failing developer had a noticeably negative effect on the quality of their work. The much-hyped Rocket Jockey shipped missing LAN support that had been heavily promoted to the press and even advertised on the game's box; it wouldn't be patched into the game for several months. Obsidian also suffered from significant quality issues upon launch, containing several bugs which prevented completion of the game entirely. While these later titles did see some level of critical acclaim, none of them sold particularly well, and unable to secure additional funding Rocket Science Games was forced to close down in April 1997.[5]

While the developer's main business was shuddered, a barebones staff was retained in some capacity to finish the publishing of The Space Bar and Darwin Pond. Although it was hoped that the success of these games would convince SegaSoft to take a second chance on the Rocket Science, this did not come to pass.[5] Ultimately, after having lost nearly $35,000,000 over the course of its four years in business[20][33], Rocket Science Games was permanently closed.


Former CEO Steve Blank.

Blank recalls learning a number of valuable lessons from Rocket Science Games's failure, but three were particularly memorable: "get outside your office and test your product's viability with real customers", "ensure the executives are aware of your product's viability", and most crucially, "no formal product launches until you have early sales validating the product". He goes on to admit that ignoring poor customer feedback was one of his biggest mistakes in managing the company[11], believing if Rocket Science had listened to early feedback and dialed back hype, they could have delivered truly great games - but that "the huge mismatch between expectations and reality of our first games diminished the brand and demoralized the company – we never recovered."[11]

Despite losing out on their returns, his investors had promised Blank another $12 million in capital to start his next company, [20] as by 1994 he had already launched half a dozen successful businesses and his investors knew they'd most likely score another win.[20][11] Rocket Science Games would be Steve Blank's first and last time acting directly as the CEO for one of his startups[34], and after his experience with the company says, "to this day I still can’t play a video game."[35]

I learned how to dial back the hubris, get other smart people to work with me – rather than just for me, listen better, and act and do what was right – regardless of what others thought I should do. For my next startup I parked the behaviors that drove Rocket Science off the cliff. We established a team of founders who worked collaboratively. When my co-founders and I got the company scalable and repeatable, we hired an operating executive as the CEO and returned a billion dollars to each of our two lead investors.

Co-founder Steve Blank[35]


I heard about a new company called Rocket Science Games that was just starting up, and Brian Moriarty was one of the first people they hired. I called them to see if I could join. They looked great on paper. They had some really strong people, engineers- some of the people who had invented some of the best codecs for compression. They had some amazing ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) matte painters, modelers. It was an all-star team. But what we ended up producing was really heavily art-driven instead of game-driven, and there really wasn't anyone in the company who were gamers other than Brian and myself. Whenever there were trade-offs, they went toward better-looking art. I was working in a genre that really wasn't my type. It was an action shoot 'em up game. We had to use pre-rendered video instead of graphics rendered on the fly like in Rescue. The idea was that you could take this new CD-ROM, put a bunch of video on there, and have it stream off. You'd get to a junction and you could move left or right, and it'd show a transition scene based on the choice. They got that all to work, but it was taking too long to do all the scenes, computer graphics and the pre-rendering. I ended up taking what was originally a ten- or twelve-level game--with each level offering different gameplay and converting it to ten or twelve levels of the same game, with only slight tweaks. It was a huge compromise. I liked the story we came up with, but the game (Cadillacs & Dinosaurs) was not one of my favorites.

Game developer David Fox[36]


Magazine articles

Main article: Rocket Science Games/Magazine articles.

Press releases


External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 (Wayback Machine: 2017-02-22 02:27)
  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. Next Generation, "July 1997" (US; 1997-06-17), page 24
  4. (Wayback Machine: 2023-02-07 08:05)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 (Wayback Machine: 2020-11-30 09:28)
  6. (Wayback Machine: 2022-12-27 22:52)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 (Wayback Machine: 2022-10-04 10:33)
  8. 8.0 8.1 (Wayback Machine: 2023-01-17 02:45)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 (Wayback Machine: 2022-10-05 01:41)
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 (Wayback Machine: 2022-12-25 16:28)
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 (Wayback Machine: 2022-05-27 06:10)
  15. (Wayback Machine: 2006-01-11 04:50)
  16. 16.0 16.1 Sega Visions, "August/September 1994" (US; 1994-xx-xx), page 18
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 (Wayback Machine: 2022-12-07 00:55)
  18. (Wayback Machine: 2020-11-21 14:44)
  19. (Wayback Machine: 2023-02-14 11:55)
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4
  21. (Wayback Machine: 2023-01-31 07:54)
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 (Wayback Machine: 2022-10-05 02:41)
  23.–-part-1-are-those-my-initials/ (Wayback Machine: 2022-12-16 22:24)
  25. (Wayback Machine: 2018-08-26 15:03)
  26. 26.0 26.1 (Wayback Machine: 2023-01-19 21:34)
  27.’s-are-not-your-friends/ (Wayback Machine: 2022-12-25 12:05)
  28. 28.0 28.1 (Wayback Machine: 1996-11-14 06:35)
  31. (Wayback Machine: 2023-02-07 08:04)
  32. (Wayback Machine: 2022-11-28 11:52)
  34.’t-quite-right/ (Wayback Machine: 2022-12-16 22:24)
  35. 35.0 35.1 (Wayback Machine: 2022-11-24 02:16)
  36. [Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers]