A CONVERSATION WITH MIKE SAENZ
Mike Saenz is a man of many firsts. As the founder and CEO of Reactor Inc., he's been a developer and publisher of interactive entertainment on CD-ROM since 1989. Reactor has produced some of the best selling CD-ROMs of all time, including _Spaceship Warlock_, _Virtual Valerie_, and _Virtual Valerie: The Director's Cut_. He was originally trained in graphic design. After a brief stint working as a professional comic book artist for hire, he went solo and authored the first comic book produced entirely on the computer (_Shatter_), as well as some of the first adult interactive entertainment (_MacPlaymate_). Currently he is hard at work porting _Donna Matrix_ (the first fully rendered, computer generated, 3-D animated model turned comic) to CD-ROM. We recently had the chance to sit down with Mike and discuss, among other things, the "ins and outs" of producing digital porn.
MS = Mike Saenz
LG = Laura Grindstaff
JP = Julie Palsmeier
JP: We heard you just returned from Japan?
MS: Yeah. I was in Japan for several reasons. First and foremost, I was there to meet with some people on licensing _Spaceship Warlock_. I also held a press conference about Reactor's future plans, and the formation of Reactor Japan, which we're very excited about. Reactor has a much higher regard in Japan than in the USA, or any other part of the world. It has a lot to do with their appreciation for Anime and Manga. So, because I'm a former comic book artist, and because the things that I do are like a form of interactive Anime, they're really into that. While, interactive movies and products like _Spaceship Warlock_ here act as cheap marketing ploys, there they are taken very seriously. They also appreciate that I created the first computer-generated comic book in history.
JP: Yes, weve heard that several times...(laughter)
MS: We have real strong audience interest over there, and a real high degree of appreciation from some very large companies. Unlike here in the USA, and in other countries, top level executives at corporations like Matsushita, Sony, etc., read comic books, watch anime, and don't feel like silly children. We have a level of interest there that is positively unreal.
JP: do you foresee setting up a company there?
MS: Well, we are definitely going to set up a company there, but one in which we are not a wholly owned subsiderary. We will have partners.
JP: Do you have any confirmed partners?
MS: Well, we don't have any confirmation, we have a lot of interest from a lot of different companies. But we have to sort out the politics. We don't actually have a bid right now. Sony came to me a several years ago and wanted to buy the entire company when I was just starting Reactor, but I really felt like they would be robbing my pleasure. I haven't sold any of the company, and to this day I still own 100% of Reactor's stock. Reactor Japan would be a different story. Reactor has been struggling for the past five years because I haven't taken on large investments. What I've done is run the company strictly out of cash flow, which makes us very reliant on the success of our products. It's a bit like living from hand to mouth...not much different from all my years as a free-lancer, just a larger sums money. But investment is something I still tend to avoid because I really don't see any good prospects in partnering with Americans. I've found the Japanese very honest, respectful, and formal, which is something that I like. It's been really good for me to work with the Japanese. I'm really excited about it. So, we're doing that, holding seminars on interactive movie-making and comics, and working on a lot of other projects.
JP: Yes, we'd like to talk to you about some of your recent products. We've been playing _Virtual Valerie_ all afternoon, and...does she ever cum?
MS: (laughter) She does, but it depends on the version. What version do you have?
JP: The Director's cut.
MS: She actually does. You have to watch the sexual response meter.
JP: We were!
LG: It never went beyond two-thirds or three-quarters of the way!
MS: Yeah, it's weird. In tests, we noticed that some people were never quite able to get the rhythm to get her to orgasm, and other could do it in about 5 seconds. (laugh)
JP: Was there a certain age group that could do it more quickly or...
MS: I don't know. I think you have to be a really boring lover to get her to cum. That's the way it was designed.
LG: I guess it's kind of backhanded compliment then.
MS: That product has been upgraded, the director's cut included that little sexual response meter and the change of costumes. Before that it was ultra-lame, now it's just lame. And I've had to suffer for the past five years because of that product. It's completely shot my credibility as a sexual human being (laughter).
LG: What made you decide to come out with a director's cut?
MS: Well, demand, really. People were playing the first one, and at the beginning that product was generating a lot of excitement and interest. It was being hailed as a trail-blazing effort for many reasons, primarily since it was the first adult CD-ROM. As the market matured, and more and more people were buying the product, they started to make a lot more demands, like, "Hey, this thing, it's not up to snuff..." So, responses like that drove me to give them a little of what they requested. But we couldn't serve all of their wishes because that would mean the creation of an entirely new product...something on the order of interactive Kamasutra (laughter).
LG: Yes, could you give us more details as to the responses you have received from _Virtual Valerie_?
MS: It's irregular. Occasionaly we get an odd response, but on the whole it's very positive. People like the notion. It's important to look at Valerie as a conceptual piece, maybe conceptual humor? The content of the product in and of itself is not that humorous, but the notion of its existence is like a big joke. When _Virtual Valerie_ first came out people were looking at it and laughing so hard they were crying. Just the concept of an adult CD-ROM title was outrageous. That's my style of humor. I guess you would call it art-world pranksterism, which are sort of like my roots. I used to be a painter, so it's just a goofy prank, but one that got a little out of control when it became a popular product. And now people are starting to put demands on it that they don't normally put on other products.
LG: How much do fans really determine the product itself?
MS: Fans and various people in the industry really don't come up to me with ideas or write to me "why don't you do it like this..." But I keep my ear to the ground to get a sense of what people would be interested in.
LG: Primarily through letters?
MS: No, no. I kind of do the obvious, in the sense that when they come out (like Shatter and _Virtual Valerie_), when people see it, the big reaction is "man, I thought of that, but I didn't do it." I try to tap into what people want, and then I come out with it.
LG: So what is it that they want next? We know you're coming out with _Virtual Valerie II_ ; is that in response to certain suggestions?
MS: Well, I don't really listen to the fans that often in terms of what they want because they're a little odd.
LG: like what?
MS: Well, I got a call once from a guy down in Texas who was asked, (at this point Mike adopts a good Southern drawl) "down there in the basement of _Virtual Valerie_'s apartment building--are those animal pens?" And I said "No, they're not." He said, "Seems like they'd be animal pens.." "No, they're not, they're pillars." And the guy said, "Well, are you coming out with a new version?" "Why don't you put a little donkey in there?" I said, "A little donkey?" (laughter) And he said "hell yes, I fuck sheep!" (more laughter) He was a guy who was into banging sheep, and was looking for some strange piece of ass like a donkey. We get a lot of goofy things like that. We also get lame ideas all the time, like "I've got a great idea for you, why don't you do Star Trek: The Next Generation?" And it's like "Hello?" We're trying to create our own intellectual properties here.
LG: Well, I have a suggestion (laugh).
MS: Sure, go ahead...
LG: I have to admit that in some ways I was a little bit disappointed with _Virtual Valerie_--it really has to do with the notion of choice on the part of the user and interactivity and that's something that the CD-ROM is specifically supposed to provide and that's what differentiates it from other forms of media. It seemed to me that _Virtual Valerie_ wasn't that different from other types of pornography, specifically around the notion that the user is presumed to be male and heterosexual. And it seems that with the CD-ROM you've got the possibility for offering such a variety of choices within a single product...man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual...you've got the opportunity to do some really neat and interesting stuff.
MS: Sure _Virtual Valerie_ could be the Swiss Army-Knife sex toy (laughter). The thing about it was, when I was working on Valerie the first time, I was looking at what the market was, and the market was predominantly male. Now I don't really have any proof that that male market is predominantly heterosexual, but...
LG: Let's say they *are* male and predominantly heterosexual, they could still make the *choice* to have Valerie be female and heterosexual.
MS: Right, but that's where we get into my "pranksterism." What I was really trying to say is interactive sex, or cybersex, or interactive erotica is going to be lame...why don't you try the real thing.
JP: Well, it is a form of safe sex.
MS: Right, but what I'm trying to do now is different. With _Virtual Valerie II_ for instance I'm trying to appeal to a little larger base of interest. It's definitely kinkier and includes more sexual acts...
JP: Are there more toys?
MS: There are more toys, there are more scenarios, and while she doesn't morph into a man, she does sprout a penis and become a little bit of a "he-she."
LG: That's interesting...
MS: It's one of those things where we've put a little more thought into the sexual acts, and made them a little more quirky and full of character, so that we breath a little more life into her.
LG: I read that you spent a so much time making _Virtual Valerie_'s world, that you got burned out by the time it came to the actual sex...(laughter)
MS: Well, yeah. And so with _Virtual Valerie II_ we're not really focusing on building a big, fully navigable world, we're just focusing on her and different sexual acts. Still, we just can't make it all things for all people...it would take too long--I mean the interesting thing that I've found out (because it's been a unique kind of social experiment) is how much people require from these things. They're so demanding of what they expect from a cybersex product because the world of sex is so large and varied. They're not ever satisfied. Even if we did make a digital kamasutra their appetites would be inexhaustible.
JP: So there's a giant market there to be had!
MS: Yes, but the market for adult CD-ROM is largely overestimated by people. It's not as big as people say and it's very very hard for us to justify massive developmental undertakings at this time. There is just not a big enough market. When the software distribution channels refuse such products...how can we sell them? Software stores do not have an adult section like a lot of video stores and, of course, big video chains also don't have an adult section.
JP: But that could change...
MS: Well...*maybe*. But when Blockbuster won't even carry _The Last Temptation of Christ_ because they're owned by a bunch of holy-rollers...
JP: Does Reactor do any type of audience market research?
MS: We do in an informal sense. We don't actually conduct studies, or test groups, or data sources...I do it myself and I keep my ear to the ground, I 'm a media junky, I watch movies, I watch a lot of TV, I read a lot of magazines, I try to find time to just sit around and see what's going down. And this is one of the reasons why _Virtual Valerie_ was planned in terms of VR way back in April 1990. I sniffed around and was aware of VR technology on the rise, but it wasn't quite yet the buzzword of the day. I knew when I called the product _Virtual Valerie_ at first people would think "what the heck are you talking about?" They wouldn't see the pun. Sometimes I'm a little bit too far ahead and leaving the target a little too much, and other times I'm right on time. Of course sometimes I completely miss the boat.
JP: We're going to go back in time now and look at some of the other female characters in your work. I've been following some of your heroines from Shatter up to Donna Matrix and _Virtual Valerie_, and I was wondering if you see any connections between these different women? Do they share any characteristics, or is there a prototype woman in your work?
MS: It's all mommy...is that what you want to hear?
JP: No, not at all...
MS: Hey, my mom was a different kind of mom. (laughter) I'm attracted to really intelligent women, though not hyper-intelligent where all they want to do is bury their heads in books. I like women who are a little more complex. But at the same time I'm guilty of pandering to a market that demands brainless, blonde bimbos; and I give it to them. That was the case with _Virtual Valerie_.
LG: She does seem the least interesting of all the characters, or rather, has the least developed storyline...which is typical of most porno.
MS: Right! I don't really see enough, I don't want to say strong female characters, but interesting female protagonists. It's kind of unfortunate, but the comic industry is made up largely of male super-heroes, and what I tried to do with Donna Matrix was introduce some kind of fence-straddling female character and in order to create such a character you kind of have to make her tough and give her some big guns--half Rambo, half cool woman. It's not something that I do with a hell of a lot of interest and glee, because that's really not what interests me in a lot of female characters. My favorite people in the world are women, and it's kind of unfortunate that I get credited for being a digital misogynist, but it's one of those things--what can I say. At Reactor I have a divided staff, three men and three women. I wish more women would learn how to program, and 3-D model and animate because then I could hire and all-female staff. (teasing) They're hard workers, and they don't get into pissing contests with me...
JP: But that could be fun!
MS: Yeah, I'm into water sports...
JP: In terms of the artwork and narrative structure of Shatter we were wondering if you were influenced by any particular films or film genre?
MS: It springboards off of Bladerunner, but it ends there, because _Shatter_ was a weird lame-ass guy, a kind of a temp, not even an interesting bum, his apartment was so ultra-bachelor and minimal, cluttered and dirty. He just wasn't a cool guy. Cian, the female character, was by far more interesting and more complex.
JP: Yes, she reminded us of the typical "femme fatale."
MS: I love real complex and powerful characterizations of women, like in _La Femme Nikita_. My own mother is a very strong woman, and very intelligent so I guess I must have learned it from her.
LG: It seems as though there might be a progression here--your strongest female character appears to be Donna Matrix and I wondering what kind of feedback you've received from fans about her...and what the future CD-ROM version of Donna Matrix holds for fans.
MS: Well I feel a little bad about Donna Matrix in the sense that at first it starts out very interesting--she is a cybermistress who's been used and abused in a weird psycho way; then she ends up kicking ass. But the problem with it was in the attempt to commercialize the concept of Donna Matrix I had her become like Terminator, running around in a rampage.
LG: Well, I actually liked that part.
MS: I like it too in the sense that she targets jerks, guys that say things like "Hey, baby...". Here's the problem: women read that and they go "man I dig that," guys read it and go "he just said 'hey baby,' what's wrong, why did he have to die?" Women understand, having been subjected to all kinds of harassment in the street, whistles, photos, etc. So in this sense, the rampage is cool to me as an idea, but if I'd had my way I would have devoted the entire first issue to a more complex development between her and her nerd-master which would depict in an explicit fashion how he goes and abuses her repeatedly because she's a blow-up doll; and then in the end, when it's not enough for him, he then programs her with this "tech" fighting intelligence...and then she kills him. That I think would have been far more effective for the first issue. Instead we did a hop skip and a jump and leapt forward into high gear and had her on the streets.
LG: You could have her have flashbacks. The story doesn't have to be linear in that way. You could keep going back to explanations of why she is the way she is that get at justifications...
MS: Yeah, that's a very good idea, now that's a rarity. I rarely hear people come up with a good suggestion. We're thinking about it and trying to come back to it and do a whole different treatment. Young people are numb to the rampage and the killing, they're blind to it...
JP: When Donna Matrix goes onto CD-ROM, will people be able to direct the story in different directions?
MS: Well, I like the idea of making it more like an arcade fighting game, where you play Donna Matrix whether you're a man or a woman. I like the idea of a forced cross-dressing.
LG: We like it too! Have you decided on an ending to the story?
MS: No, as a property we're trying to create it so that it's never ending, but I have written an outline for 16 episodes, so she reaches multiple endings because Donna gets killed and reborn several times, and it spans many years. It's a notion that I'm still dealing with.
JP: We're going to come back to _Virtual Valerie_--In the _Fanboy_ interview that we read, you stated that you had total control over the storyline of Donna Matrix, the first issue, is that true?
MS: You mean because I published it?
LG: No, I mean the narrative, the story itself.
MS: Yes, I did.
JP: We were also wondering if you had this type of control over _Virtual Valerie_?
MS: I did, but I didn't have a lot of time to do it. For _Virtual Valerie_, I only had two months to develop the product from start to finish, and it suffered for it. We hope to correct this with future versions.
LG: Why, was there a deadline?
MS: Well, the deadline was set by me since I publish them, so with the Valerie thing I was just rushing to get it out ASAP.
JP: Were any of these women modeled after any women in real life?
MS: Now that is the most common question I get. No one ever asks me who I model the men after. Rarely does someone ask me, are your male characters modeled on yourself?
LG: Are they?
MS: No. But they are probably like some fantasy dude I think I could be, but not really. And no, the female characters are not modeled on women I know or have known.
LG: You had said in the _Fanboy_ interview that part of what you love about doing computer games is the same thing that others love about directing films or tv shows, that you control moment by moment what people experience so that on the one hand it's easier to view and also it asks less of the audience, puts less demands on them. But it seems to me that one of the principle attractions of CD-ROM is that the product is interactive and does allow the user the chance to participate more and to interact more. So there appears to be a contradiction about the kind of control it affords the artist on the one hand, and the lack of control the artist has as a result of the choices given the users, on the other.
MS: There is interactive entertainment, and passive entertainment, and when I talk about my control as a director, I'm really talking about artistic and technical control. I have a habit of not being specific in this area because I assume people know what I'm talking about. I'm very very into the technology of imagery. When I talk about control, I'm talking about controlling imagery, or in the case of CD-ROM, that also includes audio, and animation.
LG: That makes sense to me too, given you also mentioned that part of what's great about rendering things with computers is that you maintain consistency across time even if different artists are working on the project.
MS: Oh, absolutely. There are many benefits to working in a digital environment. The thing that I want to point out is that whether its passive or interactive entertainment, the author is always in control and that's necessary. "Fully interactive" programs usurp authorship. For example when you write "fuck you" on a bathroom wall that's exactly what you mean so you don't put it up there in magnetic letters allowing people to alter the message. As an author you kind of have to control the message and the experience. That's what I often mean when referring to control.
LG: And the author controls the nature of the choices and interactivity.
MS: Absolutely. Ultimately the author is always in control. That is another aspect of the joke of _Virtual Valerie_. It suggests that YOU are in control when, in fact, the author is in control.
LG: Yet there is a way in which people have a lot of control that isn't in your hands. Someone could read the Donna Matrix character as being very feminist and strong and not willing to take shit from anybody, or somebody could read her in more misogynist terms, as a play-thing bimbo; the level at which someone chooses to interpret the character meaning is beyond the control of the author...academics know that very well (laughter).
MS: Well you've pinpointed the fence-straddling nature of Donna Matrix; it's hard to see what she is...feminist satire or what? So, this is where you're getting close to my personal humor.
LG: I have another question. Let's say Sony, or someone with a lot of capital, gave you tons of money and a mandate to come up with a product geared specifically toward a female market...comics, games, whatever. What would be different?
MS: In terms of interactive media, or books and movies?
LG: In terms of interactive media.
MS: Well, I noticed that a lot of women really enjoy day-time soap operas and romance novels. That's a big market. And because I'm so commercially minded, and undoubtably someone who gave me a lot of money would also be commercially minded and want to take back on their investment, I would probably pander to that market. So I'd probably create some kind of interactive civil war romance novel.
LG/JP: Oh no...
MS: (laughter) I think it's because one of the things women actually enjoy, though I hate to speak in general terms about women, is that they like to "work" relationships, and men like to avoid them. I think this is one of the things that women enjoy about soap operas and romance novels; I'd want to pander to that, and create something that gave them some kind of way to massage the complex dimensions and threads...
JP: So, it wouldn't be anything like _Spaceship Warlock_...
MS: Well, no, for me to try to reach an all-female market would be a real stretch, and it would be so in two ways; first, I'm a man, and second, I think women are more complex in what they enjoy. It's a lot easier to please the guys.
LG: Well, what about a more unisex audience, something that women would also enjoy?
JP: Although I did enjoy _Spaceship Warlock_...do you have a female market for those types of games?
MS: I think so, but it's small, but the type of product that would appeal to a unisex group, there are already a lot of games like that people can enjoy. One of the things that I've developed over the years is a male skew. I come up with "toys for boys." I know how to draw rocket ships and spacemen and all that crazy macho stuff really well. And I know how to reach that market and I know what works. Being a man myself I kind of understand what they think about, so it would be a stretch for me to try to appeal specifically to women, or to straddle that and try to appeal to both; though Donna Matrix was certainly an effort in that direction...and it didn't sell very well.
LG: It didn't?
MS: Well, I shouldn't say that, I'm just kidding. It sold pretty well, but it wasn't a million dollar seller the way crazy macho super heroes are.
JP: In the _MacWorld_ interview you said that one of your goals was to have your PC be like Donna Matrix, like a cyber slave to you...
MS: No, a cyber mistress.
JP: A cyber mistress?
MS: Yeah, you know, cracking the whip...
JP: Have you come close to creating this?
MS: Oh, I would love to do that. In fact _Virtual Valerie_ II is a little bit more into B&D and S&M...
JP: With whips and stuff?
MS: Absolutely, like a leather outfit and she rides a motorcycle. She gets a little more "agro" this time. I like that.
JP: What about a *Don* Matrix?
MS: Personally, of all the male Don's I've ever come across are like real irritating jerks. They're bloated and lame, just not appealing to me. (laughter)
JP: Does Donna get to have a partner in the end?
MS: Absolutely, a Donna Matrix of a sorts, kind of like her evil cousin who couples with Valerie...
JP: Sounds interesting, we obviously have a lot of things to look forward to...