Pulse Has a Finger on New Ideas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pulse Entertainment Chief Executive Bill Woodward really ought to be able to make that cockroach scurry safely around the spider. It's his cockroach. It's his game. It's his company. And he's done this demo about a million times.

But he's jetlagged. His reflexes are slow. And maybe he's trying too hard. So to the delighted jeers of his employees, he is devoured and dies, flat on his back with his little legs twitching. Still, one does get the idea.

Tucked away in cubicle 2902A of a Santa Monica office park, Pulse is a rarity in the over-hyped, overwrought multimedia hothouse.

It has an impressive team of programmers--nearly all of whom worked together at Woodward's first start-up, Paracomp, which became Macromedia, now the leading maker of multimedia software tools. It has a distribution deal with video game powerhouse Acclaim Entertainment, which has also invested in it.

And for two years now it's been working on some pretty neat stuff--quietly.

Released this month, the cockroach CD-ROM "Bad Mojo" is Pulse's first product. Born out of its merger last year with San Francisco-based Drew Pictures, creator of the pioneering game "Iron Helix," the puzzle game has drawn rave reviews from the enthusiast press.

The official inspiration story goes like this: When he was a kid, Pulse President Drew Huffman had an earache. His mother gave him aspirin but when the pain persisted, she took him to the hospital. Turned out there was a roach in his ear. Eew.

Together, Huffman, who runs Pulse's office in the heart of San Francisco's multimedia gulch, and Woodward, who grew up in Venice and has produced two feature films, figure they have enough childhood trauma to fuel plenty of other creative endeavors.

But at a time when the once-trendy notion that Hollywood and Silicon Valley could be digitally united inside a shiny five-inch disc is encountering considerable skepticism, they also know they have to do something new to stand out.

"We're not going to do 'Doom' on wheels and 'Doom' on jet skis," says Woodward, in reference to the wildly successful fantasy game. "We're going to do games that bring characters to life."

Dozens of other multimedia start-ups with such highfalutin ideas--and many without--have flamed out or faded away over the last few years. A core group of gamers seems to take right to "Doom" and all of its glorious knock-offs.

And even the Hollywood studios, supposedly the repository of great storytelling ability, have failed to come up with interactive ideas that reach beyond the traditional video game market.

But Woodward says Pulse's real-time 3-D animation tools-- developed by chief technology officer Younbg Harvill, probably best known for his work at virtual reality pioneer VPL Research--open a new range of possibilities. The technology, Woodward promises, will make it far easier for animators to concentrate on designing characters and building their personalities.

And that, after all, is why Pulse is in the Los Angeles area. "What we're about is having the technology together to do the new looks and feels and bringing artists from outside the computer business to do it," Woodward says. "We're going to do things you've never seen before."

*

Speaking of "Doom" knock-offs, you might want to check out the just-released Muppet CD-ROM.

The ultraviolent, ultrapopular fighting game might not seem like a logical association with Jim Henson's cuddly creatures, but if you get far enough you will find yourself navigating the Swedish Chef's kitchen from a distinctly Doom-esque point-of-view.

Instead of a chain saw, your weapon is a whisk and you are battling giant carrots.

A collaboration between Paul Allen's Bellevue, Wash.-based Starwave Corp. and Los Angeles-based Jim Henson Interactive, the Muppet game is encouraging evidence that the Silliwood idea, while tired, may not be all washed up.

* Review: Bad Mojo CD-ROM. D-4.

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