<i>TRON</i> Game Developer Discusses Changing Audiences, Technology

TRON: Legacy returns us to the digitally-gridded universe of the 1982 original, serving up the continuing story of Kevin Flynn – only now with more 3D effects-laden goodness.

Garrett Hedlund stars as Sam, the 27-year-old son of original protagonist, software programmer and ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Sam has spent the past 20 years mourning his father's mysterious disappearance by beefing up his technical prowess, riding his Ducati and irking the Suits at his father’s company with vigilante pranks. But the real action begins when Sam finally swings by his dad’s old office and is inadvertently transported into the digital world of his father’s creation.

Make no mistake: the film looks fantastic (especially in IMAX), even if its nuances might be lost on non-hardcore fans. But because TRON’s visuals and back stories are so intricately designed, we wondered: what would a real-life software developer have to say about the themes that TRON explores? John Vignocchi, development director with Disney Interactive, happens to be the development director behind the recently released TRON: Evolution video game. Spinoff Online sat down with him to get the skinny on decoding the insider lingo of the films, how technology has changed in the 28 years since TRON first hit big screens, and what exactly he’d do if he found himself trapped inside his own program.

Spinoff Online: Have you always wanted to work in the video game industry?

John Vignocchi: Yes! I recently went to my grade school reunion and they dug up our time capsule that we buried in second grade and we pulled it out and in the time capsule it had, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mine said that I wanted to make the next Super Mario game. It’s cute, because ever since I was really, really little I’ve wanted to make video games. What I do is a total blessing – I’ve absolutely followed my dreams.

How many times have you seen TRON: Legacy? And how about the original TRON?

I’ve seen TRON: Legacy four times, and I’ve seen the original probably five or six times. I was always a huge fan of TRON growing up – it was a film that my father took me to see when I was very young and it was one of those cult hits that was based on video games and I was just so in love with video games that I was always paying attention to that world.

Do you watch the old and new movies more from the perspective of a typical audience member or as someone who works in the video game industry?

Totally as someone who works in the industry. I watch that original film and it reminds me of how virtual our gaming worlds have become. Your World of Warcrafts or whatnot, your City of Heroes. The idea of being inside of a computer translates very much to being inside of a virtual world that games like those provide – the act of having an avatar inside of that world.

Do the TRON films – both versions – include insider lingo or specifics that might be lost on someone who’s not in the industry? If so, can you give some examples?

There’s a scene in the new film that I love – with Sam and his father – where Kevin Flynn says, “Wi-Fi, huh? You mean the interlinking of digital devices?” And Sam says, “Yeah.” And his father says, “I thought of that in ’85!” It’s such a riot to me when they start throwing back that old school lingo. And all over the original film there are terms like BIT and RAM, all that is lingo that programmers use, and stuff that relates specifically to computer hardware as well as software.

Plus, there’s stuff hidden all over TRON: Legacy that is – as someone who works on TRON as a property now bringing it to 2010 and being in the inner circles of Disney – I see and I think, “Holy cow!” There are just so many little hints and nods to things, everything from stuff in the video game to stuff in the graphic novel to new projects.

Can you give any of those away?

Of course not! [Laughter]

Was there a Mickey Mouse Easter Egg in TRON: Legacy like in the first TRON?

I can’t comment on that – but there’s stuff hidden everywhere, and it’s really fun because just like a video game the film is full of Easter Eggs.

The original TRON came out in 1982 and the audience has obviously changed so much since that time. How did you navigate that?

The audiences have gotten much more sophisticated. I think Sean Bailey (president, Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production) said it best when he said, “Do you know that when TRON was initially developed, it was unable to be nominated for any awards because they had used computers to create the visuals of the film and that was considered cheating?” Can you believe that? Nowadays it’s like, how do you not make amazing visual effects without computers? So certainly the audience has grown up. People demand so much more depth and so much more sophistication in not only the visuals but also the storytelling.

And how has the gaming technology changed in all these years? How have you managed that throughout the creative process?

People always ask us, “How much sharing did you do with the film studio?” It’s actually a ton – a ton of sharing. Everything from our assets to our character designs to our enemy types to behavior types – we did lots of sharing with the film studio. And in terms of technology evolving, some of the different themes that we played with in the video game was stuff that we could only really play with because technology has grown up.

For instance, we have different portals within the video game where players can use memory earned within the game by defeating enemies to install new system upgrades into their characters. Those new system upgrades allow different disc powers, allow the characters to run faster, have more health, more energy – that kind of stuff. Because technology has evolved and because people have a greater understanding of it, it’s allowed us to put things into our games that people readily comprehend.

If you found yourself trapped inside a video game of your own creation, do you think you’d beat it?

Yes. Absolutely. Back doors – you always create back doors to your system. You always know where the system’s weakness is. You always put something in there for yourself.

But don’t you think you’d be a little disoriented by the fact that you’d be embodying a character on a completely different plane than you’d experienced while working on it?

Yes, certainly. But I can’t tell you how many times I dream about the games I’m working on. It’s funny – I’ll wake up and I’ll have solved a design or story problem. This stuff always comes to me while I’m dreaming, because you dream of yourself in that world and in those situations.

Aside from the TRON franchise, what’s your favorite Hollywood movie based on a video game and which do you think is the most accurate adaptation from video game screen to big screen?

I really enjoyed Prince of Persia. There were so many moments in it where – as a fan, a huge fan of the series – the filmmakers made a point of doing a service to the gamers to show how the character moved around and manipulated the environment. I implore gamers out there to check it out because we always complain about how movie adaptations of video games stink and I think this one succeeded in many ways to be a compelling piece of entertainment. Things are looking up in terms of video game and film convergence. Once we get to the point where they’re treating the game IP’s with the same level of respect as they are with comic book material, I think we’re going to see some real magic happen.

What do you think of Mark Wahlberg being cast in Uncharted instead of Nathan Fillion?

I am totally thrilled. Mark tried to do something with Max Payne and I’m sure there were a lot of creative restrictions there – I’m really excited to see what they do with Uncharted. I think he’s going to do a fantastic job.

TRON: Legacy arrives in theaters on December 17, 2010. TRON: Evolution is currently on sale for multiple platforms.

John Wick 3 Will Put Down Avengers: Endgame At Box Office

More in Movies