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Playing Catch-Up: Skyfox's Ray Tobey

Today's Playing Catch-Up speaks to Ray Tobey, designer of 1984 Apple II action flight sim Skyfox and co-designer of Budokan, about his storied career, from early '80s programmer stardom to his current p

Alistair Wallis

March 1, 2007

9 Min Read

Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Ray Tobey, designer of 1984 Apple II action flight sim Skyfox. “Before computers,” recalls Tobey, “electricity was my plaything. As a kid, I took apart telephones, clocks and other gadgets, and built circuits with switches, relays and lights. I once tried to make a Jacob's ladder out of clothes hangers, but I didn't know you need a transformer. I formed the right shape, and essentially plugged it into a wall socket - little molten balls of copper everywhere!” “I was probably lucky to make it past elementary school,” he laughs. In seventh grade, Tobey was offered the chance by his school to partake in a six-week course on how to build an OSI C1P kit computer. “At that time, the mid-seventies, no one knew much about programming,” he explains. “School kid or experienced engineer, we were all at the same level and teaching ourselves.” Programming Beginnings Inspired by the course, Tobey bought a Commodore PET soon after with money saved from babysitting, though he notes that it took him a year to pay the debt off. After teaching himself BASIC and machine code, he upgraded to an Apple II+, and began writing a game with his friend Chris Brookins – a flight simulator partially inspired by Tobey’s love of Star Wars. While Brookins eventually lost interest, Tobey continued on, and, after journeying to Boston with other members of Philadelphia Area Computer Society for the 1983 Applefest at the age of 18, had the chance to show off his progress to Rod Nakamoto, then head of Interactive Designs. Nakamoto was so impressed with the game, he organized a meeting so that Tobey could demonstrate the game to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. “I've never been very impressed with money or those who make it, but elegance in design - that's something else,” muses Tobey. “As the engineer behind the Apple II, Woz was near Godhood. Later, Woz did something that I find even more impressive. He personally taught technology to 5th through 8th grade kids and their teachers. This is in addition to the charitable giving, sponsorship of art and museums, and board membership that some of the wealthy do. Meeting him at the 1983 Applefest was the start of an exhilarating whirlwind for me.” Wozniak's Skyfox Introduction Despite designing the computer, Tobey recalls Wozniak’s surprise at exactly what he had managed to achieve with the title – a revolutionary first person cockpit view, as well as full sound and music. Wozniak had joined the board of directors for the recently founded Electronic Arts, and gave Tobey his business card, on the back of which he wrote a message to the company’s president, Trip Hawkins: “Trip, Please consider this flight simulator as the finest Apple game ever done. Woz”. Tobey was flown out to California, along with his parents, within the month, and had soon signed contract number 25 with the company. He was initially contracted to work on the title from home – keeping in contact with the company via modem – but was later asked by producer Stewart Bonn to come to come to California for a month as an independent contractor to finish the title. A year later, in 1984, Skyfox was finally released. The game was enormously popular on the Apple II, selling over 400,000 copies, and the decision was made to port the game to the Commodore 64. “After releasing the Apple II version,” recalls Tobey, “I drew up a long list of tasks for the C64 port. It came to 9 months of work. My producer Stewart and I decided no; we didn't want it to take that long. Let's be done in 6 months. As the deadline approached, we slipped the schedule again and again. The final release was about 2 days off the original 9-month schedule.” The Strain Of Being A 'Software Artist' Again, the game’s release proved enormously successful, and with the company’s promotion of their designers as “software artists” in order to drum up “celebrity status and demand” for the products, Tobey notes that he “became a bit of a conceited ass”. His work was featured in “were store displays, ads and articles in magazines and newspapers”, and after buying a Lotus - which he still owns - with his first royalty check, Tobey was featured on prime time Italian television driving around. “Unfortunately, 21 is far too young for that kind of attention and I started to believe my own press,” he admits. “Now that I've done marketing campaigns for other people, it's easy to see the teamwork that went into Skyfox's success. I was very lucky to have had the best support in the industry at a time when the computer revolution was almost magical.” Burnt out from the C64 port, Tobey locked his computers in a room, “shut the door and didn't go in there for almost a year”. During that time he backpacked across Europe, which included some time spent skydiving with Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One designer Eric Hammond. “One jump was a little dramatic,” he says, “so I got certified for scuba. I briefly tried college, but felt out of place. Leaving was probably a mistake though. I also met a girl.” Back For Budokan Tobey rejoined EA in 1988 - this time as a full employee - and began working on a new project with Skate or Die designer Mike Kosaka. An Aikido teacher and black belt, Kosaka began designing a game around his interests, as well as working on the art design for the title. Meanwhile, on top of programming the title, Tobey created an entirely new animation tool for the task, which he called Elaine. He also created a pulse code modulator to help overcome the limitations of the PC speaker, which was dubbed the “fuzz organ” by composer Rob Hubbard. After a year and a half Budokan was released, and, based on its success, was later ported to the Genesis, as well as Amiga, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. However, the company had changed during that time – as well as going public during the development of the game, EA had grown exponentially. Realising that he didn’t feel as happy being on of thousands, as opposed to one of 25 when he first joined the company, Tobey decided to begin working as an independent contractor again. In 1990, he started work on Animax, an updated version of his Elaine program, which was later used in 1992 when he worked on EA’s unreleased Genesis Lord of the Rings title. After briefly being contracted to work with Accolade on another unreleased title - Cybernauts - Tobey became a technical adviser for Crystal Dynamics on their Blazing Dragons title for PlayStation and Saturn. Inspired by his recent work with Fujitsu on WorldsAway - an updated version of Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer’s Habitat - Tobey started designing his own massive multiplayer 3-D world called The Commonality in 1998. After completing the technical design documents and business proposals in 2001, the stock market crashed as a result of the World Trade Centre attacks, which Tobey feels greatly affected his chances of seeing the project finished, though he does note that the “market niche is still available”. From Games To Politics Soon after that, however, Tobey’s focus began to change. “As the Bush Administration started beating the drums for war against Iraq, I got pretty upset,” Tobey says. “I believed, and still do, that all this has happened because I'd been busy making games. While I was having fun, fools took control of the world and I share responsibility for letting it happen.” “Before the invasion,” he continues, “I went to all the big protest marches in San Francisco. In other American cities and all around the world, there were millions of us, including the governments of Russia, Germany and France, all saying, ‘No!’ and George Bush went and started the war anyway. I said, ‘Well, that didn't work’, and had a little epiphany. The left has traditionally tried to influence office holders through publishing, street protests and lobbying organizations like [environmental group] the Sierra Club. In contrast, the right uses teamwork, skill, money, and focus to put their own people into positions of power. This means that we are trying to persuade office holders whom our opponents have selected. That is a strategy for failure, so I started buying mailing equipment and learning about campaigns.” While his friends believe the “pendulum will swing back”, Tobey feels he needs to “push it” himself, so has worked as a full time volunteer for the Green Party since 2002. After working with Matt Gonzalez in his push for Mayor of San Francisco, which resulted in the Party coming in second in the general election, Tobey has moved more and more into leadership positions. “I've been teaching myself to be a campaign manager,” he comments. “Most people who learn as much as I have about politics usually write a book. I have in fact written a web reference for how I believe elections are won, but I really want to write software to manage the process.” Tobey notes that what he describes as the “rising exponential curve” of human knowledge has meant that he was previously in a position to “employ the leading edge of this wave of knowledge in service of fun” as a developer, though he feels that “we've also seen ominous consequences from humanity's progress”. “The world needs us,” he states resolutely. “To win a modern electoral campaign, you need programmers, graphic artists, web masters, marketing and communications professionals, even useless producers who can schedule tasks and lead a team. Most of the skills I learned while making games are perfectly applicable.” “Well, maybe not vector math,” he chuckles. “I have no interest in running anytime soon,” he adds, “but I can make a big difference in who wins.” As for whether or not he will return to the games industry, Tobey reveals he is undecided. “Well,” he muses, “I'll need an income again very soon, but I want to spend my life doing something of consequence in the world. If any reader knows how I can achieve both, please let me know!”

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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