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Interview: Slye And The Dynamix of Game Development

Gamasutra talks to the co-founder of revered Red Baron studio Dynamix, Damon Slye, who recalls a game biz in the '80s and '90s when "we didn’t think about risk", also discussing his new firm Mad Otter Games.
[Gamasutra correspondent and industry veteran Alexander Brandon talks to the co-founder of revered Red Baron studio Dynamix, Damon Slye, who recalls a game biz in the '80s and '90s when "we didn’t think about risk", also discussing his new firm Mad Otter Games.] For those of us that have been around even a little while in the game industry, the name Dynamix is still something of an inspirational household word. Having developed some of the most successful and influential titles of the 1980s and early 90s, Eugene, Oregon-based Dynamix brought us titles from simulations (Red Baron, A-10 Tank Killer, Mechwarrior) to intense action (Tribes, Stellar 7) as well as great adventures (Rise of the Dragon, The Adventures of Willy Beamish, Betrayal at Krondor), with numerous successful sports titles to boot. And the amazing feat? They never let us down. It is a rarity for a company to span so many genres and achieve consistency with high quality, but they did it. I was lucky enough to catch up with one of Dynamix’s co-founders, Damon Slye, and chat about the details of development at Dynamix. Starting as an engineer, he developed the 3Space engine, after which he met Jeff Tunnell and the two started Dynamix. At present, having taken a 12 year hiatus from gaming he has founded a new developer, Mad Otter Games, currently making PC online game Villagers & Heroes -- and also discusses several “then and now” realities. The Beginnings Dynamix was one of the most prominent game developers of the 80s and 90s. If you could put your finger on a single element that inspired that success, what would it be? We were young and idealistic. That kept us passionate and motivated to make the best games we could. We believed if we made the games great, then success would follow. I guess that’s what it means to be idealistic. We never compromised for a quick buck. It was always about the game. What led to you and Jeff Tunnell founding Dynamix? Did you both have titles that inspired you to create your own, and if so which were they? Jeff and I met at his computer software store. He was and is an amazing entrepreneur. We discovered we both shared a passion for creating games. When we met I was working on Stellar 7 and planned to publish with Broderbund, EA, or Sierra. Jeff talked me into starting a company with him instead. It was a great decision, and led to a long and successful partnership. I remember a lot of the games from back then: Temple of Apshai, Galaxian, all those games from Nasir Gebelli, and so on. More than that though, I was inspired by the Apple II. I discovered the great creative feedback loop that computers provide. You can dream up a game, code it up in a few hours, and then immediately get the positive reward of getting to interact with your creation. That is inspiring and addicting. My girlfriend is a screenwriter. Her craft is so much more difficult to stay inspired with because she does not get that same quick feedback. A screenplay never fully manifests until it is performed. Computer games are immediate. That feedback makes it much easier to stay motivated. In my senior year in high school we had an 8k Commodore PET. I wrote some games for it that got me started. Later I bought an Apple II and learned 6502. It was fun. Several other team members came aboard quickly and are still working in the industry. When did Richard Hicks become a member of the team and what was his initial role? Richard was the third to join Dynamix as a partner. When we got our first deal with EA it was to build Arcticfox on the Amiga. Richard was a great help in getting the development environment set up. This involved a C compiler, linker, and cross development from the PC to the Amiga. It’s stuff the rest of us wouldn’t have been able to. Later he managed various projects at Dynamix. About how long did you spend to learn assembly to the point where it enabled you to create your first games? In my senior year in high school I was writing games in Basic for the Commodore PET. Somewhere I heard that the way to create real programs was to learn assembly language. It was very mysterious to a young high school kid. I thought if I could learn this “dark art” I would be able to do anything on a computer. So I bought a book “Programming in 6502”. I remember at my high school graduation ceremony while sitting in the bleachers waiting for my name to be called, I was hunched over that book learning how to do multiplication and division in 6502 using just shifting and adding operations. It took me about a month to learn 6502. When one is young, one learns quickly. Which came first on average, technical achievements or game design concepts? For me, I had a technical bent. I was drawn to assembly language, low-level graphics, and 3D algorithms. I think I had a natural intuition about game design, but I did not spend as much time early in my career focusing on those skills. Stellar 7 is a good example. I decided I wanted to do a game inspired by Battle Zone (hey, I guess that is one game that inspired me come to think of it). A friend saw me playing it in the arcade and asked, “why don’t you make a game like that?”. At first it sounded impossible. Then I started doing research, slowly chipping away at all the tasks that seemed impossible. How to do graphics on the Apple II, how to do fast math on the 6502, and finally the mystery of 3D. So first I coded 3Space, an engine upon which to build the game, and after that I wrote the game. I wrote the whole game on notebook paper in pure algorithm form. Then I translated it to 6502. Once I typed in the code, I got it working in just a few days. It’s a different approach than is used today: write the entire game out on paper, then type it all in, and run it. Nowadays it makes more sense to write single functions and test them by inspection in the debugger, or do unit tests along the way. Of course, Stellar 7 by today’s standards is tiny. "We didn’t think about risk back then." What was development like on early titles such as Stellar 7 and Arcticfox from a schedule and iterative perspective? Were you able to develop initial builds quickly and test various mechanics piece by piece? I refer you to my previous answer. As a programmer, I was unusual in that I would code the entire game or game piece mostly whole. On Stellar 7 I had no schedule because I was living at home (my parents) and creating the game unfunded—so there was no external pressure on me to launch by a certain date. Arcticfox was nice because we were coding in C. I had the great pleasure of working with Kevin Ryan. He is a brilliant programmer and game designer. He’s another one of those rare people who is really nice, great to work with, and super talented. He handled all the graphics, sounds, and Amiga specific interfaces. EA funded Arcticfox for $35,000. We did have a schedule with payments attached to milestones so delivering on time was important. It was also a target to have the game finished shortly after the Amiga launched so we would be a launch title. I believe that Arcticfox was the first original game released on the Amiga (it wasn’t a port of another game). It may have been that it was the first original that EA released. I don’t recall the exact details now. Were games developed on the Amiga first, then ported to PC / Apple? We developed Arcticfox on the Amiga first, and then ported it to the Apple, Commodore 64, PC, and later the Atari ST I believe. After that we abandoned the Amiga because it was not commercially viable to make games for it. Trip Hawkins and EA had been huge evangelists for the Amiga. It was going to revolutionize gaming. There was a famous email from Trip that said, “If you know 6502, start coding!” It was a 180—EA dumped the Amiga and moved all its development dollars to the Commodore 64 since that’s where all the revenue was. He was demonstrating a hallmark of successful entrepreneurs—the ability to change direction quickly. We followed their lead, and began making C64 games. Shortly after that the PC became the dominant gaming platform. It was good for us to be able to settle on one platform so that we did not have to build up software tech for competing standards. Until the 90s, what importance was placed on graphics as both a feature and a risk portion of the development pipeline? Graphics were always a big selling point for us. The games with superior graphics engines sold much better. We made a lot of effort to excel in this area and it paid off for us. We had one of the best 3D engines at the time. When the VGA card came out, which increased the number of colors from 16 to 256, we were the first game company to fully support it. There were some other companies that would have a 256 color cockpit, but the 3D world was only 16 colors. This helped propel sales for our game A-10 Tank Killer. It just looked way ahead of any other flight games out at the time. About risk, we didn’t think about risk back then. That’s part of being young and idealistic. Dynamix was among the first developers to use Ad Lib audio technology in its games. What was the impetus behind this with audio as a priority in earlier titles such as Red Baron? For simulations, audio helps make the experience more immersive. A big word for me at the time was “verisimilitude”. I always wanted my sims to feel real. Audio is one of the best ways to accomplish that. In Half Life 2, the sound effects blew my mind. I felt like I was really there. If you can cast your mind back what was the process like integrating audio? Were there onsite developers writing music and sound effects, or was it done externally? Dynamix had its own in-house sound and music department. Occasionally we would contract a musician to write some music for us, but mostly everything was done in-house. We were fortunate enough to have some great musicians at Dynamix who would do our compositions. Tim Clarke and Chris Stephens were great talents. Post-Sierra Acquisition Dynamix shifted focus from 3d vector based action and vehicle simulation games along with various sports titles to adventure games from David Wolf to Willy Beamish, in addition to the puzzle game The Incredible Machine. This of course was after the purchase of the company by Sierra, but was the process of creating these games a shared vision or a targeted molding of Dynamix's previous efforts into the Sierra family of titles? After Sierra acquired us, half the company stayed focused on simulations and 3D games. Red Baron, A-10 Silent Thunder, Aces of the Pacific, Aces of the Deep, Aces over Europe, and Red Baron II were all developed after the acquisition. They all had big budgets, and were smash hits for the time. Sierra wanted us to stay focused on simulations because this was a market segment that they did not or could not address themselves. Simulations remained a focus for us until I left Dynamix. However, we did branch out into adventure games when Sierra bought us. Jeff championed that. He wanted to focus on non-parser based adventures as differentiation from what Sierra was doing. Later he moved his studio offsite from the main Dynamix building and formed JTP game studio (Jeff Tunnell Productions). He had the visionary idea of focusing on casual games. He built smaller games like Incredible Machine, Pinball, Trophy Bass, Hunting, and a bunch of others. It was a great business strategy. Those games went on to be huge sellers with much smaller budgets. Nowadays everyone knows casual is huge—the biggest part of the market, but back then nobody, or at least very few, saw the business opportunity. In retrospect would it have been possible to remain independent, or was Sierra a crucial part of Dynamix's lifecycle? It would have been painful to remain independent. We needed cash. It was a great decision to merge with Sierra. When Ken Williams bought Dynamix, we had about 30 people, and he told us in a year we would have 100. I didn’t believe him, but he was right. They funded us, and our games went from being obscure and under-funded, to being well promoted, distributed, and fully funded. Sierra and Ken Williams were great partners for us. I have tremendous respect for him. He understood that we were good at what we did because we were inspired and that if Sierra came in with a heavy hand, it would break our spirit and the games would suffer. Not many CEOs understand that. He was an entrepreneur. They let us do what we did best, and they did what they did best: marketing, manufacturing, and distribution. Ken also had a light, but very valuable, creative touch. Before Red Baron, I wanted to do a single air combat game called “The Great Warplanes”. It would have had aircraft from all eras—WWI to modern age. He wrote me a very formal but very polite letter, gently suggesting that instead I break the concept up into several products: WWI would be one product, WWII another, modern another, etc. Sierra had found that the business was all about sequels, and it would be better to have a sequel strategy. He was completely correct, and I’m glad we switched. It also allowed me and our team to explore each era in much more depth. I think we ended up with three games, each of which was about 4x better than what the single “Great Warplanes” game would have been. I have no regrets about the Sierra merger. They were great partners. Leaving Dynamix At what point did you depart Dynamix? After Aces Over Europe? Yes, I left after Aces Over Europe. That was in 1993 or 1994. I was burned out with the 80-hour weeks, and hadn’t done a lot of the things that people normally do in their 20s and 30s. I wanted to get away from game dev for a while. You have spent a little while away from games. In that time what have you observed about the game industry that you find most interesting? Most disappointing? Most exciting? Lately the most interesting new development is the rise of social games. To date most of these are on Facebook. Now it’s important to design the game with a lot of social connectedness features built in as central to the game’s core mechanics. Remember it was Danielle Bunten, the greatest game designer ever, who said, "No one ever said on their deathbed, 'Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.'" She was the first real champion for multiplayer games long before they were commercially viable. What is your main ambition with Mad Otter, and games such as Villagers and Heroes? My goals are different now. They are, in this order: #1 Have a great place to work #2 Stay in business (otherwise #1 goes away) #3 Build great games #4 Make a lot of money in games I’m not too worried about #4. The first two would be enough. The third and fourth would be nice. At Dynamix my goals were probably more like: 1. Build great games, 2. Make a lot of money, 3. Have a cool place to work. Back then we believed in working 60 to 80 hour weeks. Today that would not classify to me as a “Great place to work”, though I am still willing to crunch when the time is right. What is next after Villagers and Heroes? Stay tuned: www.madotter.com

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