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 Mike Dawson, co-designer on classic PC H.R. Giger-licensed adventure game Darkseed
“I got started in the game industry long before my first job in it,” says Dawson of his beginnings. “I got started on my living room couch when I first gripped the controller of an Atari 2600.”
“Now, if you mean, how did I get my first job in the industry,” he continues, “That’s a less exciting answer: the classifieds. Yes, in the newspaper – that thing before the web that people used to get news from. I had just graduated from USC with a degree in Computer Science (an area of study inspired by a love of games) and I didn’t want some boring programming job. So, I looked hard and found an ad in the LA Times
Classifieds about a start-up game company looking to staff up.”
That company would eventually become adventure game developer and publisher Cyberdreams, though as Dawson points out, it was far from the point of being named at that point, let alone releasing games. “The 'company' was, at the time, just the president, Patrick Ketchum, and a programmer, John Krause, who were working out of Pat’s house. After Pat interviewed me and read some of my writing, he hired me as a game designer/producer/writer – remember, there were only three of us at that point!”
Although Dawson says that he “worked on several titles while at Cyberdreams”, he also notes that Darkseed
was the only title he saw “from start to finish”. The game was a point and click adventure which used the art of Alien
designer H.R. Giger for the game’s alien enemies and “dark world”.
“The president of Cyberdreams made a shrewd move,” says Dawson. “In order to differentiate the small company from more established developers, he attached a high profile artist to each title – not only to use their art, but to leverage their celebrity. He also paid Giger cash. Lots of cash.”
“By the way,” he adds. “Giger is truly a dark artist. I visited him in Zurich and the stuff you see in the movie Alien is toned down from his original work. What else? He had a shrunken head just sitting on his desk. And, when he gave us a tour of his place, he casually referred to one room as the place where his ex-lover had killed herself.”
The development of the game was difficult for the still-understaffed company, Dawson says. “Because we were so small, we had to do a lot, but we also got to do a lot. Just a few months in my first fulltime job, I was going to Europe to work with H.R. Giger. I went to international trade shows and shows here in the US. I got to write, design and help make games. In many ways, the job was a blast. But it was also tough. We were a start-up, and as such, we were constantly spending money while generating no income. There was intense pressure on all of us for a huge Christmas release of Darkseed
, our main project.”
“I’d like to say that the game was in development for about a year, but I honestly can’t remember,” he notes. “Lots of work. Lots of pressure. Some silliness too. Again, I split my time between writing, designing, producing and a bit of acting.”
The acting in question was Dawson’s role as Darkseed
’s main character. “This started out as a joke,” he comments. “I needed to get a concept document out on the game and was working on it until the last minute, as usual. I had put my name in for the main character as a placeholder – and as an inside joke for the few of us at the company. I fully intended to come up with something else at some point. But when my boss saw it, he liked it and said we had to keep the name.”
“I was also digitized for the role of Mike Dawson. Yes, that’s me walking around, climbing stairs and, oh yeah, having an alien embryo inserted into my brain. I think this decision was made based primarily on money. If I played the part, we wouldn’t need to hire (and pay) a real actor. So, in between meetings, I would jump in front of a camera and pretend to have an alien come busting out of my head.”
The game was released in 1992 for PC, Macintosh, Amiga and, in 1995, on PlayStation. While it initially garnered warm reviews, the game has aged less well than other adventure titles of its time, something Dawson freely admits to seeing himself.
“I have a strong affection for the game,” he says. “I put a lot of myself into it – literally. But given the advantage of time and distance, I can certainly see things I would change. In retrospect, I think some of the elements put into the game to make it more challenging weren’t fair to the player. For example, I think there were critical events that, if the player missed by being in another part of the world, would make the game impossible to win. The biggest problem was that it wouldn’t be clear to the player that he could no longer win the game.”
The timer that controls game events is looked on with something less than fondness by players new to the game, though Dawson isn’t quite sure where the idea came from: “I honestly can’t remember. I remember it was an attempt to make the game more difficult. I know some people probably cursed their computers more than once because of it.”
Dawson left Cyberdreams following the game’s release in order to write for television, which he did until the late 1990s. The company continued until 1995, releasing titles like the acclaimed I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
and a sequel to Darkseed
, which again featured the protagonist Mike Dawson, though his namesake had little to do with the game.
“Later while looking for the next writing gig,” he says of his next career move. “I thought it would be fun to write an entertaining book on programming – not like the dry stuff I had to read in school. Whose dream is it to write a function that converts Fahrenheit to Celsius anyway? I thought that teaching programming through game programming would be a great way to do a book – and I found a publisher who agreed. I’ve written two books for them, Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner
and Beginning C++ Game Programming
. Both books are being used at colleges and universities around the country.”
Dawson has since moved into teaching, and has developed and taught courses for UCLA Extension and The Digital Media Academy at Stanford University, more details about which can be found at his site
“I teach both teens and adults about game programming,” he says. “That all progressed naturally out of the books on game programming that I wrote. Several institutions saw my books, called me up and asked me to teach for them. I said yes and have found teaching to be a blast.”
“I’ve also taught college instructors about game programming. It’s a new hot area and a lot of college instructors just don’t have the training in it. I was hired to teach groups of instructors at several conferences this summer and had a great time doing it. I have students that are already in the game industry. I’ve had working game producers and artists take my classes because they know that programming knowledge gives them a leg up in their careers. I’ve also had people working in game companies read my books. Just recently, an artist who works for Eidos/Crystal Dynamics emailed me and said that he really enjoyed my C++ book. In fact, he said that he was recommending the book to his friends and colleagues.”
Dawson’s success may come as a surprise to some people, though, since for many years now urban legend has maintained that Dawson went mad and suffered a nervous breakdown following the pressure put on him to finish Darkseed
. Those familiar with the second game would recognise elements of its storyline in the tale, though Dawson has other ideas of what spawned the legend.
“Um... aliens?” he suggests. “Actually, I have no idea where it came from. In fact, I’d never heard that urban legend until just now. But frankly, I like it – and so do my six other personalities.”