19th of February 1949 - 3rd of July 1998
Dan Bunten 1983
Dani Bunten Berry 1993
Most of the information was found on the official memorial page, located here.
Currently, this page features:
The comments are Dani's comments
as appeared on her Ozarksoft page.
Speakeasy Software, 1978
It was my first game. It was also the first game to come out in a box when all others were published with the cassette (16K) and mimeographed rules in a zip-lock bag. Also included in the box was a custom input device that consisted of 4 push-buttons connected to the Apple II's gameport. This allowed the 4 players to compete in real-time auctions for stock in companies which the players managed via those same buttons. It was a great challenge to work out how to input data with nothing but a push button but it taught me that interface is less important than play value and that auctions are a compelling way to interact. While attempting to write the manual for "Wheelers" I ended up writing a word processor that came within a hair's breadth of being chosen as "Apple Writer". Instead it was published as "Scribe" and sold a handful compared to the hundreds of thousands for "Apple Writer". (Being rich was never my goal but it would have been nice<grin>).
Strategic Simulations, 1979
It was based on a game I had written in FORTRAN on a Varian minicomputer when I worked for the National Science Foundation. It was the most thoroughly mathematically modeled game I ever did. I collected and analyzed tons of data to come up with statistical distributions to represent the expected outcomes for 36 offensive plays against 21 defenses. I was at the time planning to use the project as my master's thesis in systems simulation but then I got involved in the games biz and dropped out of graduate school. "Quarterback" was one of SSI best sellers for several months after it came out despite the fact that the solo play option was pretty lame. (It was really designed to be played by two humans).
|Cartels & Cutthroats
Strategic Simulations, 1981
This is a business strategy game published in '81 by SSI. It was built to provide an easy input for cyclic business management. Only 6 decisions were required by players (up to 6 of them as well) to allow them to compete. The would set their price, advertising, R&D (which created opportunities to automate), build more production, etc. I used humor to increase it's appeal and naïve as I was then, I was amazed when it didn't sell as well as "Quarterback". In retrospect, it didn't do all that bad considering that all subsequent attempts by others to do business games (with far larger development and marketing budgets) didn't do much better. Evidently folks interested in playing with the stock market or business, do it in real-life instead.
Strategic Simulations, 1982
Apple II, Atari 800
This was my first attempt at combining strategy and action elements in a single game. It was also my first fully graphical game (all previous ones were text based), my first machine language game (basic was sufficient before then) and the first game for the Atari 800 (Apple II was my platform before). "Cytrons" was published by SSI in '82. It was a very simple abstract wargame. I learned a lot about programming multi-thread software (all when it was necessary to write all your own interrupt handlers). I also discovered both how compelling real-time strategy gaming could be and how easy it was to loose your market. Rather than appealing to both action gamers and strategy gamers it seemed to fall in the crack between them.
Electronic Arts, 1983
Atari 800, C64
"M.U.L.E." was part of the group of games that launched Electronic Arts in '83. It won numerous awards (including Computer Gaming World's Hall of Fame) and sold reasonably well (despite being the "most pirated game" at the time according to the publisher of CGW). Curiously, it happened as a result of the fact that Trip Hawkins (the founder of EA) couldn't get SSI to sell him "Cartels and Cutthroats". I convinced him we (at that point I had formed Ozark Softscape and had 5 employees) could do it better. I took the auction from "Wheelers", the graphic real-time aspects from "Cytrons", some of the production ideas from "Cartels" and let it evolve where it needed to. This was the game that taught me the value of play-testing where you watch and talk to real people about the game while it's under development. After all, games are a form of communication that can only be confirmed by checking whether it works against an audience.
A couple of design pieces really pleased me about this game. I think the auction with the sellers on top and the buyers on the bottom of the screen and a timer was particularly cool. Sellers would walk down the screen thereby lowering the price they were offering to sell at and buyers would walk up the screen raising their bid. When the two met, units of commodity would zip from the seller to the buyer. This led to a lot of dickering and cajoling by the players trying to get each other to move closer using all types of justifications to support their inability to move themselves. When the timer started running down, this could lead to a lot of frantic maneuvering.
Another neat thing was the invention of the MULE itself. In order to make the auctions interesting, there had to be commodities that players needed and also made (so some became sellers and others buyers). From a strategic game model what was needed was some way for players to say "I want to produce commodity 'A' on plot 'X'" but text entry or even menu selection seemed uninteresting. What if your picked up a machine somewhere and dragged it to your property to produce what you wanted. This "machine" eventually became a "Multiple Use Labor Element" that you got from the coral in the town, dragged into an outfitter shop of the right kind for the commodity you wanted and took out to your land and deposited there. Voila we had the info the model needed and with the addition of a timer, we had an interesting play element.
My only disappointment with the game is that it only exists on long defunct hardware and it looks awful (since those machines only offered 48K of memory and I used it mostly for program rather than graphics). I almost got a Sega Genesis version through EA in '93 but at the Alpha phase they insisted on adding guns and bombs (or something similar) to "bring it up to date". I was unable to comply. I'm still amazed at how well loved it is (there are a number of web sites devoted to it) and I'm hopeful I can find a way to bring it to life again - possibly on the internet.
|Seven Cities of Gold
Electronic Arts, 1984
Apple II, Atari 800, C64
This was my best selling game. It garnered a SPA Gold Disk and a number of minor awards. It was also my first game that didn't allow for more than one player. It was planned to be multi-player but during during development it lost that aspect, along with colonists and development. To keep it's focus (and allow for a really large world) it ended up just covering the early exploration and conquest of the new world. It was published in '84 by Electronic Arts and it was the game Trip Hawkins (founder of EA) coined the term "edu-tainment" to describe on the press tour introducing it. (Back then the term wasn't the kiss of death it is now).
There are several things I'm proud of about that game. Unlike most strategy-adventure games then (and now as well) which load the player with numerous economic and logistical decisions, it only used four commodities to model the constraints and opportunities facing the Conquistadors (men, food, [trade] goods and gold). I also like the way I was able to reflect the unique interactions between natives and Conquistadors when they shared neither a language nor cultural values in common. I came up with a simple arcade element which also included a number of subtle "secret" opportunities that I was quite gratified to learn that folks found on their own. Finally, the fact that our "New World" was randomly generated (and so large it required disk caching and overlays) made exploring a challenge fraught with peril and surprises. It sufficiently captured the sense of panic that comes from being lost in the wilderness and running out of supplies as well as the joy of rescue (which was something I experienced once backpacking and wanted to make a touchstone of this design).
Our biggest frustration with this product was that it was developed in the days when you had to write a number of different versions since no platform was pre-eminent. There were Atari 800, C64, Apple, Mac and IBM PC versions of the game put out but the only "full" version was on the Atari. On the others we did the best we could with what we had.
|Heart of Africa
Electronic Arts, 1985
"Heart of Africa" was the only true sequel I ever did and it was done to please EA (and get the $5K bonus they offered). It ended up as a C64 game only but on that platform it sold almost as well as "7Cities". It was published in '85 by EA and it was my last solo only game. I was never a fan of the adventure game genre which always seemed too much like guessing games where the player's job was to read the mind of the designer. However, this was my only published attempt at that genre. (A detective game that I also worked on got canceled at the prototype phase).
I like a couple of things I invented for this product in particular. The player had a journal into which the game automatically entered events such as "Giant Python attacked and I lost my compass but got away with only minor scratches. These took the place of difficult to render graphic events and were almost as satisfying to the player. I also like the idea of messing with the player's interface to reflect ways in which their character was being effected. Two of the best were if you stayed in the desert too long you began to go sun blind which resulted in increasingly more pixels of the screen taking on the yellow terrain background color (and hence obscuring any features there) until the whole screen was yellow. Your only hope at that point was to stumble into a village or town where the natives would cure you. The other was that if you went too long without water you would become delirious and we would "mess with" your joystick inputs such that they would wander away from the direction you were pushing. However, if you held to a consistent direction long enough (and resisted your instinct to compensate for the wander) you would make better progress. It was really fun to watch play-testers as they stumbled into these effects and not only figured out what they meant but how to deal with them by bringing some vague "real-world" intuition into the game. One other thing I thought was a cool feature from this game was the way I "saved" beginners from their frustration of not making any progress. The essence of the game was exploring Africa to find locations that weren't visible per se but using clues and landmarks could be found. If I noticed that a player was struggling too long trying to find one, I would "move" it to where they were. This only happened the first game played and only early in the quest because adventures after all are about meeting a challenge but I thought it was an elegant solution to keep people feeling like they were doing OK which is really important in the early stages of play.
What this game suffered most from was that the attempt to make a replayable adventure game made for a shallow product (which seems true in every other case designers have tried it as well). I guess that if elements are such that they can be randomly shifted then they are substantive enough to make for a compelling game. So, even though I don't like linear games, they seem necessary to have the depth a good story needs.
Electronic Arts, 1986
was my most experimental game and as far as I know is still the only computer game published by a major publisher that had no solo-play option. Admittedly, the solo opponent built into my games was never very good but Electronic Arts in '86 was a lot more willing to take risks than they were since. What I tried to do with "Rascals" was find the minimum set of elements that would still make a multi-player game that was fun. It had some similarities to "M.U.L.E." but I tried to get rid of anything that made "M.U.L.E." initially a bit daunting and hard to learn. In "Rascals" there were no prices, no money, no commodities. What it became during development was a scavenger hunt for items buried in the playing area. Your avatar (a robot that your frat house or sorority entered into the contest) could "scan" for items like the "binary boot", the "digital donut", etc. It was terminally "cute". It used subtle but simple elements that players could learn easily and master as time went on. For instance, when asked to scan for an item, the robot spun around twice pointing until it pointed in one of the 4 main directions. It turns out the faster the robot turned was a cue as to how far the item was which the player could use to decide if it was better to go to a teleport station or to walk that direction immediately.
I've always enjoyed inventing these type of subtle visual and audio cues for players and have been impressed repeatedly at how satisfying it is to players to "learn" them and leverage them in their performance in the game. Not to beat this idea to death but in that same visual effect (the spinning and pointing), the fact that the robot pointed only in the four ordinal directions also offered the player another opportunity to exercise their "insight". A player as they gained experience would walk their robot in the direction pointed for a while and then scan again. If this resulted in point in a direction perpendicular to the original direction then the player knew the item they were looking for was diagonal from them and they could cut their search time significantly. Now, from a design point of view this wasn't a major breakthrough but I was amazed at how this little "skill" gave play-testers from grade-school age on up to adult a certain satisfaction when they mastered it. It told me that a good game is as much about making the "process" of play interesting as making the "goal" of winning meaningful.
There were a couple of other quirky attempts at making this game accessible. It included two decks of cards. One deck was of the items that were stored in the playfield. This was the way players found out what items they needed to find in order to win the game and it allowed players to keep their list secret from each other. (Hidden information is difficult to accomplish when all players are sharing the same computer without the silly device of hiding their eyes at certain times). The other cards were "luck cards" that had things like "Steal a card from any player" which let you pick a card from them and return one you didn't want. There was also a "Pass the trash to the right" which allowed all players to mess with each other's list of items to get to win. Taken together these items made a very simple game become intriguing. I think it was a successful experiment although the sales that EA was able to generate (despite a worthy marketing effort) were disappointing. It didn't have a solo-play option was everyone's rationale for the "failure". I can't argue with that but I also think the fact that it didn't have an identifiable "genre" or audience certainly didn't help. I thought of it as a "Family Game" but that's evidently not a demographic that turns up at retail outlets.
Electronic Arts, 1988
was one of my favorite games to develop and to play (second only to "M.U.L.E."). It was the last of my designs published by EA. (Ironically, I quit them because Trip wouldn't let me do M.U.L.E. for the Nintendo because he said EA wasn't going to do cartridge games. This is the company that now makes more than half their revenue from cartridges!) "Modem Wars" came out '88 and was the last C64 title I did and the first PC one (platforms were shifting again). "War" as we wanted it called (or "Sport of War" was our working title) was inspired by playing soldiers in the dirt with my brothers when I was a kid. It didn't have any of the complicated rules and relationships wargames at the time had and it ran in real-time without turns or pauses. It was just "click" on a unit (or group) to select it and click on it's destination. The unit would shoot at any enemy it encountered but that was about it. I had the simple infantry, artillery and cavalry mix from the Napoleonic era as well as hills where your guys saw further and forests where they didn't. It was the first of my online games (if 2 players being connected via modems qualifies) and it was the first time a major publisher published such a product.
What I though was neat was that players' each had full time active use of their own machines (all my previous multi-player games included either turns or multiple inputs and shared output on one screen). This kind of play was a real kick for us the first time we tried and as it has turned out now it's a kick for a lot more folks now that modems and ways to connect are much common. In fact that was "Modem Wars" biggest problem -- the lack of modems in '88. By the time they started showing up en masse in the '90s, "Modem Wars" was out of the EA catalog and out of date. (It was written when EGA was the new thing and a mouse was very rare on a PC).
There were several neat things about the game that I carried forward. The interface while exceedingly simple - click to select, click to set destination - also had more advanced options. If you double clicked, you could get a menu that let you do more sophisticated things like create your own groups, tell them to dig-in, etc. In addition, I like the way there were various features that allowed different players to use their own skills to compete. Not since "M.U.L.E." was I able to build that kind of aspect into a game. In "Modem Wars" there was the battle planning and strategy involved in managing your armies. But there was also eye-hand coordination in the drones (slow flying "buzz bombs") that players could fly and the missiles (fast rockets) that shot them down. In addition there was a radar-like display that players could pick out hidden units if they were good at pattern and change recognition. And with the spy type unit there was subterfuge and counter-espionage. What all this meant was that various aspects of a player and their unique combination of skills meant that each person had their own specialized style of play. Another thing that I thought was cool came as a consequence of the fact that "Modem Wars" was written to work with 300 baud C64 modems and hence very little data could be sent between the players. Each machine had to run independently and the only info sent between them was what is called the "deltas". Since the robots all behaved under very strict rules, the deltas in this design were limited to the commands from the players. Nothing about the screen or interface of the other player was shared. If a player for instance gave a unit a destination, nothing about the process of clicking and positioning the cursor was sent, just the result. This took only four bytes - one each for: the move command, the unit ID#, the destination X and the destination Y. This meant that the time thinking about what to do and the time giving the unit it's new command could be reduced to 4 bytes. This meant that the entire game could be stored in only 4K! And since the game engine had to run on it's own with only those "deltas" at the right times, you could turn the process into a way to "replay" the game by just running the game out of the stored data rather than the inputs from the players. This "Game Film", as we called it, turned out to be a really popular feature. It allowed players to look at what happened from any perspective (theirs, their enemy's or omniscient) and to slow it down or even pause it. Frequently this was the first chance players had to see much of what was going on during the battle since they were only aware of their own robots and the few enemy ones within range. I was amazed how people used this opportunity the game films offered to rationalize their loss and to create stories out the intense and ephemeral experience of the battle. These two things are both things that players need to make their play more meaningful and I hadn't realized it till the pitiful C64 modem forced me to learn them. Now, when I give talks about designing multi-player games at conference I tell them that if we want to make multi-player games that people can really enjoy, we have give them a way to save face as well as ways to make legends out of their best performances. (I ended up including this feature in both "Command HQ" and "Global Conquest").
The most frustrating thing about this game was trying to get the intensity factor just right. In the days before "Doom", people weren't accustomed to adrenaline rushes that lasted several minutes. That reminds me of another neat thing about the game - it had a time limit after which a winner was declared (30 minutes was the longest game). This seemed (and still seems) like a good idea. Anyway, back to the intensity issue. I was convinced by several of the reactions from reviewers and play-testers that part of "Modem Wars" problem (you always thinks a game has "problems" when it doesn't sell as well as expected) was that it was too intense. The next two games where attempts to slow things down to get more market. That seems foolish now but such is life.
I'm currently working as a consultant for a company who is implementing a new 8 player version of this design for the internet through Mplayer and I'm hoping it'll be out in late '97. In the meantime you're welcome to the old version if you promise not to be too hard on it (it's almost a decade behind the state of the art) because despite it's surface it has a good heart.
This was the first game I designed for Microprose and it was published in 1990 and it was my second best seller and won the "Wargame of the Year" award from "Computer Gaming World". I enjoyed working with Microprose and especially was glad for the opportunity of interacting regularly with one of my favorite game designers in the business - Sid Meir. His games "Pirates" and "Civilization" were both designs I had on the back burner but never got around to. I have total admiration for what he did with those products but if I had done them, they would have both been multi-player games from the start and likely had a whole different feel. (I hope that doesn't sound like sour grapes. Maybe my admiration is twinged with a bit of envy too. <grin>).
"Command HQ" was a fairly straight-forward design job of taking aspects of "Modem War's" (namely the modem connection and real-time play) and adding a highly abstracted World War II wargame model to it. I have to admit to being influenced by the board game "Axis and Allies" which I thought was a very sophisticated piece of design work. Nonetheless, I'm proud of "Command HQ" for a number of reasons.
This was one of the few games where I fully followed the KISS maxim ("Keep it Simple Stupid"). The world was the Mercator projection of the globe with only polar, plain, mountain, forest, jungle and water terrains (each of which had very obvious and intuitive effects on the units). The units consisted of infantry, tanks, subs, cruisers, carriers and airplanes and how the behaved has nicely stereotyped but also subtle. For instance subs that weren't moving weren't visible to the enemy until they shot them which meant that a sub could take out any lone ship most of the time. Several areas of possible complication were avoided in the design. For instance planes could act as transports, paradrop carriers, bombers or fighters depending on what target was selected. Land units that moved to sea became transport ships and to simulate the difficulty of moving them ashore or off without a port, a large time delay was imposed unless they moved through a city before taking to (or returning from) the water. These sort of modest but elegant design elements kept the game very easy to play. The resources involved in the game were limited to money which came from the number of cities you owned and oil which came from the number of oil fields you owned. Despite the simplicity of these features the game was a fairly accurate simulator of WW I, WW II and WW III (the one that never happened but Tom Clancy fantasized in Red Storm Rising but I included nuclear weapons). I threw in two more world wars which varied the capitols as well as the starting conditions.
Besides the structural elements that kept this game simple it had an extremely clean interface (in my humble opinion). It was the first "PC only" game I did and the first with a mouse interface (which makes strategic gaming much simpler than a joystick). It featured the "click to select" and "click to set destination" of "Modem Wars" but since oceans could intervene between the origin and destination, it required a slick bit of coding to allow ships to navigate the oceans in reasonable patterns. Also, unlike "Modem Wars" there were no additional layers of complexity (eg no "groups" since unit counts were kept low, and no extra menus). In addition, I solved the problem of scale which hounds all "large world" games with a simple mechanic. The basic view of the game showed the whole world at 320x200 (these were the days of EGA and the Tandy graphics system) with units as 3x3 pixel squares. This was great for an overview but you couldn't tell anything other than whose unit it was. If you clicked the right button an enlarged view exploded at your cursor so you could actually manage your forces. Click again and it went away. This allowed players to easily manage wars that took place all over the globe. The final piece of interface that I liked was the small status window that showed you the detail of the terrain and any unit under your cursor as you just rolled it around.
One of the weak points of "Command HQ" was that it included no animation. The units were iconic squares that looked like "counters" from old paper wargames. Their only animation was to change position (as a result of moves) and to flash their backgrounds (as a result of being attacked). Microprose artists contributed some short animations that took place in a small window to show significant events which was a nice touch. This game did well enough that there was an upgrade (done by a group of fans with my permission). There was even a plan by Microprose to do a Win95 version but when they were bought out by Mindscape it was canceled.
"Global Conquest" was published by Microprose in '92. It was the first four player network game by a major publisher. Although this game was a lot of fun to play, especially with 4 players, I think of it as my worst game. The design started out as one further attempt to "slow down" the real-time aspect of "Modem Wars" and "Command HQ". It was also supposed to include aspects of all my favorite designs. It would have the exploration of a random world of "Seven Cities of Gold", it would have the clean interface and simple wargame model of "Command HQ", it would have the random events and humor of "M.U.L.E.", it would have several of neat features of "Modem Wars" (including the Spy and Comcen) and it would have better graphics (640x400) drawn by contract artists. As it turned out, this game was a hodgepodge rather than an integration. It was just the opposite of the KISS doctrine. It was kitchen sink design. It had everything. It was more "construction set" than game. Build your own game by struggling through several options menus. It was also a case where my play-testers got the better of me. I was trying to design to please them rather than following my own instincts. I can attribute some of this to the turmoil in my personal life at the time (I was going through a divorce and contemplating the sex-change that I eventually underwent) but there's little question in my mind that I screwed up with this game. I'm not saying that it's not fun to play or that there aren't a few neat features in it. It just suffers from lack of focus. I don't think design by committee ever works and it sure didn't in this case. The last point in the "Global Conquest" debacle was that somehow Microprose "mastered" the wrong disks and wouldn't recall them when we discovered that the version shipped had several fatal bugs. You can get a shareware copy of the good version and try it out for yourself. Let me know if there are any gems in the rough in it. To me, my games are like my children. They each took over a year of serious attention to "birth". I hate that the last one I delivered for the box market had serious birth defects.
A Lecture for the 1997 Computer Game Developers Conference, Copyright 1997, by Dani Bunten Berry
I started out my career as speaker at this conference by delivering the banquet keynote address in 1990. I told everyone that if we want to reach the mass market in this industry we're going to have to become part of the main stream and stop being such nerds. I recommended that they go home, meet their neighbors, get married, have kids and to stop spending all their time alone in front of computers. I said something pompous like "Only when our products come out of a deep connection with real-life will they resonate with the mass market". I think that was when I coined the morbid quote that "No one on their death bed ever says 'I wish I'd spent more time alone with my computer'" to highlight the "people orientation" of the real world vs. the "thing orientation" of our business. Not mentioned in my bio is the fact that 4 years ago I changed pronouns. I tell you this partly so that those of you who "know" don't feel any anxiety about telling or not telling those of you who don't since I hate that kind of awkwardness. But a sex change also offered me enough humbling experiences to make me less willing to pontificate about what other people need to do. I switched instead to just sharing my insights on specific game areas. I've done round-tables and seminars on various aspects of designing and developing games. However, I've loved the big lectures given by my friends Chris Crawford, Brian Moriarty and a few others that eviscerate our industry, cajole us to think differently and galvanize us to try harder. For myself, I haven't felt driven enough by my beliefs, sure enough of my experience nor confident enough in my ability to climb back into that pulpit again -- till now.
What kicked me into motion was a conversation with a "marketing specialist" at a recent online game conference. He said something innocently grandiose about how great it is that the online service he worked for has got the full gamut of games to cover all possible demographic groups. In his view, as new products come up all he'll have to do is drop it in one of his genre slots and connect the dots between who's out there (audience) and the what they can play (content). I was dumbstruck. It's true that they had things from card games through "Warcraft" to "Doom" that featured different levels of intensity and abstraction. However, from my point of view all those games were holdovers from the pre-online era. I believed we had barely tapped the virgin territory of a whole new medium. Here was a 20 something whiz kid telling me it was all over but to stock those cyber-shelves and rake in the cash. Once I recognized this "new" point of view of his, I started seeing it in a lot of other places. Like the lack of desire by publishers and capitalists to underwrite even small experimental products. All they wanted to talk about were the fully fledged, competitively executed products that looked a lot like what was selling in the PC CD market. They were more willing to spend a million bucks on a "C&C" clone than under $100K on a promising concept for an original product. As the self-appointed life-long defender of people-oriented games in this business I had to speak up to save this potential new medium from being turned into another silicon valley meets Hollywood "sequel-itis" wasteland.
So that's why I'm motivated to preach. But am I qualified? In these days where spending six months with an internet service provider is enough to proclaim yourself an expert in the online world, it's a good question. I've done more original multi-player games than anybody else in the games business and the one thing we're sure about online games is that they will be multi-player. Of the dozen games that I've had published by Strategic Simulations, Electronic Arts and Microprose, 10 were multi-player. The first 7 of them used shared or simultaneous input (depending on the platform) and shared output. (In other words players were grouped around a computer with their own joysticks when possible or passing it when not). There were (and still are) numerous possibilities for social interaction and interesting play with the shared computer kind of design. However, there were a number of logistical issues related to getting groups of people playing games around a single computer (such as, it's not usually centrally located and people need to be "invited"). Online games "fix" these problems while still offering several of the social advantages of multi-player games. Thus, as soon as possible I switched to writing online games and my last 3 were of the type that each player had their own machine connected by modems. (Specifically, they were server-less, synchronous-state, real-time action-strategy games where all the code ran on the client machines). I did the first point-to-point game and the first four player network games published by major publishers. The last several years I've been a design consultant specializing in multi-player online games.
There are my motivations and my qualifications to speak. How about my confidence to deliver this tirade? On that I'm too stubborn not to try.
We're going to attempt to uncover why online games suck and what to do about it. First, I should share the good news about online games. A lot of people are having a lot of fun playing the online games they are being offered. "Quake", "Warcraft", "C&C", "Diablo" and their clones are doing an amazing job of convincing people that the age of online multi-player games is upon us. A whole sub-industry is being developed to bring more folks into that realm and to make money off them. Compared to this time last year, we now know that tens of thousands of people are willing to sign up and pay some amount just to play games online. Although, we still don't know the ideal system for financing online play we at least have some notions about mixing ads and box-office to fund the system.
What I mean in my title, "Imaginary Playmates in Real-time", is that for nearly all intents and purposes the current crop of games (and even the next crop that I'm aware of) have simply taken standard computer game genres from the pre-online era and replaced the AI opponents with humans. If you're playing one of those games, your interaction with those humans is at the same level as it was with the AI ones. What we're experiencing now is just the fact that people make better opponents. They will do more interesting things than any algorithm. Those of us who have been pushing multi-player games for years have known this part. It's just that this is such a tiny aspect of what having human playmates can mean. People can make you feel welcome and accepted. People can teach you and share with you. They can touch you emotionally. But in the current online games they are nothing but a few pixels on the screen and an occasional stream of text. So, I guess what I'm saying is that online games suck in comparison to what they can become. So, it appears I was exaggerating in my sub-title "or Why Online Games Suck". Guilty as charged. But, I got you here and paying attention and I promise to give you some suggestions on how we can create an online games medium that will make what's happening now look "sucky" by comparison.
What we have now is a multi-billion dollar computer game business. Lets look at where that money moves. Most of the accumulation of wealth occurs as a result of the sales and distribution of our designs. Retailers, who display our games to their audience, take the lions share of the revenue stream - between 50% and 60%. For this they present the edges of boxes on shelves under labels they consider descriptive. At this particular point in time those labels are thematic more often than not. You'll find our games categorized under Science Fiction, Sports, War, etc. Under these titles you will find everything mixed together. I've even seen "Command and Conquer", "Duke Nukem" and "Myst" under Science Fiction for God's sake! How do retailers not know that our audience fall into categories by whether they like strategy, action or adventure games not whether it deals with the future? I can't imagine how players find games they are likely to enjoy these days.
The next big player in terms of accumulation of wealth in our industry are the publisher/distributors. They take 35% to 40% of the pie. For this they put our software on CD's, put them in boxes and ship them to retailers. This is not to say they don't make a creative contribution. They turn their marketing gurus loose to invent the packaging that makes our games sound like something they want to sell. (Not that they constrain themselves to describing the actual game they are putting in the box.) The backs of boxes seem to be designed to make it harder rather than easier to figure out what the game is about or how it really plays. It's goal is to get that box off the shelf and whatever it takes to do that seems fine to the publisher. There are also the full-page, content-free ads that the marketing folks invent as another of the publisher's offerings to the success of our products. But by far the main contribution of the publishers is their input into our design process. They help us follow the lead of the last big seller. Without their help we might flounder around and make something original.
Thus, about 80% of the money goes to people who make their "votes" based on those superficial things that make the "sizzle" but not the "substance". Now, I don't want to imply that cool animated cut-scenes and appealing segues are not nice things to have in a product. They can help players get into the story-line and enjoy the rest of the product. It's just that in too many cases products are getting sold just for their icing regardless of whether there is cake underneath it or not. (A friend described that as "A big hole where the fun should be"). And I would contend it's the screwy distribution system that not only allows it but encourages it. In additions, corporate buyers, like all "market analysts" only know what sold last quarter and that's what they base their decisions on for this quarter. Hence, the chute is greased for sequels and "me too" games. Add to all this the data point that most computer software is bought when a computer is first purchased. I've heard numbers that say 80% of all software is sold to new users within a month of buying their computer. What that means is that sellers don't even have to worry about delivering trash and pissing off their buyers. They're not coming back and will be replaced by the next sucker in line anyway! A final new trend is that very few retailers will let you exchange anything but defective software in a "like for like" swap these days. I think you can see how the system has nailed the coffin shut on innovation. It has ensured both the continued success of "sizzle" and the fact that most "steak" is tough if not rank.
OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. But none of these aspects of the current system favor success in the new online medium we would like to envision. The shelf-space online will be unlimited and deception will be punished by players not returning to your site. Originality will be required but "publishing" is unnecessary. Although sizzle won't hurt, substance in the form of addictive playability over time is essential. Instead of software that is primarily sold to new owners, the online environment will be peopled by savvy consumers who are wired into their own interest groups. Revenue accumulation with almost all expected financial models rewards repeat customers in the online world more than initial sales.
Brilliant graphics and sounds could be used to set the scene for players making their experience more compelling. Segues and cut-scenes are triggered as appropriate to that audience of one. No provision needed to be made as to what the other players would be doing while the awards ceremony visuals were running. Pandering to the only player didn't create any tension with the others who might not be doing as well. In solo-games they were all AI stand-ins who would mindlessly wait while you gorged on eye candy. And the pandering didn't stop with their ego's either, solo games needed to push the platform too since one of the biggest perks for many hard-core players was showing off their hardware.
The features of a solo-player's game are geared to take advantage of the "learning curve" involved in the process of mastering a new game and its environment. There can be whole groups of features that only show up in certain environments as the player advances and learns to play. Players of those designs not only accepted the idea that more was better, they demanded complexity for it's own sake or else they thought they were being cheated.
"Kitchen sink" design also has an advantage to solo-player games besides the titillation of the player. Designers could hide the limitations of the AI opponent behind the veil of added game elements that kept challenging the player when his opponent couldn't. Another aspect of the AI also influenced solo-game design. Although subtle nuances of pattern recognition might be trivial for a human player, the most blatant patterns could be a nightmare for AI. Hence, there's a tendency to make the externals of solo-games very conventional. Designers discard opportunities for interactions with audio-visual cues in favor of algorithmic and concrete presentations. Rather than allude to something with subtle patterns or sounds that humans excel at, designers used the same kind of logic in their representations as they used in their artificial opponent's analysis of the world. There aren't "maybes". There are only "zeros" and "ones". In addition, the need for competent AI required that the internal models be computational which computers "love" rather than heuristic which humans enjoy.
Taken together these design elements may make good solo games but they conspire to make games that are poorly suited to humans playing with humans. Rather than "over the top" production values, online games will reward small downloads, good multi-player balance and smooth play experiences. These will preclude pauses for "cut-scenes" and pandering to a single player's ego or hardware vanity. Since people derive much of their challenge while playing with each other from anticipating each other's actions, complex feature sets are unnecessary. Simple sets of rules, consistent over time make multi-player games more accessible. However, subtle nuances in audio/visual presentation of products make for much richer play experiences for human opponents. And, finally, heuristic (rules of thumb based) models are much more appealing to players than complex numeric systems and once again play to the strengths of our brains while not sacrificing playability.
Those are the two biggest obstacles to be overcome in order to bring online games up to their potential. Both are very daunting and will probably keep a lot of good talent from coming to this area or being effective here. It's even possible that the distribution monster will attempt to sabotage this medium to protect its turf. Just the simple fact that their financial model sells the CD but gives away the "play time" makes "pay as you play" and "advertiser supported play" less appealing. However, I believe once we have some content designed specifically for online multi-player play, it will be no contest which kind of product people want to play. The concept of continuing to tack the online option to basically solo CD games will look pitiful by comparison. Even if the online media creators have to move to some kind of sales of their software, without middlemen, manufacturing and shipping we could be pretty darn competitive. I used to tell folks who bought my games that by the time EA got done with it all, I only got about $2 a copy so if they ever wanted to clear their conscience for pirating "M.U.L.E." they could just send the $2 straight to me. The shareware distribution folks seem to make much better than that per copy.
I think a much better case can be made that small creative shops will be the province of the new online medium where so much is unknown about what will work and hunches, instincts and wild impulses can and must be followed. The budgets need not be the astronomical numbers ($1million plus) that are talked about for CD products. Online games need to be small (under 10 meg) so the download won't be prohibitive. Since they are multi-player they need to be simple to play, without complex expanding features that make testing and debugging a nightmare during development. There's no place for fancy cinematic segues and cut scenes so the art requirement is just what's needed to support game play. And, finally since rev's are no problem when you don't have to master a CD and ship it to several thousand retailers in time for the ads to hit, you can make the whole development process iterative. The game project can evolve and be financed in stages and still be productive. Taken together, I think these items create a wonderful opportunity for innovative products financed inventively. To me, it's a situation very much reminiscent of when Trip Hawkins was founding Electronic Arts. He approached several game designers (including myself) in the early '80's to empower us to do the creative things that he believed the new medium (at that time floppy-based-games) could accomplish. (The "Can a computer make you cry?" ad was the hallmark of that era). A lot of neat stuff was done before the business was taken over by it's distribution system. We need another "Trip" to seed this next growth spurt. If the new "Trip" is in the audience, would he or she see me after this talk. Have I got a deal for you?!
[Note: this interview was not lead by me, but is her "standard" interview she prepared for her Ozarksoft site]
-What got you interested in writing games?
After years of therapy I think I know the answer to this - when I was a kid the only times my family spent together that weren't totally dysfunctional were when we were playing games. Consequently I believe games are a wonderful way to socialize. Also, I'm a bit of a "control freak" and love making rules for other people to follow.
-If you didn't get into the game business, what field might you have gotten into?
I graduated in '74 with a degree in Industrial Engineering which is the discipline responsible for operations research and systems simulation. In my first job I did mathematical modeling of various urban systems for the National Science Foundation. It was the closest thing to building games I could find and I guess I'd go back to it if I wasn't in the games biz.
-What's the story behind the publication of your first game?
My first game was a four player business management game with a real-time auction for the Apple II 16K cassette machine titled "Wheeler Dealers". The Apple didn't have a 4 player input device so I built some and included them with the game. I convinced my publisher (Speakeasy Software of Canada) to underwrite the construction of 500 of these, to put them in a printed box and to sell them at $35 a piece (when other games sold for $15 max and came in a ziploc bag). We sold 50 copies. However, this game was the launching pad for my career and was successively replicated in "Cartels and Cutthroats" (SSI) and "M.U.L.E." (EA).
-Was the experience of writing your early games, like Computer Quarterback, different than that of more recent titles like Global Conquest?
Yes, of course. "Computer Quarterback" was written only for myself and friends to play on the computer at work. I later converted it from Fortan on a mini-computer to Basic on an Apple II and sent it to Strategic Simulations. Design and development was a leisurely one person job. By the time I designed "Global Conquest" I had 2 programmers, 2 artists, a sound/music person, a writer and a director of play-testing to coordinate the development with (not even mentioning all the publisher's people). In some ways my job had gotten easier since I wrote very little code and debugged none of it. But in other ways my job had gotten much worse since I was responsible for bringing home enough money to pay seven people's cost of living rather than just my own.
-When and why did you switch from being a lone wolf developer to working with a group of people?
From the beginning I used groups of people to "play test" my games and from that group I acquired a design helper and my first programmer assistant. That was as far back as "Cartels & Cutthroats". The next game I did was "Cytron Masters" and we added another programmer to help with graphics and the Atari port. At that point we were all part-time except me. When Trip Hawkins approached me about writing M.U.L.E. for Electronic Arts the 4 person group we named Ozark Softscape was in place full-time.
-Prior to M.U.L.E., your games were visually spartan. Was the change for commercial reasons?
Actually M.U.L.E. was the first game where we started development in a graphical environment -- the Atari 800 vs. the Apple. However, EA was also very supportive of that move. Also, we had a graphics person on staff at that point. I can't draw worth a flip myself and still care more for the content of the interactions than the sizzle in games I design.
-How did the design for M.U.L.E. develop?
There are several threads here. 1) Trip Hawkins wanted to get the rights Cartels and Cuttroats (a standard business strategy game I wrote for SSI) but the publisher wouldn't let it go. I told him I could do a better original. Nine months later we shipped "M.U.L.E." for the Atari 800. 2) "Wheeler Dealers" (see above) showed me how engaging a real time auction could be. The rest of the game was devised to support that activity given the two criteria that the underlying model be very easy to describe and where ever possible decisions be entered into the computer by "doing" rather than "telling". 3) The design evolved and was balanced by exhaustive play-testing. We had "M.U.L.E." testing parties several times a week to try out features and tweak numbers.
-How did the game get its name?
Part of the design of the game was inspired by a section of "Time Enough For Love" by Heinlein where in order to colonize planets the pioneers used bio-engineered mules. Our mechanized mules and their funny antics convinced us at Ozark Softscape that an acronym for mule would be cool but EA wanted "Moguls from Mars". We showed them how well M.U.L.E. looked on the title screen. That and some shrewd procrastination got them to go along.
-Who else worked on M.U.L.E.? [And what did they do?]
My brother, Bill Bunten, helped with design and the play-testing logistics; Jim Rushing helped with programming (especially the solo opponent); Alan Watson took care of the graphics; Roy Glover did the sounds and music and our producer at EA was Joe Ybarra.
-When did you first realize that M.U.L.E. was something special?
I'm not sure whether "M.U.L.E." is something special or not. As with all of my games, I thought "M.U.L.E." was alternately wonderful and terrible. During development I get more and more excited about the game as I design solutions to problems. Later when it's finished I'm glad to see the completed product and am proud of it. When the reviews come in I'm almost always disappointed (even a "critically acclaimed" game gets some criticism). And then when actual users write and tell me how much they enjoyed it I get excited again. However, if I go back and play the game after a year or so I'm inevitable depressed by the problems I see in the design. Finally, regardless of whether a product succeeds or fails there is always room to second guess yourself or to learn the wrong lessons - all of which lead to some ambivalence about the game. But good or bad it's my baby and I'm glad I built it.
-It is well known that although a masterpiece of gaming, M.U.L.E. wasn't a commercial success? How poorly did it do in the marketplace? [And why, in your opinion?]
Actually given some caveats it didn't do all that badly. It sold 30,000 copies and for a game whose home platform (the Atari 800) went out of production just months after its release, that ain't bad. Also, although we ported it to the c64 it had a very poor solo capability but still sold good numbers there too. Finally, I know from data sources other than sales numbers that it was as widely distributed as "Seven Cities of Gold" which sold 5 times as many copies. It was during the days when players would say "Have you heard about 'M.U.L.E.'? You want a copy?" Ironically, all I have left of the game are a few "protected" copies that I don't know how to duplicate even for friends!
-Rumors of an updated M.U.L.E. resurface every so often. What's your relationship with the game been like over the years?
That game requires a very special platform to be re-released. At minimum it needs a way for 4 players to interact simultaneously. Not since the Atari 800 has a mainstream platform included that capability without special adapters. I'm working with Mpath Interactive right now to see what we can do to bring an Internet version to market. It'll require some significant design changes since people won't actually be sitting side-by-side on the net. Also it won't be called "M.U.L.E." since in perfect irony even though the rights to the game and the design have reverted to me, EA owns the name (the name they didn't want us to use)!
-What was the inspiration for Seven Cities of Gold?
Curiously, after "M.U.L.E." I wanted to do "Civilization". I forced the other members of Ozark Softscape and our producer to play the Avalon Hill game while we were on a retreat in the Ozarks brain-storming new projects. I couldn't get enough enthusiasm from anyone else so we settled on an exploration game. I had remembered a game from SPI called "Conquistadors" and got closure around doing something like that. I had been backpacking by myself just previously and had gotten lost. In Arkansas you're never more than a day's walk from a major road. However, it was still a very viscerally intense feeling - being lost in the woods. I wanted to capture that aspect of exploring so the "new world" was not the North and South America we already knew. In my research of the early encounters with the natives it was very apparent that the lack of a shared culture was a continuous problem when dealing with the natives and I wanted the game to reflect that as well. Hence, the natives mill around you - sometimes threateningly - in the game and you have to keep your cool and work with them if you wish to make peaceful contact.
-You've always been more into the creative side of game design, yet Seven Cities seems an amazingly complex program. Was it a difficult game to write, technically speaking?
Actually, all of my games included elements that pushed at least my own (and my company's) limits. During the Atari 800 and C64 days we were among all the designers in that we knew as little or as much as they did and could implement quirky ideas to get what we wanted from the hardware. For instance, in M.U.L.E. we did amazing things to fit all of the graphical effects into little more than 32K! In 'Seven Cities" I knew I wanted a bigger world than could fit in memory so I came up with this scheme for compressing the data and spooling the floppy so I could have it. Nowadays that's the job of the hardware engineers! The one technical challenge that haunts me still from that product was the transfer menu to move things from the ship to the land. That code was completely rewritten a dozen times and I still don't like how it turned out.
-Was it more successful than M.U.L.E. commercially?
By a long shot! 150,000 sales vs. 30,000! But a big part of that came from the fact that EA ported the game to every machine invented! We wrote only the 6502 versions (Atari, C64 and Apple) at Ozark Softscape.
-What's the attraction of designing multiplayer games?
I originated this glib and somewhat morbid comment years ago for a keynote address "No one on their death bed says 'I wish I'd spent more time with my computer!'" The point being that when faced with the grim reaper the meaningful things in one's life seem to be the people we connected with. Designing things that help people connect with each other adds meaning to my life as well. Or as my "X" the psychologist put it - I'm working out my childhood issues!
-Multiplayer games have finally started becoming mainstream. Do you think some of your "forgotten" titles like Robot Rascals would fit well into today's market?
Indeed! I'm amazed you even know about "Rascals"! It was one of the best kept secrets. A computer game without a solo mode for families to play together! It sold all of 9,000 copies. But I loved the design and look forward to finding a home for it again. (Who ARE you?! Really! Where did James Hague learn all this stuff?!)
-Why did you decide to
leave the game industry?
-Do you ever consider returning?
I had a sex-change Nov, '92 and sort of got into other parts of my life. However, I never actually left the business. Until it was canceled the Sega Genesis version of "M.U.L.E." kept me busy the first year of my transition (the name given to the time when your old pronoun doesn't fit anymore but neither does the new one). After that I did almost a year with Interval Research (a Paul Allen think tank) looking into games designed specifically for girls. Currently I am working for Mpath Interactive designing games for the Internet. So, I'm a little more than 3 years into my new life role as Ms. Danielle Berry and her career looks to be somewhat different from old Mr. Dan Bunten's. For one thing I'm not as good a programmer as he was. I'm also not as willing to sit for hours in front of a computer to make something that other people can use to socialize. I tend to need to socialize far more often than he did. Thus, I do design and consulting rather than programming and development. However, with my background I seem uniquely suited to this business so I think I'll stay around in one form or another for as long as they'll have me.
-[In your opinion] Has game design advanced since the mid 1980s?
I think we have gotten better at doing interfaces that users can understand. That was a significant part of what I was aiming at and consider one of my accomplishments with my early designs. However, I don't think much has been done on the actual content of games and their models. Many designers are still using very primitive techniques to create randomness, for instance. In the real world there are far more normally distributed outcomes than uniformly distribute ones. Also, I resent the strangle hold the distribution channel has on design via their arbitrarily imposed genres and product categories. I don't believe a game like "Seven Cities" would be allowed today since it crosses too many boundaries to sit comfortably in one of their genres - is it a educational historical simulator or an adventure game or a strategy game? The term "edutainment" was coined by Trip Hawkins on a press trip to New York to release "Seven Cities of Gold". Who would have dreamt what a "kiss of death" that concept would become to mainstream products because of genre hardening. Anyway, I still believe we're in the early days of this industry and have a lot to discover and invent. Literature, anthropology and even dance have a good deal more to teach designers about human drives and abilities than the technologists of either end of California who know silicon and celluloid but not much else. (Damn I can sound pretty articulate for an Arkie don't ya think?)
Dani Bunten Berry, firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in the German games magazine Power Play, issue January 1995. The interview was lead by Brenda Garno. Edited by Volker Weitz. Re-translated from German to English by Christian Schiller, October 1999. Brenda, if you read this and can provide me with the original English interview text, please do so. :-)
Programs like "M.U.L.E.", "Seven Cities of Gold" or "Command HQ" have already become evergreens in the gaming scene. We spoke to the more than unusual woman who stands behind all those products.
Only a few game designers
are left who influenced the gaming industry actively sind 1978. If you
look at the "Hall of Fame" of those early games designers, you will unavoidably
find the name Dan Bunten. But - you will not find him anymore. On
November 15th 1992, a very special birthday for him, Dan became "Danielle
Paula Bunten", a self-confident woman who conquers the obstacles in her
He (back then) and she (today) has written more multi-player games than anyone else in the scene: "Wheeler Dealers", "Computer Quarterback", "Cartels and Cutthroats", "Cyrton Masters", "M.U.L.E.", "Robot Rascals", "Modem Wars", "Command HQ" and "Global Conquest". Adding the single-player bestseller "Seven Cities of Gold" makes Dani a real game master, who has spoken several times at the "Computer Game Developers Conference", among other tasks.
In this interview, Dani reveals details about her personal change, her role in the industry, the direction in which she expects it to evolve and her hope of a revival of her popular game "M.U.L.E.".
-You've been creating games for 16 years now - an almost unbelievably long time. This gives you an advantage over people who only entered the games industry in the mid-eighties or even nineties. You've had plenty of time to see the market grow and develop. What's your opinion on the industry today?
Good question - there are a lot of different ideas behind it. Great things have happened. There are a lot more people involved, and there are a lot of more possibilities than in the past. Game design is, comparable to other sectors in the entertainment industry, a process of communication between the developer, designer and the audience. The more audience we have, the better - and we surely have more than in 1978. Apart from that, the hardware has become significantly better.
-You're referring to the "good old times" of cassettes...
My first game, "Wheeler Dealer", was a 16K-Cassette for the Apple. One constantly knocked against some technical borders, even with the programs we made for the Atari and Commodore - too little memory, too little speed. But even today, with many more technical possibilities, we are again knocking against borders - but that's probably a part of the profession of a game designer. The difference is that one can play around much longer until those borders are reached. With the PC for example, with its high resolution and 256 colors, we have a totally different "canvas" to realize our conception. CDs are also a welcomed innovation which primarily solve the problem of pirate copies. These pirate copies were always our problem because they touched the developer's purse directly. As much as we like it that our products are being liked - enthusiastically making a copy of the game for your friends is not what we originally intended...
-How seriously were your games affected by that?
I had lots of problems with it, but with M.U.L.E. it was worst. According to many people, the game has been the most pirated piece of software ever on this planet - and we have facts and numbers which prove that: "Seven Cities of Gold" sold 150.000 copies, "M.U.L.E." only 30.000. But: everyone has played it. I know more people who have a (pirate) copy of M.U.L.E. somewhere than of "Seven Cities of Gold". The game was enormously successful - just not commercially. Basically I hate to raise my moral index, and I can imagine why pirate copies are so fascinating - but the losses are significant. I've emerged as a loser from this story.
-As positive as the new developments against software piracy and the new graphical possibilities may be - didn't the games lose something?
It's strange: Some things have become better in the past, but the seamy side of the general development has become more noticable. The creativity behind earlier games and the diversity of products has disappeared almost completely. Today we're in a world where every game is bound to a specific genre. We have groups of categories - and that's all we will ever see. It is even more extreme with the cartridge machines - meanwhile, there are enough people who've had enough of fiddling with the joystick, always playing variations of one and the same game principle. It's almost as if a higher instance has decided that there are just two genres left, "sports" and "action": games which require fast reflexes and high speed or games where you have to shoot at something. The phenomenal success of "Doom" for example doesn't help us a bit. Though it is a graphically very nice variation of the good old "Wolfenstein", it is still bound to the same idea: Shoot everything which moves. That's not exactly my connotation of game design. Of course it is very successful commericially, but is that the only criterium which counts? It's almost as if today's publishers were thinking exactly like that. If a certain game doesn't reach a certain revenue in a certain amount of time, it is thought of as a let-down. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate development which constantly becomes worse. If you take a look at Electronic Arts' software catalogue of 1983, for example, you see an unbelievable variety of products. Today however, their palette is rather conventional, conservative and regressive. The casually appearing innovative game gets almost no support in the marketing division. Of course, that's only one case of many; but it seems to be a secret agreement for the whole market.
-A secret agreement?
On the one hand, there are the distributors as a junction between the publisher and the audience. They look at the games without knowing anything about the matter: How does the packaging look like? Is it being advertised as the "hottest product of this-and-that genre"? etc. Then they make their decisions, without having played the game even once. Because of these people who absolutely do not care about the game's contents, we have problems. Everything they do is to put a package into stores as good as possible, in terms of marketing. With that, they decide what is being produced. That's a shame - I can't express it differently without endangering my own future potential.
-Are there still any games which are not mainstream?
There are... casually. "Lemmings"
for example - a nice, extraordinary idea. Or "The Incredible Machine" -
in my opinion, this game belongs to a genre that has been forgotten too
early. There were a few games I would describe as real "toys". You can't
win or lose them, but you play around with them. "Sim City" also was such
a game where entertainment and education were well balanced. While you
are building the cities you also learn about municipal construction. In
"The Incredible Machine", you learn something about physics, but only by
the way, in a convenient manner. These are wonderful games which also offer
something for the intellect.
The best products are those which can't be connoted with a specific genre, like e.g. "General Chaos" from Sega which is a strange mixture between strategy game and shoot 'em up. It's really fascinating how it crossed the borders of the respective genre.
-This has also been a multiplay game...
There you can see my personal
favourites... It was a game for four players. If you can play with many
people, that makes the game more entertaining and challenging. I've held
a lecture on that topic a few years ago on one of those "Developer Conferences".
Nobody says on his deathbed: "I wish I had interacted with more things
- I've spent too much time with my family and friends". On the contrary:
Most people are interested in other people. We interact with things because
we want to find an exit from our inability to communicate - but that does
not mean that it is our greatest wish...
I believe in a not too distant future we will look back and say: "Do you remember the time when playing computer games meant to sit alone in a closed room?!" This image of "playing" is something for boys before puberty who really make everything you can do with buttons and joystick movements - the keyword is intensity. I don't want to teach them to behave differently, because they seem to enjoy it. But I believe that there is enough room for different kinds of fun and entertainment.
This was the main problem with "M.U.L.E.". Sega came and EA came and wanted more of "the same" - not different games. Hence I tried to apply something of the desired intensity to "M.U.L.E." - and it failed. I would really like to see it republished: It is my best game according to many people's opinion and clearly my most entertaining, I think. The only thing it needs is a kind of facelifting: better graphics and details. I believe the game content is still well balanced and appealing - there are still people left who love this game, ten years after its release. Hence, there must be something about it!
-Do you think that the large companies like "Sony" and "Time Warner" supress the small, creative developers?
Absolutely! But in the long run, everything might turn out well. I have constructed a scenario for myself where creative working will still be possible. Hand in hand with the development of the "Big Players" which is orientated towards multimedia and Hollywood standards, a scene is growing which concentrates on network gaming and alternative publishing methods. I just critizised "Doom" for its lack of game content - but on the other hand it is a nice example for an untraditional publishing method. With a minimum of costs it was possible to reach a large audience and still earn a lot of money.
-Is that something you could imagine?
I would be happy and satisfied if I could merely develop multiplayer games which let people interact! And: I already had a lot of success with that. Some of my games weren't successful commercially but are still alive because they have been distributed to other people. A good example for that is "Global Conquest", my last game for Microprose. We knew it was tricky and constantly touched the borders of a strategy-, war- or board game; I don't even know in which genre I should put it. It was something like "Empire", like our previous game - but additionally it was challenging, highly addictive, and you could play it with four players over modem or network. Currently it is not published anymore, but is still alive in the various networks. Though I don't get any money for that, it is still a reward to see that. If I had enough cash, I would release such games as shareware and then get sent $20 from the people - this would be seven times as much than I get from a publisher. But the market will find different possibilities, and then times for creative minds will get better.
-Do you think your reputation as designer and programmer has been changed by your personal change?
I don't think so. I had been planned as a woman - just my body didn't fit. Hence I chose the way to adapt my body to my soul.
-And then you've been to the Computer Games Developers Conference. How did people react?
As far as I can judge it - maybe it will be different in the future - I did not feel any discrimination. Neither as a "changed person" nor as a woman. I think that is very positive and also a good sign for this industry. As I went to the conference as "Danielle" instead of "Dan", people were very open-hearted, supported me and were happy for me. I didn't have any negative reactions: Nobody came and said: "Gawd, what happened to you!" or "Who are you?". It was really fun. My "coming out" at the conference was my key experience. The whole thing is a little bit uncomfortable; and when you get support, it is something great! Besides, I think my job opportunities have widened instead of getting worse.
I've just finished being a consultant for "Interval Research". The aim of the study was to develop attractive games for girls. I don't think they chose me if I had not become a woman. The whole thing was a lot of fun. On the other hand, I had to manage a little crisis when "M.U.L.E." for the Sega Genesis had been cancelled. I came back to Little Rock, Arkansas and just said: "Finished. I'm finished with this industry. I surrender". Hence I printed out my course of life - before my work as a programmer I had been a conventional engineer - which had grown quite considerable during the course of time and walked to the next job exchange. At first, my salary expectations were cut down considerably - and even after that, it didn't even come to a first job hearing. I can swear: If I had come as a man, with all my experience as an engineer and a programmer, I would have been in a leading position in no time! There is a lot of discrimination, especially in the South of USA, but in this case it was "only" directed to me a "woman", not as a "changed person".
-To tell it everyone would be like walking on the street and always shouting "I'm a woman!".
Possibly - there's something true about it. Really: I think of my as a woman. I'm not anymore in any shifting phase; I'm "ready". The changing has something to do with the story how I became a woman - it has nothing to do with who I am now. My children call me "mommy" - that's the way it works. I feel a lot more like being "mommy" than I ever feeled being "daddy".
-I as someone who has always been a woman cannot see anything "typically female" about me - apart from the physical differences of course. Maybe it's because I never needed to think about it - I simply am who I am. How did you realize that you actually are a woman?
There were a variety of small, even unnoticable things. I had the body of a man and played the role which society imprinted on me: The role of a husband, a father. But that has always been a conscious acting; more of a role than an actual "being so". Looking back, I have the feeling that I acted all the time. Now I don't need to act anymore - and that's rather ironic because I had to learn a lot to actually "count" as a woman! I had to learn how to walk, speak, dress as a woman. Those little things which are necessary that other people don't react alienated.There's a little summary someone gave me to make clear what being a woman means: As a woman you have to sing when you speak, dance when you walk, and you have to open your heart... I know how stereotypical that sounds, but it is true! Speech for a man is something completely different: The melody of speech is fast, monotone and decreases at the end of a sentence. Sometimes, this still happens to me, and people are always irritated. Female speech is a little bit like song - we have a lot more melody and different speech patterns. Walking is really a bit like dancing: slower and connected with a lot of subtile movements - I enjoyed it at once. Besides, I had to stop going strictly through the world like I had done it before. That was typically male for me.
-Now you know both sides. Can you explain why there are so few female game designers?
There are overall few women
in the industry - that's not connected to the job of a game designer specifically.
Somehow this industry doesn't seem to be attractive for women. I can explain
it: My own priorities have shifted. Now, the job comes after family, and
also personal relationships outside family have become more important for
me than before - though I'm still a workaholic. But I don't identify myself
with the job as strong as before.
From the view of the game player, there's the problem for girls that they don't interact with humans. As I made the consulting job for "games for girls", my first intuition was: "Drop the things, concentrate on interaction". I'm against stereotyping the sexes because this is culturally derived anyway. Girls are grown up with other preferences: they are more building up, interactive, supporting. They learn more communication and sensitivity. Boys are a lot more oriented towards an aim. In connection to that, something springs to my mind which perfectly describes the "little difference": One of the sadest changes I had to deal with after my operation was the fact that I couldn't aim anymore when urinating. Boys - I have two little sons and a daughter - simply love to aim. As someone who was able to do that for years and who cannot do it anymore now, I suddenly had to deal with a lot more changing world - a world I couldn't control very well anymore. Socially, it's maybe as simple as this: Men aim and women are devoted to an event, or something similar. Such have our cultural roles evolved. Back to the topic: There's no equivalent in the computer world to our feelings in the real world - no love, no touching, no nuances. That's a big problem.
-Is that an insight from your work on "female" games?
Absolutely yes. When I took a look at my productes, I realized very fast where the problem was: to express emotions in a digital world. There are simply too little details which are needed for example to let a computer character tell how it feels. Technology and graphics are completely irrelevant - the emotions simply aren't there. Of course you can, like in a movie, prepare a set of fixed emotions and behaviourisms so that the spectator can see: "Oh, now he or she is sad". But one can't produce computed versions of these emotions which could be used algorithmically. Additionally, there's the problem how an artificial intelligence can know when she's happy and when she's sad. That's the cause for the fact that there are so little "female" products, at least that's what I think. It's simply not possible. It's a lot simpler to produce fast cars, spaceships or other technical gimmicks!
-However: I as a female entity and computer games player like hardcore games like "Doom" nevertheless which have absolutely nothing in common with the mentioned "female" qualitities.
I can imagine that - I also like playing games, even when I'm not currently programming something. "Road Rash" was such a case: Though I've driven a motor cycle only two times in my life. But that left a constant impression on me, hence I really enjoyed riding the nitro-bike and hitting my enemies with chains and karate kicks. That was really fun. I just didn't like the ending, when the girl joined me on the bike - that's not exactly what I had in mind.
REPRINTED FROM: GAME DEVELOPER volume 5, number 10 ( OCTOBER 1998 )
Dani was presented with the Computer Game Developers Association's Lifetime Achievement Award at the CGDC in Long Beach, Calif., last May. Dani's longtime friend and fellow game designer Brian Moriarty honored her at that ceremony with a laudatory speech, which we have excerpted here. We'll miss you, Dani. - The Editors
A TRIBUTE TO DANI BUNTEN
BY BRIAN MORIARTY
It's fair to characterize tonight's honoree as an old-timer. Her first published title, WHEELER DEALERS was released back in 1978. This Apple II cassette was rather unusual. It came in a cardboard box instead of a ziplock bag. It sold for thirty-five bucks at a time when most games sold for ten or fifteen. Strangest of all, it wasn't designed for a single user. An array of push-buttons included in the box allowed up to four people to join in a real-time stock market simulation. WHEELER DEALERS sold only around 50 copies. But it marked the beginning of a preoccupation with a design issue 20 years ahead of its time: multiplayer gaming.
COMPUTER QUARTERBACK, published in 1979, was originally designed to support exactly two players. It was ported to Apple BASIC from a mini-computer simulation written in Fortran. In an amusing reversal of recent industry practice, it was the single-player mode that was reluctantly added at the last minute at the request of the publisher, Strategic Simulations.
Nineteen eighty-one saw the release of a second Apple title for SSI, CARTELS AND CUTTHROATS. An economic simulation designed for up to six simultaneous players, the box copy promised that the game was "so much fun you may overlook its use as a superb educational tool." One of the early admirers of CARTELS AND CUTTHROATS was a game theorist fresh out of Harvard with the curious nickname Trip.
The theme of war makes its first appearance in 1982, with CYTRON MASTERS for SSI's RapidFire label. This two-player design offered a curious conjunction of strategy and real-time action in a game that pushed the Apple II hardware to its limits.
Just after CYTRON MASTERS was released, the aforementioned Harvard graduate expressed a desire to obtain the publishing rights to CARTELS AND CUTTHOATS for a new game company he was launching. When SSI refused to let it go, the original designer gamely offered to produce a superior knock-off.
Nine months later, Electronic Arts bamboozled the industry with a flattering new vision of what computer gaming was all about. Their slick and glamorous promotional campaign turned publishers into record labels, developers into movie studios, and game designers into rock stars. For a few short months, the prospect of fame, wealth, and a matching wardrobe inspired game designers to new heights of personal ambition and creativity; an ideal atmosphere for creating a masterpiece.
M.U.L.E. was multiplayer from the ground up. It used the joystick array of the Atari 800 to connect four people in an unprecedented example of computer-moderated parlor gaming. By combining the resource management of CARTELS AND CUTTHROATS, the auctioneering of WHEELER DEALERS and the futuristic setting of CYTRON MASTERS, M.U.L.E. sustained an exquisite play balance of teamwork and rivalry, bitter cooperation and delicious treachery. Although the original version sold only 30,000 copies, M.U.L.E. developed a base of passionate fans that remains active even today. It is required study for anyone interested in the design of multiplayer computer games.
M.U.L.E. was the first title attributed to Ozark Softscape, an Arkansas design collective marketed by Electronic Arts as a hip back-country boutique, computer gaming's answer to the Allman Brothers. Expectations were high after the induction of M.U.L.E. into Computer Gaming World's Hall of Fame. Astonishingly, their next EA release actually lived up to the hype.
SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD was a solid commercial triumph. It brought together real-time action, strategy, and exploration in a historical adventure with a genuine smudge of educational value. In fact, the much-despised term "edutainment" was originally coined to describe this game. With sales of 150,000 copies across several platforms and numerous design awards, SEVEN CITIES catapulted Ozark into the ranks of the elite developers; and nobody complained about the fact that it was designed for only a single player.
Ozark wanted to follow up SEVEN CITIES with a computerized edition of one of the classic Avalon Hill board games, but Electronic Arts had other ideas. Some executive arm-twisting and a substantial cash bribe resulted in a sequel, HEART OF AFRICA for the Commodore 64, which continued the formula of action and strategy, exploration and history. It achieved less than half the sales of its predecessor. A few years later, another designer tried his hand at that old Avalon Hill game, CIVILIZATION.
HEART OF AFRICA was to be the last product Ozark ever designed for a single user. In fact, their next design took the multiplayer option to a provocative new extreme. Not only did ROBOT RASCALS have no single-player mode, it actually required the participation of no less than four human players. Daringly billed as a "family game," this peculiar fusion of turn-based action and strategy, augmented by a deck of real playing cards, received a polite but puzzled critical receptiontion, and was carefully ignored by everybody else.
A final title for Electronic Arts broke even more new ground. 1988's MODEM WARS was the first game released by a major publisher to support modem-to-modem multiplay. A futuristic synthesis of toy soldiering and football, MODEM WARS was a technical tour de force, offering a surprisingly brisk interactive experience within the severe constraints of 1200-baud modems. Many of the latency and synchronization challenges faced by today's network game engineers were solved first by MODEM WARS.
Microprose took up the cause of modem-based wargaming in a big way with the 1990 release COMMAND HQ, which boasted a simple, clean user interface that made historical strategy more accessible than ever, and racked up impressive sales.
Its successor, 1992's GLOBAL CONQUEST, was the first four-player network game released by a major publisher. Its absorbing mix of real-time action and resource development was the design prototype for an entire generation of combat simulations, including DUNE II, WARCRAFT and COMMAND AND CONQUER.
The constellation of classic games you see here is just one dimension of a professional career in which the joy of communication has played a central role. Her long list of publishing credits includes columns and articles for virtually all of the leading industry journals. She delivered the first keynote address at the legendary 1988 Game Developer's Conference in Milpitas, and hosted a series of highly-regarded lectures, seminars, and roundtables at most of the subsequent conferences.
In an industry where many celebrity designers have become remote and unapproachable, she has never failed to remain near the center of social activities, freely sharing her company and expertise with the shakers and the shaken.
In the early 90s, this beer-guzzling Arkansas code wrangler undertook a transformation which dramatically exemplified the gamelike nature of social reality. The broadened perspective gained by her friends and business associates as a result of this transformation has been one of her most precious contributions to the industry.
It is no exaggeration to characterize tonight's honoree as the world's foremost authority on multiplayer computer games. Nobody has worked harder to demonstrate how technology can be used to realize one of the noblest of human endeavors, bringing people together. Historians of electronic gaming will find in these eleven boxes the prototypes of the defining art form of the 21st century. On behalf of the community of game developers and game players worldwide, it is my great pleasure to present this Lifetime Achievement Award to one of the pioneers of interactive entertainment, my courageous teacher and fascinating friend, Dani Bunten Berry.
PICTURED GAMES: WHEELER DEALERS,
COMPUTER QUARTERBACK, CARTELS AND CUTTHOATS,
CYTRON MASTERS, M.U.L.E., SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD, HEART OF AFRICA,
MODEMS WARS, COMMAND H.Q., GLOBAL CONQUEST.
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