Damon Slye: Chapter I

For somebody who remembers only very well the golden flight simulator era of the ’90s, a founder and game designer Damon Slye was of the logical hot picks for an interview. After all, his (and Jeff Tunnel’s) child, studio Dynamix, had rose to become a legend. Legend, that during its 17 years of existence served generations of gamers a massive portion of successful titles across the genre spectrum. Arguably, it’s fair to admit that whatever the developers from Dynamix touched turned into gold. As did Damon himself, who successfully returned into game development after a prolonged hiatus…

Dynamix was founded 34 years ago, but its story began even earlier with a game based on the 3D arcade classic Battlezone, called Stellar 7 for Apple II and C64. It was the first fruitful collaboration between Damon Slye and Jeff Tunnell. How did you guys come together in the first place?

Jeff owned a computer store in Eugene called Computertutor and it was one of the first software-only stores. So I would go in there and that’s how I met him.

So you just decided to make a game together?

I was already working on the game apart from him. He said he wanted to be a publisher and I didn’t believe he could do it, because he wasn’t already a publisher. But he was always a very ambitious person. I was thinking, maybe I should take a deal with Electronic Arts, Sierra or Broderbund, but he convinced me that I should work with him instead. He partnered for a while, when he was the publisher, with a company called Software Entertainment Company, but that didn’t work out. So he realized that he could not be a publisher as he was too small. He didn’t have enough money and he didn’t have enough product, because the distribution channels wouldn’t take your game if they could not do stock balancing. Anyway, he said, “Well how about this? How about we become a game developer and start pitching ideas?” I agreed to that and that’s how we founded Dynamix.

Was Battlezone’s success and popularity the primary mover for Stellar 7’s development?

Yeah, I think I’d call it the inspiration for the game. I was down at the mall and I was playing Battlezone, cause I liked it. I thought, ‘wow this is really cool.’ One of my neighbors, his mother came by and she saw me playing it and she said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “Oh, I am playing this game,” and she said, “Why don’t you make a game like that?” I thought, ‘Oh I could never do that; that’s way too hard; this looks really hard.’ And, of course, that got on my mind and I started thinking, ‘Well, how do you do something like this?’ Cause I had an Apple II and I hadn’t done anything with graphics at all. It got me interested. And I’ve got a good math background, so I was able to figure out the algorithms required for doing 3D graphics – and that wasn’t actually the hardest part. It was really knowing how to make them run fast enough on 6502; that was the real challenge, cause the algorithms, you figure them out, you have them, but then they are too slow.

Stellar 7 was unique at its time and it had a good frame rate for back then

That was always something that buzzed through my mind when I saw the early use of 3D graphics in computer games.

There were a couple things back then. I think there was a flight game by Bruce Artwick. I think it ended it up becoming the flight simulator Microsoft eventually bought. He had written a flight simulator, really simple.

The game had three more sequels and the original was later remade for 16-bit computers. What do you think was the main reason behind the critical success of the series?

So, the first one didn’t sell very well at all. I think it was heavily pirated. I probably made 4000 dollars on it [laughing]. But everybody I talked to said that they had played it, so that’s why I think it was pirated. Everyone said, “Oh yeah, I love that game, it’s like wow!” But I made hardly any money on it. So, I think it did well because there wasn’t anything like it at the time. It was the only wireframe 3D game back then. There was something like that flight game back then, but that wasn’t a game, it was just a simulator thing. Stellar 7 was unique at its time and it had a good frame rate for back then. Nowadays, it would be way too slow; no one would accept it and that’s really why that one sort of did well critically, but not commercially. The sequel did well for totally different reasons. It was because we had a good publishing relationship at this point.

Stellar 7 Manual & Flyer (1983)

By sequel you mean the Arcticfox?

Oh, you want Arcticfox! Yes, I guess that was a sequel in a way. So, that was back in – jeez what year was that? ’85 to ’86 or something when we did that? Yeah, that was the first game we pitched to Electronic Arts. Actually, we pitched a different game. We were contacted by a producer there called Joe Ybarra. He was one of the top producers at EA, and EA was new. He had been talking to me already because of Stellar 7. So I had been talking with him for a while and he just wasn’t moving forward at all and finally just said, “Well, if you wanna work with us, you have to do it now, otherwise we are just gonna quit and do other things.” Then he said, “Oh, why don’t you come down and let’s talk about the deal?” So we went down to EA, but he wanted us to pitch a movie game similar to Karateka. EA was fascinated by Karateka, so they wanted to do another version of it. We worked this big pitch and went down and presented it to EA and then at the end of the meeting Joe said, “Nope, we want you to do a tank game instead!” [laughing]. So I didn’t understand why he had us pitch the whole thing – it was weird. So, we did it and he said yeah. But we didn’t know about the Amiga. So, he told us about the Amiga, cause EA was on the inside track of the Amiga. And he said, “There is this new computer coming out, but we can’t tell you what it is, but it’s just amazing, so you should do a tank game!”

So, that was where we came up with the idea for Arcticfox, which was more epic. Stellar 7 was just seven arcade levels. It wasn’t really an arcade game exactly, because you wouldn’t have an arcade game that you could play for about an hour – if you get really good at Stellar 7, you can play it for about an hour. Obviously, you won’t let anybody play an hour for a quarter. So, Arcticfox was less of an arcade game; it was real epic and repeatable gameplay and stuff like that. And I think it did well – again because it was actually the first original game released on the Amiga by Electronic Arts. They did a port that was released sooner and then it was one of the only solid fill 3D games on the Amiga for quite some time. Some things came after it – I think F-18 Interceptor came after it, I think that’s why it did well.

And then the original Stellar 7 was ported to Amiga as well?

Yeah, we did a redo and that was for Sierra – probably ’89 to ’90, something like that. It was basically the same game as before, but it just had better graphics; that was the main difference.

We wanted something that sounded futuristic and techy and we thought, ‘Oh this is so cool!

Which of the Stellar games is your favorite?

Well, I don’t know. I can’t really say. The original was fun for me in a way as it was the first time I had done a big game, so it was a pretty cool challenge. I am still proud of the optimization – code optimizations that I figured out to get it to run fast. But then, on the other hand, I also liked Arcticfox, because it was a really neat game and there were some cool strategies. I guess I liked the design better in Arcticfox; the game design was better. And I also really liked to work with a partner on Arcticfox. Stellar 7 was just me. Arcticfox was fun, because I was working with Kevin Ryan, a talented programmer – I’m still friends with him today. He is still doing games too [laughing]. He just did one, he has got a golf one [Minigolf Blast] and he’s got Contraption Maker – it’s kinda like The Incredible Machine. So he is still developing games like that. But yeah, it was fun to work with somebody, cause I had never done that before and it was like, how do two programmers split a job up on the same project without getting into each other’s way? So it was a fun challenge to figure out how you do that.

Back to Dynamix. Why the name Dynamix? What was your initial philosophy?

So the name, it was just because it sounded cool and it was almost a pun. Like dynamic, but plural dynamix – but not dynamics. I was young and we would do weird things. It just sounded techy. We wanted something that sounded futuristic and techy and we thought, ‘Oh this is so cool!’