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Dan also wrote "Airheart," which was popular among the people still active in the Apple II world in 1987, and "Typhoon Thompson," an Amiga game that did well in Europe.
What led up to deciding to write your first game?
I don't know if I ever "decided" to write it. Like most things I've done, it just happened. I was in Los Angeles and had been working for Rand Corporation doing Artificial Intelligence research for about three years. We had a house we were trying to sell, so I was sitting at home for six months with nothing to do and an Apple II borrowed from my grandfather, who loved the thing but barely knew how to turn it on. I remember he kept calling the drive a "sloppy disk," with a straight face.
How did the design for "Choplifter" develop?
Being fascinated with helicopters, I started out by making one fly around using a joystick. It was really cool, so I kept adding things to shoot at. We had this local kid doing some repairs on my car just outside, and he used to come in and play with it. He was a big "Defender" freak, and one day he said "you should have some men to pick up." I walked over to the laundromat and took a closer look at "Defender" to see what he was talking about—never played it myself—and damned if I could see any men, but took his word for it, and it seemed like a cool idea.
Did you ever think about including a more traditional "score" (instead of counting the number of people remaining, rescued, and killed)?
I personally find seven-digit scores boring. I thought about adding them of course, but it didn't feel good so I shined it on. The big thing for me was that as soon as you provide infinite people, you lose the poignancy when they get killed or squashed or whatever. It was such an easy decision to make, I miss those times. These days I'd have to clear the decision with some manager-type who's afraid of losing his job, and that would probably be the end of it.
Was/is originality in game design important to you?
Yeah, I guess so. I hate doing things that other people have done. Well "hate" is too strong a word, it's just boring. More fun to shock people, you know, and probably a lot more lucrative in the long run.
How long did the game take to write?
"Choplifter" took six months; "Airheart" took about three years; "Typhoon" about two years, but they all overlapped somewhat. "Airheart" took so long partly because I started two or three games in between that proved to be too ambitious or that I just lost interest in. We did a lot of research and tool-building in that time. I still use some of those tools or their descendants. The hardest part is always the last ten percent, since you're always sick of the thing, and there's all the pressure and panic from the guys who wear suits. The rest is pure joy for me.
What were the games that proved to be too ambitious?
One was a space game that had something to do with an outpost near a black hole. I dropped it when it became clear I could do 3-D only if the camera's motion was restricted, since no raster technique could give me an object at any view angle. I had tunnel and underwater levels of "Airheart" going at one time, but never had the time to complete them. A precursor to "Typhoon" was a seaplane game, which Gary Carlston at Broderbund begged me to keep going with, but it bored me to just fly around and not be able to maneuver.
There were more experiments, but I can't recall the details. I think any one of those would have been a good game at the time, but we were under no pressure to finish anything. Since then I've grown to appreciate the role of producers and milestones in the creative process, though there's always a creative tradeoff.
Did the success of "Choplifter" surprise you?
At Broderbund we had the general feeling that the game would do well since kids would line up to play it at the trade shows—why don't they let the kids in anymore?—but the way it took off was something no one could anticipate. It was a good product, but we had big-time help from the Iran hostage crisis; believe it or not, the tie-in with current events was something that never really crossed my mind until we published.
How did the "Choplifter" coin-op come about?
That was a straight licensing deal with Sega. They did all the design and artwork themselves and were kind enough to put my name on it, but I had nothing to do with it really. I thought they did a great job of enhancing it, but would have liked to see an analog joystick instead of the usual joyswitch thing. Frankly, I don't like to play anything without linear control.
What were you trying to achieve with "Airheart"? It was fairly ambitious...
"Choplifter" was intended to be a 3-D game, but I got real and made it a side-scroller. With "Airheart" I had enough time and money that I wouldn't give up on the 3-D dream, but it still wasn't everything I had hoped to do. "Typhoon Thompson" went much farther, but I wanted to do underwater cities and tunnels between the islands; it was just going to take too long so we simplified. What was I trying to achieve? Total suspension of disbelief.
How had your Apple II programming skills evolved by this point?
I was always trying to write object-oriented programs, even with "Choplifter," but assembly language macros just didn't cut it. "Airheart" was in C, if I remember correctly, and "Typhoon" definitely was, but it still was more procedural than OOP. Now I'm into C++, and I can finally organize things well enough to build the worlds I want and retain total flexibility and control over the outcome. Kids who are just starting out today don't know how good they have it.
What method did you use to create the art for "Airheart"?
We drew the largest versions of each sprite by hand, then used proprietary tools to automatically create twenty or so scaled versions of the original. That's how we did scaling in real time. That chewed up RAM like nobody's business, but I hated the low-polygon look so it was the only option at the time.
Did you think about switching to a different system when the Apple II finally stopped becoming commercially viable? What did you do in the following years?
I didn't shed a tear when the 6502 went the way of button-down shoes. What messed me up was what emerged in its place. I was rooting for the 68000, Amiga, and Macintosh, but those markets never made it to the big-time. When I realized that games had to be done in DOS with an 8086 at 8MHz and segmented memory, and each had to be written to support six graphics modes (all of which sucked) and ten sound cards (none of which sounded good) and no linear joystick, I finally gave up and decided to wait it out. I've taught traditional African music and culture since 1972, so I went back to it and directed a drum and dance troupe for the last four or five years. There's no money in it, but GOD I love doing that stuff.
What's the story behind writing "Typhoon Thompson"? Why is it your favorite of the games you wrote?
"Typhoon" evolved from the "Airheart" engine, but I could do more on the 68000 platforms, so it was a small feeling of liberation. I like it because it's unique, the gameplay is simple but infinitely variable, and for me the characters really come to life. Some people mistook it for a shooter at the time, but it's really more like a game of Blitzkrieg Chess. If you just start blasting you lose immediately. Each kind of enemy has moves it can make, and the player has his moves, but things never happen the same way twice. It's not high concept in the way that "Choplifter" is, but rather a kind of art piece.
What made you decide to think about returning to the game business? How did it go?
I decided to come back because of C++, Windows 95, the Pentium and its onboard FPP, DirectX, 3-D accelerators, and digital sound boards. Now we're talking games! The consoles are nice but I just can't take the constant learning curve of switching hardware every two years. Arcades never appealed to me because I hate designing games for maximum quarter acquisition.
I went to the 1995 Computer Game Developers' Conference looking for work, and it was hilarious. I was the best known "wannabe" in the crowd, but naturally everyone wanted to know "can he still cut it?". I got work as Director of Software Development for Gravity, Inc. in San Francisco, which was a great way to get back in the swing of things. Now I'm putting together a development team with my partner Victor Mercieca, formerly of Acclaim. To Be Continued!