Dani Bunten interview in James Hague’s book “The Halcyon Days”

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Danielle Berry, formerly Dan Bunten, is the master of the multiplayer game. The key member of Ozark Softscape, she had a solid reputation as a game designer before creating her best known titles, two early releases from Electronic Arts: “M.U.L.E.” and “Seven Cities of Gold.” The former is still regarded as one of the finest multiplayer games written, even among cynical Usenet crowds. All of her games designed for two or more players were created before the networking craze touched-off by “Doom,” including 1988’s “Modem Wars” and 1992’s “Global Conquest.”

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 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 in 1978?

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 four 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 five-hundred of these, to put them in a printed box, and to sell them at $35 apiece when other games sold for $15 max and came in a Ziploc bag. We sold fifty copies. However, this game was the launching pad for my career and was successively replicated in “Cartels & Cutthroats” and “M.U.L.E.”

Was the experience of writing your early games, like “Computer Quarterback,” different than that of more recent titles like “Global Conquest”?

“Computer Quarterback” was written only for myself and friends to play on the computer at work. I later converted it from FORTRAN 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 two programmers, two artists, a sound/music person, a writer, and a director of playtesting 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 playtest 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 four 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.

One: Trip Hawkins wanted to get the rights to “Cartels & Cutthroats”–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.

Two: “Wheeler Dealers” 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 wherever possible decisions be entered into the computer by “doing” rather than “telling.”

Three: 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.”?

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 inevitably 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?

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 five 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 four 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 brainstorming 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 ex, the psychologist, puts 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.

Why did you decide to leave the game industry? Do you ever consider returning?

I had a sex-change November ’92 and sort of got into other parts of my life. However, I never actually left the business. Until it was canceled, the Sega 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 three 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.

Why was the Genesis version of “M.U.L.E.” canceled?

The short answer was that Electronic Arts was pressuring me to add bombs and guns and I quit before I’d change my design that much! Russell Sipe, the previous publisher of  Computer Gaming World, immortalized that story in an editorial he wrote after the 1994 Computer Game Developers Conference. I wish I had a copy of it because he told the story so well. Here’s my summary:

It was my second conference as Danielle and my first post-operative. Russ came up to me and asked “How’d it go?” and I said “They canceled it after I said ‘No’ to including guns and bombs.” Russ nearly had a fit and then it occurred to me he wasn’t asking about “M.U.L.E.,” but rather my gender surgery! We both had a good laugh, and he wrote it up into a charming editorial in favor of doing creative games rather than just “following” the perceived market.

The longer version of why “M.U.L.E.” for Genesis got canceled has me struggling to understand the desires of the marketing folks and the publisher more than to understand how to do a good game. I have to admit that the intervening ten years between the original development of “M.U.L.E.” and the second pass at it had pushed me, and anyone else in the business, more towards these commercial considerations. Ironically, I don’t believe they serve the final commercial success of a product, but are rather the homage we pay to stay in this business. And the reason I told EA I couldn’t finish the product had more to do with the personal freedom I felt after making such dramatic changes in my life than with artistic scruples. However, I was sure that adding guns, bombs, and more direct competition to that game would make it too unlike the original for me to be able to finish it.

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 it 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 distributed 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 an 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?