Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some More DMA Witterings

Wikipedia continues to confound me, and my feelings are decidedly mixed. Previously I'd written about how the DMA article claimed myself as one of the founder members, something which I found to be a rather amusing thought. I mentioned this to Mike Dailly, himself a founder member, and to my surprise he agreed with the article. I'd been thinking in terms of business, for which I'd played no part. But in terms of the four of us, including Dave Jones and Russell Kaye, sitting in the computer club canteen in 1984 discussing how cool it would be to makes games.... well, perhaps. It didn't exactly help in my post when I was in full obfuscation mode. And when the inventor of Lemmings calls me a founder member of DMA Design, I suppose I should listen. As Londo Mollari says in Babylon 5 , “I was there at the beginning...”

But it's odd how history is coming to judge this, and by history I mean the internet. Tonight on one of my not-as-frequent-as-you-think egosurfing sessions, I stumbled across an article which was written about
Unirally , the Super Nintendo game. A couple of years ago I'd been asked a few interview questions, offered up my answers, and didn't think much more about it. Now I've found the article, The Making of Unirally, and am chuffed that some of my answers made it in. I'll post more about Unirally in due course, but suffice it to say that the manual I wrote was called “ often hilarious” in the article and “hilarious” in the comments. To coin a modern fanboi phrase: squeeee!

Which of course led to a more comprehensive search for myself with the qualifier “DMA”. This was the point that - contrary to information as recently as last year - the “founder member of DMA” infonugget is now
everywhere ! This is what history, or at least the little corner which I'm in, will record. But confounding happens when, as tonight, I find that bits of my blog are being used as a Wikipedia reference. This is great! It means I'm an authority or some such damned thing. In the entry for Turbo Esprit, it repeats the BBC's Gameswipe claim that it was a direct inspiration for Grand Theft Auto, and uses my blog post as reference for the counterargument. Makes me sound controversial too! And calls me one of GTA's designers, which I'm really not. (Though Mike differs on this, maybe it was all my input on why it shouldn't be called 'Freeway' and the screeds of dialogue I wrote for it ). Perhaps, in the fashion of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently , I can make myself the brains behind every game DMA ever made just by the simple expedient of constantly denying that I'm any such thing.

And while I'm pasting in random thoughts, I had a vision of the future, of sorts. I now what picture my obituary will contain. When I sent off my interview answers, I also included a photo of myself for illustration which happens to be from the single weekend of my life when my haircut worked as advertised. It's about five years old now and makes me look like the sort of cool dude who's obviously super talented merely on the strength of the photo being both b/w and slightly out of focus. Which of course is why I picked that one. What I looked like at the time I actually wrote the manual was really, really geeky. And in colour.

And no, I'm not posting the picture just now, at least not until I've digitally removed the spot from my forehead.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Hefting around a video camera from time to time, in the course of making Intrepid or otherwise just being idle, means that I sometimes get asked to wave it around for altogether more noble purposes.  T'Other'alf, for inscrutable reasons, was organising an Unconference; which as far as I could gather was a Conference but without the Conference bits.  The closest I'd come to this was reading about the Fortean Times' Unconvention, although the “Un” part of that seemed more to do with the subject matter – werewolves, flying saucers, conspiracy theories and so forth – than the actual structure of the event itself.  ScotGovCamp Blog

An Unconference, then was a conference without a fixed agenda.  Attendees would shout out topic suggestions at the beginning and then everyone would sit in on the topic and chip in or not depending on their disposition.  Oh, and it was also a GovCamp which is for people working in and around government; in this case government in Scotland.

And just like starting making Star Trek Fan Films back in 2003, I got involved because I had a video camera.

This was going to be different from amateur film-making, not in the least because I don't get an opportunity for a second take.  Given that I wasn't actually in control of anyone, I might not even get a first take.  And since the whole event was essentially an experiment to see how it went, I had little idea of what would be happening and where to position myself for capturing footage of the sort that I didn't know what it would be.

ScotGovCamp specifically was about digital Scotland, and drew together a wide range of people from local government, commentators on social issues, self-proclaimed geeks, librarians and civil servants.  My impression was that the subject matter was nebulous, but that was perhaps just me who felt to be a bit of an outsider.  Shooting was straightforward to begin with, before anyone had really arrived.  A handful of people turned up and before the actual event kicked off proper, there was a lot of setting up to do.  This was the easiest to film as I only had to wander around and point the camera at anything which looked interesting, such as setting up a display stand or people wandering past the Eduardo Paolozzi art installation.  I had some fun filming transitions, panning from the roof down to the group standing round the registration table, filming the flashing lights on one of the walls or panning from the sculpture to people just arriving.  I had no idea if I'd use them, it was just in case.

It was obvious early on that there was no way I'd be able to capture everything which happened on the day, given that it lasted much of the day and was split into three discussion rooms named Hume, Brown and Ferguson after Edinburgh University Alumni – Lesley's idea – and not after three varieties of quark particle  - strange, bottom and charmed – which I was pushing for.  But when everyone was still together in the atrium, I had a straightforward area of focus, Lesley and Dave Briggs giving the pep talk and assembling the agenda from the suggested topics.  It was immediately before this that something unexpected happened.

When I'm either directing or doing camera for amateur fiction, there is a script and what transpires is known and accounted for.  A live events means having to be responsive to things as they happen and when Dave asked everyone to introduce themselves and give a one-word response as to why they were here, something ever so slightly extraordinary happened.  I pointed the camera at whoever was talking, including myself after only three or four people (whilst failing to understand the concept of “one” word) but them I found myself following the “focus” as each individual in turn gave their name, and their one word.  Instantly it was one of those slick adverts, all soft-focus and warm fuzzies, selling you an emotion and a desire for something that you still don't understand.  And I was in the centre of it.  This was how I imagine a religious cult would indoctrinate me.  (I'm good at making spurious connections.)

This remained a highlight, since it was obvious how to make a neat little video – only  a couple of minutes long – from that part of the day.  Actually putting it together of course is something I'll still have to sit at the video editing suite (desk in corner of living room) to do.  Now a neat little video is something that is more problematic for something which represents the entirety of the day.  Not being able to film everything means that I need to convey the flavour of it and do so without dragging.  This is something that I'm still trying to figure out, since their wasn't a grand overarching scheme to begin with.  In any case, once the preliminaries were over with, I wandered in and out of the various conversations which were taking place, trying to get as many angles as I could, concentrating on whoever was speaking at the time.  What became obvious was that it would be extremely difficult even to cover a single train of thought form the participants.  Self-organising seating favoured a circle which meant that often a dialogue was being held where I filmed one person but could only get the back of the head of the other.

Even putting finished video clips of a continuous minute or two minutes on the web would lack context enough to make sense of what was being said.  Halfway through the day I was mooting the possibility of getting someone to provide a voice over in conjunction with any conclusions.  In other words, I'd given myself a bunch of work by volunteering to film and would be giving myself even more work (another thing I excel at) the more I thought about it!  And just dumping the whole two and a quarter hours worth of footage to the web would not exactly make for riveting viewing!

So what I have ahead of me is an exercise in transitions, crossfades, categorisations, titles and wishing that the video would self-organise too.  But failing that, the classic fallback position is to stare at the clips until a moment of inspiration occurs, and hope that being on holiday doesn't derail me too much!  But seriously, now it's just a matter of piecing it together.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Project MyWorld

I always thought I had a finite supply of stories to tell about my time at DMA Design. But an announcement from Realtime Worlds, which I only saw this morning, made me realise that even something which was only a few minutes long can still be relevant today. RTW have been working for the last five years on Project MyWorld, an ambitious online world which mixes social networking and gaming. No doubt the subtleties are more nuanced than that and most of us will note that five years is a long time in technology.

Mike Dailly, whom I've now known for something like twenty six years, had been working on it in complete secrecy. But now that the story is out, I realise that I've known the seeds of it since 1996, an entire fourteen years ago. Dave Jones, now Mr RTW and ex Mr DMA had clearly been thinking about it for that long. Back then I worked in DMA's Design Department alongside Mike and Dave would often come in to talk about whatever was on his mind; normally an idea for a game or about games in general. (Or about cars.)

Mike and myself were working on a project known informally as The Space Game, a name it's kept to this day, where each player would take control of a particular console such as tactical or navigation, instead of an entire ship. It didn't ultimately progress very far, but it was during this time that Dave wandered into the design dept and we told him something of the plans for it. This was also midway through the development of GTA and Dave said wouldn't it be great if you could find a planet in the game, fly down to the surface and find a city where a game of GTA was taking place. Not only that, but if you drove past some guys by the side of a river, those guys could be playing a fishing game!

This, we all agreed, would indeed be great but at the time I didn't think any more of it than just another idea in a sea of ideas. Any developer, I'm sure, will tell you that they have many more ideas than could ever be brought to fruition in several lifetimes. And that was it, a small conversation that didn't have any great significance at the time. Obviously Dave had the seed of an idea even all that time ago and has never forgotten it. What drives all the best ideas isn't stakeholders or technology, though they may enable them.

No, what drives them is simply asking "Wouldn't it be cool if..."

Friday, July 16, 2010

I have a Bacon Number of 4!

I was in Star Trek: Intrepid - Transitions and Lamentations (2009) with Nick Cook who was in Star Trek: Phase II - Blood and Fire part Two with Denise Crosby (2009) who was in Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) with Robert Wagner who was in Wild Things (1998) with.... Kevin Bacon!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Lemmings Conversion in 36 Hours

Hello Slashdotters!  (I think that's traditional when your site gets a traffic spike, though in my case it's probably minimal.  It's certainly the busiest few days my blog has ever seen!  I've been registered for years, but hardly ever post.  And then two +5 Interesting posts in 2 days.)  So just to pick up the story, Lemmings – already one of the most widely ported games ever – has had another port, this time to the iPhone.

That wasn't a surprise to me, since Lemmings has even been ported to the ZX Spectrum (I own the machine it was developed on, or at least I did).  News that it was ported from the “original” PalmOS made me blink not an eye.  Doing it in 36 hours was pretty neat.  So I posted some links for more Lemmings information and thought not that much more about it.  I thought it was an official port, and as such it was a pretty delightful piece of news.

Nope.  I was slightly fooled by the use of the word “original” and the screenshots which clearly showed the classic Lemmings graphics.  Digging (pun!) more deeply, it was obviously the same sound samples, same music and same levels.  Everyone was referring to it as a port, meaning taking the original and re-writing to run on a different machine.  It certainly sounded official, but there was no connection to the original, and the guy was wanting to make it available on Apple's App Store.  Which was the point that Sony stepped in with a cease and desist.  All the graphics were their copyright.

I have to say that I agree with Sony.

Now I have to be clear that I've no problem with someone porting a game to another platform, particularly since he wrote his own code.  Let's face it, as the director of some Star Trek fan films, I can hardly be critical of wanting to play in someone else's playground.  But the problem begins when he has taken material from the original – the real original and copied it wholesale.  Had he then followed up the code with new graphics and new sound then what we'd have is a clone of Lemmings, a lemmings-a-like game or something which was clearly inspired by Lemmings.  An open-source Lemmings IV maybe.

And that would be great!  Imitation and flattery and all that.

Oddly, though, copyright issues aren't what bothers me most.

My problem comes down to respect.

Nowhere in the 36 Hour Lemmings blog is any mention of the original DMA creators.  As I once wrote in one of DMA's manuals, we are “real people”.  We have families, we have wives, we have girlfriends, we have children and this is how we earn our living.  We aren't just some anonymous barcoded numbers in a database.  We think, we live, we feel and we care about what we do.  To have spent two years working on a game just to find someone selling copies at a car boot sale (yard sale) as I've experienced, hurts dreadfully.  It's an insult and is disrespectful.

Copyright aside, getting in touch would have been a potent gesture, simply to ask if we were cool with making a clone, or even just an acknowledgement in the game itself.  (I once saw a complete rip of the Hired Guns manual text, which I'd written, complete with an extensive “thanks to” a list of cracker buddies, but no mention of anyone who spent years making the game itself.)

Some posters are delighted that he's sticking it to The Man, who in this case is Sony.  Sony didn't create Lemmings.  DMA Design created Lemmings, which was published by Psygnosis who were later bought by Sony.  The Lemmings concept, was created by Mike Dailly.  It was coded by Dave Jones with graphics by Gary Timmons and Scott Johnson.  There are more credits of course, but sitting in that office we were hardly the embodiment of The Man.  We were doing this because it was cool and because it mattered to us.

And for me at least, because ultimately our works are all that we leave behind.

Monday, April 05, 2010

BBC Radio Scotland

It's always amazing how persistant DMA Design has been in my life.  Immediately after the museum exhibition opened, I was interviewed by James Christie from BBC Radio Scotland as one of the founders of DMA Design.  You can read my thoughts on being a 'founder' elsewhere on the blog, though it's certainly true that, in the fashion of Londo from Babylon 5, "I was there at the beginning..."

It was to be a half hour documentary, and it has just aired this morning.  I'm always nervous when something is broadcast with a contribution from me in it.  And, yes, it's still amazing when I think about it, that I can casually write a sentence like the previous one.  This one, however, was especially nerve-wracking for reasons that I can't quite put my finger on.  Would I sound OK?  Did I make sense?  Would my contribution even get used?

Fortunately the answer was yes, and now I'm left with a curious mix of nostalgia and excitement, even as I realise that only a small fraction of my interview was used and only those parts which fitted the 'narrative' that documentaries use.  I'm sure it was the same for both Mike and Russel who were also part of it.  But it means that there's a huge amount of story that hasn't been told, that doesn't exist on Wikipedia or anywhere else aside from in our heads and the odd fragment on a website here and there.  I close my eyes and I can see the old, old, office.

I recorded some important events in a journal I kept at DMA in 1996, but I so wish that I'd done the same for 1995, 1994, 1993...  But of course at the time none of us had any idea that DMA would be important and very little was jotted down and nothing at all formally recorded.  It makes the piecing together of DMA's history an exercise in deductive work where I still have scraps of paper, or tickets to hint at the exact date something occurred.

And that's what it was like in the days before blogs, twitter and 24/7 recording, when it was still possible for a mythology to arise.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

You're definitely over the hill when...

... you've literally become a museum exhibit.  Seriously, this has just happened to me.  I thought hitting 40 was a doozy, but it has nothing on this.  Incidentally I'm using the word literally in the sense of actually being literal.  Dundee's MacManus Galleries has just completed several years worth of refurbishment, opening last weekend.  Part of the exhibit is some comparatively modern Dundee history, namely DMA Design.  (Lemmings, Grand Theft Auto, worked for them, yadda yadda, you know the drill.)

I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, but was informed by my family that my photo is part of it, and my name too!  Now this is all very lovely and I've no problem with that, especially since it was mainly enabled by Mike Dailly who, like myself, was there from the start and has a ton of stuff hoarded from the early days.  Early, as in late eighties onwards.

Being late on a Sunday, I ran down to the place since I am literally (in the sense of being literal) five minutes walk from the place, but unfortunately got there just as they were closing and told me to get out.  My ego is not quite at the stage where I can legitimately say "don't you know who you're talking to"...

Oh well, so I got out and so far haven't seen it yet.

All very lovely, as I say, but I can't help feeling that an invite to the opening would have been nice...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Long Overdue Update

There's plenty things been going on the last few months and they're all continuing.  I've finally got a mostly finished version of the Bit Patterns script currently at the being-scrutinised stage of development.  I'm hopefully going to get some feedback in the next few weeks at which point I have to write some additional scenes, make good any places where it's lacking (too many characters is an obvious one!) and give it a final polish.  With any luck, we can get it into pre-production by the summer.  Still very excited by this as it'll be Intrepid's first original movie.

I'm also working on a script/design for a computer game of which I can't say too much, suffice that it's still the early days and will likely take increasing amounts of my time as the year progresses.  And bear in mind that I do all this stuff in my spare time - which is only laughingly called free!  More details when I'm able to talk about it freely.

The editing of the Intrepid episode The Stone Unturned is almost finished.  Myself and Nick filmed the last outstanding scene last weekend, which went smoothly - I wish all the scenes were like that - and also a short scene for Star Trek: Odessey, another fan film series.  The only "setback" was hooking up the camera to the microphone, where a loose connection inside the audio connector box resulted in a lot of crackling.  So instead we used the HD camera in DV mode.  Nick was kind enough to edit together the Stone Unturned scene to take a little pressure off of me.

Speaking of filming, we're tentatively scheduled to do some filming in a fortnight's time for The Conviction of Demons, the latest Intrepid episode.  Nick is nominally directing this one, his first time, whilst I'm doing camera.  When we shot the first scene (production-wise, not Scene 1) in Perth a few months back, I was still so used to being director that I was shouting "Action" and "Cut"!

Finally, I'm dabbling away at a novel, the idea of which I'd had literally twenty years ago.  Only now am I feeling confident enough to actually write it, but I'm having to fit it in amongst everything else because other people are involved in the other endeavours and that's a commitment!  It's been simmering away at the back of my mind for all that time.  Part of my motivation for doing an Open University course back in 1998 - Astronomy and Planetary Science (passed!) - was to get a good handle on how a supernova worked, a central part of the book!

And finally, finally, I'm working on a large blog post about Body Harvest, an old DMA Design game which I was involved in.

There's other stuff I wish I had time to do, but I suspect that'l always be true.  Too many ideas and not enough time.