A short personal history of Dynamix's adventure games

Posted by Kevin Ryan.
First posted on 23 October 2007. Last updated on 24 July 2009.
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A short personal history of Dynamix's adventure games
Kevin Ryan (here in costume for Heart of China) is a game designer and an owner-partner of Dynamix.
A short personal history of Dynamix's adventure games
This early screenshot is from Project Firestart, a game developed by Dynamix for Commodore 64.
A short personal history of Dynamix's adventure games
Fans of Heart of China may recognize Ryan who plays the role of Airfield Immigration Official in the game.

About the author

Kevin Ryan was one of the original owners of Dynamix. He has been creating games for over 20 years. His games range from Arctic Fox (1986) to The Incredible Machine (1993) to the more recent Marble Blast (2002) and Minigolf Mania (2006). He is the founder of Top Meadow and currently lives up in the high Sierra Nevada Mountain town of Shaver Lake, California, US.

For more information, visit Top Meadow.

In 1990 and 1991 Dynamix created a series of 3 adventure games that were published by Sierra. I was involved in the development of all 3 products and I was also responsible for designing and helping to craft and program the Dynamix Game Development System (DGDS) that was used in all 3 games. This article will be a brief overview of the development process and also of the time leading up to these games' development

Dynamix was founded in 1984 by Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye in Eugene, Oregon. Damon was a student at the University of Oregon who had just completed Stellar 7, an Apple II game, and Jeff was a computer store owner in downtown Eugene. One day Damon came by the shop, showed Jeff the game, and a computer game publishing company was born. The company was called Software Entertainment Corporation, but within a year they changed the name to Dynamix and changed the focus to game development from publishing.

It was soon after this company name change in 1984 that I got a call from Damon and came on board along with Richard Hicks as one of the 4 original owner-partners. We were all around 23 years old and former University of Oregon students. At this point Dynamix consisted of 7 people. Our first game was the Amiga version of Arctic Fox which Electronic Arts released in February of 1986.

Over the course of the next few years we created a few original games and also ported quite a few games for several different computer systems. Project Firestart was one of the more interesting ones that we worked on in that it was a horror game set in space with some adventure game type elements. We bought a big green monster toy from the Toys-R-Us store that was near our office and it became the basis of the monster in the game. Project Firestart was written for the Commodore 64 computer and even with a limited number of colors available and the small screen resolution you could still recognize the monster in the game as coming from the toy. I last saw that toy in the kid's play room in one of Dynamix's later offices in the early 1990s.

Throughout these first few years as a development house, the staff at Dynamix slowly grew from roughly 10 people to a small group of 25 or so. To keep things running you need a constant inflow of cash to cover day-to-day costs. At times cash flow was tight and we (the 4 owners) would sometimes take partial paychecks. The greatest limitation on the design of our games and what games we did at the time were financial ones. It was in late 1989 that Sierra indicated that they were interested in buying Dynamix. The buy-out was officially complete in August of 1990 after discussion amongst the 4 Dynamix owners and then a lot more discussion between each company's respective lawyers. It was the financial resources of Sierra that made the adventure games possible.

Rise of the Dragon was the first adventure game that we started development on. It featured William "Blade" Hunter, a gritty detective, who was dealing with a killer drug problem in a futuristic Los Angeles. All the artwork was hand drawn and the game had a real graphic-novel feel to it. Under the art direction of Randy Dersham, Robert Caracol created all the concept art and characters. Robert had just joined Dynamix from Dark Horse Comics. Jeff Tunnell directed the game and worked with Dave Selle and Jerry Luttrell to develop the plot while the needed technical base for the game was being simultaneously created.

The Dynamix Game Development System (DGDS) that was the core technology at the heart of the adventure games was designed, coded, and modified throughout the development of Rise of the Dragon and continued to be modified as we worked on the following adventure games. There were 2 goals for the system. We wanted a very easy to use point and click interface for the end users. We also wanted an internal editing system that would be easy to use by non-programmer types to create the final game.

DGDS was set up to work over our LAN so that more than one person could be working on a game at the same time. It allowed non-programmers to set triggers on the screen to make events happen, create large conversation trees with all the different responses, set up animations, control branches in the story, or if necessary hook up to custom written code for any particular section of the game. It turned out to be a very flexible system and as you will see at the end of this article it was last used in a non-adventure game product.

The development was a very iterative and organic process. Jeff would work with his creative team fleshing out the story, artwork look, and game design while I was working with Rich Rayl on designing and creating the underlying game development system. Jeff and I would get together informally from time to time looking at how the system was currently working and what could be improved from both the end user perspective and also for ease of use internally.

In 1990 there were 3 different graphics standards: CGA which was 4 color, EGA which was 16 color and VGA which had 256 colors available. At the time games were just switching over to support VGA. Rise of the Dragon was our second VGA title being the next game after A-10 Tank Killer. This was before games were shipped on CDs so the VGA version came on 7 5.25-inch Floppy Disks. There was also a CGA/EGA version available and we had tools that would automatically reduce the number of colors used cutting down on the work our artists had to do. Automating processes like this is always good for a smoother and quicker development cycle. The adventure games were the last Dynamix games that supported CGA and EGA.

Heart of China was released in 1991 shortly after Rise of the Dragon. It had a brighter look to it, was set in 1930s Asia, and had photographs of real people mixed in with the hand drawn backgrounds. We had first tried this technique in David Wolf: Secret Agent which was a 16-color EGA game. The move from 16 to 256 colors made Heart of China look much nicer, but making it look right turned out to be harder than it was in David Wolf: Secret Agent and we had to rework the artwork a couple of times.

Just down the hall from my office was the room that we used to take photos of all the different actors in the game. On any given day I would see ninjas or a group of tough guys or villagers walking by to be photographed for their particular part in the game. We would photograph the actors against a wall that was painted a solid color. This would make it easier to separate just them out for insertion in the hand drawn screens.

One day Sher Alltucker, who was responsible for the costumes, makeup and casting, grabbed me out of my office and got me dressed up in a very official looking suit along with a badge and coat. I was then handed a notepad and a pen, lined up against the wall, and told to act officious. The photographer then snapped away as I made annoyed faces, pointed my pen at the imaginary game player in front of me, and flipped through the notepad with a "I don't see your name here" look on my face. I am the Airfield Immigration Official that you have to get past at the airport to get out of Hong Kong.

Heart of China was also the only one of the adventure games in which we hooked up our 3space system. This was used in the tank scene where the player is escaping from a fortress and has to drive a World War I era tank down a winding road while being chased by another tank. At one point the player's way is blocked by cows in the road allowing the chasing tank to catch up. Some players liked this sequence, but many players didn't and so we added an option allowing the player to skip the sequence. In fact I don't think that any of the action sequences that were in these games really worked. They broke up the pace and were too different from the core game-play.

The Adventures of Willy Beamish was the last of the adventure games created by Dynamix. It was the story of the adventures of a 9 year old boy and the artwork had more of a Disney feeling to it. One of the artists on The Adventures of Willy Beamish was Rene Garcia, a very nice elderly gentleman who just previously had worked on Disney's The Little Mermaid. He had also worked on the original Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones cartoon series back in the 1960s. He did most if not all of the backgrounds for the game.

Soon after The Adventures of Willy Beamish was completed Jeff formed a smaller development group of about 10 people. It had a separate office away from the Dynamix main office and had more of the feel of Dynamix's early days. At this point Dynamix had grown to over 100 people. I joined up with Jeff's group and worked on The Incredible Machine from home, visiting the office once a week. One of Jeff's new projects was Quarky and Quaysoo's Turbo Science which was an educational product. It was the last product created using the Dynamix Game Development System.

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