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From the Archives: Dynamix - Retro Gamer 175

Location, location, location. Who ever said that matters? Situated in the heart of the American Northwest, Dynamix put Eugene, Oregon on the map and made games the world enjoyed. Edward Love uncovers the story. 



The city of Eugene in the state of Oregon is no San Francisco, or Los Angeles, or Seattle. That is to say, it doesn’t grandstand about the tech it produces or hold any pretensions of grandeur. This is bucolic territory, a stretch of the American Northwest that lies 60 miles west of Willamette National Forest. It plays host to glossy rivers just the other shade of black and a skyline of trees that turn a flaming orange in spring. There are businesses, of course, but they stand in the shadow of the undulating foliage and seem rather embarrassed to be there at all. Alan Wake country, if you like. Without the nightmares.


Eugene enjoys a fascinating symbiosis with the games industry. It is the town that gave rise to Dynamix, after all, maker of show-stopping technical feats like Red Baron, Betrayal At Krondor, Earthsiege, Rise Of The Dragon, as well as inventive fare like The Incredible Machine and Space Quest V.  The Dynamix story is one of game-makers removing the blinkers from a small town and expanding its horizons; of a quest for technical perfection that led to a merger with Sierra and a fateful death at the hands of corporate overlords.


It begins in 1983. Entrepreneur Jeff Tunnell opens up a software store, Computertutor, and attracts a gang of budding techies absorbed by the brave new possibilities of personal computing. One of them is Damon Slye. “Since high school, I had been programming on a Commodore PET,” Damon recalls. “The graphics were ASCII characters on the screen, so I bought an Apple II, funded by winnings my grandfather had made on a horse bet.” The money was supposed to go to college but Damon had other ideas. He wrote a tank combat game set in seven solar systems and named it Stellar 7. But this was Eugene, 1983, and Damon couldn’t get publishing bigwigs in California to take notice. Or rather, they took notice, but wouldn’t bite. Brodebund even sent Damon a bizarre counter offer. Come down to San Francisco and you can work for us in your spare time, sans pay.


Jeff Tunnell fancied graduating from computer store owner to computer game publisher. He took Damon aside and set the scene. They would go it alone like true entrepreneurs, publish Stellar 7 themselves, and make their riches. But without a sales force, and without product en masse, publishing was hard work. Never one to admit defeat, Jeff suggested a 180 degree pivot: if they couldn’t publish games why couldn’t they make them instead? And so Software Entertainment Corporation rose from Eugene’s hardy ground in 1984. There were four partners - Jeff Tunnell, Damon Slye, Kevin Ryan and Richard Hicks - determined to make the games they liked. The dubiously-titled business got a new moniker, Dynamix, and Eugene’s first development house was ready to get started. 


While his partners were comfortable immersed in reams of code, Jeff was a go-getter with strongly-held opinions who was liable to leave a few bodies by the side of the road.  He was well-equipped, then, to deal with a phone call from Electronic Arts. EA’s producer Joe Ybarra was on the end of the call seeking a game with loose movie trappings that would rival Brodebund’s Karateka. Dynamix got to work on a big idea and headed to San Francisco for the meeting, the germ of a game inspired by Blade Runner in their back pocket. Their pitch went well and everyone in the room said yes - everyone except Ybarra. No, let’s do a tank game for the Amiga, Ybarra suggested. A what? A tank game. For? The Amiga. It was a computer utterly alien to the Eugene crowd, but they were handed a small fortune up front - $35,000 - and so they went to work on ArcticFox (1986). Damon did the maths of free space and Kevin handled the graphics. Together, they produced a stunning 3D simulator that enabled you to operate a tank in strategic battle. Dynamix was all of seven or eight people at this stage, but ArcticFox would unfurl the blueprint for Battledrome (1994), Earthsiege 2 (1995) and Starsiege (1999). Hulking behemoths skulking meticulous 3D worlds.


Jeff, however, didn’t want to abandon interactive storytelling altogether. While the Blade Runner game cooled, he snuck in an homage to Alien instead. Project Firestart was a side-scrolling action/adventure featuring chunky terminals smeared in lurid green text and nasties waiting to tear you limb from limb. It carried a survival horror bent with an emphasis on story and though EA shipped the game, by now Jeff and Damon were sick of dealing with them. Damon remembers: “It was a bad business model [for Dynamix]. We were a captive developer begging for the next deal.” And worse, cocooned in a web of legalese. Activision offered to get them out of the deal, but Activision had its own problems. It was going through a rebrand at the time, changing its name to Mediagenic, and after six years Dynamix was back in a familiar position: able games makers with extraordinary tech, but unable to rely on a trusted distributor. Fed up, they self-published twice in 1989, heading to Salem to oversee the floppy discs on the production line. 600 miles to the south, Ken Williams of Sierra had taken notice.


Sierra’s founder liked nothing more than a company that could produce content, and when Dynamix created a whopping eight games in 1989, Ken and the famous moustache came calling. Thick documents requesting a merger arrived in Eugene. The business tycoon was impossible to turn down. Nor did Dynamix want to say no. Jeff saw Ken as a kindred spirit - a passionate entrepreneur driven to make great products - and besides, Jeff had been fretting about cash flow for several years. Sierra’s millions would open the floodgates to quality without compromise. No more haggling with EA, or conversations with Activision. It was a good deal, a great deal, but it also meant Dynamix was at the mercy of Ken and his future business dealings.


In the late eighties, making games was a crazy, chaotic business. Job titles? A career ladder? A project management scrum? None of that existed, and that suited young David Selle just fine. He arrived at Dynamix a fresh-faced college graduate just as Sierra was getting involved, and was tasked with testing games for bugs. But not knowing better, he went to pains to point out all the game design flaws too.


“Partly to shut me up, Jeff told me to write a game treatment,” David remembers. So David did. That treatment would become Rise Of The Dragon, a spiritual successor to Blade Runner, and a game Jeff had always wanted to make. It would be equal parts graphic novel, equal parts game, and something consciously new. Dark Horse Comics’ Robert Caracol was drafted in to do the artwork while Kevin Ryan designed the Dynamix Game Development System, a set of routines that would enable Dynamix’s growing stable of storytellers to shape the experience. The game’s writers and the game’s coders both traded in text - but of very different variety. Kevin found a way to break this barrier. “The Game Development System made a way for people who weren’t technical to add to Rise Of The Dragon - like conversation trees - and it was hooked up to our LAN, so multiple people could be editing at once,” Kevin says. 


Rise Of The Dragon shipped in 1990 bearing a proud emblem - “Part of the Sierra family” - and offering graphic novel art in full 256 colours. Eugene was no longer a factory for mech combat sims - storytelling was a part of the fabric of the company too.


Then, in the nineties, Mark Crowe moved to Eugene after deciding he wanted a change of scenery. Crowe is Sierra royalty: one half of the dynamic duo that made a career riffing on Star Wars and Star Trek, serving up ludicrously moreish tales of a bumbling space janitor called Roger Wilco. Mark was keen to write Space Quest V at Dynamix and David Selle jumped at the opportunity to help him. The two men hit it off, matching one another comic stride for stride. Roger Wilco would start out sitting a test, which he cheats on, before being given his own space ship to commandeer. Yes, it would be a garbage scow shaped like a vacuum cleaner with a tin foil hat, but it would be the gateway to another series of misadventures featuring the world’s most inept frontman. Roger duly gets in over his head, facing off against a drone with cone breasts shaped like something out of a Xena: Warrior Princess episode before using a banana to get the edge. Later, he has to overcome a vicious mutating plague that turns skin to puss-ridden, oozing, dribbling molten lava. Somehow, Roger lives to fight another day, cherubic skin and Hardy Boys haircut intact. 



Five years after joining forces with Sierra, Dynamix had grown massively. It was 1994 and the partners had seen out their contracts and were eligible to leave. So co-founder Damon Slye did just that. “I was really burnt out. Game development was all I had been doing, working 60-80 hour weeks, month after month. I didn’t have a personal life.” Damon went back to school, earning a Bachelors’ degree, then got his pilot’s license and moved out of Eugene - to San Francisco of all places. Damon’s departure marked the end of Jeff and Damon as a duo, but as it turns out, the two weren’t working together closely by this point. 


In fact, Jeff had indulged his rogue spirit some years earlier when, in 1991, he broke ranks and formed Jeff Tunnell Productions, a smaller, intimate team under the Dynamix umbrella that would make its own games. He was legally obliged to remain a part of the Dynamix family but he could spin his own web, and Kevin Ryan joined him as they got to work on The Incredible Machine. Offering up a series of taxing brainteasers, it has early Portal in its DNA and a dukebox of dubious ‘80s tunes to boot.


The Incredible Machine complemented a growing and dynamic resume: simulators like Earthsiege (1994) co-existed alongside story-driven games like Rise Of The Dragon (1990) and Heart Of China (1991), and Dynamix had also cut its teeth in role-playing with the excellent Betrayal at Krondor (1993)


But then, in 1996, Ken Williams sold the entire Sierra family to Comp-U-Card International (CUC) - Dynamix included. Hindsight is 20-20, but no one knew what a monumental disaster it would prove. “Just because they bought us,” David Selle remembers, “didn’t change what we were doing.” The bigger change came when Jeff Tunnell left to start GarageGames. The creative, product-driven game guru was gone, taking his long-time collaborator Kevin Ryan with him, and suits were installed in his place.


By this time, CUC’s dirty laundry was airing in public. How does one put it nicely - CUC was morally compromised. Or as David puts it… a bunch of crooks. “They were playing games with synthetic revenue and double counting it,” he vents. “Huge corporate fraud was happening. People literally went to jail.” Suddenly, years of treasured stock options were down the toilet. “After all this time, I killed myself for this,” Selle quips. “A-holes cooking the books to screw me over?” 


In 1999, Dynamix bore no resemblance to the company David Selle had joined a decade earlier and he was ready to pack it in. He ended up at a Hewlett Packard fabrication plant, whose sprawling innards were so big you could “walk for a mile and not go outdoors”, and in which employees were outfitted in “big monkey suits.” As David puts it dryly: “I now knew I never wanted to work in a company that big.” But Dynamix was a no-go zone itself. In 2001, fresh from shipping Starsiege: Tribes, Eugene’s development house closed its doors after 17 years of output and 80+ games. Instead, David plied his trade in the start-up before joining WildTangent games. Meanwhile, hundreds of hard-working employees at Dynamix had been turfed out into the night.


Jeff Tunnell addressed the death of Sierra and Dynamix in a 2003 interview. “As you can probably tell, I am not a fan of greedy CEOs and big corporations. A couple of individuals at the top of a crumbling empire tore down what Ken Williams and hundreds of impassioned employees built over a fifteen-year period in a manner of months. The employees walked away with unemployment insurance, the CEOs walked with millions in severance. Go figure.” 


In hindsight, it’s easy to label Ken William’s decision to sell Sierra to CUC in 1996 as a massive mistake, but there’s a silver lining to every cautionary tale, and Dynamix left an indelible mark on Eugene. After the company shut its doors, the shattered pieces of its workforce started to re-group, re-join, re-align. Small cradles of creative talent joined forces, and budding development houses popped up in the region, determined to make great games again. Look no further than Mad Otter - which Damon Slye now calls home - or Spotkin, where Kevin Ryan works on his modern puzzle game, Contraption Maker. Even Jeff is still nearby, living on a farm, now in retirement.


“The horizons weren’t super broad,” David Selle deadpans, “but looking back, Eugene was a good place to be.” During the Dynamix formative years, the company occupied the top floor of a tomato-coloured building called The Atrium in downtown Eugene on 99 W 10th Avenue. As the Sierra merger came into effect, they kept taking up new floors before moving to the imposingly-named Riverfront Research Park where they had 45,000 square feet, roughly the size of a small football field, to explore. They were big time players, and they helped put Eugene on the map.


“It’s a very small town, but very liberal,” David recalls. Perhaps it was the town’s egalitarian streak that convinced Jeff, Damon and the original Dynamix that they could change the world. “Really, really liberal,” David adds. “On our side, you had bumper stickers championing the rainbow coalition. Right next door - literally bumping heads - you had Springfield, an old logging town.”


Were they similarly enchanted with the rainbow coalition? Retro Gamer asks. “No,” David replies with a grin. “They had bumper stickers saying, ‘Hey, have you ever tried to wipe your butt with a spotted owl?’ - an animal that’s heavily endangered.”


Thank God for Eugene, then, because it gave us Dynamix and a host of dynamic products during a golden time in the sun. The games were generously portioned over seventeen memorable years, backed by quality 3D graphics and imbued with big ambition. Down on the ground, in between the rise and fall of Eugene’s arboreal skyscrapers, that legacy lives on.


INSTANT EXPERT 

  • Dynamix began life as Software Entertainment Corporation in 1984 before wisely choosing to rename. 

  • It was co-founded by Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye, with Kevin Ryan and Richard Hicks joining as partners.

  • When Dynamix was acquired by Sierra in 1989, Ken Williams predicted the 30-man team would grow to 120 within a year. Ken was right. 

  • Sierra gave Dynamix the chance to work on bigger games thanks to massively expanded budgets. For instance, EA had funded ArcticFox to the tune of $35,000 in 1986. In 1990, Sierra handed Dynamix $550,000 to make Red Baron.

  • Red Baron was a smash hit even though it missed the all-important Christmas window. 

  • Dynamix was one of the best - and earliest - exponents of 3D graphics. But id Software ripped away that mantle with Doom, layering textures on top of polygons. Dynamix had been caught cold. 

  • Space Quest was typically a Sierra affair overseen by Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy. But when Mark decided to relocate to Eugene, he brought Space Quest with him, and Dynamix produced the fifth title in the franchise. 

  • Dynamix dissolved in 2001, but its dissolution started a budding game development community in Eugene. 



A FAMOUS FAN 


Rumour has it that Dynamix’s first title, Stellar 7, sold fewer than 10,000 copies. But that didn’t stop it reaching one VIP writer who had an affinity for games. 


The author in question often inserted references to Sierra in his submarine stories. (His characters are immersed in the inky blackness of the ocean for such long stretches that they play games to pass the time). However, he would also play the original Stellar 7 - vector graphics and all - on his Apple II while exercising. 


Damon struck up a friendship with the writer, and when the novel Patriot Games was released, he got an autographed copy alongside a handwritten note. “Dear Damon, this is my war game - Tom Clancy.”



 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Damon Slye

Years after leaving Dynamix in 1994, Damon decided he wanted to enter back into the collaborative scrum. By accident, he bumped into his old partner Jeff Tunnell. Jeff’s company GarageGames had been acquired and given an injection of funding. There was money there, and would Damon like to get his hands dirty? Absolutely! Later, Damon headed to Mad Otter, where he now works on free-to-play MMO Villagers And Heroes. Oh, and he’s living in Eugene - back where it all started. http://www.villagersandheroes.com 


Jeff Tunnell

Entrepreneurship runs in Jeff’s blood. He founded a series of companies after leaving Dynamix, including GarageGames, Spotkin and Push Button Labs. When Disney bought the latter, Jeff reportedly did nicely out of the deal.


In March of 2017, he bowed out of games development entirely, writing this: “I have always surfed the latest trend or been ahead (sometimes too far) of what is happening in games, but this past round of consolidation of platforms into app stores and literally millions of games coming to market caught me flat footed, and I’m out of ideas on how to succeed.”


Don’t feel too sorry for him, however. It sounds as if he’s having a blast, including mountain biking, motorcycling, building and…farming weed. Yup, Jeff is a marijuana farmer now after the American northwest declared it legal.


Kevin Ryan

Kevin joined Dynamix from the start and worked there until 2000, most of which was spent under the umbrella of Jeff Tunnell Productions. In fact, he has worked almost exclusively with Jeff throughout his career, following him to Garage Games and freelancing at Spotkin. Today, he works on Contraption Maker, a wildly successful follow up to The Incredible Machine. http://contraptionmaker.com/ 


David Selle

David has worked at a host of companies since leaving Dynamix and built a slew of software teams, but he’s currently based in San Francisco where he works remotely with New Zealand technology company Nyriad. Nyriad develops hyperscale storage solutions that guard against bit rot, and consults with the Australian and New Zealand government on the Square Kilometre Array, the groundbreaking satellite that, when complete, will store 3 times the data currently generated by the entire internet. David is imparting his organisational experience and helping secure a foothold in the US. You can find out about the company’s work at www.nyriad.com


DEFINING GAMES 


Red Baron (1990)

Of all the games Damon Slye made, this one’s his favourite. And why not? A keen plane enthusiast who later acquired his own licence, Slye channelled his learnings from the ‘80s into a full-bodied flying enthusiasts’ pin-up that took you on a tour of the skies over the Western Front during World War I. Red Baron was the culmination of improving technology and a growing wallet. The tight aerial combat and period gameplay was a hit, and the impressive VGA technology blew gamers away. A popular series was born. 


Rise of the Dragon (1990) 

Slip into Blade’s rust-brown jacket and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve entered a version of Blade Runner. Dynamix had long wanted to make a story-driven experience inspired by the film, and Rise Of The Dragon finally solidified that vision. Protagonist Blade is a fitting homage, as is the cyberpunk vision of Los Angeles, circa 2053. And with the clock ticking, the pressure’s on to stop the bad guys winning the day.  


Betrayal At Krondor (1993)

This one’s role-playing royalty. Based on the novels by Raymond E. Feist, Betrayal At Krondor features an enormous open world that you can explore at your leisure. It represents early ‘90s questing in full 3D, replete with turn-based combat and puzzle-solving. Critics were quick to shower it in praise and it’s hard not to be impressed, although many years on, it’s a bit of an eyesore.


The Incredible Machine (1993) 

A good puzzle game never gets old, and Kevin Ryan’s The Incredible Machine has aged gracefully. In it, you arrange objects around the screen to try and create an elaborate contraption that accomplishes a simple task (like putting a ball in a box). Kevin worked on it at Jeff Tunnell Productions, a subsidiary of Dynamix, an intentionally small breakaway group that would give Kevin the room to breathe. It’s still the game he’s most proud of after all this time.


Starsiege (1999) 

Dynamix traded in 3D mech combat throughout its lifetime, but by 1999 the genre was proving unpopular, overawed by a tidal wave of first-person shooters. Despite this, and even with Damon Slye long gone, Dynamix stuck to their guns and produced a quality experience. Starsiege is not their best work - not by a long stretch - but it proves that the earliest learnings of Stellar 7 and ArcticFox still coursed through the company, even after its co-founder had left. Look no further than the carefully rendered 3D worlds, the tactical battles, the stomping combat. Bravo. 



TIMELINE 

1983 - Damon Slye creates Stellar 7 and gets into business with Jeff Tunnell.

1984 - Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye start Software Entertainment Corporation. They bring Kevin Ryan and Richard Hicks on board, and rename the company Dynamix.

1986 - Dynamix enters a multi-game deal with Electronic Arts, starting with $35,000 to make Arctic Fox. 

1989 - Dynamix ships a whopping eight titles in 12 months. By now, they have extricated themselves from the EA deal.

1989 - Ken Williams of Sierra comes calling and offers to buy Dynamix. Jeff and the team agree, pleased to be relieved of cash flow worries.

1991 - Jeff Tunnell creates a breakaway group under the Dynamix umbrella, Jeff Tunnell Productions, and Kevin Ryan joins him. They work on puzzle game The Incredible Machine, which is released in 1993.

1992 - Mark Crowe joins Dynamix and works with David Selle to write the story for Space Quest V, which is released in February 1993.  

1994. Damon Slye leaves the company to take a break from the exhausting process of games development. 

1996. Sierra is acquired by CUC in a deal that will doom Williams’ company. Dynamix, by proxy, is doomed too. 

2001 - Dynamix ship Tribes 2, a team combat shooter rooted in the earliest work of Damon Slye. Despite a favourable reception, Dynamix closes shortly after.  




 

 



DNA OF DYNAMIX 

Pushing technical boundaries

When VGA cards first popped on the scene, Dynamix was ready to pounce. The team wrote internal toolsets and page flipping routines to eke out the most from the technology. In Aces Of The Deep (1994), you needed an extended memory manager just to run the game. Dynamix was ultimately supplanted by id Software, but for a time, they were a graphics supremo. 


Simulators

Submarines, fighter jets, period aircrafts. Dynamix had a keen eye for situating you within the confines of real machines, from the F14 to the WW1 Camel. Lest we forget, they also created simulations of pinball and golf too - slightly less exciting pursuits, we’re sure you’ll agree.


Mech Combat

Hulking mechs engaged in strategic warfare: it’s almost a bygone genre, but there was no better exponent at the time. Dynamix created, to name a few: MechWarrior (1989), Metaltech: Earthsiege (1994), Battledrome (1995), Earthsiege 2 (1995) as well as Starsiege (1999).  


Movie trappings

For some time, Dynamix experimented with filmic games, creating Project Firestart in a nod to Alien as well as David Wolf: Secret Agent, which had digitized actors’ faces but was poorly received in press quarters. They finally found their groove with Rise Of The Dragon and then Heart Of China.  


Adventure games

Parent company Sierra has a far more established reputation in the realm of adventuring, but Dynamix was more than keen to flex their storytelling muscles. Rise Of The Dragon (1990) and Heart Of China (1991) were adult games and concerted mood pieces, while Space Quest V (1993) was a comedic ride, and The Adventures Of Willy Beamish (1991), a child-friendly affair.

Part of the Sierra Family 


To the uninitiated, the Dynamix legacy can be summed up a single phrase: “Part of the Sierra family”. But that’s only half the story, since this was an independent studio for five years before Ken Williams came calling. Sierra’s resources doubtlessly helped, but the foundations for success were already firmly in place. 


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