In the fall of 1982, I became the producer at Electronic Arts for Dan Bunten.
On my first day on the job at EA, the total headcount for EA was 7 people. Trip Hawkins held a draft of prospective developers amongst the 3 producers. We randomly chose the draft order, and I picked third. Dave Evans picked first; he “selected” Bill Budge and Pinball Construction Set. Pat Marriott picked second, and selected Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall, who in turn developed Archon and Murder On The Zinderneuf as their 2 titles. I was left with selecting our only remaining pre-established developer connection, Dan Bunten. I wasn’t terribly happy about this; Dan had only previously published Cartels And Cutthroats for SSI, and a small multiplayer, self-published auction game. Additionally, Dan was located in Little Rock, Arkansas, making for what I assumed would be some unpleasant travel. Last, but not least, Trip’s idea was to build another economic “simulation” based on the design/code base of Cartels And Cutthroats. I had lots of misgivings about this product concept.
Thus began a fruitful, enjoyable, and highly creative relationship between myself and Ozark Softscape which was to last around 3 years and produced M.U.L.E., Seven Cities Of Gold, and Heart Of Africa. I could go on about the history of the creation of these products, but it would take a lot of writing. Instead, here are a couple of my favorite moments with Dan during this period.
During the Alpha to Beta transition of M.U.L.E., we had a serious problem with play balance in the later stages of the game in single player mode. I had spent over 150 hours playtesting M.U.L.E., and between Dan and I we were struggling to fix the design flaw. I flew out to Little Rock to meet with the team and nail down this problem. Dan and I enjoyed walking and talking, so we went for a walk around the pond in front of their “clubhouse” office. We paced around the pond discussing the internal design and play-flow of M.U.L.E. After a couple of hours, several laps, and lots of intense problem solving, we figured out the solution. We couldn’t wait to get back into the clubhouse to alter the code (which was written in BASIC) and test the simulation. We practically ran back to join the rest of the team, who had patiently waited for Dan and I to return. It took about 15 minutes to make the changes, recompile, and get a build to start testing. It worked.
This moment in the development of M.U.L.E. was especially memorable because of the interchange between Dan and myself. Dan was always open minded about game design, a joy to work with, and a sharp, analytic thinker. The problem we were solving was very subtle and required insight about game flow and mechanics which I found to be quite rare. My respect and admiration for Dan was firmly established as a result of this dialogue. In the future this working relationship and friendship would be needed to fight some of the even more complex problems we were to face.
Of the products I produced at EA, Seven Cities Of Gold was my favorite. One of the great moments of my EA career took place early in the development of SCOG. Alan Watson and Dan were developing as an early milestone the random continent generator. After a lot of work, maps were being generated in about 40 minutes and written to the Atari 800 floppy (all of 88K). Unfortunately, every continent, no matter what parameters were selected, looked like a peanut. We struggled for weeks trying to get the generator to create ANYTHING that didn’t look like a peanut. The frustration level was extremely high for everyone.
Each Friday at EA there was a company meeting where Trip would pull everyone together to discuss the events of the week and the state of the business. About an hour prior to one of these meetings, I received a call from Dan, who was very excited. They had found a bug in the random number generator. Dan wanted to transmit to me a map data file showing a map which wasn’t a peanut. At the time, 2400 baud was the fastest we could transmit (this took place in 1983). It would take over an hour to get the map, and another ½ hour to create a build and see the results.
I grabbed a beer from the company meeting, and while everyone else at EA was attending the meeting, I was in the test center downloading code/data. Just as I was seeing the results of Alan/Dan’s success, everyone in the company meeting started cheering and making a bunch of noise. I too was cheering and making noise in celebration of seeing our first “truly random” continent. The coincidence of all this celebration brought chills down my spine … I knew at the time something special had just happened. I jumped on the phone to call Dan, and while he was on the phone people started to come into the test center to see what I was doing. For the first time anyone could tell we were creating another masterpiece. The energy and excitement was terrific. Dan was both elated and burnt out, but you could “hear” him grinning on the other side of the phone.
Although he and I hadn’t worked together in over 12 years, we stayed in touch. We always enjoyed spending time together discussing game development, publishing, family life; anything and everything we found interesting. Dan was always more interested in people and how they behave than in technology or even pure game design. His interest in multiplayer games clearly reinforces this. Dan enriched my life, taught me a bunch about game design and products, and gave me some of the best moments in my career.
Dan, I hope you are happy, wherever you are.
I will miss you.
Thank you to our wonderful friends over at PlanetMule.com for providing a setting in which this story was relayed.