Ian Dunlop (DMA Design) – Interview

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Couple this with the interview released today with Ian’s friend Neill Glancy and you’ve everything you ever needed to know about the Amiga classic, Walker. Throw in a podcast too and you’re really all set!

Ian Dunlop was a DMA Design stalwart of course, and he was the lead programmer for Walker, but he’s also worked on games such as Thief: Deadly Shadow; Contra 4 and he was one of the brains behind the excellent Turok series (Turok, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil) so it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to pick his brains. Adrian found out all about him.

 

***And yes, please listen to our Walker podcast to get you in the Amiga-ry kinda mood…sorry***

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you ever worked on?

I started learning to program and code in Z80 back in 1981 / 82 when the ZX-81 / Spectrum computers were launched. I kept at it and became proficient and skilled – enough that I could produce very polished / technically interesting games; which I used to gain employment.

I applied at Ocean and Elite in ’87 and accepted an offer to work at Elite Systems in Birmingham. The 1st game I worked on was a side-scrolling beat-em-up game that I never finished. I ended up getting sick and quitting. I was young and couldn’t handle being around smokers 5 days a week. Crazy when you think about that in today’s work environment.

Later that year I accepted a contracting gig with Codemasters and my 1st published game was a version of International Rugby Simulator for the ZX-Spectrum. I later went on to port it to the Amstrad CPC-464. I ended up doing contracting work for Codemasters until I met Dave Jones at DMA Design. I was offered a job there and got a contracting gig making “Walker” for the Amiga.

 

I loved Walker on the Amiga. Do you remember how this game was first perceived and what were the early ideas and concepts for this classy game?

Thanks. The initial idea was proposed by Scott Johnson who had come up with a clever way of rendering sprites for the ‘head’ positions of the Walker. He rendered them facing left and everything about the game was based around those art assets. I was told we want a fun shooter, using the ‘Walker’ and the scale should be like Lemmings. That was the entire pitch. I took it from there and ran with it. As things progressed – I would talk with my friend Neill Glancy about it and he would often have cool ideas to make it better.

 

 

Is it true that you wrote out the game’s story and if so, what inspired you in this creative process?

No, that’s not true. It’s true that I did have a hand in most of the games mechanics (I programmed most of the game), it was a team effort laying out the levels. I seem to remember I did some of them; but Neill may have done most of the level design. The art itself was heavily inspired from Neill’s unique vision of the game (which sadly was never used).

 

What was your exact role on Walker and how did you and Neill Glancy work together to create such an amazing game?

It’s hard to say with a degree of accuracy. I know I was on it from start to finish. I wasn’t getting paid a lot and there wasn’t a lot of management push to get the game done early on. So I experimented a fair bit. But early on I did establish the control method and how the walker functioned. My role was lead. I did programming duties and game design duties. DMA Design didn’t really have much of a say early on – it was only later (I think almost 3-4 years in) that they decided to rain in the scope and wrap it up.

I’m not exactly sure when Neill came on board – Neill at that time was just a friend (not a colleague); but we had a passion for violent shooters/shoot-em-ups and sci-fi movies. Such that we collaborated on bringing Neill’s vision of what Walker could be to life. Sadly that unique vision was abandoned because it was a) too costly to implement for all levels and b) “political” office issues about who was actually doing the artwork. Neill’s contribution also included working on level and some enemy designs as well as inspiring the ‘official’ project artists.

 

I love the joint use of the mouse and joystick to control the mechanised Walker. Why did you end up using this innovative and original control system and how easy was it get working in the game?

I can’t really remember any issues with the actual implementation. It was inspired by the 3D orientations of the Walker head sprites that Scott originally made. I wanted something that was easy to aim. I’ve always been a fan of coin-op arcade games that employed unique control schemes that made you feel like you were interacting with the controls of a craft; instead of controlling an on-screen avatar’s movements directly. e.g. Battlezone.

 

Is it true that Lemmings helped inspire some of the character art within Walker, and what else inspired your work ion this game?

Lemmings and its scale were definitely an inspiration. Sci-fi movies like Aliens and RoboCop were influences. Neill’s amazing artistic vision of the game which pushed me to do better.

 

 

Did you ever start work on the sadly cancelled Walker 2, and if so, can you explain some of the ideas and game mechanics which would have been used?

I did not work on Walker 2. I was tasked with porting Walker to the Sega Megadrive/Genesis. That project was cancelled/ended when I quit working for DMA Design.

Regarding the cancellation… I seem to remember Neill quit – I was offered his role as lead on Walker 2; then I quit DMA Design – the whole project folded after that.

 

We have been lucky enough to interview another DMA Design stalwart in the past with Steve Hammond. What was it like working with Steve and the other amazing people at DMA Designs and how do you reflect back on your time at this great company?

I honestly didn’t work with Steve much… (as far as I can remember) but everyone was very friendly and professional. It was a great company and if my future at that time had been to stay in Scotland I would have definitely stayed in Dundee…. it would have been an honor to work there.

 

How did you get the opportunity to join Iguana Entertainment and what was the first game you worked on with this company?

My friend Neill called me when I was on vacation and told me Iguana was hiring and I should call them if I was interested. I had always been interested in living/working in the States so I jumped at the chance. It turned out they were very interested in my skill set. I was hired as a designer.

I worked out of Iguana/Middlesbrough, UK for a year. During that time I helped out with the NBA games that they specialized in. I also remember playing a significant amount of DOOM LAN matches (nice work if you can get it! – Ed).

 

You worked on a huge number of Turok titles. What are your views on this gaming series and why do you feel they have become so popular and well respected with gamers?

I have a complex/mixed set of feelings regarding Turok. It’s one of the most significant/complex (at the time) games I had ever worked on. It’s also one where I ended up doing a serious amount of overtime – we’re talking months of 7 days a week overtime towards the end. That wasn’t fun at all.

I honestly never understood the popularity of it. It seemed like a weak version of a game I had always envisioned in my head. I had just seen Raptors intelligently communicate and attack human prey in Jurassic Park (the movie) and we were forced to dumb down our AI; so it was more like a simple shooter. In the end that worked; but I don’t develop games to just simply repeat what has gone before – I like to innovate – especially in AI or gameplay.

I haven’t looked at the recent/modern versions of the franchise (remakes released in 2015 & 2017 for which Ian appears to be credited – Ed) so I can’t comment on what happened to it. But if you added dinosaurs to the recent Tomb Raider games (jungle scenes) that would be kinda my vision for a new version.

 

You are credited with developing the Game Logic in the first Turok title. What exactly did this interesting role entail and how proud are you of the success of the game?

I was originally hired as a ‘designer planner’ at Iguana. But they never had any projects for me to “own” so I never fulfilled that role. I remember getting called into the owner’s office one day and told that he had grave concerns about the Turok team because no one on it had shipped a game before. So, he wanted me to join the team as a programmer and work on gameplay.

I was responsible for everything that happened to the 1st person camera motion, animation etc. How your character moved/interacted with the environment – on ground, climbing or swimming on the surface or underneath. How enemies moved/responded to you.

I also designed the control layout – what the buttons did. I also, directly contributed to the power of the knife and bow weapons. Both were planned to be weak. My idea was that these are the tools Turok would prefer to use and thus they should feel powerful. The one shot bow kills were ultimately replaced with a ’sparkle/sheen’ on when to release them.

I am ultimately proud of my work on Turok; regardless of my feelings on how we got there and how the game turned out.

 

 

You worked with the legendary Warren Spector on the hugely respected Deus Ex sequel. What was it like working with Warren and what was your role on this PC classic?

I think I’m credited on the sequel of Deus Ex simply because we shared tools/tech on both Thief Deadly Shadows and Deus Ex: Invisible War. But I can’t remember ever directly working on it.

I have much respect for Warren as a fellow designer. I did have issues with the way he ran Ion Storm at the time; mostly due to the inability of the team to make early critical decisions which left things undecided early on. IMO it set us up for failure in terms of budget/timely releasing of the games. I had come from Iguana which preached a methodical way of releasing games “on time and on budget” – I completely unlearned that under Warren. We made a lot of bad decisions, wasted a lot of time and money; and yes I take full responsibility for my part.

 

You mentioned it there, Thief: Deadly Shadows is another hugely respected PC title. As the game’s Lead Programmer how much pride to get from your stellar work on this title?

This is another game I’m highly conflicted on. I can appreciate the following the Thief franchise has (I loved the original myself); there are a lot of dedicated fans and I can appreciate the efforts the design team took to craft something that lived up to its legacy. I personally don’t feel like as the lead programmer that was effectively serviced. We used Unreal tech and at the time it was a poor choice for what we were trying to achieve. We ended up doing some extreme modifications to it at the time. It was old tech and graphics were switching to using normal mapped lighting. I think it was one of those bad decision points where we chose poorly; and it set the stage for three years worth of pain and suffering.

 

 

How do you reflect back on your amazing career in gaming and do you have a personal highlight?

I hope there is more to come. I think my work at Iguana is definitely the highlight for me – on a good day; it would be Turok, (the 1st one) working on how the camera moves/feels.

The original control scheme was supposed to be like the Atari Jaguar game – Alien vs. Predator. The controls were clumsily mapped onto the innovative N64 controller. Suffice it to say as a game designer I was horrified by this approach. So I took it upon myself to come up with a more natural control scheme that fit the N64 controller and used its analogue control. It should be pointed out that other people at Iguana at the time had similar ideas (and they may feel they came up with the control scheme – it’s my habit to embrace all ideas from colleagues and I’m sure I would have said something like – ‘oh that is a great idea’; even if I was already thinking that). But the bottom line is that I created a new control scheme which ultimately shipped (yes – I got into trouble for doing that). It was switchable at compile time – so you could have the intended Jaguar style controls or switch to the N64 controls.

The odd thing is that we adopted my design internally as the way everyone played Turok. I remember when it was time to make a demo build (it may have been for E3) I got a call from Jeff Spangenberg (owner) to change the control scheme to the Jaguar method. So, I made a build… about 10-15 mins later I got a call back from Jeff telling me to change it back – no one could play the game. So, that was the turning point and we quickly abandoned the Jaguar control scheme in favor of the N64 centric one.

 

You are now the president of oeFun Inc. What inspired you to start your own company and can you give our readers a quick breakdown of some of your projects and games?

After Ion Storm & spending three years on one title, I felt it was time to get back to basics and work for myself. I spent a few years doing Java mobile games as a contractor, a GBA game (never finished) and then started my own company in 2005. As my own company the releases are fairly scattered. I had some early success doing iOS games; but then it quickly became crowded. At that point I started contracting out my development services and worked with some people in Austin and other parts of the country.

There are too many to list and some I can’t mention unfortunately / due to NDA’s.

Notable efforts include my own TriBlaster (think Tempest), Vertical Golf on iOS and a recent HTC Vive project – Dawn of the Robot Empire (my favorite).

I work on several iOS applications which unfortunately I can’t mention here.

 

Out of all the games you have ever worked on, which title are you most proud of and why?

Turok – gameplay work. It was just before teams got huge and specialized; so one team member could have a large contribution that was meaningful and significant. Why I prefer iOS dev now – teams are much smaller.

 

Are there any games you started work on but were never released, and if so, which unreleased game do you think would have been the most successful?

The Day I Tried… was a game that I loved working on. It had a large following; but due to personal reasons I had to take a step back and re-evaluate my priorities. I’d love to one day revisit it…

 

If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?

Dawn of the Robot Empire – it’s a fun and fast shooter. Reminds me of the spirit of Walker. Also, I don’t have to imagine what it would be like because it’s a VR game.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Q-bert. Perhaps I could understand him after a few drinks?

 

Adrian

 

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