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  • How I Got My Start in the Game Industry

    - Alistair Wallis

  •  Dave Perry
    Northern Ireland-born developer David Perry gained fame after moving to America in 1991 to head up award-winning projects like Aladdin and Cool Spot for Virgin Games. Following that, he formed his own company, Shiny Entertainment, and produced the multimillion selling title Earthworm Jim.

    Perry's success with the company continued, with hits like MDK and 2003's Enter the Matrix. After leaving the company in 2006, he founded and and took up a position at Acclaim, as the director of MMOs 2Moons and DANCE!

    Perry's interest in computers could have begun at the age of 13, had he not been turned away from the school computer room and politely asked to "come back in a couple of years". So, instead, it began in 1982, when he was 15. "The computers were all black and white: Acorn Atom, Sinclair ZX80, and ZX81," he explains. "The games the guys were playing were generally character-based. No, I don't mean like a knight or warrior; I mean like the letter ‘A' versus the letter ‘Z.' The games back then were really, really simple. Usually you controlled a blob and try to avoid hitting other blobs. Advanced games tended to be Breakout and things like that."

    "Luckily for me," he says, "these people were friendly and actually showed me how program in BASIC, and I was hooked. 10 PRINT "HELLO" 20 GOTO 10: This kind of stuff made it feel really easy to get into."

    Perry's own obsession was with Cosmos, a game for the Research Machines 380Z. Using his newfound programming knowledge, Perry began working on converting the game to the Sinclair Spectrum. "It was essentially a space adventure game where you use scanners to find enemies, and then hunt them down. Then when you found them there was a very simple targeting mini-game. My memory is horrible after 20 plus years," he laughs. "I wish I could see this game again."

     Later that year, Perry decided to send his work on Cosmos, and a number of other games, to National ZX Users Club magazine, and was paid £450 for his efforts. It was at this point, he says, that he realized working with games "could actually become a job." After meeting the magazine's publisher, Tim Hartnell, Perry asked if he could contribute a chapter to one of the books that Hartnell was working on at the time -- the appropriately named Tim Hartnell's Giant Book of Spectrum Games. His work ended up being well enough received that he was later asked to write a book of his own, and the 32 page Astounding Arcade Games for Your Spectrum+ & Spectrum went on sale in 1985 for £1.25.

    Perry recalls that it was difficult to find games in U.K. stores at that point, a major reason that the book market was so profitable. "The bigger [games] got, the more difficult it was to type them all in correctly," he grins. "When I started, I couldn't even afford a tape recorder. Think about that: I would type in a flight simulator -- many, many hours -- and then play it for a while, not be able to save the data anywhere and have to just reset the computer and start typing something else. I didn't even have a printer, so I would set a typewriter beside my computer and type onto paper everything that was on the screen. Damn, I had patience back then! It wouldn't have made a bit of difference if I didn't get published, if anything it was the challenge that drove me."

    "One trick I've learned over the years about games is that the good ones challenge you at the level you want to be challenged at, not by your choice, but by design," he adds. "Learning to program works the same way, you try things as difficult as you can handle, so when it works, there's an incredible sense of accomplishment."

    The continuing rise of the book market not only helped Perry get his work out there, but also helped him continue learning about programming. Tools like the Artic Assembly Language compiler began to appear as well, which he notes helped him learn even faster. "To be honest, I'm really jealous of all the information that's out there today, on the Internet for free," he says ruefully. "In those days, I'd have three books total and they would be dog-eared, I'd have read them so many times."

    Perry's first foray into developing retail games was when he sent off a BASIC game named DrakMaze to British publisher MikroGen. While the deal fell through, Perry ended up meeting the company's managing director, Mike Meek, at a trade show in London soon after. Meek was looking to put together a development team, and offered Perry a job. "It was a horribly paid job at [the equivalent of] $3,500 a year plus a company car, but it was still very tempting," he says. Though it involved not only leaving his school, but also moving across to England, he decided to take it.

    "When I got there, the company car turned out to be a really, really old beaten-up van that had to be shared by the whole team!" he laughs. "But still, my career skyrocketed when I got into a room with people way more talented than myself. My programming was very, well, ‘by-the-book' meaning I didn't know all the tricks used to make real games. Luckily I was handed high-quality source code to start with it was like a bio-tech scientist getting to see what DNA looks like for the first time. It really made me feel like I had just been given the keys to the car, and finally I could get in and drive. I had a lot of catching up to do! I tried to keep my head down so I could absorb as much as possible before they kicked me out the door."

    Perry's work turned out well though, with his first game for the company -- a conversion of Pyjamarama for the Amstrad CPC -- receiving glowing reviews, including a 10 out of 10 from one magazine. "I can't tell you how addictive that is," he grins. "Oh, and they let me stay!"

    Though Perry's relationship with MikroGen ended after a year or two, he continued to work successfully in London with companies like Elite Systems and Probe Software. "It was fantastic," he enthuses. "Being in London I got to meet the press, attend all the shows, work on my English accent and go and meet Sir Clive Sinclair himself. For me that was like meeting Muhammad Ali. All the action was in England and I even got to meet my idols, people like Peter Molyneux and David Braben."

    At the end of the decade, Perry found himself in an enviable position: "I was single, I owned a house, and I was very comfortable," he says. This was soon interrupted, though, when he was offered a job with Virgin Games in the U.S. "The offer I got was, ‘Come to America, we will cover all your costs, get you an apartment, a car and pay you royalties.' I went to my old boss and said, ‘Will you pay me royalties?' He said, ‘Hell no', so the decision was made."

    "Things just tended to unfold," he muses. "I generally knew what interested me and what didn't. So when I was asked to stay somewhere I didn't want to be, I would have no issue with leaving. That stopped me getting stuck in a wash-rinse-repeat cycle. As you move around, you learn a lot from different companies and how they work. I'm not suggesting people quit their jobs, but if you are stuck in a rut and you have an offer from somewhere else -- especially in another country -- and if you are young and single, then what the heck? Never think of this as a job: it's a career. Make every decision based on your career. That's what has worked for me."

    "Does everything always go to plan? Almost never, but that shouldn't make you throw the towel in," he adds. "I have a rule that you can make as many mistakes as you like, as long as you learn from them and do your best to never repeat them."

    His first title produced in America was Global Gladiators, a Genesis title based on McDonald's characters that ended up winning numerous Game of the Year awards and was quickly followed up by the 7-Up license Cool Spot. "Once I was in America, I was in full stride; I was programming and actually owned my own game engine," he explains. "That was a pretty potent combo. It's funny but back then it was like I owned the Unreal Engine! I could make any game really fast and it rapidly produced Aladdin, Cool Spot, Global Gladiators and Earthworm Jim. So I had struck gold by building a technology base I knew inside out. I also had a support programmer called Andy Astor, and he made tools that sped up the entire pipeline. That combo made this a really fun and dynamic time."

    A cosmic quest.

    Perry notes that, as far as he knows, he is still "the only programmer from Northern Ireland, or all of Ireland for that matter" to have produced number one games. "I don't think for a second if I'd just stayed there and just kept reading my three books that I could have pulled that off," he says. "Interestingly the colleges there are now teaching how to develop games -- I've even gone over to help out last November -- so I'm starting to think that 20 plus years later there is actually the avenue now to really start a major video game career there. I met some great students who pitched me some really cool ideas."

    These days, he believes, the industry makes it "much easier" for new entrants to find work. "There's a bazillion jobs out there," he grins. "Yes, many require experience, but talent is more valuable than experience, so it's actually more a creative challenge to find a way to demonstrate your talent to the right guy."


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