August 16, 2005

David Mullich: The Interview

by peterb

When I had the opportunity to interview David Mullich, designer of some of the most unusual and quirky Apple II games I played in my youth, I was a bit anxious. Mullich, after all, has been working in the industry for 25 years. What are the chances he'd want to talk about his earliest works? Imagine you are, say, a writer. You've been writing for decades. Every year you put out a new book. How annoying would it be if people only ever wanted to ask you about your first novel?

My sensitivity on this issue might have been heightened because I had recently read an essay that infuriated me. It was an article by a very well-known game designer. This designer is influential despite having a track record of having created some of the most arduously, gruelingly unfun games ever created. The theme of the article was how the designers he knew in the past had, he guessed, moved on from the industry. The refrain of his overwrought meditation was that these once-famous designers had disappeared, like grains of sand in the wind.

A few things bothered me about the article, not the least of which was its tone, but probably the single biggest annoying thing was this author's section on Nasir. Nasir Gebelli wrote a string of hits for the Apple II back in the early 80's. Our drama queen designer opines:

And then, a grain of sand, a gust of wind, and Nasir Gebelli was gone. Sometime around 1983 or 1984, in the general collapse of the games industry and the specific collapse of Sirius software, Nasir Gebelli disappeared from the scene. I don't know where he is now.

Of course, Nasir was doing what he had always been doing. Writing games. You may have heard of The Secret of Mana or Final Fantasy or some of the other small games published by an obscure outfit named SquareSoft.

So this article annoys me on a literal level, because the only reason the author didn't know what Nasir was doing was that he hadn't bothered to find out. But it also bothers me on a more fundamental level, because it buys into a pathology that we see expressed from time to time: the idea of the game programmer as a celebrity.

The corporate game industry eats this stuff up, because it keeps a steady stream of naive undergrads streaming in to the industry willing to spend time working too many hours for not enough pay (or stock options) in the hopes that they'll be the next John Romero. But really, the world has changed: the only people who know the names of any game designers are game geeks. Do you know who Will Wright is? Or Sid Meier? Of course you do. Because you are a game geek. You are not the mass market. You are not who determines whether a game product is successful or not.

The reality, of course, is that modern commercial games are much more products than they are works in the artistic sense. I say this not as an insult, but as a bare fact: the technical realities of game production are that they are a complex software product, and the game industry is not yet as good at abstracting away the complexities of production as Hollywood is at abstracting away the complexities of movies. The game industry has had a few D.W. Griffiths. But it will be a few more decades before it has its Hitchcock. I don't think it's any shame to be a competent producer or software engineer who works on a large team putting together a complex product. But to the game designers who pretend to celebrity, having a role like that is as glamorous as driving a truck.

So when I talked to Mullich (remember him? I mentioned him about 10 pages ago), I was nervous about doing the same thing to him as the designer who I will not name did to Nasir. I didn't want to imply that the only works that mattered were the ones that he had the top byline on. But I still wanted to know about his earlier games, because I am, perhaps unjustifiably, fascinated by that era in software development. In the meantime, he'd been a producer on a number of top-shelf titles (including some of the products in the humongously successful Heroes of Might and Magic III series).

Hopefully, I managed to ask good questions about the early days without giving short shrift to his later work. You be the judge.

peterb: What have you been doing since 3DO/New World Computing folded? Mobygames says you worked on Vampire: The Masquerade. What was your role there?

After I and most of the Heroes team were laid off from NWC, I was hired by Activision to produce real-time strategy games based upon the Star Trek license. That was a real treat for me, since I had been a Star Trek fan since watching the original series premiere episode and later became a cartoonist for the Star Trektennial newsletter put out by Gene Roddenberry's secretary, Susan Sackett. However, with the box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise, Activision felt that Paramount was no longer supporting the license and announced that it was ending its agreement. All work on Star Trek games halted at that point, which was a pity because one of the games I was producing was shaping up to be pretty spectacular.

I was then assigned to produce Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, which was already a year or more into development without an Activision producer being attached to ensure that everything was running smoothly. As a result, things were in a pretty sorry state when I came aboard: an unfinished design and game engine, technical problems with the multiplayer code, many game levels that were created and then thrown out, and so on.

My job was to work with the developer, Troika Games, to get the game back on track and bring it to completion. I eventually wound up staying onsite at Troika, which required me to drive a 180-mile round-trip commute each day through the worst of Los Angeles traffic. I'd usually leave my house at 7am and often wouldn't get back home until 2am that night, and this went on for six months until the game was finished. It was a very grueling project, and I was happy when it was all over.

My three-year contract with Activision recently expired, and now I'm in negotiations for a new business venture that's a little different from what I've done before, and for that reason among others, it's very exciting for me. Unfortunately, I can't discuss it yet.

Let's be blunt. Heroes IV failed. What went wrong? If you could fix just one thing with the product (technically -- you're not allowed to say "better marketing!") what would it be?

I think that characterizing Heroes IV as a failure is overly harsh. While it wasn't the enormous critical and financial success that was Heroes III (which, I was pleased to recently learn, was named by PC Gamer magazine as the 25th Best Game of All Time), Heroes IV received good reviews and had its share of fans. The challenge with sequels is trying to make a game that has enough of the same things that made its predecessors fun, yet is different enough that it doesn't feel like the same old thing. Sometimes you strike the right balance, and sometimes you don't (George Lucas, anyone?).

However, things did go wrong on the project, and the two biggest problems were the Forge Town and Legends of Might & Magic. Allow me to explain.

New World Computing's two main franchises were the Might & Magic fantasy role-playing game series and its offshoot, the Heroes of Might & Magic fantasy strategy game series, for which I was the development team's leader for five years. Both franchises took place in the same universe, and their respective designers often worked together to make sure that there were no inconsistencies in the two franchises' storylines and to occasionally intertwine the storylines together.

When we got the green light to do a second expansion game to Heroes III, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, decided to build the game around the "forge" -- a machine capable of building weapons that could dominate the world and featured in the recently released Might & Magic 7: For Blood and Honor. His idea was to create a new type of town for the Heroes series, the Forge Town, where there would be a mixture of fantasy and science fiction elements. So, in this town, orcs would be armed with ray guns and minotaurs equipped with jet packs.

Now, while this mix of fantasy and science fiction had always been a staple of the Might & Magic RPG franchise, it was new to the Heroes series and there was an angry backlash from Heroes fans. As soon as we released the preliminary concept art, the fans became so upset, they immediately organized a boycott of the game and New World management ordered us to come up with a new concept for the expansion. One fan was so angry at us for even considering introducing science fiction elements into the Heroes series that he sent a death threat to Greg. Naturally, this rattled my designer, but when our management made light of the threat, Greg was so incensed that he quit his job.

This left me with no designer for our next big project, Heroes IV, and when I couldn't find a replacement for Greg in time for the project's start, I took the unusual step of giving Heroes III AI programmer, Gus Smedstad, the dual role of lead programmer and lead designer, since he understood the strategic elements of the game better than anyone except for Heroes' creator, Jon Van Cangehem.

As we began planning the design for Heroes IV, Jon (or JVC, as we called him) thought it was time to "completely reinvent" the Heroes series, and he encouraged us to rethink every element of the game. He also thought it was time to scale back the game by reducing the number of town and creature types available to the player.

With those marching orders, Gus completely revised the magic, skill, and town/creature system (my main contribution was the idea of moving the “heroes” off of the sidelines and onto the battlefield during combat). Gus also thought the game engine needed to be redone from scratch (some of the code was quite buggy and dated back to the game King's Bounty, the predecessor to the original Heroes game), although JVC didn't think the time was right yet to go with a real-time 3D engine.

Once JVC signed off on the design, I calculated that the project would require about 6 programmers and 18 months of work. Unfortunately, our parent company, 3DO, was having severe financial problems and ordered New World to begin work on a third franchise, Legends of Might & Magic, but without giving us any additional staff to work on it. Many of New World's best programmers — some of whom I was counting on to work on Heroes IV — were assigned to this new franchise, which also consumed all of JVC's attention for almost two years until it shipped. (Legends was the real failure. It was a total commercial and critical flop as well as being finished a year behind schedule, as I recall.)

So, instead of six programmers to program the game, I had only two — one of whom was also busy with the design work, while the other was also tasked with creating six new Heroes "mini-expansions" needed to supply 3DO with additional revenue. I tried for over a year to beg, borrow or steal additional programmers, but between 3DO-mandated salary and hiring freezes, I wasn't able to bring additional programming help onto the team. 3DO finally responded to our dilemma about six months before we were scheduled to ship the game, and I was given what I needed to hire on a bunch of new programmers in a hurry. However, the problem of the mythical man month (you can't have ten people do in one month what a single person can do in ten months) reared its ugly head, and as a result, Heroes IV shipped with underdeveloped AI and no multiplayer gameplay.

As for the one change I would make if I had it to do all over again, well, that has to do with another problem I experienced during the project. At the completion of Heroes III, my manager criticized me for being too "hands-on" during the game's development and ordered me to give the leads under me more latitude on future projects. While I disagreed with his criticism and thought that my leadership style on Heroes III had resulted in a pretty darned good game, my manager remained firm on the matter.

It so happened my lead game designer and lead level designer on Heroes IV didn't see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. Gus saw Heroes as primarily a strategy game but felt that the level designers were creating game levels that were more appropriate for an adventure game. While I sided with Gus — I thought that the game levels being designed had too much story text, too many artifacts for boosting hero attributes quickly to very high levels, and intricate storylines that conflicted with the premise that the heroes could now be injured on the battlefield — my orders were to let my leads make their own decisions within their own areas of expertise.

While my manager gave me a better performance review for my leadership on Heroes IV than on Heroes III, I felt that Heroes IV was a poorer game in large part due to the conflict between the game design and level design. So, if I had it to do over again, I would have followed the adage "to thine own self be true" and managed things a bit more closely as I did on Heroes III.

With regards to your older games on the Apple II: did you use any particular development environment for the games? Prisoner 2 appeared to largely be in Applesoft -- were you just typing code in to the shell directly, or were you using some early form of IDE, or were you working a design and code on paper beforehand?

I wrote the original The Prisoner entirely in Applesoft BASIC as Edu-Ware employee #4 in 1980, and I designed the game as I programmed it — all in about six weeks time, if I recall correctly. The following year, when we decided to remake the text game in hi-res graphics and call it Prisoner 2, I was Edu-Ware's development manager with several programmers working under me on several projects simultaneously. I would write a game design document and draw screen layouts for each game, and my programming staff would program them in Applesoft and use a graphics engine and text parser that I had written in 6502 assembly language using an assembler. Those tools, which I created some twenty-five years ago, were among the last programs I actually coded myself.

If you tried to make The Prisoner game today, you would stop at a very early point to secure a license to use the name and likeness. At the time, were you at all worried about trademark issues with The Prisoner (vis-a-vis the TV show that clearly inspired the game), or did you simply think it was a neat idea, not worry too much about the consequences, and run with it?

My idea was to create a game that was merely inspired by The Prisoner television series, and so I renamed The Village as The Island, No. 2 as The Caretaker, and so on to avoid copyright infringement. However, when Edu-Ware told me that they planned to call the game The Prisoner and use the television series' title font, I asked them to get permission from the show's copyright holder, ITC Entertainment. I later found out that all they did was call ITC and ask if they minded if they created a Prisoner-themed restaurant, and when they replied that they didn't care, Edu-Ware took that to mean that they could get away with releasing the game without acquiring the copyright. Nobody outside the game industry paid much attention to computer games in those early days.

Ironically, a few years later I joined Disney Software, where part of my job was to protect Disney's properties and characters. I've sinced worked with many licensed properties, from films ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?") to television ("Star Trek") to literature ("I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream") to pen-and-paper RPG's ("Vampire: The Masquerade"), and things are vastly different now. The combined revenue generated by interactive titles is much greater than that by movies, and so copyright holders are very concerned about the use of their intellectual properties in computer and video games.

Who playtested the game? Was there any feedback?

Edu-Ware's founders, Sherwin Steffin and Steve Pederson, playtested The Prisoner. While they realized that it was a groundbreaking game, there were concerned that I had designed it so that you could win the game from the beginning if you knew what to do: visit the Caretaker and tell him "The Island is just a computer game." I argued that it was thematically imperative that you could win the game from the beginning, since your "imprisonment" was entirely due to the fact that you were freely choosing to spend your time playing this computer game. We argued all night about it, and I threatened to quit if it was changed, and so the game was released intact.

As it turned out, none of our customers reported that they won the game too soon, but for the remake, Prisoner 2, I changed things so that you could not visit the Caretaker until late in the game.

Who did the cover art for the cool poster with the faceless man?
I don't remember who the art director or photographer were, but the faceless man was Edu-Ware president Steve Pederson.

Did Empire 2: Interstellar Shark and Empire 3: Armageddon ever actually ship? I've never seen these games, certainly not in stores and not even in disk image form in the present day. And if they did ship, where can I find them?

Interstellar Sharks shipped in 1982. However, when Armageddon shipped in 1984, Management Sciences America had acquired Edu-Ware and marketed our products through its Peachtree Software accounting software division, and for reasons that elude me, they marketed the RPG as being educational software. As a result, I doubt that the final installment sold many copies.

I do have a few copies of both games in my garage, but I don't know where else you can find them now.

What is the copyright status of your old Edu-ware games? Who owns the rights?

Edu-Ware Services was the copyright holder for all of the games I created as its employee. Management Sciences America acquired the rights when they bought Edu-Ware, but I don’t know if they later resold the rights or allowed them to expire. About a year after Edu-Ware was bought out, MSA closed down our offices and I got together with a couple of other Edu-Ware people to start our own publishing company, so I never found out what eventually happened with the Edu-Ware titles.

Empire I: World Builders seemed to me, if anything, to be even more elliptical than The Prisoner. I remember that the Missionary track seemed the "most playable" of the careers to me at the time. There were three religions (I guess 4, if you count the "Lord of Light), and I figured out the desired responses for the fertility cult and the death cult, but never really figured out the third. How was the player meant to determine what to do? Was there actually a way to win the game?

I remember very little about Empire I's gameplay — it's been twenty-five years, after all! I do remember getting a letter from fantasy author Roger Zelazny expressing concern that advertisements for the game made reference to The Lord of Light, which happened to be the title of one of his novels. It turned out to be just a coincidence. I wrote back to tell him that I hadn't read his book yet, but he never replied.

It's 25 years later. Imagine you have a budget and a team to work on the Empire saga. Knowing what you know now, having worked on big projects, would you proceed with it? Is there a market for that story, or has its time passed?

I don't have much interest in revisiting the Empire saga. I originally wrote it as a replacement to Edu-Ware's Space franchise, which the company's two founders had written based upon Game Designer Workshop's Traveler science fiction pen-and-paper role-playing game ;— without securing the license, naturally. (I did write an expansion to the initial Space game). GDW sued Edu-Ware, and I was tasked with writing a science-fiction RPG to replace Space.

I was given the assignment in the summer of 1981. Steve Pederson provided me with the basic story outline: the first installment would be about colonization of the galactic empire, the second would be about expansion and corruption, and the third would be about its downfall and destruction.

Since the first installment was needed in time for Christmas, I had about three months to design the RPG system and scenario gameplay, and to program it. The programming included the graphics engine that we used for all future Edu-Ware games, so the whole thing was very rushed. I didn't have much creative passion for that game series, although Empire I wound up winning Computer and Electronic Entertainment magazine's "Best Sci-Fi / Fantasy Game of the Year" award. This was the only one of my Edu-Ware games to win a major award, although I am best remembered for creating The Prisoner.

At the time you were writing games for the Apple II, did you play games yourself? What were your favorites?

I played lots of games during my Apple II days — many more than I can find time to play now. The games I remember spending the most time playing on the Apple II were Space Invaders, Wilderness Campaign, Ultima II, Wizardry I, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Kate Bush describes the experience of being a songwriter and listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall and having the feeling: "Well, that's it. Time to stop making music. There's no point anymore -- they've done everything I wanted to do, only better." Eventually, she got over it. Did you ever have this moment when looking at someone else's product? Which one?

It’s funny that you should mention that Pink Floyd album. Edu-Ware president Steve Pederson always wanted to write a game based on “The Wall.” He never did it, so there’s a least one game that’s yet to be done.

I've never played any game that made me think, “Well, that’s it.” Every time I play a game that really excites me, I think, “I want to make a game just like that, only better.”

Thanks for your time.

Additional Resources

  • David Mullich's rap sheet at MobyGames will give you a more resume-oriented view of what he's been up to in the intervening years.
  • In the Apple II years, Programmed by Nasir was enough to make a game sell like hotcakes. How many orders of magnitude more people have heard of Final Fantasy than of Nasir personally? Which of his games do you think he is prouder of?
  • Though it pains me to link to it, the insufferable "Grains of Sand" article can be read here. And writing a book about your games doesn't make them any better.

Posted by peterb at August 16, 2005 12:01 AM | Bookmark This

Great, GREAT interview. Man, I wish the industry did more like this. I know Gus (he hangs on my forums) and maybe he'll drive by and post his take on the HOMMIV stuff.

Posted by Brian Hook at August 19, 2005 12:44 AM

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