Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Dave Jones, founder of DMA and Real Time Worlds and designer of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, amongst others.
Jones’ first experience with computers was with the Apple II in the late ‘70s, whilst in school in Scotland. “We had one for our entire school,” he recalls. Over the next few years, Jones’ interest in computing, and programming in particular, developed, and he began writing his own game, side-scrolling shooter Menace in the mid ‘80s.
“It was back in the days when you could write a complete game individually, which is what I did,” he explains. “I had one of the first Amiga’s imported into the UK and wrote my first game in my spare time while I was a student. When it was about 50% complete I took it to the biggest PC show we had at the time and showed it to a couple of publishers. I had a few offers but went with Psygnosis as they were the closest to me - still 250 miles away - and were focusing only on 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST [development] at that point.”
Founding DMA Design
Before finishing the game, Jones founded DMA in 1987. He explains that the decision to start his own company was mainly due to the fact that there “there were no established developers as such” in his region that he could work for. “There were, of course, publishers,” he notes, “but I was still doing my computer science degree; DMA was just a part time hobby. I worked with an artist by post - no modems back then - and like many developers it was a hobby. A lot of developers still had regular day jobs.”
Menace was released in 1988, and was quickly followed by another shooter, Blood Money, the next year. “It’s what I enjoyed playing at the time and they were big in the arcades,” Jones explains of the decision to develop shooters. “I loved machines like NEC’s PC Engine which had the power to do almost arcade perfect versions of games like R-Type and Nemesis. I wanted those types of game on the Amiga.”
Both of DMA’s titles were praised for their polished gameplay and compelling design, and set the company up well enough that Jones decided to focus on development full time. “I rented a small office and took on our first employee, a programmer called Mike Dailly,” he recalls.
DMA’s relationship with Psygnosis also continued. Jones explains that the publisher was “great to work with” at the time, and adds that he was impressed by the fact that they had “a lot of interesting titles always being developed”.
On Creating Lemmings
DMA’s biggest title was inspired primarily by an animation Dailly had created while experimenting with Amiga graphics program Dpaint. “Mike had been playing around and created a small animation of a bunch of little guys walking up a hill,” he recalls. “As they reached the top they got nuked up by a big gun. He had this animation cycling so it was a constant stream of these little guys marching up to their death. I saw that and it sparked the idea for Lemmings.”
Work began on the game in earnest, with Jones noting that the team “had a good feeling once we had a demo with about 8 levels”.
“It was so damn addictive and also made people laugh when they played it; a rare combination in games,” he muses.
After the team had created “hundreds of levels”, and chosen, from them, the best ones, which were then “ordered them in terms of difficulty”, the game saw release on the Amiga in February of 1991, selling 55,000 copies on its first day. Buoyed by the success of the game, Psygnosis immediately asked DMA to begin work on a sequel, as well as on porting the game to other systems, including the Atari ST, Sinclair Spectrum, PC and SNES before the end of the year. Many others have since followed, with the combined sales of the game over all platforms estimated at 15,000,000 copies.
“I lost count after 20 ports,” muses Jones. “It became a massive focus for DMA, managing and dealing with all the formats the game appeared on. I personally did not like the ports where we had to switch the control to a joypad rather than mouse, so most of the consoles versions of that time. It was really a mouse game and needed the level of precision only a mouse could give.”
“Following it up was a given,” he adds. “There was no pressure as such - we loved the game and had plenty of ideas for the sequel.”
Lemmings Expanded, Moving To Console
Oh No! More Lemmings, an expansion pack for the game, was released before the end of 1991, though the true sequel, Lemmings 2: The Tribes, was released in 1993. Though there had been many games from the studio not developed by Jones personally – he notes that he would fund concepts he found interesting, like Amiga RPG Hired Guns - most titles after Lemmings 2 saw him focus more on “concepts and design and less on the programming”.
The switch to creative focus also saw Jones making more business decisions, including a move away from having games published exclusively by Psygnosis. “It was a creative break that we needed,” explains Jones. “Psygnosis was going heavily down the CD-ROM route and I had tremendous admiration for Nintendo and their games. DMA had always been about core gameplay and new ideas, something which Nintendo excelled at and I wanted to learn from.”
Amongst the titles designed by Jones and published by Nintendo was 1994’s Uniracers, a 2D racing game that saw players doing tricks in order to gain speed. While it failed to sell in large numbers, it was uniformly well received, and remains a cult title.
A Kirby Game From DMA?
Also around that time, DMA were contracted to work on a Kirby title for the publisher, though this never made it to release. “It was to be a showcase for the SNES mouse, but the mouse did not sell that well and the game was not great when played with a joypad, so it never saw the light of day,” explains Jones.
Lemmings 3, also known as All New World of Lemmings and The Lemmings Chronicles was also released that year, and marked the end of DMA’s direct involvement with the series, due to an unwillingness to deal with the commercial pressure that came with developing the series. Jones notes that the pressure put on DMA during the development of Lemmings 3 meant that the games was rushed, and meant the game evolved “in a direction that was not right for it”.
“After that I decided not to continue with the game unless we had the right concept to really evolve the game but in a way true to its core,” he says.
The Genesis Of Grand Theft Auto
The next major title for the company began development shortly after the release of Lemmings 3, and was built around the fact that the company had “an interesting engine that had been developed which simulated a birds-eye view of a city”.
”The parallax movement of the buildings gave a great sense of speed and height, especially when the camera was attached to a car and pulled back the faster you went,” Jones explains. “For me it opened up the possibility of a great setting for an over-the-top police/chase/action game, as you could simulate a chase-copter type view, and hopefully create a living breathing city in which to play. The original name we came up with was Race-n-Chase, and this was the design we pitched to BMG.”
The publisher agreed to work with DMA, though the name was changed soon after, to Grand Theft Auto. Jones estimates that the game was in development for around 30 months, although “it was originally scheduled to take about 18 months”.
“It was a tough game to develop as it had an amazing depth of compound interactions,” he says “All throughout development it kept throwing up challenges as every new feature would have to be tried to see how it affected every other component of the game. It was also a nightmare to test, as there were so many ways players could do any missions or cause chaos within the world. That of course though was a big part of the appeal of the game, no constraints. We did not want to lose that so we forged ahead and everyone on the team bust a gut to make it happen.”
The hard work paid off, as the game was well received upon release and also sold well, though it was targeted by censorship campaigners, like the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, for it’s violent themes. “It was a clever marketing campaign that did its job,” says Jones dismissively. “It did not affect me at all - I was always happy to defend the game.”
Later that year, DMA was bought out by British publisher Gremlin Interactive, something Jones notes he felt “very positive” about at the time, adding that he “did want to see a strong UK publisher that would have a strong original IP line from our games”. He continued with the company, releasing expansion packs and developing a sequel for Grand Theft Auto, though decided to leave in 1999, when Gremlin was acquired by French publisher Infogrames.
“That was not something I had really bought into,” he says. “The best option for me was to start something fresh.”
Matters for the company were convoluted further, as DMA were sold by their new parent company to Take Two, and became known as Rockstar North. Despite having already left by this time, Jones notes that he feels the studio has benefited from the change, adding that everything the company was doing beforehand was “was polarising towards GTA”.
Grand Theft Auto's Evolution
“It was the right thing to do to have it become part of Take Two,” he continues. “I did not want to carry on working on the one franchise, but the mood within the company was good, as it is a great series to work on. I wanted to get back to creating something new and the team at DMA was more than capable of looking after the franchise. I loved Vice City; I thought that was the pinnacle of the series. San Andreas disappointed as it is pretty dark and lost the tongue-in cheek ethos the game had up to that point. It was also repetitive in terms of its missions.”
Jones himself began working with British-based Rage Software, where he began developing Mobile Forces, a PC first person shooter. “I knew the guys at Rage and they were interested in what I would do next,” he says. “I wanted design something with an online focus and they were happy to back that and work with me on it.”
However, before the game was completed, Rage “hit a rocky patch financially”, due to overexpansion, and the acquisition of a number of unprofitable studios. Jones notes that, at that point, he thought it “safest” to buy out the Scottish-based studio he was working at, renaming it Real Time Worlds in the process.
Mobile Forces was released in 2002, and though it failed to find a large audience, the company has continued to grow, with Jones noting that he feels “very excited” about where the company is right now.
“We now have a great set of teams in place and two innovative new games along with some interesting new technologies,” he enthuses.
Real Time Worlds' Plans
Real Time Worlds currently has two games in development, Crackdown, a sand-box style game developed in partnership with Microsoft for the PC and Xbox 360 which is due for release early next year, and A.P.B., an open-ended MMORPG developed for PC using the Unreal Engine 3. Jones notes that his role on both games has simply been to ensure “they are highly original, compelling, and just down right fun”, though he’s quick to add that “it’s the same for all the team”.
“We are all just cogs in the big machine, everyone has an important role,” he muses. “The development for Crackdown had been an intensive one. We had to build the team, technology and a new IP for a new system so it was always going to be a challenge. A.P.B.’s challenge is in the online aspect as it’s the first online game the majority of the team and I have created.”
“What gamers should expect though is the fresh new ideas both these games bring, and the same attention to detail and quality that we strived for at DMA,” he continues. “There is nothing directly comparable to these games so hopefully they will stand out in terms of originality.”
Jones also notes that the reception to the games will “decide on where the company goes”.
“We are aiming to release two great ones that are very different, and after that we can look to the future,” he says. “We will expand to the extent it takes to always be working on two top titles. That’s pretty much driven by what it takes to compete. We are not looking to become a high output studio with numerous games in development.”