Column: 'Playing Catch Up: Stormfront Studios' Don Daglow'
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 Stormfront Studios
founder, CEO and president Don Daglow.
The Mainframe Years
Daglow became interested in programming while in college studying writing in the early 1970s, after being introduced to text adventure games. “A professor at Pomona College, Dr. Paul Yale, had started a special student group that was designed to involve students other than math and science majors,” he explains. “As part of their outreach they had a terminal set up in the dorm where I lived, and it was connected to the university mainframe. I walked in, saw some text games they used to get people interested in the computer, and I was hooked. The students taught anyone who wanted to learn, and I haunted the computer terminals for the next nine years.”
“The catch was that if they caught you programming games they’d kick you off the system,” he adds. “So much of our work had to be done late at night so we didn’t interfere with academic computing. That made those Monday, Wednesday, Friday 8:00 AM classes harder to get to on time!”
During this nine year period, Daglow worked on a number of groundbreaking titles, like Baseball
in 1971, which was the first time the sport had been computerised. The game, which was developed on a PDP-10 mainframe, is now displayed in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
“Each of the games I created came out of a passion I already had in my pre-computer life. I’ve always been a big baseball fan, and for years my friends and I played baseball simulation board games,” Daglow says. “In 1968, when I was 16, I invented a more accurate version of one of the board games, All Star Baseball
. The game had a good model for simulating hitting using spinners and cards, but didn’t try to simulate pitching. I created a second set of cards and a modified sequence of play that accurately added pitchers’ abilities to the game. When I learned to program and realized what the computer could do, it was only natural to pursue creating a truly accurate baseball sim, and to go on from there to simulate an entire season.”
Speaking To Star Trek
Daglow next began work on Star Trek
, in 1972; the second of two games based on the series released on mainframes around that time. “Star Trek came from my passion about writing,” he says. “The Mike Mayfield Star Trek
sector-based game, which is by far the best known mainframe computer game of the 1970s [also known as STTR1
] was already on our system in 1971. There were sample games that spoke “in character” when they printed text for the character to read. For a kid who was majoring in playwriting, combining the two ideas in a Star Trek
script game came very naturally.”
In 1973, Daglow developed an ambitious update of Joseph Weizenbaum’s 1966 pioneering ELIZA
conversation simulator named Ecala
, which is regarded to have vastly improved on the original, despite Daglow’s development time being approximately two weeks. Daglow notes that his interest in developing the program came from his writing, “the same place” as his interest in developing Star Trek
“This was a synthetic human being talking to you from the computer,” he says. “After a while I realized that the objective was not for the computer to understand what you were doing, but to delay as long as possible the moment when you realized that the computer didn’t
“When I wrote my version,” he continues. “I tried to build a structure that would let the computer actually internalize the meanings of words. Although Ecala
was far superior to ELIZA
, I realized that unless I wanted to flunk out of school I would have to abandon my idea of building the “meaning” data base. The process did, however, teach me things about AI, parsing, natural language interaction and data bases that helped me a lot in my later designs.”
In The Dungeon
1975 saw Daglow attempting a new game, based on a more recent obsession. “The first wave of Dungeons and Dragons fever was sweeping through universities,” he explains. “[Publisher] Tactical Studies Rules had not yet published the big player’s handbook, monster manual and Dungeon Master’s guide, and you bought the game as three small booklets that had been written by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax.”
Daglow’s computerised version was Dungeon
, the first computer-based role playing game. The gameplay of Dungeon
consisted of text and “printed accurate line of sight maps”, with the player controlling the movements of six adventurers in a dungeon designed by Daglow. “That line of sight mapping system was the only innovation in the game that wasn’t just an homage to D&D
traditions and rules,” he muses.
“Because it faithfully recreated all the turn-based steps of D&D
– including the slow-motion time of combat rounds – Dungeon
was time consuming to play,” Daglow continues. “I later learned that while I was writing Dungeon
on the PDP-10, other designers were writing D&D
games on the PLATO system, a different timesharing computer. They made different tradeoffs than I did, but I bet what we had in common was a deep commitment to playing D&D
Daglow brushes aside the suggestion that he is responsible for the RPG genre, claiming that “Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax are the ones who deserve the credit for creating RPGs with Dungeons and Dragons.”
“My role was to make that system playable by a single person, instead of having to assemble a whole group of friends to play,” he explains. “By 1975 my friends and I had all graduated from college, so getting those groups together was harder to do. The computer felt like the logical answer. All I can say is that being born at the right time is a great thing! I set out to pursue my passions, and only later did I discover I was the first to do something. Being on the confluence of commitment and good luck is a wonderful feeling.”
Daglow kept programming at Pomona College right throughout the 70s, as he continued to attend the college, firstly as a grad student, and later as a grad school instructor – though he also taught outside of the college as a middle school teacher. He completed a Spanish translator in 1977, a simulation game based on the cult sci-fi film The Killer Shrews
in 1978 and Educational Dungeon
- a reworking of his earlier title that advanced players according to correct answers - a year later.
Despite that, Daglow didn’t entertain much hope of working in games professionally. “There was no such thing as a professional game programmer in the early 1970s,” he says. “I was training in theatre to become a playwright - yeah, big dollars to be expected there! - and getting my teaching credential because I knew most writers starved. A lot of us who were into games were pursuing other careers.”
The main reason for the lack of job options can be put down to a simple lack of equipment available to the average user, notes Daglow. “One computer cost as much money as buying several hundred cars, and required an air-conditioned room as big as a two bedroom apartment to run,” he says.
“Until Steve Jobs and Woz [Steve Wozniak] revolutionized things at Apple in the late 70s – ‘Wow, a computer that costs less than a Porsche!’ - no one went around thinking that some day we’d all have a computer on our desk, much less carry one around in a briefcase. Most people who went into programming pictured themselves in fields like aerospace and office automation, not games.”
“Of course,” he continues, “since no one ever expected to be able to make money creating games, the entire concept of what would be popular with this or that market segment never entered into our thinking. We just went where our passions took us.”
In 1980, that passion took him to the offices of Mattel, where he became one of the first five in-house programmers employed by the company to develop for their Intellivision console. “It’s a funny story,” he muses, “I had been promoted into an administrative position at the school district where I taught, and was just discovering how political a district office could be. I heard they were recruiting for programmers for Mattel, and called them up. When I told them I’d been writing games for nine years I think it almost blew my chances – they didn’t realize the underground college game circuit existed and thought I was lying to get the job!”
“Fortunately, they figured it out and I got the job,” he adds.
In order to stop Atari from poaching the programmers for use in their own first party development, Mattel closely guarded the identities and location of their team, who later became known as the Blue Sky Rangers
, a term coined by TV Guide
in reference to the team’s “Blue Sky” brainstorming meetings. “The company forced them to change all our names in order to do the interview!” Daglow laughs.
“One thing to remember is that at all the companies our identities were a closely guarded secret, unless you worked for Activision,” he says. “Armed guards searched our briefcases when we left the building each night to prevent industrial espionage.”
Daglow’s first game for the company was Geography Challenge
, which was developed to be used with the console’s low-selling keyboard peripheral. But it was his next game in 1982 that attracted the most attention – Utopia
was a two player turn based construction game set on two opposing islands. Players could build hospitals, farms, schools, or use money to fund rebel activity on their opponent’s island.
Essentially, the game invented the God game genre later explored in titles like SimCity
, though Daglow is typically humble about the innovation. “My design for Utopia was the outgrowth of a bizarre, but ultimately logical set of coincidences,” he explains.
The first of these came from Mattel’s management, who wanted a new kind of game “to balance the sports and action games in the line”.
Education and Shrews
Additionally, Daglow’s work as a middle school teacher has seen him writing games like Educational Dungeon
“to use as high-motivation teaching tools in the classroom”. The games made use of Daglow’s talent as a writer, and “when the kids picked a correct answer their team got to move ahead in their adventure”.
More inspiration came from earlier classes, which saw Daglow using other inventive teaching methods. “In 1976 while I was a teacher I made a 2,500 square foot map of the world with electrical tape on the floor of the school cafeteria, and had the students play out different roles as nations while standing on the map space for those countries,” he explains. “It was a tile-based game... linoleum tile, to be exact!”
“Finally,” he continues. “One of my lesser-known 1970s mainframe games was The Killer Shrews
, which was based on a really bad old science fiction movie. It simulated how fast the giant radiation-grown shrews would consume all available food on an island and then go after human victims, and the player had to choose when to make a dash for the boat dock and safety.”
“Add it all up and you get a God Game where you rule an island, choose what you want to do with each square in order to try to make your people happy, and where an underlying simulation keeps track of the results,” he summarises. “Now, isn’t that perfectly logical?”
The game not only sold well, but was also amongst the first videogames to be praised by the mainstream media for its innovation, and has been consistently referenced as an influence by more recent game designers.
and the desire to dream 'what if I ruled the world?' are all well-established passions,” notes Daglow of his reputation as a design revolutionary. “The computer allowed them to grow and evolve in different ways, and being part of that process is incredibly fulfilling. I don’t think I’m responsible for those steps forward. They would have happened without me. The privilege I had was to be the one who made these genres appear on computers when they did.”
Daglow’s success within Mattel, and the industry as a whole, saw him promoted to Director of Intellivision Game Development, a role that had Daglow designing titles for others to develop, such as Tron Deadly Discs, Shark! Shark!
and Buzz Bombers
, as well as working on his own games.
“I understand Atari had a somewhat similar management structure,” he says when asked whether this was a typical post within other companies at the time, “although I never had a sense of who exactly were the opposite numbers for Gabriel Baum, who ran the game software division, Mike Minkoff, who led game development for all non-Intellivision systems at Mattel and me.”
“Activision’s founders, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, David Crane and Larry Kaplan, all stayed on the creative front lines rather than focusing on management,” he continues. “We respected them very highly as designers, and as a group those guys have an impressive body of work that continues to grow today.”
“Paul Jaquays was the corresponding leader at Colecovision in 1982-83. Ironically, he and I did not meet until almost 25 years later, when we were speakers on the same panel at a conference in San Francisco! Like most of the Atari and Coleco veterans I’ve met over the years, it turns out he’s a great guy.”
World Series Champion
Daglow’s next game was Intellivision World Series Baseball
; co-designed in 1982 and 1983 with Eddie Dombrower, it was the first game to use multiple camera angles, and the first sports title displayed in 3D. Daglow notes that he does “get a lot of recognition for designing the first video game to introduce the concept of camera angles”, but laments that the “the story of the game turns out to be a tragedy, not a moment of triumph”, something he blames on the “the harsh economics of the business cycle”.
“First,” he begins, “to save money Mattel drops the MLB and players licenses two weeks before we go final. So we have to cut out the names of all the real major leaguers we’d planned to use. We had built an accurate mathematical baseball sim based on my old mainframe baseball game, but when fictional names replaced the real players all that accuracy no longer mattered.”
“Then Mattel artificially required the game to use the new ultra-cheap ‘ECS keyboard component’,” he continues. “They had aired months of TV commercials for World Series Baseball
starting at Christmas 1982 that called the cartridge ‘the future of video games’. They thought tying the game to the ECS would drive keyboard sales.”
“But the extra hardware added almost nothing to the Intellivision experience, and the decision wasted all the TV ads by hobbling World Series Baseball
sales. When the Video Game Crash of 1983 hit all software sales dried up, and it was the final straw – today World Series Baseball
is a collector’s item on eBay. I saw a copy go for $280 just a couple of weeks ago,”
However, according to Daglow, the story does have a happy ending. “Eddie Dombrower and I later built Earl Weaver Baseball
together after I went to EA, and there we had both a hit game and critical acclaim,” he notes. “I went on to design Tony La Russa Baseball
, which was also a hit. But to this day it bothers me that many of our Weaver innovations should have produced a hit four years sooner. I would gladly trade the acclaim for pioneering the use of camera angles in video games for the chance to have seen World Series Baseball
have a fair chance in the marketplace. I think it would have been a milestone in game retail history instead of a bullet point in game design history... but there’s no way we’ll ever know.”
Crash And Burn
The industry crash of ’83 not only dried up game sales, but the destroyed the financial security of the vast majority of companies around at the time too.
“It was like watching a slow-motion movie of a multi-vehicle car crash from inside one of the vehicles, and feeling helpless to do anything about it,” says Daglow. “Car after car spins out of control or vanishes over a cliff, until finally the chain reaction gets to the last few people and nothing is left but a tangled mass of wreckage.”
“From 1980 through 1982 we all seemed to lead charmed lives,” he muses. “Not every game was a hit, but the market expanded steadily and there was always a bigger pie for Atari, Activision, Intellivision and later Coleco to fight over. We were all increasing the size of our staffs and kicking off new games all the time. I could “hide” three or four people on my team at any given time - with the quiet blessing of my VP! - to try new kinds of experimental games and effects.”
In 1982, Mattel released the Intellivision II, which featured a redesigned case, and swapped the bubble keypad used on the original controllers for a flat membrane surface, which many players complained made playing without looking directly at the controller almost impossible.
“Intellivision II was a cheap plastic reduced-cost reduced-playability version of the original machine that was a symptom of everything wrong with the industry as the Crash started to take hold,” says Daglow. “Engineers designed it to save money, and never even asked the Intellivision game designers how their changes would impact our future games. As it turned out, the cheap handsets made a number of the older games much harder to play. If the crash had not occurred the Intellivision II would have hampered a great new round of games we had under development.”
“In 1983 we were also working secretly on Intellivision III, which had startling similarities to the philosophy and design approach of the Amiga three years later,” he continues. “I outlined an initial slate of games that Marketing approved, and a number of our top programmers were pulled into the effort. But by then the whole industry was starting to crack at the seams. There were no controls like those now used by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo to maintain standards of quality and limits on quantity. With billions in profits being made, tons of fly-by-night companies entered the market and flooded it with bad products.”
“Mattel’s hardware designs were crippled by a focus on ‘too fast, too cheap’, and Atari rushed weak E.T.
and Pac Man
games to market. Soon the retailers concluded that 'the video game fad' was over and all the game companies crumbled.”
“I remember the last nine months of 1983 as wave after wave of layoffs,” laments Daglow. “We produced some of our best games: Burger Time
and Tron Deadly Disks
each would have sold over a million copies in 1982. But the press kept writing stories about how video games were yesterday’s news, and the retailers just stopped ordering. Each got a great start and then ground to a halt when retail just dried up.”
With the industry crumbling around them, programmers, artists and management alike began the frantic search for new work. Daglow was lucky enough to be asked to join the fledgling Electronic Arts as a producer by company founder Trip Hawkins. Daglow explains that the timing couldn’t have been better, with the call coming “two days after we got the ‘secret, executives-only news’ that the entire division would probably close.”
“I held a surreal meeting with the team, with my VP’s blessing, to ‘tell the team to start looking for jobs without telling them to start looking for jobs’,” he says. “Three weeks later some of the guys filmed a mock video newscast reporting my departure for EA and confronting me with an investigative reporter’s microphone. The tape – and my tenure at Mattel - ended with a slapstick chase through our maze of cubicles as I fled the 'reporter' and his questions.”
While Electronic Arts managed to survive the industry crash, Daglow notes that “nobody who worked in games from 1984 through 1987 thought much about stability”. Daglow suggests that the company was in fact lucky to endure, after originally targeting the Atari 800 with their first wave of games, with a secondary focus on the Apple II.
“When the Commodore 64 trounced the Atari at retail, the company frantically changed gears and started developing for the C64,” he explains. “Only Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set
had been a huge seller. By early 1984 we had run through most of the cash that had been raised from venture capital.”
“Fortunately,” he continues “Pinball
and other games like Archon
bridged us to Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One-on-One
, another big hit at the start of 1984. That in turn carried us until the C64 games multiplied and drove a wave of growth.”
Daglow’s early titles C64 produced for the company included Realm of Impossibility, Adventure Construction Set, Mail Order Monsters
and Racing Destruction Set
. The games were largely successful, though Daglow notes that “a big hit in 1984 was 100,000 units. Only two years earlier, before the Crash of 1983, you’d need to have sold ten times that many games to be called a major hit!”
Daglow continued on at EA through the 80s, producing titles such as Super Boulder Dash, Ultimate Wizard
, the aforementioned Earl Weaver Baseball
and Chris Crawford’s Patton Versus Rommel
“In 1987 I started working on a computer game inspired by the board game Civilization
,” he says. “It seemed like a logical sequel to Utopia
, ‘harnessing the amazing power of the 1987 personal computer’.”
“I had coded the random terrain generator to create worlds, and the process by which a wandering tribe picked the first location to build a city, and had the entire system running. Rivers flowed in the right directions, principles of plate tectonics were followed in terrain generation - a Dani Bunten innovation in Seven Cities of Gold
. Then I was offered the executive position at Broderbund, and I clearly no longer had the time to work on the game. For some reason Sid [Meier] was destined to be the one who created Civilization
... and he did a phenomenal job.”
Broderbund And Beyond
Daglow accepted the Broderbund position, where he ended up running Entertainment and Education Division – something he describes as “doing the executive thing instead of working directly on games”.
Nonetheless, Daglow’s contributions to the industry during that time are still remarkable - he supervised Jordan Mechner’s in-house work on Prince of Persia
, though notes that his contribution was simply “to protect the design from being altered by outsiders”.
He also managed the Carmen Sandiego
series, but comments that “all they needed from me was to get the decision to end Carmen
development reversed. Once I got it reinstated – and its death was never formalized on paper – they had the formula running well.”
“I signed Sim City
to its original distribution deal,” says Daglow. “But Jeff Braun had founded Maxis to publish the game and all Will Wright needed was for someone to defend him and Jeff from bureaucratic meddling until the game could ship.”
Interestingly, Daglow also reveals that he almost had a hand in the creation of a Star Wars
RPG for Broderbund.
“In 1988 I acquired the rights to do Star Wars
games from LucasFilm – back then LucasArts only did original games like Maniac Mansion
and Lucas Licensing wanted to earn residual royalties until the second trilogy started filming,” he says. “But when I planned an X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter combat game and a Star Wars
RPG the games were denied funding ‘because Star Wars is old news’.”
Later in 1988, Daglow decided to leave Broderbund in order to set up his own studio, citing a desire to return to a more creative side of the industry.
“I had no idea just what a big step I was taking, but I founded Stormfront Studios to get back to working directly on games and escape the limitations I’d been feeling,” he says. “I recruited some great people early in the history of the company, who in turn attracted more great people and so on. Once you have a team of people who are both really talented and really unselfish good things start to happen and build momentum.”
“I had met [co-founder and former chief executive officer and chairman of America Online] Steve Case on his game-hunting visit to Silicon Valley in 1987, when AOL was a tiny C64-only online service,” he continues. “We closed a deal for Broderbund to provide him with AOL’s first graphical game, a word-guessing title similar to Hangman. When I founded Stormfront the next year, Kathi McHugh of AOL called before I had an employee or an office and offered the company a development deal. AOL was still a small company with small outposts on the C64, Apple and PC platforms, but those deals helped carry Stormfront in the early years.”
The initial of those deals was Quantum Space
, the first play-by-email game offered by any major online service. The game ran from 1989 until 1992, and at its peak was regularly one of the highest rating components of AOL.
Into The Night
But it was the next project that would put Stormfront on the map - Neverwinter Nights
, the first graphical MMORPG.
“In early 1989 we were doing online multi-player games for AOL and single-player Gold Box D&D
adventures for SSI,” says Daglow. “One day I looked at the two projects and realized that we could combine the two initiatives and create a graphical MMORPG. I knew how to solve the AOL client-server problems, and we knew every inch of the Gold Box engine, so the project felt feasible from day one.”
“Kelton Flinn at Kesmai had already pioneered graphical MMOs with Air Warrior
in 1987,” Daglow adds. “Flinn doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves as an industry pioneer, but he is one of the Founding Fathers of online games.”
“Despite the success of Air Warrior
, prior attempts at graphical MMORPGs had failed,” he continues. “Nevertheless, TSR - who owned the D&D license - and Chuck Kroegel of SSI backed the project. We had a big meeting with AOL to evaluate whether we could in fact succeed where others had crashed and burned. We had worked so closely with them by this time that the AOL and Stormfront technical teams argued the issue as if we were all one company, with people in both companies on each side of the issue.”
After an hour of debate Steve Case looked at me and asked, ‘Do you think you guys can do it?’
I took a deep breath and said, ‘Yes, I do’.
He turned to Jack Daggett, AOL’s VP of technology, and asked the same question. Jack said yes.
Case turned back to me, stuck out his hand and said ‘All right, let’s do it’. We shook hands and started work on the project. Let’s just say that we no longer get to do deals based on handshakes in this industry!”
“Cathryn Mataga of Stormfront and Craig Dykstra of AOL both deserve a lot of credit for being the programmers who made my assertion come true,” adds Daglow. “We got the basic game running quickly, but there were a thousand challenges that Cathryn and Craig had to resolve, one by one.”
The game was released to great – and growing – success in 1991, and continued until July 1997, when it was closed, despite an outcry from thousands of the game’s dedicated fans. Still, notes Daglow, the game remains well remembered, especially by fans of the genre. More to the point, Neverwinter Nights
’ influence is hard to ignore.
“When people look at World of Warcraft
and trace its roots back through Everquest
and Ultima Online
to Neverwinter Nights
the only feeling I can have is one of pride,” he comments. “Each of those games added a lot of new ideas to MMORPGs, and having our game as part of that list is a great feeling. I think that the design team at Blizzard has a fantastic tradition, and I admire the way they iterate and polish a design until it’s truly fun and elegant. My respect for their work runs very deep.”
Daglow retired from hands on designing in 1995, after Stormfront’s early 90s success with games like the Tony La Russa Baseball
series, 3D RTS Stronghold
and their work on Madden NFL
and Tiger Woods PGA Tour
for EA saw the company growing exponentially.
“The company got too big for me to continue to serve as Lead Designer, so I stepped back into a pure management role,” Daglow says. “It’s very different, but I don’t have a sense of easier or harder.”
“The biggest difference now is the size of the games. In the early 1990s we would produce four games at a time, with a budget of $125K-$400K per game. Now we work on only two projects in parallel, but over an 18-24 month cycle they may have budgets well over $10 million. Our goal is not to be a big company, but to be a consistently great game developer that is recognized all over the world for the quality of our titles. If each of our two teams produces a great game on every cycle we’ve met our goals.”
“We also try to mix creating original IP’s and working on really strong licenses,” he continues. “Each kind of project has its own benefits and challenges, and the diversity in our projects increases our chances for success. We’ve had both hits and misses over the years, but every time we’ve ever set out to build a game we’ve been trying to build something great. That philosophy may be the greatest secret of our longevity.”
Daglow’s Law of Next Gen
Daglow has continued to be a popular speaker within the industry, no doubt as a result of his impressive experience, and willingness to share the lessons he’s learnt over his 30-plus years making games.
“In 1971 we had no way to know that within a few years the computer that filled a huge air-conditioned room would fit comfortably on your desktop,” he says. “During the Atari-Intellivision wars we were creating ultra-low-res 4K cartridges with 12 rows of 8-scan-line tiles on the screen -- we didn’t dream of being able to display the same quality on your TV as the network programs you watched in your living room each night.”
“A different kind of ‘not dreaming big enough’ was a subject for a number of my presentations at Game Developers Conference during the 1990s. I think I called it Daglow’s Law of Creativity
back then, but maybe a better name now would be Daglow’s Law of Next Gen
: ‘Creativity expands to fill both the technological and emotional bandwidth of the devices through which it is expressed’.”
“That law also had a corollary,” he adds. “‘In retrospect, the emotional enhancements of new technology often will have already been possible under the prior generation of hardware’.”
“If I put that in 20-20 hindsight terms as a designer, whenever we get new hardware we start thinking big. We get ambitious not only in what we can do with the power of the new machines, but also in how we can use this medium to involve people emotionally and make them feel something during and after play. We want to fill up those big, wide new video game pipes with richer graphics, faster gameplay, higher quality sound. And we keep wanting people to talk about playing a game the same way they leave the theatre talking about a great movie. It’s what [Ubisoft Montréal Creative Director] Clint Hocking has called ‘the third dimension of engagement’.”
“If we move 10 times as many polygons in this generation as we did five years ago, we recognize that only the new hardware made it possible,” he muses. “But many times the things that make a great game engaging, once we think about it, were just as possible on the prior hardware spec... we just didn’t dream big enough to see them.”