INTERVIEWING DAN BUNTEN
Designer of "Seven Cities of Gold" & "M.U.L.E."by ARTHUR LEYENBERGER
Ozark Softscape is located in the game design hotbed (?) of Little
Rock, Arkansas and it has created two of the most impressive games available
for the Atari-the 1983 award winning science-fiction economic simulation
M.U.L.E. and 1984's graphics scrolling conquistador simulation Seven Cities
of Gold. Both of these remarkable games are marketed by Electronic
Arts (2755 Campus Drive, San Mateo, CA 94403, 415-571-7171).
The principal game designer and most visible spokesman of Ozark Softscape is Dan Bunten, whose earlier games include Computer Quarterback, Cytron Masters, and Cartels & Cutthroats.
The rest of Ozark Softscape consists Of:
Bill Bunten, Dan's brother, who has a Master of Business Administration
degree and shares the design responsibility with Dan as well as being the
primary play tester
Jim Rushing another MBA, who is kept busy writing most of the heavy-duty number-crunching code for the Ozark games.
Alan Watson, whose specialty is graphics and animation programming. He has a math background and ten years' experience in high-end stereo retailing.
Ozark Softscape has developed a game development routine, during its two years of existence. All four members decide what type of player experiences they want in their next game. Then Dan or Bill will produce a topic, flesh it out and bring it in for discussion. After the opening rounds, Dan and Bill come up with a game skeleton, including memory requirement estimates. From there, the work, and the fun, really begins.
Dan Bunten does not fit the programmer stereotype. Although he is an engineer by training he prefers not to talk of bits and bytes but about what can be created with leading edge technology. His interests range widely, from social biology to science-fiction, from philosophy to history and education ...
In Seven Cities of Gold you're a Conquistador and ship captain searching
for new worlds and treasure.
Funded by the crown and outfitted with men and Supplies, you sail west into the unknown. Awaiting your expedition are over 200 villages of small tribes and the great cities of the Aztec, and Inca empires. Your game can use historically accurate geography and 16th century demographics. Or you can choose to face the total unknown of computer-generated random continents.
Ozark's other game, M.U.L.E. takes place on a distant planet, where up to four players (only two players if you have an Atari XL) must either compete or cooperate to colonize this world in the allotted food, energy, Smithore and Crystite time. The four basic commodities-are used by the players to increase their wealth and overall wellbeing of the settlement.
M.U.L.E., for "multiple use labor element," represents a machine that allows colonists to get things done. During each round, players must vie for plots of real estate. Then they choose whether to produce energy or food, or to mine their land for Smithore (used in the manufacturing of M.U.L.E.s) or Crystite (much like diamonds). Players then sell surpluses and buy commodities.
M.U.L.E. demonstrates a free enterprise system at work. Prices are set by supply and demand, economics of scale exist and the learning curve theory of product provides increased output over time.
Antic: How did you get the idea for Seven Cities?
Bunten: When my brother Bill and 1 were kids, my uncle gave us a book on the Conquistadors and we thought, Wow! Then there was a strategy board game from SSI, a war game called Conquistador that was part of their magazine. That was neat but it was awfully unplayable. We had a list of themes that were of interest to us and when we were ready to begin a new project we did not want to do another multi-player game like M.U.L.E. So we looked down the list and said, "Here's Conquistador."
Actually, we were not too excited about it at first. But as we started to do the research on it, we thought we could really do something good. After two months of research and just free-flowing ideas, we spent another month writing the story boards. Then six months of coding and it was out.
Antic: How far into the initial research phase do you go before you decide whether the concept will succeed?
Bunten: Normally, we just try to push through. To a certain extent we can always figure something out. Since there are a lot of people involved, somebody will usually have an idea. There are the four of us in Ozark Softscape, there's our publishers at Electronic Arts, our play testers-somebody is going to come up with something.
The big idea with Seven Cities is the concept of Discovery. We have a giant world; spread it out, and it would be 12 by 20 feet. You are sitting there with a 3-1/2 inch window on this 12 by 20 foot world. That's big. You will never have a sense of knowing everything. You get lost or end up in the boonies.
The other things were to keep a pace going, to be fun, be easy. To transfer things was the most awkward part of the game. Yet it is actually pretty simple compared to other alternatives. But next time we will do those even better.
Antic: I think the game really does capture the flavor of what the Conquistadors must have been feeling. Especially with the random continent feature.
Bunten: Yes, in a random continent game, even when you find land, you don't know what will be there. You can end up with a randomly generated continent full of a higher tech civilization than the Europeans.
Our model for that was the Japanese and Chinese. If the Conquistadors had landed in China or Japan, the Europeans would not have had a chance. They couldn't have come in and said, "We are going to blow you away and take everything you've got." They would have been lucky to get enough food to go back home.
Antic: When I first received Seven Cities, I thought, "Oh no, the manual doesn't tell you anything!" Then I started playing the game and figuring things out. The manual gives a historical perspective.
Bunten: Most people would just start playing the game. We looked at the possibility of not having to use a manual. We gave our testers just a disk and didn't say anything. It didn't go over wonderfully but some people loved the idea of discovering all of it.
And then I would get a call from somebody saying, "I can't get off my ship." They had never pushed the button standing still, to find the pull down menus. And "Drop Stuff Off" didn't sound like how you would get off your ship. Some of that has to be explained.
Antic: I thought "Drop Stuff Off" sounded a little strange.
Bunten: We pondered over that. If Antic readers can come up with a better phrase, we might even change it for the next version of the game. We were going to drop "stuffo" off (a Spanish word for it). We thought about "Transfer". Actually it was my wife's idea. I explained to her that what we were trying to do was drop stuff off, and she said why don't you just call it that. So we put it into a preliminary version and it stayed.
Antic: One feature of Seven Cities that I find difficult to understand is the way you might bump into the natives and accidentally kill them. Even when I am very careful, I still end up killing a few innocent natives.
Bunten: Because you don't share a language with the natives, your only way of communicating is by the gestures you make... your body language. All the natives can look at is whether your gestures seem neutral or hostile. The potential for missed cues on both sides is enormous. It may be stretching it, but we actually designed that specifically. Unfortunately it ended up looking like an arcade game that doesn't quite work, because these guys just bump into things and die.
Antic: Do you have any strategy tips for playing Seven Cities?
Bunten: The peaceful approach really works best. I have not used a totally depraved approach and won. You've got to have some friends somewhere. If something goes wrong, you need a friendly mission where you can go back and not have to worry about an insurrection or something. A place you can return to and know that there will be food, for example. You need a series of these relatively safe places even if you are going on a conquest mission.
If you continually abuse the natives you will eventually see a message from the king saying "Don't treat the natives so badly But keep the gold coming." This double standard is straight out of history.
Antic: You treat the morality question in an interesting way.
Bunten: I do not want to preach to the player what is right and wrong. But I want to give them a chance to get in touch with themselves about how they do feel. In play testing we found that people would rationalize why they used force against the natives. They would say things like, "I only did it because the natives asked for too many gifts". People felt they had to explain their behavior.
Antic: How do you win Seven Cities?
Bunten: However you want. Seven Cities is a process type game, you go along like real life. Life doesn't have ends and wins and things like that. It has processes that you go through and at times you stand back and say, "Hey, I've done pretty good so far." Set your own goals really high and say, "That's how I win." Then go for it.
Antic: In a way, this is really a learning game.
Bunten: Learning and fun are not mutually exclusive terms. Play is an important element in our lives. It is unfortunate that as adults we tend to regard play as a separate activity which you do when you have a little free time-rather than say there is a natural joy in learning.
As adults, our real joy comes from learning new things. Discovering or learning something new is done for pleasure. That's what it is all about. Having the opportunity to expand yourself, that's what is entertaining and educational.
Antic: How did you become involved with programming?
Bunten: I started out in Industrial Engineering and one of the first courses we had to take was programming, Fortran on a big IBM. The first time I got it to print A + B = C I was so excited. I did it and then I figured out that I could also make it print out little pictures with letters on a line printer. I though it was wonderful and I knew someday I was going to have my own computer, but I figured that I would have to be a millionaire first .
As it turned out, I got my first Apple computer in 1979 and I could do things at home. I was working as an industrial Engineer and had access to a computer at work. So I wrote a few games for the enjoyment of myself and friends. I did some really goofy stuff.
Antic: Are you limited because of the hardware?
Bunten: That's a cop-out if we blame the hardware. The hardware helps but it isn't all there is. Look at the hardware of a book. I mean it is black and white on a piece of paper and yet it comes across. It's grammar among other things. We don't even know the software's grammar yet, much less how to develop characters and carry a plot line. We have a ways to go and are really at the beginning. But it is fun to be part of it.
Antic: What was your first commercial program?
Bunten: Wheeler Dealer. No one remembers it, only a hundred were sold. It was a 16K cassette game for the Apple. Integer Basic, and it required this hardware thing we made ourselves to allow four people to do the bidding in the game.
Antic: Does a person who wants to break into the game design field have to be a super coder?
Bunten: Not necessarily. There are a lot of good designers around who aren't great programmers. But knowledge of coding helps. Because you know the machine and when you push the boundaries you know what you can and cannot do. Knowing about human engineering also helps.
Antic: The human interface is really one of the strong points of Electronic Arts products. Their ease of use is a hallmark.
Bunten: It's amazing-M.U.L.E. was done years ago in an entirely different form for a 16K Apple-a real-time stock market simulation. It didn't go anywhere and probably never could have if it wasn't for a company like Electronic Arts. Their ability to support and guide us and to pull together ideas really helped. And patting us on the back, too, because we need a lot of that. We are out in the boonies and the attitude of people we deal with is "You write games for a living?" I really have to justify myself to my in-laws.
Antic: Can you talk about your next project?
Bunten: I could if I knew. We have a lot of ideas though. So we rented two cabins on a lake and are going on a retreat next week where we will relax and talk about what's next.
Antic: To what extent do you think a person's program reflects their personality?
Bunten: To an amazing extent. There are several people that I have not yet met, but I think I kind of know what they are like just having seen their games. You can tell if the guy was willing to get into the nitty gritty without concern for complexity. This is called dirt in war game programming terminology and some people actually enjoy the dirt and they will create games with a lot of it.
Antic: Do you think of yourself as a programmer turned artist or an artist turned programmer?
Bunten: None of the above really. I like the idea of being an artist but I think there is a lot more to be done and it is presumptuous to put that label on yourself. Real artists do things that pull your emotions in. A good film or a good book can play you like a fiddle.
Antic: Doesn't Seven Cities do that? When I get lost at sea for example, I'm very upset. My emotions are drawn in by the game.
Bunten: It is a start, a small step towards being able to do that. We have learned a little bit and have made a step. But the spectrum of emotions that we can create and trigger in software is limited right now., We are not yet to the point where you are going to cry because your character died. I want that, but we won't see it until the software technology matures more.
Arthur Leyenberger is a human factors psychologist in New Jersey.
He does microcomputer consulting and freelance writing. He's been
an Atari activist for about three years. In fact, he conducted this
interview while waiting at the airport with Dan Bunten after the game design
star spoke to a users' group.