AGDC '07: Dave Perry's back pages

On the final day of the conference, the veteran designer talks about his humble beginnings, getting burned believing his own hype, and why he doesn't like the Wii.

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AUSTIN, Texas--Veteran developer Dave Perry's name is most closely associated with games that came out years ago: MDK, Enter the Matrix, Disney's Aladdin, Earthworm Jim. After leaving Atari in February of 2006, Perry hooked up with the resurrected Acclaim, an upstart developer of free-to-play massively multiplayer online games, and has since been working with a number of Korean MMO development teams on a half-dozen projects.

"Dave, Jamil. Jamil, Dave."

Perry took time out from his development schedule to appear on the last day of the Austin Game Developers Conference and field questions from GDC director Jamil Moledina for a crowd of attendees. The discussion traced Perry's history in games, from teaching himself how to code in Basic from magazines as a boy in Northern Ireland to his current Top Secret community-designed MMO project at Acclaim. The talk was also peppered with interesting trivia, humorous anecdotes, and opinionated (and sometimes self-effacing) jabs along the way.

To show how "ghetto" the early development process was, he described an early attempt at photorealistic graphics. To get digitized images, his team took pictures of themselves performing the various animations, and then cut the backgrounds out. Not thinking to do it in front of black backdrop, the team found itself cutting an old backyard shed out of every picture in order to get the process to work.

To demonstrate the process (and more likely to razz a friend), Perry showed a picture of himself hitting his coworker Neil Young in the face with a toilet plunger. Young is now vice president and general manager of Electronic Arts Los Angeles.

"I left school to do this, and the first job offer I had was 3,500 pounds per year, which is like $5,000, to move to London," Perry said. "And I didn't do any math or ask what it costs to live in London."

Perry called it a sticker shock when he arrived in England's capital, noting that it cost almost his entire salary just to take the train to work each day.

"But that was just the way it was," Perry said. "If you wanted in, you had to do that. But very quickly the salaries started to rise. You do a game, it sells, and they say, 'Please don't leave, here's some money.'"

One of the tricks to getting by for Perry was cranking out a lot of games. He wrote his own engine, which allowed him to churn out titles like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PC game in a week. At one time, he had 11 games on the charts at once.

That sort of prodigious output was attractive to prospective publishing partners. Virgin Games lured Perry over to the US when they needed a licensed game made for McDonald's, and they needed it on short notice. The game was called Global Gladiators, and eschewed McDonald's trademark stable of characters in favor of Mick and Mack, a couple of generic kids that fit right in with the traditional platformer-shooter gameplay.

"This was a bit of a disaster," Perry said. "We made the game, which we thought was fun, and McDonald's came to have a look at it. They said, 'What is this? What are you thinking? Where are the restaurants in the game? How do I buy burgers and fries?'"

Perry said nobody wanted to buy burgers and fries in a game, and even avoided using Ronald McDonald in the game originally. When the company insisted, he said the team "threw Ronald McDonald waving a flag at some point."

"The game won Game of the Year," Perry said, "so we were all high-fiving and saying, 'To hell with McDonald's!' But it turned out that they were pretty pissed. They went and hired another team and they made a new McDonald's game with restaurants that you can buy burgers and fries in. It was called McDonaldland, and it didn't get Game of the Year."

That experience didn't sour Perry on advertising-based games, as he went on to make Cool Spot based on the 7-Up mascot. Back then, advertising in games was shameless, Perry said, saying the whole game was built on pushing the brand, and noting that Cool Spot even began with the company mascot riding in on a 7-Up bottle.

Despite dealing with other people's intellectual properties, Perry was able to call the shots on a lot of his games from pretty early on.

"It's almost like you're bit of a liability, to be honest," Perry said. "You start to get trusted; you do a few things that sell, and people go, 'whatever you want to do.' It's like if Will Wright said he wanted to do a game about snakes next, everyone would say it sounds like a great idea because the guy's hitting home runs one after another. So snakes are obviously the future."

"I got to the point where I could abuse that a little bit and whatever I would want to do would get funded. I did some pretty wacky stuff. I did a little helicopter game [R/C Stunt Copter for the PlayStation] and things like that which really shouldn't get done. But at the time, no one was saying no."

Perry has dealt with other people's brands on and off throughout his career. Most recently, and perhaps most famously, he and Shiny handled the game tie-ins to The Matrix trilogy. But his two games based on the sci-fi films almost didn't happen. Before the first movie debuted, Perry said he was approached about making a Matrix game by the film's producer Joel Silver (Action Jackson, Road House). Perry said he was called into Silver's office, where he was shown an early demo of the film's signature "bullet-time" technology, starring nothing more than a burning barrel of fire. Unimpressed by the burning barrel and completely engrossed in the development of Shiny's PC game Sacrifice, Perry passed on the project.

"It all made sense, but at the end of the day, after seeing The Matrix, it didn't make sense," Perry said. "We should have put the pause on Sacrifice."

When the filmmakers geared up for a sequel to The Matrix, they again turned to Perry to see if he was interested in handling the game adaptation. Given a second chance, he readily agreed, and work began on Enter the Matrix for the PC, PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox.

The ambitious project was a side story to the films, but one created with the filmmakers' blessing and participation. As part of the production, they shot an hour of new footage for cutscenes that would go into the game, including one scene in which two female characters kiss.

We were working really hard to try and get a [T for Teen] rating, and the [Entertainment Software Rating Board] was like, 'What are you thinking? Lesbian kissing in your game and you want a teen rating? Forget about it.' We actually said as our response that it wasn't two women kissing; it's two computer programs kissing. And wouldn't you believe it, the ESRB accepted that. We did it kind of as a joke, and they took it."

Moving to the current day, Moledina and Perry discussed his latest project, Top Secret. An MMO racing game, Top Secret is being developed by a community of gamers all vying for a "grand prize" that will see publisher Acclaim give one creative, aspiring designer an all-new MMO to direct.

Like all of Acclaim's games, Top Secret will be free to play and supported by in-game ads and microtransactions. That's a business model imported from Korea (like many of Acclaim's games) that Perry thinks has the potential to be a disrupting force in the gaming world. He said it's inevitable that a designer on par with Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid series) or Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario, Zelda) will emerge from Korea or China, where these types of games are prevalent. And once that designer does emerge, Perry said nothing would be the same.

Moledina seized on the issue to ask Perry for his thoughts on Nintendo's Wii and its motion-sensing controller.

"That's truly disruptive," Perry said of the Wii. "I got sort of killed in the press recently because I said people are going to put their Wii-motes down when they start to play all the new stuff on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It wasn't dismissive at all. Nintendo has disrupted our industry; they've done a fantastic job of that. My point is the games I personally like to play--Assassin's Creed and Killzone 2--I have a list full of them and none of them are on the Wii."

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