Career Feature and Interview with Mike Dailly

Interview with Mike Dailly

Mike Dailly is a computer game programmer who grew up in Dundee, Scotland – the home of the comics Beano and Dandy. Mike’s interest in computers started when he was 13, when his friend had a ZX81, which Mikes mum later acquired for him. At first, he played around with basic creating simple programs, before moving on to a snake game in assembler that was available on the back of a magazine.

At the age of 14, Mike then created a database for looking up client’s names for his mum’s workplace, not a small feat as computers back then did everything in numbers. Mike then took over a year away from computers until, at Christmas, he received a Commodore Plus/4, with its built-in monitor. Mike was able to learn assembler fully and this changed his life. Mike joined a local computer club where he met and teamed up with a few other hobbyists, Steve Hammond, Russell Kay and Dave Jones, who were the founding members of DMA Design.

After leaving college in 1989 Mike joined DMA Design and along came the cult classics Lemmings and GTA. Over a 29-year career Mike has worked for companies such as Visual Science and Realtime Worlds. In 2010 he joined YoYo Games as head of development of GameMaker, turning it into a professional development tool used by beginners, hobbyists, indie developers and studios alike. Across his career mike has worked on platforms including C64, Spectrum, Amiga, Megadrive, Gameboy, PS1, PS2 and Xbox.

Orange Bison: How did you get into game design?

Mike Dailly: I didn’t really, I got into game programming and its design is always a side line for budding coders. Programming had always held a fascination when I was young, making this “machine” do what you wanted it to do. From there, it’s a small step to moving a blob around the screen, then a blob on a platform and then from there to a game. I’ve always considered making games the best way to learn programming, it’s just so much more fun than anything else.

OB: Are you still based in Dundee?

MD: Yup, born and bred. Dundee is a great place and a real hub for development.

OB: What’s your greatest career achievement and out of the games you’ve created what is your favourite?

MD: Probably Lemmings. While GTA is probably the best known, I’ve always had a soft spot for the little fella’s. GameMaker has been very enabling for people, and I’m loving being part of getting so many people into game dev, but Lemmings is where my heart is.

OB: You’ve coded in a lot of languages and worked on a lot of systems, what is your favourite language and system to work on?

MD: Oooo…now there’s a hard question. I’m a 6502 boy at heart, and the C64 was a great machine. But the PC Engine and SNES were great machines to work on. I think machine wise I prefer the PC Engine, it was just SO fast. At 7Mhz, it was 7 times faster than the C64 I’d just left, an incredible speed boost. Imagine if you’re PC got 7 times faster overnight – and had a graphics boost to match. Not only that, but the PC Engine (not the TG16) was a tiny little thing, incredibly cool.

Favourite language is another tricky one… 6502 or to be more precise, 65816 was great. But after being on the PS1 and using MIPS…I was in love. The MIPs CPU instruction set is a dream to code in assembler, such a well-built little chip – I love it. So Mips, and the PC Engine.

OB: What is your all-time favourite game?

MD: I have sooooo many. I guess if I was stuck on an island with only one game…. I’d probably go for Super Mario World on the SNES. I played it for a year to get that 100%, and even then, kept playing. Such a lovely game. Of course… give me a top 3…top 5…top 10…top 20…and I’d fill that list just as easily!

OB: The two most recognisable games you’ve been involved with are Lemmings and GTA, are there any other well-known games people might not know you worked on?

MD: Blood Money, Shadow of the Beast (TG16 port), Uniracers (or Unirally), F1 2000 PS1, F1 2002 XBox, Tanktics – perhaps…. I even did a Beano racing game.

OB: Lemmings is one of the greatest indie games of all time, whose idea was Lemmings?

MD: Lemmings started out as an argument between myself and a (then) graphics guy Scot Johnston who was brought in to create graphics for a new game Walker. He created a small animation of men to kill at 16×16. I felt this was too large as it would make the walker seem quite small. I thought you could get them into 8×8 giving the walker a much larger feel. I then created then now famous animation, showing the little guys walking and being killed. I showed the guys and they laughed – a lot, saying “there’s a game in that”. Russell Kay was the guy who first did the demo of Lemmings, replicating them walking over the landscape in code, but he had other things to do and it was shelved. Dave Jones then picked up the concept after Walker fell through.

OB: Why is it Lemmings and not another animal?

MD: This was because of the Disney (faked) movie about Lemmings all following each other to their deaths – just like the animation.

OB: How did you come up with so many levels of Lemmings?

MD: That was the easy bit. We could have made hundreds more – given the time. Dave had created a brilliant editor, and we had great fun trying to beat each other, making harder and harder levels. However, we were all experts by then, and never managed. Myself, Scot and Gary made the bulk of the levels, while Dave squeezed a couple in. Gary then took these levels and made some “simpler” versions of them and created that amazingly smooth difficulty curve. It was this that made it so accessible.

OB: ‘All the 6’s’ is my favourite Lemmings level, what is your favourite Lemmings level?

MD: There was a few; ‘The Fast Food Kitchen’ – I love making gamers do multiple things at once, ‘666’ just because of the controversy, and because they all got it totally wrong. You were saving them from hell, taking them out of there…not sending them in! But my absolute favourite was ‘It’s hero time’. It’s a very logical, “smart” puzzle, and there’s not that many like this in the game. It also totally foxed Psygnosis testing, it took them hours to figure out, and I’m proud of that one!

OB: Lemmings is still a game people play today, would you like to see it re-mastered and released on the current generation of consoles?

MD: Not really. I think it needs an update, not just churned out again…and again… I love the characters, but the game is getting a little tired as it’s been overused.

But a reimagined vision, using the characters in a new way – I’d love to see that.

OB: How did GTA get created?

MD: GTA is a longer story…. At the start of 1994 I was doing some R&D and trying out some game ideas for Dave. I had just finished a little test of a 3/4 perspective engine that Dave was interested in, and I decided I wanted to try out an isometric game engine. I drew an isometric map by hand in DPaint, and then tried to work out how to draw it, and how a character would then walk through it. I then did the usual thing of allowing the view to be rotated by 90 degrees – as most isometric games allowed. I decided this was a bit boring and wondered if I could do this smoothly. I figured I could use very simple rendering of isometric block “sides”, but I needed to work out the position of everything.

I started by drawing an ellipse and placing 4 points on this curve. This formed the corners of my world. I then drew lines from each point to the ones opposite giving me a rotating square. I then plotted points along these lines, and down to the other side, forming a grid of points – are you following this? After that, I project these points vertically which gives me a 3D array of points that can spin around the ellipse. This grid forms the cube corners that I then drew the textured sides onto, and a (badly) textured top giving me a rotating cube.

So, this gave me a rotating grid of cubes that I then formed into a small city scene that you could spin. I handed this over to a team who started a game using it, however they started to struggle doing it in hires. About this time, Syndicate Wars appeared, and we suddenly saw what the game would probably end up like, and we weren’t impressed.

Fortunately…. I had already started to modify this engine and decided to change its viewpoint. I had just seen Clockwork Knight on the Sega Saturn and wondered if I could replicate that. I started drawing a perspective texture using a simple scaling routine and then decided to do some platforms to jump on. The “cube world” from the previous demo – or Lego Vision as we dubbed it, give an interesting possibility, so instead of a spinning array of points, I passed the points through a perspective projection having a grid of points in perspective. This gave me something to attach my platforms to so I can pan it around and see the perspective work. Dave, however, wasn’t interested, but after talking to some of the other devs, I decided to put a wall in the distance, but paint a road on it, instantly turning the side on view, to a top-down city view – and the GTA engine was born….

OB: Did you expect GTA to be such a hit?

MD: Well, we only make games we think would sell, but we never expected it to be as big as it was – you never do.

OB: You now work for GameMaker: Studio, what games have you developed there?

MD: We used to do games to test the product, but now we focus completely on making the tool. We did have some big successes in the past, a Solitaire game that was Number one in 70 counties on the App store, and we became a Google top developer. But now we help other developers achieve their dreams. I do really enjoy that. Education and helping developers is really important to me, so it’s great GameMaker crosses to many avenues.

OB: Are you working on any exciting games for future release?

MD: I’m playing with some retro stuff at home, but who knows if these will ever be released… I’m doing a version of Lemmings for the new ZX Spectrum Next, and I have some other ZXNEXT ideas, but that’s about it.

OB: If you could take one retro game and re-release it what would it be?

MD: Not sure. There is a load I love, from Manic Miner to JetPac, Deathchase, Bugaboo, Paradroid, Uridium, Stop the Express, Trashman, Scuba Dive. Even Lemmings – which I guess I am doing. Tricky one this… Knowing how much work something like this would be, you’d have to take it seriously – no idea!!

OB: What advice would you give to somebody wanting to get into game design/dev?

MD: Start small. Don’t start by trying to make an MMORPG! So many people begin and bite off more than they can chew. Start small. Pong, then breakout. Asteroids, Space Invaders, Manic Miner….start small. Progress. It’s more important to succeed at something small, that trying to grind away on a big project. Finishing something, and getting that sense of accomplishment and pride, really helps drive you on. Don’t wait on uni or school. Do stuff on your own. For a potential employer, that speaks volumes. Given an applicant that has done a degree course and nothing else, or something self-taught, who has churned out content…demos..games – whatever. I’d hire the self-taught guy every time.

I’ve been a gamer from a young age, when I was introduced to pong on the Atari and I’ve been lucky enough to grow up with the consoles now classed as retro. I Game a lot on the PS4 but also have my Wii, N64, NES and SNES classic minis set up to fulfill my desires, my all time favourite game is paperboy.

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