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DMA Design

SGN First Column

The Scottish games industry, in part, began with DMA Design, before there even was a DMA Design. Strictly speaking, it all began with The Kingsway Amateur Computer Club (KACC). And if we care about mythology, the creation event was Dave Jones turning up to the KACC one evening with an Amiga 1000, thereby instantly making everything we owned obsolete. And that included what games were capable of.

This is mostly not my story, although I was there. I talk about myself more than anyone else because, well, the research is easier. I worked for DMA in various capacities from 1991 to 1997, but my association goes back to 1983 when I first turned up at the KACC with a VIC-20.

The original actors in the DMA saga entered the stage, one by one, at the KACC. Mike Dailly made an appearance first, then Russell Kay and Dave Jones. Even at this early stage, Dave and Russell were working on a Spectrum game called Moonshadow, which would later become Zone Trooper. Mike reacted to this by learning everything there was to know about the Commodore 64. I reacted by saying “wow” a lot and plugged away at writing my alas-never-to-be-finished text adventure game Escape from Fifth Year.

At the KACC, we played games – a lot of games – the vast majority of which were crap. During the breaks in the evening, we would spend time in the downstairs canteen, over a vending machine hot-chocolate. We discussed how great it would be to make a living at this since clearly, we could do so much better. I was mostly just a hanger-on, awed by the talent on display, until I figured out that I could be useful doing graphics.

For a large portion of the 80s, a game was created by the programmer in its entirety: sound, graphics, even the inlay card (including artwork) for the inside of the cassette box. The tools available to do this were as primitive as the games. But as the decade ended, specialisation was well underway. Mike was making his first attempt at coding a game, with myself on graphics duty. The result – Freek Out, a breakout-style game with mono graphics – was never released, but it was valuable experience. Mike’s room in 1987

Dave, meanwhile, when not pranking me by phoning up pretending to be US Gold, started writing an Amiga game called CopperCon1. Dave and myself were studying at Dundee Institute of Technology (DIT) which later became Abertay University. Dave jotted down game code at the back of his lectures. DIT had its own computer club, which we happily went along to, but the KACC hadn’t been forgotten, at least not yet. There, anyone who was interested in Dave’s new game could see the progress for themselves.

The available development tools were improving, but there was a long way to go. Sometimes transferring graphics between machines was a step below sneakernet. One of my test sprites was transferred from graph paper to the Amiga by the lo-tech expedient of my shouting out the colour of the pixels row by row. Dave then clicked the appropriate bits in DPaint. This was Amiga’s killer app, a graphics drawing program which for many was the reason to own an Amiga. Mike and I coveted Amigas, but they were way out of our budget.

By now Dave had interested the Liverpool publisher Psygnosis in CopperCon1, where it became known as Draconia. A sub-deal was porting Ballistix from the Amiga to the Commodore 64, for which Dave had hired me to do the graphics and Mike to code.

Ballistix was my first proper ‘industry’ job, involving sitting in Mike’s living room in front of my four inch Black & White TV (yes, really) flipping pixels, while Mike keyed 6510 op-codes into the assembler. Building the game took half an hour, long enough for us to make the trip to the chip shop and back. On other chipper expeditions, the entire thing would be dumped to a continuous feed printer with the hope that nothing had jammed by the time we got back.

Taking 32 colour hi-res images and turning them into a three colour character set was akin to squashing a three course meal into a Futurama-style pill. So when Dave asked me to his place one weekend to have go on DPaint, it was an amazing level of freedom. He had bought the Amiga 1000 with his Timex redundancy money, as any bio will tell you. All the popular accounts mention the money of course, but none of them mention the stereo system which almost took up the entire length of a wall, the king-size waterbed, the poodle and the budgie which barked instead of chirped.

College had the benefit of allowing me to blow all my grant money on a second-hand Amiga 500. This step up led to me creating temporary graphics for Draconia itself, at least until Tony Smith turned up. Tony was a contact Dave had made though the Amiga demo scene and proved to be a natural. Until the final graphics and sound were produced, games needed something to see and hear during development.

One of the soundtracks Dave used was Star Trekkin’ by The Firm, so the early versions had “We come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill…” blasting from the speakers. This was an improvement over Dave’s digitised exclamations of “bang!” and even the actual sounds from a Salamander arcade machine. We covertly recorded audio in the Reform Street Arcade as Dave played. Mike nonchalantly held the microphone to the top of the cabinet and I shielded the whole process from any onlookers. An arbitrary choice, since I was short enough to be unlikely to shield anybody from anything.

Dave’s fledgling company gained its name in room 4502 of DIT, where the new computer club was held. One of the evenings seemed to have the entire club gathered around a table as Dave decided on the naming of the company. We all pitched in suggestions, amongst them Milliard, and my favourite, which I think was suggested by Russell, Visual Voyage. Russell would later found his own company using a not dissimilar name Visual Science. With the involvement of Tony Smith, another suggestion was “Alias Smith and Jones”. Dave most likely had DMA in mind even before that night.

CopperCon1 was the name of a register within the Amiga’s ‘Copper’ chip, meaning Co-Processor. Dave liked these technical-sounding names and also liked the sound of another hardware feature: DMA. In computing this stood for ‘Direct Memory Access’, but for the new company it didn’t mean anything. Dave just though it sounded cool. But although not standing for anything, it didn’t in ironic fashion stand for Doesn’t Mean Anything. That came later. The first time I heard this was on a company night out. As we marched past the bar to the dining area, the barman asked what DMA meant. Dave shouted back “Doesn’t Mean Anything” as he swept past.

That seemed to make it official.

Briefly, and with little traction, it once stood for Direct Mind Access but I don’t know who suggested it.

Tony took on the graphics for Draconia. Since I was still at college and converting other graphics – this time it was Shadow of the Beast – and being paid for it, I couldn’t really complain. I still think my ship design is better, and it appeared on the cover of Popular Computing Weekly in the game’s first ever public appearance.

Dave was a believer that a game’s name should be a well-known word or phrase, all the better to stick in the mind. Hence once final renaming and Draconia became Menace.

Even so, I would still be on the phone with him trying to think up level names on the fly. My Science Fiction obsession meant that calling something a dystopia was second nature. The ‘Ruins of Kruger’ level has nothing to do with the Friday the 13th movie. I’m an astronomy nut, and Krüger is a 17th Century astronomer.

Menace sold well enough for a follow-up, Blood Money. And with that, DMA was well underway. I remained freelance for a few years while finishing my college course. One day I walked into the new DMA office.

Dave said, “Hey Steve, fancy a job?”

A job? You mean I could do this for a living all the time?

“Yes,” I said.

The easiest interview I will ever have in my life.


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