Bill Kunkel / Subway Software
Added on November 16th, 2010 (6976 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
I was born in the summer of 1950 – the best time ever to be young. I always wanted to be a writer. I published fanzines as a kid, and in 1971, I met Denny O'Neil who was editing Batman and other comics for DC. He bought my very first script and I spent the 70's working for DC, Marvel and Harvey Comics. But as the decade progressed, my obsession with videogames grew. Eventually, Arnie Katz and I pitched a videogame review column to Video Magazine and that evolved into the first videogame magazine, Electronic Games in '81. Since then, I've been involved in just about every aspect of the game business; journalism, consulting, expert witness, book author, design, teaching, press releases, etc. etc.
How did you first get started with computers and the C64 in particular?
I never had a great fascination with computers until they started playing games. When we all left the original EG, however, our next steady gig was with Videogames & Computer Entertainment (started by Larry Flynt in the late 80's, currently called Tips & Tricks) where we covered computer games exclusively. To this day, I far prefer console games and pretty much limit computer gaming to casual game sites (netives.com, etc.) and games not available in console form. I love computers for word processing and functionality, but for game playing, I'm a console guy.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit work samples to various games companies looking for jobs, or did jobs come to you?
When I got into the business, there were no magazines and very little coverage of games, except as the latest fad. There were also no exclusive game designers. You had to be a programmer. The thing that got us started was the founding of Activision. With third party games becoming available we realized there would be enough new games coming to fill a review column and, eventually, a magazine. At that time there weren't many trained journalists who were into videogames, and Arnie and I had worked with Bruce Apar on trade magazines when he was hired to edit Video. We went up to see him, pitched the column and, voila!, we became the first electronic game journalists along with my first wife Charlene and Arnie's wife Joyce Worley.
Subway Software was the game design company that Arnie, Joyce and I started in the mid-80's and is the credit that appears on almost all our games. We were all friends and we wanted to earn our living doing something we enjoyed. We tried covering pro wrestling in the 70's but clearly no one else seemed to understand that this videogame thing was no fad and would require lots of supplementary information sources. And remember, we were exclusively journalists and consultants for the first seven or so years we were in the business. It was only when Brian Fargo asked us if we'd like to try designing a home computer game for Interplay that we got the opportunity because, as you'll see later in this conversation, there weren't any people who designed games exclusively in those days. It was all done by techies who mostly stole ideas from the arcades. The coin-op developers were way ahead of the home gaming business in those days.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? Was it as special as we like to think it was?
Honestly, I was never especially impressed with the C64, except for its sound chip (SID). The keyboard was non-standard, the disk drives were terrible and the loading time was horrible (and noisy!). But the C64 did turn me on to QLink, an online chat site that became AOL. It had most of the best games as well.
It was, of course, the most popular dev form for quite a while, despite my preference for Atari computers, and since we were designers – not programmers – the system itself for which we were designing wasn't that relevant. During its heyday, the C64 was the bomb in terms of its game software.
What C64 games did you work on? Write a list with the titles and as much information you remember about each of them.
This is probably beyond my ancient memory. Our first game design was an illustrated text adventure for Interplay called Borrowed Time (published by Activision, later republished by Virgin as Time to Die). Let's see, some games other than the Simpsons game and stuff we consulted on? Not sure if The Omnicron Conspiracy (Epyx) made it to the C64, but I have a PC version here.
MicroLeague Baseball II (MLSA) was published for the C64, Atari ST, Amiga and Apple. First Person Pinball (Tynesoft/called 3D Pinball in the US), Roller Coaster Rumbler (the first rail shooter), MicroLeague WWF Wrestling (a bunch of match disks for the basic game – this sucked on the C64 but worked well on the ST and Amiga), Superman – Man of Steel (also good on Amiga and ST, also sucked on the C64). We did Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (a collection of circus games), Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and Rodeo (the last bunch were all from Tynesoft).
You mentioned Mayday Squad and I'm sure there were about half a dozen more C64 games (including the worst botch job we were ever connected with – Beverly Hills Cop – we were ever involved in; I think they programmed it over a weekend). Most we did for Tynesoft, almost all of which wound up published in the USA as well.
What companies did you work for, in-house and/or freelance, and what were your tasks?
Interplay, Acclaim, Sierra, Virgin, Sega, etc. etc. We were generally contracted through our agent and our jobs consisted of writing an original pitch, producing the game design (in Boolean form or whatever other style the publisher used). Or maybe we just ran an evaluation as to how the game could be fixed or if it should simply be put out of its agony.
What did a typical day in front of the computer look like?
Honestly? It consisted of referencing hundreds of print-outs (until the ST came out with multi-tasking), coming up with dialogue, branching points and smoking as much pot as I could get my hands on.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to finish your work?
That really depended. The Tynesoft games were designed very quickly. Each month we produced a new game design and submitted half a dozen ideas for upcoming games. After a while, anything you looked at, from an ash tray to a table, you started thinking about how it might become a game. We were under tremendous pressure.
What tools/development kits/etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to satisfy your needs?
Just a word processor since Boolean design and menu-driven dialogue didn't require any special tools. We were never programmers. I used some art programs for storyboarding, but that was about it.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Sure. If only there had been more. Joyce designed a strong game about traveling cross country in the wagon train days; I believe it was called Wagons West. But while we sold the game to about three or four different companies, none of them were able to produce a workable version. It was just too early for something as sophisticated as we envisioned. But we made out great, financially, re-selling the same idea. Similarly, we sold the designs for a series of games on the TurboGrafx-16 – virtual chemistry sets, virtual model railroad sets, etc. – for heavy money and then NEC's developers found they couldn't make them.
Which game are you most proud of, which was most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which gave you headaches?
They were all challenges (especially The Omnicron Conspiracy) and all generated many headaches, but the games I'm proudest of were the Amiga/ST WWF wrestling games from MLSA, the Amiga/ST Superman – Man of Steel and Roller Coaster Rumbler. Some of the most rewarding projects were games I consulted on and contributed good stuff to.
If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you add and/or remove?
Actually, the one game that would fit that answer may, in fact, finally be developed so I can't discuss it right now. I'd like to see the actual design for Konami's computer version of Batman Returns programmed, but Park Place took my design and screwed it up beyond all belief.
Were there any particular games that you would have liked to work on or converted from arcade?
If they'd let me design Peter Jackson's terrible King Kong remake game, I would have turned out an awesome piece of software. Not modest, I know, but what I can I say?
Did you get much chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I spent at least as much time playing games as I ever did designing them. Soooo many favorites. I recently wrote a column for J2Games.com (under the Game Doctor section in the forum) on what I feel are the ten most underrated games ever. Most of them are listed there.
Were there any games which you felt were so appalling and bad that you wished you had worked on to do a better job?
Well, since I was just designing the games, I was pretty much at the mercy of the artists and programmers to execute that design. The English games were rushed out so quickly by 14 year old kids that many of them were bitter disappointments, while others were better than what I had designed. It's a collaborative art form, like movies or comics. I wrote several really good comic book stories that the artists screwed up and just as many that they greatly improved by people like Grey Morrow. Same with videogames.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly gave inspiration to your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
Most of the home games developed in those days were simply rip-offs of coin-ops, but I admired many designers, especially Sid Meier and Scott Orr. The people who had great influence on me were the Rolling Stones, Clash, Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan; writers like Bradbury, Phillip Dick, Joe Heller; filmmakers like Tarantino and people like that.
Share some memories from the old days! It could for instance be something you remember a colleague did or said, about your time in the demo scene, about crackers stealing development disks, or about going to computer shows.
So many... I filled an entire book with many of the best stories (Confessions of The Game Doctor from Rolenta Press) and still left out many of the stories. There was the time when we were consulting for Sega, and they were dying to get their own Mario-type character that could serve as their company mascot. Two candidates turned up at the same time: Toejam and Earl and Sonic the Hedgehog. We loved them both, frankly, but felt very strongly that T&E was Sega's best game of the year. Sales, of course, proved that we didn't know as much as we thought we did, but I'd still rather play the original T&E.
Also, because magazines (especially back then) had such an extensive lead time that months would pass between the time when we wrote about something and the point where the magazine containing that content turned up on a newsstand, being timely was a real bitch. So the late Jim Bender (he was our head ad salesman and a great friend) and I would take two or three trips a year out to California, he'd rent a car (I don't drive) and we'd cruise through Silicon Valley, visiting every game company along the way. These trips were wild! We'd get stoned in the car on the way to and from each appointment and I had to take extensive notes or I'd forget everything they told me. These were the days long before junkets, but between the drugs during the day and the hookers at night, it was a lot more fun than I ever had on any fancy hotel or expensive restaurant junket.
As to the relationship between Subway Software – us – as game designers and the programmers, artists, animators, etc., it was all pretty much non-existent. If there was a problem, we'd hear from the producer, but there was a very different mindset in those days. For years, the programmers were the kings of the industry. They created the game logic, did the audio and visuals and literally made the game. The idea of a non-programmer coming in with game designs did not sit well with many of them. If they had a problem, rather than contact us so we could work out a solution, they'd come up with the simplest fix they could and ship it. In most cases, once we submitted a design, that was the end of it until several copies of the completed product arrived, boxed and shrink-wrapped. It was frequently obvious that the people actually making the game had no idea what was supposed to be going on, or maybe it required a functionality that the hardware didn't perform well so they'd just eliminate that part of the game.
At some point around the late 80's and early 90's, game companies started bringing in "pencil & paper" designers. These were the people who designed the elaborate war games and simulations for companies like Automated Simulations (which later became Epyx) and Avalon Hill and the tasks became more comfortable. Game development is like making movies; it requires an array of skills and talents. But because the earliest computer games were forged by one-man "teams", a lot of the earlier programmers began to think they could design, program, animate – just do it all, even write the music. Fortunately, the smart developers caught on pretty quickly and realized there weren't many people who possessed all the required abilities to make a great game.
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. Share with us the software and/or hardware you created on other systems.
In those days, the system you were designing for was pretty unimportant – if you weren't a programmer. We designed, and execution was something we'd try to work out together. I've worked on software for almost every game system/computer from those days, but except for certain "tricks" that this console or that computer couldn't handle, game design was pretty much just game design.
What are you up to these days?
I turned 60 this year and there doesn't seem to be much interest in 60 year old game designers and/or journalists. I get periodic gigs, but I'm always working on several projects at once in a variety of fields. My wife's been very sick and there are always more medical bills. But people still remember me and I still get offers, some of which I even take.
I wrote and digitally published a mini-anthology of horror fiction for Amazon and Smashwords (all formats, including PDF and Word) and intend to add a few chapters to Confessions and publish that in digital form. I also wrote a novel and am working as a co-author/ghost on a fascinating autobiography. I try to stay interested, I still play videogames, watch MMA and football and mess with my Les Paul.
The best place to catch my new stuff is at J2Games and at the Running with Scissors site, with whom I've been associated for over a decade.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any last comments to leave a final impression on the audience? Feel free to send any greetings to anyone you know.
Thanks for asking. It's been amazing watching stuff like Pong evolve into some of today's amazing content, for better or worse. Too many old friends to list here, but they know who they are. :)
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