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Designers Every Designer Should Know #1 – Dani Berry

November 15, 2007

Dani BerryI’m not alone in my respect for her as a designer. Will Wright dedicated The Sims to her, Greg Costikyan wrote an amazing tribute to her, and I was even fortunate enough to talk with her before the Computer Game Developers Conference (as it was called back then) in 1996, two years before she passed away.

I mention her in my Design Portfolio article, but to truly appreciate everything that Dani did requires a bit of study and a whole lot of play. Consider, for instance, that she made her first multiplayer game in 1978 when Rob Pardo, the brilliant lead on World of Warcraft, was probably entering the 3rd grade.

In presenting her lifetime achievement award, Brian Moriarty summed it up perfectly: “Historians of electronic gaming will find in these eleven boxes the prototypes of the defining art form of the 21st century.” He’s not embellishing the truth at all.

On the old Apple II, where many saw limitations or business applications, she saw infinite possibility.

Her list of early achievements is impressive:

  • Wheeler Dealers (1978) – 4-player multiplayer game for the personal computer that shipped with its own hardware.
  • Computer Quarterback (1979) – the systems simulation for this game was the basis for her master’s thesis. MUD was also a master’s thesis project, fwiw.
  • Seven Cities of Gold (1984) – randomly generated world, something I often hear attributed to action RPGs which would be released 10 years later. Seven Cities also led to the coining of the term ‘edu-tainment’, though that may not be its greatest moment.
  • Heart of Africa (1985) – Introduced a player journal, dynamic difficulty adjustment (the game would move stuff around if you were having difficulty) and also affected the interface depending on how the player was doing.
  • Modem Wars (1988) – Introduced a replay where you could see the action that had just happened.

These innovations are, in fact, secondary to the systems Dani was able to create. They were simple and elegant, and she was always striving to make them ever simpler. As designers, we tend toward complexity. It’s just what we do. Simplicity in design is about trusting the player, and that’s something we (or at least I) have to work at.

And then there is M.U.L.E, released in 1983. It is in a class by itself and required play for anyone who wants to become a game designer. Seriously. In fact, my recent focus on gameplay has something to do with the reactions I have seen from people when I suggest they play games like this. “The graphics suck.” So do the graphics of the games Go and Chess as well as the books East of Eden and To Kill a Mockingbird, but that doesn’t stop us of from falling head over heels into those worlds.

We must learn to view games with perspective – to see them within the world in which they were created. M.U.L.E. was magic in its day, and it is still magic now. In staying away from M.U.L.E. or other games like it because their graphics fail to live up to today’s standards, we do ourselves a great disservice.

If you’re in the industry or just hoping to get in, spend some time learning about Dani. You can start here.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. ai864 permalink
    November 15, 2007 4:46 pm

    If you’re going to be writing about designers that everyone should know, you’ll be kept busy for the next couple of years. There are so many important people (and games) that are worthy of study!

    But if you’ve gotta start somewhere, I can think of no one better than Dani.

    If students attribute “randomly generated world” to action-RPGs (i.e. Diablo) they’re showing their youth, since Diablo was very clearly derivative of the so-called Roguelikes (which trace back to, surprise, the PC game Rogue). Granted, Rogue was released in 1988 (according to Mobygames, at least) so if Dani did this four years prior she still gets credit.

  2. November 15, 2007 10:46 pm

    Hi Brenda. I just found your blog through Ian Schrieber’s, and I really enjoyed this post. I’ve read about Dani before, but this has a lovely clarity, reverence, and perspective.

    I can’t imagine someone seriously studying to be a game designer dismissing the games from this era. They had an elegance and clarity of play that I sometimes think is an epitome of games as an art form, or at least in a wholly different category than modern games with their cast of thousands.

  3. November 16, 2007 12:31 am

    What an interesting gal. I’ve never read into her story before. It is quite intriguing. Thanks!

  4. November 16, 2007 5:25 pm

    Dani’s stuff was truly amazing and in many cases way ahead of the curve. In some cases, still ahead of the curve. A terrific, important designer to highlight. Nice quick overview Brenda.

    Also notable is “Robot Rascals.” It was a multiplayer boardgame-like arrangement, though players had free movement (there were no spaces on the board –the board being displayed as an area of explorable space on the screen). No AI because players did everything. An actual deck of cards was also provided and used during the course of play.

    It was innovative…and strange. Light-hearted with a cartoony art style and vibe. And the teleporters worked like the one seen in “Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half Century.” A hoot. We loved that game.

    – – – – – – – – – –

    The difficulty here is: To gain insight from them, how can we play these great games from the 80’s and early 90’s?

    While I still haul out a C64, yearly, to remind myself and show others –I still have a couple of working C64’s, for example, and many working (surprisingly!) disks– I doubt that most gamers, or game designers, can do this.

    Emulators help but they are…fussy, and often won’t play some of the best games because of boot disk issues, writable disk issues, controller and command key issues, different keyboard layouts, sound issues, copy-protection issues and what-not.

    Emulators are awesome but they can be a turn-off as well. Fine for most arcade games, but dodgy for many other types, especially hybrids.

    I wonder… Do design “degree” programs like those offered at a place like Digipen provide C64’s, Ataris, Apple IIe’s, Speccy’s, etc., to demonstrate older classics in their proper play setting? Difficult as it may be to provide for, I think it should be done.

  5. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 16, 2007 5:36 pm

    Hi Rich,

    At the Savannah College of Art and Design where I’m a prof, I old computers and consoles so that games can be shown in their original context. Still no working Apple II, but I’ll get one eventually. Building the game library is a challenge, but, as with the machines, they show up. Sometimes I’ll find them by the dozens at a yard sale.


  6. November 16, 2007 7:45 pm


    If you can show C64 Pirates! (1987) alongside the remake (2004), demonstrating that the games are virtually the same except for graphics oomph –and that the 1987 version operated with a one-button joystick alone, with no keyboard commands– folks interested in design will definitely benefit from certain insights.

    This can also help abolish the (understandable) notion that gamers and makers are only being nostalgic when they reference games from previous decades, claiming relevancy to what is being done today.

  7. November 18, 2007 8:06 pm

    Sid has said that he actually made Pirates! as a semi-sequel to Seven Cities of Gold as he was so impressed by the game.

    Great post. I’ve put up my own thoughts on Dan(i) here:

  8. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 19, 2007 5:07 pm

    Hi Soren,

    I didn’t know that (even tho Pirates is easily in my top 10 favorite games). Thanks so much for adding that here as well as the link to your post.


  9. Brian permalink
    November 20, 2007 12:12 pm

    Heh, I remember when you had me research Dani when I wrote my article, and I found that interview you did.

    Also, thanks for posting the link to the emulated copy of M.U.L.E. I was actually planning on buying a C64 one of these days (others my age are buying next-gen. I buy gaming equipment as old as I am), and M.U.L.E. was on my list to pick up for it.
    A conveniently online version without having to hassle with a C64 emulator will do very nicely in the meantime.

  10. David permalink
    November 21, 2007 1:18 am

    In recently discovering NetHack (a game I had heard of for years for its numerous ways to die) and my attempts to evangelize others into its gameplay, I have ran into a familiar wall that I know well as a devoted fan of the original Quake, Doom and Blood – graphics.

    Of course there is the simple fact that you can separate good graphics and good art design. Blood, Doom and Quake HAD good graphics and HAVE good art design, and in my opinion Half-Life HAD good graphics and HAS bad art design. I do wonder how contemporary fans will endure their Half-Lifes, Halos, FarCrys and Gears of War 10 years from now without visual upgrades when what they are left with is the passion of the art team and the actual gameplay.

    Graphics, nifty physics and other accessories strike me as a way to get people to talk about the game without discussing the gameplay – on par with controversial videos for a pop artist, or even just plain old near nudity in that case.

    Dani Berry reminds me of that time when I could speak with people about why a game was fun, in terms of the actual behavior in the game, what they actually experienced beyond just looking at. I did not know of her work before she passed, but I hope to know it, and I do recall learning of her death as a recent event… My mind bookmarked that moment, knowing apparently more so than I that a few years down the road I would find my calling as a game designer who would fight the tide of the industry as a profit driven beast in my own little world, and that this person would be a reference point, a measure of what it is to love games.

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