For the Love of the Game
Game pioneer Jeff Tunnell has always found himself ahead of the curve. Now, he’s back with a game studio that feels right on time.
There are many reasons why people make games. They can be a form of creative expression, an exploration of technology, or even a tool for research. For Jeff Tunnell, unsung game industry pioneer and President of the fledgling game studio Monster Ideas, the work itself is the reward. This is a fact he’s made clear on an old personal site he puckishly titled, “Make It Big In Games.” (Spoiler: “You can’t make it big in games — you do it because you love it!”)
Chances are you haven’t heard of Tunnell — who by his own admission has “probably chased too many shiny things” over the years — but you’ve almost certainly played a game that’s felt his influence. Never one to seek the limelight, Tunnell has consistently broken new ground in games over his nearly four decades as a game maker. By the time the wider industry catches up to him, though, he’s already moved on to his next big idea.
Tunnell’s first venture in games was Dynamix, a studio he founded in 1983 with a programmer named Damon Slye. Their vision for Dynamix was to be a pure software business, focused on building quality games and the technology that powered them. This would enable them to focus on great experiences, and not be distracted by things on the business side like publishing and distribution.
The studio created various game development tools and technologies that powered a broad range of games, and maintained compatibility with new hardware as it came to market. These included its 3Space 3D graphics technology, as well as the Dynamix Game Development System (DGDS). The latter was used to create the influential techno-thriller adventure title Rise of the Dragon, a game ranked by Computer Gaming World (CGW) magazine as one of the 150 best games of all time.
“So good that a rival publisher tried to steal it, this cyberpunk game used rotoscoping, hot spot mapping, and cinematic cuts long before they were standard,” the magazine wrote of the game. And Rise of the Dragon wasn’t alone on CGW’s list: Dynamix had actually created no fewer than nine of the selected titles including The Incredible Machine, Deathtrack, and Betrayal at Krondor.
Dynamix’s exceptional game technology caught the eye of Sierra On-Line, the revered developer and publisher founded by legendary game designer Roberta Williams and her husband Ken Williams. The company initially licensed Dynamix’s 3Space technology in 1989. It didn’t take long after that, though, for Sierra On-line to realize just how talented the team at Dynamix was — not only on the technology side, but at building great game experiences as well. Sierra On-Line fully acquired Dynamix just months later. “Honestly, I had no idea we were worth anything,” Tunnell laughs. “We were just working our butts off trying to make great games.”
Over the years Dynamix became renowned for its work in certain genres, particularly flight simulators. But since its earliest days, the studio employed what’s often referred to as a “portfolio” approach, with its more mainstream and successful releases helping to fund experimental forays into new styles of games — some far ahead of their time. Project Firestart, one of several Dynamix games published by Electronic Arts, serves as a perfect example. Released in 1989, it essentially laid down the exact template for modern survival horror games, commonly associated with the popular Resident Evil franchise.
Though its earliest titles were released in the early ‘80s on platforms like the Apple II and the Commodore 64, Dynamix was still making games well into the ‘90s. In fact, one of Dynamix’s most influential works, Starsiege: Tribes, wasn’t released until the studio was 15 years old.
Released in 1998, Tribes was a breakthrough in both technology and first-person shooter (FPS) game design. It was the first game to include features that are considered table stakes in competitive titles today, such as sprawling outdoor maps, jetpacks, 32-player matches, driveable vehicles, team-based objectives, and unique character classes. Tribes was also one of the first exclusively online and multiplayer-only FPS titles, an approach that’s common today, but was bold at a time when most homes didn’t yet have even a dial-up internet connection.
The game’s vast list of innovations didn’t go unnoticed by game critics. In its perfect five-star review, the highly regarded (and famously difficult to impress) magazine Next Generation praised Tribes, calling it a “tour-de-force of gameplay, graphics, and smart design,” and “the first of a new breed of game.” It was recognized by Dynamix’s peers as well, being nominated for both Online Action/Strategy Game of the Year and Computer Action Game of the Year at the 1999 D.I.C.E. Awards, the game industry’s most prestigious awards show. (Tribes ended up winning the former category, but lost out in the latter to Half-Life, another Sierra-published title that’s considered by many to be the greatest PC game ever created.)
Time has made Tribes’ impact and influence even more apparent. Only several years after its release, Gamespot featured the game in its Greatest Games of All Time series. More recently, sports writer Bill Simmons’ publication The Ringer detailed how Tribes laid the groundwork for many modern games like Fortnite and Overwatch, as well as esports in general — and in ways you might not expect.
While Tribes’ innovative multiplayer gameplay is the clear and obvious connection, the game also implemented a feature that let players record their gameplay to share with others, similar to how millions of people watch others stream games on Twitch and YouTube today. Furthermore, it spawned the Team Sportscast Network, née Tribes Shoutcast Network (TsN), which was the first organized live commentary effort around a competitive game, and where Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, an early pioneer in game commentary, started his career.
Tribes reaffirmed Dynamix’s reputation as one of the best game developers in the business during its nearly 20-year run, and along with the rest of the studio’s outstanding portfolio of titles, continues to do so today. It demonstrated that Dynamix’s focus on and expertise in game technology could result in meaningfully new experiences for players that others couldn’t offer. Today, Tunnell recognizes Tribes’ stature, but it’s the creative satisfaction that seems to linger with him the most. “Tribes ended up being an incredibly influential game,” Tunnell says. “We pioneered a lot of things. That’s what’s so cool about making games — you can do new things all the time.”
Tribes played a vital role in Tunnell’s next venture, GarageGames, as well. In exchange for a small share in his new company, Sierra allowed him to take the advanced tools and technology that powered Tribes — a game development engine named Torque — and license it to other studios. At the time, comparable and commercially available 3D game engines were expensive, typically costing hundreds of thousands of dollars up front, in addition to some percentage of royalties. For some companies, the cost was cheaper than building and supporting the technology from scratch. But for smaller developers, the cost was prohibitive.
As early advocates of independent game development, Tunnell and the rest of the GarageGames team decided to charge a mere $100 per seat for their Torque engine. Suddenly, making a game was within reach of anyone with an idea and the ambition to see it through. Today, of course, there are plenty of low-cost and even free game engines on the market. But through Torque, Tunnell and company helped set the wheels in motion for the rise of indie game development.
Tunnell admits the idea came in part from another one of his creative outlets. A keen musician, he still plays bass and sings in the Oregon-based band The Procrastinators (anyone who knows the hyper-productive Tunnell will appreciate the irony of the name). “I figured that there are millions of independent bands out there because it’s easy to do,” he says. “You go to the guitar store, pick up a Les Paul, and play. There wasn’t an equivalent path for game developers, and that’s what we were trying to provide.”
Within a few years over 100,000 people were using Torque, and the official company forums were thriving. GarageGames also organized and launched the first IndieGamesCon in 2002, an annual games conference that was attended by developers from all over the world.
While building communities is a large part of the game industry today, Tunnell knew very early on how critical properly nurturing a community is for the health and success of a product or ecosystem. “The best part of GarageGames was creating this massive community of independent developers,” Tunnell says. He had an almost paternal attitude for the community given his own experiences, and ensured no one was taking undue risk or overextending themselves. “We were constantly giving people advice on not just on how to make games, but on how to survive. And the more help we gave them, the stronger the community grew.”
Over the course of the past decade, indie games have become a vital part of the modern game industry. Notable successes like Fall Guys, Undertale, and Among Us were brought to life by small independent teams using affordable third-party game engines like Torque. And while developers today have more choice than ever in terms of engine options, GarageGames’ decision to make its powerful technology available at a trivial cost nearly 20 years ago was an early catalyst for today’s prospering indie game community.
Tunnell would eventually go on to sell GarageGames in 2007, and embrace a completely different type of technology: Adobe Flash. After introducing its own programming language, Adobe’s multimedia software platform powered a new surge in hobbyist and independent game development. And because Flash games could run in a common web browser, they could reach a vast audience. Tunnell formed a new company, PushButton Labs, and set about designing a game engine for Adobe’s ubiquitous platform. The end result was the eponymous, open-source PushButton Engine. “We finished it and said, ‘We just made an engine for the biggest console on the planet: a billion users installed’,” Tunnell recalls.
His timing was impeccable. Facebook games had suddenly exploded in popularity, and all of them were being built in Flash. Within two years, PushButton had been acquired, and its technology was powering a raft of games that reached tens of millions of players per day, including the studio’s own Social City, winner of the Best Social Network Game at the first annual Game Developers Choice Online. And many of these people had never even played a game until Facebook came along. “It was awesome,” Tunnell says of Social City’s mainstream success. “My whole family was playing it. That had just never happened before.”
While the size of the daily audience was of a scale that he hadn’t seen before, it wasn’t Tunnell’s first taste of the potential of casual games. Back in his Dynamix days, amidst all the hardcore flight sim games, he saw how games with a broader appeal like 3-D Ultra Pinball and the critically acclaimed fishing game Trophy Bass resonated with large and different audiences. The PushButton era, as brief as it was, proved that the lessons Tunnell had learned and applied throughout his career — namely the power of custom technology, quality games, and carefully tended communities — could still bring success on the widest of scales.
Everything changed at Tunnell’s next company, Spotkin. Mobile games were just taking off at the time, and after building yet another custom game engine, Tunnell and team released their first title, Quick Shooter. Despite receiving positive feedback from its players, the game succumbed to a longer-than-anticipated development cycle (it was originally intended to be a quick mobile prototype) and a misaligned monetization model. These issues were compounded by the market saturation found on mobile app platforms.
For its next game, Contraption Maker, the team pivoted back to its PC roots. The game was a spiritual successor to Dynamix’s classic The Incredible Machine, and was released through Steam, one of the largest digital storefronts for PC games. While it had a promising start and received a warm reception from press, the game ultimately didn’t prove successful enough to remain a viable business for the studio. Once again, Tunnell’s creation had run up against a wall built from the same market challenges that existed on mobile platforms, but now affecting the PC market as well.
The industry in which Tunnell had been a key figure since its earliest days pioneering cutting-edge technology, shaping entire genres, fostering communities, and empowering developers, no longer felt sustainable. He announced his departure from games in 2017.
Now, three years later, things have changed once again and Tunnell sees a viable path for game development in blockchain technology. He’s ready to embrace it with a new studio and a bold creative vision, and apply everything he’s learned over the last four decades to create a healthy, sustainable business. More specifically, he sees an opportunity to align the economic and creative incentives of players and developers, and create a new type of community that can reshape how games are funded and created.
In many ways, Monster Ideas feels like a response to and solution for many of the traditional market challenges that drove Tunnell to leave the industry in the first place. The studio also reflects his unwavering commitment to community and creativity as is evidenced by its makeup: The core team is composed of Kevin Ryan, a fellow Dynamix alumnus and partner, and Justin Mette and Tim Aste, both developers who connected with Tunnell through the close-knit GarageGames community. By and large, Tunnell has been walking the same walk since his start as a game maker with a steadiness that’s as rare as it is admirable.
Tunnell has regularly been ahead of much of the industry throughout his career, but this time he appears to be right on schedule given the growing schism between players and developers that stems from monetization. For example, Triple-A development costs can reach astronomical prices, but players are resistant to price increases and other forms of monetization. And mobile games often have high ongoing operational costs due to their service-oriented nature, making it difficult for developers to monetize them in a consistent, balanced way.
That blockchain technology should lure anyone back into the trenches of game development speaks volumes about its potential. That it should do so for someone like Tunnell, who has displayed an uncanny knack for predicting the future over the decades, gives it a megaphone. Tunnell has seen trends come and go, and he’s also seen advances that have changed not only the landscape of the game industry, but the wider world beyond it. He believes blockchain technology falls firmly into the latter camp.
“I remember when the internet came along, and we were thinking about what it meant for games,” he says. “It took us a bunch of experiments to make it work. Blockchain technology feels a lot like that to me right now — you can see the future, but it’s partly veiled. But I’ve got some big ideas and can’t wait to see where they lead. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”