Dani Bunten Berry

Happy Puppy remembers a pioneer
by Greg Costikyan

No one on their death bed ever said "I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!"--Dani Bunten Berry on multiplayer gaming
Dani Bunten Berry was a giant.

I don't mean that she stood six-foot-two, although she did.

I mean that she was one of the great artists of our age, one of the creators of the form that will dominate the 21st century, as film has dominated the 20th and the novel the 19th: the art of game design.

I mean that she displayed a complete mastery of her craft, always pushing the edges of the possible, always producing highly polished work of gem-like consistency and internal integrity.

M.U.L.E. box When Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts, he hit upon the notion of promoting the best game designers in the field as "stars"--and Dan Bunten was one of the designers he chose to sponsor. Hawkins wanted to purchase Cartels and Cutthroats, Dan's preceding game, from SSI, but they refused to sell; Bunten persuaded him that he could do better. The result was M.U.L.E.

Programmed for the Atari 800, M.U.L.E. (Multiple Use Labor Element, the cute labor robots controlled by players in the game) was a humorous game of resource extraction on an alien world. It was designed for up to four players--something the Atari 800 made feasible. It was tense, entertaining, and enormous fun; it's still in the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame and is, according to legend, the most pirated game in the field's history. Designers still talk of it in hushed tones, and the fact that no version of the game has been developed for a modern gaming platform is an instance either of astonishing oversight or crass philistinism on the part of the major publishers. Many believe it was Dani's single best work.

(An aside: when I offered to introduce Warren Spector, producer of many games for Origins and Looking Glass and, now, Ion Storm, to Dani, he regretfully refused; he had loved M.U.L.E. so much he was afraid he wouldn't know what to say. He would sound like a blithering fan-boy and be embarrassed. That is the level of admiration the game arouses in the field.)

I mean that in her writings and her speeches (many available at her professional website), she demonstrated enormous thoughtfulness about her chosen field, a level of intellectual analysis matched by a mere handful of contemporaries.

Seven Cities of Gold Dani's single best-selling title was Seven Cities of Gold, a game on the exploration and conquest of the Americas. Its economic model was simple but spawned strategies of considerable complexity; its treatment of the Native Americans faced the player with real moral quandaries. It is also one of the few games whose ports are notably inferior to the game on the original platform (the Atari 800).
Her whole vision of "the game" was as a form of social interaction. From the very first, her games were multiplayer, at a time when the internet was the ARPANET, when modems were acoustic couplers used to connect to academic computers, when the technological infrastructure to permit online gaming was simply nonexistent. She saw that, however engaging play with a machine might be made, it was ultimately void, because it created no engagement with other people.

From the very first, Bunten designed for multiple players, and indeed only two of her games (Seven Cities of Gold and Heart of Africa) were solitaire-only. Her first game, Wheeler Dealers, published in 1978 for the Apple II, came packaged with a custom input device for four people--the only way to permit simultaneous play at the time. Most of Bunten's early work was for the Atari 800, which remains the only personal computer to ship with hardware for play by multiple players; and her games of the late '80s and early '90s (Modem Wars, Command HQ, and Global Conquest) were all designed around modem or network play.

In short, Bunten's games were designed at a time when supporting multiple players was hard. And it is a particular tragedy that her career should be cut short at this unhappy juncture, now that network gaming is burgeoning--a tragedy not solely for Dani, but for all of us, for she understood the requirements and aesthetic of multiplayer gaming better than anyone else in the field.

Modem Wars Modem Wars was the first computer game to be marketed specifically for head-to-head modem play, at a time when modems were expensive, owned by a handful of computer users, and ran at 1200 baud. It was a simple abstract wargame, with limited lines of sight, fog of war, and an extremely simple interface. By modern standards, the graphics are primitive, but it was (and remains) in some sense a far better wargame than many available today. Among its best features was the ability to support diverse styles of play. Military strategy played a role; so did hand-eye coordination, in guiding your drones and missiles to their targets; so did pattern-recognition in grasping what the radar display represented. As Bunten put it, "a player['s]...unique combination of skills meant that each person had their own specialized style of play."

As a chastening lesson for designers who complain about the problems of limited bandwidth today: Modem Wars was designed so that one machine could transmit a move to the other in a mere four bytes, and a complete record of an entire game, permitting its replay as a "movie," consumed 4K. Designers who feel cramped at 28,800 baud should take note.

(A shareware version of Modem Wars can be downloaded from Dani's site.)

Dani was understandably reticent about her private life. She grew up in Arkansas, where she continued to live, at some cost to her career, throughout her life. She was the eldest of six childen--five boys and one girl. She was not the girl.

Command HQ Command HQ was essentially a refined version of Modem Wars. Rather than dealing with individual battles, it dealt with the entire globe, pitting the players against each other in a world war. Graphics were much improved--and modems had finally started being more widely available, so the potential pool of players was greater. A clean, polished, and fine effort, it was much more successful than Modem Wars--but perhaps not as eye-openingly original.
She once said that one of the reasons she loved games was that the only times her family spent together that weren't totally dysfunctional was when they were playing games.

She was married three times before her "pronoun change," as she called it, and had three children by two wives. She remained devoted to her children even after the marriages foundered. One of the agonies of her later years was that the degree of her estrangement from her former spouses made it difficult to maintain her relationship with her children whom, by all evidence, she adored.

"Danielle" maintained that she was a nicer person than "Dan" had been; but whatever the gender, she was remarkably free of the egotism and arrogance of so many designers. She viewed her own work with an analytical, often dyspeptic eye, recognizing her flaws perhaps more often than her virtues. Though her career was badly damaged by her abandonment of the field during and after her change of gender, she never expressed remorse or bitterness about the difficulty of reestablishing herself as a designer, a process still under way at the moment of her death.

Global Conquest Some us believe that Global Conquest ranks as one of Dani's finest games; it had the intensity of Command HQ and Modem Wars along with the infinite replay of randomly generated worlds and an extraordinary degree of player customizability. Like Civilization and Nethack, it is a game that bears continued play today, six years and several generations of technology after its initial publication; by contrast, most computer games are old hat and uninteresting mere months after you first play them. Curiously, Dani herself wrote that she "screwed up the game," that it was "a hodgepodge rather than an integration"--and in truth, it was a shame that Microprose shipped a buggy version of the game.

It is also one of Dani's few designs you can play today: a shareware version is available, and fans are (with Dani's blessing) updating the game. You can find it here.

Those who knew her in the field remark upon her charm, patience, and generosity of spirit. Whatever demons she struggled with during her life, the product of the struggle was a degree of insight, humility, and sympathy which made of her not merely a fine game designer but also a fine human being.

This year, at the Computer Game Developer's Conference, she was awarded the CGDA Lifetime Achievement Award. These things, alas, tend to be awarded to the dying. But certainly no one in the field deserved it more.

When, in some halcyon future day, the merits and artistry of computer games are recognized, when games are understood as works of art, when the history of game design receives the attention it deserves, Dani Bunten Berry's contributions will at last be understood by more than the handful of people who knew her.

The future? At times, it seems, the future flows desultorily toward us, slowly meandering like the lethargic Mississippi; that glorious day is not here yet, and the measure of that fact is that many who read this will never before have heard of Danielle Berry, nor yet of Dan Bunten.

And at other times, the future approaches all too quickly, coming on us so fast that only a distant crash, behind us, registers the fall of a giant.

Dani died on July 3rd, 1998, at friend's home in Little Rock of metastatic lung cancer. She was not yet 50.

Dani Buten Berry's design credits:

WHEELER DEALER, Speakeasy Software, 1978
M.U.L.E., Electronic Arts, 1983
SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD, Electronic Arts, 1984
HEART OF AFRICA, Electronic Arts, 1985
ROBOT RASCALS, Electronic Arts, 1986
MODEM WARS, Electronic Arts, 1988
COMMAND HQ, Microprose, 1990
GLOBAL CONQUEST, Microprose, 1992
WAR SPORT, MPath, forthcoming

Dani discusses each of her games in detail here.

And there is more to come--at least a little more. War Sport, an updated version of Modem Wars for the internet, is currently under development for MPath; you can find it at War Sport. The redevelopment of Global Conquest continues. And we can at least hope that some smart publisher picks up Dani's redesign of M.U.L.E. for the internet--the design is complete, it merely requires implementation, but she was unable to find a venue for the game.

Brian Moriarty is maintaining a memorial website for her at www.mpath.com/dani.