In the mid-1990s Damon Slye was one of the most successful and prolific game developers in the world.
He was co-founder of Dynamix, a studio employing dozens of people and churning out games on behalf of owner Sierra. He could point to a string of hit games, including much loved flight sim Red Baron, one of the most acclaimed titles of the early 1990s.
Then, suddenly, he walked away from the game industry. He spent 12 years doing pretty much whatever he wanted. He attended university to earn a degree in mathematics. He learned to be a pilot. He and his wife traveled extensively. They went scuba diving.
Now he's back with his own tiny studio, best known for role-playing MMO Villagers and Heroes. He is also looking to re-launch a new version of Red Baron, a new story-based flight simulation that looks at the air war of 1914 to 1918.
Slye's company is called Mad Otter. Like Dynamix, it's based in the charming city of Eugene, Oregon. But unlike Dynamix, there are no plans for rapid growth.
"When I left Dynamix, I was just burnt out," he recalls. "I'd been doing it since I was 18. I hadn't really planned on that being my life. It was hard work. It was 60-hour weeks. Once I did a 100-hour week. It was crazy."
Dynamix had been launched out of a computer store, selling games by mail order. In the early 1980s, the fledgling company picked up development contracts with a new publisher called Electronic Arts which was aggressively scouring the world for decent talent.
Slye's company made an early first-person flight game called Skyfox and a tank sim called Arctic Fox, both of which were successful. Then Activision came along and made the company a better offer, a deal which spawned simulation-style games like Mechwarrior and A-10 Tank Killer.
The company began to expand into new genres, including license work such as Ghostbusters 2 and Die Hard.
Sierra came calling — then a major name in publishing — and offered to buy Dynamix. Slye and his partners agreed. They went on to enjoy the benefits of a burst in popularity for PC gaming, releasing diverse games like The Adventures of Willy Beamish, Front Page Sports Football and Red Baron, a massive commercial and critical success.
All this success meant that Dynamix was producing multiple games a year. "I didn't have a personal life," says Slye. "All I was doing was working. I was captive to the work."
When he quit he went from running a successful company to joining students on their way to class. And for 12 years, he stayed away from games.
"It was a pretty good life. It was fun until about 2007," he says. "Then I just got bored. I thought, what's the point? This is dumb. I miss making games. I like working with a team of creative people."
Villagers and Heroes
Return to games
So he set up Mad Otter and started work on some fairly low budget titles, including a multiplayer flight-sim, Ace of Aces. The company then bought the rights to MMO Villagers and Heroes, a cute role-playing game which has a loyal, if modest user base.
"What's unusual about Villagers and Heroes is that the villages are places where players can congregate together," explains Slye. "They can upgrade the village, which is a shared avatar. They can improve things together. There are projects and crafting to do together. It's a friendly world. That has more to do with our community and maybe the art style. But it's just really nice people. Our community is really nice."
But the project he really wants to get off the ground is a remake of Red Baron.
When it launched in 1990, Red Baron was acclaimed as one of the best simulations ever made. Sporting a simple but effective look, it allowed players to indulge in LAN dogfights using multiple World War One aircraft. Five years after its launch, Computer Games World named Red Baron as one of the top five best PC games ever.
In 2013, Slye attempted to raise $250,000 on Kickstarter to fund a remake of the World War I flight game. The campaign failed. Slye believes he executed the Kickstarter poorly, and that demand for a new Red Baron is out there.
"We didn't build a community before we launched the Kickstarter," he says. "We didn't present it very well. The game didn't look right. It looked a little arcade-ey. It didn't look like living history, interactive history, which is more what it should look like.
"The problem is not that there's not a big enough audience for it. The original was pretty popular. We want to create a player-driven story that still offers a good authentic simulation under the hood. Flight sims are one of those things where good graphics really matter. Sometimes you can spend too much money on art and graphics, but simulation is something where it's part of the visceral thrill of what you're doing."
Looking to the future
Slye is now looking for raise $50,000 to create a decent prototype which can then be offered up for crowd-funding, with a potential release in 2016.
He believes that with the centenary of WWI, interest in a biplane combat game ought to be high. "The airplanes are beautiful," he says. "The paint schemes the Germans had were just amazing, with the different crests. They had the red triplane, but then they had all kinds of different checkered patterns.
"And of course there's still that notion of chivalry, which was there when the war started but soon went out of the window, even for the pilots."
When Slye made the first Red Baron he had little experience of aircraft. As a pilot, he is now more attuned to the differences between individual planes.
"They don't do planes like those now, but it used to be that the engines actually spun on the crankshaft. They were attached. It's this huge mass of metal spinning, and that creates torque forces like a gyroscope. Even now, with modern planes that just have the prop spinning, when you change the pitch it'll go, whoo, whoo." He makes an alarming sliding motion to signify the physical difficulty of flying aircraft.
"In terms of making it authentic, you want to add all these things in there so it's real. The Sopwith Camel, it could turn faster to the right than to the left because of the gyroscopic effects. Those are the kinds of things that add the real nuance to the whole thing."
As far as running his studio goes, Slye says he would like to see enough success to expand, but only modestly, and he isn't planning any 100-hour weeks. "You don't want to live your life for work. There has to be something more."