While most people recognize Dynamix from their self-publishing period and the time after the Sierra On-Line take over, Dynamix had actually existed for a number of years, before that, developing some really great and innovative titles, published by different publishers of the time.
So let’s head back to 1981, to Eugene, Oregon where one of the very first computer software stores, Computertutor (or The Computer Tutor of Eugene) was started by Jeff Tunnell, an avid and ambitious computer enthusiast.
Tunnell had experience with programming and was working on an edutainment title called Electronic Playground, programming it in Applesoft BASIC but with the lack of 6502 Assembly language skills, he didn’t find it easy to get his software to the next level – Tunnels strong sides were more on the design and business side of things, with his outgoing and inspiring personality.
One day, Damon Slye, a young University of Oregon undergraduate, would enter his software store, while Slye had visited the store numerous times before, this time he showed Tunnell a project he had been working on, an Apple II arcade game, Tunnell impress by his work, hired Slye to work in his store and help him complete Electronic Playground.
The game Slye earlier had shown Tunnell was Stellar 7, a 3D wireframe Action shoot-em-up, greatly inspired by Atari’s Battlezone, Tunnell persuaded Slye to let him publish it, he agreed and Stellar 7 was published under their newly established Software Entertainment Company label.
Publishing in the early days, long before digital distribution, wasn’t as easy as A-B-C, not only did it require a substantial amount of money as it required a larger number of physical products to be produced and assembled, distribution channels had to be laid out to get the products out to stores, where stock requirements had to be met.
Tunnell realized that publishing wasn’t viable at the time, he needed more products and more money, at the time there were already established publishing giants like Activision and Electronic Arts, the only way to make it was to be a developer instead of both and then find a way to one of the established publishers.
Electronic Playground and Stellar 7 did sell under the Software Entertainment Company label, as mail-order, but only in limited quantities.
Damon Slye’s Stellar 7, for the Apple II, released in 1983 by Tunnell and Slye’s Software Entertainment Company
In 1984, Tunnell and Slye decided to form a new company, only focussing on software development. The new company would be called Dynamix Inc. and with two new partners, Kevin Ryan, and Richard Hicks, both experienced programmers, Dynamix were on the path to becoming a successful business.
Stellar 7 was picked up by Penguin Software and published again in 1984, leading to Tunnell finally selling off his software store.
In 1985, Penguin Software published Dynamix’s next title, Sword of Kadash, a roleplaying action game, written by Chris Cole. Cole and his friends had frequently visited Tunnell’s store, without buying anything, as they thought there was too much junk software released and struck a deal with Tunnell – if they could write a better game than what was on the shelves Tunnell would publish it, this was in 1983 and Cole was only 15 years old, 2 years later Sword of Kadash was complete, the game was inspired by action games like Berzerk and earlier RPG’s like Caverns of Freitag.
Sword of Kadash for the Apple II, released in 1985 by Penguin Software and the re-release of Stellar 7, released in 1984 also by Penguin Software
Cole had hoped Tunnell would get a publishing deal with Electronic Arts but as it turned out Tunnell’s relationship with EA wasn’t too good at the time. Tunnell approached Penguin Software which insisted the game setting was changed from a fantasy to a Persian theme, this was pretty late in the development phase, and no need to say that Cole wasn’t super excited. He was also a bit underwhelmed by Penguin’s marketing and distribution efforts, but nonetheless, Sword of Kadash was praised and referred to as an original action-adventure in magazines of the time.
The game sold well enough to pay Cole’s living expenses throughout five years of undergraduate school and two years of graduate school. Cole returned to Dynamix in 1991.
Arcticfox and Electronic Arts
In 1986 Dynamix managed to get their first contract with Electronic Arts, which resulted in Arcticfox, a sci-fi tank simulation, in very much the same style as Stellar 7, which it’s often regarded as a sequel to. The game was developed for the new Commodore Amiga computer, and was the first original title for the system – it was developed while the Amiga still didn’t have an OS, so development was done on IBM/PC’s and transferred via cable to the Amiga. Electronic Arts were on the inside track of the Amiga and wanted to showcase its new features with Arcticfox.
The Commodore 64/128 version of Arcticfox
Arcticfox was designed by Damon Slye, co-programmed by Tunnell, and released in the album style format, used by Electronic Arts at the time – You can read more about Electronic Arts album-style era here.
Arcticfox went on to become a huge hit, it sold more than 100.000 copies across all platforms.
Dynamix venture with Electronic Arts would continue with their development of the sequel to Ray Tobey‘s Skyfox, Skyfox II – The Cygnus Conflict, a 3D space combat action game. Tobey would not be involved in the development of the sequel.
In 1988, Dynamix developed Caveman Ugh-lympics, a quirky Olympics game with some rather unusual events like clubbing and mate-tossing.
The year after in 1989, after 3 years of development, they completed Project Firestart, for the now aging Commodore 64. Probably one of the best looking and moodiest games for the platform. While the game had an awkward control scheme and some serious load times, it has become somewhat of a cult title today, often recited as the great lost forefather of the survival-horror genre. This was just around when Tunnell would cancel his contract with Electronic Arts, hence the game would literally receive no marketing and quickly vanished – only to gather a following much later on making it pretty rare and desirable today.
The last game Dynamix developed for Electronic Arts was released a few months later with their title Abrams Battle Tank, a title that would again utilize Dynamix well rounded 3D expertise to give the IBM/PC people a really nice Tank simulator.
Besides Arcticfox, Dynamix developed another 4 titles for Electronic Arts to publish
Besides the development of titles for Electronic Arts, Dynamix would keep working with Penguin Software, now Polarware, to port various of their titles to the IBM/PC.
Dynamix ported Polarware’s The Crimson Crown, Transylvania and Oo-Topos to the IBM/PC.
1989 was also the year where Dynamix would strike a deal with Activision (Mediagenic at the time), to develop a few titles based on movies with Die Hard and Ghostbusters II, both fairly good action games.
Other titles also published by Activision was Deathtrack, a futuristic racing game, featuring 3D polygonal graphics, one of the first 3D racing games for the home computer, and F-14 Tomcat, a flight simulator featuring US naval carrier-based fighter jet, the Grumman F-14.
Probably the best-known title of the Dynamix/Activision relationship was MechWarrior, released in 1989 for IBM/PC, this was the first 3D game in the FASA BattleTech universe, which still to this day see new titles being added to the long list of BattleTech Computer games, which began with Infocom‘s (developed by Westwood) roleplaying game, BattleTech – The Crescent Hawk’s Inception, in 1988.
Dynamix went on to publish their own titles in 1989 with David Wolf – Secret Agent and A-10 Tank Killer as the first titles to bear the Dynamix label and logo. A year later Dynamix was sold to Sierra On-Line and Jeff Tunnell left the company to start a new venture. Damon Slye left 4 years later, but all that is a story for an upcoming article.