For many, Digital Integration means one thing: flight sims. It may have dabbled in other genres, but it had huge success with flight simulators, pushing boundaries and helping turn the computers of gamers around the world into complex flying machines. Dave Marshall, the co-owner of Digital Integration talks here about the early days of the publisher.
As Retro Gamer reclines in the study of Dave Marshall, former co-owner of Digital Integration, the tranquility of leafy suburbia is punctuated periodically by the thunder of jet engines roaring overhead. We are in Farnborough, home to the famous annual airshow and former base of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), an entirely appropriate location to chat with one of the founders of the distinguished software house. Because if you know anything at all about Digital Integration, you’ll know of its reputation for producing realistic and entertaining flight simulations; consequently, Dave Marshall’s background prior to starting up the software house should come as no surprise.
“I was at Boscombe Down in their A-squadron performance test division as a student engineer,” begins Dave. “And while there I did a medical course to qualify for aircrew as they were always testing a new range of military aircraft.” Thanks to friends in the various test sections, Dave would arrange air experience flights on a variety of aircraft such as the Jet Provost, Hercules and Sea King before he began as an engineer at RAE Farnborough in the flight systems department. In 1976, he moved to RAE Bedford.
“My first project at Bedford was designing what we called the first digital feel system in the country,” says Dave, “which was to replace the old system that relied on springs and dashpots to give feel to the control column. The system I designed had three hydraulic jacks which were driven by a mini-computer.”
Dave, posing for a picture at his office desk.
The benefit was clear: the computer could be modelled with the characteristics of any particular aircraft, saving a huge amount of time and effort in designing individual simulators.
While at Bedford, Dave began to write his own flight simulation in his spare time. When he was transferred back to Farnborough in 1979 to work on a new standard flight systems computer for the USAF, it coincided with the dawn of a new era in home computing – specifically the Sinclair ZX81. “I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be great to get a flight simulator on this micro? So, using my experience from Bedford, I started writing a simulation on the ZX81.”
The resulting game, Fighter Pilot, was rudimentary in appearance yet beneath its simple display lay some impressive mechanics that realistically mimicked the flight and controls of an F-15 Eagle. In conjunction with fellow RAE Farnborough systems engineer Rod Swift, a follow-up to Fighter Pilot was soon in the works. “Rod was very much into hardware design, which I knew nothing of,” explains Dave, “while I was more software-orientated. He give me hints and help on hardware design, with me giving him tips on programming. That’s when Rod began to learn to program.”
As Dave continued to develop his second ZX81 game, Night Gunner, Rod Swift designed a 16k ram-pack for the micro-computer, making the game one of the first all-assembler software products for the machine. With Night Gunner on the market, Dave desperately wished for a home computer that offered the improvement in processing power and graphical display that would do his complex computations justice. In April 1982, Clive Sinclair answered his wish. “The ZX Spectrum, that was a huge leap,” says Dave excitedly. “At RAE Bedford I learned how to calculate the full 3D perspective of a runway and at last we could put that into a graphical display.” For Dave, with his background and degree in aeronautical systems engineering, it was the chance to create an accurate simulation for the mass market.
“I was up on all aspects of aircraft stability and control and covered partial differential equations for aircraft behaviour in my degree,” he continues, “so I was able to program approximate versions of these into the Spectrum.”
With Dave busy on the Spectrum version of Fighter Pilot and Rod Swift updating Night Gunner for the same computer, designing and writing games was occupying the majority of their spare time. “We went to several early Micro fairs with the ZX81 games and Spectrum versions of Fighter Pilot and Night Gunner,” says Dave, “and that was when DI took off. I remember a distributor called Microdealer coming up to us and ordering 500 copies of each game. We thought he meant 500 a month, but he said “No, 500 a week! And don’t stop until we tell you!””
Dave and Rod were still working at RAE Farnborough by day and using Rod’s home address as a base for Digital Integration. “Basically, our nine to five jobs became an eight-hour interruption to the software side,” laughs Dave. “I would cycle home at lunchtime and get on the phone because WHSmiths wanted an order for 5000 Night Gunners. It was absolutely phenomenal, and we simply couldn’t keep up with it. They loved the quality of our products.” Consequently, Dave and Rod made a decision: they would give Digital Integration six months to see if it could work full time, and packed in their jobs at the RAE. Shortly afterwards, they discovered a small unit at the nearby Watchmoor Trade Centre and persuaded an assistant from the RAE to join them as secretary. The gamble paid off.
Dave and some of the team pose for a dramatic press shot.
In 1984, the Spectrum version of Night Gunner and Fighter Pilot continued to sell well and Digital Integration was under considerable pressure to convert the latter to the Commodore 64. “Microdealer was screaming out for Fighter Pilot on the 64,” says Dave, “but neither Rod or I could program in 6800 as we were both Z80 based. So we recruited our first outside programmer, a guy named Darrell Dennies.” The C64 version of Fighter Pilot also proved very popular and Dennies would go on to convert a number of games for DI.
Meanwhile, Dave and Rod spent 1984 planning and writing the follow-up to Fighter Pilot. Keen to build on the success of the action flight sim, they opted for something slightly different as Dave explains. “I still had contacts at RAE Bedford who could give me assistance in terms of helicopter dynamics, handling characteristics and so on, and I’d done a fair amount of flying in helicopters myself at Boscombe Down.” At the time, the Apache (from Hughes Helicopters) was the most exciting and well known aircraft and so became a natural focus for DI’s next game. With a level of openness and co-operation that seems incredible today, Dave contacted Hughes, requesting a wealth of technical data, and the manufacturer was remarkably forthcoming. “Hughes sent us a ton of material, including video that it’d produced demonstrating the chopper’s handling. It was incredible.”
Even with Dennies working on the C64 version of Fighter Pilot, the issues of working on complex and realistic simulations became obvious to Dave and Rod. “The main problem with flight sims was that they took too long,” bemoans Dave, “and there was only one of us who did the research, design and programming.” Add in graphics, sound and modelling and it was clear each game would require a lengthy gestation period – too long if Digital Integration was to survive for any major length of time. The level of detail involved would never permit a quick turnaround.
Dave poses with an RAE Bedford rep for a Tornado publicity shot.
With Mervyn Estcourt’s Speed King helping Digital Integration through this awkward period, finally in the winter of 1985, Apache helicopter simulator Tomahawk was ready to take off. The simulation was an instant success and garnered a Crash Smash as well as glowing reviews in many other magazines. DI’s patience and attention to detail was paying off, as was its playtesting.
“We wanted to make sure that we could claim all our games had realistic handling,” says Dave, “despite being restricted to either a keyboard or a simple joystick. So although it was never possible to have every control of a helicopter, we were convinced that we should never lose sight of the fact it was entertainment. No matter what accurate specs or modelling we had in the game, it could not be too frustrating and it had to be fun. It was a fine line.”
Tomahawk was a bestseller, despite DI’s slight faux pas with its name. “Why we didn’t call it Apache I’ll never know,” grimaces Dave, “but we ended up thinking about the weapon used by the North American Indians instead, using that as the connection to the Apache.”
Joining DI around this time was Rod Cobain, whose role was a mix of operations, sales and account management. “I knew I was working for a software house out of the ordinary,” says Rod, “as its flight simulations on the 8-bit machines were already standing out against the arcade market. The passion of Dave and Rod to deliver as much realism as possible was amazing, especially given the restrictions of the technology.” Rod Cobain would soon have a key role to play, but in the meantime Rod Swift was working on a different type of simulation – and an unusual licence. “Rod was very keen on motorbikes and in fact rode a bike to and from work every day,” says Dave, “so he was understandably keen to do a 3D racing simulation.”
Rod Swift’s attention to detail mirrored that of Dave Marshall’s flight simulations, producing another bestseller in 1986, backed by a tie-in with Team Suzuki. “It was a promotional idea that we came up with,” remembers Dave, “and we had a launch day at Silverstone, which was great fun, and we met up with the team and all the Suzuki riders.” However, even though TT Racer was a success, Dave Marshall was already eyeing up the fast-incoming 16-bit computers as a more suitable home for his processor-hungry flight sims. It was time for Digital Integration to embrace new technology…
Notable Digital Integration Games
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop