His name might not be familiar to you, but R.J. Mical has had a fascinating career, having worked on everything from arcade games to designing new computers. He helped create Sinistar, worked on the Amiga and Atari Lynx and had a hand in the massively popular Defender Of The Crown. Here he tells us how it all began.
Since 2008, you’ve circulated a weekly conundrum called the Monday Morning Tickler. Is creating software and hardware a bit like a brain teasing puzzle?
[laughs] Fascinating! Yes, I send out a little puzzle once a week and I’ll happily add any of your readers to the list! I worked out a long time ago that I had a bunch of talents and the best thing to do was to find something that brought them together in endeavours that took advantage of more than one of them. That’s why I started doing videogames – I love art, I love music, I love animation and films and games and software and computers… there have always been many pieces that fit together into a whole.
You graduated with a degree in Computer Science and English plus a minor in Philosophy. Has that mix of science and the arts helped you during your long career?
Every day it helps me! I learnt to be a good communicator and I was exposed at a young age to some of the fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves. That’s helped me as a game designer and a designer of software humans have to use. I was especially interested in metaphysics, the rules about the rules, which is fascinating for a game designer. And when I start designing software, I write it out as a short story first and then fill in the code so it does what the narrative says it should.
You joined Williams in 1983. What do you think it saw in you back then?
The only guy there that saw a flicker in me and decided to give me a chance was Noah Falstein. He and I have remained friends ever since and have worked on many projects together over the years, including right now at Google!
Your first project with Noah was Sinistar. What was your role on that game?
It was well underway by the time I joined the team but what they didn’t have was the pizzazz! The core game was done but I got to do the explosions, the special effects and all the cool stuff.
R J was involved with the creation of a number of different Amiga models.
Sinistar is famous for its speech. Do people still come up to you and bellow ‘Beware I Live’ and ‘Run Coward!’ from the game?
All the time! [laughs]
You then coordinated the Star Rider project, Williams’s first and only laserdisc game.
Star Rider was quite an undertaking. We had these wonderful design sessions where we’d challenge ourselves to think of alternate ways to think about games and game hardware. We tried to dream big and come up with industry changing ideas. Laserdiscs were very expensive and the cabinets had to be really well built to withstand the shaking customers gave them and not let the laserdisc skip. It was a real feat of engineering but in the end I found the game was boring. You were just rolling through a movie and I didn’t think there was enough excitement in there.
It’s a very surreal game, like Easy Rider after they’ve taken the acid. Did you want to create something of a ‘trip’ with Star Rider?
[laughs] Yes and no! We didn’t sit down and say ‘let’s create something really trippy’ but yes, a lot of my contemporaries had had those experiences. It was part of our culture. And at Williams, there was a lot of partying, when no one was looking, out in the parking lot. It was a pretty loose crowd. There was a certain Yellow Submarine quality to that game.
It was just ‘your contemporaries’ partying then, not you?
I thought I managed to dodge that one! I’m not unknown for experimentation. Let’s leave it at that.
What prompted you to leave Williams in 1984 and join the fledgling Amiga project?
There was a healthy amount of networking once the Amiga project got underway and they invited me to join them but I blew them off… twice! It was a bit too weird for me, a bit too outside the experiences I’d had. I was a kid, just starting in the industry and I had a good job that I enjoyed at Williams. This was a start-up in California and they wanted me to relocate and leave behind my family and friends in Chicago. It was scary. I ditched the first two times I was invited to see them.
Why did you turn up the third time they invited you over?
Noah [Falstein] dropped a videogame on my leg! Noah, me and a guy called Rich were co-owners of the coin-op Red Baron, an awesome game. We were trying to move it one day and it fell off the dolly we were transporting it on. It was going to crash but rather than let that happen, I threw myself underneath it. I damaged my knee but I saved that videogame!
Erm, good catch but how does that lead to you joining Amiga?
I was laid up because of my knee and couldn’t join my friends on a trip we’d planned so instead I accepted this invite from Amiga. It was just something to do while my friends were away. I went to California on Amiga’s dime, hobbled around their offices on crutches and interviewed there. It was love at first sight! I couldn’t believe my good fortune that those guys were offering me the opportunity to be part of it. I said yes right then and there.
R J was involved with Trip Hawkins, helping him create the 3DO.
How far along was the Amiga project when you eventually arrived?
I was one of their first engineers. There was nothing but ideas and mechanical drawings when I got there. I don’t think they’d even started laying out the silicon at that stage. The building was largely empty when I arrived and over the next year, we watched that baby fill up. We ended up jamming ten people into our poor little software lab. It was truly a wonderful little start-up environment. We had that good mental spirit and everyone was pulling at the same rope. I often miss that camaraderie.
You are famous for your work on Intuition, the Amiga’s operating system. Were you motivated by a desire to make computing more accessible to ordinary people through a friendlier interface?
Me and the others at the company were used to having access to computer power but our moms and brothers and sisters weren’t yet. We wanted to make a personal computer that had all this great power, these colours, this great sound, at a price that anyone could afford and with a user interface that was accessible to my mom! I often used her as my mental model when I was designing Intuition. We called it that on purpose. It was easy to understand and you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist and remember 8,000 keys to use it.
It sounds like you really wanted to make a ‘people’s computer’ that everyone could use, not just the IT-literate elite.
It’s a far more cynical time now and it’s hard to imagine a bunch of kids getting together and saying they’re going to build a new computer. We were young and naïve but ambitious and the philosophy of the thing was as noble as you describe for many of us. We were trying to change the world! We were convinced what we were doing was the right thing for humanity, for civilisation.
The Amiga was undoubtedly a great success. Why do you think it did so well?
I think we hit the demographic we were aiming for. I got a letter the other day from a guy I’d never met who wanted to thank someone for the Amiga computer. It had changed his life. He’d had this moment of revelation and instead of doing what he had expected to do, he saw the power of the Amiga and had this desire to do computer graphics. He’s now a well-established figure in the industry and he said it was the exact moment when he saw the Amiga that changed who he would become in life. It’s stuff like that. Bringing that joy… we reached the people we wanted to and changed lives.
What were your thoughts on the Atari ST, usually seen as the Amiga’s main competition?
The ST Amiga rivalry was something that existed in the press and shows up a lot in the history books but from our perspective, we didn’t feel we were competing with them. We knew the ST engineers and some of them were really good friends. They got a late start compared to us and were up against the calendar. They worked amazingly hard, burning the candle 24 hours a day, and they did a spectacular job. They got a device out that was almost competitive. It was an awesome effort but I never considered it a threat. To me, if felt like a less matured effort. The Amiga’s user interface, its display capabilities, the quality of the software that soon became available for it… all these things piled up against the ST.
You became Director of Software at Amiga but then left in 1987. Had something changed at the company in your opinion?
I had a long chat with my boss, Dave Morse. He was an amazing person and a great confidant. We talked about what Commodore’s acquisition of Amiga would mean and one of the things he said was if I was going to capitalise on the things I had learned at Amiga, I should start my own consulting company. So I did! I was in position to help a lot of people make their Amiga software better because if anyone knew that machine, it was me! I had a lot of fun and worked on a bunch of software.
One of the games you worked on was Defender Of The Crown. Is it true you made Kellyn Beeck slide instructions under your door so he wouldn’t disturb you while you coded?
Yeah, there was that one time [laughs]. That game has a chequered past with me, which is why I don’t mention it on my resumé. It didn’t have the best business outcome. There were some dicey players and I was a new contractor just cutting my teeth. I learned the hard way. I haven’t talked to any of those Cinemaware guys since.
Was it around this time that you had the idea for a handheld games console?
Dave Needle, Dave Morse and I decided to create a colour handheld game device and in quintessential Silicon Valley style, we sat at a restaurant and drew the basic block diagram on a napkin. It was Morse’s job to find the funding for what would become the Lynx but what he found was Epyx. They had the money and we’d become part of them. We set up a proper business agreement to do it for Epyx rather than on our own. The big attraction was that they had an entire games development staff and they had game IP that we could get on to the Lynx right away. We’d be partners… we’d be brothers!
Notable R J Mical games
You can read the rest of our interview with R J Mical in issue 129. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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