Written by Melissa May
Edited by Nicholas Uster
On July 31st, video game designer and producer David Mullich joined EGD Collective for an AMA discussion, part of EGD’s Summer Series. Mullich has worked on projects for companies such as Disney, Electronic Arts, Activation, Mattel and Spin Master, and he drew on such professional experiences in his insightful conversation with host Jackson Lyons.
Mullich began his career as a designer and programmer for Apple II education software and games, most notably creating cult classic The Prisoner in 1980 after he graduated with a degree in computer science from California State University-Northridge. The Prisoner was a ground-breaking adventure game that “just broke all the rules,” playing mind games with the player. With it, he wanted to make the player frustrated, and asked himself, “How do you have the player always lose but continue playing on and on and on?”
Mullich says that the project which had the most impact on him was Heroes of
Might and Magic III, because the team was the best and they all got along; it was the only game he ever made that he enjoyed playing after its release. He especially enjoyed the storytelling and strategy aspects of development, and notes that what works about the game is that the design is simple, but the choices are deep. Heroes of Might and Magic III is still fondly remembered today, and Mullich is continuously impressed by all the admiration the game receives.
He joined the development team for another legendary game, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, after meeting the short story’s author Harlan Ellison and former producer David Sears at a game developers conference; later, he received a call that the project needed a new producer. When Mullich came on, there were many puzzles not completed and a great deal of dialogue that had to be written, and he noted that it was a challenge to get Ellison on his side, as he had written very little of the game. Mullich was particularly challenged by the need to write about a character meeting her rapist. His son having neuroglioma taught him about invasiveness, which he used as an insight for writing on this subject. Mullich notes that if he had the chance to make I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream today, he would explore the themes of there being no middle ground any longer in discourse today, as well as the prevalence of misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating now.
He stated that if a game does badly, it’s the producer’s fault-- it never seems to be the team’s. A producer is like a cat herder, making sure everyone’s doing their own tasks in the right direction. Mullich has enjoyed being “the keeper of the vision” and motivating people; he sees the position as being a mentor, a support person, and a leader. A good producer understands each of the different disciplines and is able to talk to everyone about their work, and challenges their team, too. He recounted that in 2nd grade, he learned to swim when a girl pushed him into a pool, and he says now, “Metaphorically, you have to push people into the deep end and let them figure it out.”
Mullich has had his share of disappointments too, the biggest of which was how Dark Seed 2 turned out. While there were great people working on it, he was told he should be fired for producing such a game. He believes that claim came from his making a mistake in how the lead actor portrayed main character Mike Dawson; supposedly he had an unwanted change in demeanor in this sequel and did not sound “tough enough.” Mullich reflected on letdowns in his career, saying, “Your vision is always greater than what you’re able to achieve.”
We’ve come full circle in game development now, Mullich feels. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were a lot of small developers and publishers, which allowed for more creativity and freedom, and large publishers became gate-keepers. Today, they just want to sell what they know will sell, but Valve fixed that problem when they came out with Steam. A generation ago, it was normal for developers to do the programming, design, and art on their own, and these days, while developers are likewise shouldering many tasks, it’s easier to make games because there’s a lot of tutorials available and connections to make. “But getting attention is harder,” he adds.
Mullich is a board member of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Los Angeles chapter, and he would love to engage more people in the organization. He says that more involvement could be achieved by surveying game devs to figure out what they want, and then answering these requests with changing up how IGDA meetings look. Game nights to show off people’s prototype or indie games could be held, or game nights could happen where playing current and in-progress games is the focus. More speakers on various topics can be presented, and perhaps IGDA could host a job fair.
This long-time developer has continuing hopes for his own creative future as
well. Mullich’s favorite novel is Stranger in a Strange Land, and while he’s not sure how to adapt it into a game, he’s interested in trying. He’d love to revisit The Prisoner, and would enjoy tackling Asimov’s Foundation series as a game project.