David Perry - The life of a legend

David Perry - The life of a legend
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

August 13th 2012 at 3:00PM

Develop asks the famously tall industry luminary - crowned Development Legend in July - what it takes to become one of the best

Considering his lifetime of achievement, David Perry is an astoundingly modest man.

He may have founded Shiny Entertainment, sold the company twice, created Earthworm Jim, worked with the Wachowski Brothers, spearheaded cloud gaming and eventually sold Gaikai to Sony for an impressive $380 milion, but Perry remains every bit an ordinary man, in persona at least.

He is certainly an absolute professional, and a prolific industry entrepreneur, but he is also still the man infatuated by games. In fact, spend time in his company and you begin to sense that he is a man also infatuated by life. An hour with Perry will see not just games discussed, but everything from philosophical musings on the power of memories to why we should all do everything we can’t. More on that later.


BANKING ON GAMES

Perry also exudes youthful energy; the very kind that motivated him as a teenager when, purely for the love of it, he began writing games programs to send to magazines. This was back before tapes were abundant or affordable, meaning the most common way to share games was to publish printed pages of code for other hobbyists to copy out into their computers. It was a primitive form of distribution, but one on which this industry was built.

Perry’s very first games got published, and to his surprise, a cheque for £450 was sent to him by the magazine publisher. Perry’s problem? Barely into his mid-teens, he didn’t yet have a bank account. His first pay packet might have been hugely encouraging, but it was utterly worthless to this young visionary.
A few years earlier, Perry had in fact set his heart on a career in sports, but quickly he found himself instead drawn to computers and their power to create.

“It really was just that they had a computer room in our school and they wouldn’t let us in,” reveals Perry. “That was all it took; just that one locked door. I really wanted to know what was in there. Eventually, when I was a bit older, they finally let me in.

“The first time I sat down to a computer there was a ZX81 and maybe an Acorn Atom, and I just remember sitting down, and like we all did, typing ‘10 PRINT “Hello, What is your name”‘ and all that. And right then I saw that if I could learn to work with these things, I could do just about anything. It’s an amazing feeling when you realise you are in charge of a machine like that.”

Perry’s memory of that infamous BASIC coding line is nothing unusual, and many across the games space will remember the first time they saw their name reeling down the screen of a BASIC-interpreter. But while others simply grinned in delight, Perry’s immediate vision was of learning abilities that stretched to near infinity. Was it already clear that day that he was a games developer headed for greatness?

Perry goes on to compare mastering coding with learning to use an instrument. “Once you know the notes, you realise you can play any song in the world, or anything you can imagine,” he says, his enthusiasm seeming unhalted by concepts like talent or skill. In Perry’s mind anyone can do anything given the right tools. It’s a refreshingly optimistic perspective, and one he seems sure can be applied universally.

THE FULL SPECTRUM

Shortly after making his way into that schoolroom, while still in education, Perry started to submit the aforementioned code to a photocopied magazine that went by the name of The National ZX80/81 Users Club. It was 1982, and the young developer was beginning to get a taste of making his hobby a profession. Within a few months, Perry’s games were also appearing in the magazine publisher’s books, and by 1984 he was the sole author of Astounding Arcade Games for your Spectrum.

In the meantime, the cassette-based industry was gathering momentum, and would eventually make volumes of printed code largely redundant.

Next up for Perry came a move to making games at a studio, in a transition he admits he found very difficult. He describes the process as something of a reality check. The boy in his bedroom with dreams of infinite possibility was suddenly just one of many programmers, and his first wage was just £3,500 a year; a small amount even back in the 1980s.

Then employed at Mikro-Gen, Perry even admits to something of a crisis of confidence, until he was given the opportunity to port a game named Pyjamarama, which let him see inside another developer’s code. It was a moment of revelation for Perry, and sent him back on track to emerge as a young star of games development.

“I was surrounded by people who were really good at Mikro-Gen,” offers Perry. “Those guys were too good to bullshit, so I had to learn to be as good as them.”

Soon he had done just that, and would turn his hand to making full games of his own conception.

RISE AND SHINY

After a number of roles at the UK’s earliest studios, Perry found himself working at Virgin on titles including Global Gladiators and Cool Spot. Such was the quality of the latter that publisher Sega came back to Perry an offered him a chance to do the highly acclaimed Aladdin movie tie-in game. When Aladdin sold in huge numbers, the young developer began to ponder why he and his colleagues were working so hard to make a lot of money for somebody else.

Being such a proactive force, the moment Perry received his Green Card for US residency he set up Shiny Entertainment. It was October 1993, and his career was about to enter a new era of achievement.

“We didn’t really know what we were actually going to do,” admits Perry of the developer’s early days. “There was a long period of waiting and meetings and talking to people about their properties. We were even considering Knightrider. It was at the time we were considering what it was Shiny should make. We knew whatever we chose we could make something of, but we needed that inspiration.”

As it turned out Shiny was looking to hire a Dreamworks animator by the name of Doug TenNapel. When TenNapel came to the office to demonstrate his talent and abilities, he made a sketch.

Suddenly Shiny had its inspiration. Earthworm Jim was born.

THE NEXT DIMENSION

After some wrangling between TenNapel and Perry over Earthworm Jim’s physical prowess – or lack of – the famous character was fleshed out, and the game that put Shiny on the map made.

Rooted firmly in the 2D world, Earthworm Jim was comfortable ground for Perry, who had begun worrying that the inevitable dawn of 3D gaming would knock Shiny sideways, and ultimately out of the business.

It was then that Perry sold Shiny – for the first time – to Interplay.

“That was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my career, because I’d thought Shiny was a one-focus shop. I thought we just did hand-drawn pencil animation. Little did I know that my team would be so adaptable to switch to 3D. In the end we did MDK, which became very important in 3D video games.”

Continuing to work under Interplay’s ownership, Perry and his team did indeed prove themselves in 3D. MDK, their first title in the third dimension, introduced the now ubiquitous, genre-spanning ‘sniper mode’, and became the de facto benchmark test in magazines for analysing numerous different graphics cards.

Next, MDK became a standard bundle-game shipped with every one of Apple’s iconic new iMacs, which taught Perry an important lesson about the power of licensing.
Within next to no time, 40-to-50 hardware and peripheral companies had secured MDK licensing deals.

BEYOND GAMES DESIGN

In the next five years, with the Enter the Matrix video game in development and a need for a huge marketing effort to promote the title, after an intensely complex business deal Perry sold Shiny to Infogrames for a substantial $47 million. An industry in-joke continues to this day that Perry is the only man to sell the same studio twice in a row.

Shortly after Infogrames changed its name to Atari, and Perry embraced a new era of his career. He had tried to bring to life a game design of his own conception named Plague. Forced to “tear the heart out of the game” to meet with budget demands, Perry decided it was time to try something new.

“You have to keep trying things that aren’t exactly what you feel are your specialty,” says Perry. “It’s how you make yourself better at what you do. In a way you should try everything in the industry, and especially the stuff that’s not your thing.”

Learning to do what you can’t, says Perry, is how you get better at what you can do.

With Shiny sold, it was now the mid-2000s, and experimentation and a move away from designing games would begin to define Perry’s role in the industry. He would serve as a consultant – largely at Acclaim – and became fascinated with research into the new dominion of free-to-play, long before it was as common as it is today.

Ever ahead of industry trends, in this time Perry also launched an early crowdfunding platform named GameInvestors, which served as a professional network for linking those with money to hand and specialists within development.

“We made great progress there,” confirms Perry. “But I ended up focusing on Gaikai at that time. It was a time when I was concentrating on multiple things, because I didn’t know what was going to catch on, but I still feel there’s a need for GameInvestors. I never did quite ship that project, but I’m still sure it has huge potential.”

In fact, Perry is even confident GameInvestors addressed problems crowdfunding giant Kickstarter is yet to overcome, such as a milestone system to protect investors from unscrupulous studios or individuals that see the platform as a place to take money without delivering any kind of product. GamesInvestors had a built-in solution whereby investors would only need to part with cash as certain milestones were met. And don’t worry; Perry is already onto the CEO of Kickstarter to pass on his input. He is a man who acts on seemingly every idea he has.

HEAD IN THE CLOUD

Eventually, Perry’s ongoing investigation of free-to-play lead him to cloud gaming.

“Free-to-play and Gaikai go hand-in-hand,” states Perry. “Once you go deep into how free-to-play works, it’s about creating the best user acquisition funnel that lets the most people play your game. Every single company on Earth that does free-to-play wonders every morning: ‘how do I get more people to play my game?’”

At this point Perry had been consulting with Acclaim, which he says had its heart set on finding out how to run games engines in the cloud. Perry, ever an independent thinker, was convinced running whole games in the cloud was the future.

“I remember the exact moment I realised how important the cloud was,” continues Perry. “It was 2008, and I was asked to speak at DICE 2009. I’d done a talk earlier at GDC about stuff that seemed obvious to me about games development. Things like how mice would go away, and how people should start designing for track pads, and that talk went down really well, because at the time it was reasonably edgy stuff. That motivated me to think harder about talking about the future, and what else would start to really matter. And that’s where I started to realise the importance of the cloud for gaming.”

In the audience of Perry’s DICE talk sat two cloud engineers, who approached Perry after his speech, and, ultimately, Gaikai was born.

And now, as we all know, Sony is the proud new owner of Gaikai. The Japanese giant’s plans for the platform remain a mystery, and Perry is not yet ready to divulge what role the cloud will play in the future of PlayStation – if indeed the two will work together.

In fact, due to competition and speculation before the Sony deal, Perry had to remain fairly quiet about the details of his ambitions with the cloud. Gaikai – along with similar systems – certainly attracted doubters, but Perry’s confidence in what he believed was the future of gaming saw him through.

“We always knew what we were doing,” says Perry with a smile.

And there you have it, the story of a Development Legend, and a template for how any aspiring developer could fill a lifetime with achievement.

What is striking about Perry is not just his enthusiasm for his chosen industry, but his optimism for what others can do. He is a man who appears to believe anybody can take the chances the dev sector throws at them and turn themself into an influential figure.

And he is not done yet.

“In a weird way getting this Development Legend award inspires me,” concludes Perry. “It makes me think about the fact that I’m not done, and yet I’ve received this. It seriously means a lot to me that the award has been voted for by my friends and peers, but what’s fun about getting it is that it shows people care about the work I’ve put in, and that makes me feel really good about how much left I’ve got to do.”

What Perry does after Sony and Gaikai’s wok together is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure.

By now he has a bank account. Should any more cheques come Perry’s way, he will be in a position to cash them.