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Dave Ellis: Early Days by cyke Written on 21st April 2003

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The Davemeister himself!
If you ever played an X-Com game then you may well have heard of Dave Ellis. Not only is he the “fan who came good”, coming from seemingly nowhere to be the key player in the X-Com franchise, but also he was the guy destined to bring us the X-Com holy grail when he and his team were collateral damage in a bludgeoning sweep of layoffs.

On the 7th of December 1999, Hasbro Interactive cut 2200 jobs, killing many promising projects seemingly at random. One casualty of managements need to improve share prices was X-Com Genesis. Often described as “X-Com on steroids” by fans, it was to be the re-imagining and updating of the original classic game – that even now, years later, fans still clamor for.

In this multi-part interview, we thank Dave for sharing his time with us and taking us through his career in this turbulent industry. We start with the early days, and later parts will focus on X-Com Interceptor and of course, X-Com Genesis…


» Cyke: From my own memory, the first time I became aware of you was when I bought an X-Com Collectors edition box set of the first two games, that also had a strategy guide for each written by you (I bought this before I even had a pc to play it on, but that’s another story). Explain to us “outsiders” what it takes to really make one of these things, and the timescales and pressures involved. Personally I would imagine that by the time you’re done, you wouldn’t ever want to even look at the game again!
» Dave: I’m assuming you mean the strategy guide? It varies from game to game and publisher to publisher, but it usually starts with the publisher contacting the author and letting him/her know that the title is available. When the contract is established verbally, the author gets a pre-release build of the game and proceeds to frantically learn as much as possible about the game as quickly as possible. The typical turnaround, from the time the author receives the first build of the game to the time the guide is complete is about 3-4 weeks maximum—not much time to learn the game and write about it! Builds come out every couple of days, so new information is always coming in—which sometimes means rewriting quite a bit of what has already been written. That’s inevitable when you’re playing from a game that’s not always complete at the time you’re developing strategies for it. So, next time you encounter a bit of incorrect info in a strategy guide, be a bit more understanding—what was written was probably true when the author wrote about it! We try to catch that in edits, but some stuff inevitably slips through the cracks.

During that time period, the author communicates as much as possible with the development team. The amount of cooperation varies from team to team. Many developers are happy to share as much inside info as possible with the strategy guide author. They pass along design documents and notes, artwork, and so on, and answer volumes of questions as they arise. The Gollops were tremendously helpful on the UFO Defense strategy guide, and the team at MicroProse UK was my point of contact on Terror from the Deep.

UFO and TFTD were my first two published guides, and I had a lot longer to write them than is typical now. The goal now is to have the guide on the shelves on or before the day the game ships. The UFO Defense guide didn’t make it to the shelves until about six months after the game shipped. That might have hurt the sales of the book a bit, but it gave me more time to play the game, which is always good.

As for getting sick of the games, it depends on the game. I have never gotten tired of playing UFO or Terror from the Deep.

» Cyke: How did you get the Strategy Guide gig? And how many did you do?
» Dave: Back in 1995, it wasn’t unusual for the documentation department at a game development studio to write the strategy guides for their studio’s games. That was the case at MicroProse. I was in QA at the time, and I had played UFO Defense quite a bit. I had also occasionally written help files, and I had compiled a walkthrough for Legacy: Realm of Terror (one of MicroProse’s lesser-known titles, but one of my personal favorites) which had been distributed online through the MicroProse BBS.

One day Lary Russel, the documentation manager at the time, came to me and said that Prima wanted to publish a strategy guide for UFO Defense and that he didn’t have time to write it. He asked me to write it, and I did. I guess Prima liked the book because, after that, they started calling me directly. So, back then, I’d work at MicroProse during the day and, when I was writing a strategy guide, work on that well into the night. Because I was working for MicroProse, I was restricted to doing strategy guides for our games. That worked out fine, though, since I worked on most of the games (in some capacity), so I was familiar with them.

To date, I’ve written or co-written 14 strategy guides—10 for Prima and 4 for Sybex. I’m currently under contract to write a 15th guide (for Republic: The Revolution). My most recent guides were for Unreal II: The Awakening, Praetorians, and Starfleet Command III.

» Cyke: And at the same time were you working with Microprose ? I see from your website (http://home.nc.rr.com/ellis1701/) that you’ve done the customer service role as well as QA guy before you made the leap to games designer. Clarify the timeline for us.
» Dave: I was hired by the MicroProse customer service department in March 1992. At the time, I was working in Washington, DC and hated my job and hated the commute, so I started scanning the help wanted ads. My college degree was in Mass Communication (TV and film production), and that industry was impossible to break into. I had a background in computer sales and service, so I was a good fit at MicroProse. I figured I’d just stay there for a while until I figured out what I really wanted to do.

Well, that short-term job turned into a career. I was in customer service for about four months and then started working nights in the Quality Assurance department (they needed help testing Darklands). After about two more months, I left customer service to work in QA full-time.

In 1995, I left the QA department to be an assistant designer in the newly formed MicroProse multimedia department, where I helped design the add-on content for Fleet Defender Gold and Pacific Air War Gold. After that, I worked on a lot of projects before I got my shot as lead designer. I pitched the idea of X-COM Interceptor and joined the Chapel Hill, North Carolina studio. I was still working from Hunt Valley, Maryland at the time, though.

When Hasbro bought out the company, I was placed in the role as “X-COM Guru”. I think it came about because I had been with the company for so long and had been connected in some way to all of the X-COM titles (strategy guides, mostly). Plus, both John Possidente and myself were always advocates of the potential of the X-COM series.

The rest is, as they say, history. We started working on Genesis in 1999. Six months after I moved down here (and moved into what was likely the nicest office I’ll ever have for the rest of my professional life), Hasbro gave us the axe.

» Cyke: Were you a player of X-Com before landing the gig writing books?
» Dave: I had played UFO Defense quite a bit. Everyone in QA at the time was a huge fan. That’s usually one of the sure signs that a game is good—if the QA folks, who play the game for 12-14 hours a day every day are still dying to play it every morning, it’s probably a winner.

» Cyke: And then you earned the Designer gig - give us an idea of some of the projects you’ve worked on over the years.
» Dave: Here are some of the highlights:

  • CivNet (designed/programmed the interactive tutorials)
  • Civilization II (designed/programmed/researched/wrote the Civilopedia)
  • Klingon Honor Guard (wrote the story and dialog scripts)
  • Civilization II Multiplayer Gold (designed the multiplayer portions and the new Civilopedia)
  • X-COM Interceptor (lead designer)
  • X-COM Genesis (lead designer)

I also compiled all of the background story for the X-COM universe (as presented in the games) and wrote most of the history that filled in the blanks between the games. (You can read a great deal of the back story that I wrote in the booklet that shipped with Interceptor).

» Cyke: Any particularly strong memories of times on these other projects that you could share with us?
» Dave: I’d have to say that one of my overall best experiences while working at MicroProse was working on Klingon Honor Guard. I only wrote the background story and the character dialog and acted as the in-house consultant on all things Star Trek, but what a great team and a great experience. (I’m an unabashed Star Trek geek, as you can see from my web site.)

During the development process, I got to visit Paramount Studios and talk with the licensing people from the show. We worked with them throughout, of course. One day, our producer Alex came to my office and told me that our Paramount representative had told him that the person writing our dialog scripts and story really knew how to write for Star Trek. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

We had the release party for Klingon Honor Guard at Quark’s Bar in the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. The entire team was flown there and we had the place to ourselves, drinking Romulan Ale and singing Klingon drinking songs. It was great! And, even better than that, four of us took a few extra days and drove to Los Angeles and had a tour of the Voyager and Deep Space Nine sets. I was in heaven!

I got to do lots of things that many don’t have the opportunity to do. The Star Trek thing was tops on my list, but there were other things as well. For instance, while I was working on Fleet Defender Gold, I got to tour the F-14 hangars at Oceana Naval Air Station. I got to touch F-14s and look in the cockpits and all that, plus got a flight school classroom lesson from an F-14 pilot.

Yeah, those were the days…

» Cyke: How did Interceptor begin? Was it an open call for ideas for the next X-Com game? Were there any other concepts ideas of games to do?
» Dave: As Apocalypse was nearing release, there was talk of what to do with the X-COM brand next. There were thoughts of taking it into other game genres—sort of like the Star Wars game series from LucasArts, where you had first-person shooters, strategy games, space flight sims, and so on all with the same central theme.

Several of us in Hunt Valley—namely myself, Mark Reis (from the sound department) and John Possidente—started brainstorming ideas. We thought that flying in the cockpit of an interceptor would be cool. The idea started as a way to use our existing flight sim engines at MicroProse to build a game set during the same time period as UFO Defense. The player would fly the intercept missions in a scripted series of events that coincided with the events in UFO Defense. From there, we would branch out into other interceptor-related titles, culminating in a deep-space combat game (more or less what Interceptor eventually became).

The plan, at least as we saw it, was to develop this game while other teams continued to develop X-COM strategy titles, staggering the releases so that there was always a new X-COM game every six months or so. Obviously, it didn’t quite work that way.

» Cyke: Did you have to pitch the idea (if so, how well was it received) or was it a case of someone telling you “this is what we're doing next, now go and design a game based on space combat” and you working out the detail?
» Dave: In companies like MicroProse where we were both the developer and the publisher, it usually worked the opposite way—with a designer pitching the idea and the company either buying into it or rejecting it. The Interceptor idea was ours, not the company’s. There was no edict to create a space combat X-COM game. It also wasn’t a corporate attempt to “slap the X-COM brand on any old game” (as we were, as I recall, accused of at the time). We really believed that it was a good idea in the context of still doing other X-COM games that were similar to the original.

In short, the process in the pre-Hasbro era worked in three stages or “phases” as we called them. Phase 1 was a 3 to 5 page proposal outlining the basic premise of the game. This was prepared by the designer alone and presented (through channels) to the studio head and marketing department.

If everyone liked Phase 1, the designer and an artist or two would prepare Phase 2—a 20 to 30 page design overview complete with concept art, game play details, marketing analysis, and so on.

Finally, if Phase 2 was approved, Phase 3 was prepared. This was a full design document (about 800 pages in our case); complete paper concept art of every object and environment in the game, and a technology demo (a flyable interceptor and a space station in our case). The Interceptor team was the first team that ever went through every stage of the process, and we set the standard for the entire company. That made a lot of the MicroProse veterans rather unhappy, since there were seldom detailed design documents produced for games prior to Interceptor.

So, when the company approved Phase 3, the project was given the green light and the money.

When you’re dealing with an outside publisher, the process is a lot different and there is a lot more dictating as to what the developer can and can’t do concept-wise. Since all of our money at the time was internal, there was a lot more design freedom. That doesn’t happen much today, unless you have a lot of status behind you (like at Firaxis and Big Huge Games for example).

» Cyke: What was Microprose's intention on the future of X-Com at that time?
» Dave: To extend the brand as far as possible. John Possidente and I were huge advocates of what could be done, as was the team in the UK that had worked on Terror from the Deep and were beginning work on Alliance. We all saw X-COM as a story with unlimited game potential, and the company seemed to agree most of the time.

When Hasbro took over, the future looked really bright for X-COM at first. There was talk of toys, cartoons, comic books…the whole works. But only internal talk and, as we all can see, it never got very far.

» Cyke: So, how did you get to the position of designer of interceptor?
» Dave: I started working as a designer for the Chapel Hill studio after I left the multimedia department in 1996. I worked on two projects at that time that never saw the light of day—a banking-related project for the SNES and a game based on the RMS Titanic. (If we had gone on with the Titanic game, it would have been released about the same time as the movie—if only we had known.)

At the time, Chapel Hill was a small studio that worked mainly on conversions and multiplayer updates. When the Titanic game fell through, Chris Clark (designer of Klingon Honor Guard and the US designer who took over the Alliance project) and I talked to Gilman Louie at Spectrum and convinced him to allow Chapel Hill to work on Klingon Honor Guard and a new X-COM game. I verbally pitched the Interceptor idea to Gilman at that point, and it went from there. Klingon Honor Guard quickly went to Hunt Valley, but Interceptor was developed by Chapel Hill with me as long-distance designer.

» Cyke: You transferred from the Hunt Valley studio over to Chapel Hill to be “in charge of the X-Com line of games” (quote from your site!). In itself, this statement strikes me as a little unusual – how and why did you come to be the driving force behind this “franchise” – was it common at this time to allocate responsibilities for brands like this?
» Dave: It was kind of a gradual thing, and it was spearheaded by my boss, Mike Denman, as well as a number of others. I had been involved with X-COM (at least peripherally) since the beginning, and I was a big fan. Along with John Possidente, I was always pushing for MicroProse to do more with X-COM. During the development of Interceptor, we held an “X-COM Summit” in Chapel Hill, with our team, the Alliance team from the UK and representatives from management and marketing. I guess that’s when I really started to become visible—I was one of only a couple of active X-COM designers at the time.

When Hasbro took over, I was actively promoting what eventually became Genesis from day one. I made myself a nuisance to our new management, and as a result became even more visible. I started finding myself speaking not only for Genesis, but also for X-COM in general. Our head of studios, Paul Fullwood, eventually decided to christen me the “X-COM Guru”. I compiled the history of the X-COM game universe into an interactive help file that could be distributed to any development teams in the future who were producing X-COM games. In addition, Paul issued a memo that said that all X-COM decisions were to be passed through me before being implemented—box copy, art, etc. Plus, I was already a point of contact to the X-COM fans. I started a dialog on XCommand during Interceptor, and kept talking to the fans right to the end.

This was, I should point out, after Hasbro decided to move Alliance from the UK to Hunt Valley. I was sent to the UK along with several of the other folks from Hunt Valley on that rather uncomfortable trip. We left Maryland thinking that we were going over to evaluate the game’s progress. We were en-route when we got a call from the Hasbro producer who was already in the UK shutting down the project. We were in shock, and we thought it was a bad idea to take the game away from the people who had created it—and we were rather ticked off that we were going in looking like the villains who were stealing it! We lost a lot of excellent game developers in that layoff.

» Cyke: How aware were you of the “cult of X-Com” and was it a source of any pressure? Did you feel any burden of responsibility?
» Dave: Very aware, starting with Interceptor. After the game was announced, the fans went into a tailspin about how we were selling out and slapping the X-COM name on any and every game just to make money. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth, so I kind of spearheaded the initiative to start talking to the fans (not arguing with them—just talking with them) online. That kind of thing can get really ugly if you’re not good at diplomacy, so it took a lot of management approval to get the go-ahead.

After Interceptor, I put out an open call for ideas online and got a lot of responses to the e-mail address we established for that purpose. The whole team felt it was important to get the fans’ input. There were the requisite rants, but by and large it was a good experience. I’ve made several online friends as a result. One of the regular X-COM fans was even brought in for an interview for an assistant designer position based on his input in the forums.

Our burden of responsibility was to make a great game. We came up a bit short on Interceptor for a number of reasons, but we were right on target with Genesis. I always wanted X-COM to be more than just a game series, and I think it was at one point well on its way. It’s a shame that X-COM has all but disappeared now.

And that’s part one! Part two will go into depth on X-Com Interceptor as well as exploring the start of X-Com Genesis.

Part 1: Dave Ellis: Early Days
Part 2: Dave Ellis: Interceptor
Part 3: Dave Ellis: Genesis


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