Legendary Game Designers: Damon Slye
Founder of Dynamix and creator of the Great War Planes series
Published: 11 February 2022, 1:55 pm
Ah, the 80’s. It was a time of big hair and even bigger aspirations for one programmer. From the humble beginnings of befriending a local computer store owner in Eugene, Oregon, to taking over the world of simulations, contributing to an entire genre, and starting two successful game companies, Damon Slye has certainly made his mark on the gaming world.
Damon was already dabbling in programming while still in high school. However, he would not have his first commercially released game until 1983. His initial project, Stellar 7, is a tank simulation game for the Apple II, based mainly on the arcade Battlezone. In Stellar 7, you get to hop into your very own tank and do battle against the evil aliens hellbent on dominating the galaxy. The Raven, however, is not just any tank. It’s a super tank with a cloaking device and a bottomless supply of ammunition. It also features a radar system to track your enemies and a shield to protect you during combat. Taking down enemies is the name of the game, and with the use of several powerups, the task will be just a tad easier.
Stellar 7 was received exceptionally well upon release. The game was lauded for several reasons, from gameplay to graphics, as well as being one of the first “original” games that EA had come out with at the time. However, Damon didn’t make much money off the game due to it being pirated. But the popularity of the game still opened the door for Damon to rise to success. He would even go on to remake his premier title in 1990.
After meeting fellow programmer Jeff Tunnell at his Computer store, Damon found the boost he needed to open his own company. Dynamix was founded in 1984. At this point, Damon decided to follow up the success of Stellar 7 with another tank simulator called Arcticfox. While not a direct sequel to Stellar 7, one could still kind of see it as one. Arcticfox was developed for the Amiga, and it was one of the first games for this platform.
The game takes place in the distant year of 2005 (which is hilarious now) when aliens are trying to steal the oxygen on Earth and have based themselves in Antarctica.
This time around, your tank has guided missiles and landmines to accompany the cannon on your practically suicidal mission behind enemy lines. Arcticfox did very well upon release and even landed at #138 on Computer Gaming World’s “Best Games of All Time” list. Yet another slam dunk for Damon.
Dynamix then decided to take its simulator game into the stars in 1987 with Skyfox II: The Cygnus Conflict. As the name would suggest, it is the sequel to the original Skyfox game created by Ray Tobey. Damon developed Skyfox II with Kevin Ryan and Jeff Tunnell. Unlike Arcticfox, they developed the game for the Commodore 64 and later ported it to Amiga and other platforms.
Rather than a tank sim, this one is a space combat sim. Climbing into the captain’s seat of a starfighter, it is your job to rid the galaxy of the xenomorphs threatening life as you know it. There are several types of missions to take part in, from recovery missions to seek and destroy. Missions are definitely no walk in the park as the enemies are far from lame AI-controlled ships. They have their own ability to strategize and can even join together to try to outnumber you.
This fast-paced space shooter was well-received upon release and was yet another success for Damon and his colleagues.
Mechwarrior and Project Firestart
Sticking to what he was good at, Damon and his company would go ahead and release another tank simulator game called Abrams Battle Tank in 1988. Damon directed the game but he did not develop it as he did for the previous titles.
Though not one of his most successful games, he would more than make up for it the following year by releasing MechWarrior, the first 3D game set in the BattleTech universe. Damon designed the game with Paul Bowman, Terry Ishida, and John A. S. Skeel.
Branching out into yet another type of simulator game, you are now the pilot of a giant mech suit. Playing the game from a first-person perspective, you are cast as the exiled heir to the throne of Ander’s Moon. Your goal is to build up your MechWarrior army and take back your rightful place as ruler.
Mechwarrior is more than just another simulator game. It will also require some strategy and forging alliances with different factions to get them to assist you in your coup. The game also features the ability to buy and sell mechs at your leisure to make sure that you have the best-equipped army you can get. Profit can be made like this and used to purchase new parts and repair your mechs when they receive battle damage.
Mechwarrior is a perfect marriage of battle, strategy, and simulator served up on a silver platter. With damn near-perfect scores across the board, it was highly successful and continues to be applauded as the first game of its kind to allow the player to control the mech suit from the inside.
Damon also decided to show off his abilities in the survival horror genre. After becoming inspired by the movie Alien, Damon and the crew decided to create Project Firestart for the Commodore 64. Set in space, the story begins with the loss of communications with a science vessel called the Prometheus. As Agent Jon Hawking, it’s your job to recover the science logs from the secret experiments and set the self-destruct to make sure the projects don’t get beyond the confines of the Prometheus.
This side-scrolling survival horror game released in 1989 was very well received upon release and is considered by many to be the progenitor of the modern survival horror genre.
It's just a pity that the game was never ported to Amiga or MS-DOS.
A-10 Tank Killer
1989 would prove to be a hectic year for Dynamix as they would release three more games that year. These games would include Deathtrack, a gruesomely violent racing sim, and David Wolf: Secret Agent, an interactive movie/action game designed by Kevin Ryan and Damon Slye. However, both of these games took a backseat to the release of A-10 Tank Killer, a flight simulation that puts you at the controls of an A-10 Thunderbolt II. Damon wrote the concept of the game and designed it with Jerry Luttrell. The title was released for PC and Amiga.
Set during the Gulf War, it’s your job to provide air support during various missions. Though the game offers a mostly historical storyline, another play mode also features a more fictional gameplay scenario. The game allows the player to customize their weapon loadout before every mission, ensuring you are as well-equipped as possible. Although A-10 was a less realistic flight simulator than others of its kind at the time, it was still quite successful for the action and violence it offered players.
The game was also successful enough to allow for a sequel that was produced by Sierra games. Both titles combined sold more than 250,000 copies, making them a success for both companies.
Keeping up with his busy schedule, Damon would create yet another flight simulator called Red Baron just one year later. If you grew up anything like me, this would make you think of Snoopy from Peanuts. However, this Red Baron is a much less kid-friendly version. In this new release, players can operate as an aerial ace during World War I for either the German Air Service or the Royal Flying Corp.
The game designed and directed by Damon Slye was released in 1990 for PC and Amiga. It features many aircraft employed by the German, French, and British forces during WWI. Though the game was historically based, realism was not the primary goal of Red Baron. The game is intended to be entertaining and fun for players, and I think it nailed that perfectly well. It features many different types of missions, including escorts, hunts, and even historical missions. If your flight performance is good enough, you can even ride with the big dogs and meet and fly with real aces from the time. Red Baron would go on to be considered Damon’s most successful title during his career.
The game would nab the #4 spot on Computer Gaming World’s Best Computer Games of All Time list and multiple other awards. It was followed up with an expansion in 1992 called Red Baron with Mission Builder. The success of Red Baron and its subsequent expansion cemented Damon’s place as a maverick of aerial simulation games.
Damon would continue to dominate the early 90’s with his aerial simulator games. He would give us the first of his Aces series. Aces of the Pacific takes players back in time to World War II and allows them to pilot the various fighter planes utilized during that war. Now, I can tell you that I don’t know a thing about aircraft, but flight sim buffs will have a blast with the wide variety of choices. With several gameplay modes to choose from, players can either jump right into the action with a quick mission or choose the more involved campaign option. The career options include the US Navy, Marines, Air Force, and the Japanese Imperial Army or Navy.
The game intends to accurately play the conflict it is based on and features historical missions and real flying aces. The game also features minor tweaks to add more realism, including changes in weather, sunspots, and blackouts. Aces of the Pacific would go on to be not only wildly successful commercially but would net Damon yet another award.
Later that year (1992), Damon would release an expansion with a more fictional premise to the gameplay. It would feature manufactured missions as well as experimental aircraft in the R&D stages during that era.
Riding the high of the success of the first Aces game, Damon would then create its Aces Over Europe counterpart in 1993. This new installment still takes place during World War II but is now set on the Western front. Like its predecessor, it was designed and directed by Damon Slye, and it was released for PC only.
While this sequel uses many of the same gameplay mechanics, you can play as either German or England, aside from the US. Mission selection still includes the quick missions versus the career mode and historically accurate missions. There will be a few familiar aircraft, but this new installment brings forth a whole new set of warplanes to experiment with. With randomized missions based upon your choice of aircraft, each career playthrough is unique. With the improved graphics and the same fast-paced gameplay as the original, Aces Over Europe was another hit for the series.
Since no good thing can last forever, the Aces series would be the last game to be made by Damon before he would leave Dynamix behind. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
And Now For Something Completely Different
After creating his Aces series, Damon decided to leave the gaming world in 1994. This would likely have come as a surprise for many in the gaming community since it seemed like he had the midas touch when it came to his games. However, Damon himself admits that he was simply just burnt out from making games non-stop. And from where I’m standing, I don’t think anyone can begrudge the man for taking a break. During his little hiatus from the gaming industry, Damon would pursue goals he had put on hold during his booming career. Funnily enough, one of those goals achieved was acquiring his pilot’s license.
After putting his gaming career on pause for 12 years, Damon eventually decided to get back in the saddle in 2007. Founding Mad Hatter Games, he would first release Red Baron Pack, a compilation based on Red Baron games, then started working on something completely different.
The company released Villagers & Heroes of a Mystical Land in 2011. Though the game had a bit of a slow start, it has amassed more than 20,000 players and counting since its release. As it currently stands, Damon continues to update and improve Villagers and Heroes and has no new projects in the works. However, only time will tell if that will remain the case. Regardless of where his career decides to take him, I’m sure Damon will succeed in all that he does.
Damon Slye started as a 3D programmer on 8-bit machines and ended up shaping the world of simulation games. There is no retro games lover that hasn't played one of the Great War Planes games. Red Baron, in particular, is one of the best videogames ever created. Thanks, Damon!