When I interviewed David R. Darrow about the cover image of Dungeon Master from FTL Games, he also mentioned a game called ”RPV” and sent me a sketch of the cover. Little did I know of this unreleased gem.
RPV was never released and the web contains little or no info. I contacted FTL founder, Wayne Holder, for an interview, but not until now did we end up talking about a fantastic game that seems way ahead of its time.
Sometimes I think that we learn more from the history of stuff that never were, than from the stuff that was actually released. Does it sound weird? Well, it kind of is.
But if you look beyond all released failures and flops – and instead drill into the products and ideas that never came into being – the history of gaming will seem self-evident in a way that is simply not true. The history of gaming – or any history, for that matter – looks clear and obvious enough when looked at in hindsight. But by looking at stuff that never were we get an image of what could have been, if one or two variables had been different. Unfinished works also tell stories.
The first time I heard of RPV was during one of my interviews with Dungeon Master cover illustrator, David R. Darrow. RPV is short for Remotely Piloted Vehicle and is a game that would let the player control a drone. Nowadays, drones are what every techie in the world talks about, both when it comes to gaming and tech startups in general – but certainly not in 1986 when Wayne Holder came up with the idea around RPV for the Atari ST, the preferred system of FTL Games’.
David R. Darrow’s words about RPV were:
David R. Darrow: The ”RPV” illustration was the idea-stage sketch for a game FTL was going to produce. First, I drew a ”comp”, a comprehensive illustration, which shows in some level of detail what you can expect when the details are finalized, and only after that the models are hired or secured. For this comp I used myself as the bottom guy and a friend as the other.
My recollection of this, 30 years ago, was that this guy was a ”genius kid” getting some life experience at a company. Wayne and Bruce were impressed with his skills as a programmer, so, I believe, they hired him to develop this game he’d come up with.
FTL was pretty sure this would be a hit, and hired me to paint the final cover and printed up 10,000, or maybe 25,000 boxes — and then a few months later, this same kid went off to college — and that was the end of the project. It never saw the light of day. Eventually, most of the boxes went in the trash bin.
Through David R. Darrow, I managed to get a hold of Wayne Holder – the two had not heard from each other in years, but all talk about Dungeon Master had Darrow contact Holder again – and it was then he asked Holder if it was ok that I spoke to him about RPV. I then wrote to Wayne Holder but got no answer right away. Several years passed, and I had other things on my mind – I wrote two books and several other news pieces and forgot about RPV.
Until the illustration David R. Darrow had sent me once again crossed my mind. It was then I tried contacting Wayne Holder again – and just a couple of hours later, the answer arrived.
Hello Mr. Holder – could you tell me what RPV was all about?
Wayne Holder: In short, RPV was a finished product, but didn’t ship because I stupidly thought it needed a single player mode in which the player fights the computer, and we never figured out how to add this. The Atari ST has a built-in MIDI interface, which was a fairly fast serial port at the time. There’s a MIDI In port and a MIDI out port.
We planned to include a single MIDI cable in the box and the idea was that if a friend also had a copy of the game, you could link the two computers together using the two cables; out from one, to in on the other and then repeat to close the loop. If you had a third, or a fourth copy of the game and cables, you could insert the new machines into the loop and have a 3-, or even a 4-player battle.
That was the gist of what we had working. We had many a fun evening fighting against each other using the STs in the office, but this is as far as we got.
How did the idea of RPV, a game about drones, come up? Was someone interested in flying small airplanes?
Wayne Holder: I live in San Diego, which is a big navy town and my house is a few miles from what was then Miramar Naval Air Station – the home of the Top Gun school made famous by the movie. Deirdre Poeltler, the sister of Bruce Webster – the guy who co-created SunDog: Frozen Legacy – worked for my other company, Software Heaven, Inc. as a programmer. Her husband, Brad, was a Radar Intercept Operator at Miramar.
Top Gun, the movie, had come out just before this and we’d gone as a big group to see it along with a bunch of the pilots and RIOs from Miramar — which by the way is in itself a fun story. The stresses these guys have to take from G-force in turns, and such, got me wondering how military aviation could get much further in speed and performance with people still needed to fly in the cockpit. So, the idea for RPV popped into my head. I’m not sure where I first heard the term RPV, but I think it was the term of art at the time. Coincidentally, the Predator and the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk are both also manufactured in my home town.
Darrow mentions a ”genious kid” who developed the game. Who was he?
Wayne Holder: We had a very bright local high school kid working for us as an intern, named Don Geddis. I hired him to help with SunDog, but he really wanted to do something with true 3D graphics which, at the time, were very hard to do on the PCs of the era. He came up with the 3D engine that we eventually used to power RPV. Then, he somewhat suddenly left for Stanford University and I never heard from him again.
I’ve always been interested in the views of programmers, graphic makers, and all those other people who’ve been working on projects without getting fame for it – so I tried to track down Don Geddis, and with a little help of David R. Darrow I actually found him.
Hi Don, I’m so glad I found you – do you remember your time as a ”genious kid” at FTL Games?
Don Geddis: Hi there, I think I may have been a graduating senior when I first started working with Bruce [Webster] and Wayne [Holder]. I don’t think I would describe it as I ”somewhat suddenly” left for college, or ”never returned”.
I was basically working there as a summer job; I was always going to college. Like everyone else, I applied for college in the fall of my senior year, and happened to be accepted by Stanford. So I was already going, before I ever started working with RPV.
Wayne Holder today claims his decision to try to include a single player mode was ”stupid”. Do any of you regret that RPV was not released as is?
Wayne Holder: At the time I though the game was just too ”flat”. That is, all you did was fly in circles shooting at the other planes. There was no real terrain, or obstacles, or NPC aircraft to make it more challenging. In my mind I was comparing it to the Atari Battlezone game, which it sort of resembled with its vector imagery, and felt it needed some Battlezone-like extra touches. But, in retrospect, I should have found a way to release it, perhaps as just a free bonus in another title, as it was fun to play even in its limited form.
Don Geddis: I definitely remember, in my dorm room at Stanford, spending hours working on a 3D ”fun” flight simulator. And then came back to San Diego the next summer, and we tried to quickly turn it all into a game. Wayne made a last-minute decision that he thought the cost of marketing was not worth releasing a not-quite-finished game.
Again, if I remember, he perhaps second-guessed that decision and in hindsight thought we had all done enough, that maybe he should have just released it as is anyway. But you have to make those kinds of decisions in business, you have to avoid the ”sunk cost” fallacy, that just because you’ve put effort in so far doesn’t mean you necessarily should throw good money after bad. I do wish the game had been released, because it would have been something nice on my resume to kind of wrap up a successful project. And it was very close.
At this point, I was trying to think of some other games at the time that used the serial port to communicate with other players, but couldn’t really recall anything like that in games that early – the movie Top Gun was released in 1985, so I figured the development of RPV might have begun during that same year.
I know I played Lotus Turbo Challenge 2 on two Amigas, connected with a serial null modem, but that was way later in 1991. It seems to me that the earliest game that used a null-modem cable, both on Atari ST and Amiga 500, would be from 1987.
How did you come up with the idea to use the MIDI port for that purpose?
Wayne Holder: My skill set at the time was in embedded system design, so I was very familiar with the Atari hardware internals and knew just how to push the MIDI port to its limit. The sound in Dungeon Master – that won us a few awards – was due to my discovery of how to fiddle with the sound chip in a way that made it work like a 5-bit D/A converter, so that we could play back digitized sounds.
We may have been the first to try something like this, but it’s not something I thought about at the time. I’d learned about MIDI for another project and then had the idea to apply it to RPV. I do recall we spent a fair mount of time thinking of ways to keep the data packets as short as possible, because of latency problems. Even then, there were situations where the frame rate could drop suddenly. But I seem to recall the guys found ways to use this as part of their strategy while playing. I myself was never an ace playing RPV …
Was RPV in development before Dungeon Master or simultaneously?
Wayne Holder: You know, I spoke to one of our programmers, Doug Bell, since I don’t remember exactly.
He recalled that we showed off RPV once at a computer show in Los Angeles about the same time we released the Dungeon Master demo, which was a teaser disk we produced that got us a lot of attention [in June 1986 at CES in Chicago /Jimmy].
Like me, he recalls RPV development as going on at the same time as Dungeon Master. But, as he was fully engrossed in that game at the time, he didn’t have much other contact with RPV other than to play it a few times. He also seems to recall that development stopped when Don left for Stanford because everyone else was fully committed to Dungeon Master.
How finished was the product? Darrow did draw the cover, did you even print boxes? Do you have any left – or at least some pictures of any?
Don Geddis: RPV was really just a ”demo”, with technology, at the beginning of summer that year. We then tried to quickly turn the demo into an actual game, and as I remember it we actually got very close.
Wayne Holder: The cover was speculative work, as I’d contracted David for several works and he wanted to do something to fulfill his contract. So, I had him do one for RPV. I don’t think we made a box, but we might have … David likes to use real stuff as models for his paintings, so the RPV cover uses Don Geddis and Bruce Webster’s brother in law, Brad, who was an actual US Navy pilot at Miramar Naval Air Base, as models. David also borrowed Brad’s flight helmet for the painting.
David R. Darrow: I am pretty sure they printed at least 10.000, but if I am not mistaken most, if not all, of them were tossed or destroyed when the project came to an end. I own at least one box that has been in its flattened form for 30 years — so perhaps I’m the only one who owns an actual box for RPV …?
Is there still some code left from RPV, or perhaps even a playable version?
Wayne Holder: That’s a good question. I doubt a copy still exists, as I had to dump a lot of stuff when FTL abruptly had to shutdown. One of my old programmers may have kept a copy, or I might have a copy on a disk somewhere that I can no longer read but, offhand, I just don’t know, which is a shame.
Don Geddis: No source code, sorry. RPV was written in assembly language in order to get up to speed, and on a Mac. So that would have been a Power PC chip, not even an Intel x86. And very graphics-heavy, so surely relying on whatever those old Macs did for controlling the screen. That code would be pretty tough to run today, even if we still had it.
I do have a framed print from David’s cover artwork for the unreleased game …
And finally – are there any photos left of that time? Either of the dev team or, even better, from you playing RPV?
Wayne Holder: No, sorry. I regret not keeping more of FTLs archives, but I just didn’t have space to keep most of the stuff, so it was dumped.
Don Geddis: Not from the time around RPV, but I’ve found a funny old photo. This is from a newspaper article in the San Diego Union in 1983. I was a junior in high school and the third from the left. This is just before I started working at FTL, I think.
Games that were never released make such awesome stories. People working night and day to create something the world would never see, and since unfinished products are rarely ever mentioned again, it’s rare that we ever hear about them either.
I would like to thank Wayne Holder, David R. Darrow, and Don Geddis for taking their time to answer my questions, and I hope that more unfinished gaming products out there are brought into the open in the future, because there is much to learn and get entertained by in these old stories.
Have a nice Wednesday, all!
David R. Darrow arranged after our interviews so that he, in the beginning of April, will make available a poster of the cover of RPV for FTL Games fans. It will be an edition limited to 100 posters, signed by him, for 39 USD each plus postage. You may soon find out more and sign up for notification at www.DarrowArt.com.
I love how things work out once we start digging after them! :)