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Mechanical Donkeys: Interview with Jim Rushing

Reprinted from The Gamer's Quarter, Issue #6

Mechanical Donkeys

by John Szczepaniak

Jim Rushing
My third interview was with Jim Rushing, who is still with EA. I first spoke with Mr Rushing via e-mail, where he elaborated on several points.

Jim Rushing: I joined EA as an employee in 1989. I was in the Redwood Shores Studio for sixteen years in a variety of positions: programmer, producer, technical director, director of development. I’m currently in EA University creating leadership training programs for development directors and producers (and still doing a little programming on the side).

I believe that the rights to M.U.L.E. are owned by Dan Bunten’s estate, although I can’t say with any certainty. Dan may have assigned the rights to EA during the aborted Genesis version. When I left Ozark, Dan bought my interest in the product, and as the others left, he became the sole owner of the property.

TGQ: Tell me a little about your role in development, and that of Dan(i) Bunten, Bill Bunten, and Alan Watson. I’ve heard you were the programmer, and according to Trip Hawkins, “more of a management type.”

Rushing: There were four partners in Ozark Softscape: Dan Bunten, Bill Bunten, Alan Watson, and me. We all did various jobs, and each wore several hats in the company, as you can imagine. Dan — was the creative force and creative genius of the company. He was also a very good programmer. Alan — all art and graphics design and some programming. Jim — programming and implementation design. Bill — creative design, gameplay tuning, and business aspects of the company, no programming.

I met Bill in graduate school, and he introduced me to Dan. Dan and I immediately hit it off. Dan was writing a business-simulator game called Cartels and Cutthroats for SSI. Bill and I were his first testers. We would all meet up at Dan’s house in the evenings and play the latest version of the game. By the time I had finished school, EA was getting started, and they contacted Dan to do a game. Trip had played Cartels and had loved it. Dan decided to quit his job as an industrial engineer and go full-time into gaming. I joined him shortly thereafter. We met Alan through mutual friends. Bill kept his full-time job as a directors of parks for the City of Little Rock and worked with us in the evenings and weekends, etc.

Trip was probably referring to my strength being more technical and management-related rather than in the creative-design arena. Although Dan was the driving creative force, we had regular design meetings where we all were able to express our opinions and ideas on the design. I was quite strong in implementation design, however.

We all know Dan was a genius … I feel very fortunate to have worked with him.

TGQ: I’ve read that M.U.L.E. took several initial incarnations. Was anything left out of the final game?

Rushing: We can discuss more on phone, but … Trivia:

• Working title of the game was “Planet Pioneers.”
• The “planet” Irata was “Atari” spelled backwards.
M.U.L.E. came from the concept of the old Wild West (circa 1800’s where you could strike your fortune with “forty acres and a M.U.L.E.
• Also influenced by a Robert Heinlein science-fiction story.
• The Wampus was a tribute to the very ancient Hunt the Wumpus game in BASIC that we played when we were learning programming.

TGQ: Can you tell us about Broadmoor Lake and Slick Willy’s bar, and their connection to the game?

Rushing: The international headquarters of Ozark Softscape was a house we rented in a residential neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. We each took a bedroom as our individual office. The house was great because it was quiet, had a huge refrigerator, couches, beanbag chairs, etc. It was a very creative environment for us. As the game was being developed, the house was a perfect place to focus group parties. We would setup up multiple games in the den and living room of the house and have our friends play and give feedback. Broadmoor Lake was a small lake that was across the street from the house. When we were looking for inspiration, or just wanted to take a break, we would hike around the lake, sit under the trees, skip rocks on the lake, etc … .

Slick Willy’s was a sports bar in Little Rock. It was close to the main Post Office, so when we would make a milestone delivery to EA, we would go over to Slick’s and celebrate. They had arcade games and pinball, foosball, etc. And beer :) Just a place to hang out and relax after crunching to make a milestone.

He then kindly provided me with his cell phone number, and we spoke as he was driving someone to their destination. An interesting conversation, since he came across as very human and shared many personal anecdotes, despite working at EA; a company with a reputation for having a, shall we say, different outlook on things. While I can’t comment on what EA is really like, I can say that all its employees whom I have spoken to have been helpful, friendly, open, and above all passionate about videogames.

TGQ: Good morning … Do you have a few free minutes to discuss things?

Rushing: I do. Unfortunately you’re going to have to bear with me, I’m dropping someone off right now.

TGQ: Oh, I’m terribly sorry about that.

Rushing: No, that’s not a problem, it’s just that you’re going to be hearing a lot of other, ah, noises. If that’s OK.

TGQ: No, that’s OK, you’ve already answered quite a lot via e-mail. So I thought I’d ask for some elaboration on some things.

Rushing: Sure.

TGQ: I’ve read some reports that in the early ’90s a sequel to M.U.L.E. was called off by Dani Bunten due to someone at EA wanting to add combat to the formula. Can you comment on this?

Rushing: Er, yeah. It’s um … I don’t want to get too deep into that. But basically, this was around the Sega Genesis period. I don’t know, at the time I wasn’t involved with it. I was at EA at the time, but was involved in other projects. And so I don’t really know what transpired. So I don’t really know if I should comment on what either Dan was feeling or what EA was feeling. But my understanding is that project just didn’t work out because Dan and EA could not come to terms on the creative side. They couldn’t come to an agreement. On the creative side. But I would be careful about positioning it, that it was because of weapons or things like that. I just don’t know for sure.

TGQ: Can you comment on what development was like? I’ve spoken with Trip Hawkins and Joseph Ybarra on what the business side was like, and I was wondering if you had any personal anecdotes?

Rushing: Oh, well … there were just so many. It was a really interesting, innovative and exciting time, for me personally, and I think for the gaming industry as a whole. You know, that was back when a team of four people could actually make a game that a lot of people wanted to play.

TGQ: So you had a lot of personal creative freedom?

Rushing: Yes! For the most part. Of course, once we began working with EA, Joe Ybarra was our producer, and he was very much staying in touch with us throughout the development, and would fly out to Arkansas occasionally, although he didn’t really drive the creative. But he was there offering suggestions and was a great sounding board for his interpretation of what the greater market was and what would resonate with them. And Joe was a big game player, so he came with a wealth of experience about playing games, and what he thought was going to work well with the audience.

TGQ: You were the programmer on the project?

Rushing: Well, yes, if you’re going to put labels on people. Like I said in my e-mail, we all contributed to different parts. Like my, I guess you could call it my “day contribution,” was the auction sequence. I designed it and programmed it. But, everyone … you know, we had these design sessions, so again, there were only four of us right? And we would sit around the table and just talk about the game. Everyone would have ideas, and contribute ideas. Undoubtedly Dan was the creative genius. I wouldn’t want to take any of that away from Dan. I think he really was a genius. Hold on one moment…

(Speaks to passenger)

I would never want to take anything like that away from Dan. He really was the genius behind the whole thing. But, having said that, it was very democratic in the sense that, if I or Bill or someone came up with a good idea, and the group thought it was a good idea, we would do that. It was just a very tight, trusting group of four guys, as you can imagine. And because we rented a house, and it was a very laid-back kind of environment … It was a little bit like a fraternity, if you can imagine, and we would have people over there all the time, playing our games. And we would be working on them during the day, and then we would have people over in the evening to play, and it was such an environment that could make those turn-arounds in a day. So we could get the feedback from the previous day, and we could incorporate that and then have people back over the next night. So it was just a really fun and exciting time.

TGQ: Fascinating stuff, I like the sound of all that. You also told me some trivia in the e-mails? Like the working title was “Planet Pioneers.”

Rushing: That was the working title for a long time, yeah.

TGQ: Were there any things that you wanted to include but were unable to?

Rushing: Wow, you know … I think that the little bit about the magic of M.U.L.E., you know … and there has been so much discussion and everything on the net, and there have been these sort of tribute sites, and people have tried to design “M.U.L.E. 2.0,” and so on, and they come up with a lot of good features and everything, but, I don’t know … There’s something that to me just says the simplicity of the original M.U.L.E. is hard to beat. And I think we did have some stuff that we couldn’t get to, obviously every game development team does—so there’s either things that they wanted to do that just wouldn’t work at all, and they had to set aside. Or the kind of strain being such that there just wasn’t time to finish everything. But to tell you the truth, I can’t really think of anything large that we were not able to do, or that we had to set aside. We were pretty happy with the game. I’ll just kind of leave it at that, I guess.

TGQ: Do you have any personal message or thoughts regarding the game you’d like to add?

Rushing: Well, I would just say, like I said in my e-mail, I feel really fortunate to have been a partner and to have worked with Dan Bunten. He was such a cool person on so many different levels, and he really, really had a passion for gaming, and he had such a great innate sense of what was fun. And I will just always remember the years that I spent with Dan, both through the EA period and before. Because I worked with him for about a year before we connected with EA. And you know, he had his own demons, obviously, but he was just such a cool person on so many different levels, and for me it was a very magical point in my life. I had just gotten out of school, so there was a little bit of the fraternity still going on, we were doing something brand new, something exciting, something a little bit out of the mainstream. I remember my parents being horrified that I didn’t go and get a real job after school, right, and was going off and doing this computer gaming. They were … I mean my father was just, like, disgusted, and practically ready to give up on me. You know, but it was something that I felt I wanted to do, and it was just so exciting and brand new, and were just … And you know, it was small enough so that we could get stuff done, and there wasn’t a lot of politics, and EA was brand new at the time, and EA brought a lot of really cool things to us as well. Working with Joe Ybarra was great, he was a really good producer for us. And EA brought a lot of the infrastructure that we didn’t have, so they had some technical resources that we relied on, and some things like that. I dunno, I guess for me it was just a long time ago, but it was also a very magical time for me.

TGQ: That all sounds good. I think I have enough information here along with the e-mails to supplement the article. Thank you very much for your time.

Rushing: Oh, you’re quite welcome. Any time. I am flattered that you contacted me and wanted to do an article on M.U.L.E. It’s still a good game.

TGQ: Well, more than twenty years later, people are still playing it.

Rushing: I know! I was very intrigued by that link I sent to you on the network. I have actually not had the time to download that, and to try and play it. But it looks quite interesting, and I sent the link around to a couple of people, and they were very, very interested, and they thought it was a great idea to bring some of the older games back to a wider audience.

TGQ: I had a look at it.. (Explains emulators.) … Which is why I asked about the rights to the game. Because I was contemplating the idea of “what if M.U.L.E. was available on Xbox Live Arcade,” multiplayer.

Rushing: Oh yes.

TGQ: Like Joust or Gauntlet. I was actually thinking of mentioning it in the article.

Rushing: You know, I think recently, your interest, and with this thing that showed up on the net, there are a couple of people that are interested. In fact, the new executive producer for The Sims, his name is Rod Humble. He’s from the UK actually, and he is a M.U.L.E. fanatic, and is very much thinking around in his head right now, how can we do something like that. But again, everyone asks about the rights to M.U.L.E., and it’s a little bit murky, I think. Someone would need to get an attorney to really dig down and try and understand that. We were one of the original contracts that EA wrote, and I don’t know if you know this bit of trivia also. As it turns out, the launch for EA, I think they launched six titles when they first came out, that initial launch. I think it was six. But anyway, M.U.L.E. was SKU number one. And it was just luck of the draw because there was six that were coming out at the same time. But M.U.L.E. ended up being SKU number one for EA.

But anyway, what I was going to say is … I was part of the original contract for the game, and it was a very early contract for EA, and it was really unclear how the rights were going to live on. When I left the company, I sold my portion back to Dan. I think the other guys did also. So as far as I know, Dan ended up being the sole owner of the property. However, when the Genesis M.U.L.E. project was underway, Dan was starting to get sick. And I think there was some kind of a temporary transfer of rights to get the product done. Or something like that. But I’m not sure. But I believe that eventually the rights came back to Dan’s estate. So I would imagine, if I was going to guess, I would guess that Dan’s estate is still the owner of the rights.

TGQ: That’s very interesting. And it certainly bears thinking about.

Rushing: It does. Ok, well, anyway, thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure talking with you, and I hope I’ve been a help.

TGQ: You’ve been a great help; I’m honoured to have been able to speak to a member of EA and one of the original team members.

Rushing: So, I have to know, what did Trip and what did Joe have to say?

TGQ: Actually both were very complimentary of the whole group, and of Dan; and Joe said something along the lines of, it was one of the most interesting points in his career, and feels very lucky to have worked with the original team of four. Both had very, very nice things to say.

Rushing: Terrific. They’re really good people, both of them.

TGQ: Anyway, I hate to cut and run like this, but … thank you very much! And I’ll e-mail you at a later date regarding the progress of the article.

Rushing: That would be great, thank you very much.

TGQ: Thanks, bye.

Rushing: Ok, b’bye.

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