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The 'GDC 25' Chronicles: Totally Boffo

[Continuing his 'GDC 25' archival research ahead of the 25th Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next February, official GDC historian Jason Scott makes available online for the first time audio of a GDC 1998 talk about storied adventure game studio Boffo Games.]

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Dornbrook a few years back related to a gaming history project.

As the marketing genius of Infocom, he figured somewhere in the story I was trying to tell, although at the time I wasn't sure how much. It turned out he was extremely prominent in the story, and beyond that, was one of the best interviews I've done throughout the years (out of over 300).

Involved with companies such as Infocom (some time ago!) and Harmonix (more recently!), Mike has been a playtester, marketer, salesman and no doubt a bushel of other, less formal roles. He's been in the games industry for three decades, a remarkable achievement.

Mike's talents are two-fold - he's great at marketing and management for a video game company, and he's got a razor-sharp memory. While asking someone to remember events of a quarter-century ago is at best a fishing expedition with a lot of chances for bringing up old shoes and tires, Mike provided story after story and backed it up with facts; an interviewer's dream.

So it was with pleasure that I found an audiotape called "Look Before You Leap: The Rise and Fall of Boffo Games", presented by Mike Dornbrook at Game Developers Conference 1998 in Long Beach, CA.

Digitized by myself and available online for the first time via GDC Vault and the 'GDC 25 Chronicles' project, the lecture is a post-mortem for an adventure game-centric video game company (Hodj 'n' Podj, The Space Bar) he co-founded with Steve Meretzky and Leo DaCosta.

Along the way, Mike steps through Boffo's history, decisions, finances and dealings to produce a saga of how the three years of its life had gone. (The company had closed for good the previous year.)

lrglogo.gifWhat's remarkable about this presentation is the clarity and forthrightness of Mike's speaking style.

Here you have a company that had just shut its doors after years of work, and yet we don't hear narrative-halting bitterness or wild accusations, hallmarks of this tough business. Instead, he provides names, places, dates, like a historian explaining the events of an era long past.

And what names! Everyone seems to make an appearance, cameo or otherwise: Microsoft, Rocket Science, Time-Warner Interactive, EA, Accolade, IBM, Broderbund... the amount of people that Boffo Games comes into contact with, be it light discussions or intense contractual negotiations is amazing. (Boffo had over 30 projects in the pipeline, and two ultimately shipped.)

His lessons are clear as well: be careful who you negotiate with, assume nothing even in the face of apparent perfect arrangements, realize a start-up will be subject to a lot of forces outside of its in-house skill and talent.

After 35 minutes, the speech switches to a Q&A, which is worth it for the directions it heads in. Steve Meretzky gets in on some of the answers (he was in the front row of the presentation). Mike has great answers for everything, like he always has.

If only everyone in the game industry could talk like this! Well, I guess that's asking a bit much, but nonetheless, the talk is well worth listening to.

The GDC 25 Chronicles

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