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Table of Contents

 

Part I: Founding

Part II: The Middle Years

Part III: Trials & Tribulations

Part IV: The Next 20 Years

 

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Without Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember (below, as they appeared on CBC's Front Page Challenge, March 30, 1983), the video game development landscape in Vancouver, BC would look a lot different if it existed at all.

 

don mattrick and Jeff sember


In 1982, Mattrick and Sember founded Distinctive Software on the heels of one of their first games, “Evolution.” The studio was essentially a gun for hire, porting the

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likes of Out Run, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Castlevania, and Metal Gear to the PC and other home computers. In that milieu, the company also broke new ground with Stunts! 4D Sports Driving and the Test Drive and the Need for Speed games and by 1991 the company was purchased by Electronic Arts and became EA Canada.

Just prior to that, three guys that were working at Distinctive Software,

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Rory Armes, Dave Davis, and Ian Wilkinson quit and started a new company, Radical Entertainment.
 

1241 homer street vancouver

This is a picture of the building at 1241 Homer Street, Vancouver (circa ~1910); it marks the location of Radical Entertainment's first offices.


With $120,000CAN (in 1991) in start-up funds and some office space sub-let from co-founder Ian Wilkinson, which was located in a heritage building that was used as a rooming house that “offered inexpensive, convenient lodgings for the many single working men who crowded into Vancouver in the early 1900s," the first order of business was naming the fledgling company.

Co-founder Dave Davis takes credit for the name.

Davis was lured to Vancouver, away from California, by Don Mattrick in the late ‘80s to work at Distinctive Software. A computer science drop-out, Davis began his career in the video game industry with Broderbund Software in Marin County in the heyday of “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” and “Lode Runner” and was even part of the company when Broberbund passed on the game of some no name designer named Will Wright who had cobbled together a city building game on the Commodore 64.

It was through a publishing deal with Distinctive Software to port some Japanese games for the North American market, that Davis struck a friendship with Mattrick.

Davis recounts that when Broderbund closed his group, “Mattrick, called me up and said, "Why don't you move to Vancouver? We could use you up here." I think I was 22 at the time, maybe 23. I told him, "It sounds like an interesting adventure." So I moved up to Vancouver.”

But Davis had never lived outside of the States and didn’t know where to live so he wound up being Mattrick’s roommate until he acclimatized not just to the city but the larger Canadian culture. But Davis couldn’t stop being a little “California.”

“When I was at Broderbund, I was talking with another one of my colleagues about starting a company and it just didn't happen for whatever reason but the name I had for it kind of stuck in the back of my mind,” says Davis, “And being the California kid I pushed for us calling the new company Radical.”

“And it was really our philosophy, too. As silly as it seems, we felt Distinctive was big and corporate. They were 150 people or something like that. They felt like "The Man." And we wanted to, in the words of Steve Jobs, we wanted to change the world.”

But there would be no world changing unless the company started to make money.

“We'd done pitches to Mattel and many other companies and we just hadn't landed that first deal yet, so we were really down to our last payroll. We weren't taking any money but we were paying the employees,” says Davis.

With the last few dollars of investment funds in the bank, the entire staff of seven people arranged the cheapest flights possible to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and shared a single room -- accommodation that was, according to Davis, “not the most pleasant.”

The gamble paid off. The fledgling company came away from CES with two contracts and ensured it's survival for the immediate future but it would not be the end of the company’s troubles.

Less than two years after that fateful CES engagement, Dave Davis left the company. It wasn’t until 2 ½ years after his departure that the partnership between Davis, Wilkinson, and Armes was finally dissolved.

“The way I describe it to people is that it turned into a bad marriage,” says Davis. “We were dating. Everybody loved each other and once we got married we started to realize -- when we became business partners -- we started to realize that we didn't particularly agree or see eye-to-eye [on things]. And the wedge just started getting deeper.”

The wedge went deep enough that Davis admits he has not spoken to either Armes or Wilkinson since his departure nearly 20 years ago. “It was not a pleasant divorce, “ says Davis, who is currently Senior Vice President for THQ’s CORE studios, after stints at Sega, Electronic Arts, and MGM Studios.

But even during this time of early crisis, games were rolling out of the studio.

Editor’s Note: The other two founding partners of Radical Entertainment, Rory Armes and Ian Wilkinson, were unavailable to contribute to this story.

 

(March 12, 2012)

 

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