About DMA Design

"Bob", the DMA Man

“Bob”, the DMA Man

DMA was a Scottish computer games company from 1988 to 2001. During that time they created over a dozen games and became the largest independent games developer in Europe. One highlight was Lemmings, which you may have heard of. Another was Grand Theft Auto, of which you certainly have. It was founded in 1988 by Dave Jones who, having lost his job at the Timex plant in Dundee, used the redundancy money to buy an Amiga 1000 and start writing the game Menace. He did this at the back of his classes in college, scribbling 68000 assembly language in notebooks, as well as at home.

The roots of the company, however, go back into Dundee’s Kingsway Amateur Computer Club, where around 1984 Dave met Mike Dailly, Russell Kay and Steve Hammond who would later become employees. The club existed throughout most of the eighties, and was dedicated to home computers such as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum as well as many less-well known models. It was here that they would discuss computer games and talk about how cool it would be to create them. Dave and Russell had a head-start here as they had been working on a Spectrum game called Moonshadow. Mike soon became a self-taught expert on coding for the Commodore 64 and immediately launched into writing his own games. Steve assisted by providing graphics in the now lost art of creating C64 character sets.

The "Old Old" Office at the bottom of the Perth Road

The “Old Old” Office

DMA Design got its name from the Amiga programming reference manuals. In computer terms, DMA stands for Direct Memory Access, a means for custom chips to write data straight to the memory without having to go through the processor. It results in a speed increase. Dave liked the way it sounded, even though in the context of DMA Design it didn’t actually mean anything. There was a precedent for this; Menace originally had the code name CopperCon1, named after a memory register in the Amiga’s Copper graphics chip. Copper stood, loosely, for Co-Processor.

By this time, another computer club was in full flow at Dundee Institute of Technology (DIT) (before it became Abertay University) and it were here that DMA gained its name. One evening in the club, Dave – surrounded by other members – went through a list of possible names with suggestions being offered by Russell, Steve, Mike & others. Some of the suggested names were Milliard and Visual Voyage. Even Alias Smith & Jones, owing to the involvement of Tony Smith, who provided the graphics for the early games.

The first office was at the bottom of the Perth Road in Dundee, a small red-fronted place above a shop, squeezed between two larger stone buildings. Menace was coded by Dave in his bedroom, when not working out algorithms for it during lecture time at college. Blood Money, the follow-up if not a straight sequel, was written here along with the beginnings of Hired Guns & Walker. Most famously, Lemmings was created here and released on Valentine’s Day, 1991.

To support the company while the original projects were taking place, DMA worked with Liverpool company Psygnosis to port some of their games to other platforms. Shadow of the Beast for example was a game for the Amiga which DMA converted to the Commodore 64, along with Ballistix.

By the time DMA had expanded past a dozen employees, a relocation to larger premises took place. This was the Meadowside office, less than a ten minute walk from the original office and within view of DIT if you hung out the window. Pizza smells from the downstairs parlour hung in the air as the games were coded. Conversions of Lemmings from the Amiga to other platforms such as the Atari ST began. Magazines began to take notice, leading to photoshoots on the office rooftop and on top off Dundee Law, an extinct volcano.

Meadowside proved to be only a comparatively short stay before another move into DMA’s final office complex, located in the new Technology Park. Discovery House was a modern, green glass façade office space. Initially they had a few rooms, but soon grew to occupy an entire floor once the other companies there had either vacated or been made an offer. Lemmings became Lemmings 2 and 3, Walker and Hired Guns were released. DMA expanded to 150 staff.

With a large number of creative people came a vast number of ideas. This was a period in which design documents for potential games greatly outnumbered the games themselves. A followup for Walker – Atomic Battle System – was a might-have-been, as was a sequel to Hired Guns. Hollywood even made its first tentative approaches. DMA created a short demo video of what a Lawnmower Man game might look like for the SNES and were in short-lived discussions about creating a video game tie-in to the first Men in Black movie.

DMA always felt able to experiment with concepts out of the ordinary, the motivation being to avoid the beaten track as much as was possible. Hence, the games tended toward the experimental. This was not always commercially successful.

DMA came to an end in 2001. Many of the staff, though not Dave Jones, went on to be Rockstar North, providing a continuity of sorts. With this came a relocation from Dundee to Edinburgh. But for the original DMA, the real DMA, the story was over.