Amory Wong: The Classic Gaming Quarterly Interview

Amory Wong today: shaping the young minds of North Vancouver, BC.

Amory Wong started working at EA Canada when it was still independent developer “Distinctive Software”, or DSI.  They developed a number of noteworthy sports and racing games in the late 80’s and early 90’s, including Hardball II, Test Drive, and one of my all-time favorite DOS games, Stunts (A.K.A. “4D Driving”.)  DSI was eventually bought out by Electronic Arts, and subsequently developed a number of titles for their “EA Sports” line.  Eventually Amory, known as “The Old Kid” around the office, would leave the game development world to become a secondary school teacher in North Vancouver, BC.

This “accidental interview” came about during my research for the “History of NHL 94” episode of our YouTube show.  The Genesis version of the game was developed by Mark Lesser, who was contracted by EA to do the job, and hired people on his own to fill out the dev team. The SNES version on the other hand was developed by EA Canada. I thought that was weird so I reached out to Amory, who was the lead programmer on the Super Nintendo version of the game, to try and get to the bottom of it.

The Super Nintendo version of NHL 94 was developed by EA Canada, but the Genesis version was developed by independent programmer Mark Lesser. But why?

Classic Gaming Quarterly:
The Super Nintendo version of NHL 94 was developed by EA Canada. Can you shed any light on why EA internally-developed the SNES version but not the Genesis version?

Amory Wong: You are digging at some pretty old brain cells and we worked a lot of overtime so things are blurry. But to the best of my knowledge, [EA] didn’t have the capacity to make the [Genesis version of the] game.  I was responsible for porting the Genesis code onto the SNES.

NHLPA Hockey 93 for the Sega Genesis, from which the Super Nintendo version of NHL 94 was ported. Sacrilege?

Do you know which version of the Genesis code you were porting?  NHL 94 for the SNES came out less than 2 months after the Genesis version, so were you porting over NHL 94, or was it a port of NHLPA Hockey 93, with roster updates and tune-ups?

AW: We started with the ’93 code and Michael [Brook – head of EA Sports] gave us the ’94 feature requirements.  Michael wasn’t interested in making the physics for hits to be more real; he wanted it to be a little over the top since it was a game.

CGQ: Why didn’t you guys just build off of the code for the SNES version of NHLPA Hockey 93?

AW: From what I recall, I don’t think Michael liked the way ’93 SNES worked; it didn’t feel the same as the Genesis, so we worked off the ’93 Genesis code. The Genesis had the 68000 processor so it was able to do multiplies and divides with the CPU.  We had to do it with software and we required more optimization. Although it was a port, we did do some original material, such as the title art and music by Michael Sokyrka.

SNES NHLPA Hockey '93: Not up to snuff for Michael Brook. Honestly, it really was a pretty bad game.
SNES NHLPA Hockey ’93: Not up to snuff for Michael Brook. Honestly, it really was a pretty bad game.

Do you happen to know why Barry Melrose was listed in the “Special Thanks” section of the credits for SNES NHL 94?

AW: Michael Brook worked out of San Francisco, so Barry was probably there.  He never came to EA Canada.

CGQ: Were you at all involved in any of the PC releases?

AW: Robert White was the lead programmer on that project.  He was cursing quite a bit converting my code because of the way I optimized things.  He used the SNES code instead of the Genesis code, since I was around to answer questions. I can’t remember if it was the ’94 version, but someone got fired for putting in un-authorized easter-eggs that the NHL didn’t appreciate – I don’t know if it made into the production version.

CGQ: Do you remember what kind of easter eggs were in the game?  Like vulgar stuff, or just something silly?

AW: The easter egg was vulgar; I believe it was an exploding head for a ref.

CGQ: An exploding referee head seems more like something that should have been in Mutant League Hockey! Are there any other interesting tidbits that you could share with me about the game’s development?

AW: We were are a really small team compared to today’s development teams; pretty much one to three people in each area (programming, art, and sound) with some part time. The deadline was pretty crazy.  I think we finished it in less than 6 months.  I flew down to San Francisco to tune the game directly with Michael Brook and Scott Probin for a week, just to speed up development.

This was one of the first games developed by EAC for EA after the buy out of DSI [Distinctive Software, Inc].  Because of the quick and successful development, this led to EAC creating original products.  For myself, it was the NBA Live series.

We always had fun making games even though it was a ton of overtime, so we never felt like we grew up or that it was really work.

NBA Live 95 on the Super Nintendo - the greatest basketball video game ever made.
NBA Live 95 on the Super Nintendo – the greatest basketball video game ever made.

I think that NBA Live 95 is still to this day the best basketball game ever made, so if that was your handiwork then please accept a huge thanks from me!

AW: Thanks for the NBA Live complement.  Sam Nelson was a great producer.  He was very knowledgeable about basketball and was hired specifically for this project.  He also had to relocate from San Francisco, so he took a big risk moving.

CGQ: At some point, you left game programming to become a teacher…

AW: I decided on a career change to help the next generation become successful. I am teaching math, programming, and computer animation.

CGQ: Do your students know about your “previous life” as a game programmer? Of course, they weren’t even born yet when NHL 94 came out, but you worked on lots of games, and there’s a lot of interest in “retrogaming” these days.

AW: Yes, they do know that I worked for EA for 20 years. However, this doesn’t seem to inspire them to work as hard as I would like. I am just like any other teacher that still has to struggle to motivate kids.

I usually bring out NHL 94 at the end of the year and some students have played it before, so they get a kick out of that! The graphics aren’t great, but they think the gameplay still holds up. Because graphics weren’t great back then, I think a lot of companies really focused on the gameplay which is why there are so many “classic” games.

CGQ: If I may ask just one more question, why were you called “Old Kid”?

AW:  They started calling me that while doing NBA Live ’96.  We hired an artist, Daryl Anselmo, about 19 years old.  Because he was so young, I started calling him “The Kid”.  I was the oldest of the project group, 33, so he started calling me “The Old Kid” and then so did everyone else.  It’s funny, now I really am old!

CGQ: Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions! Details like these can be easily lost to history when people like me don’t pick the brains of the great guys like you who were doing all of the work back then.

AW: Thanks for doing this! I think history is important.

Classic Gaming Quarterly sincerely thanks Mr. Wong for his time.  You can check out “The History of NHL 94” on our YouTube Channel.