Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I could speak of this in almost any context, art, writing, love, gardening, business, music, etc. But today, I really want to write about creating software, because now is the best time ever to extend dreams into the real world, through technology.
Years ago, concepts like wide access to 3D printing and creating your own mass-appeal software were a mere blip on the horizon. Only an elite few even knew where to begin, much less become "producers" themselves. Now, practically everyone in the world has an easy online portal to develop new technology ideas. The creation interface has been simplified to accommodate even grade school level enthusiasts, production costs have decreased exponentially, and distribution can be as easy as a five-minute upload. And if an idea provides a solution that makes sense to you, it will likely make sense to others as well. Technology, more than any other force, is what shapes culture into being. And times they are-a-changing', fast. There's never been a better time to participate in the construction of reality, as we collectively dance on the burning edge of its creation.
Nothing could be more true when it comes to game development. When I started many years ago, it was phenomenally difficult and expensive to make a video game. Today, what might have taken a team of 10 people a full year to create, can be handled by just a few, or even one, at a fraction of the time and cost. Currently, there are over 100 game apps a day being released, made possible by a technology infrastructure designed to give tremendous creative power to the individual "Maker". That's what we are called these days, Makers…I love it.
It took a long time to get to this point however, and looking back, the journey was more difficult than most people realize (I was going to split this blog into two posts, but I think whole story needs to seen at once).
My history of developing video game software goes all the way back to the late nineties, aka, the "ancient days" of the first great polygon-pusher, the Sony Playstation. While I was always amazed at the collective production horsepower of every team I was ever involved with, work life back then was, to put it mildly, less than supportive of our creative talents. Basically, we spent most of our long days doing the "trial and error" slam dance of engineering gymnastics, as the team's code-warriors toiled over fundamentals of how the damn thing worked. Creative input was kept to a bare, pragmatic minimum and just getting the basics accomplished was a sort of minor miracle back then. Not exactly the building blocks of excellence, I'm afraid. Personally, being a manager responsible in part for keeping the haggard troops alive and motivated, I did not protest, but instead worked ridiculously hard to "set the right example", at one point never putting in less than 80 hours a week, nor grabbing a day off (weekends, holidays, bleeding out my eyeballs, whatever) for almost a full year. Regardless of procuring a fairly reasonable paycheck, this was not a very good living. The conditions were just too rough, people got sick, went crazy, lost their husbands, wives…it was bad.
I'd also like to be clear: I am grateful for the relationships that were created during that time, and give thanks to the many of you who still know me today as your friend. Namaste!
Sadly, the company I was working for at the time adopted this "scorched employee" mentality as the new normal for production, as did many others, setting a dangerous precedent whose effects reverberated throughout my career. And as a result, some of the final products I worked on reflected the lack of care, creativity and completion needed to be great, and, in fact, were just barely profitable. Always overdue and over budget, every game company I worked for from that point on seemed to fall to the dark side, devolving into factories designed to push out sequels, ports and derivative titles. Being surrounded by game professionals, the lack of insight as to what creates a great game experience was truly bewildering, even as companies like Nintendo routinely attributed their massive success to treating the process like creating a work of art. And that's just it…to me it seemed that two distinctly different camps had formed within the industry, those focused on creating an artistic monument to the current state of technology, and those that focused solely on getting something out the door with the least amount of effort. Most of the latter (several of which I worked for) are now out of business, while the former have grown to dominate an industry that now generates more annual revenue than Hollywood.
But before I get lost in the woe-was-me-ness, it was under these difficult circumstances that I became motivated to change things. While Nintendo had clearly established its presence as a creative fountainhead, with little exception, most other companies were suspiciously vacant of the vital creative energy so many people associate with making great video games. Now, that's a huge accusation considering the volumes and volumes of work produced since then. I could get on the phone right now and immediately engage in some pretty heated tit-for-tat with a number of respected and seasoned pros, who would deem that statement to be absolutely ludicrous. But that's just it, the problem with many video game developers is they think they are being creative, even when they are simply reiterating the same small number of concepts using a different skin. Which, is most of the time….different package, same contents. If you do a search for video games that should be considered "works of art" the list is quite small (One of my favorites, btw, is a gem known as Ico! ). The list of great games that genuinely educate, elevate consciousness or attempt anything in the way of breaking through established philosophical boundaries is even smaller. What I found myself immersed in, all those years ago, was a brilliant industry that had convinced itself that it was so smart, that it didn't need to take risks.
So I did. Or at least, I tried to. In the last days of one particular company, I'd somehow convinced our entire production team to mutiny against the dominant paradigm (on it's last dying breath, btw) to focus on a game design I created involving Jim Woodring's impossible-to-describe universe of Frank. The protagonist, a hinduism inspired cat-like creature who never learns anything, would have to find ways to die in order to be reincarnated to the next, more fabulous/horrible plane of existence. We got all of two weeks into that project before being shut down. I still want to play this game.
Years later I got the thumbs up from legendary the pop-surrealist Tim Biskup to create a prototype 3D stacking game based on his wildly successful "Stack Pack" creature series. Not surprisingly, even though the demo was seamless and just screams Work of Art! a financial backer did not appear and the project was shelved (sniff, sorry Tim).
By the mid 2000's my whole perspective was beginning to change. I was sick of all trivial games, even the one's with artistic merit. Basically, I was no longer interested in working on anything but software that somehow contributes the greater good of humanity. My last project, before taking a very long break, was the Inner Active Health Project, a 501 c3 non-profit that used video game technology to bridge the mind-body gap, which I eventually handed over to the Center for Transformational Neurophysiology. They continue to run IAHP to this day.
This past year, I independently released my first science education game, Isopod, to rave reviews. It's the first action game ever, I believe, that uses real critters, in real environments, interacting as they would in real life backed by real science, written by real scientists. Whew! The game is 100% my own vision, with no investors, no bosses and, most importantly, none of the structural limitations that, prior to this time, could have prevented it coming in to being. It's in schools all over the world now, and I look forward to the life changing shifts that will happen as a result. What a ride. What I've learned is this: There has never been a better, easier or more relevant time to put your own ideas to the test. Invest in yourself. Your heart demands it!