The games developer behind fantasy-themed MMORPG Rift on what made him pursue a career in games, and his advice to aspiring developers.
Published 13 March 2012
What first inspired you to get into your craft?
One of the first computer games that I ever played as a child was Telengard from Avalon Hill. It was similar to Dungeons and Dragons, with stats, creatures, treasure and whatnot. You adventured in little blocks made out of text characters, so the real adventure was in your imagination. And you could play it whether or not you had friends around that day. For a child, it was really captivating.
The game itself was written in BASIC, which meant that an enterprising child who had a mind to tinker could make changes to the game, e.g making the game go to 500 levels instead of the 50. Actually making that change and seeing the results was when it all clicked; I wanted to make games.
How did you first break into the industry?
A number of years after the above discovery, I had grown fond of dial-up BBSes. Bulletin Boards. Virtual ‘places’ you would connect to via your modem to leave messages for others. These first, fledgling virtual communities had a real impact on me. Meeting people from all across the state (for a kid who was still too young to drive – a truly amazing concept!) and finding out that there were other people that shared your interests? That was something else.
It was in this era that I found my first multi-user dungeon, a game called Scepter Of Goth. Sixteen users could connect to it over their 300bps modems and be in a virtual, text-based ‘world’ together, adventuring.
I played that game for a long time, and was eventually offered a job there as a GM (Game Master) before I could even drive. GMs did everything from create the world (by writing text), create monsters, treasure... adventure! Having your first adventure played by others and having them enjoy it was when I was absolutely certain I had to make online games. Other than a detour for college and a few years of employment in other technology-related fields, I’ve been doing it ever since.
Which professional figure in your field do you find the most inspiring?
There are quite a few of them. Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, the real pioneers of online gaming, for developing the generation previous to the first online games I was exposed to – online text-based adventures. The other pioneers of that generation, Kelton Flinn and John Taylor for their work in essentially inventing graphical MMOs as well.
The thing about them all that inspires me so much is that they began with, essentially, nothing, and succeeded in bringing a vision to life at a time when there was nothing even remotely comparable to what they were attempting. They created what’s become a hobby for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people across the globe – Playing games online with friends that can be anywhere in the world. Being able to have that kind of vision and lasting impact is truly amazing.
If you hadn’t managed to break into your field, what was your plan B?
In the couple of years that I wasn’t working in gaming, I did quite a bit of technology consulting. Application design and programming for hire. More often than not, it was the digital equivalent of following after others with a pooper-scooper. Apologies if that’s a different or more offensive word across the ocean, but hopefully you get the idea. Failing that, secret agent always seemed promising.
Which game do you wish you could have worked on?
Minecraft. It really went to the roots of online gaming, and brilliantly so. What Markus Persson and Mojang have done was really inspirational to me in the same way the creators of online games were: A guy with a vision, building from nothing and creating a hell of a success. It really was a perfect storm of a creator’s love for their creation, a true desire to entertain, and a real meritocracy in the sense that they were rewarded for creating something that people really loved. They definitely deserve all of the success they’ve found.
What single piece of advice would you give to a young person trying to break into your discipline and get noticed? How do you stand out from the crowd?
Build it. Ship it to real people. Get feedback on it. Make it better. Whatever ‘it’ is to you, follow through and do those things. You’ll stand out. 999 out of 1000 people who want to make games for a living either never learn how to get started, or drop out before they make it through that cycle even once. The real work of making games is truly hard, frequently thankless and full of failures along the way big and small. You get to choose how you react to them. I nearly gave up in abject frustration a hundred times trying to learn how to build games. If you can make it through that cycle a few times on your own, you’ll already stand out.
Also, try to find friends who know at least a little more than you do in the hands-on field you’re currently trying to master. I would not have made it through my frustrations without having smarter friends when I was getting started. There’s no way that I could have learned how without their help and advice.
Were there any people who supported/mentored/championed you in the early stages of your career? How important are these kinds of relationships?
Yes. Critical. And more than just the early stages. I can name at least a dozen off the top of my head: Chris, Tom, and Susan Zelinski, David Whatley, George Abolins, Darren Hyrup, Tom Tayon, Kevin Klop, Mark Jacobs, Jessica Mulligan, John Weaver Jr., Brian Fargo, Bridgette Patrovsky, John Smedley and more. The thing they all had in common is that they all had something to teach, and were willing to do so, and I was always more than willing to bust my ass in return and make them feel like they were spending their time wisely whenever I could.
My interactions with all of them and more left me with a (sometimes unrealistically) optimistic view of humanity: Be reliable, do what needs to get done and people will go out of their way to help you out too.
How do you think the games industry will change in the next few years?
The last time I had a good answer to this question was a few years ago, when I firmly believed that most games would become ‘online’ games sooner rather than later. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a fait accompli at this point. That will definitely continue.
For the next step, as the barriers to creating and publishing online games continue to come down, we’re going to start seeing more online games from a wider variety of sources than ever before. We’re about to embark upon some really exciting times.