Gaming Made Me Too

The “Gaming Made Me” series over on Rock Paper Shotgun has been pretty interesting. Also, other game blogs I read have been posting their own takes, so I figured I would throw mine out there as well. The series asks folks to define what games “made us the people we are today”. That’s pretty tough, no?



ZZT

Yet the first one is pretty easy for me. Epic’s (yes, Epic, the studio that now brings you highly-detailed brown things blowing up other highly-detailed brown things) Tim Sweeney came out with this ANSI-based adventure generator in 1991. I probably first came across it in 1993. I found an AOL message board of other kids who made ZZT adventures and I learned quite a bit from them.

This was my first real experience with programming, my first real experience with releasing something creative for anonymous internet types to destroy, my first real experience with making something creative that wasn’t just for me or someone I knew.

By high school, the Internet boom was in its toddlerhood and I forgot about making games because I was going to be the next creator of a something.com and be a billionaire by time I was twenty. Web applications were where it was at. Of course, by time I was in college, all those freshly minted stock certificates were worthless and that’s what drove me back to games. But if it wasn’t for all the fun and learning I had with ZZT, I would have never even considered the industry as a place where a real person could make a living.

In a box somewhere (I think I may know where it is), is a 3.5″ floppy disk containing all of my ZZT adventures. If kids wouldn’t scoff at the graphics, I would say that ZZT should be taught in middle schools to kids interested in math & science. Unlike other “build your own game” software I have tried since, none rivaled ZZT‘s beginning simplicity or potential gradual complexity.



Halo

Yes, it is quite popular to denigrate Halo these days. It is the One Buck Chuck of the elitist gamer world, no?

By the time I was finishing high school, I wasn’t much of a “gamer” in the traditional sense. I’d play things here or there (I had a copy of Max Payne that I played the summer before freshman year of college and thought it was pretty decent) but I didn’t follow the gaming press or anything like that. People were losing their lives to EverQuest and I remember thinking how sad it was that the carefree years of our lives were passing by and people were wasting it clicking rats.

Microsoft came to our campus in Fall of 2001 to recruit for internships. They brought their soon-to-be-released Xbox. It wowed everyone, especially the stills of “Project Ego” (eventually becoming Fable) and “Sneakers” (eventually a Toys-R-Us exclusive that would score a 2.0 from IGN). We got to play Halo before everyone else and that moment in Wean Hall was transcendent for me.

Piles of us nerds played four-player multiplayer until the MS rep pried the Xbox from our cold pasty-white hands. There was trash-talking, their was skill, there was camaraderie. It was gaming, but it wasn’t solitary and sad like the people I watched lose themselves to EverQuest. It was social and dynamic. Suddenly, I was interested in games again.

My parents were super and got me an Xbox for Christmas. My dorm room became the “Halo room”. People on my floor were there when I left for class and there when I came back at night. I met so many people (and still hold these friendships) simply because I was the supplier of Halo. While Halo 2 was by every measure a better game, it doesn’t occupy the same place in my heart. By the time it was released, my freshmen year friends were scattered across campus or at other universities. While I played with some folks over the new “Xbox Live“, it wasn’t the same. It felt solitary again. Halo got me interested in not only the dynamics internal to the game’s systems, but also the dynamics that the game would elicit among the players.



Superman Returns

My first game for EA was NFL Street 2. It was an excellent game, but I can’t claim much credit for that as I was a lowly production weasel there for about three-eighths of the cycle. While I was on the preproduction team for NFL Street 3, I was eventually shifted off that to work on the handheld versions of the Superman game. Superman was to be Tiburon’s next breakthrough in the industry. No longer would we be seen as the “Madden guys”.

I was put on a small group that would design the game and manage the external partner doing the hard work. This EA group just came off the highly underrated Goldeneye: Rogue Agent for the NDS and was small and tightly-knit. It was a great place for me to cut my teeth.

Let’s just say this: everything that could have gone wrong with the project, went wrong.

We weren’t alone. The console team had massive internal and external problems as well. It was essentially a clusterfuck in eight figures. Morale was very low. Here I was, a fresh new game designer thinking that all I had to do was come up with some good ideas, model them to see if they would work and by some fairy pixie magic, we would put them in the game. It can’t happen when your team just can’t handle the work or your licensor demands are unacceptable or your pre-release PSP devkit software is an insufferable piece of shit. At that point, I was still hourly. I had one paycheck that showed a 110.5 hour week. I saved the paystub.

In short, I learned to deal with the harshest of constraints.

And it made me a much better designer. After that, the rest of the team was pretty-much burnt out so I was given the reins to do a short cycle (four months!) GBA Superman game with an external team of three. This became Superman Returns: Fortress of Solitude. While the GBA game got no press and no marketing, I feel it is a great game and it is one of my proudest accomplishments as a designer. And it wouldn’t have been nearly as good if I hadn’t just come through hell and learned all the lessons therein about dealing with constraint.

While the rest of Tiburon still to this day speaks of Superman Returns in the hushest of whispers, I can proudly talk about my time on that team. Very few of the SMR folks remain these days, so it has been all but erased from the company’s culture. I worked on canceled title after canceled title after that as the brass was far too gun shy to fund anything that wasn’t guaranteed to sell fifty million copies (unless it was their idea).

Fun note: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure would have never happened had it not been for the aftermath of Superman Returns as well. But that’s another story that I’m not privy to tell.


Hopefully, there will be more of these seminal titles in the future for me. Leave comments if you have a list that isn’t your favorite games, but the games that created who you are as a gamer, designer or whatever.

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