Monday, July 17, 2006

Back In My Day . . .

Here's one of my father's
apocryphal stories. I say that because I don't remember the situation at all and I'd much rather deny its veracity.

Here goes: At one point my father took me to an arcade. I was very young, maybe five, so I could just barely grab the controls and see the screen (I was an awfully short child). The game was one of those seminal space shooters, Galaga maybe. My father was no doubt expecting me, as representative of a new, electronically-savvy generation, to immediately rack up a million points and quite possibly win a new sports car as reward.

He plunked the quarter in and I'm sure my face lit up as the machine played its exciting 'Game Start' sound effects.

And then I pretty much did nothing. No, even worse, my father claims that I flailed at the controls and made a complete wash of it. I probably would have done better with my hands off the controls.

My father admits that he suspected perhaps I was retarded.


My father's suspicions would, thankfully, pass.

At one point I developed a fascination with videogames, a curiosity at this whole world outside of my experience. The way that imagination could be turned into this interactive structure was magnificent to contemplate. It's difficult to pin down that point.

We had a Nintendo when I was young, and I played it endlessly, but I never bought any of the consoles that would follow. There was a limiting feel from consoles, everything was hidden from sight. I wasn't much of a hardware kid.

When I was twelve we got our first computer. We were running DOS and there were a few simple BASIC programs installed. I learned that I could either play those games or open up their programs and see the guts. The mystery was shattered. And though I never learned more than the rudiments of the language, the idea that I might be able to work in the videogame medium was laid before me.

It was on the computer that my love of games and learning how those games achieved their impact reached fruition. I was also exposed to a greater range of genres. King's Quest VI. Silent Service II. X-Com. Warcraft. Wing Commander II.

Civilization was completely mind-blowing. Skimming through the Civilopedia opened my eyes to how knowledge could be organized and presented in ways that aided comprehension and spurred further research. This from a game.

Not long after my first few marathon Civilization sessions (when I could wrest it away from my dad), I hacked together my first game design document. It was sparse and unorganized and incomplete, but it got me thinking even more about the game industry. Were there really people who designed games?

The answer, I found out, was 'yes,' and they were interesting, imaginative, creative, playful people. Roberta Williams was an early role model for me and I still think of her retirement from the games industry as a loss. Sid Meier was, of course, in the pantheon. As was Will Wright.

Several companies caught my attention as well. Blizzard. Lucasarts. Looking Glass. You could make a living doing this - maybe not get rich, but get by.


Of course, the ultimate catalyst was Doom. Several factors coalesced to sear this game permanently in my imagination: A best friend (we were inseparable), access to a computer (the best friend's), the best friend's older brother attending computer science classes (and from him knowledge on how to hack shareware, but only for 'educational' purposes) and plenty of free time (freshman in public high school).

But Doom might not have had the same impact on me were it not for the modding scene. For the very first time there were tools out there that would allow a gamer to create video games on par (and possibly surpassing at times) with that released by a developer. New links were forming and the industry itself was re-organizing. I could see such vast potential. It seemed like the PC games industry exploded.

My interest exploded with it.


I didn't have a choice whether or not to get involved with gaming. It chose me.

I would read about games I would never play, systems I would never own, defunct concepts and speculations about the future. I would download countless free programs, mod programs, open-source projects, graphics demos and risk infecting my computer with ruthless viruses just to tinker with obtuse code.

And I haven't stopped.

It's ceaselessly fascinating to me, the knowledge and time and skill necessary to create even a simple game.

Gaming touches my intellectual curiosity, my emotional response and my creative yearning. I'm always thinking, "How would I have done this differently?" And now, working in the industry, there are times when I actually get asked, "What should be done differently?" That's always a joy, even if my suggestions don't get implemented.

I suppose at this point it borders on obsession, but it's remarkable to be earning a living at my passion. There are times, I admit, when work is tedious or playing games has burned me out a bit, but I always get back in the pocket.

It's a steady groove.

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