One thing I haven't been wondering about these days is how one gets to be a rockstar - and that's not coming from the experience of being one. Frankly, I've never even harbored said dream, nor have I ever aspired to being marginally famous on FaceBook, Twitter, or whatever else should pass for a popular see-and-be-seen spot these days. Nope, it's just not my thing - although I'm pleased as punch when folks enjoy my musical doodlings on the trumpet. But that could only possibly ever find minor claim since, last I checked, no trumpeters have ever had rockstar appeal outside of the rather narrow confines of jazz and classical music. (Okay, there WAS the idiosyncratic Herb Alpert phenomenon back in the 1960s, sure, but I think it's safe to say I'm in no danger of sudden celebrity while harboring only a tiny percentage of his talent and skill.)
I was, however, a video game designer once upon a time (technically simultaneously a programmer, but for obvious reasons of little perceived creativity - and thus lacking glamour or sex appeal - that'll be handily ignored.) Yes, I was one of the select thousands since the dawn of, like, 1980 who've manipulated the electronic puppetry consisting of poor little 2-dimensional graphics to move around to a chortling of sound effects. Responding to people's joystick jerkings, button smashing, or mouse clicks, whatever gaming whims I had under each game's guise had to be obeyed in order to theoretically accomplish a mission of high scores. Such glory!... to likely mostly an audience of 13-year-old boys, anyway, or physically grown men trapped in such an emotional state. Still, it's something, although let me here disclaim to perish any thought that I had anything whatsoever to do with such immersive worlds of "-Craft" fame or shoot-em-ups: my "worlds" were more of a Tetris or Bejewelled nature. Reality can be such a buzzkill.
(It gets worse, too, if I further this sentiment of disclosure by admitting that people probably mostly play games such as my creations only while in the hazed daze of having nothing better to do. Video games CAN be ever-so-agreeable pleasant time killers, addictive or not, easily accessed diversions to make it through a bored day. While this is hardly the wee-hours image of a bunch of pre- or post-adolescent men-to-boys making their way through gobs of pizza and beer, the reality this is this considerably more mundane imagery emerges by necessity when noting that most who play - and, more importantly, actually buy instead of illegally download - games of what is now called the "casual game segment" are women aged 40-60. When the particular (then) start-up company I worked for first realized this, it was a surprise indeed, but we eventually (and soon) settled on the more realistic reaction of "Thank God for THEM!"
Nevertheless, the title of "game designer" manages to retain its (admittedly) loose hold on an exalted status, if only because it still has an aura of the romantic notion of getting paid to create and play games for a living. And hey - it worked for me, didn't it?!? Thus, oddly enough or not, at times this history works its "magic" on others. Which is to say that, on more than a few occasions, I've found myself closed in on by one or more (typically pre-adolescent) boys, stunned to be in honest contact with someone who's seen the inner workings of the other side of their obsession, a computer game. Each time I experience this odd adulation, however, I'm always mildly astonished, even as this happens less as my time away from the industry only grows. At turns it even becomes annoying, frankly, as I only increasingly want to distance myself from the all-too-often consequences of being forced into conversation about something I no longer hold any interest in.
There's the "Wanna play Mario Kart?", for example, which my nephew asks each time I visit in conveniently ignoring the fact that I consistently respond to his plea by desperately glancing for a non-existent secret exit door or finding sudden excuses to burrow deeper into my ever-present book. Granted, too, he probably asks this of everyone who walks in the door - but it strikes a more resonant chord within me specifically. Thus I rank it as good character on my part that I merely answer in the negative when he asks if I actually made that massive game. (Not to mention that I'd probably have to, as a mere practical matter, be Japanese and probably living in Tokyo.)
"Or... if you want... you can watch!" he usually entreats next, much as I typically go on to pretend that I must be hearing voices from another planet: "Come in, Pluto, you're still a planet to me - I'm listening!" Around this time I usually pause to muse on the decline of books and reading, my personal vice from the past unto the present. (I also wonder if anyone is willing anymore to engage in something that takes effort, follow-through, and an attention span. At this rate I should be ready for my golden years replete with a laden catalog of "In MY day I had to...")
Meanwhile my nephew is usually hardly done at that last stab of my inclusion. Indeed, within the span of mere months there was his notable development of resorting to Jedi mind tricks, particularly impressive for an otherwise unassuming, happy-go-lucky 5-year-old (if one rather well-versed in all that is Star Wars): "You... wanna... play... Mario Kart!" he intones gravely. Oh, Lordy. Does he really think by following that with a prolonged, earnest, almost pleading stare that I will sit down to the equivalent of jamming sticks in my eyes? Unfortunately... yes.
Okay, his need or desire for my presence - however tacit - I understand. While a computer gives feedback to a certain enjoyable extent, yes, this excitement gets supercharged when sharing it with another human being. Bells and whistles only go so far, much like chuckling to oneself. I get it as much as I don't want to, I suppose.
Oddly enough, it was this paucity of human exchange that was precisely what I had found lacking in my former job. In its more creative phases, I'd have an idea (or someone else's that I'd run with) to toy with, eventually moving from using placeholder art to that magic moment when the real art arrived and the game literally came to life in an instant. But that was more often the exception to the rule in terms of time spent. Usually my efforts were instead spent interacting with my computer to make the dadgum thing work, all human stuff left on hold as I argued with my computer and tried to fix this or that. Eventually a game would pop out, good or bad, and so it went.
That process, I guess, was and is the dream - makin' computer games! - even if the greater reality of that scenario is that such a small operation only begets small games. But roughly the same went when I worked on bigger ones as well, on teams that grew to sizes of twenty. While that experience was much more fun from an interaction standpoint - where getting together over any issue could lead to joking and sidetracked ideas - it was simultaneously less rewarding from the standpoint of feeling accomplishment. A smaller cog is a smaller cog.
In either case, regardless, the world of business steps - and in my case, repeatedly stepped - in. That's because, as a rule, companies exist to make money. Moreover, in the high tech world the necessary corollary is ALSO that computer game companies apparently exist only to be sold to bigger game companies. Eventually these need to be eaten up as well, by those bigger fish called conglomerates and their like - entities that might often be merely holding companies. You know, those ones whose names seem spit out by a computer that's handily referenced a dictionary-styled list of hopeful sounding root words, prefixes, and suffixes. Ever hear of Lucent, Accenture, Cendant? Need I even utter "Blech?"
On a more practical level, those bigger games need to make a suitably bigger pile of money to cover a host of salaries. Risk becomes ever more palpable as a debt hole grows and questions remain about a game's home run swing. The vast majority of these enterprises experience no such master stroke, of course. At least for the smaller games, those usually found in the casual game world of Tetris-like clones and their ilk, only a certain number of winners are necessary to pay for the losers. Whatever - in both cases, the game that everyone's livelihood is depending on better be fun! Or else!
Beyond all the above, too, always exists the scintillating x-factor: From the heydeys of dotcom mania - which I was a part of twice in Seattle - to now, there's always the big, enticing, and brilliantly golden ring of becoming spectacularly rich. A few people managed to do so, and I even knew some. Some knew me. Often they'd buy us copious amounts of drinks, too... when not otherwise surveying another prospectus for vacation property.
On a more quotidien basis, meanwhile, the process of running headlong toward that lure allowed for getting swept up into the fun, pretending like work was really play and all that. The pool and air hockey tables would duly be carted in to promote frivolity, much like free snacks were made available especially as deadlines came to loom. (That these all had a way of diminishing over time as bean counters fidgeted toward selling the company off could be an interesting sleight of hand worth monitoring as well.) Yes, in high and rising times, co-workers could play tag while simultaneously firing squirt guns and catching frisbees, and so on. And make no mistake about it, either: Such distractions DID sometimes make it easy to watch a challenging job's necessary hours disappear without a care.
The other side of it, though, is that this also only works spectacularly well when dealing with twenty-somethings who have no spouses, kids, or passions yet about what they want to do in life. Those take oodles of hours, too. Such was my case over time, sans the wife and kids but with the hobbies of trumpet, language, and travel. Plus, I got older - my knowledge of how things work, and who reaps the benefits of what, increased. I learned to value salary more, and stock options less, as accountable hours eventually meant something. No amount of free beer in the community fridge could make up for time never gotten back.
All the while it's probably become a rather open secret that publicly unspoken company hiring policies are, in fact, often centered on trying to hire ONLY such young go-getters. Those gamer professionals I know from when I was a twenty-something in the industry - those still looking for gamer jobs, that is - find it increasingly difficult to find such employment beyond the august age of about 30 or so. A recent get-together with a number of my co-workers from my first game company made this abundantly clear. (And, on a side note, the news that the former titular head of that same company is spending more than a decade in jail for fraud should be no less surprising, either, I was told.)
But try telling all these details to a kid - or even numerous adults, many of whom wistfully smile when they hear what I used to do. I got to (sometimes) play games for a living? Come ON! Usually the next thing I hear is "That was my DREAM job!" or "My brother always wanted to do that!" before launching into a waxing of dreamwaving best described as reliving a childhood (which is what is assumed to be the main responsibility of the job.) Now, increasingly, I hear "My nephew says he wants to do that..." - which tells me something else entirely. And it's hard to escape the history, too, especially in the U.S. where almost all personal judgement seems to stem from how one makes or made the bucks. There's no escape outside of outright lying and denial - which I increasingly consider a good idea.
In my case this was all the more odd in that I had actually fallen into it more than anything else. Not knowing what to do with a math degree (which I pursued without exactly knowing why, other than it came easily to me) or a master's in computer science (which was a belated reaction to allow for feedback that mathematical proofs would never provide, handily ignoring that this was, after all, coming from a computer.) No, I stumbled instead into the field. The accumulated papers of pedigree eventually found in my hands had only brought about the inevitable question of "Could I possibly make computers interesting?" Fortunately, there WAS a logical extension of my having already slid toward making phone calls over the internet (this was 1994) and generating graphics in my master's program to give an answer: GAMES!
Some years later, I had made some pretty successful ones, particularly in my second game company go-round. Ours was the little dotcom that could, that one in one hundred, thousand, or million that made it. The rest went to script: The owners became fabulously rich, quickly turning to look for ostentatious ways to flaunt their new wealth before checking out when even that got boring. One of them would even take to randomly shocking himself electrically (I kid not) in the office for attention when no longer able to summon the interest to contribute anything any longer. Yikes. Well, if THAT didn't spread the rot of what success could eventually mean in the computer game industry, nothing could! Lesson... noted. The rest of us, meanwhile, got a crash course in learning their version of trickle-down economics as free drinks in the office and a local bar lost its luster over time.
Certainly those events sufficiently did me in, but the numbers are legion of the miffed and woulda-couldas. And most such ventures never come close to panning out in the first place. Neither does it hardly matter, especially as us experienced gamers leave and eager new ones instantly replace us to chase the dream. And fair enough, too, at that: They have far more energy and verve to do what it takes to make the magic happen! So good luck to them. Besides, the other side of it is that, after too much time spent in the game mine, about all someone like me would be good for anyway would be to carry the mantle of forgotten game causes that never saw completion. That's not drive - that's called being burned out.
Thus am I merely stuck with a modest legacy, admittedly pale in comparison to the aforementioned rockstar - but with perhaps foreseeable consequences nevertheless. I should be thankful, too, I guess: At least no one asks me sing, or strum an overplayed guitar lick. That could get downright embarrassing, especially if the all-too-common replacement hobbies of booze and drugs hobble the capacity.
Instead... still... well... there are things like the other day, when I couch-crashed at a friend's. I was awakened at something like 7 a.m. by two of the sons, cordoning me off in advance of their upcoming daily one hour allowance of video game nirvana. Set to commence at 8 a.m., in the interim they decided to plop down on both ends of my sofa of contented repose as I curled into a ball to dream about dreaming.
There'd be no such luck: They boxed me in with their excitement, on full display because I represented the most golden of opportunities to relate what exactly they liked about their beloved video games. Like... everything. With bleary eyes and a brain only beginning to scream for a first jolt of coffee - was it too early to get that thing turned on?, I wondered - I found myself forced to a growing consciousness only as their voices seem to come in at first with the tinny sound of being far, far away.
"Wanna play Mario World with us?" Damn that Mario - I'd pound him if I ever found him!
"You can be your own avatar; we'll show you how to do it! What's your favorite world?" they droned next, barely catching a breath for the effort. Oh God, not again. And saying "This one!" didn't exactly seem to be the answer they were looking for.
Then, as with my nephew, came that familiar switch in tactics: "You can watch at first, if you want..." Then came talk of racing a turtle (while I wondered if my trumpet indeed needed an early morning oiling), chitchat about Mario throwing peaches (I didn't have the courage to ask), details related to something called a DS, power-up strategies, plus inventing new things they'd like to do within the confines of a video game. I suppose this must've looked cute - from a distance. They were SOOOO animated.
So it went, anyway, all the way until my rescue which came in the form of their grandmother entering the room to tell them to eat their breakfast. Soon, and more importantly, 8 a.m. arrived by the time they'd finished: They had something better to do. By then I did, too, falling back to sleep. My trumpet's case, plus a pad of paper and a pen, were only an arm's-reach away.
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