I spent one entire week of one summer vacation in the early 90s inventing Rockman (or Mega Man, if you prefer) Robot Masters and their lairs. It was the perfect solitary activity for a fledgeling video game nerd with no siblings — a boy of 7 or 8 sprawled on the cool floor on a hot summer afternoon with a stack of fresh sheets of paper pilfered from mommy’s printer stack. I had sketches of baddies, their attacks, and entire maps of the levels all committed to paper, with special callouts to indicate where Rockman should slide to avoid the spikes, or what kind of Rush adapter was needed to get past a seemingly impassable obstacle. I filled sheet after sheet with detailed doodlings of my flights of fancy, although each stage ended up suspiciously shaped like a letter-sized sheet.
That was 25 years ago.
Today, I’m wearing a pair of jeans instead of GI Joe short shorts, and I’ve swapped a button-down shirt for that little kid’s white sando. Beyond that, though, I don’t think much has changed.
I had been brought up to believe that life had two parts: work, and not-work. Work was the burden that I had to put up with in order to make not-work enjoyable for me, and not-work was where everything else happened. I knew the platitudes. Find work that you love. Follow your passion. Winners never quit.
During the mid-2000s, I had already managed to fail at and quit from my socially-acceptable passion of becoming a doctor. I found the neatly compartmentalized rest-of-my-life that had seemed to stretch out before me come to a sudden, halting stop.
I was faced with a dead end for the first time in my life — the one time up to that point where I was forced to take a step back, and think, and find a new path. It took a long while of embarrassingly sensitive soul-searching to figure out what I really really wanted to do — become an artist! — and even longer to actually develop the skills required to follow that dream.
Life, ever since then, has been a series of dead-ends and backtracking and even more soul-searching: corporate videos, corporate events, and corporate websites. I edited TV commercials, made robots and ocean life dance for animated features, and took on freelance jobs to make websites about everything from armored cars to beach resorts. I founded a startup with my friend James, and we got into creating mobile apps and mobile games for advertising. We learned the ins and outs of developing and deploying software, and I played along, not realizing until fairly recently that I was on a slow, decaying orbit around something that was definitely going to screw up my neatly compartmentalized work/not-work life.
After two years of less-than-stellar operations, James asked me how I felt about making video games. My adult brain raced across page after page of expense reports, red bottom lines, and that metaphorical leap off the cliff of uncertainty.
Somewhere beyond that, in an almost primal corner of my consciousness, that little boy on the cool floor on that hot summer afternoon stopped doodling, and looked up.
(Here I envision a shot of the clouds parting in the sky, and the Popsicle Games logo being introduced amidst a scattering of god-rays, serenely shimmering and fluttering as Erick, James, and Martin all nod proudly and wisely. Art department: make it so.)
I said not much has changed from then until now, although the things that have changed are huge and significant. I still have meetings, and I do team briefings, and I still worry about that red bottom line on most days. I look at spreadsheets, and I look at schedules, and I closely monitor the state of the people who surround me. We look at graphs, and we look at numbers, and generally do the kind of thing that adults are supposed to do. Work is still pretty much work.
For a few hours each day, though, I am allowed to forget about all that when I sit back to think about game design, or when I draw concepts for a new title. I have a license to put all my worries and concerns inside a box and become that little boy again, and I’m glad I do because I believe that nothing is more honest and more sincere than a child who has no idea what the difference between work and play is.
I hit more dead-ends today than ever before. Honest truth. Apparently, making games isn’t as simple as grabbing a handful of blank pages and going to town with a number 2 pencil. The best I can do is to remember, and to try and channel that pure energy and creativity and confidence that I once held into something tangible and playable.
Sometimes, it’s enough.