Once Upon a Time…
August 17, 2015
When I was seven years old, I wrote a single-page story boldly predicting that I would play professional soccer in Alaska when I grew up. That, or I’d become a writer. Failing either of these (apparently, I was a rather paranoid wee lad), I’d just make video games for a living. What a thing to decide at that age, right? What kid knows what he wants to do in 20 years, let alone in 20 minutes? So it’s interesting for me now, 34 years on, to reflect on how that actually came to be and the rather fortunate perspective it’s afforded me as a result.
For the record, I’ve never been to Alaska.
In 1999, Electronic Arts cancelled a game I’d been working on at Rebel Boat Rocker, a game studio start-up here in Dallas. Prax War, nearly two years into development, was being put out to pasture. It was a hard blow for our small team of eight developers – we’d put a ton into something that would never see the light of day. Back then, being a game developer typically meant you performed several roles: if you were an artist, it also meant you were a modeler, animator, traditional artist and all-around designer. You also did a little scripting. And a little sound and music design. Maybe some level design here and there, too. Oh, and you probably wrote EULAs and helped flesh out the box art and wrote some in-game dialogue as well. Everyone did a bit of everything. In other words, each of us at Rebel Boat Rocker had a bunch of stuff vested in this title – creatively and emotionally. But sadly, our little band of boat rockers (a combo-moniker Rebel Boat Rocker’s founders had been blessed with by a former employer) was breaking up. We worked on our résumés and tried to stay afloat the best we could.
A week after we shuttered Rebel Boat Rocker’s doors, we received a call from Gabe Newell, the founder and president of Valve Software. A bunch of us who’d stayed in Dallas, wondering what to do next, had applied at Valve, so it wasn’t a complete surprise for them to be calling. But Gabe calling? That was a little peculiar. He kept his questions short and sweet.
“You guys still in Dallas?”
“You guys sticking together? Got anything planned?”
“Umm…probably? And no. No. Uh, why?”
“Would you be interested in doing the expansion pack for Half-Life?”
Needless to say, Randy Pitchford, Brian Martel, Stephen Bahl, Rob Heironimus and I decided to stick around, and Gearbox Software was born on Valentine’s Day 1999.
A Little Box of Gears
Our first little office was a pair of war rooms buried in a strip mall, aptly named Boardrooms and Blocks. It was a small outfit that offered business digs for folks with young kids, complete with a very distinct aroma of candy and…well, other stuff. It was a little awkward at first, the whole idea of a war room; they were essentially these giant, cold conference rooms stripped of everything. Coins were flipped, and we ended up with level designers, artists and our single IT guy in one room, and our coders directly across the hall in the other. We knew it was temporary, so we all suffered through overlapping conversations, personal phone calls, hammered keyboards and loud mouse scrolling, odd aromas, petty frustrations, acting out animation for moments in-game and, of course, ultra-competitive (often heated) game-time trash talk. Game time was compulsory at Gearbox – we didn’t care what you played, but between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., everything stopped and you played games. For many of us back then, our particular poison of choice was a modified version of Quake 2 Arena with Doom rules (which we simply called D2A) – anyhow, the point here is that these war rooms could be chaotic. We slipped on headphones whenever we needed a little quiet time, but, for the most part, our early time together (our incubator period for you Silicon Valley fans) was a noisy, uncharted and tight-quartered affair.
A few months into development, we realized it was time to grow. And oh my – our new office space was absolutely huge by comparison. We took up half the 10th floor of the Bank of America Tower in Plano, spread out across a dozen or so offices – plenty of space for all of us then, with a little room still to grow. Remember, we were working on an expansion pack for what was (at the time) a pretty big franchise, and while we were excited about the idea of growing our little studio, we were acutely aware of just how damaging a major misstep would be. Any misstep, actually, so we decided to grow just enough – we had right around 11 employees when we wrapped up development on Half-Life: Opposing Force in November 1999.
Space Between the Tangibles
One of the biggest surprises for me after the move was that, somehow, we’d lost this mysterious thing we’d taken for granted in those war rooms. Even though most of us shared offices in the new space, something was missing. More perplexing? We seemed happy about why it was missing without actually realizing the impact this missing thing was having on us individually and on our development methods. I spent the majority of my time dealing with the daily operations of the studio before getting a chance to sit down to do what I considered real or tangible work. I relished the opportunity to simply shut my office door, put some music on and just work through the evening hours, finally having the time to create something for the game itself. (This distinction between creative and corporate was one of the reasons I was interested in joining Click Here Labs. We started Gearbox Software to support an idea, a vision, because we had to. Not as corporate officers who simply wanted to start a company to do something, but as creative people building infrastructure to support the work we wanted to do.)
Interestingly, we began to notice that some of the most important work had been taking place in the chaotic space between the tangibles – the things we couldn’t point out or talk about when we got home at the end of the day, the things that stumped us when pressed to describe what we’d done that day…what had we done that afternoon?
This is an inherent benefit of the war room approach when organizing teams – the guys at id Software had done something similar many years before when their mantra “When it’s done” wasn’t really working out. In recognition of this, we continued to push for larger, shared offices as we took on new projects, aiming to combine different disciplines in one space for a given project. This wasn’t always possible, and the perceived cost for doing so (whether it was time lost to moving people around or building out offices in a way that allowed for larger war room-like spaces) was often far greater than the actual cost to our developers and their work, including the loss of these chaotic intangibles that allowed unpredictably great things to just naturally take shape. On one hand, it seemed absolutely clear why this happened. Consider: It’s hard to fully understate the natural, instant transfer rate of simply sitting next to someone while collaborating on something new or complex. I’m not talking about a few meetings a week or over lunch now and then. I’m talking about the near-simultaneous solution to any tricky issue, the finger-snap “Eureka!” moment after hours spent together thinking about the same things and reacting to the same tests/data/analysis. It’s not even a singular moment – it pays dividends over time. It solves the original thing while priming future discovery. And it begins to happen faster, cleaner and more predictably.
Joining Click Here Labs
To help myself understand how things work within the agency, one of the things I’ve been doing since joining will probably sound obvious and simple to many – it may even feel redundant to a lot of people who assume these things are already happening in their lives, day in and day out; I’ve been trying to spend as much time with as many people in the entire group as possible – the greater the delta between their particular discipline and mine, the better. (I’m referring to this as a voluntary exchange program when talking about it – if possible, I would strongly suggest that you try the same thing. Choose a day every three months or so and reach out to someone you’ve never worked with. Spend a few hours with them. Not just sitting next to them, but becoming a part of their day and seeing not just what they do, but how and why. There is tremendously important value here that is hard to quantify – chalk it up to chaotic intangibles.)
I’m clearly jumping from discipline to philosophy here, so I’ll attempt to summarize a bit – I’m seeing many similarities here at the agency to most other kinds of creative development – writing, game development, film production, music, theater, painting, etc. These are specific disciplines, and practical approaches are, of course, going to be unique. Not so long ago, a lot of people assumed the game and film industries would merge into this sort of colossus multimedia thing. That hasn’t happened. The game industry continues to advance and grow in ways it has always needed to – game developers aren’t just finally capable of telling compelling, emotional stories, for instance – they are expected to. Talk to anyone who’s played The Last of Us as just one example. The same thing continues to evolve in animated film. Consider the Pixar team and everything they’ve done.
I believe the core inspiration for why these unique media exist is the same. When we render our individual artistic media invisible and simply let the story drive, the intangibles have this curious way of pointing us all in the same direction. Whether it’s visual subtext in a beautifully shot spot, the heartbeat of perfect copy or a site becoming utterly transparent when technology simply vanishes and interaction happens precisely how we expect it to – this all comes from the same place. I firmly believe that.
We’re all simply finding new ways of saying, “Once upon a time…”