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How I Became A Games Designer, Part Two

When the story left off, yours truly had submitted his best build of The Dishwasher to the Dream Build Play contest, and I was waiting patiently for the outcome – hoping to have my zombie-filled game win a chance of distribution on Xbox Live. If you missed the first instalment of ‘How I Became A Game Designer’ then you may want to go back and read it before you plough forward into this, but it isn’t really essential I suppose.

Anyway.

In all honesty, I was imagining The Dishwasher coming in somewhere between fifth and tenth position at the end of the competition. There were a lot of glitzy, 3D titles in the running that used amazing things with long names whose very mention would cause me to get a bit uncomfortable, like Self Occluding Parallax Dimension Disaster Relief Mapping.

" I was imagining The Dishwasher coming in somewhere between fifth and tenth position at the end of the competition."

The Dishwasher didn’t have lifelike rendering techniques like the aforementioned one I made up just now, but I was hoping it could make up for that with game flow, art aesthetic, and attitude. I also thought my game was kinda fun.

Anyway, as far as the real life part was going, I had just graduated from college with a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and was trying to figure out how I would be spending the rest of my life. I ended up finding a job for a large government contractor doing Java programming (not my first choice) at about the same time The Dishwasher ended up in the hands of the Dream Build Play judges.

Just as I was getting my bearings with my new career, I started hearing from Microsoft. The winners of Dream Build Play would be announced at Microsoft Game Fest, just a few weeks away, and they were interested in my plans. I was just out of college and slightly poor. Still, come the weekend of Game Fest eve, I somehow found myself in Seattle at the event and not at home in upstate New York, which is where I always assumed I would be on the fateful day

Speculation among the XNA community was rife, mainly because I had previously told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Game Fest due to budgetary considerations and was now saying hello from Seattle. I attributed it to a magical windfall.

I was in a state of disbelief so strong that at some point I made a bet with Loïc Dansart, creator of Little Gamers: Teh Game and foremost debunker of the James Goes to Seattle scandal, that if I won I would send him Hello Kitty merchandise. Don’t ask why.

Microsoft had flown out one other contestant besides me: David Flook, creator of Blazing Birds. In my mind I was reconciling the events with my expectations, thinking that Microsoft was planning on showing what two individuals could make with XNA in a very special-interest-story-esque display before wowing the audience with some uberslick 3D title that would take home the gold. In retrospect it’s a silly explanation but, again, I’m a cynic.

"I attributed it to a magical windfall."

At the keynote speech, I was to demo The Dishwasher while talking about the game with Chris Satchell. Then I would play against David in a round of Blazing Birds, which I was abysmal at. All this was to be done in front of 1,300 people who were The Real Thing in the games industry.

It dawned on me that this was A Big Deal.

We had rehearsed three or four times and each time I had gotten progressively worse at answering questions while playing The Dishwasher. I would start drawing blanks, throwing in dozens of “uhhs” and “ahhs,” and ending each sentence with a prominent “I dunno, yeah. Kind of.” It was hard for me to play and talk at the same time.

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James Silva

At the actual keynote I did alright I think, but honestly can’t remember. I know I mentioned Bruce Lee, Tim Burton and Edward Gorey at some point and the crowd laughed a couple of times. I also mentioned that I had once been a dishwasher and was now programming with Java and OpenGL on a Macintosh, which, as far as I can tell, is the polar opposite of C#, XNA and Xbox 360. Chris Satchell called it a dark trinity.

I was just impressed that I didn’t stutter excessively, pass out, or do something completely random and self-destructive that, once imagined, you just can’t get out of your head, like shouting “I’M THE KING OF FRANCE” in response to every question.

The funny part happened when it was time to announce the winner.

At this point I was still very much a believer in the special interest story explanation as for why I was there in the first place. Chalk it up to poor self esteem, lack of self-confidence, cynicism, whatever—I just had some sort of tragic problem with optimism.

Anyway, the other guy won. Both of our games were fairly indie-looking 2D games, so, going on my human interest logic, I wasn’t really expecting either of us to win. I did my best to look happy for David (which I am) and hoped I would at least get second place—I mean, they brought us both out there, right? I definitely would have preferred to have some sort of large cardboard box I could have hid in after they announced David’s game, though.

" I was still very much a believer in the special interest story explanation as for why I was there in the first place."

Then Chris said that they were going to go ahead and have two first prizes, and it all made sense. The Dishwasher co-won. Big sigh of relief. We both got XBLA contracts. In fact, the two second place winners got XBLA contracts too—another crushing defeat for cynicism.

And (and I stress that I am not being paid to say this) Microsoft really came through with its intentions to reward originality—two guys working in their spare time to turn their crazy ideas into games were able to beat some highly polished big budget (on the indie budget scale) productions.

I learned later that the look on my face when David won was somewhere between agony and rage, so evidently I utterly failed at the looking happy part, despite my sincerity. I was also described on a podcast as flipping out about it (I didn’t flip out; in fact, if you’ll recall, I tried to look happy, which is pretty much the opposite of flipping out), so I guess the legend got a bit more exciting than the truth.

Maybe I should just go with the legend: “…and then I smashed all of the displays at the demo station, bombed Canada, and bought Apple stock!” It definitely makes for a better podcast that way.

For those of you who wanted closure on the Hello Kitty merchandise, it wasn’t until after months of nagging that I finally sent some Hello Kitty stuff to Loïc in Belgium, but rest assured I finally made good on my word – and by that stage I was already pretty close to being The Real Thing myself.