I thought the flight I would take from Seattle down to San Francisco would be full of developers, so I am on the alert for the telltale signs of the game industry: the jeans, the hairstyle, the low-slung bag.
When the person next to me on the flight stashes William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition in the seat pocket, I am absolutely sure I am in kindred company. I blurt, “So, going to GDC?”
My neighbor nods and identifies himself as one of about thirty developers from CCP that are on board this flight, which has served as a connection from Reykjavik, Iceland. We exchange cards– he’s Vigfus Omarsson, Lead Technical Artist– and I can’t help but quiz him like an overeager policeman doing his first interrogation.
Do you guys use Max or Maya? (Maya.) How is EVE Online doing these days? EVE is doing rather well– much better now ever since CCP took control of its own destiny from erstwhile video game publisher Simon & Schuster. Some in Iceland look at the company with a certain amount of jealousy, he says, since the rest of the country is still digging its way out of a financial crisis that has made headlines for years yet has yielded no easy answers.
We spend most of the flight talking shop– about Python versus MEL, facial animation middleware, how far one can push normal maps– with a few asides about Icelandic culture (“Vodka is more of a Finnish or Russian thing– many of my friends drink Captain Morgan and Coke”) and a discussion of what actually went wrong with the country’s economy and how it feeds into the global economic situation.
“Everyone in Iceland is like a PhD in economics now, due to the coverage on television or in the newspapers of what happened,” he says. When I suggest that EVE Online, with its unusual focus on economics, has some odd synchronicity coming from a place like Iceland, he gestures towards a sleeping figure in the seat in front of me. “He is the official EVE Online economist,” he says.
Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson has written papers on what happens in the economy of EVE when, for example, certain players were able to game the system and create money out of nothing.
When I suggest this has a certain parallel to events that have happened in real life across the world, Vigfus smiles and demurs– but goes on to explain how CCP offered to pay its employees in Euros instead of Icelandic Króna in the wake of the country’s banking collapse.
Our plane is stuck in a holding pattern over San Francisco, and as we peer out the window trying to discern when we might finally land, I mention how smart I thought the buildup of EVE Online was– a slow but steady ramp-up that led to the self-sustaining, company-driving game of today. “I’m not sure that could ever happen again,” he says.
Launching an MMO today means serving as many players as possible on Day 1; growing over time gives early players advantages that late joiners often resent. We talk MMO business, about how its seductive quicksand has ensnared publishers and venture capitalists into the quagmire time and again. Then he mentions Activision, and its focus on the bottom line, and its legal battle with the former leaders of Infinity Ward– and the person in the third seat immediately comes to life.
He had been silent up until now, but he was obviously going to GDC too (his in-flight book was Ellen Ullman’s “The Bug”), and this mention of the new Evil Empire of games somehow made him pop like a bubble. “It’s the packaged goods mentality,” he says. I nod and compare the branding of Activision’s annualized titles to toothpaste, an analogy he instantly both accepts and reviles. “You buy the same toothpaste over and over,” he says,” But you don’t play the same game over and over.”
After we finally land and go our separate ways at SFO, I settle into a seat on old tailbone-rattling BART, typing into my iPhone; a kid behind me ventures– “Hey, you going to GDC?” (I’m as obvious as any other game developer on the train.) He’s here on the West Coast for the very first time, he says, recently graduated from Full Sail University, and looking for a job.
I tell him the job market is terrible right now, and launch into some anecdotes to illustrate just how bad it is– guys with years of experience who used to run whole departments are applying for the kinds of entry-level contract jobs that he would be in the market for– before I have a chance to think about how negative I’m sounding.
He seems to take it all in stride, though, and hands me his card (Munro Wood, 3D Modeler). The BART train screeches into Powell Street Station and we wander off into the San Francisco night.