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Most developers know William Volk from his work on Return to Zork. Others have won (or lost) virtual cash in PlayScreen Poker, his latest game. Here's his story.

Tyler Brett, Blogger

April 12, 2012

15 Min Read

William Volk was able to shape a distraction into a passion, and then turn it into a career.

Volk, who received his degree from the University of Pennsylvania before graduate work in Physics, Astronomy and Computer Engineering at the Universities of Maryland and New Hampshire, may not appear to be your everyday Ivy League grad. He doesn’t wear a suit to work, and he certainly does not have his own parking spot.  Instead, he rides his bike to and from the office. 16 miles and about 1000 ft of climbing.  Everyday.  And if it rains, which is rare in San Diego, CA, and he is FORCED to drive, his day’s not off to a good start.  Fortunately, this mood doesn’t usually last long because he is able to say that he does something that he loves.  Volk is the co-founder and CCO of PlayScreen, LLC., a mobile gaming company, and he has very big plans for the future.  But to understand the direction of where Volk is going, you must first learn of where Volk has been.

To say that life is a roller coaster ride is something that Volk can certainly attest to.  He grew up on Long Island and during High School worked at his father’s parking garage in New York City parking cars, and as a bicycle mechanic at one of the largest bike shops in the USA (Brands Bicycles).   To this day, he can still name just about every make, model, and year of 1950’s, 60’,s and 70’s automobiles that he sees on the road.  However, parking cars or building bikes was not the life path for him, as he went on to study at UPenn and onto grad work at the University of Maryland.  It was in Maryland that he got his unofficial start in video games, while looking for a Christmas break job.  

“Avalon Hill had posted an ad for playtesters at UMd, it sounded like a fun way to spend the Christmas break”

Earlier at UPenn, he had taken a microprocessor applications class, where he created a version of Lunar Lander for the Cromenco microcomputer, his first real taste of game development.  A year later, in 1979, Volk began his career in gaming at Avalon Hill (now part of Hasbro, Inc.) as a playtester.  After a couple of months in quality assurance and testing, he decided to author his own titles and Avalon Hill liked them enough to publish them.  Those titles included Conflict 2500, Controller, and Voyager I: Sabotage of the Robot Ship.  Games that saw decent success on the Apple II, Atari, TRS-80 and Commodore PET.

“At the time, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have my first games published.  Video games is a difficult industry to break into.  In hindsight, I almost wish I had stayed as an independent game developer.”

Volk wasted no time in being a success in the industry.  At a very young age he was heavily involved in creating the most cutting-edge content that was being released, something that would become a common theme throughout his career.  He was doing what he loved and was rewarded handsomely, even driving the most expensive car he’s ever owned (before or since) at age 26.   He’d carry that industry success with him to a subsidiary of Epson, Rising Star, where he was responsible for running the West Coast programming group in California, within just one year with the company.  This marked the first time where he had his first ‘sit at a desk’  management position, as he managed the word processor, drawing and paint programs.  Over the couple of years that followed, Volk’s interest with Macintosh software grew and grew.  In 1985 he left Epson when he co-founded the Mac software publisher Aegis.  This also allowed him to revisit his original game concepts from years before and develop them even further, given the development of technology and the software itself.  He revisited the Maze Game concept he had used in Voyager to produce a 3D adventure title for the Mac, The Pyramid of Peril.

“Pyramid of Peril was, in a way, a first person shooter.  As with Voyager you would have 3D graphics (this time nicely shaded) and a map that only showed you what you had explored.” 

The Pyramid of Peril was as cutting edge of a game, at the time, as you’d find on the market.  The funny thing was, Volk’s title was designed and developed, duplicated and packaged in just 30 days, all to have it ready for the first Mac World show in 1985.  My, how the times have changed!

Over the next couple of years Aegis, with Volk as VP of Technology (along with co-founders; Dave Barrett, Michelle Mehterian, and John Skeel), continued to thrive and work with emerging systems such as the Commodore Amiga.  It allowed Volk to gain a lot of experience and knowledge and paved the way for him to acquire his most impressive job title to date;  Director of Technology at Activision, one of the biggest video game companies of all time.  

“Activision wanted to project a leading edge image when I was hired in 1988.  I had done some work on CD-ROM at Aegis, so that’s where we started.”

Volk had to prove himself while working as the Director of Technology.  He didn’t waste any time doing it when he immediately put his reputation on the line by pushing the company to publish the game, The Manhole.  This was Cyan’s first title, originally written in HyperCard (Mac) and delivered on 5 floppy disks. He used his knowledge from his days at Aegis to formulate a strategy in having the game released as a CD-ROM.  It soon became the first CD-ROM game that was ever released.  Once again, Volk found himself at the forefront of a game that helped innovate the space.  That’s what the general public could see, what they couldn’t see is that the work that went into this title was far ahead of its time.

“Manhole was a breakthrough in terms of user interface.  Cyan had removed all the buttons and arrows and simply let the content be the interface.  I just felt that this was ideal for CD-ROM.  The big innovation was streaming music from the disc as you interacted in the fantasy world.”

Activision allowed Volk to grow his already illustrious career, and do so with a leader in the industry.  The success of The Manhole took him all over the world, and helped him become a top level exec at the company.  Unfortunately, while his success continued, the company was in financial trouble stemming from a former patent lawsuit.  In time, the company changed management, and a slew of layoffs quickly followed.  Volk was retained by newly hired CEO Bobby Kotick, a decision that he did not take for granted, which allowed him pursue the creation of one of the most well-known game sequels in history, Return to Zork.

“The game system we had originally created to move ‘The Manhole’ to the PC became the system for ‘Return to Zork.’  With full-motion video and a very unique interface allowing for rich interactions, the title exceeded expectations.”

As the technical director, Volk focused on the game’s interface, which produced a finished product that he is extremely proud of.  The game was very well received and sold millions of copies on the CD-ROM, though it did receive criticism (and praise) for being far too difficult at times.  Some scenarios even sent the player on a very long journey, only to learn that they made a minuscule mistake hours before and had to return to the start.  Nonetheless, it’s still recognized as a true classic.  A classic that will not soon be forgotten, certainly not by Activision as it helped them regain stability during a crucial time.  Nowadays, it’s safe to say they are in a comfortable state financially.

In 1994 Volk left the Kingdom that was Activision, as he was recruited by Barry Sandrew, Ph.D (currently CCO/CTO and Founder of Legend 3D), to run development for Lightspan.  Lightspan Partnership was, and still is (now PLATO), an educational multimedia company.  At the time Volk was brought in they were still a young company and had plans of launching their programs throughout school systems.  It was his job to help produce a large number of titles in a very short time, minimizing an 18 month job into a 4 month window.  A challenge that he was up to, given his experience with children’s games while at Activision.  An additional motivation was the fact that he now had kids of his own.

“This was a fun time.  Just coming up with casual game concepts to teach math and language arts.  But soon we realized that interactive TV set-tops were not going to happen any time soon.  We had to find a way to deliver these games to the schools on a lower cost device.”

Volk had to find a low cost device that could be sold to the schools.  He decided to shift the focus from launching the educational titles on interactive televisions to the Sony Playstation.  While he did head this effort, he would never take any credit without citing his very talented team that played a huge role along the way. 

“Do or Die.  In late 1995 we did a ‘proof of concept’ to see if the PlayStation could display legible text and decent video.  Luckily the Amiga experience with video effects gave us the tech to make text readable on the TV.  By the summer of 1996 we had the first titles running on the PlayStation.  Eventually there would be around 100 discs in all.”  

With the help of Volk and his team, Lightspan was able to deliver a successful IPO in 2000.

Volk’s next move took him outside of mainstream video games for the first time in his career.  He remained in tech, of course, and found himself as CTO for save.com in 1999.  Save.com was a secure online-coupon system.  Leading up to this, he was able to work on some of his own projects, including the creation of ZipProof which allowed for online proofing of designs.  This was “Sofware as a Service” way ahead of its time.

In 2000 and 2001 Volk worked on James Cameron’s Earthship TV, with Sherri Cuono, a person who he would build a close working relationship with.  It was clear that they had talents that molded together quite well.  Both had a technical background, Cuono focusing on the game development and programing, and Volk with the vision and production of the titles he’d worked on in the past. 

“Sherri was and is, simply the best and most creative technical manager I had ever worked with.  She also knew a side of games that I had worked in.”

Cuono spent time in the 90s working on the first ever online casino, a job that would come into play nicely more than a decade later.   Her family was in the casino business, she grew up in card rooms.

Volk had been away from the game industry for far too long in his mind.  It was time to get back to his roots, that’s what he was the best at.  To do so, he looked at was happening in Japan with NTT DoCoMo  and in his mind the next big thing was going to be mobile games.  Of course, it’s easy to read that now and think that it’s an obvious path to take.  Mobile games is a multi-billion dollar industry today.  But Volk made this prediction back in the early 2000s.  Put that into perspective.  

Volk and Cuono teamed up and founded Bonus Mobile, a mobile game developer, in 2004.  At the time, the iPhone wasn’t even a rumor and the most impressive game on a phone was arguably ‘Snake’ for Nokia.  Volk and Cuono began to focus on social games before that term was even crafted.  Their work on titles like The Dozens (a card game created by the Wayans Brothers,  based on ‘Yo-Momma’ insults) included features that were way ahead of its time; in-game chat, multiplayer gameplay, invites via messaging, etc.  While a critical success, the physical card game’s lack of sales prevented the mobile game from taking off.
“The real innovation here is that we tried to break the near monopoly the phone companies had on game distribution by having the paper playing cards give users the commands to get ‘The Dozens’ onto their phone.  Sherri pulled off a miracle, with the game supporting text message, WAP and Java versions.  It even dealt with loss of connection (so common back then) in a most elegant manner, allowing you to continue your game.”

Another downfall of the mobile game industry was that the users were not using their phones like they are today.  Having ten digits, a send and end button, and a way to send text messages were more than what the average person needed (maybe also a really cool ring tone that they downloaded).  Think, the only people who used email on their phones were basically corporate businessmen.  Nowadays, if a phone doesn’t have internet browsing capabilities you can just assume that it’s a landline hanging up in the kitchen.  But this did not deter Volk and Cuono.  

In 2006, the two left Bonus Mobile and founded MyNuMo.  This time they brought their mobile experience to a whole new level by using a web portal that allowed for artists to access mobile markets.  The idea was to allow musicians or artists to sell ringtones, wallpapers and videos, just like the major artists did.

The launch of the iPhone presented a key opportunity for the team.  For the first year the only apps the iPhone could support were web-based apps.  Having dealt with the mobile browsers on earlier phones, Cuono was able to develop web-based games for this new device.  Volk came up with the idea of a Wack-A-Mole game featuring Steve Ballmer (The president of Microsoft who had been highly critical of the iPhone) and Sherri managed to release it the weekend of the iPhone’s launch.  iWack is considered the very first iPhone game ever released.

“We had the game running in a browser prior to the release.  The demand was so great for the first iPhone that I had to find friends who managed to get one on the Friday it was released, so the game could be tested.  By Sunday it was running great.  Word has it, it was quite the hit at Apple corporate.”

Over time they launched many web games (bowling, blackjack, slots, darts etc...) that ran effectively on the iPhone and other smartphones (Android, Palm Pre etc...).  People would access these games, via their phone’s web browser.  Apple was a huge fan of the games and two of the web apps became the most popular web apps on the iPhone.  Then came the App Store to the iPhone.

To this day, it’s safe to say that MyNuMo is one of the only companies to have some mixed feelings about the App Store.  After all, at this point they were one of the leading web-app developers on the device with millions playing these ad-supported games.  But Volk realized that as with DoCoMo in Japan, the App store was going to open the floodgates for developers.  All the roadblocks with trying to launch apps on handsets, prior to the iPhone, were going to be swept aside.  So MyNuMo took some of the most popular web apps and re-created them for the App Store.  They also created some original titles, most notably Bounce Trap and Match 3D, both of which were featured by Apple.  Then in late 2010 the opportunity to form a new company, with the resources and management expertise to take on the biggest social games in the industry, appeared and both Cuono and Volk decided to go for it.


For the past year and a half, Volk has worked as the CCO and Cuono as the CTO for PlayScreen, LLC., a Maryland-based company that the two joined.  They’ve lead the efforts to create the number one Bocce-Ball game in the world, an innovative word puzzle game, and a popular play-for-fun poker title

“Here’s the truth, it took us years at Activision before we finally had the huge adventure game hit that was Return to Zork.  Rovio had 51 less than stellar games before Angry Birds.  All the work Sherri and I put into mobile games is the backdrop for the incredible stuff you’ll see in 2012 and beyond.  I’ve never walked my bike up a hill, that’s just who I am.  I don’t give up.  We’re going to surprise everyone this year.  Watch for it.”

 Don’t think PlayScreen is serious about catapulting their titles to the top? Think again.  They’re even using billboards on Interstate Highways to promote their titles :)

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