TITLE: Local Boys Succeed in Gaming Industry AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 22, 2009 4:00 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I went last night to see a talk by Aaron Schurman, co-founder and CEO of Phantom EFX. Phantom is a homegrown local company that makes video games. The talk told the story of their latest and most ambitious release, Darkest of Days, a first-person shooter game built around historic narratives and a time-travel hook. Phantom got its start with casino games. They started from scratch, with no training in software development. Part of the team did have background in graphic design, which gave them a foundation to build on. In the last decade, they have became serious players in the market, with several top-selling titles. I'm am not a "computer gamer" and rarely ever play the sort of games that are so popular with students these days. But as a computer scientists, I am interested in them as programs. Nearly every game these days requires artificial intelligence, both to play the game and, in character-based games, to provide realistic agents in the simulated world. My background in AI made me a natural local resource to the company when they were getting started. As a result, I have had the good fortune to be a long-time friend of the company. Aaron's talk was like the game; it had something for almost everyone: history, creative writing, art, animation, media studies, and computer science. The CS is not just AI, of course. A game at this level of scale is a serious piece of software. The developers faced a number of computational constraints in filling a screen with a large number of realistic humans and while maintaining the frame rate required for an acceptable video experience. There were also software development challenges, such as building for multiple platforms in sync and working with contractors distributed across the globe. There is a lot to be learned by conducting a retrospective of this project. Aaron spoke a lot about the challenges they faced. His response was the sort you expect from people who succeed: Don't be dismayed. Do you think you are too small or too poor to compete with the big boys? Don't be dismayed. You can find a way, even if it means rolling your own gaming engine because the commercial alternatives are too expensive. Don't know how to do something? Don't be dismayed. You simply don't know yet. Work hard to learn. Everyone can do that. The practical side of me is glad that we are so close to a company like this and have connections. We've recently begun exploring ways to place our students at Phantom EFX for internships. I love the idea of running an iPhone development class to port some of the company's games to that market. This is a great opportunity for the students, but also for professors! The dreamer in me was inspired by this talk. I am always impressed when I meet people, especially former students, who have a vision to build something big. This sort of person accepts risks and works hard. The return on that investment can be huge, both monetarily and spiritually. I hope more of our students take stories like this to heart and realize that entrepreneurship offers an alternative career path when they have ideas and are willing to put their their work hours toward something that they really care about. At its bottom, this is the story of small-town Iowa guys staying in small-town Iowa and building a new tech company. Now they have Hollywood producers knocking on their doors, bidding to option their script and concept for a major motion picture. Not a bad way to make a living. -----