TITLE: Local Boys Succeed in Gaming Industry
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: October 22, 2009 4:00 PM
I went last night to see a talk by Aaron Schurman,
co-founder and CEO of
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
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
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