Don Daglow, formerly head of Stormfront Studios, introduced his talk by talking about how he’s managed to stay interested and passionate about games over a 40-year career. (This is a guy who was writing games on mainframes in *1971*, the year I was born.) He went to Mattel to work on Intellivison, and then went to EA (and spent some time on Broderbund titles), ultimately ending up with 20 years at Stormfront.
He then was a bit candid — “challenge what you hear here, be cynical about it” because after all, who is he to tell you what to do with your life or what’s right for you. It’s some advice, but it might not be right for you. However, having done it for four decades, he’s been out to the extremes of the terrain and weather, and can act as a bit of a scout for us.
2008 has been a bit of a tough year for Daglow — they suspended operations of Stormfront after a few deals fell through, leaving them in a position without any cash. But even after taking apart something he has poured his heart into, he still loves what he does.
But thinking about ends, he thought a bit about the “circle of life” and came to the conclusion that every death or ending really is a beginning (and popped up an image of 12 Elvises in one place as his item of proof).
Daglow then moved onto his “Core Assumption:” “Passion for our work, our craft, our careers is not something we are given by others. It is something only we can control.” He feels that only we can be the carriers and guardians of our passions.
Our dreams are what get our passions going — but real life often intervenes, little detail things that we need to do as practical matters. And that can leave us feeling disconnected from our passions. But removing those obstacles is the way to re-connect us to our dreams and passions. The dreams, the passion are still there… we don’t get it from somewhere else, no one takes it away, but we need to find ways to get past whatever’s in the way.
Don then put up a slide showing his earliest games — or at least, images that indicated them. He had made a Parcheesi with Fog-of-War element Snoopy themed game around the subterranean Snoopy lair where he would disappear with Linus’ blanket when he was 10. He made another when he was 15 where he was simulating the hitting part of baseball (involving a slide rule for calculations!), quipping that he waited 8 hours after Curt Schilling’s talk to confess that there was no simulation of pitching.
He talked about being a social studies teacher and trying to teach kids the distinctions between countries and continents — noting that some adult’s still can’t tell the difference. But his kids finally got geography when he took the floor of the cafeteria in his school and taping down electrical tape across the black and white square grid of the linoleum to outline countries and continents across the world. (And recollected charmingly about children standing where they had come from — at that time, there were kids who had come across as Vietnamese boat people, children from Mexico…) His life to that point had gotten him emotionally invested when he was involved with games — his dreams were telling him that games were where he was supposed to be.
He said he wants to debunk the myth that hit games come together through some sort of manifest destiny, that there were no struggles and moments of cynicism and defeat in getting there. In reality, the best games still struggle through failure. Destiny can only be told if you look back from a great enough distance. He put up two pictures of basketball teams and asked which one is going to be the great person who does something amazing — the first taken about a year ago, and who knows, it’s too recent. The other contained, dead center, a young man who later would become President-Elect, Barack Obama.
To think about your dreams, he suggests that you take a moment to write something down, answering the following three questions in Fill-in-the-blank style. These are:
* My proudest moment working in the games business is when _______________.
* I knew that games were what I wanted to do ever since I ___________________.
* Of all the kinds of work I do or have done, I’m happiest when I’m __________________.
(On a personal note, I’ll answer the second one. I had a good idea this was what *I* should be doing when I played Crowther and Woods’ Colossal Cave Adventure back in about 1978 on a “dumb terminal” connected to my dad’s mainframe at work. He and I would print out pages and pages of “You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” We’d run from a dwarf. Our batteries would die. It was terrific and the graphics had infinite beauty and precision, being entirely in our heads. I had the opportunity to thank Don Woods in person at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards a couple of years ago, when I was a judge. It was a proud moment for me to tell him that in large part, I owe my current career and successes to time spent with my father playing Crowther and Woods’ game.)
What are these questions about? The first is about pride in what you’ve done. The second is a deep primordial connection with that first time you connected with your dreams. And the third is about finding joy in every day.
There are obstacles. Insane schedules, insane bosses, inability to find the right job, a million little things.
Questions to ask yourself:
* Can I make a change now or am I stuck for a while?
* What would I have to do to feel like I’m chasing my dreams? (This is hard, he notes, since they might be tough things to do — go back to school, relocate, whatever. It’s better to do this, though, and make a concrete choice — this will help put any little voices you have to bed if you choose not to follow that now.)
* Can I change my approach and with it change the world around me?
* How can I make a living until I can get my dreams back on track? (Sometimes really, you just need a little distance. Sometimes you have to zig zag. This year Daglow had to turn back a bit. It’s not a straight line — it’s a path that meanders.)
Daglow turned back to this third one. It’s easy to look back 5 years and answer that question in a better way, once you have some distance from the issue. He told a bit of a story, of an excited young person who talks to a wise old manager, who claims he could achieve his every dream if only he didn’t have this stupid boss in his way. And the wise old manager asks, “What would happen if you were to act as if you respected your boss for his intelligence and creativity?” The idea being that the everything would improve if there were a better culture of respect between he and his boss. Daglow says that he wishes he had at times not been part of the problem in this respect, and that in fact his bosses were sometimes doing the right things and Daglow was introducing the obstacles himself.
Next: “Sometimes real life will require that we step back.” We’ll need to learn new skills or make some money. We’ll need to figure things out.
He puts up Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualization, quipping “Oh, I thought I was coming to a game development conference and I’m trapped in a room with Dr Phil!” But if you invert the pyramid, you think of the things you need to do as a sort of list — we have to take care of food, shelter, safety, and then family and love, becoming part of a team, being recognized, and ultimately finding joy in our work. (Google Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to get an illustration -> then turn it over and see a bit of a road map for yourself.)
He told an anecdote of a friend who put together and sold a successful business, but who on reflection realized that to build up that business, he traded his marriage, his marriage failed as a result. His friend wouldn’t have made that deal had he known he was making it. Sometimes we aren’t chasing what we really need, and we make choices that are wrong. The only right starting point, says Daglow, is our dreams.
Daglow then points out that one of the best things we can learn from Curt Schilling is that yeah, even the best are going to have fumbles, strikeouts, and mess-ups that are visible on national television with millions of people watching. But even those players can become Hall-of-Famers despite them. You can fail, so long as you don’t let those self-doubts allow you to tear yourself all the way down from within. We aren’t perfect, and we can’t expect ourselves to be.
He presented a quote on a slide entitled “What Artists & Writers Know”. “A Professional writer is an amateur writer who didn’t quit.” — Richard Bach. Writers get rejection upon rejection in the learning of their craft, and need to know it’s going to be criticized and rejected for a long time until they make their first sale (and probably for a long time after).
The word according to Daglow, “Three Reasons This is One of the Best Times Ever in Games”. 1) XBLA, PSN, XNA, and new avenues for great, innovative games like Flow. 2) As it turns out, we haven’t had an evolution of gaming hardware, instead the Wii has broken out with incredible success, and so has Guitar Hero — both were breaking all kinds of rules (GH with box sizes and price points). Innovation is fully upon us, not past. He claims in 5 years he’ll come back with another slide just like this one. 3) Publishers are recognizing that they need to grow the audience, which means we need to reach new audiences — a more diverse audience is going to be key. That means more diverse products. And that means more diverse game development teams. This makes him optimistic, because it’s become part of the core, that the financial future requires that kind of diversity.
To wrap up, Daglow returned to his Core Assumption. “Passion for our work, our craft, our careers is not something we are given by others. It is something only we can control.” We are the vessel for that passion and those dreams, and we can reconnect to them by looking at how we answered those three questions.
Daglow noted that a benefit of age is that people will come up to him and say how his games have changed peoples’ lives. He recounted how someone just recently told him that Earl Weaver Baseball changed his life, is why he’s in this industry, was his answer to the second question I listed above. He points out that we deserve to pursue our happiness, that we deserve to pursue our dreams. But we’re also lucky in that our games are havens for kids out there who are going to have their own dreams because of what we do. Daglow was that kid. And he has been lucky to meet people who were those kids. And that’s an honor and a privilege for us.