This post is based on a suggestion from our Patreon Writers’ Room by patron Charlie Cox.
After the thousands of hours (and usually dollars) we’ve all invested in our game development pursuits, it helps to take opportunities to look back and reflect on (or resent) what we experienced much earlier in life that convinced us to learn how to make video games ourselves. This topic came up in the Patreon group and members were eager to share and compare notes on what brought them here. I love this topic, and I’m happy to share the games and experiences that convinced me to embark on this ridiculous, incredible journey.
I’m going to attempt to spread these picks out across the different platforms I’ve played on, and where I make exceptions, I’ll try to make them count.
In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t exactly remember which Atari 2600 game I played first, but whichever it was, that was my first video game experience. My mother passed this console down to me, probably around 1989 or 1990, along with a decent collection of games. I remember playing a lot of Missile Command, Frogger, Pole Position, Warlords, and more. I even spent a good amount of time playing E.T. The frustrating aspects of the game were not lost on me, but it was hard not to respect that title screen with an intro theme inspired by John Williams.
The Atari 2600 experience did not get me thinking about creating games, but certainly opened up my eyes to what was possible with them, and I found it incredible.
When a friend of my mother’s heard I was still fixated on the Atari in 1991 or so, he took an opportunity to blow my little mind by pulling out his work laptop and booting up SkiFree. I had seen Solitaire run on a computer before, but this was a work machine allowing me to play a high-speed action game. I could hardly believe it.
I also discovered Minesweeper around this time. It’s always stood out to me what a fun puzzle game came in such an unassuming package. This lesson has paid off time and time again when I started to practice design.
Nintendo Entertainment System
It’s difficult to write briefly about my experiences with the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was my first new console. I was playing it when my father walked out on us and I moved it into my new room at my grandparents’ house when we lost our home shortly thereafter. I played the NES well into the launch years of the SNES and Sega Genesis and didn’t move on to the Genesis until close to the PlayStation/N64 era.
My collection of games was eventually massive, but I probably bought new NES games at a store less than five times total. I accompanied my grandparents to every yard sale and flea market they were willing to visit, hoping to score more. My grandma would pick them up without me on occasion and pop in my bedroom door to ask “Do you have this one already?!?” At a time when I’d lost my sense of family, my home, and even my school, Nintendo offered a world of its own for me to escape to and became a healthy way for me to reconnect with the outside world on my own terms.
To this day I marvel at the variety and the accomplishments of the full NES catalogue. I lasted a long time just playing Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, but this period of my life is when I developed my eclectic taste. Looking back, I realize it’s probably a product of mostly playing games other people decided to get rid of. I didn’t try Mega Man for the first time until I was an adult for example, but I was figuring out how to navigate a sophisticated tile-based historical simulation as Napoleon’s stepson in L’Empereur when I was ten years old. The height of dues-paying as a gamer is booting up Bible Adventures and discovering it’s not nearly as bad as you expected it to be. By the way, I just learned Boss Fight Books covered the development of Bible Adventures. Please excuse me.
Okay, I’m back. Kirby’s Adventure was one of the final games I purchased for the NES and was one of the later games released on the console period. Kirby was a masterpiece on the console that may still be nearest to my heart, and I wasn’t alone. Friends routinely came to my house to play and replay Kirby, well after they were getting started on their Super Nintendos. We already knew in the mid-90s that we were playing something special, and this was about the time I started asking my friends “Wouldn’t you like to be able to make a video game?”
Aladdin / The Lion King
My Genesis collection was a mess. I received the aging system as a birthday gift and loved the Sonic the Hedgehog series, but gathering unusual carts from all corners of the world didn’t translate nearly as well to Sega’s legendary 16-bit system. Many of the greatest Genesis games are also available on the SNES (with some important exceptions!). For this reason, my Genesis experience sounds a lot like other players’ SNES memories. Together we marched through the greatest hits of the console wars. Sports fans loved NBA Jam, fighting enthusiasts huddled around Mortal Kombat, but everyone–I mean everyone–loved the games of this era from Disney and Capcom. Aladdin and The Lion King were arguably best-suited for younger kids than myself at the time, but every gamer I knew, pre-teen to adult was fascinated by these hand-drawn 2D platformers. I think I eventually owned a copy of The Lion King, but played Aladdin strictly at other people’s houses and still managed to sink easily 100 hours into the game.
Playing these two classics convinced me that imagination, storytelling, and design could bring limitless people together, and that it was well-worth learning as much as I could about these disciplines beyond technical development. Of course, it also convinced me Disney was going to dominate gaming, so what do I know?
My time on a Sony PlayStation taught me to value the unexpected.
Early in my 8th grade year of junior high school I was hit directly in the mouth with a wooden baseball bat. The school’s official stance was that I “walked right into it.” Reality is that I was standing perfectly still at the front of a line to the left of the batter who swung wildly and followed his swing with fully extended arms in my direction. I think I remember he hit the ball, which may have slowed the bat enough that I didn’t die. I definitely blacked out on impact, but I’m proud to say I stayed on my feet. I turned around to assure the people near me I was fine, and one of the toughest kids in the school looked at me and tears welled up in his eyes. “GO TO THE NURSE!!” he screamed. I looked down and saw the blood streaked down my shirt. The result was a couple of weeks off of school while my face recovered from teeth piercing my upper and lower lips and others pointed at my throat. Somehow that required no stitches and involved no lost teeth, which moved back into place as straight as they’ve ever been. The body is an incredible, disgusting thing.
This ended up being a magical time for me and my PlayStation, and it was a strong fiscal quarter for Kraft Foods and the whole Jell-O product line. I worked through several of the PS1 classics including Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, and Jet Moto. I also picked up some more oddball favorites. Pandemonium was weird and wonderful. Streak: Hoverboard Racing still doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, for crying out loud. I sank more time than what was reasonable into THQ’s predecessor to its good wrestling games, WCW vs. the World.
The biggest takeaway from the PlayStation days as a player was that I connected with my love of racing games. Whether sim, arcade, or kart, I love riding around created levels, learning a physics system, and battling for a finish line. The objective does not need to be fastest time. Crash Team Racing and Driver both thrilled me. Twisted Metal changed the way I look at games forever.
As a young player, games were a happy escape for me because that’s what I needed. To this day I do tend to favor games that let me run around bright beautiful settings and manage conflict and dungeons my way. Twisted Metal did not give a shit what I wanted to see. It promised fun driving mechanics and innovative combat, and I was going to have to enter its weird gritty world to get to them. Playing this game as much as I did taught me to let go of my need to seek out my own expectations in games and accept the developer’s vision, and as a result I’ve enjoyed loads of awesome games I might not have tried otherwise.
As a creator, these games taught me about the role the environment in a game can play. This turned out to be crucial thinking, as the industry has moved even further in this direction as games picked up the support for larger and more detailed worlds. Now we have series like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and even games like Fortnite that make the environment is the star.
WWF No Mercy
To this day, I’m still surprised when I hear of Nintendo 64 games I didn’t play for many hours. For the purpose of conversation, it’s easiest to assume I saw everything on the console. Race around each track once in San Francisco Rush? More like once a week. Obscure game like Dual Heroes? Nice try, played it all the time. We played it long enough to understand it. No one should have done that.
GoldenEye 007 was magical, certainly, but nothing captured the attention of me and my friends like THQ’s wrestling games. The combat system was incredible. The gameplay variation kept us playing non-stop for years. Every bit of five years easily, and I could still play it at any given time. We played as our childhood wrestling heroes, we created wrestlers in our own likeness, then we created people we hated so we could lay them out on the announcer’s table, prop up a ladder in the ring, then let nature take its course. I tinkered with customization and prodded the story line system like I worked for THQ. At least once a year I have to stop myself from starting a spiritual successor to these games now that we know no one is going to make one like them again.
You guessed it: I was just positive we’d be playing THQ games forever.
Early 2000s PC
The earliest days of widespread commercial internet was such a fascinating time for gaming. Shareware games were still plentiful, CD-ROM point & click games had taken the world by storm, and whether any of it would run on your machine was a coin toss. I kid you not: I walked into a KB Toys at my local mall one day, reached into a bargain bin, and bought a CD-ROM games collection that included a time-locked version of Grand Theft Auto, a direct Tetris ripoff created by one guy, and the complete Text Adventure Development System (TADS), pre-loaded with an unauthorized text-based game in which the object is to do nothing but have a lot of sex with Star Trek: The Next Generation commander Deanna Troi. Even as a high school freshman, I was too weirded out by that last one to play it for more than a couple of weeks.
The importance of this phase in my journey to game development was the realization that, holy shit, it is literally anything goes out here. I played a full live-action basketball drama in Slam City with Scottie Pippen, blasted alien competitors in a giant McDonald’s in a user-generated Unreal Tournament map, and played through a season’s worth of interactive episodes of Johnny Quest. Anything I could dream up and create would surely find an audience in this weird new world.
My pick for this period, Dink Smallwood, exemplifies everything great about this time in history. It was made by a tiny team, it irreverently parodies Diablo, Zelda, and fantasy gaming in general, and its fan base has kept it alive with new mods, tools, and updates ever since. It’s fun, stupid, and wonderful.
Not long after this time I started walking across town to the library to learn absolutely any IT skill I could on my long slow trudge through learning to code. By the time I got to my high school’s single programming course–requiring students to be seniors and change their schedule to part-time vocational training–I was at the top of my class.
The TimeSplitters Series
I was late to the TimeSplitters party, but I became quickly obsessed when I found it. From its connections to GoldenEye 007 to its effortless style, TimeSplitters was everything a first-person shooter should be. When the map editor entered the picture, I was again convinced I was experiencing something that would change the future forever. The fact that very few of us ever play TimeSplitters games anymore is an outrage.
Looking back, I find it difficult to separate the games that led me to game development from the experiences that led me there. I recognize that the role of video games as a product in our lives has to change as we progress in age, but the stories above should go a long way to explain my respect for their potential, my continued drive to learn about their creation, and my desire to tell their stories. It’s hard to imagine what modern kids will say when they explain how they decided to pursue the craft, but I believe there’s more potential than ever for kids who had to escape into digital worlds on their way into ours.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.