Gamers Made Good Profile: Keith Z. Leonard, Sword and Spirit Software, LLCJuly 14, 2014
We asked, they answered. Team Thrively owes a big thanks to our gamer guest blog contributors who shared their gaming upbringing. Keith’s is the first of many gaming success stories team Thrively would like to share.
Q. What sparked your interest in video games originally? Did a family member or friend introduce you to gaming?
In the early 1980s home computers began to appear. My father (a Civil Engineer) was steadfastly against computers in general and informed us in no uncertain terms that we would NOT be getting one. That Christmas my Grandmother (his Mother) bought us a TI99/4a color computer, so he was stuck with it. My Father's reaction to this was to declare: "We will not be buying video games for this thing, they are Pabulum for small minds!" At the time video games were basically divided into text based adventure puzzle games and low-tech action games such as Pong. I was the youngest of three boys and constantly wanting my elder brothers to "hang out" with me, so I decided that I would figure out how to use this machine to make a game of my own to play with them. In those days a computer would boot up to a command line prompt and was mostly useless unless you could program. The TI came with a language that was an odd mixture of basic and assembly-esc commands that could be expanded with a plug in module and would allow hardware accelerated sprites (8 of them!!!). After making a few simple text based games and an ascii art dungeon crawler my brothers were hanging out with me and my parents were on board enough to buy the extended programming module. It was off to the races from there. I was 11 at that point, growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
Q. What was the game that got you hooked? What did you enjoy about it?
So many! Back then we had games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and an unending love of Parsec. When we got our Commodore 128 the games just exploded for us, my parents’ restrictions went out the window once they realized that it would be silly to stop me from making games, so how could they stop me from playing them?? The summer games and winter games series got a serious amount of play back then - Karateka, Ghostbusters - the list goes on and on. What I most loved about that period of time in gaming were those icy winter days on top of the mountain when we would be snowed in and exhausted from shoveling (and snow ball fights), would come inside and the boys would play games. The games of that era had a limited engagement value, so you didn't have these 10-hour game sessions with just one game. We spent most of our time working, building our house, the neighbor's house, barns, and additions for people on weekends. The times (and there were quite a few) when the weather wasn't cooperative, video games became the equal of reading to keep us entertained and out of our parents’ hair.
As games evolved they became more involved, and I stuck to the classic puzzlers and action games. The Bard's Tale consumed a lot of my hours, later The 7th Guest was probably my favorite game for quite awhile, and I also spent a ton of time playing Wolfenstein 3D and eventually Doom. Immersion was the key here, these fantastic worlds with their unreal challenges. In school we had contests in Wings of Fury and Defender of the Crown (no contest, I was destroying people). Probably my favorite game from the early PC era was Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos. It was a long-to-play game with a pseudo 3D feel and a "real time" combat system. I spend hours and hours with that game, again escaping the boredom in a fantasy world.
Q. How did your interest in video games evolve? Was it a social activity - way to unwind from school?
I think I've already answered this, ha ha. It was a social activity with my brothers at first, but then a way to get away from the requirements of my life. School wasn't something that wound me up; mostly I found it boring and simple. I think this is true of more kids than we'd like to admit, school isn't very engaging. It's not about the learning aspects though, kids are generally thirsty for knowledge, but like adults it has to interest them. Games are interesting, simple as that.
Q. What do you recall about when you decided to produce something related to gaming rather than just be a consumer of video games? For example, did you want to create a new game that you thought would be fun? Did you take a programming class?
I'm ahead of the questions already, my apologies to your editors. I actually produced something related to gaming before being a consumer of video games. I was already a consumer of games though, board games, RPGs, and card games were involved in our family fun times. After those initial games I made from age 11-13 or so I didn't make games for a while, and became mostly a consumer. My oldest brother was involved in programming contests with the high school computer science/calculus teacher at the time as he used the results to help justify grants. I spent some time after school going to the high school and getting educated in things like base transformations so that when I got to high school I would be on those teams. I won 3rd place and 1st place twice in high school in a team of three people solving programming puzzles for the ACM. Back then I mostly just played games. I had less time for making them as other interests were consuming my free time.
I did make a game FOR a programming class in high school. We were quite lucky and had a fantastic computer science teacher. How often do you get a high school teacher with a PhD in Computer Science? He was also highly entertaining and engaging. In high school this was about all that I did for games; it wasn't until college that I started making games again. A friend of mine wanted to make games and had great ideas, but maybe not the coding chops all of the time as graphics/audio started to become more involved, so we started to make games together. We did a windows game as a directed project in our senior year and took classes in Artificial Intelligence and graphics (I helped update the graphics course with my prof back then).
Q. Did someone from your formidable years influence you to become a coder? Was it a teacher, a friend, or a neighbor? How did this person influence you?
My high school Computer Science teacher was just as big an influence though, he was proof that you could "get old" and still be cool, even if you were dressed in suits from the bargain bin from a men's warehouse. Dr. K (as we called him) was a gamer and a coder. He would set challenges and modify assembly to crack games and make them easier to beat.
Q. Did you have access to specific technology that helped you evolve from gamer to coder?
I did, in that I had a computer, a programming language, and most importantly...time. People tend to have their kids so scheduled these days that it's a wonder if they ever figure out what they really WANT to do. They are too busy doing all of the things that they HAVE to do. There is one specific story that helped though, I went out to interview with Microsoft for the "interactive multimedia team." By the time I got there they had disposed of that team and I ended up interviewing with Office and Project teams in which I had no interest. The great thing though was that they had formed the original DirectX team and I went to dinner with that group. I ended up leaving with beta versions of Windows 95 and DirectX version one (3D wasn't a thing yet). That really got me going as DirectX was a good API and Windows 95 was an exciting advancement that made Windows the OS of choice for gamers. Having access to that and a version of Visual Studio 2.0 that I got as a present from my cousin is what landed me my first game developer job.
I was playing a ton of games. Trying to recreate those with only access to the BASIC language was pretty well impossible. I had done some 3D wireframe work in BASIC but it was too slow and limiting (by far) to do anything interesting. Having a good compiler and access to fast SDKs allowed me to go from some fun wireframe experiments to a scanline rasterizer and massive sprite (for the time) based games. It got me back into making them more than playing them, if that make sense.
Q. How did your parents or other family members influence you?
So many people influenced me. My father's love of math and science was probably the start: Long talks at dinner about the origin of the universe and various species in history were common. I showed an interest in how things worked. He started to explain physics to me (with his old textbooks) when I was quite young, at a level that was approachable...basic things like levers, etc. My father’s influence was huge in terms of what I would eventually do in the industry as a lower level game engine programmer.
My mother was probably the biggest motivator for me being in the game industry though, through fear. She was terrified when I expressed a desire to attend Berkley for music, so I ended up trying to find a career that would both entertain me and limit her night terrors. It is funny to think about now though as she was equally convinced that people would never be able to make a living creating games.
My brothers influenced me in that it was better to make games for them to play than go to war with them, especially as they were quite larger than I was, ha. I used games to become their friends and their interests influenced mine. My eldest brother was interested in how stuff works, eventually becoming an Electrical Engineer. The middle of the three of us was a story driven sort of guy. His influence certainly helped me go from my "this is stupid" dismissive phase to motivating me to make my games interesting.
My cousins were influences as well. We saw them about 6 times a year or so (give or take) and they were just the coolest people. They lived in a well-to-do area near DC, so they were the "city folks." They always had the latest game systems and exposed me to a lot of video gaming that I would have otherwise been ignorant. My cousin Doug became a programmer and he gave me my first legit C++ IDE.
Q. What advice would you give parents today that want to see their children take their gaming skills and apply it to something that’s productive or will put them on some related career path?
It's funny that people have had this view of video gamers as sort of people in the basement alone in the dark historically. That perception has changed a lot I think thanks to MMOs. The point is that gaming is extremely social. The big leaps or road blocks that I see are convincing kids that they can make their own ideas real (or virtually real) and that it's worth doing that. A lot of effort has gone into making these games playgrounds for kids, and I applaud those efforts. It is great for getting an initial spark started. Lately my concern has been with making it "too easy." Challenges have to be increasingly demanding to allow for growth and with a deep enough understanding of how things work to transform hobby game makers into career game makers that can actually get hired.
Mainly I'd say don't stifle your kids and don't try TOO hard to navigate their interests. Expose kids to a wide variety of things and they'll figure it out for themselves. So many of the people in games have been looked at as odd balls by the institutions as they developed. What are you going to do with that music career?? Who cares if you can make odd noises with that stuff? Why would you spend your time writing crazy stories? It's also true of coders in that learning how to code for games is quite different from the popular marketable coding disciplines of today, just don't stop them and kids will make very interesting things happen.
Keith Leonard is a 16 year industry vet and on the team of Sword and Spirit Software. At DreamForge Intertainment he worked on WarWind II: Human Onslaught, Unreal Engine’s OpenGL renderer, 3D studio max tools for Sanitarium, Werewolf (designer and rendering engineer), and one of the two primary rendering engineers for the DreamForge 3D engine upon which the Myst 4, Kehl: Fury Unbound, and Legend of the Sun projects were based.