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My Life As A Videogame Character

Of the sixty or so videogames I have developed, perhaps my favorite was the Heroes of Might & Magic series, thanks in large part to how well we development leads got along with each other.  While we worked very hard, we also took the time to have fun with each other.  For example, after I had returned from a week’s vacation with my family, my lead designer, Greg Fulton, had told me that they had added a new character to the Armageddon’s Blade expansion in my absence, and he wanted me to review and approve it.

The character the had named the character they added “Sir Mullich”, and the artwork was based on a photograph of me dressed in a Renaissance Fair costume that I had put on a few months earlier for a photograph used as reference for the town leaders in Might & Magic VI, a role-playing game set in the same fictional universe developed by our sister team at New World Computing. However, it was the character’s description that really got to me: Generally stoic, Sir Mullich is prone to spasmodic fits of uncoordinated excitement believed to intimidate his troops into working faster. As I read it, the rest of the team hovered about, waiting to see how I would react.

Fortunately for everyone, I laughed at their joke about my leadership skills (or lack thereof), but told them that they could keep the character (and its description) in the game.  Little did I realize how long that character would live on.  Not only did Sir Mullich appear in all of the Heroes of Might & Magic games that our team launched from 1999 to 2002, but the character lived on in the Heroes games that Ubisoft continued to develop after buying the franchise from our parent company, The 3DO Company.

“Sir Mullich” also lives on in the many Heroes sites that the series’ fans publish, and I was amazed that when I entered the name into Google for this article, it received 10,600 results. Even more unsettling, I occasionally receive fan mail from all around the world, sometimes with the fans posing with a picture of me.  I may not be famous in America, but apparently I have a large enough following in Eastern Europe for my photo to have been hung up in a gamer’s lounge in Poland or there to be Russian fan art of Sir Mullich in DeviantArt.

What most tickles me is the artwork that is produced for this character, which seems to make Sir Mullich less spasmodic and more heroic with each iteration.  Just this morning, my contact at Ubisoft, Julien Pirou sent me some fantastic artwork of Sir Mullich created for Might & Magic Era of Chaos, a mobile game released in China.  It’s a far more heroic depiction of me than anyone in real life would think, and having created a game that has a worldwide appeal two decades later actually makes me feel more humbled than heroic.

An even stranger experience for me was meeting the real-life incarnation of a video game I had worked on.  The protagonist of Dark Seed II, a horror-themed adventure game I had produced for game publisher Cyberdreams based on the artwork of H.R. Giger, was named Mike Dawson.  This character was the same as the hero of the first game in the series, whose name and likeness was based on the original game’s programmer.

When I joined Cyberdreams in 1993, Mike Dawson had already left the company, but I did get to meet him twenty years when I joined The Los Angeles Film School, where he taught Game Programming courses.   Far from being the tormented and tortured soul from the Dark Seed series, Mike is an impressively normal guy (albeit with a sly sense of humor), but one who is far more heroic than his video-game counterpart for being an absolutely outstanding teacher who just celebrated ten years at The Los Angeles Film School, where he consistently receives the highest praise from his programming students.

So, what’s it like to be someone who is far less heroic than his video game counterpart but having known someone who is actually far more than his? I’m good with that.  I originally got into game development to use computers as a storytelling tool, and so I’m thrilled to entertain people with fictional stories that they continue with their own fan art and fan fiction. But even more importantly, it’s given me many opportunities to meet people like Mike Dawson who inspire me with their real-life stories.

Getting A Bad Review Is No Fun

I feel sorry for the people who worked on Warner Bro’s DC Comics films.  Man of Steel got mixed reviews for its ho-hum take on Superman, while its sequel, Batman v Superman: Down of Justice got resoundingly panned for its muddled storyline.  From its trailers, Suicide Squad, looked like it might be a winner with both a critical and box office hit, but it too is taking a beating from the critics.  Now I know that Warner Bros. did just fine at the box office will these three films, but let me tell you from personal experience, it isn’t fun getting bad reviews.

In 1995 I produced two similarly themed adventure games for Cyberdreams: one received stellar reviews, while the other received awful reviews.

The former, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, was a video game I developed in collaboration with author Harlan Ellison. It received excellent reviews, was named Best Adventure Game of the Year by Computer Gaming World, and received the award for Best Game Adapted From Linear Media at that year’s Game Developers Conference.

The latter, Dark Seed II, was a game I developed in collaboration with artist H.R. Giger. It received terrible reviews, and one reviewer privately told our marketing director that I should be fired.

And the odd thing was, as I was developing both games — which had similar scopes, interfaces, game mechanics and even storylines — I thought Dark Seed II was turning out to be the better game.

Well, obviously it feels great to receive rave reviews and awards, and it feels terrible to be panned by the critics. But all I could do was try to figure out what went wrong (I eventually decided that the main problem was that I cast the wrong actor to do the main character’s voice — he was much too depressing, and no one wants to play a depressing character), and do better next time.

Game development is fast-paced, and by the time you’ve launched one project, you’re busy starting up the next one. There’s no time for moping.

So, don’t spend too much time licking your wounds, Warner Bros. and DC Comics.  You’ve got a big slate of films to put out.  Just one thing: you better not screw up Wonder Woman!