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How James Bond Influenced My Career

Last week I wrote about the pervasive influence that Star Trek has had on my life and career. With the twenty-fourth James Bond film Spectre debuting last weekend, this week I’m writing about how the James Bond films impacted me. While this creative franchise didn’t have quite the same degree of influence on me that Star Trek and Lord of the Rings did, it still was one of the three primary pop culture influences on my childhood.

Because the Bond films are not child-friendly films, their impact on me was indirect during my early childhood in that they influenced many of the shows I did watch. James Bond creator Ian Fleming himself helped develop the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which followed the adventures of an American and Russian secret agent, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, who worked for a secret international counter espionage and law and enforcement agency. I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, used exotic international locations to emulate the James Bond films. An especially favorite show of mine was the spy spoof Get Smart, starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, who was a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. One recurring gag on the show was that telephones are concealed in over objects a necktie, comb, watch, a clock, and most frequently, Max’s shoe phone, which he has to take off to answer calls from his superior.

Spy adventures and secret agent gear comprised a lot of my make-believe play. I bought and studied books about how to make codes and ciphers, such as using lemon juice as “invisible ink” to send secret messages. I played with all sorts of secret agent toys such as radios and cameras that turned into “guns”; the Johnny Seven gun that had seven different weapons including a grenade launcher and anti-tank rocket; and the Secret Sam attach√© case that featured not only a gun with silencer but also had a secret button on that fired a bullet out one side of the briefcase. With me playing with all those guns, you might think that I was a blood-thirsty little tyke, what actually fascinated me was the ingenuity of how they were designed, and there ability to transform from one thing to another — much like kids that grew up after me enjoyed Transformer toys.

My favorite spy toy was a die-cast model of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. Like the film car, this toy from Corgi featured retractable front-mounted machine guns, bullet-proof rear screen, revolving number plates, tire shredders, and best of all, a working ejector seat that would send the occupant flying out of the roof. Now, I had never actually seen a James Bond film at this point, but I have a vivid memory of my Dad calling me over to the television showing a scene of Q showing off the Aston Martin’s features to Bond.

I didn’t actually see my first Bond film until I was 11-years-old, when my Dad took my brothers and I to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the local movie theater. I didn’t know George Lazenby from Sean Connery at this point, so the opening scene where Lazenby’s Bond loses a fight and breaks the fourth wall by saying to the camera, “This never happened to the other fellow” was lost on me. I immediately loved the film for its clever gadgets, exotic locales, exciting action sequences, and supervillians with hidden lairs and elaborate plans for world domination. However, at that age, the sex (and sexism) was a bit over my head.

I caught up on all of previous Bond films that ABC would regularly broadcast on television, and although he wasn’t my first Bond, Connery became my favorite because of his suave and debonair approach to the character (which I later learned was due to director Terrence Young coaching the scruffy Connery in the ways of being dapper, witty, and cultured). Connery’s Bond was also as ruthless as he was charming, for he could just as easily slide a knife into a female adversary as he could make love to her to gain her loyalty.

During my teenage years, my best friend, Andrew Weber, and I would ride our bicycles together to the movie theater to catch the latest Bond film. By this time, Roger Moore had taken over the role after Connery’s departure. Although all Bond films are ridiculous to some degree, I did not like Moore’s approach to the character, which Connery said differed from his in that “I would leave the scene laughing, while Roger would enter the scene laughing”. I wanted my Bond to be a bit more serious when saving the world.

I found the grittiness I was wanted by reading the original Ian Fleming novels, in which the literary Bond was not as handsome or unflappable as the film versions. I was put off by some of the racial insensitive of the books, but we were reading Huckleberry Finn at the same time in high school, so I took Fleming’s use of the “N-” word as a sign of another, less enlighten time. Ian Fleming saw himself as part of an elite class, and he undoubtedly saw everyone who was not a member of British upper society as beneath him.

My reading then turned to American spy stories. Watergate was happening at the time, and so I read a (very mediocre) spy novel written by Watergate conspirator and ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. When I was older, I started reading Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller books, most of which centered around CIA intelligence officer Jack Ryan. Although I greatly enjoyed the technically details of his espionage and military science storylines set during and after the Cold War, I eventually grew tired of Clancy’s heavy-handed conservative views in which all the right-leaning characters were pure and good and the left-leaning characters were flawed or evil.

I preferred my fiction to be more thought-provoking, and our of all the spy-themed movies, books, and television shows that most captured my interests was The Prisoner, a 17-episode British television eerie first broadcast in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s but rebroadcast on PBS while I was attending college a decade later. The series follows a British former secret agent who is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Although the show was outwardly a spy thriller, what appealed to me was its surreal settings and 1960s countercultural themes about maintaining one’s individuality despite society’s pressure to conform.

I was so enthralled with the show that when I joined Edu-Ware Services as a game designer/programmer after graduating college, I convinced my boss to let me develop a game based on the show. Over a six-week period I designed the game as I was programming it, devising situations based not just based on the show’s themes and spy genre tropes, but also incorporating famous experiments, like the Milgram experiment, that I learned about in a college psychology class.

Because we didn’t acquire a license to The Prisoner, my game was only loosely based on the show but incorporated its themes about the loss of individuality in a technological, controlling society. The player’s role is that of an intelligence agent who has resigned from his job for reasons known only to himself, and who has been abducted to an isolated island community that seems designed to be his own personal prison. The island’s authorities use coercion, disorientation, deception, and frustration to learn why the player has resigned, and every character, location, and apparent escape route seem to be part of a grand scheme to trick the player into revealing a code number representing the prisoner’s reason for resigning.

The game turned out to be my greatest personal creative achievement. I programmed a text parser so that the player could communicate in English with his captors, which one game reviewer described as “the best example of artificial intelligence seen in or outside of any game.” One of my more nefarious attempts to get the player to reveal the reasons why he resigned was a simulated game crash which includes the error message “Syntax error in line ###”, where the line number is the player’s resignation code. I also had game occasionally break the fourth wall by acknowledging that a game is being played and the player has chosen to imprison himself by agreeing willingly to play the game.

The game was both a financial and critical success, sufficiently so that I wrote a color graphics sequel called Prisoner 2 that was equally well-received. Unfortunately, that was the last opportunity I had to developed a spy-themed video game.

Still, my interest in the spy genre never waned, and Bond somehow always impacted my life, in addition to me watching the films through the Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig years. During one trip to Las Vegas, I volunteered to go up on stage during a performance of Pat Collins, “The Hip Hypnotist”. She “hypnotized” me into believing I was James Bond, and so I pulled out an imaginary “gun”, leapt off the stage, grabbed an cocktail waitress by the arm, and escorted her off to safety.

I had another Bond encounter when I was working at Cyberdreams, producing the game Dark Seed II with H.R. Giger. Because I had my hands full designing another game, I brought on a freelance designer to work on the Giger game, and the person I hired was Raymond Benson, who had designed a number of text and graphic adventure games for Origin Systems, MicroProse, and Mindscape, including games based on the James Bond films A View To A Kill and Goldfinger. Raymond was also the author of the non-fiction book The James Bond Bedside Companion, which is an indispensable resource for Bond fans.

In 1996, when official James Bond novelist John Gardner resigned from writing Bond books. Glidrose Publications hired Raymond to replace him. Raymond wound up writing six James Bond novels, three novelizations, and three short stories (he was the first writer after creator Ian Fleming to write a Bond short story). I, of course, read all of Raymond’s Bond works and am lucky enough to have several autographed copies of his novels, which occupy a treasured space in my library.

Knowing of my mutual love for Bond, Raymond invited me to a James Bond convention in Los Angeles where he was appearing as a speaker and performer (in addition to being a phenomenal writer, Raymond is also a terrific pianist). After attending Raymond’s session, I saw my “first” Bond, George Lazenby, in person, along with Richard Kiel (“Jaws” from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) and Bruce Glover (“Mr. Wint” in Diamonds Are Forever). Raymond has since gone on to writing his own very successful mystery novels, and I try to see him whenever he is in town for a book signing or business meeting.

As for my own spy adventures, although I never had an opportunity to work on any spy-themed videogames since The Prisoner and Prisoner 2, I did some work on a spy-themed live action game last year. Two entrepreneurs interested in staring up an Escape Room franchise hired me to design some scenarios for them, including a spy-themed scenario in which players find clues hidden in secret compartments and use them to break codes and solve other puzzles that will ultimately let escape from a locked room. It was great fun to work on, although the project never advanced past the design phase.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work on an actual James Bond game, but I never expected Sean Connery to return to the role in Never Say Never Again or Eon Productions to hire a blonde-haired actor like Daniel Craig to play Bond, so maybe some day I’ll have an opportunity to virtually join Her Majesty’s Secret Service as an agent creating works rather than as a spy viewing them.

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Noob

Last week one of my clients with whom I worked over the summer call me to see how I was doing. I told him that my contract business at Electric Sheep Consulting was in a bit of a lull, but I was keeping busy doing pro bono work, serving on some advisory boards and helping out with student projects at the USC GamePipe Lab.

“That’s the sort of thing we do at this stage in our careers,” he observed. “But as long as you’re giving out free advice, you might as well give it out on a blog. Why don’t you start one on WordPress, and that way you can promote yourself through blog announcements through Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn?”

Now, my wife has been trying to convince me to start writing a blog for some time, but what finally convinced me to give it a try was the mention of WordPress. Earlier in the week I was talking to another potential client about doing some web development work, and while we were discussing content management systems, I told him that I really ought to learn how to more about WordPress because it’s used by many people but I’m a noob to it.

After the call, I decided to finally learn how to put together a WordPress blog so that I can write about… what?  Well, I’ve been giving away a lot of advice about game development, so I’ll start writing about that.

After going through the WordPress tutorial and trying out a couple of themes, I took a break and starting going through my email.  I receive a number of daily digests from various topic groups I subscribe to on LinkedIn, a business-oriented social network, and in one of the game development digests was a new discussion topic that read, “I am a writer who is looking for a team to make one of my novels into a videogame.  If you are interested in the details, please send me a personal message.”

Well, I was interested in the details, because years ago, I worked with the famed writer Harlan Ellison on adapting one his classic short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” into a videogame.  So, the first thing I did was — no, not send a personal message — instead, I looked Googled the writer’s name and his novel to find out if he was a successful author.  I assumed he wasn’t successful, or he’d be having his agent try to license the videogame rights to his work.  But, then again, Roger Zelazny once wrote me a letter himself, expressing concern that a character in one of my early games, The Lord of Light, had the same name as the title of one of his books.  It was a coincidence, I swear!

Anyway, I Googled the writer, and I turned up nothing.  The guy was a complete noob.  But, hey, I’m now in the free advice business, so I pinged him and we set up a Skype call.  Here is an (edited) transcript:

Writer: I’ve been at trying to get a video game made from my stories since I was a teen and 26 now. I’ve had offers but all of them fall through because the agents were so hard to contact and follow up
Me: When you say that you’ve had offers, what do you mean?
Writer: They told me to send them my game proposal and make a desicion on advanced payment but they became unreachable once it came to that point
Me: It sounds like you haven’t received any offers. An offer is when someone else proposes what they will pay you. Has anyone ever come to you saying they wanted to make a game out of one of your stories.
Writer: They have but every last one of them, like the one I just told you about earlier, became unreachable. Your the first to move beyond all of them.
Me: Who came to you?
Writer: It was random people. People i’ve never heard before. I usually get that
Me: That’s what you get when you post requests like yours. Lots of replies from nobodies.
Writer: Ya. i see that now.

Me: Very few books get made into games… I can only think of about half a dozen off the top of my head. The ones that do are famous books from famous authors. That’s because there are no shortage of game ideas out there.
Writer: I have a popular Sci-Fi Series on YouTube. It has reached over 100,000 people. Every time i post an episode, I at least get around 2k views. Now its to the point that my viewers WANT to see a video game made cuz some of the elements within this universe is video game anime-ish.
Me: Not popular enough. Look at the books that have been made into videogames: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dune, Lord of the the Rings, Red Storm Rising. Those are works whose readership number in the millions. Neither you nor your work even has a Wikipedia entry. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s how game publishers think.

Writer: Well, I need someone to help me get there. And my series does have a wikia page, Still under construction
Me: Anyone can create a wikia page. The point is that you and your work aren’t famous. You have a following, but it is a small one.
Writer: I see what your saying but I see that some times people with a small following have a game publisher that likes their idea good enough to say, “So what if they aren’t popular enough. This idea with enough promotion after the game’s creation will make it famous!”
Me: In 30 years, I’ve never known a publisher to say that.
Writer: I know but I KNOW there are publishers that don’t care about the popularity of the game. If they see it has potential, they’ll invest in the games making. Maybe these games I’ve been seeing on the market lately use the funding themselves. I got 2 video games using that method.

Me: Are you saying that you got funding for two video games?
Writer: Yes
Me: Who did you get funding from, and how much did you receive?
Writer: I fund the games myself out of my own pocket
Me: Oh, so when you said that you got funding using “that method”, you meant self-funding.

Writer: and i already have a comic book deal. Which the publisher told me “it has potential”. This was back when MDR had just reached the 80k mark. So I know popularity of a book isn’t an issue. That’s just a copout in my opinion.
Me: You have a comic book deal? Did you sign a contract?
Writer: He told me once I finish the first issue, he’ll send me the contract
Me: “having a deal” means that you have a signed contract. You didn’t have a deal.
Writer: Not from his standpoint
Me: Not from anyone’s standpoint. Unless… did he pay you any money up front?
Writer: Nope. Once the project is done. The artist I had wanted money up front (in which the comic book publisher said he’d handle).
Me: No money, no contract, no deal. You just had a discussion.

Me: So here’s your situation… and I don’t mean to be discouraging, just setting realistic expectations. You’ve written stories and created videos that have a small following, but you haven’t done’t anything that would make you or your work a household name. Until that happens, no game publisher is going to offer you money to buy the videogame rights to your story. You’ve only self-funded games so far. And you never had a contract nor been paid for your comic book work.
Writer: That’s people people procrastinate
Me: People aren’t following through because you’re not important enough to them. Not yet. You need to focus on improving your work.
Writer: I don’t beleive that. You’ve followed through. Asking me all these questions.
Me: I like helping people.
Writer: You had interest in my work. Sounded like you wanted to see my game come alive
Me: But I wouldn’t invest money in your work. You’re not ready yet.

Writer: Others would say different. Musically, they already promote my music on the radio and I have artist representation. In my music, I mention my stories. So what you’re saying is not correct.
Me: What do you want to do with your life? Write stories? Create comic books? Make music? Make video games? Create videos?
Writer: All of the above and i’ve done all of the above.
Me: You can do all that, for fun. But if you want to make a living at it, I’d focus on one of those and get really, really good at it.
Writer: Honestly, i didn’t think I could make a living off it and just did it for fun. That was until I got artist representation. Yes, I have a music manager now, but he only does promotion for my music but Sci-Fi is what I’m known for. That’s why I’m looking on the video game side of things.My music is already where it’s supposed to be
Me: And where is it supposed to be?
Writer: Viewed by several thousands. In time, millions.
Me: Thousands is a hobby; millions is a career.

Writer: It would’ve never gotten there had they not seen “potential” in me. From “Hobby” is “potential” to make a “Career” out of that “Hobby”.
Me: True. But before you can transform a hobby to career, you need to hone your business skills: like knowing what an “offer” and “deal” is.
Writer: I know how games get out there. I learn little by little from people like you. Thanks for that. And small fries like me, from your standpoint, don’t stand a chance. But to people who are optimistic about small fries, they don’t see in one direction. They see the idea and don’t discriminate on the basis of how popular it is. Angry Birds I see was nothing to me until it got popular enough to be featured on TV and some other free android games people liked playing till it reached the point of millions.
Me: Your chances about having one of your stories purchased so that it can be turned into a videogame is virtually nil because that almost never happens.

Me: But you stand as good a chance as anyone to become a musician, or a videographer, or an author, or a comic book writer, or a videogame maker, so some combination of the above. You certainly can find ways to get people to help you make your game.
Writer: Yeah, I was hoping you would be one of those ones
Me: Here’s a place you can go: gamedev.net
Writer: Ha! i use to go to that site all the time when i was teen!
Me: It’s still a good place to go.

Writer: All we need is a promoter that would see the potential in our games. That’s why I asked for a Producer or someone to turn my stories into games.
Me: That’s what I do for a living, but I charge by hour.
Writer: k. I’ll get back to you on that. Right now, I’m out of cash.
Me: Nothing is impossible. But many things are difficult. It helps to know what you are doing, or want to do. I suggest you read all the articles about how games are really developed. You need to be smart about how you sell your work, so educate yourself. Especially on the business side.
Writer: Yea. I see that. Once I get this flash game done, things will look different.
Me: The best advice I can give you right now is to read all the articles on game production.
Writer: So your not a publisher yourself?
Me: No. I’ve worked for publishers, but right now I’m a consultant.
Writer: I’ll talk to you later. Thanks for your advice.

I like people who believe in their talents, and aren’t daunted by the odds. That’s why I like to help. But if you want to make it in this or any other creative business, you have to understand the business as well as the creative. And you have to understand people. You can have optimistic expectations about yourself, but you need to have realistic expectations about other people. I hope this writer learns to listen to the people he needs to deal with, and not just hears what he wants to hear.