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How Star Trek Influenced My Career

With all the excitement surrounding by the release of the Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens move trailer the other week as well as the announcement today that CBS would be launching a new Star Trek television series in 2017, someone asked me, “Which has had a bigger impact on you: Star Wars or Star Trek?” Although I am as excited as everyone else is to see the new George Lucas-less Star Wars films, this is not a difficult question for me to answer: of the two, Star Trek has been a far bigger influence on my life, not just as a source of entertainment but also in my career as a videogame producer.

It began on September 8, 1966 — at 8:20pm, to be precise. I was eight years old, watching television, when I suddenly remembered that a really neat show I read about in TV Guide was on. I switched the channel over to NBC, and I was immediately became hooked for life. The show was, of course, Star Trek. Originally pitched by creator Gene Roddenberry to the network as a “Wagon Train to the stars,” Star Trek chronicled the adventures of the starship USS Enterprise and its crew on its five-year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I had always been a science fiction fan, but this show was different. Initially, I think it was the futuristic technology that attracted me: phaser weapons that could stun or dematerialized, depending on the setting; voice-actuated computers that could hold the entirety of humanity’s knowledge in its memory banks; transporters that could teleport people from space to a planet’s surface; and warp drive that transcended the speed of light and could propel starships to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. I drew my version of the starship controls and pasted them on a TV table so that I could co-pilot the Starship Enterprise along with the bridge crew each week.

I continued to watch Star Trek throughout my childhood, thanks to the show’s success in syndication after its initial three-year run, as well as to a short-lived animated version that ran on Saturday mornings. The characters on the show became like virtual friends to me because, like all good television shows, it was based upon a “family”: Captain James T. Kirk, the brash but supremely capable commander the Starship Enterprise, advised by his logical, alien First Officer, Mr. Spock, and the impassioned Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. The show impressed upon me with the value of diversity and how even two people from different planets could be “brothers.”

Even the supporting cast consisted of diverse and appealing characters: Asian hobby-loving helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu; Russian navigator Ensign Pavel Chekov, whose heavy accent sometimes provided comic relief; African communications office Lt. Nyota Uhura, blessed with competency in multiple languages as well as a lovely singing voice; and especially, the ever-reliable Scottish chief engineer, Lt. Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. I put together my own collection of futuristic “engineering tools” and would go play in the laundry room to pretending that I was Scotty making repairs to the ships’ engines.

I became a card-carrying (literally) Star Trek fan, or “Trekkie,” joining the official fan club. I collected Star Trek “technical manuals” and glued together model kits of phasers, tricorders, communicators, and the U.S.S. Enterprise herself. I attended Star Trek conventions, even convincing my mom to take me to one in San Francisco. And I read novelizations of all the live action and animated episodes.

I learned to appreciate that the stories themselves were more sophisticated than most other television fare. Star Trek was notable for hiring leading contemporary science fiction writers such as Robert Bloch, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison to write its scripts. The show often utilized the setting of a starship visiting alien civilizations to comment on social issues of the 1960s United States, including sexism, racism, nationalism, and global war. These ideas inspired me to create my own Star Trek works. I filmed a Super8 live-action Star Trek movie for which I created the phaser and transporter effects by drawing them with colored marking pens frame by frame directly on the film. I also wrote a short story about a conspiracy within Starfleet.

My first opportunity to have my Star Trek inspired work to actually get published came in 1976, when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s executive assistant, Susan Sackett, launched a monthly fan magazine called the Star Trektennial Newsletter in honor of the show’s tenth anniversary, and of course I was a subscriber. One month she held a cartoon contest, and I submitted so many entries I not only won the contest, she made the fanzine’s cartoonist throughout the rest of its run.

That was also the year that I also enrolled in college, but I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be an artist, a writer, or a filmmaker, so I listed my major as “Undecided” until I figured out a career path for myself. In my sophomore year I enrolled in an Introduction to Computer Science course mainly to fulfill my general education requirements and partly because I enjoyed some of the Star Trek episodes featuring computers. One day as I was waiting in the Computer Lab to use the shared printer to print out my homework, I started typing out a Star Trek game. It then struck me that a computer was just as valid a medium for telling as story as was a typewriter, an easel, or a camera. I got so excited by the idea of interactive storytelling that I immediately went over to the Administration Office and changed my major to Computer Science.

The following year, my COBOL (a business programming language) instructor noticed that I was using the campus mainframe for printing out pictures of the Starship Enterprise using punch cards. I expected him to reprimanded me, but instead he offered me a job as a clerk in his computer store, Rainbow Computing, that he owned along with a couple of the other professors. While I was working in the store, one of the other customers, Sherwin Steffin, told me that he ran a small software publishing company and asked me to write some games for him. And so that was my start in the game industry.

The very first game I made for Edu-Ware was about space exploration, although it was not a Star Trek game. It an expansion scenario to a text-based science fiction role-playing game called Space, created by Steffin’s business partner, Steve Pederson. The game consisted of two scenarios: Shaman, in which the player’s goal was to convert interplanetary colonists to your religion; and Psychodelia, in which players could take various drugs to enhance their mental skills, but at a risk to their physical ones. After I graduated from college, I joined the company full-time as a game designer and programmer, and one of my long-term projects was to redesign Space as a trilogy of graphics-based role-playing games, the first of which, Empire I: World Builders, won Electronic Games magazine’s aware for “Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Computer Game” of 1983. It was a nice feather in my cap, but it wasn’t Trek.

I did have a brush with Star Trek during my time at Edu-Ware when Bjo Trimble walked into our Canoga Park offices. Bjo, along with her husband John, is considered to be one of the most influential fans of her generation. The Trimbles were behind the successful “Save Star Trek” campaign, generally credited with allowing the series to run for a third season rather than being canceled after two. They also ran the campaign to have the first of NASA’s space shuttles named Enterprise. Bjo had come to our company to ask about educational software for children with disabilities, but I, of course, spent time talking Trek with her.

My next brush with Star Trek came several years later when I was looking for work, as people in the game industry so often are. I was on the Paramount Studios lot to interview for a position as a liaison to companies making interactive products based on Paramount properties. Star Trek: The Next Generation was filming on the lot at the time. After the interview concluded, I asked for directions to the Star Trek production offices. I had hoped to tell Susan Sackett my story about how Star Trek inspired my career in the industry, since she had written a book titled Letters to Star Trek about similar experiences, but unfortunately, it was late on a Friday afternoon, and Susan was too busy trying to wrap things up to leave for the weekend to deal with an unexpected visitor (she did send me a nice note afterwards, apologizing for not having time to talk). While I was there, I was able to peek down the hallway and see The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, talking on the telephone in his office.

By the way, Star Trek: The Next Generation was just as much as an influence on me as The Original Series was. Even my wife, Charlotte, who is not normally a science fiction fan, watched episodes of the show with me every week. We’d watch it together when our baby son Ben was in the hospital being treated with chemotherapy, and it was one of the things that got us through a terrible ordeal. I’m happy to report that Ben (standing next to Spock in this picture taken of our family at Star Trek: The Experience) is now a grown man and studying biology at my alma mater, Cal State Northridge.

I had yet another brush with Star Trek in 1994. While I was in San Francisco attending the annual Game Developers Conference and sat in on a session where author Harlan Ellison and game designer David Sears were discussing how they were adapting Harlan’s classic short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream into a video game. I have to admit that I was very jealous. No only was that my favorite short story, but Harlan had written my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever.” I should be the one working with him!

As fate would have it, I wound up producing the project. A few months after GDC, the company publishing the game, Cyberdreams, contacted me about working for them as a producer. What made this opportunity even more exciting of me was that David Sears had left the project and the company needed someone to work with Harlan in finishing the design of the game. Did someone say “dream job”?

Of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. Harlan had a reputation for being difficult, and I knew that going in. I had seen him talk on panels on science fiction conventions, and I knew that he enjoyed being an iconoclast — someone who attacks what others hold sacred, but I enjoyed that about him too. He infamously appeared with the rest of The Original Series cast on an episode of Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show about Star Trek‘s enduring appeal, and Harlan spent the entire time ripping into the show and it’s fandom. (At a Star Trek convention I once asked James Doohan, who played Scotty, what he thought about what Harlan said on that show, and Doohan replied, “I wanted to punch him in the nose.”)

And, man, did Harlan live up to his reputation in person! As soon as I arrived at his house, he began hurling insults at me (the worse was “you think like a television producer.”). I remained calm and composed, and when I showed him our work on the game so far, the rain of barbs subsided. Slowly I gained his trust that I was handling his story well, and we learned to work together very well. He would read some of the dialog that I wrote for the game and tell me that it was “shit”, but that would just get me to try harder to emulate his writing style. I would also read his dialog and tell him when I thought he could do better, and he’d trudge back to his office and come back with scenes that worked better for the game.

When it came time to cast voice-over actors to record the game’s dialog, I immediately thought of John DeLancie, who played the omnipotent and annoying entity named “Q” on many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, for playing the role of the story’s antagonist, the insane supercomputer, AM. One of my former co-workers knew John DeLancie’s phone number, and so I spoke to the actor about playing the part, but when I told Harlan, he was firm: he didn’t want any Star Trek actors in the game. So, I told him, “All right. Then I want YOU to play the role. You’d be perfect at playing an insane computer.” And I was right, he was.

The finished game wound up winning just about every game industry award there was. However, what was most meaningful to me was this “Letter To The Editor” Harlan wrote to Computer Gaming World when the game won its Best Adventure Game of the Year award:

“David Sears and I worked very hard on I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. And we both get our accolades in your presentation. But someone else who had as much, or more, to do with bringing this project to fruition… is David Mullich. He was the project manager and designer after David Sears moved on. He worked endlessly, and with what Balzac called ‘clean hands and composure’ to produce a property that would not shame either of us. It simply would not have won your award had not David Mullich mounted the barricades.”

All well and good, but my dream of making a Star Trek game did not come until six years later when Activision hired me to produce a Trek-themed real-time strategy game that Mad Doc Software was developing for them. The game, tentatively called Starfleet Admiral, was to be a real-time strategy space combat game involving ships across all the Star Trek movies and television shows. We developed a first-playable prototype of the game, but although the vice president of our division said that it was the best prototype he had seen in his ten years at Activision, the game got cancelled due to a falling out with the developer over another project they were developing with us.

Well, that wasn’t the only reason. My immediate manager was losing faith in the drawing power of the Star Trek license and thought that Star Trek Admiral relied too much on Trek history as its appeal, and I was given the directive to make a Star Trek game that wasn’t about Star Trek. So, my assistant producer, Dan Hagerty, devised an alien race and spaceships that would be the focus of our new game, which we developed with a Hungarian developer called Digital Reality who had developed a 3D engine that impressed up when we met with them at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. We made several trips to Budapest, where we had a great time working with Digital Reality and its CEO, Gabor Fehrer, proved to be a delightful host.

Everything was going well on the project, and then suddenly, everything having to do with Star Trek imploded. First, Star Trek: Enterprise came out on television, and it bombed in the ratings. Then, Star Trek: Nemesis came out in the movie theater, and it bombed at the box office. We had actually been invited to an advance screening of the film on the Paramount Studios lot, but when our Paramount liaison, Harry Lang, asked us what we thought of the film as we came out of the theater, all we could do was smile and mumble something noncommittal. However, back at Activision headquarters, the executives determined that Paramount was no longer supporting the Star Trek franchise with quality product, cancelled all of the Star Trek games it had in development, and I was sent to work on other projects. I never had a chance to work on a Star Trek game again.

Actually, it was my brother Jon who had the most success with Star Trek. Jon has long been involved in community theater, and although I never considered him to be a Trek fan growing up, he had the brilliant idea of rewriting the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore as a Star Trek musical adventure. Jon’s production of the U.S.S. Pinafore: An Out Space Operetta debuted at the Crown City Theater to rave reviews, and it caught the attention of former Starlog Magazine editor Kerry O’Quinn and his close friend Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on the original series. Jon (second from right in the photo) convinced them, along with fan favorite episode The Trouble With Tribbles author David Gerrold, to do a panel after one of his performances. Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment that night, and I missed this chance to meet these three people who I so admired.

Yet Star Trek continued to work its serendipitous influence on me, and a couple of months later, the former editor of Softalk Magazine, Margot Comstock, who had supported my work since my early days in the game industry, contacted me out of the blue and suggested that I should meet a friend of hers — Kerry O’Quinn, the Starlog Magazine founder who was part of the Star Trek panel at Jon’s musical. I was a huge fan of Starlog when growing up, which covered Star Trek, Star Wars, and everything else in the realm of science fiction, and so I jumped at the chance to meet him. We met for dinner at Kitchen24 in Hollywood, and for a couple of hours entertained me with stories about Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, author Arthur C. Clarke, and so many of my other idols.

Kerry was kind enough to invite me to his birthday party a short time later, and he spent the evening discussing his career with Starlog and other ventures. What made the evening especially memorable that his close friend Nichelle Nichols was there. Throughout my childhood and teen years, I considered her to be the most beautiful woman in television, and I have to say that, at 77-years-young, she was just as lovely as ever.

Star Trek continues to be a presence in my life. For the past couple of years at my teaching position at The Los Angeles Film School, I’ve dressed as Captain Kirk for Halloween, my goatee notwistanding. Famed Doom co-creator John Romero did the embellishment to this photo of me. Last year, I took a quick picture of me for Facebook, but there were dark circles under my eyes. I did a real quick and dirty job in Photoshop of fixing them before posting it, but John surprised me by stepping in and doing the job right.

Last week, after dressing as Kirk for the school costume contest, I got into the elevator and another instructor asked me if I was a Star Trek fan. When I answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, he then introduced me to another passenger in the elevator: actress Gianna Simone, who played a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in the film Star Trek Into Darkness. It seems that no matter what I do, or where I go, the incredible universe that Gene Roddenberry created nearly 50 years ago continues to affect my life in the most amazing and unexpected ways.

 

 

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.