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"F*** the Destination, It's About the Journey"

As part of a recent show I curated in Chicago, Iron Galaxy's Dave Lang shared a story from his many years in game development.

Editor's Note: The following is a lightly edited transcript of a story Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang told at a recent recording of The Nerdologue's Your Stories show. The episode was partially curated by yours truly. In Your Stories, folks are asked to share anecdotes from their personal lives based on a theme.

This time, the theme was "fingers crossed." The show was split into two parts, which you can listen to on The Nerdologue's website. At the very end of part two, you can hear me explain what the terrible movie Evil Bong III: The Wrath of Bong has to do with proposing to my wife. Anyone in Chicago can attend future Your Stories shows, and I hope to be curating another one in the near future! And with that, let's head to the Lang Zone...

In my extensive preparations for tonight's talk, which began this morning at 10:00 a.m., I was thinking a lot about hoping for the best, and it rarely, rarely coming through. I thought about much that hurt me throughout my life, and what I've done to combat that.

When it was Dave's turn, he announced he was going to stand up for his story. Of course.
When it was Dave's turn, he announced he was going to stand up for his story. Of course.

Very recently, there's a good example of this. I tend to give a lot of talks as part of my job. I've developed something that helps me instantly determine how the talk is going to go. I usually start every talk like this. And, by the way, they're not all fun venues like this. They're normally "oh, I'm demo'ing for press" or I'm at some snooty conference giving an academic lecture or whatever. But I always start off every talk just like this:

"Hi, my name is Dave Lang. I'm the CEO of Iron Galaxy, and my favorite pony is Porkchop Applesauce."

[crowd laughter]

And I do that for a very good reason. It's not because I'm really into MLP or even know what MLP means. I do it because if people graciously giggle or laugh like you guys did, then I know the talk's going to go pretty well. Tonally, all my talks are the same. I don't take myself super seriously. I rarely take the material I'm presenting super seriously. I just want to get up here and have fun and vibe with the audience and just do my thing. If the audience doesn't laugh--and that happens shockingly frequently--if they're like "ooooh, I don't wanna listen to a brony," then I know I need to exit stage left and give them the abridged version.

That's me not wanting to worry about "oh, god, I hope this talk goes well." Because I don't care if you've done this one time or a thousand times, you're always a little nervous. You're always hoping it goes great. That's me trying to short circuit that process. I'm just finding out instantly if this is going to be great or shitty, and get on with it.

As I mentioned, I work at a video game developer. I've been making games my whole life, been making games for about 30 years--professionally, since '96. I'm going to share two stories about two games that will merge together like a true artist.

One was the first game that I ever released commercially--well, me and a team ever released commercially--and, more recently, a game we made at Iron Galaxy. The first one was '96, the second one was 2012.

So the first one was Space Jam for the Sega Saturn.

[crowd cheers]

Where were you fuckers 16 years ago? I swear to god. You make me so fucking mad.

But anywho. I've been making games my whole life, but there are things I wouldn't show people. I keep them to myself. Not because I was modest or scared or whatever. It just never occurred to me to show my friends. This was the first game I ever worked on. And my contribution to this, just to be clear, was tiny, tiny, tiny. I did the menus and some mini-games and some stuff like that. It was my first professional gig. I wanted it to be amazing, I wanted it to be something it could never be. This is a movie licensed game. It was never going to be up for game of the year awards, right? It was always destined to be this three-out-of-five, here's-what-it-is game. But I worked my ass off for that. I poured everything I had into it. And it's not because I had some boss breathing down my neck, it's because I wanted the game to be more than it could be.

Going through that, it didn't. It was released, and Next-Generation magazine, who was the most avant garde critical voice in the games journalism space at the time, they gave it a one star out of five.

[crowd boos]

Thank you, yeah!

They called it a "shitty NBA Jam clone." That's summating all the prose I read. It hit me really hard. It didn't just affect me. It, in turn, affected everyone around me. I was a dick to, at the time, my girlfriend, now wife. I was a total asshole to my co-workers. In short, I was pretty unpleasant to be around for a long time. I became aware of this over the course of the next couple of years.

Fast forward to 2012, and we're working on a game called Wreckateer for the Xbox 360.

[one crowd members cheers]

Yes, thank you. One person. That's about accurate.

Iron Galaxy is largely a tech house, which means it works on other people's games, instead of building its own.
Iron Galaxy is largely a tech house, which means it works on other people's games, instead of building its own.

The studio I work at, we're primarily a tech house. What that means is that we don't do a lot of original game development. What we do is take Scribblenauts, and we take it from the DS and put it on iPad or whatever. We do stuff like that. Getting the chance to make an original game is a really big deal for a tech house. It's a chance for you to break out, and become an actual developer. This was a really, really big deal for the studio. I was leading the project myself. Obviously, since it's my company, if the game does well, I was going to do really well, too. Everyone in the studio was going to do really well. So compared to Scribblenauts, I had much more to do with it. With Wreckateer, it was really my show. I had more riding on its success.

I still remember the day it came out. We had a launch party in the studio, and we had brought in a lot of beer and pizza and food. Along the wall was previous builds of the game. We had the first prototype, we had the first build we sent to Microsoft, every milestone we ever did. In the back, there was the released version of the game, so people could see it and play it. It was just this neat little thing. I don't know why I thought of this, but I said "hey, we could go back there and look at the leaderboards and see how it's doing!"

That was a mistake.

When we got done with the party at 2:00 a.m., about 2,500 people were on the leaderboards, which is the theoretical worst a game like this could do. It was really pushed by Microsoft, they really believed in it. And it was a good game! I stand by it. I still think it's fun. But there's a lot of reasons it failed, which we don't need to get into now, and certainly has nothing to do with me being a subpar developer or project lead!

I go to bed that last night, and was really bumming. Woke up the next day, and was mostly fine. How did that happen? When you look at Space Jam, I did so little, and I was devastated for years.

Somewhere along the line, and I'm not exactly sure where this happened, but a defense mechanism kicked in. It's not what about the game ends up being. It's about the journey and the people you made it it. We've made games that people liked, like Divekick. Or Blitz: The League. We've made some good games. I don't remember those reviews at all. I know that people have come up and thanked me for working on stuff like that. They might have told me about a time when a game I helped create gave them joy and they needed it. But that's not really what I remember.

What I remember is the first time we got online in Third Strike working. It was 8 at night, and you could play it for the first time. It didn't matter that one screen had Ken and Ryu and the other had Chun-Li and Urien in it. It didn't matter. You were hitting buttons, and things were happening. I remember that. I remember staying up three days straight with my friends on Blitz: The League, trying to get a build ready for E3. Just trying to chase down one little bug that no one would have noticed. But we all gave a shit, which is why we did it. Those are the things I remember.

It's not about what the game ends up being or what people think of it. For me, it's about the journey. The thing I've figured out through all this, if you can say "fuck the destination, I'm about the journey," then nothing else matters. Thank you.

Patrick Klepek on Google+