For many technophiles, Santa Cruz-based game designer/programmer Graeme Devine is an über creative beast. But what’s behind the secret to his most recent success with GRL Games?
It’s 2012, so when it comes to something like social gaming, it’s not that hard to do the math. Add any one of the numerous devices to which we now have access—from the iPhone and the tablet to the computer and the console—with the bastion of game designers and programmers out there, draw a line under it and you’d find the number of games available reaching somewhere in the millions. Why … it was only two years ago that news reports revealed that social gaming would rise 30 percent by 2012, gaining an edge in popularity over traditional forms of entertainment like television and film. (And then, there’s Wii.)
None of this is lost on Graeme Devine, the Scotland-born game developer and programmer, currently operating out of the NextSpace lair in Downtown Santa Cruz. In fact, Devine’s success in developing games stretches back decades. In the ’70s, when he was just a teenaged school kid in the UK, he worked for Atari, helping the behemoth port its popular “Pole Position” video game to home computers. He’s since become revered in tech circles for helping fuel the mind-boggling rise of the medium’s popularity. Remember all those CD-ROM games in the 1990s? Devine was instrumental in developing some of the most popular endeavors on them. Now, he’s at the helm of the relatively new GRL Games and heading further into a frontier that, while no longer new, certainly remains vast and durable.
Devine is a curious, unforgettable creature. With his long mane of brown hair and excited eyes, the fortysomething bounces back and forth between madly inventive tech titan and enthusiastic kid.
He first gained wide recognition in 1990, when he co-founded the computer game company Trilobyte with Rob Landeros. The duo made a splash with the horror game “The 7th Guest” on CD-ROM. It sold more than 2 million copies and garnered millions of dollars. The combination of its puzzle-solving modes and use of 3D, state-of-the art animation, as well as other clever notables—music, for instance—made it a huge hit at the time. A vast majority of gamers still believe that “The 7th Guest,” and a select few games like it, was one of the reasons CD-ROMs became so popular. Devine and Co. were also admired for using file compressions, perhaps paving the way for its vast usage in the future. (“The 7th Guest” was re-released for iPhone and iPad two years ago and is also available at the App Store.)
By the mid-’90s, Trilobyte released other projects, such as the expensive-to-produce, “The 11th Hour,” known for its use of 16-bit color and fluid animations. Other games such as “Clandestiny,” a child-friendly puzzle game, was released but didn’t sell as well. When the ’90s came to a close, Devine was lured to create significant multi-player projects, such as “Millennium” and “TLC.” Trilobyte folded, but Devine found another creative outlet, this time as a designer with id Software. There, he and his team generated buzz for the games “Quake II Arena” and “Quake III Team Arena.”
Around the same time, his game designer credibility soared higher as he made the rounds in the Mac gaming industry, too. He seemed to advance with the technology at the time—although, he also helped fuel that advancement. When “Halo Wars” came along—it was an illustrious real time strategy (RTS)/ sci-fi gem set in the year 2531—Devine was heralded as its lead designer. It didn’t hurt that it was developed by Ensemble Studios for the Xbox 360. It soon became one of the best-selling console RTS strategy outings of the day.
By February 2008, Devine was named one of the Top 100 Developers (at No. 36; No. 23 in 2009) by Edge Magazine in the ever-growing industry. He took some creative bites out of Apple in 2009, coming on board to oversee how efficient games were played on Apple’s iOS devices. But by late 2010, he went on to form GRL Games, his current passion, and focused on making games for the iPhone and iPad. (He also nabbed the title of Industry Gamers Top 10 Persons of the Year in 2010.) “Full Deck Solitaire” was the first game released by GRL—and the story behind that is interesting (read on). Last year, the company, which employs Devine’s wife, Lori, daughter Roque and sister, Lyne Grenyer, launched “Full Deck Hold’Em,” an inventive poker game. Both have been well received.
But future projects to be birthed by GRL may entice gamers near and far. Recently, GT met up with Devine, who most recently was the IGN Top 100 Game Creators of All Time, and learned more about what makes this gamer so, well, game.
Good Times: You’ve had tremendous success. I’m curious who your major influences were?
Graeme Devine: Oh Boy. In the ’80s, I was inspired by Microsoft and Bill Gates. In the ’90s it was Apple and Steve Jobs. Both of those companies came from almost nothing. But I love George Lucas. I love my comic books. I love Frank Miller; Joss Whedon. I am influenced by getting up in the morning by watching great TV, reading great comics and going to the movies. I don’t think there is any one person that I can point to and say that was the ultimate person who changed my life [professionally]. I’ve just been lucky to live in a time when there are great movies, great comic books and great stories. It’s an incredible time.
It’s noted that GRL Games, based here in Santa Cruz, is a family-run company.
Trilobyte, the company I co-founded, was a large company that went under. I had a daughter and a wife that I wasn’t spending any time with. I was working nine years, seven days a weeks, almost 24 hours a day to end up with nothing. So I swore from that day on to make time for them and make them absolutely everything [in my life]. So the next company was GRL, and I involved them in the games I am making and the design process. I really wanted to do something that communicated something to my daughter, Roque, especially. I think in schools now, you learn that the future is in some blank cubicle in some corporate headquarters. I really wanted her to know she could be and do anything. You could be a poet, you could be a sculptor, you could be a musician, you can be a game designer. I wanted her to see that opportunity; that she could go into the world knowing she didn’t have to just go into a cubicle.
GRL stands for Giant Robot Lizard. So, tell me, where did that come from in your brain?
Well, I first incorporated GRL with the names of my family—Graeme, Roque, Lori. And I came up with a logo and that was absolutely nothing to do with a giant robot lizard and … I am staring at it and it just entered my brain: ‘Oh, yes—that could be a giant robot lizard.’ It was just a really happy coincidence.
You left Apple in 2010 to start GRL. But I imagine it must have been creative and fun working for them?
Yes. I was working on how games were run on Apple devices; being asked if it was a good thing to develop certain games. And I would say ‘No … that wouldn’t be good.’ Or ‘Yes, that would be great to develop.’ That was my job. I loved my time there and I loved the people there. and their passion and how incredibly clever they are. I just really wanted to go back to just making games. You can’t make your own games when you are at Apple. I had to get back to making them.
Why do you love it so much? What is it about making games?
It’s all I know how to do. I’ve made games for 34 years now. I started to make games back in the ’70s because of that show Battlestar Gallactica. I wanted to make movies and I wanted to be George Lucas and unfortunately, my skill with the 35mm camera and skill to make movies was a complete, utter failure. But I could tell stories and make things on the computer, so I started to learn how to program and that’s how I got into it—by really wanting to tell stories.
Things were certainly different for game designers in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
I started publishing games on my own—on cassette tapes—and then slip them into plastic bags and sell them at the market for 50 pence. Eventually, I began selling my games through a publisher. My first royalty check was for 600 pounds and I purchased the Sony CDP 101 CD Player. And then, there was an advertisement in the back of a computer magazine for a company named Atari. They were looking for somebody, and I helped create ‘Pole Position.’ I always wondered how (this happened) but I always seemed to find these happy coincidences that always took me to the next step.
But you were just a teen when you worked for Atari …
I was 17 in the UK. I actually took a week off of school to finish ‘Pole Position’ and I came back to school—and I had told the school that I would be out finishing this game for a week—and they actually expelled me. That was unfortunate. So I went back to Atari and stuck to the game biz. In 1988, I moved to the states and then two years later, I co-founded Trilobyte.
For people who don’t know a thing about what it takes to create a game, can you briefly walk us through it? Let’s say, I am Graeme … I want to make a game. What do I do first?
The most important thing is writing down the pieces of the game. ‘Clandestiny’ has, like, 23 puzzles and it has to do with how each of those pieces fit into those puzzles. Then there is … what kind of camera angles you are looking for and that’s a lot of planning ahead to make the game in the right order. I think games work best when you can play them every day. I think one of the most important things to do when you are making a game is you have to see the interactive engine—from day one. Even if it is pixels, because that is what you are selling. All the other bits on top of it are just fluff.
Can you talk about the allure of games?
We were fascinated with things Atari created back in the day, but games, today—gaming—is more popular than ever before. Why do you think that is?
Games have constantly gained popularity throughout the years because the upper limits of its market have grown with its players. Back in the ’80s, you didn’t have people in their thirties, forties and fifties playing games. People who grew up in the ’80s, and are now in their forties, are still playing games. We play games all the time—on our phones, on Facebook, on our computers, on our consoles. I think it’s just been a natural expansion of the population—and games as part of their pastime. I remember reading a letter that once said games were once considered lowbrow, and now, it’s taken over the media.
For GRL Games, is there a certain vibe you wanted? What’s the inspiration for the kind of games you’re now creating?
When I left Apple, initially I had an idea for an adventure game that I wanted to make, and I still want to make it because I think there’s a draw to it. But my daughter kept asking me to make a card game, a solitaire game and I went, ‘I don’t want to make a solitaire game—who makes solitaire games?’ You know? But the wife and daughter can be convincing so I made the solitaire game and it’s been the top solitaire game in the Mac Store since it came out. It’s had 3 million downloads and has done incredibly well. So GRL’s destiny was changed from that, and from the adventure game I thought it would be creating.
I bounced around from game to game, learning from my family what games are being played. It’s only now, this year, two years after I founded GRL Games, that I am actually looking at the adventure game.
What can you tell us about that?
[Laughs] I am going to invent an urban legend and insert it in popular society and I am going to convince everybody in this country that the urban legend is true, and scare you all to death.
Go on …
The urban legend is the inspiration of the game, but I have been thinking for a long time about games and game playing. We carry our phone around with us now and all these devices, so I was also thinking back to the 1990s when I made things. And people said it was multi-media, and it wasn’t really. It was a single media. It was on a CD Rom. But … what if a game crossed over into all sorts of media? You had websites that supported it, iOS apps, or a book, or a vinyl record, or …? So part of the adventure game is making this kind of cross-media. It would exist in apps, comic book form, perhaps, and websites. I think it’s a bold concept for a game but I think it’s actually going to be really interesting.
Is gaming a lucrative market for its creators?
It’s not really a lucrative business. I’ve been lucky enough to have some success and to also learn from some mistakes. But I think a lot of people looking at it might say, ‘Oh, you’re putting it on the Apps Store, you must be making millions. But I think the average game at the Apps store only makes a few hundred dollars at the most. I don’t think a game really makes money. It still takes marketing. There are a million apps at the Apps Store but there are about a thousand great apps. It’s not a very lucrative business. It’s a very hard business to make money in, I think.
Technology has advanced. Do you think creating games is easier today?
It’s easier and it’s harder. For ‘Halo Wars,’ it took 120 people and four and a half years to make that game, and that was extremely tough. I think in the indie game market in the ’90s, it was about making smaller games. The innovation from that has become easier because of the Apps Store. But I, as a guy from Santa Cruz, California, can sell a game just by sitting at my desk, and that’s come a long way from me selling cassette tapes at the market.
Learn more about Graeme Devine and GRL Games at grlgames.net.