Archive for March, 2009
Friday, March 27th, 2009
All the news lately seems to be bad. Banks failing, rampant greed on Wall Street and other businesses, conflict in Iraq and other countries, record budget deficits in the U.S., the collapse of the Icelandic economy, systematic erosion of personal rights in response to terrorism, terrorism itself, and flooding and other natural disasters.
I’ve recently been reading a fascinating new survivalism book, Emergency, by Neil Strauss. Neil’s theme is preparation and training for personal survival in an increasingly dangerous world. It is also about making difficult choices in crisis situations.
No One Left
“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.” — Herman Neimöller
Early in Emergency, Neil Strauss talks about his grade school history classes and the choices faced by Jews in Nazi Germany. As Hitler rose in power, the German government systematically stripped away the rights of Jewish people. First their businesses were boycotted. Then they lost their citizenship. Then they were forced to register, and a “J” was stamped on their passports to identify them. Then on Kristallnacht, many Jews were attacked, beaten, and even murdered on the streets. And finally, they were put in concentration camps and sent to the gas chambers to die.
Neil’s question to his teacher was, “When things were getting so bad, why did any Jew stay in Germany?” The answer, of course, was that they could not predict in advance how bad life would become. The German Jews naturally saw themselves as Germans first. There was no reason to believe that they were so hated by their neighbors that they would become victims of mass hatred and genocide. By the time their lives were in serious danger, their passports had been marked and their wealth had been taken away. By then, it was too late to leave.
Even in those dark times, some Heroes took action. Steven Spielburg tells one such story in his film, Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who perhaps started out as an opportunist, ended up as a humanitarian. After gaining control of a Polish enamelware factory during the German invasion of Poland, Schindler found that there was a shortage of unskilled labor due to the war. He arranged with the government for Jewish laborers to be assigned to his factory. Although he may have done so initially out of greed – the Jewish workers were far less expensive than voluntary workers – he ended up protecting over 1000 Jews, perhaps saving their lives.
This is the power of one man who treated others with respect and did not let his life be ruled by hatred and prejudice. Each of us has similar power. If we do not like the way our employers run their businesses, we can switch. Or, like Oskar Schindler, we can start our own businesses and run them in a way that helps others while still making a profit.
I spent a year in Berlin, Germany during High School. One day, one of my teachers stopped to talk with me about his experiences during World War II. He had been a Lieutenant in the German army stationed on the Northern front. He said that he had disagreed with many of the policies of the army and of the German government, but that he never felt he had any choice but to serve. Had he protested or refused to follow orders, he would have been arrested and his family would have been punished and possibly sent to a concentration camp. He “sat tight” because he saw no other choice.
Fight or Flight… or Just Sit Tight
How bad is it today? Is it time to leave? And for where? As I sit here in the United States looking at a screwed-up economy, a government that seems to want to bankrupt itself, and loss of privacy and personal freedom, I realize that we are now part of a global economy. The problems we see in the U.S. are reflected everywhere else around the world. And our readers from former Soviet-bloc nations are no doubt rolling their eyes at what are merely minor inconveniences compared to what they’ve suffered for years.
Are we, as Neil Strauss’s book suggests, in a state of emergency? Have we gone far enough down the roads of danger (from angry foreign powers) and erosion of civil liberties that it’s time to get out before our own Kristallnacht? Is it time for each of us to plan our escape from increasingly-dangerous places? Should we just sit tight as so many did in Nazi Germany?
In Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, the most competent engineers and business people decide that the government and incompetent people are leeches on their efforts and energy, and they leave society. In the ensuing collapse, perhaps the people who are most hurt are the ones in the middle – the average, semi-competent individuals. They are “neither here nor there”, not quite good enough to be invited into the domain of Homo Superior, nor strong enough to hold the world together when the finest minds and most effective producers have deserted them.
There is another choice.
The Choice of the Hero
“…take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” – Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
So how bad is it, really? We have faced disasters and crises before. They may have scarred us, but we survived them. We came through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and Hurricane Katrina. All of them hurt us, but we are still here. In 1980, many survivalists thought that economic collapse was imminent and inevitable, but we are still alive.
We can start by changing our own attitudes. Leo Babauta suggests a three-stage plan in his recent blog article, The Cure for What Ails You: How to Beat the Misery of Discontentment:
- 1. Change your attitude and perspective.
- 2. Take some kind of positive action.
- 3. Do something that gives you meaning.
Do you think that a lone Hero has no power to make a difference in the world? That you are no Oskar Schindler? Then join with others. Habitat for Humanity builds inexpensive houses for homeless people. They need thousands of volunteers to give a few weekends of their time to build these homes.
As The School for Heroes grows, we will find others among our fellow students with whom we can work on projects too big for a single Hero. In the meantime, there is work for each of us to do wherever we live. There are opportunities for training and preparation that will teach us not only to survive, but to prosper, and to help those around us to live well.
We can prepare ourselves for disaster without becoming paralyzed by the possibilities. The Boy Scouts taught me wilderness survival, first aid, pioneering, and many other skills that could prove important in an emergency or after an economic collapse. The Red Cross and other organizations teach similar skills to adults. The second half of Emergency is all about developing survival skills in case you are caught in a disaster. In these challenging times, “Be Prepared” is a motto every one of us should take to heart.
Wherever you are in the world, whatever your political leanings, it’s time to take action. Speak up while you still have the chance to be heard. Volunteer to help a local charity or relief organization. Above all, make sure that you are a person of honor in everything you do. Show others what it means to be a Hero, and maybe we can turn these challenging times into ones of hope, opportunity, and freedom for everyone.
Don’t take flight… Bring light! Make the choices that will help bring about a better future. Speak out, take action, and join with others to do what you can’t do alone. Show the people around you that Heroes live among them… and that they can be Heroes too.
Friday, March 20th, 2009
Gather around the fire, my friends, and I shall tell you the tale of the Tower. It is the story of an innocent young man who was seduced by the siren song of the Goddess of Gaming. Risking the scorn of his players, and the acid words of the critics, he dipped his pen into the murky inkwell of Creation to create his own adventure. Yes, this is the story of how I came to write my first dungeon module, The Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, and how it changed my life.
Slay Them All!
I discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970′s while working on a computer project in Chicago. Jack Eilrich was the main DM, and ran a “killer game”, with the average life expectancy of a character maybe 3-4 sessions. Jack’s games were full of imagination, excitement, and challenge. We even managed to get in some role-playing, especially during the frequent roll-up-a-character process. One night, I rolled up three consecutive characters within an hour as two of them died before becoming old enough to quest.
Sitting in my hotel room one night, I decided to give DM’ing a try and put together my first full dungeon module. It was a beginning adventure set in a remote tower filled with puzzles and mystery. When I ran our usual group through the scenario, the players made very favorable comments on it. Of course, that might have just been because I didn’t kill any of their characters.
The Tower of What?
The original scenario consisted of the ground floor and the tower rooms and sprang from my head in a single sleepless night. Filling out the details, adding the underground area, and coming up with a title for publication took 5 more months.
I don’t quite remember how I came up with the title, “Tower of Indomitable Circumstance.” Probably it was something that just popped into my head, so I figured I’d use it as a working title until I came up with something better. Eventually I reworked part of the module so that the title made sense… sort of. (In case you didn’t know, “indomitable” means something similar to “indefatigable”.)
Lesson #1: Working titles take on a life of their own. When you try to change them, they fight back. It’s better to get it right the first time.
DM’s Get All the Girls
Since I preferred playing games to working for a living, I decided to turn Tower into a formal game module and become a professional game writer. I submitted it to Judges Guild, the major 3rd party D&D module publisher at the time, and waited.
At this point I was playing or running D&D games about 20 hours a week, as well as working full-time. I was too busy gaming to write any other modules, so my career as a writer began to look doubtful. I did have one major success with Tower, running it at the 1979 WesterCon in San Francisco for a group that included a lovely young lady named Lori. She was sufficiently charmed by my D&D game as to miss some of my other shortcomings. Yes, it’s true – DM’s get all the girls!
Several months later, when I called Judges Guild to ask if they were going to publish my module, they asked, “Oh, you were submitting that for publication? We’ve been playing it for the last few weeks in our in-house campaign. We love it!” Next thing I knew, I had a contract, and in 1981 Tower finally saw print.
Lesson #2: Publishers have a long turn-around time. If you want to make a living as any sort of writer, you need to keep writing while you’re waiting to hear about your first submissions.
Building the Tower
As a D&D player with no dungeon master experience, how did I start writing a module? Obviously I was influenced by the games in which I played. I had also played Adventure and Zork at this point, and had some experience with a real-life quasi-religious cult. Looking back at Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, it has a lot more detail and puzzles than most of the role-playing modules I’ve seen.
Tower was designed to be an interesting adventure for beginning characters, so I based it on problem-solving by the players rather than on their characters’ abilities. I tried to give Tower the flavor of “something interesting in every room”, rather than having a lot of generic rooms full of inappropriate monsters. Many of the rooms of Tower have “On Closer Examination” sections to reward players for actively doing and examining things.
I also wanted a consistent setting. Many early dungeons seemed to be a random collection of traps and monsters. I wanted a “real” place, where everything had a purpose and fit in with the theme of the location and the adventure. For Tower, I accomplished this by creating a tower that was originally designed as an initiation tests for acolytes who aspired to become Priests of Math (the Celtic God of Magic). As a result, the tower is both a series of tests and of instruction in knowledge a Priest should have.
For example, two adjacent rooms have mirrors, one of which shows the viewers as extremely beautiful, the other of which makes them look incredibly ugly. Once the players have looked in both mirrors, a voice intones, “For after all, both beauty and ugliness are ethereal in nature, and the Wizard has both at his command.”
Lesson #3: If you start with an interesting theme, then keep the rest of your writing consistent with it, you will find it much easier to write something fun.
Posing a Passable Puzzle
I have a confession to make. I pretty much suck at “solving” adventure games. I come across a puzzle and say, “Huh? How am I supposed to figure that one out?” It could just be me, but I don’t think so. I think that most puzzle creators try to “beat” the players by coming up with puzzles they won’t be able to solve.
I look at puzzles a different way. I think the purpose of a game designer is to challenge players in a fun way. That means you want them to solve your puzzles – after some thought – not get frustrated by them. I also try to create puzzles that are closely related to the setting and the story. This helps give players the context they need to solve the game.
To create the puzzles in Tower of Indomitable Circumstance, I started out – as I still do today – with a character who has a problem. The demigod Math has seen his temples destroyed and followers persecuted because people distrust magic. He wants students and worshippers, but he can’t just advertise for them. So he creates a challenge that will let qualified adventurers test themselves and learn the principles of his “religion” before making a choice.
Tower introduced a few innovations, such as the then-radical idea that a Priest should actually have a religion. It was also a strongly puzzle-oriented scenario as compared to the mostly hack-and-slash nature of most D&D adventures. Finally, Tower was designed to solve a specific problem – Getting new characters started without killing them off on the way to the dungeon. Our wilderness encounter charts in those days were completely random, so beginning adventurers were as likely to be eaten by Dragons as to fight Kobolds.
Lesson #4: Don’t create puzzles only you can solve. A strong setting will tell you where the puzzles and decisions need to be made.
Belay Those Birkenstocks!
Not all of my puzzles were winners. One of the first ones in Tower involves trying to open a locked door. Near the door is a Japanese-style stand with several pairs of sandals. The players are supposed to figure out that this is a temple, and the priests do not want it soiled, so they should take off their boots and put on sandals before attempting to open the door. I’m not sure any group for which I ran the game actually solved this one. In one case, I noticed on a character sheet that the mage was wearing sandals, so he was able to simply open the door and walk through. It took the rest of the party about an hour.
What happened there? I knew the solution before I posed the problem, but the players could only work with the information I gave them. I needed to add more clues so that the players could “see” the room as I saw it in my mind. “Muddy footprints lead up to the chest, where you find an old pair of boots and several clean pairs of sandals. The area between the chest and the door looks totally clean.” You don’t have to hit the players over the head with this sort of thing, but additional hints can be essential if they’re obviously stuck.
Lesson #5: Shoes Wisely! Don’t assume your players can read your mind.
So there you have it. One lonely night in Chicago, a muse caused me to try something new, and my life changed as a result. Because I wrote Tower, I met my wife. Because I had a published RPG module, Sierra hired us to create Quest for Glory. If my life had gone a different way, I’d probably be a retired, ex-programmer spending my evenings playing World of Warcraft. (Not everything has to change in an alternate future story.)
Lesson #6: Some decisions are more important than others. Some are turning points that alter everything that happens afterwards. These are the most interesting places for puzzles in games, and they’re also the most interesting and meaningful moments in the game of life.
[If you're interested in trying out my first role-playing module, Tower of Indomitable Circumstance has long been out of print, but (being unable to find my own copy) I was able to download a very readable can of the module from RPG Now for $3.00. If you decide to play it, let me know what you think and how well it converts to modern RPG systems and the 21st Century.]
Thursday, March 12th, 2009
Last week we talked about Achievements in a general sense. Today, let’s look at some ways you can improve your chance of achieving the results you desire. By the way, these tips apply to job hunting, school, and success at games and sports just as much as to entrepreneurship and work projects. Here’s a 7-point plan that can help you to achieve your goals:
- 1. Prepare the ground. Learn skills. Study, practice, learn some more.
- 2. Make friends and contacts.
- 3. Decide what you want to do and where you want to go… but stay flexible.
- 4. Keep your eyes open. Recognize opportunities when they arrive and GRAB them.
- 5. Whatever task you take on, commit yourself fully to doing it well. Put in the time, effort, and leadership to make it happen and make it great.
- 6. Help others to do great work as well. Be a mentor to those who need it.
- 7. Listen and learn from the people who can make you do better work. Don’t be arrogant.
Preparation Makes Perfect
Prepare the ground. Learn skills. Study, practice, learn some more.
Would you go into an exam without studying or even reading a book on the subject first? I’ve tried that; it didn’t work out. Achievements are far more likely if you prepare for them. I got into Sierra because I spent two years before that working on an Atari ST software project. That project failed, but the experience taught me what I needed to know to get a job at Sierra. In another sense, Lori and I spent our whole lives preparing to create Quest for Glory. We played games, studied writing and programming, learned animation, and picked up other skills and knowledge that let us design and create good games.
Win Friends and Influence People
Make friends and contacts.
Almost every great opportunity we’ve had has come about because we took the time to meet and get to know interesting people. We got the jobs at Sierra because we knew Carolly Hauksdottir – a free-lance animator who did work for Sierra – from science fiction conventions and filksinging. I got my first professional programming job because my father mentioned that I was studying programming to Gus German, head of Geac Computers.
Decisions are made by people, not computers. Get to know people and you will find opportunities opening for you. More importantly, you’ll find your life is richer for having friends and acquaintances who share some of your interests.
Have a Plan, but Not a Straightjacket
“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Decide what you want to do and where you want to go… but stay flexible.
It’s hard to hit the target if you don’t aim. One of the exercises we did in Lifespring training a few years ago was called, “What do you want?” It challenged us to examine our lives and goals and ask ourselves, “What do we really want?” Until you answer that question, any achievements you accomplish will be random ones. Make a plan; have a goal.
However, life isn’t static. Sometimes circumstances change, and sometimes you change. You should re-examine your goals every year. Ask yourself what progress you’ve made towards them. If you haven’t made any, ask yourself, “Why not?” Is it that you were never really committed to the goal? Do you really still believe in it? This isn’t a time to give up because your goal is too hard, but it is a time to “examine your premises.” You may find that your plan was really someone else’s. Or it could be the opposite – You might have been living your life by someone else’s standards instead of your own. Check your premises, but don’t use that as an excuse for giving up on something you really do care about.
Grab the Brass Ring
Keep your eyes open. Recognize opportunities when they arrive and GRAB them.
Way back when, there were places called “amusement parks.” They had rides such as ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds (aka carousels). You might still find them at County fairs. For young children and old people, a carousel was a nice calm ride around in a circle. But for more adventurous sorts, there was the Quest for the Brass Ring.
If you sat (or stood) on the outside and timed your leap just right, you could grab a ring from a dispenser outside the carousel. Most of the rings were iron, but one was made of brass. If you managed to grab the brass ring, you could turn it in for a free ride. Not much of a prize, perhaps, but definitely an Achievement.
Life is like a carousel ride. You can quietly ride along and take what comes to you, or you can reach out and try to grab the rings. It’s riskier; you might fall off and bruise your ego. But if you never take that risk, you’re unlikely to achieve a lot. And the more you try, the better chance you have of coming away with the Brass Ring, and that’s a real prize. I mentioned in the last article that Lori and I got the chance to make Quest for Glory only because we took the chance when it came to us. Our lives might have been more comfortable if we had stayed in San Jose, but they certainly wouldn’t have been as exciting!
If You Stop Swimming Halfway, You Drown
Whatever task you take on, commit yourself fully to doing it well. Put in the time, effort, and leadership to make it happen and make it great.
One of the things we noticed when we first started working in the game industry was that everyone has “great ideas” for games, but very few of them can actually take their ideas and make them into great games. Famous authors often hear fans say, “I have this great idea for a story and I want to collaborate on it with you. I’ll provide the ideas and you write the story.”
Guess what? Authors and game designers have ideas too. The difference is that they’re the ones pouring out the sweat and blood to turn them into stories and games. Finishing a game – or any big project – is far more difficult than starting it. That’s because to really be finished, all the i’s have to be dotted and all the t’s have to be crossed. You have to fix all the nagging bugs or sloppy writing, and that takes ten times as long as the initial writing.
This Isn’t All About You
Help others to do great work as well. Be a mentor to those who need it.
Games and other software products are made by increasingly-large teams for a reason. There are a lot of different responsibilities, and nobody can handle them all. If you are leading a team – or working on one – you need to respect the needs of everyone else on the team. If anyone on the team is having trouble, that’s trouble for the whole team. Take the time to make sure everyone has the tools and inspiration they need. Treat their problems as your own.
That doesn’t mean you have to do everybody else’s work. In fact, trying to do that is a recipe for an ulcer and shows a lack of respect for your teammates. What you can do is help make their jobs easier. When the programmers at my first job had to pull an all-nighter to make a deadline, the VP of Marketing went out to the army surplus store and came back with foam mattresses, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and clean socks. Midnight snacks were also involved. He took on a task most executives would consider “beneath them” in order to help the rest of the team do things that he could not do himself.
Look, Listen, and Learn
Listen and learn from the people who can make you do better work. Don’t be arrogant.
I’ve met two kinds of managers. One type says, in effect, “I am in charge. I have the authority. You do what I tell you.” The other type thinks differently, “I am a resource to help you do your jobs well. I make decisions because that’s efficient, but I make them based on your input.” Guess which type creates better products and has a happier, more productive team?
Lori and I knew where we wanted to go with Quest for Glory and Castle of Dr. Brain, but we also knew that the developers had a lot of expertise in many areas. Our artists and musicians knew how to make a game look and sound beautiful. They also knew a lot of tricks for working around the limitations of 16-color computer graphics and trying to fit everything on floppy disks. Our programmers had made other Sierra games before. They knew much more than we did about the processes for building games efficiently and the art of making them play smoothly.
We discussed our ideas with the team and worked out compromises that could actually be implemented. In the course of that, Lori and I learned a lot of techniques we were able to use in the later games. Even the feel of the games was as much from the developers who put them together with us as it was from the game designs. I don’t think I wrote the first pun in Quest for Glory 1. Bob Fischbach, one of the programmers, had that honor. Once Lori and I gave it our stamp of approval, we ran with it, and the game many of you played resulted from that collaboration.
The Magnificent Seven
These seven ideas are not the only approach to achievement and success, but we think they’re a good start. Give them a try and see what new achievements you can make in your life. Life is not an easy game, but it can be a fun one if you use the right strategies.
Wednesday, March 4th, 2009
In the World of Warcraft they have recently added an “Achievement System” which rewards the player for actions they do in the course of the game. In between player-vs.-player battlegrounds and questing, I have been chasing such achievements as, “Explore the Eastern Kingdoms” and “Eat all four varieties of Valentine’s Day chocolates.”
Many of these achievements have little to do with real accomplishments in the game, but they do chart your progress through the wide variety of WoW content. There is no “reward” in the usual sense; at best you get the right to add a new title to your character name or perhaps get a special mount or in-game pet. Yet I (and many other players) spend time doing these achievements to varying degrees of compulsion.
I’ve recently had some “real life” (but still game-related) achievements too – a 70% game in bridge and two consecutive “bowler of the week” awards for high scores. Bowling and bridge are time wasters too by many people’s standards. So are reading, watching television, following news stories on the Internet, and just about anything we do outside of “work”.
Every Day Achievements
Actually, we could make a pretty good argument against the importance of work-related achievements too. Does it really matter to the world that you got promoted to Supervisor or exceeded your weekly sales quota? Or are they just about personal satisfaction and the social value of recognition, in which case these accomplishments are exactly as valid and important as a bowling award?
As with most things in life, achievement is what you make of it. If you take pride in your work, but are frustrated about lacking control over the complete product, then a promotion may put you in the position to do something about it. Similarly, achievement in a game or sport can measure your progress in improving your mind and body, and that can pay dividends in “real life.” And our brains are wired to get a self-esteem boost from completing tasks and achieving goals. Having others recognize your achievements and compliment you on them helps too.
Do Achievements “Just Happen”?
Are achievements just luck? No matter how much knowledge, talent, preparation, and hard work you put into something, luck will always be a factor in your degree of success or failure. The “drunkard’s walk” concept says that, when enough people do something enough times, some of their results will be exceptional. In that sense, there’s nothing “special” about bowling a perfect game or winning a spot on American Idol.
But there’s an old saying, “You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket.” Luck favors the prepared. One of the truisms about starting your own business is that 90% of businesses fail in the first three years. Another is that most major business successes are achieved after 2, 3, or more total failures.
Does that seem unlikely? Actually, by the magic of statistics, it makes perfect sense. Suppose you have average qualifications for starting a business. A lot of those failures are below-average companies and totally unprepared founders, so you’re already ahead of the game, but let’s say you still have an 80% chance of failure. That’s just a 20% chance you’ll succeed the first time.
But now say you’re resilient and you promise yourself that you will try again if you fail. The chance you’ll fail twice in a row is 64%, three times in a row drops to just 51.2%. That’s right – You just have to try three times to bring your chance of success up from 20% to 48.8%. Those odds beat the heck out of giving up the first time you fail. Many famous authors have faced rejection after rejection before finally finding the right publisher to help make their books successful.
Full Speed Ahead
“Never give up, never surrender – Full Speed Ahead” – Galaxy Quest
There is a message here – Don’t give up. If you fall down, stand up and get going again. If you only make it partway to your goal, keep pushing until you get there. Then make new goals and Keep Going!
That can be a hard message to swallow when you’ve failed, but it’s the lesson almost all successful people have learned and follow every day. I worked for two failed startup companies, then failed to get my own desktop publishing software to market before coming to work for Sierra.
How important is failure? If I had not taken on that project, Quest for Glory would probably never have been made. We were introduced to Ken Williams by a friend (Carolly Hauksdottir) who did free-lance art and animation for Sierra, but Ken didn’t hire us because of our Dungeons & Dragons background. He needed an Atari ST programmer to meet a commitment to Atari, and I had just spent two years working on an Atari ST project. Once I was in-house as a programmer, Ken was much more willing to talk to Lori about designing a role-playing game for Sierra.
Even then, we had a hard time convincing Sierra to produce our first Hero’s Quest (later Quest for Glory) game. Sierra management came very close to canceling the project because they “didn’t get” what made it special. So many factors go into a project, success and failure are both pretty much impossible to predict.
Only Geniuses Need Apply?
Google, Microsoft, and a few other companies have prided themselves on hiring “geniuses”. Google once ran a series of billboards in the San Francisco area that just had a mathematical puzzle on them. The solution to the puzzle led to a Web page that gave people who found it priority applications to Google. Google also ran ads on the back cover of the Mensa Bulletin.
I learned something interesting from a TED speech by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling book, “Eat, Love, Play.” She talked about the origin of the word “genius.” Today, we think of a genius as someone who was born with incredible intelligence and talent, and who automatically excels at everything they try because of their destiny. It hasn’t always been that way.
In Latin, the word “genius” originally meant, “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent.” Using that definition, it isn’t that someone is a genius. Under the right circumstances, the genius suffuses them with whatever it takes to do something brilliant. It can come and go, and you have to take advantage of it when it appears. Since we get to choose our definitions, I suggest we also eliminate the “from birth” part.
The fact is, even we flawed individuals can sometimes do genius level work if we provide the right environment for our guardian spirits, then recognize and take advantage of them when they surface. In sports, the arts, and industry, we constantly see second-tier talents rise to the top and become stars through focus, dedication, and perseverance. These can be summed up by one word – Commitment.
You would be hard-pressed to say that Lori and I were destined to create the Quest for Glory game series… or The School for Heroes, for that matter. We were competent game masters, but others had more thoroughly fleshed-out campaigns, far more publications, better rules knowledge, and so on. I was a competent programmer, but again not really a superstar. My graphics programming knowledge was (and still is) minimal; at most companies, that by itself would be enough to not even get a job interview.
But we loved gaming, and when a strange set of coincidences led to the opportunity at Sierra, we committed to it fully. I dropped my almost-complete desktop publishing project. We sold our house in San Jose and moved to Oakhurst with our year-old baby and started jobs for much less money than we had been making in Silicon Valley. Then we refused to give up even when things went poorly. The end result was the achievement of several very good games. For Sierra, we were a gamble that paid off in substantial income and good will. That came about because we recognized our opening, caught the ball, and ran with it. Trust me; it would have been a lot easier to give up at many times during that process.
When the Going Gets Rough – Keep Going
What does it take to be a Hero and achieve great things today? It takes the kind of person who prepares themselves through observation, study, and practice. The kind of person who keeps going in the face of challenges. Someone who does what needs to be done when there are so many tempting, easy distractions out there. Someone who watches for opportunities and genius, then welcomes them instead of denying them.
Don’t give up; don’t give in. Decide what you want to achieve, then commit to achieving it. If you fall, stand up and do it again. Do that enough times, and you will achieve success. You can be a Hero.