I’m going to share some key moments from the past 40 years that truly shaped my career and interests. It will explain, at the very least, why I am a game developer into theme parks, or perhaps a theme park developer who has spent a lot of time in the games industry.
Summer, 1978. I am seven years old, and my Dad takes me to Six Flags Magic Mountain, in Valencia, California. Right at the entrance, in a clear Plexiglas case, is a scale model of Colossus, the great white wooden coaster that will open later that year. It was a ride, and yet it wasn’t a ride. It was a model. It looked like a toy, and yet it wasn’t a toy. It was perhaps five feet long from tip to tip, and I kept hoping that the tiny roller-coaster cars would actually race around the tiny track. In fact, to my young mind, it seemed unacceptable to have something that for all intents and purposes looked like a model railroad, but didn’t have moving parts. I had a model railroad at home, and I doubted that I played with it again after seeing that model. I wanted a model coaster.
After that, I started having serious talks with my Dad about making a working model rollercoaster. Frequently. As he had been a model train enthusiast, he encouraged this work on designs. I was blissfully ignorant of the physics, of how tiny things move differently than big things, but he never said a word.
Then, my plans grew. I couldn’t satisfy myself with one roller-coaster design. No, I reasoned, it would be better if I designed a whole amusement park. That’s what Walt Disney had done, and he was famous. So, at age 9, I began drawing up plans and illustrations for my own theme park, which I called “Fantasy World USA”. It was exciting, heady stuff. I didn’t know many amusement parks back then, so nearly everything I drew was inspired by what I had seen at the parks in Southern California: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and the long-extinct Busch Gardens. Still, no knowledge of physics.
At this time, I also started playing with my Dad’s Apple ][+ Computer, and taught myself to program. As far as I was concerned, these machines were for making (and playing) games. Period.
During my teens, I was distracted by other things. Puberty, acne, and co-ed extracurricular activities come to mind. And yet, when it was time to apply for colleges, I knew that I still planned to get into theme park design. There wasn’t a college for theme parks (I didn’t know about CalArts back then), so I applied for different majors at each University, with each major somehow connected to theme parks. I applied for programs in landscape architecture, architecture, computer science, and mechanical engineering. I got accepted at all of the Universities of California, and picked UC Berkeley, where I pursued a degree in Architecture, while also taking classes in Landscape Architecture, City & Regional Planning, and Electrical Engineering.
After College, with my degree in hand, I found….no work in theme park design for a fresh college grad. I ended up temping for over a year before landing a seasonal job at Paramount’s Great America, as an assistant Construction Manager. Steve Hinderberger, if you’re out there, you gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. I was not only working at a theme park, but I worked in the blueprint room.
But then, something else happened. DOOM came out. While I was working at Great America, and seeing immersive attractions (at other parks) become more interactive, DOOM came along and showed interactive videogames had just become dramatically more immersive. “These two industries are converging,” I believed. “I would now jump from one to the other and help steer them into a harmonious convergence.!”
I jumped ship. I left one lifelong passion–theme parks–for the other–videogames. And once I got there, I learned that these high-tech toys were just the beginning, that the industry was so far behind the rest of the world in terms of maturity and process, that it might as well be a century behind.
I’ve been here, in games, ever since. There’s a lot of work still to be done.
I’ve seen a few of the necessary steps taken, and been a part of some of them. And I think that casual games–and now social games–have finally figured out how to break away from the hardcore game audience–males 14 to 30–and reach the same audience as amusement parks:
Now that the games industry understands how to reach everyone, it’s finally in place to take its interactive wonders into the increasingly immersive world of theme parks. And that’s a good thing, because the theme park industry has been stumbling ever since I left them.
O Theme Park Industry! I may have been gone, but you have always remained in my heart. Will you ever forgive me for leaving you for another? I have so much more to share with you now, to help you claim your prize: well-crafted interactive experiences.