The Programmers' Interview


~ November 2009 ~
When a community of programmers belatedly discovered my work and began questioning
its credibility, I kindly invited them to receive answers to their many questions. Unfortunately,
they know so little about me that they lurch wildly from one baseless accusation to another:

Why aren't you rich? Publishers like EA buy up independent game studios all the time. Valve, Activision, Microsoft... most of their first-party titles were originally by indy game studios that were purchased. Most studios fail of course, but you're awesome, right? Why wouldn't they want to buy you? Even if you didn't want to work for them, surely you could still sell them intellectual property or license your technology?
This question seems to be confusing independently made mainstream games with my underground output? To re-iterate, I made low-end PC games - "independent" in the bedroom coding sense of the word. I have never laid claim to mainstream success, which would obviously elude the output of one man. Although there were occasions when I flirted with professional publishing, it was ultimately a bad fit for all concerned. My games played to a relatively small but loyal audience which never surpassed 6 figures. My success lay in developing a business model that made solo game development more than the hobby it was for most people.
I made a living from it for almost 10 years, which is a rare achievement of which I am very proud. My legacy is that of making a mountain out of a molehill. It's obviously not something that anybody else could have faith in or buy into. Ironically, I was also too powerful to be "bought" in that way. I was already earning more per sale than any publisher could hope to match. The creative control was also something I couldn't countenance losing. It was best for all concerned if I stayed in my own little world...

How do you plan to generate revenue from Flash games? It seems your company has really lost focus lately. Are you no longer able to fund development of serious game titles? Places like NewGrounds have literally hundreds of thousands of free-to-play Flash games. How can you possibly compete?
Er, I retired from game development at the end of 2008. I merely make Flash games for fun and parlay that skill into my new role as a teacher by making interactive presentations. Teaching has become very technological nowadays, so my two passions have intertwined quite nicely. I have a unique opportunity to revolutionize the way certain subjects are taught in the 21st century. It's a very exciting time for me...

I have to ask this question. What is the deal with replacing scientists with artists? In my experience in the game development industry, the game design process is typically led by very artistic and creative people. The stereotype you portray is just plain untrue. What on earth could you possibly have meant by that quote?
Yes, I noticed the terms "scientist" and "artist" had been misunderstood and taken literally. The point I was making in that interview, which is obvious if you read it in context, is that I felt creativity was becoming more important than technical knowledge. "Artist" refers to a creative spirit rather than someone who literally creates visuals. Likewise, "scientist" refers to a technically minded individual who focuses exclusively on one piece of the puzzle. I liken it to the difference between Steven Spielberg and the guy who might invent a camera he uses. His creative touch is arguably more important, more keenly felt, than the contribution of the technician. Something need only be invented once before a great many members of the public can make it sing. I envisioned such a future for game development, where ideas were paramount because there was no longer anything in the way of those ideas. Although game development has indeed become a more artistic profession, there can be no doubt that it was once exclusively technical and continues to be daunting to some. I represented a shift in attitude because I myself was a regular guy off the street who found himself able to make games for a living. It was an inspiring development for a lot of kids who still felt it was beyond them to contribute to the field they loved so much. I took something complicated and made it as casual as strumming a guitar. That's an important step in the evolution of any art form...

Why is The You Testament filled with so many references to elements of false religions? Why does Jesus speak of 'chakras' and other such nonsense? Isn't this heretical, especially from a non-fiction game that is meant to educate?
I think it's a bit provocative and narrow-minded to denounce other religions as "false". A sound understanding of Christianity reveals that it was heavily influenced by Indian ideas. That's essentially what Christianity is - Judaism thawed out by the compassionate warmth of the east. Every other sentence that came out of Jesus' mouth can be traced back to the Katha Upanishad of Hinduism, which predates him by centuries. That's not to say he "copied" it, I hasten to add. It could be argued that wisdom is "eternal", and he most certainly embodied it well. Everything he said and did betrays a man who was well versed in the practice of meditation (as indeed many Jews at the time were). It's the key that unites ALL religions. As far as the game was concerned, meditation was an effective way of making the miraculous activity plausible. It had to be accessible to the player somehow, so why not that way? Talk of "chakras" was also a neat way of alluding to the pockets that hold each power. Everything fell into place quite naturally and I'm very happy with the concept. Accusations of "blasphemy" fall so easily from the lips of others because they themselves are in the thrall of it. They feign indignance to make up for the fact that they have a slender grasp of the subject matter in question. The irony is that Christ himself was falsely accused of blasphemy! To learn nothing from that episode is to defy everything he stood for. As for the game being designed to "educate", that's a clumsy assumption. The You Testament is primarily a thought-provoking work of entertainment that pre-dates my work as an educator...

You seem to have done a mix of solo and group work. How do other members of your team feel about working with you, given your public indiscriminate contempt for anyone in the game development industry who isn't you? Surely you must have met some competent people in your time; do you still feel that you would be better off doing it all yourself? Or do you regret the things you've said about the industry? Why did you bother doing group work at all instead of staying solo and independent?
Er, the closest I've ever come to working in a "team" is when I once let a friend of mine write the theme song for a lesser known boxing game from 2001.
You want my recollections of that? There was once a time when I couldn't compose music. A year later, the problem was rectified and I added it to a rapidly growing list of skills. End of story. Glad to see these assaults on my character are so well researched! Every game I have ever released has been 100% my own work. That's the whole point. That's who "MDickie" is - the guy who's responsible for everything, for better or worse. I don't recall ever railing against mainstream game development to the extent that you suggest. I was critical of some of its flaws, but never questioned the talent of those involved. If anything, I lamented it wasn't being used more constructively. The mainstream is obviously flooded with better artists than me, better programmers than me, better musicians than me, and even better designers. I don't come close to a single one of them in any specific discipline. As for effortlessly combining all of those roles into one instinctive process? That's where I come in. The results may not have always been pretty, but there can be doubt that I took solo game development to a place where nobody else ever has or ever will. It was obviously never my intention to "replace" the mainstream games industry or set myself up against it in that sense. I simply set out to provide an alternative way of doing things. One that had a hell of a lot of creative benefits that were worth exploring...

How do you respond to the fact that most real innovation in video games has happened by a team of people from an independent game studio rather than a solo programmer/artist/jack-of-all-trades? Titles like Doom, Portal, Halo, and similar gems that redefined the industry originated by teams and could not have been done alone. These groups are not bogged down by bureaucracy as you claim the large studios are. Do you honestly feel you are as imaginative and inventive as a whole group of people put together?
It depends what our definition of "innovative" is. You've just defeated your own argument by listing a string of formulaic first-person shooters?! That's exactly what's wrong with the games industry. They're "innovative" in the sense that they were extraordinarily well-executed and successful. My claims to "innovation" refer to the way the games were made and marketed as much as what they contained. My contributions to the wrestling genre were ground-breaking, the fact I made games of that size and quality on my own, the way I conducted myself, the way I released content... it was all "innovative" in a different sense. Of course teams can be inventive too, and they certainly execute what they dream up with more success. My point was that being solely responsible for something put innovation at the forefront. Every single decision an individual makes is unique and personal. I'd rather not think in competitive terms. I'm not saying MY innovations were better than THOSE innovations. All I know is that creativity flowed very freely from my regime. It stands to reason that a team makes more compromises, and a professional publisher limits what can or can't be released. I side-stepped all of that and made anything possible...

Your website claims that you're one of the most influential people in video games. What actual innovations or inventions have you made? What game mechanic have you invented that has actually been reproduced by a third-party developer for another game? What technical contributions have you made to world of high-performance graphics, physics, or related simulation computing?
Again, you seem to be under the impression that I deem my work to be mainstream? I have never and would never claim to be "influential" to that extent. I don't think I've ever claimed to be "influential" at all?! I spent more time complaining that I WASN'T influential (chiefly because nobody was capable of following in my footsteps). My pride is rooted in the way I redefined what one man could achieve in this business. I single-handedly made a steady flow of large and sophisticated games that were enjoyed by a surprisingly large number of people. And yet even though I had no business in the mainstream, I did fly close to it. In terms of depth and entertainment, Wrestling MPire 2008 is arguably the most fun a wrestling fan can have with the genre. It wouldn't have looked out of place on a mainstream console a few years previously. The idea that ONE man can effortlessly knock something like that up in a matter of months is a staggering achievement that I will always strive to defend. I don't see anybody doing a better job. In addition to decent content, I also feel I revolutionized the way such games are marketed. After completing each project, I turned around and presided over its publication - making sure everything was how I wanted it. I presided over an operation where games were in your hands within months instead of years, they cost $15 instead of $50, and you could witness every day of their development at the most open and personal website the industry had ever known. I took something cold and faceless and gave it a pounding heart. It wasn't always successful and it obviously hasn't stood the test of time, but it was fun while it lasted and I wouldn't change a thing. I'm bulletproof because nobody has ever done a better job in the same circumstances...

Isn't the cult of personality around you destructive to your career?
I'm a different person to the guy that made all those games, and there are certain things I said then that I wouldn't say now. I wouldn't have taken half as much pride in the earlier games, because they've been revealed to be little more than stepping stones to a distant destination. In those cases, I can see why people are baffled by my work. But who's to say they wouldn't exist if I didn't take a disproportionate amount of pride in them at the time? As my compilation CD intones, "No creative endeavour begins or ends in vain." My career has always been about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes I regret making myself the centre of attention though, and wish the games were left to speak for themselves. But the attention wasn't always bad. My attitude inspired a lot of kids who "got" that I was trying to make game development a more interesting place. I came to it as a wrestling fan who knew that theatrics could have a place in any form of entertainment. It worked for the most part and ensured my games were played by as many people as possible. Even when it backfired, the criticism made me a stronger person. I've been praised by thousands of people and I've been criticized by thousands of people, and I've emerged as a well-adjusted character who can handle both. Most people will die having never gone through that transformation. Besides, you can't live your life based on what other people think of you. The critics aren't always right. In fact, they hardly ever were! The attacks on me have always been disproportionately offensive, whereas my responses have always been dignified. Not once did I hound other people in the way they have attacked my livelihood. That's the true definition of "arrogance" - the presumed authority to judge someone else. All I ever did was take pride in my hard work. If people
find that offensive, it says more about them than me. I've always said that my work holds up a mirror to the audience. It's so easy to criticize that it actually takes a lot of integrity to avoid doing so! If you look at my games and see hard work, it means you know what hard work is. If you see positivity, it means you're a positive person. If you see nothing... you are nothing.

What do you feel is the role of "functional" programming languages in replacing scientists with artists in the programming world? Are you fan of Lisp or Haskell? Have you read your Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs today?
Haha, why am I in it? Or is that the only publication that didn't feature my work? The last couple of questions playfully imply that I'm not a "real" programmer because I didn't dedicate my life to it at the highest possible level. That attitude validates everything I ever stood for! It was my intention to confront the self-destructive programmers who have a lot of knowledge that they're utterly incapable of putting to use. I had LESS to work with and yet I still created MORE. Pointing out that I come from a humble background merely highlights how much I over-achieved and how much they under-achieved. People only ever derive pleasure from the "illusion" of being talented if there's nothing in the outside world to attest to it. The emptiest vessels make the most noise. It's the only way they can feel involved. That's also why you find them perched on forums day after day, criticizing more than they contribute. A truly productive individual would have neither the time nor the inclination to do that. I certainly never did while I was busy achieving various things. Professionals can look down on me all they want for giving programming a secondary role in my work, but the fact is I had everything I needed to make a computer sing and entertain people. Have you read your fan mail today? Didn't think so. I would give you some of mine but it means too much to me...

Copyright MDickie 2000 - 2010