By Janet Rae-Dupree
As head of Electronic Arts’ The Sims division -- the best-selling PC franchise of all time -- Executive Vice President Rod Humble of Electronic Arts has reached the pinnacle of gaming success. He gets to call the shots on some of the highest-profile, biggest-revenue projects in the industry.
You would think he’d want to do anything but design more games at the end of his long, intense days. Think again. Humble blows off steam by cooking up home-brewed games intended to be a form of combination art. His indie efforts -- available on his personal site, Rodvik.com -- include an oddly boxy interaction game called The Marriage, a constellation creator called Stars Over Half Moon Bay, a look at the final days of an extinct species of cattle called Last Thoughts of the Aurochs, and the soon-to-be-released Perfect Distance, which follows a former artillery officer through life.
Fascinating experiments though they may be, Humble’s after-hours efforts are visually crude and extremely simple, particularly in comparison with his corporate work. But appearances aren’t really the point, he says.
“When you’re managing a creative business at scale, it almost becomes a requirement that you’re not hands-on anymore,” Humble explains. “There are many positives to that, but I don’t feel I can go through life without making games. It’s in my DNA. It’s what I’ve always done.”
Balancing Creative and Corporate Success
Indeed, Humble has worked on more than 200 different games since first entering the industry in 1989, including EverQuest for Sony Online Entertainment, and before that, SubSpace for Virgin Interactive Entertainment.
Despite all those years of creative output, however, Humble says he needs independent projects to satisfy his artistic impulses.
“When you’re creating anything, you’re making a choice between what you know will make the maximum amount of people happy versus what you believe will express your viewpoint to the greatest depth,” he says. “For me, there is tension there. I don’t know of a way to combine that selfishness with the selflessness that is required to make a broad audience happy.”
He equates it to going for a walk on a mountain. Choosing to climb up and look over the side of the mountain at the vast expanse below can be a beautiful experience. But so can choosing to climb into a narrow crag and finding a single, tiny flower growing there. “They’re different experiences,” he says. “One isn’t necessarily better.”
Exploring Tech Tools Through Indie Games
Besides, Humble says, working independently gives him a chance to experiment with new technology tools and computer languages that he might never have a chance to work with in the corporate world. Recently, he has been working with an open-source programming language called Processing, which has evolved from a teaching tool to a rapid prototyping environment. Because it exports to Java, Humble says he has been experimenting with creating games to run inside both Android and browsers. He also has been working with the C++ wrapper openFrameworks, which opens new avenues of experimentation because it supports cameras and other electronics.
Recently, Humble has been thinking about creating a game for the sake of art -- one that would be difficult, but not impossible, to play. A friend of his is creating a shooting game similar to Space Invaders; but rather than adding points when the player shoots targets, the game randomly deletes a file from the player’s hard drive. “It’s a game you’re not going to play unless you’re completely insane, of course, but that’s not the point,” he says. “I’m just interested in how far you can take the idea.”
Humble and other game developers like him are intrigued by the notion of pushing the boundaries of gaming and challenging some of the fundamental concepts of video games. Another of his friends has developed a concept game that would require one million players to each take 100 turns, with each turn lasting for 10 years. The rules require learning how to hand off previous moves from one generation of player to the next.
Humble has a few ideas for games that are nearly impossible to play. One concept would require the player to design a computer from scratch, write its operating system, create programming languages for the machine and then -- on top of all that -- build the game.
In the end, he says, indie game design is all about pushing one’s personal limits. Since he’s asking a much smaller audience than that of games like The Sims to come along for the ride, he wants to put his best work out there.
“You want to be able to look people in the eye and say, ‘This is the best I can do. I didn’t dial it in,’” he says. “You owe that to your audience when you have pretensions of having artistic merit. Janet Rae-Dupree is a Silicon Valley freelance writer who covers emerging technologies, computer games and consumer electronics. Until 2009, she wrote the “Unboxed” column for The New York Times Sunday Business section. She’s previously served on staff at such publications as BusinessWeek, U.S. News and World Report and the San Jose Mercury News.