Thanks to Jake Solomon for letting me write my first click bait headline for 2old2play! But spoilers: his keynote was not in fact an epic fail but an interesting tale of how to recover from failure and keep learning on the way to future success. You can watch it all at the link below or check out my Cliffsnotes version.
For those who aren’t familiar with Jake Solomon (I wasn’t until I saw the keynote announcement) he is lead designer of the XCOM games at Firaxis. If you aren’t familiar with Firaxis it’s the studio video game legend Sid Meier and a few other MicroProse alumni founded in 1996.
The keynote “storytime” format follows the speaker’s gaming journey from childhood to present day. Solomon walked us through growing up in Liberty Missouri on a farm that raised different kinds of sheep. Which lead to some awesome slideware and amusement for the audience.
Cut to where just as he was getting old enough to stop feeling like a kid, he really discovered games which kept his curiosity alive and well. One of his favorite titles was Silent Service (which I’m pretty sure is something my dad played a lot during my childhood). It wasn’t until years later when he was complaining to Sid Meier about a bug in the game that he realized he probably had a pirated copy. #fail
He had another great anecdote about sharing video game time with his brother and getting the Sega CD system. They pooled up their allowances to buy a game and 20+ years later Jake still hasn’t lived down his choice of the Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch game. An early fail, although all these years later it's a seemingly pandering story for a keynote with our local Boston celebrity so maybe it was an ultimate win?
Next up he talked about playing the original XCOM game which inspired him to get a computer science degree. From there things went pretty well for a while. Right out of college dream job was to work at Firaxis games and he nailed it getting to work on their family friendly titles. All that time it was his dream to get the XCOM franchise going again.
And after a few years he was able to convince the studio to give him a shot at resurrecting XCOM. He had a small team to work on a prototype for 6 months. And here’s where the epic failing begins. When the prototype deadline was up, the game was terrible and it felt like failing at his biggest dream.
But thankfully he was also starting on the journey of learning:
“Failure is the only opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
Learning he wasn’t as good of a game designer as he thought enabled him to look to Sid Meier more directly as a mentor and observe what he did differently to enable great games to be created. A few years later he was trusted to try again with a larger team to make another prototype.
This second prototype failed too. While it looked amazing and was a technical marvel it just wasn’t fun to play. He told stories of fantasizing about quitting even though he was working on his dream project. Sid was there as a guide to help him push through “the valley of despair” asking him excellent questions to get him unstuck and pulling the the prototyping and innovation back to paper instead of diving into the tech.
Things were still rough but the help was enabling Jake to realize that failure in this arena isn’t a personal defect but something to learn from. Paraphrasing here: He learned to keep failing and each iteration would be a little better than the next. To fail so many times that the only option left is the right answer. His game design advice is “Fail as fast and honestly as you can.” He also shared some good advice from an unlikely source:
Eventually he succeeded with XCOM-Enemy Unknown which launched to much critical acclaim and great sales. He got to bring back his dream game and work on some sequels and they all lived happily ever after…
...Or did they?! Solomon reflected on life now and pondered how many game designers can stay relevant for 10+ years. He’s still at it but he makes sure to take time frequently to be grateful for both failures and successes. He’s realized that real key in his life to being happier and more successful were his failures. I’ll try and remember that too the next time I get destroyed by a 10 year old in multi-player games! :p