Partial Transcript: Episode 34 (Indie game developer Thom Robertson)

Virginia: Can you tell me about your time in Aggieland?  That’s my alma mater.

Thom: I initially came to College Station with a buddy who was getting a job there.  Later, in 1992, I picked up my first video game industry in College Station.

Virginia: I didn’t even know there was a video game industry in College Station.

Thom: It’s my experience that basically every college  town has one or two companies that were started by a person in a garage.  360 Pacific was that company.  At that time, it had grown to about 20 people and was a satellite studio of that company.

Virginia: How did you end up in the Cleveland/Akron area?

Thom: I’m what they call a trailing spouse.  My wife came to Cleveland to get a job as a law professor here at Case Western University.

Virginia: That’s an interesting mix.

Thom: We’re a dynamic duo.

Virginia: I’d love to be a fly on the wall at dinner.

Thom: We are both basically nerds in our own fields.  We can bore each other to death with our own nerdy talk.

Virginia: Can you tell us a little about how you got into games?

Thom: I’ve always made games and wanted to make games.  Considering my age, I was extremely lucky to have a father who could hook me up with computers and start me programming when I was about 13.  All I ever wanted to do was make games.  Programming was just a means to an end.  I did that throughout high school and in college.  I didn’t do very well in education.  I picked up my first industry job in 1992.  We worked on the old Harpoon 2 naval simulator games.  Then I got headhunted to California where I worked on an early version of a Vampire game that got canceled.

Nick: Oh no.

Thom: It was a lesson for me.  In the video game industry, about 2 out of every 3 jobs get canceled before they come to market.  There’s a whole lot of games that never see the light of day for one reason or another.

Andrew:  I assumed that it was about one in four.  That’s pretty high.

Thom: There’s a whole lot of projects that get canceled before you ever hear of them.

Mike: That’s after prototypes have been made?

Thom: There were a lot of companies that didn’t do prototyping.  They were small companies and didn’t survive long enough to ship the prototype.  In the case of 360 Pacific, I left a sinking ship.  They were not making a lot of money off their products and, eventually, they collapsed and got sold in pieces.  Then I went over to Western Technologies where I worked on a Vampire game.  That was another project that I jumped ship on.  Then I went to a kind of Hollywood special effects studio.  They put me on “Barbie Fashion Designer.”

Nick: That sounds really cool.

Thom: It was the worst job I had ever had in terms on the people I worked with and the environment I worked in.  Barbie Fashion Designer wasn’t so bad as far as a concept, but it certainly wasn’t my cup of tea.  I was still looking for dragons and spaceships, and I still haven’t changed.  I have a friend whose girlfriend hugged me out of the blue.  She said that Barbie Fashion Designer was her favorite game as a child.  That was nice, but she also made me feel old.

Nick: I didn’t even think about that!

Thom: I went to Interplay and worked on an unreleased Star Trek game called “Secret of Vulcan’s Fury.”

Nick: That sounds awesome.

Thom: Yeah.  I was the lead programmer, and I thought it was going reasonably well.  Interplay was a company that was expert at turning two year projects into four year projects.

Mike: Like the famous Duke Nukem?

Andrew: It eventually got released, right?

Thom: Which is an amazing thing as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve seen too many companies say, “Nope.  Spent too much money.  Bye.”  To have Duke Nukem stay alive like that is pretty odd.

Nick: Makes you wonder if they just gave up and finally released it.

Thom: The stuff I read suggested that Duke Nukem suffered from a designer who wouldn’t stop.  It’s something I’ve experienced personally; not me personally as the designer, but knowing such a person.

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