Rod Humble makes video games. He knows a lot of people who wish they could and he's made it his job to help them.
"Just about everybody I know who isn't in the games business or programming business comes to me with a game idea or a website and the truth of the matter is quite often they can't make it," he recently told me.
"There's this big barrier. They look at something like C++ [programming] code and, frankly, it looks like a big equation. It just looks like gibberish.
"The more we can make tools that are just fun to use — all of a sudden you are making something you wanted — you can focus on the creativity than mastering this arcane set of symbols. We can hopefully bring more people into that fold of ‘hey, you made something!'"
So this is what Rod Humble is staking his professional future on: helping people make digital stuff. Two weeks ago, the company Humble became CEO of about two years ago, Linden Lab, released Patterns, a virtual 3D world designed to let people piece together shapes and build things in it.
In the near future, his company will put out a program for iPad called Creatorverse, which will let people use shapes and physics to create basic 3D systems and, yes, games, then share them for anyone else to download and play. Think of making a game that lets you fling shapes into other shapes — your own "Slightly Mad Avians", he offers as an example, if you get what he means.
Creatorverse, which will be out later this year, is Humble's five-year-old daughter's favourite app: "She drags in a lot of circles with beautiful colours — that matters a lot. Then, because we've got the tilt factor in, she hits play and they bounce around …She also likes it when you can make hundreds and hundreds of squares and watch them collapse."
There's more. Humble's Linden Lab are working on a website that lets people create rooms out of their personal images and videos, connects them to other people's rooms and lets people share the space. They also bought something called LittleTextPeople, created by interactive fiction writer Emily Short and AI programmer Richard Evans that will become — get this — "a platform that lets you make real interactive drama" by giving you "the ability to create characters within a story" and then, thanks to the AI, see that "those characters will have emergent properties as you play through the story." This last one is really ambitious. Humble admits they are "tilting at windmills".
"People like a kind of creativity that is within their grasp," says Humble, explaining this quartet of new digital canvases he and his teams are making. But he qualifies it: "They don't necessarily want it to become a lifestyle."
Most of us, Rod Humble realises, are not Rod Humble. He's a constant creator, a long-time game developer who became an executive somehow without abandoning the act of creating games. As a corporate developer, he made games for Sony Online Entertainment and then EA, rose high in the executive ranks at EA, oversaw, not surprisingly, a tool designed called Sims Carnival that was designed to help regular people make games, then went to Linden Lab to be CEO. All the while he was making indie games on the side. He's made an art game about marriage. He coded another game on a weekend. He just put out a short game called Perfect Distance, which he says "is about a soldier who basically comes to terms with the fact that he doesn't feel he has any free will." And he's got another one, STAVKA-OKH, about "how it feels to be a high-ranking general working for a lunatic, Stalin or Hitler." (Humble never said that everything we'd want to create is cheerful).
It makes perfect sense that Humble would wind up at Linden Lab, the company best known for the virtual world Second Life. It's as successful a canvas for the communal creation of a virtual world as there's been. It's been a viable digital canvas for about a decade now has been populated by users who make their own buildings and vehicles, who design contraptions, contort physics, stage elaborate events, form societies, and pioneer the art of inhabiting elaborate second skins that express inner or otherwise impossible creativity and desires.
Humble became CEO at Linden Lab almost two years ago. The release of Patterns is the first product of his tenure there. It's a $US10 download for now. It's very early on, but buying now ensures people — "founders" — will get the updates and eventually the finished thing. It's the Minecraft model.
"The initial founder-offering isn't even half-baked," Humble says. "It's a bunch of ingredients, sort of scattered around on the floor." For now users will be able to tinker in a pre-arranged private space and can add and subtract shapes from the space to travel through it. It borrows some ideas from old bridge-building games, giving players finite resources and challenging them to go from here to there. Eventually, players will be able to visit each other user's worlds and see how those worlds, all bound by specific rules of physics and stocked with the same amount of resources, vary. "One of the pipedreams," Humble says, "is that I go to your little world and, let's say you've shaped it into a ball with other balls floating around it all, with their own gravitational pull. You come to my world and I've crafted this flatland with a house on it, with the edge of the flatland sagging down from the pull of gravity." The program, which is only a game if you make it into one, will be a universe of player-created worlds, he hopes.
Humble stumbles a bit when he tries to describe what Linen Lab creates. They're not making games. At one moment, he calls them "products", then catches himself. "Oh, that makes it sound like shoes!" He settles on "shared creative platforms and creative spaces," which doesn't sound as exciting a pitch as someone saying they want you to play their next cool video game, except, once he gets going describing these spaces, it's easy to get excited about making something in them. His team's goal is to make it easy for the rest of us to make something, well to make something virtual.
"I think there's a simple level of creativity that everybody likes," he says.
"There's a reason all of our mums might save our early kid paintings, and I've certainly still got some poetry I wrote as an angst-ridden teenager," he says. "When you make something, kind of it matters and you want to keep it with you. And I think the more we as a company can make tools that allow you to have the feeling of ownership of, hey, I actually made something really cool. I think that's tremendously rewarding."
What do you want to make?