Anno Domini 2016 was a roller coaster for game developer and professor Michael J. Kelley. He published his first game development book and was contracted for a second and third book. He was headhunted for his dream job: Evangelist for Unity Technologies (Asia) in Seoul, South Korea. And then he got cancer. As one might imagine, that makes life rather complicated.
Which is not to say he has given up. In late February, I sat down with Michael to talk about video game development, crowdfunding, Ghost in the Shell, cancer treatment, and more. The transcript of our conversation is below, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
What was the first video game you ever played?
I can’t remember, but I do remember the one I first fell in love with. It was Donkey Kong Jr., the arcade version, which kind of dates me there. That’s my first video game memory, prior to getting any home console. Donkey Kong Jr. never got a good translation, it was really only the roms that did it justice.
What made you decide to go into video games?
It was almost by accident. I played a lot of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, and I always wanted to play as myself as a character in the video game. I picked up a copy of Paul Steed’s Modeling in 3DS Max and Animating a Real Time Character, and I recreated myself as a character. After I had learned all that, since it was just such an immense amount of information, I asked myself, ‘How hard could it possibly be to go from this to making an entire video game? [Laughs] As it turns out, it’s pretty difficult! That’s how I got into it, it was kind of like a slippery slope.
What gave you the idea to have crowdfunding decide your next completed project?
On October 5, I went to the ER with a really bad cough and a couple other symptoms. I was particularly worried about the bad cough because I couldn’t breathe. I was quickly diagnosed with leukemia, blood cancer. Originally, it looked pretty grim. There was no one available to be a donor or volunteering for caregiving support. It was a mess all around.
Just the diagnosis alone really makes you reflect on your own mortality. Previously, I had been teaching game development as an adjunct professor, then I wrote a game development textbook, No-Code Video Game Development Using Unity and Playmaker. I was contracted for two more books. Even as I was authoring textbooks, I was working on numerous projects, a little at a time, and not getting as far in my projects as I wanted to.
With that Sword of Damocles, cancer, hanging over your head, it really focuses your attention that you need to get something done, one way or another. Rather than finish one game, crowdfund it, then find out that it wasn’t going to do well, then finish another, crowdfund it, and then find out that wasn’t going to do well, I thought I’d run all seven at once and see which one was most popular.
I really think that’s what crowdfunding was meant to be. It’s become this PR tactic for multimillion dollar reboots and “spiritual successors,” and even indy games are feeling that inflation, where they have to finish the entire game before they seek crowdfunding. What I think crowdfunding was, and what it should be is a way to let people see your works in progress and fund them from that.
You mentioned that you had a bunch of projects. Could you give us some insights into what your development process usually looks like?
So, it depends. Sometimes it’s very cynical, and I start with what’s going to sell. Sometimes, I start with a problem and the project becomes the solution to that problem. For example, with the Blind Shrine Maiden, I was participating in a contest, and I only had two weeks to finish it. Problem: I can’t create any character models in that amount of time, except for the one. So, how do I make a game with just one character model? The solution was to have the player navigate from the enemy’s perspective. Then I built a story around that, where the character is a Japanese shrine maiden, a miko, she’s blind, and she can only see through the eyes of the demons chasing her by using extrasensory perception.
That’s a twist!
Yup. A lot of the time, I take one cool idea, then another cool idea, and then smash them together. An example of that would be the life-size augmented reality Tyrannosaurus game project, T-Rex Care and Feeding Book.
I have to confess, I really like that one! My inner child is squealing with glee.
How do you feel about dinosaurs with feathers? The latest sculpt I’m working on has feathers. Anyway, that’s how my process works. Dinosaurs are cool, augmented reality is cool, so if I smash those two together, it’ll be really cool.
But the epiphany was, [Laughs] ‘If I make a larger image target, then I can have a larger dinosaur!’ That’s what really set it apart from any other virtual reality/augmented reality virtual pets, this one is life-size.
That’s… that’s like thirty feet tall! [Editor’s note: Tyrannosaurus Rex was 40 feet long and about 12 feet tall at the hips.]
Yeah, it’s pretty tall. The one I have is a little over twenty when rearing.
Wow. Okay, so what are your major influences and how have they informed your work?
At a certain point, game development takes up so much time that there really isn’t enough to play other games. Take the Dreamcasters’ Duel Comic Book. The primary influence there is the original Ghost in the Shell. Then I wrote a comic book that was The Matrix before The Matrix. Then I changed it into what was essentially Inception before Inception came out, but in that instance I was able to register it with the Writer’s Guild of America before Inception came out, so I can back that up.
I would have taken your word for it without the citation. Any man who cites Ghost in the Shell as an influence is pretty much ahead of the times.
The Wackowski brothers cited it as an influence as well, so you can see how inspiration works, influence works, it branches in that kind of lineage.
What do you think of the current state of gaming?
I’m not super happy with it. I look around and there’s really nothing I feel compelled to play. I don’t see games that make me say, ‘I absolutely have to have it.’ Previously, and I know this is going to wreck my indy street cred, but I was playing a lot of Call of Duty. Guilty pleasure. I just like trolling people with the most crazy and creative kills I can. It makes me happy.
It’s certainly true that Call of Duty encourages that. It’s just a bit disappointing that you don’t see as much creativity as you used to see in the PlayStation 2 era, PlayStation era, Super Nintendo era…
Yes, that’s true. I think it speaks toward limitations creating art. It’s the necessity of invention. All artists need some sort of limitation that they need to overcome.
Where do you see the future of gaming going?
VR is probably the standard answer, especially for somebody who is developing a couple of VR titles. There are a lot of limitations to overcome yet. It’s a whole new semiotics. We’re facing the same transition when people went from theater to film, and they couldn’t figure out the language until Citizen Kane came out. One of the projects I’ve been working on is Pilotthings VR. It’s a lot like Pilot Wings, you’re flying around this island, hitting your targets, going through hoops, and the like.
I gave a demo to my family and I thought I made the heads-up display very self-explanatory. But what always happened was they would look too far left or too far right, and they’d end up turned around. Their physical orientation would end up divorced from their avatar’s. You can do a quick fix by limiting the rotational values, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel natural for the player. There’s a lot of things to work out.
Do you think there’s a way to manage expectations for VR?
I think people are sold on the concept of VR, but it’s like that old expression of damning with faint praise. If you have a complete flop, you can write it off as ‘That’s the fault of that one game.’ However, if you have a middling experience, you’re more likely to attribute it to the medium across the board. It’s going to take a while to work out the visual semiotics, the UI, the interfacing. I hope the initial sense of awe and wonder that somebody gets when they put on a VR headset for the first time doesn’t fade too quickly, so that we can work out those semiotics and create the experiences the medium can deliver.
Do you have an idea of how long it will take you to complete whichever project triumphs in your crowdfunding test by fire?
Each of them has a different timeframe and funding amount. Take Chess Tactics RPG – the tagline there is ‘Mankind’s greatest game finally gets a story mode.’ That’s probably the most ambitious out of all of them. The mobile VR titles, I’ve figured out how to get a minimum viable product at a certain funding level, and then extra add-ons so they grow in direct proportion to the funding. With some of the others, they’re book-based. The T-Rex is a fairly straightforward virtual pet, with scientific learning.
[Laughs] Right! As I told the students I demoed it for, this isn’t one of the Tamagotchis where if you forget to feed it, it dies. If you fail to feed it, you die. The T-Rex just eats you. [Laughs]
That sums it up perfectly. Are you still teaching?
Not currently. Most people need to take off a year to two years to battle leukemia. When I was diagnosed, I started chemo immediately. They tried out a bunch of different drugs on me, to make sure I wasn’t going to have an allergic reaction. I did.
What happened? What’s the rest of the process like?
It was pretty bad. It was the worst itching and burning I’ve ever had in my entire life. I vowed to look into transcendental meditation. I have discovered I have zero cool under those circumstances.
Anyway, they find out the dosage you can tolerate. At all times, they want to dial it up to eleven to kill all the bad cells they can. That was thirty-five days in-patient, then they had to find a donor for me. Until they find a donor and you line up caregivers, you’re in and out of the hospital receiving chemo. I’ve been to the cancer institute nearly every other day.
The bone marrow transplant itself, that starts on March 15 for me. I’ll be about twenty-five days in-patient from that. They’ll be releasing me to a halfway house. I will need to receive 24/7 around-the-clock care for about seventy-five days after that. It’s an intense, intense regimen.
It certainly sounds it. Since you’ll be fighting for your life, how will you be able to launch the crowdfunding and development process?
I have most of the concept art and some playable demos, screenshots, I have all of those already assembled. I think I can launch the crowdfunding itself at the end of March. I’ll set the crowdfunding schedule to a month for each game, although I’ve been toying with the idea of having it set at three months, to correspond with how long I’m recovering in the halfway house, although that has its own pros and cons.
Cancer’s a bad hand to be dealt.
Yes. Now I just have to beat it.
What’s your favorite game and why?
That’s a hard one. Probably Marvel Superheroes for the arcade, which I play on a near-daily basis on my wall-mounted arcade display, which is also part of the crowdfunding.
Editor’s note: Cancer requires a team effort to beat and Michael is fighting solo. For readers who wish to offer their assistance, Michael has a GoFundMe dedicated to helping him in his battle with leukemia.