Warren Longmire, game developer and Philly native, went to Magnet High School in North Philly, got a computer science degree, and headed off to the West Coast to work at his dream job: a dev for EA/Maxis. But that’s actually not where the story gets interesting. “Here was this job I thought I always wanted,” he says, “and I was miserable.” During its heyday, Maxis was an enormous company, and as a junior developer, he didn’t have a lot of creative freedom or high-level responsibility. “I was a tools developer, I had to go through and do something that made a skeleton turn a certain way, or something.”
He had the chance to move back home to take on a completely different role, with a lot more responsibility–and creative freedom. The Childrens’ Hospital of Pennsylvania began a program in tandem with several other university hospitals, looking at ways to use computer games that deal with one of the particular difficulties that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder face. Autistic children, even high-functioning autistic children, have trouble recognizing faces they’ve seen before, especially in different contexts. Researchers wonder if it’s possible to identify why, and perhaps treat the problem.
The game they’ve made is called “Let’s Face It.” It’s really more of a series of games. One version of the game, Longmire tells me, was just like the Nintendo classic Excitebike, powered by facial recognition tasks. There are other versions too, but all of them are carefully designed for data collection. ASD children are shown faces that they need to memorize, and then they are tested on recognizing those faces in different contexts, or with parts of the picture blocked or altered. Most of the project is staffed by researchers, and valid data are the most important thing for them. (Imagine having to face a bunch of Ph.D. peer-review editorial staffers instead of game critics!) Results have been encouraging so far, and the research is moving on to tests involving other circumstances, like hormone therapy.
As for the development team? Well, Longmire is the development team. “When we started I was the third or fourth dev on the project,” he explains. “But after a while, you know, I’m good at art, so I started doing other things with help.” To talk to Longmire is to know instantly that he loves his job. He says as much. He’s no longer a cog in a much larger apparatus; he’s got a lot of creative control. That has its price, however.
“At the begining,” Longmire says, “It was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s make some games.’ The hardest thing was going through the design with the researchers, because we’re speaking a different language. And they didn’t know what they wanted.” Longmire doesn’t take this as an excuse for poor design and production. “You’re working with people who really haven’t played a lot of games, trying to build something that has a practical purpose but still has real gameplay elements.”
The big difference between what Longmire does with what an indie production does is funding. Your typical indie is working other jobs, struggling for funding, equipment, etc., at one time or another. Longmire works with a research budget provided by a multi-university group. He has a salary as reliable as anyone else’s–certainly more so than most game devs. He shows his work to a panel of researchers, they make suggestions, and he makes changes. It’s about as agile as a game can get.
ALL GOOD ACADEMIC STUDIES MUST COME TO AN END
Probably the clearest sign that Longmire loves his job is that he’d do it again. “There’s an Alzheimer’s project started by some people at Stanford that I’d join,” he says. This owes not just to his relative freedom and control, but also to the fact that Longmire is clearly committed to honing his craft. “I’ve learned more working on these projects than I ever did [at Maxis]. That said,” he admits, “I’d love to try working on an indie.” Well, Warren, take away the paycheck and the prestige, and you’re pretty much there.