Ralph Barbagallo, Game Developer, on Augmented & Virtual Reality, Entrepreneurship, & Latest Game - the Award Winning "InnAR Wars"
January 19, 2016
I’m originally from the Boston area, but have been living in Los Angeles for over 15 years. I got a degree in Computer Science from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell purely in the pursuit of making video games.
Before that I was coding games on my Commodore 64 in my bedroom back in the ‘80s.
Before starting my own company I had positions in art, design, and programming on console and PC games.
First Job in the Game Industry
While I was in college in the mid ‘90s, Boston had a vibrant game development scene. I sent resumes out to game companies all over the planet look for any kind position.
I had no connections, so these were all cold letters and emails.
One local company, Papyrus Design Group, hired me to work in the art department as an assistant.
At the time, Papyrus was hugely successful with their NASCAR and IndyCar Racing gamesthey were constantly in the top 10 PC charts.
I remember the very first thing I had to do was drive around the tracks in IndyCar Racing writing down the position of every trackside billboard in a notebook so that they could be replaced later with new graphics.
There’s nothing more demoralizing than seeing an incredible piece of art executed at a level I can’t possibly even dream to accomplish with my meager skills.
Every time I play a terrible game, see a bad movie, listen to some garbage music, or even watch horrible stand-up...I think...hey, at least I can do better than THAT!
It has to be earnest - if someone really tried their best and it ended up being total crap, I’m energized by it.
I do respect the amount of effort that goes into an honest attempt at making something terrible. It can take just as much work to make something bad as it does something great.
Why Game Design/Development?
I first got into this profession because I’ve been obsessed with videogames since I first saw a computer play tic tac toe when I was a little kid.
I stay in it because it’s exciting and always changing.
Right when you start to get bored with the medium, something comes along and flips it on is head.
Experience with Virtual Reality
I’m sure almost every nerd of my era lined up at a mall somewhere in the early ‘90s to play Virtuality’s Dactyl Nightmare.
They had these clunky arcade VR machines that were like wearing a lunchbox filled with rocks on your head. The games were primitive, and the displays were very low resolution and laggy.
At that time, Virtual Reality was popular in media and movies that was the era of Lawnmower Man, Wild Palms, etc. The hype didn’t live up to the technology, but it was still pretty neat.
It left quite an impression on a lot of people from my generation.
When Oculus was Kickstartered, I thought it was cool but didn’t pay close attention to it. I tried some demos at GDC and USC’s graduate game demo night and began to see the potential.
By the time I attended the first VRLA it was obvious VR was a platform and not just a neat gimmick.
Soon after, I ended up consulting on a launch title for the Gear VR. I was shocked at how well Gear VR performed, even as an early prototype. On the project I learned a ton about designing content and optimizing code for VR.
From then on, I was hooked.
I soon developed and published my own Gear VR title, Caldera Defense, while it was still in the “Innovator Edition” phase.
Not to mention a few wacky Google Cardboard experiments including “Duck Pond VR,” a simulation of feeding ducks bread at a pond...in VR.
I can’t quite say FLARB has a mission other than to allow me to not have to work for assholes. At the beginning it was a way to build what I wanted and to work with good people by any means necessary.
Beyond that, the mission is pioneering content on brand new platforms well before they hit the consumer mass market.
By keeping the company small and nimble, we’re able to work with new and interesting technologies larger companies don’t find interesting yet. And, build games and apps using wacky ideas that would never survive in a more conventional company.
Reason for starting FLARB, LLC.? How has that evolved over time?
I started FLARB LLC 15 years ago when one day after lunch, I spontaneously walked out of my miserable console development job and started my own company.
I wanted to make games on my terms, work with and for good people, and avoid the work-for-hire death spiral I saw most independent studios falling into at the time.
In 2001, I was developing mobile games before mobile really launched in the US. Since then, the game industry has changed radically - the feature phone mobile games market collapsed. So I started to develop social games. That market vaporized, and mobile 2.0 began. Then Steam blew up.
Now VR and AR are gathering momentum.
Now, projects are more complex and more resources are needed. For me, this has meant shifting from lone wolf style development, to consulting on larger projects, and now making partnerships for developing games with more resources.
Success with FLARB
FLARB really hit its stride a few years after I started it; when the feature phone market was in full bloom. I escaped the trap of work for hire and started self-publishing mobile games. It was a great feeling. In the early days there were times I thought starting FLARB was a mistake.
I got pretty close to interviewing for a job I really didn’t like at one low point. But then, mobile really blew up.
Improvements in Technology
In the ‘90s, you needed the smartest, best programmers on the planet to make a good game. Most games were written from scratch, and building game engines is a very complex and time consuming task.
Now with freely available game engines like Unity and Unreal, you can have the same engine technology AAA game developers use.
You no longer need huge resources to build a game, and the ease of use of these engines let you focus on getting content into your game rather than optimizing a triangle fill routine.
This has democratized game development, allowing all kinds of games to be created with not only unique mechanics, but new styles and voices you would never see in the traditional heavilygated game industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Now that anyone can make a game - it seems everyone does.
This has resulted in a glut of really high quality content. This makes building and maintaining a sustainable game development and publishing business rather difficult.
Securing Business Clients
When I started, it was a lot of cold calling and attending conferences. It was pretty easy back then because there were only a handful of people making mobile games and I was one of them.
As the market matured, this morphed into pointless meetings that waste valuable time.
Especially with Los Angeles traffic, a single “lunch” meeting can kill an entire day.
Now, I adhere more to a maker’s schedule than a manager’s schedule.
I focus on making stuff - whether it’s a game, prototype, or a blog post that helps people find me when they need someone with my skillset.
I’d say the most important factor is to build a game!
The tools have never been easier to use, and there’s no more gatekeepers for distribution.
When I interview a candidate who has no personal projects or games published on the web, AppStore, etc. I’m very skeptical.
What have you learned in the past year that informs your plans for the next year?
At this stage it’s all about new hardware release plans. The reveal of Vive and Oculus Touch really opened up the possibilities for handtracked VR experiences.
Knowing what features the launch hardware has and price levels are help me decide how much of an addressable market there will be in the next year for VR.
Should everyone code?
I think it’s helpful to expose people to programming to see if they like it. But it’s not like you can get someone to code who really doesn’t enjoy it.
And to be honest, I’m not sure how much of a future there is in many regular programming jobs.
More and more programming tasks are automated or solved using middleware instead of hiring developers.
Still, I hesitate to be totally pessimistic. When I first got into college a book came out called “The Decline and Fall of the American Programmer.”
My freshman CS professor was all into it, and gave a big speech about how we were all doomed.
Well, the author was totally wrong and had to come out with a sequel called “The Rise and Resurrection of the American Programmer” a few years later when the dotcom boom was in full swing.
As for online resourcesCoursera has some great classes you can take online.
I also highly recommend forcing yourself to write a game for the Ludum Dare contest. It’s an event where you have to make an entire game from scratch, including graphics and sound, in 48 hours.
It’s a great way to learn a new tool or programming language.
Ultimate Professional Goal
To have an end goal you have to believe you have the ultimate power to decide your own fate. I don’t really think that’s the case.
Who knows? I try to expose myself to the most opportunities possible and make the best of them when they reveal themselves. I’m not sure where that will lead.
Wasting too much time idolizing the “gods” of game development.
Early in my career I was intimidated by what other famous game developers were doing - thinking that they were so far beyond mortal humans that there was no way I could accomplish anything remotely similar to their feats.
I realized this closed off a lot of opportunities by making me believe I couldn’t do something I was totally capable of.
Now, I’m always looking to work with people that complement my skills. Especially people way more talented and smarter than me. The key to overcoming obstacles is to get help from other people.
This also means working on your social skills, you have to be the kind of person people want to work with.
Growing an Audience
I guess I grow my audience through my blog. That’s how a lot of recent clients and collaborators have found me. It’s not really a strategic plan - the whole “building your personal brand” thing is kind of gross.
Adapting to changing technology and audience preferences is a dangerous process. The industry is so fluid right now, that the entire business model of games can change from the time you start developing your game to the time it ships.
If you’re constantly chasing trends, you’ll have a hard time shipping anything good.
I think one of the few ways you can insulate against this is to keep your development times relatively short - or have a ton of money to weather industry shifts. The latter is usually not an option for smaller studios and indies.
Social media makes working alone or on remote teams a lot easier! If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see a lot of me complaining @unity3d about bugs or issues I have with the engine while working.
Usually it’s just me being stupid about something -- but someone out there will usually respond with a fix or suggestion that works.
It’s the equivalent of having a co-worker at the office you can bounce ideas off of.
Favorite Moments in the Game Industry
In no particular order:
Seeing Konami’s Metal Gear Solid demo at the first E3 I attended in 1997. I was blown away. I just sat there amazed after the trailer played, and stayed to watch it loop a few more times.
My first trip to Tokyo Game Show. I met a lot of amazing Japanese game developers, and also spent countless hours digging through treasure troves of Japanese game history in Akihabara retro gaming stores.
Looking over someone’s shoulder at a theater before a movie started and seeing he was playing one of my games on his phone and telling his friend how much he liked it.
Having my first game development book published and on the store shelves at Barnes and Noble.
Emancipating myself from the worst job I ever had by starting FLARB.
What is something about your career that you’d like people to know?
Games are usually much more expensive and a lot more complicated to build than people assume. Especially if your only exposure to game development is Indie Game: The Movie.
What are the daily steps you take to meet your career goals?
I don’t have any real steps other than to try and stay healthy - at least as healthy as possible while still enjoying snacks. The brain is fueled by oxygen and sugar - so I still can’t get away with programming without some form of snacking.
Related to this, is maintaining the same youthful energy and excitement I had when I first got into the industry.
Which, as you get older, is directly related to your health.
Augmented Reality is very interesting to me. It’s a much harder technological problem to solve than VR.
I recently won the AR award in Google’s Make a Tango App contest with a multiplayer AR space RTS, InnAR Wars.
Google’s Tango platform is a great preview of what is to come in augmented reality.
It just keeps getting better.
I was totally blown away by Microsoft’s HoloLens when I tried the XRay demo a few months ago.
I’m really looking forward to moving my AR projects to that platform.
I still use a lot of paper lists. Lately, I’ve migrated this process to Trello - but I keep lists of different scopes
At the start of a new project, I’ll break it down into a master list of tasks.
Then I break those tasks into sub-tasks.
After that, I make a weekly list of tasks.
Each day, I put some weekly tasks into a to-do list.
I try to tackle the hardest one first.
Trello is really great for managing small projects with a few collaborators. On larger projects I use tools like Jira or Pivotal.
I got a BSCS from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. From there it’s just been constant learning from on the job experience, personal projects, mentorship, and lots of reading.
Anything else you’d like to share?
If anyone is looking to work in games, feel free to send me an email.
I might not always respond, but I do always bookmark good resumes, portfolios, etc. for future reference.