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Truth Versus Fiction: City of Heroes Creator Rick Dakan on Leaving and Entering the Games Biz


January 25, 2006
 

Rick Dakan is the author of 2005's 'Geek Mafia,' the story of a rogue game designer who enlists the help of an underground group of con-men to enact revenge on the developer that fired him, and make a small profit on the process. Dakan is also the creator of Cryptic's City of Heroes massively-multiplayer on-line superhero brawler. Gamasutra sat down with Dakan to discuss truth versus fiction, Dakan's unique way of becoming a lead videogame designer, and the transition from development to authorship.

Cryptic Times

"I was one of the founders of Cryptic," Dakan explained to Gamasutra. "Basically, it all started in 2000, when I came up with the idea of City of Heroes, and I pitched it to Michael Lewis, who is now the CEO. And so he grooved on the idea, and he knew some people, some of the principals like Bruce Rogers who was working with Atari. So that's basically what happened: I had this idea, and he put up some money." And with that, Dakan relocated to Los Gatos, California, and helped launch Cryptic.

"I was Lead Designer in the beginning, for most of my time there. I came up with the basic idea for the game, and just built on that. So I don't have any technical background, but I'd been writing pen and paper RPGs for five years at that time."


Author Rick Dakan

Despite the somewhat unorthodox position and lack of experience, Dakan says it was smooth sailing at Cyrptic. "I did not feel uncomfortable there at the time. It was a pretty good environment. I didn't feel that I couldn't say 'Well let's do this,' and there weren't any arguments about what was possible. It was having the same conversations any designer would have with the programming staff. I'd played enough games to know what was generally possible."

Leaving the Daily Grind Behind

"It was a fairly complicated situation. We had grown from our original handful to about seventeen at that point, which seems tiny now, but it was overwhelming at the time. I certainly didn't have a lot of management experience, and no one else did either. So we were making good progress, but we were off track in a lot of ways too, just kind of stuck in the mud. So Mike [Lewis] stepped in at that point and started looking at things. There were problems with the CEO position, and with my position. In programming there were three big people who left right in that same week. There was me, who got basically asked to leave, but I asked to become a consultant in the same breath. So I stepped down as a designer, from the sort of working in the office aspect of my job. Our producer got flat-out fired. The second senior programmer had also quit hours before he was going to be fired. Looking back, I talked to people there, and I don't think there was a line of code he wrote that was still in the game. The design after I left went through a lot of changes, and Mike stepped in and made huge changes. So he came back and instituted all those sorts of possibilities that make sure people are on task and have what they need."

"I resigned, but I kept working on the game for another sixteen months after that. I moved back to Florida and did it remotely as a contractor. I was pumping out serious amounts of design...I did some other stuff, but 85% of what I was doing was coming up with ideas, histories behind villain groups, and a bunch of other NPC stuff. Characters, story, that kind of stuff, a lot of the same stuff I had been doing when I was there."


An early shot from Dakan's creation, City of Heroes

Dakan continued consulting on game design for Cryptic until November of 2004, though his involvement continued with the City of Heroes comic book.

"That was basically just an idea I pitched, the comic," said Dakan. "I said, 'Hey, let's do this comic, it would be a fun little promotional thing.' And they seemed to think that was a good idea."

Dakan's City of Heroes comic was printed and sent out monthly to every subscriber of the City of Heroes game, making it one of the most widely-circulated comic books in history. Dakan's run lasted for twelve issues, ending with the April, 2005 issue. The comic is still in print, albeit through another publisher, Top Cow, and with new writers.

Dakan's Book

Dakan's book, 'Geek Mafia,' stars a terminated game designer who seeks revenge on his parent company, though Dakan swears this isn't autobiographical.


Geek Mafia

"There's a ton of sort of big and small aspects of the book that are inspired by just my time at Cryptic and my time in the Bay Area in general," said Dakan. "It is in a lot of ways my fantasies, but I guess I'm such a gamer person at heart that my fantasies always end up being a little dark and full of conflict. I always go for the good story over that happy ending. There's some masochism, you get used to digital pain and look for it elsewhere I guess. And I wanted it to be true, I didn't want it to be just happy wish fulfillment, because that isn't what my experience was. And even though I'm pleased with where my life is now and with what I'm doing and what's going on and all that, it's still...there's still things that are tough and things that have been hard and challenging, and a good story's always got conflict."

But is any of it factual? "There's strange art imitating life sort of stuff. Like, I had started that book and then while I was plotting it, and before I really started writing it, I ended up selling my stock out to Mike [Lewis]. But I already plotted out those early pages that had that sort of activity going. So it was a weird life imitating art sort of situation there." And for the record, "none of the people in the book are supposed to be people in real life that had those same positions when I was there."

"It's interesting to have actually gotten a nice chunk of change out of the situation, not unlike the character does early on in the book," he said.

Breaking the Habit

Gamasutra asked Dakan, directly, if he would ever go back into game development. "I still have a lot of game ideas that I think are interesting, so I would love to at some point like, consult or story consult or...I don't know. You play a great game like Resident Evil 4, a great game with a really shi**y story. And it's not that they would call anyone like me, being a Japanese developer, but you have this utter clunker dialogue and nonsensical stereotypical story, and you just see a lot of that in games, a lot of...what I really consider kind of lazy design."

"I would be interested in being involved in things, in a game again, but for that to be all I'm doing - I don't think I could ever go back to that, because it's to be honest too cooperative an undertaking."

Conclusion

Dakan's overnight transition from pen-and-paper RPG writer to full-fledged videogame lead designer isn't typical for the games industry. We asked Dakan to comment on his approach, and to speak out to those looking to get into game design.

"My situation is so unique. I mean, I had the idea, and City of Heroes is an idea you never had to sell people on. It was one of those great ideas that people just GOT. It was obvious, but no one had done it yet. And so...I think it's tough. I think it's just advice that I think would apply to writing in general, you've just got to do it. You have to get out there and write in whatever form, and get your name out there, and get some experience under your belt. I can say that when we were hiring programmers and artists, we always looked really favorably on sort of self-starters, people who had gone out, even kids when they were in school, straight out of college, if they had spent some time and made a little game that was really good."

Game writing is, says Dakan, the most important tool to have in a game design portfolio. "It isn't story writing or comic writing, it's a special kind of voice, and your audience may be limited to people just inside the company, which means that sort of clarity of purpose is a lot more important than it might be otherwise. You're almost writing more of an encyclopedia or tech design than works of fiction. And I think that's a valuable skill in any game company, to learn to look at what you're writing as far as, how is this going to be fun and interesting, how is the programming and art staff going to implement this, does this keep everything balanced, and things like that."

"I would encourage all game developers to really look to new places for ideas, and not be scared of them, even though they can be kind of scary. It's easy to do the sequel or the knockoff or whatever, or do the thing that's already been done, but read a book once in a while."

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