i am other people: Hamilton Chu

Hamilton Chu has been involved in creating video games for a long time. This is because he is an old man. 35! Over the years, he has worked in test, design, production and “other” at a variety of places, but is probably most interesting for having produced Halo and Halo2 at Bungie Software. Then he left game design behind and went and got himself an MBA from Wharton, and he is now at Blizzard Entertainment as Director of Special Projects, which sounds ominous and awesome, doesn’t it? We became friends on a chess website.

Joey: You aren't making the games yourself any more, but you're working behind the scenes as part of the team that makes them successful. What you do is just as important to getting games made and out into the world, but it certainly seems less glamorous. You could be making your own games instead of being part of the support system for those creators. You've given up the idea of being a flashy lone wolf genius to become part of something bigger, and I guess I'm asking, why is it worth it?

Hamilton: Ok, so here's the theory: while I have clearly been getting farther and farther away from hands-on creation in my career, the justification is that my second or third order influence on creation sums up to just as much or more satisfaction overall. Is that true, though? Is it really just as satisfying to be part of a hundred-man effort that is enjoyed by millions rather than a solo effort that is enjoyed by thousands? It's hard to say. I mean, that's the deal with being a sports fan, right? Somewhere inside my head, I am totally convinced that my desperate and heartfelt rooting for the Chicago Bears helps bring them to victory. Well, in their case it helps bring them to tragic disaster after tragic disaster, but you know what I mean. But it works, right? I do feel a connection with the Bears. I do feel proud of all the stupendous artwork and elegant programming and meticulous design and mediocre music (Hi Marty!) that went into Halo. Heck, since we’ve become friends, I’m even proud of ASW and that’s as tenuous a connection as can be.

For a long time, being a game maker was my profession and a big part of my identity. When people asked what I did, I would say, "I make video games." It made me feel cool. A fairly geeky brand of cool, but cool nonetheless.

Starting a few years ago, I decided to take a step outside of this bubble, first with business school and then with actually doing some non-game related consulting as my profession. Now I am here at Blizzard doing "special projects." I am definitely in the game industry, at a great game company, doing cool shit. But I am also definitely not in hands-on game development.

But it’s certainly not an all or nothing affair. Even as a designer, as I was back in the day, you're often working through others, figuring out ways for art and programming to come together to best effect. But you are also often doing writing or number tweaking or other things, which have a direct tangible effect on the game. And then, as a producer, you are one more step removed, but still very much in the fray.

Nowadays, I am in theory helping the organization at large, which supports the development teams, who develop the games. The idea back when I decided to go to business school was to broaden myself and encounter different ideas, different types of people and different challenges. That certainly happened during school and it’s certainly happening with my current work. I guess I have successfully convinced myself that these various non-core-game-development things that I do really do result in a 2nd or 3rd order support of game development with a real and substantial impact. And overall, the work is quite exciting and challenging and inspiring. So I suppose that's why it is worth it.

And so, when I sit in on development meetings, do I feel a bit envious that I'm not hands-on involved? Yes.

When people ask me, What do you do? Do I still say I make video games? Yes

Do I feel a bit guilty after saying that? Yes

Am I still pretty cool? Maybe!

Now to address a misconception:

"flashy lone wolf genius"

I gave up trying to be the flashy lone wolf genius a long time ago. I had some trouble fulfilling the "flashy," "genius" and "wolf" portions of that role. In any case, being part of a team where a whole herd of flashy lone wolf geniuses somehow manage to work together for several years to make something stupendously awesome has been more satisfying, I think.

And how about you, Joey? Surely there's some component of your self-identity wrapped up in being a "subtle and dramatic", internet famous, counter-culture writer. How would you feel if you put that down for a while to do something else?

Joey: There's a quote I enjoy, from David Mamet: "Those who have 'something to fall back on,' invariably fall back on it. They intended to all along. That's why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently."

There are jobs I could work, temp jobs, call center jobs, tech support, if I had to. I have before, and I suspect that there will be times in my life when I have to get those jobs again, when I have to make ends meet. But I don't have another career waiting for me. I don't want another career.

My mother is a hairdresser. She started in a shop downtown, and worked her way up an impossible ladder to movies and TV shows. She's an artist, I think. She's brilliant at what she does. But it's not her name in bright lights on the finished product. She can make the jokes work, on a sketch comedy show, she can make the characters look just right, and she's won awards, too. We have TV awards, here in Canada, called the Gemini awards, and she's won a few times. But I never got to watch her go up on stage and receive them. On TV they show the actors and the directors and the writers collecting their awards. They don't televise the hairdressers, or makeup artists. It's hard not to see the frustration in that invisibility.

It's hard to watch the people whose names are in lights treat the people you care about like interchangeable cogs. Because, in a very real way, they are. Without my mother, the end product might not have that touch of brilliance she brings, but sitting at home, watching their TVs, people are going to see the same actors. Hear the same jokes. And if you're one of those shiny names, that seems like the bottom line that matters.

I appreciate the people who are willing to make that sacrifice to help bring something great into the world, but I can't do it. Not for the rest of my life. I want to make something, and I want people to know I made it.

I guess, in terms of the Mamet quote, you gave yourself something to fall back on. But I don't know, talking to you I wonder if maybe you found another way to be satisfied. I think I am looking at things wrong. Not everybody revolves their whole lives around their work. You called your work "exciting and challenging and satisfying," did you mean in a day to day way? I know you probably can't explain what you do exactly, A job like Director of Special Projects seems like you might get to play the, “I am not at liberty to discuss my work,” card, but can you talk about how you feel about the work?

Hamilton: I don't think it's quite accurate to characterize it as giving myself something to fall back on. I guess it's probably true that the degree might help me go get a job in some other industry, but that was certainly not the intent then, and seems like only the remotest possibility nowadays. It might be more like: I'm not sure I've really yet found what I'm best at? Or I'm still exploring how I can make the biggest difference?

I don't know about the glory aspect of things. I think maybe it's a bit different in the games industry. It's much harder, especially these days as projects are in general getting larger, for one person to be able to put a personal stamp on a piece of work like a movie director or lead actor might. Partially because of this, and partially because I think a different sort of person gravitates towards it, the game industry tends to have less in the way of recognized celebrities and so perhaps it is less hurtful to not be one?

But I'm not sure I believe you. Are you saying that if there were no personal glory, you wouldn't write? It seems like such an integral part of you. Maybe it doesn't bother me because it's SO clear where my glory might or might not come from. You've had the delightful onus of having read some of my personal work. You were very polite about it, but I have no illusions that it's some fantastic work. Still, I enjoyed the creation. Maybe it's that the personal adulation you receive is so much more intense than anything I come in contact with. I mean, it seems like with every update you have fans who literally post within seconds something like, "Oh! Joey! You know how life really is! I loves you!" For us, there are certainly VERY ardent fans of WoW or Halo or what have you, but it feels like it’s on a much less personal level. Your work especially revolves around views on life and love and relationships and self worth – things that can strike very deeply for people. I think that develops a very different relationship with fans than most games do.

In an interview related conversation we had, you said, "My writing is my whole life. Everything else feels like a support system for it. Just keep me alive and in writing condition." and you asked whether I felt the same way about my work. I guess I really don't. Although maybe it's a bit telling that I feel somewhat guilty saying that. Don't get me wrong, I love games and the making of games and the coming together of a glorious chaotic typhoon of a vision. And I so love being part of a tight knit team pouring your heart into something. I think for many guys in their twenties, and it certainly was for me, it is an ideal situation - to have something inspirational, to have teammates you believe in, to have a fierce battle to wage. As completely draining as it was, some of my fondest memories are from the months and months long stretches of 100+ hours weeks where your whole life simplifies into sleep and fighting the good fight against impossible odds with your friends. And also there was 3AM jerky and ice cream! How do you beat that?

That said, I guess it will sound cliché, but the most important thing to me, the thing I live for, has been my relationship with my wife Sandy. In "Mother Night", Kurt Vonnegut talks about a "nation of two" which always resonated strongly with me - the bond being foremost among all things. I guess it's a nation of four now, with the pooch and the boy. But I'm still getting used to that.

Joey: I think you’re right about the games industry, where there are a few superstars and then there’s an understanding that it is teams that create the games. The real stars are the characters, the franchises. I guess it’s the sort of situation that would arise if J K Rowling’s name wasn’t on the cover of the Harry Potter books, but hidden away on the copyright page. Harry Potter is the star.

I would keep writing even without the eventual possibility of glory. Really, with writing, the idea that I was going to be able to support myself was a long shot. I’m living off my writing now, without grants or a part time job, and it feels so tenuous. It could go downhill tomorrow, you know? I was writing before I thought it was even a real possibility to support myself with my writing, and I’ll keep writing after it becomes clear that it isn’t a real possibility after all. Not because I “must write” or because it’s “in my blood” or anything poetic like that. Or maybe those are just fancy ways of describing this certainty I have that all of my worth is wrapped up in my writing. From very young it seemed to me that writing was the only thing I did that was worthwhile. That had a chance of lasting. So, my work is something I have always given priority. The rest of my life can be falling apart, and it often seems to be, and I still take the time to work on the comic, or short stories. I am always moving forward with my writing. In a way I do treat everything else as a support system for the writing, but it isn’t really. And by treating it that way, I tend to neglect it.

I think that you’re right about a nation of two. Or anyway, I think lately I’ve been coming to understand more that there are other things I do which are valuable and worthwhile. I think that loving is important. I called my mother, so I could read her the section where I talk about her career. I wanted to make sure that it would be okay for me to talk about her. She said it was fine, and I think maybe it bothered her a little, where I said that she was in a way an invisible, interchangeable cog. She pointed out that she had achieved an awful lot in the field of hairdressing, and that she was a bit of a star.

But she called me back an hour later to tell me that she had been worrying. She was worried that I had the wrong priorities. Life wasn’t about being a star or finding the glory. Those things were nice, and important, but she wouldn’t go back and choose a different life. I came along when she was only eighteen years old. She became a hairdresser to put food on the table. And then Adrian came along. And she worked her way up the ladder to provide better lives for us. To go from making ends meet in an apartment to being able to buy us a Nintendo for Christmas in a duplex. She didn’t regret having devoted those years to raising us, to trying to give us the best life she could. Life is about giving, too, she said.

God knows what I would have done if I’d had a kid at eighteen. I always used to think that it was a mistake to have a kid so early. I mean, your life becomes about someone else. You lose yourself to it. But I think maybe that’s me being a bit stupid and arrogant. I mean, my life has been about my writing. And at the end of the day, my writing isn’t going to keep the human race going. It’s never going to grow and change on its own. It’s not going to love me back. I think I’m changing. It’s been a weird six months.

When I finish a story, I have this satisfied happy feeling. A sense of accomplishment that after a while turns into practical concern again. Where will I sell the story? Does it need edits. From then on, that story goes back to being work. When I call my mother, or have a beer with Adrian, I feel good. Not always, of course. Sometimes we argue or bitch. But that happiness is more frequent. It’s kind of lame that I’m 26 years old and only now realizing that those feelings are just as important to making my life worthwhile as the writing.

Er… 27.

Hamilton: I think that what you are saying is that over the course of this interview I have taught you the true meaning of love. And yeah, I guess I really have.

I dunno, I think what you are talking about is a difficult inner conflict for almost everyone. What value are you really bringing to the world? Yeah, I enjoy your writing – a lot of people do. I also enjoy our lame kibitzing and our fantastical adventuring. If I had to sacrifice one or the other, I’d let the writing go (in this hypothetical, the loss of your writing does not turn you into a sad broken little Joey). I daresay your family and friends would say the same.

There’s so many sources of “values” these days. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate what you value and what society tells you you should value. At minimum, we get plenty of mixed messages about the importance of glory, or of being liked, or of being financially successful, or of being in a couple. Conversely, I think people receive tremendously focused societal pressure to be a “good” mother or father or feminist or patriot or whatever. All this on top of how we fundamentally change as people over time makes it quite confusing, I think.

I’ve been going through this “being a dad” thing lately, and I have become keenly aware that I have the opportunity to really screw this kid up. How much of his “values” are going to come from random actions or words on my part? (let alone whatever tragic mistakes I might make!) But, as you mentioned, the kid thing does kind of take over your life. That’s true to a certain extent with other things as well – your spouse or work or whatever. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s a beauty to subsuming yourself in another.

Your mom sounds like a very nice lady. This is going to make it much more difficult for me to continue to make “your mom” jokes with you. But I will press through and rise to this challenge. I promise.

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