Designing games is a lot of work and a lot of fun
By KATHY DAY
BOTHELL — Rafael Calomzo always dreamed about working for Walt Disney or having his comic strip run next to the wildly popular Peanuts.
Matt Mahon studied computer programming and math and figured he’d be a software designer, just not a game designer.
Neither thought he’d be designing children’s educational software. But that’s what they do now.
Calomzo, known as "Raf," and Mahon are game designers at Humongous Entertainment, makers of games like the recently released Backyard Soccer, CD-ROMs based on the Nickelodeon show "Blue’s Clues" and an adventure-oriented lineup featuring Putt-Putt, Pajama Sam, SpyFox and Freddi Fish.
They followed different paths to jobs that keep them entertained and busy in a setting with cartoon characters lining the walls, a special room for video games and a group of "funny, creative people who feed off each other," Calomzo said during a recent interview.
His path to fun started when he was a boy who enjoyed drawing and painting. "I always wanted to be a cartoonist … I thought for sure that’s what I’d do," he said.
With a degree in fine arts — one of three arts grads in his Seattle University class — he set out looking for a job and answered an ad seeking a "digital ink painter." He thought he would be using his talents, but instead became a "button boy," pushing computer keys to make the painting happen, he said.
He learned the programming part of the business— "the easy part" — and then started using his artistic talents creating characters like Pajama Sam. (Some co-workers say the character bears a resemblance to his creator.)
Five years ago, Mahan, who has a degree in computer programming and math from Assumption College in Massachusetts, was working "a stint doing tax software." To see his face, you know that wasn’t his dream job.
It was the "shot-in-the-dark ad" for an entry-level programmer that landed him at Humongous and gave him a chance to "claw his way up the ranks to game designer," he said.
What that means, he laughed, "I still don’t know."
Neither played many video games as boys. Today, though, they can often be found playing after hours.
"For research," Calomzo said with a chuckle.
The two have worked together and separately on Humongous projects. A year ago they teamed up on Backyard Baseball, a line of sports games featuring likenesses of professional players who team up for games with regular Backyard kids. It’s a game for 5- to 12-year-olds with junior versions of such Major League stars as A-Rod, Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire.
The games teach rules, tips and tricks and can be taught to track player and team statistics.
The pair shared the vision for the game and then combined their artistic and programming talents to "make it happen," Mahon said.
Right now, Calomzo is busy sketching images of professional basketball stars — including images of some of WNBA players — as part of an upcoming addition to the Backyard series.
The contrasts in their talents come out as they talk about their work.
"When I come up with ideas, I think about logistics last," Calomzo said.
And Mahon sticks to the strictness and discipline required of the programmer, focusing first on logistics, although he concedes he’s "one of the least organized programmers around."
"We have a good balance," he added. "We push each other."
Their collaboration starts at the concept stage with lots of brainstorming among the designers and others at the company. When asked about amusing incidents during brainstorming sessions, they glanced quickly at each other and started to chuckle.
Well, there was the cupcake-throwing incident, which led to a food fight in one game, they admitted.
From brainstorming, they move to a rough-sketch stage and explore the details of their characters. Then they’ll advance to what’s called the storyboard stage where the concept begins to come alive and the art starts to be polished.
It’s also the point at which some concepts go into the "nice idea, but …" pile.
The best part of the job, says Calomzo, is the people. "They’re funny and creative … I would miss that when I start my career as a cartoonist." He still dreams about that cartoon strip or having his editorial opinions sketched on pages of area newspapers.
For Mahon, the creative aspect is important but the "inherent satisfaction comes from building something," he said. "I still get a thrill going to the game store and seeing something I made. It’s a lot more fun than tax software."
The worst part, Calomzo noted, is "towards the end when we’re getting the games out the door and eating bad food."
Mahon laughed and added, "I just dispense with doing laundry. … It’s hard to convey the work involved."
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