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Serious About Games

Serious About Games

 

For some WPI alumni, it’s not so much whether they win or lose, but how they keep playing the game. Even well into adulthood, they have found ways to use their advanced training in such fields as engineering and computer science to design toys and games. Mercedeh Mirkazemi Ward ’86, a mechanical engineering major, and Michael Melson ’02, ’03(MS) and Michael Gesner ’03, who both studied computer science, have successfully tapped their educations in the service of what might seem to be more lighthearted enterprises. Mirkazemi Ward focuses on girls’ products for Spin Master Toys in California. At ImaginEngine in Massachusetts, Melson and Gesner develop both casual and serious games for consumers ranging from children to prospective defense contractors. All three individ-uals are serious about making fun an integral part of their solutions to professional challenges.

Less than 24 hours after returning from two weeks of work in Hong Kong and China, Mercedeh Mirkazemi Ward is too busy to deal with jet lag. As she speaks on the phone from her home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., the family’s bird chirps in the background, a dog occasionally barks, and her son needs to figure out transportation to his junior prom. Elsewhere in the household, her husband and daughter and an assortment of pets are enjoying the Saturday morning. For the moment, the prospect of Spin Master Toys' next new girls' product is taking a back seat to this pleasantly hectic existence.

"My life is fast," Mirkazemi Ward explains, referring to the toy industry—but also, by extension, to the rest of her activities. "One of the reasons I love this business is it changes constantly. You’re always working with new products." The WPI graduate, who began with the Class of '86, but completed her degree in mechanical engineering in 1997 after working at Mattel full-time, is a pro at navigating shifting conditions.

She started young, long before arriving at WPI, or even in the United States. When she was only 14, the Iranian-born tomboy daughter of an architect father and sociologist-trained mother decided she did not want to remain in a country where, as a female, she would have to cover her hair with a chador. Having attended an American school in Tehran and having visited the United States with her family quite a few times, she hoped to move to the home of an aunt and uncle in Worcester and go to school there. "I was always an independent child," she says. Currently the director of girls’ products at Spin Master Toys, she admits to having been "my dad's boy" as a youngster, more interested in basketball than Barbie.

With the support of her parents, Mirkazemi Ward left for high school in Worcester on the last day of 1978 and never looked back. (The rest of her family followed her lead several years later when they immigrated to California.) Design dazzled her—whether it was creating theatre sets at Worcester Academy or making an oil painting of a flower split into four panels for her freshman project at WPI. She began college as a civil engineering major, with plans to pursue architecture, but after a summer course in drafting, she switched to mechanical engineering. "I thought, 'That’s what mechanical engineers do. They draw a lot,'" she says. "I like drawing. I loved kinematics, anything to do with drawing, graphics. I loved machine shop, carving things, drilling, spot welding, arc welding, anything hands-on."

What she didn’t like was getting sick with mono and pneumonia her junior year and falling behind in her studies. True to form, however, Mirkazemi Ward turned a stint at home in California into a design career opportunity. While taking courses at California State University, Long Beach, she began working for Mattel, in a job she directly attributes to her experience at WPI, especially in the machine shop. She also credits WPI’s philosophy with her professional success. "What I learned allowed me to do what I do now: thinking on my own, working as a team member, brainstorming, coming up with solutions, being open. Open to ideas. Open to people. Professors’ doors being open to you—it’s a big benefit that’s not feasible for students at other universities." She adds, "If that type of education was available to any child in this country, what a country we would be!"

If WPI initially made Mattel a possibility, the knowledge gained at the toy maker and at Cal State enabled Mirkazemi Ward to return successfully to WPI to finish her course work. She did her senior project on Talking Barbie—something she knew well from her time at Mattel—and drew the doll on Pro/ENGINEER, the 3D CAD modeling system.

After eight years as an engineer at Mattel, Mirkazemi Ward concluded, "I wanted to up my skills," and she transferred to product development, a role that exposed her to every step in a toy’s evolution. By the time she was hired at MGA Entertainment in 2000, she was prepared to work on development for the first four Bratz dolls. While in this position, she made her initial trip to China, to select a manufacturer for what would become a hot girls’ toy. She has been dozens of times since then—so often, in fact, that one of the border guards between Hong Kong and China recognizes her whenever she passes through.

The pace of traveling back and forth to Asia a dozen or more times a year represents only one piece of the highpressure toy business Mirkazemi Ward loves. For her first assignment at the relatively young Spin Master, she developed a line of plush, fashion-conscious dogs called Tini Puppini. "Right now the doll market is low," she says. "Bratz and Barbie are down. Every company is trying to come up with a new product line."

During the quest for the next hit, she is involved in every stage, "from conceptualization to making the first samples to sewing up outfits for dolls." Spin Master's design and development departments collaborate with in-house sales and marketing teams, who in turn consult and present to buyers at Walmart, Target, and Toys "R" Us to determine the proper price and audience. Fashion designers become part of the process, too, as Mirkazemi Ward chooses what sort of accessories a human—or canine—doll might need. There are four seasons in the toy year, and so every three months she must have new lines to show to management.

"Never give up. Never surrender," Mirkazemi Ward says about finishing her WPI degree, wryly quoting from the movie Galaxy Quest. She could as easily be referring to her move to the States, her doggedness in founding a women’s swim team at WPI, her persistence in creating novel toys in a down market. A year ago, when her son returned from a summer program at WPI wanting to be a robotics engineer, the one-time mechanical engineer found herself thinking back on her own history. "I am very proud of my degree from WPI. It has opened doors for me—more so than most mechanical engineers get," she says. "I would be so proud to have him attend WPI."

 

They have attempted to balance the Massachusetts state budget, explored the nuances of office culture and defense contracting, and ventured into the sugar-loaded universe of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For Michael Melson and Michael Gesner—creators of MassBalance, Q'Bicles, and a variety of other titles—the world of videogame development has been sweet. So sweet—in carbohydrate terms—that they had to accept a vast batch of chocolate chip cookies as partial payment for the Charlie game. In the decade since meeting at WPI, the two have already founded a company—Dragonf ly—which joined forces a year ago with ImaginEngine, part of Foundation 9 Entertainment, the largest independent game developer in North America.

Gesner and Melson have worked on both serious and casual video games. Konami Kids Playground (left) and Pinewood Derby are just two of the many projects in which they’ve collaborated.

On a June afternoon, while the two are busy readying a Christmas game for the pre-release certification process, they take a break to discuss their lives and work. In a nondescript conference room at the Framingham, Mass., headquarters of ImaginEngine, Melson and Gesner trace the two very different paths that brought them together as schoolmates, business partners, and friends. Conversation f lows easily between the two. They don't quite finish each other's sentences, but they share so many experiences that the mere mention of spice drops brings back memories of a game they named Crystallum.

"We were dealing with a design problem with a game," Gesner says. "Mike called me up as he was eating spice drops."

"I kept eating like-colored drops," Melson explains, "but I wanted to maintain a balance. I found myself subconsciously grabbing the color I had the most of. I noticed what I was doing and thought we could turn that into a game."

Gesner adds, "Sometimes the most inane things become a game." To underscore his point, he mentions to SimCity, the urban planning hit that drew upon city management for its inspiration.

Both alumni journeyed far to meet at WPI, where Melson received his undergraduate degree in computer science in 2002 and his master's in 2003, and Gesner was in the class of 2003 but left before finishing. Melson started out in Oregon City, Ore., a bright young student who "lettered in chess" but couldn't afford a computer until high school, and took his first plane trip when he arrived at WPI for classes. Gesner, who lived in Hawaii, Virginia, and Colorado with his military family, received his first computer at the age of five, and at seven programmed a rudimentary game in which the user played against Michael Jordan shooting at increasingly higher hoops.

In college and beyond, Melson approached his field from the more technical, pragmatic aspect. "I was the visionary, the loudmouth," says Gesner, who started WPI's Game Development Club—which Melson later joined—and had a role in establishing the university's Interactive Media & Game Development major. Introduced in 2005, IMGD was the first major of its kind in the United States.

Their professional lives really took off in the summer of 2003, when Gesner brought the MassBalance game with him to the Electronic Software Association summit in Washington, D.C. People in the industry told him he should start a game development company. The two friends eagerly followed that advice, launching into Q'Bicles, a fun journey into the minutiae of life in an office. Before long, they were involved in more offerings in the "serious" games category, too—such as JRATS MindRover, developed for Defense Acquisition University (an actual entity), which teaches people how to be government contractors. The biggest design obstacle there was sorting through DAU's 600-page table of contents—just in the contract. A later application, Play the Case, was invented for the New England Journal of Medicine, allowing doctors to practice interacting with case studies. Another project, a national budget simulation game for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, presented a different sort of numerical quandary. "The programming language didn't support numbers that big," Melson explains.

Michael Gesner (left) and Michael Melson met at WPI 10 years ago and have been working on video games ever since.

Whatever the game—whether it is casual or serious, aimed at federal workers or schoolchildren—Gesner and Melson ask one essential question: Is the game fun? "If it's fun, players will forgive a lot of f laws," Melson says. And if it’s not fun, there's a very good chance players won’t be interested. It need not have fancy graphics, although clearly the visual component has come a long way since the early 1970s, when Atari released the minimalist Pong as an arcade video simulation of a tennis match.

In nearly 30 years, games have become more complicated, users have become more sophisticated, and the industry has grown to encompass bigger companies, more applications and formats, and a greater range of audiences. Gesner and Melson look back fondly at the days when you would order a game from someone working out of a garage, who wrote the game, put it on a f loppy disk, and stuck it in the mail. In many ways, Gesner believes, the profession hasn’t matured from that garage development ethos. For one thing, a spirit of sharing has survived. At postmortems—which feature speakers and discussion groups and often sponsors—developers get together to look at past games and review what went well and what didn't. "The exchange of ideas is what helps our industry grow," Gesner says. "We are happy to share that information whenever possible."

All the thinking in the world does not guarantee success, however, as Melson and Gesner have discovered. "A lot of times, you don’t know a game will be good until you make it," Melson says. Critical raves—such as those Q’Bicles received—do not necessarily translate into sales.

As for the stereotype of gamers as antisocial young men alone in their rooms, Melson and Gesner hold that it isn’t true, and never was. Gesner says, "Gaming is a very socializing thing. Rock Band and Guitar Hero encourage people to sit in the same room and be social." He lists the many audiences that exist for games today—from musicians to soccer moms. "Everybody plays games now," Melson says. "There’s no stigma attached."

At ImaginEngine, where Melson and Gesner are always happy to have WPI students as fellow employees or interns, the two are thinking of where this expanding universe of gamers might lead them. "The entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t died," Gesner says. "We're using this time to develop relationships and skills, and become better managers. We wanted to pursue the creation of our own titles in a more stable environment." They have ideas for new games for health, a relatively recent category, as well as less serious enterprises. They never know when or where a new game concept will surface, but they are ready to work—and play.

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Last modified: September 26, 2014 14:29:34