I Really Like this Game Called Halo / by Matthew Cook

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I think inspiration is really important, and I think it’s distinctly different from having passion. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been driven and inspired. Maybe that’s just me, but having something pushing me from the inside always felt right. It was normal; being hungry for a challenge was normal. I don’t think it’s the same for everyone.

The first time I had a passion for something that I considered a potential career path was in high school. I always thought I’d make a good lawyer, writer, or businessman but I never seriously dug in. I loved logical debate, performing, writing, and engaging with people, so it made sense to me. Law and Order (and Sam Waterson) were awesome to me. My literature papers received praise from teachers. I was pretty good at administration and loved everything that came with being an elected officer in high school. The problem was that I couldn’t dig into the professions related to these passions—or I was freaked out that they were terrible career choices. I needed inspiration, but I was floundering.

Change of direction, I have a ridiculous imagination. It’s really easy for me to feel like I’m on Pandora when watching Avatar, I’m practically comatose if there’s a television in a room, and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t creating my own little fantasy world as a kid. I’m sure you know someone like me.

Being an entertainment junky with a big imagination made me super interested in animation, video games, stories, and movies as a kid. That plus growing up in the 90’s meant I lived out my imagination partly in video games. My first video game system as a kid was a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that I bummed off of some friends when they upgraded to a Sega Genesis. I don’t think I could have been more enamored with it, and I beat every game my family owned except for Ninja Gaiden (darn you Tecmo). After a year with the NES I bought a Genesis for myself using Christmas money and discovered just how passionate I was about video games. I hated it; the experience was appalling. The controllers felt unwieldy and the games weren’t as much fun as Nintendo’s. I took it back the day after Christmas and bought a bug oven.

I played my NES all the way until the Nintendo 64 came out. By that point my affinity to games had persuaded my parents that they didn’t need to encourage my gaming by buying me new consoles. That’s when I met one of my lifelong friends, Seth. We had almost nothing in common except love of the N64, and he owned one. I think I spent more weekends with him than my family during late elementary school. I had more pizza, Mountain Dew, Goldeneye, and Mario Kart than any kid ever should. Even when my friends’ interest in the console started to wane, I was still in love with it. I always played the core games such as Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and GoldenEye, but by junior high I had picked up a system of my own and started buying my own games. I played Diddy Kong Racing, Perfect Dark, Zelda Ocarina of Time, Rush, Starfox, Star Wars Episode 1 Racer, and many more. I was digging in. I was finding out what I liked and what I hated–don’t even ask me to play Super Mario 64.

Toward the end of my stint with the N64, I had an affair with the Playstation. I picked one up from my cousins when they moved on to the Playstation 2. They were generous; it came with three controllers (one great, one with sloppy sticks, and one broken), four games, one game guide, and two memory sticks. I played Tekken every once in a while just to mash buttons, and then I discovered Final Fantasy IX. It was awesome. I think I’ve beaten that game five times at around 70 hours a pop, and as I write this, I’m in the middle of it again on my PS3. Final Fantasy taught me something. I learned that whole worlds could exist within the confines of a game, and they could be viscerally intoxicating. Video games became a passion. Then Halo happened.

During the summer of 2002 my family went to Nags Head, NC for a week long beach vacation. Every evening I would sit downstairs with my cousins Dan and Will and play through the campaign of Halo Combat Evolved. I totally succumbed to its power. I fought the covenant. I had the chills for days after seeing The Flood for the first time. I was friends with Cortana. I became Master Chief. We beat the game by the end of the week, and I was hooked. As soon as I could scrape the money together, I bought an Xbox, Halo CE, and four controllers. It was my golden age of gaming, my renaissance, my new passion. I bought each Halo game after that on launch day, and they were pretty much all I played on Xbox. I trained my buddies on multiplayer, bought Xbox Live, made friends online, had LAN parties, joined Bungie.net, and generally did whatever I could to be part of anything Halo. Some of my best high school memories come from playing Halo with friends at 2am. I became part of the story of Halo, and it became part of me.

In 2005 I had to decide what I was going to be when I grew up. With all of my early life passions tied up in hobbies (or vices depending who you ask) like sports, animation, and video games, I fell back on what I thought I was naturally good at—those academic inclinations I mentioned earlier. I majored in Comprehensive Business Management during my first semester Freshman year, minoring in Creative Writing. It was terrible. Second semester I switched my major to Financial Management. Still terrible. Over the summer before my Sophomore year I decided to give in to my artistic and imaginative passions. I switched to Graphic Design and had one of the best experiences of my academic life. I pulled in good grades and loved absolutely everything—even painting. I finished that year supremely confused. I noticed that while I was above competent at design, inspiration to create unique work didn’t come quickly to me. I did well, but I was slow, and I wasn’t at the top of my class. Before my Junior year I made one final change to my collegiate concentration. I finished school with a major in Financial Management and a minor in Art. I realized that while I loved design and the studio environment, including everything that went into it, I didn’t want to produce with my artistic talent under the constraints of time and money. I couldn’t translate that passion into a career; I couldn’t sustain it. I told myself I respected it too much to become just another average guy. It was a hard choice, but leaving design gave meaning to my business studies. I became desperately interested in the business of design, illustration, and animation—from web design to animation and video games.

This is where everything comes together.

My passion for video games led me to love Halo, and Halo led me to pursue the business of design. I’d spent hours bouncing out of maps on Halo 2, which lead to hours of reading online about what causes those glitches. That in turn led me to read about how Bungie didn’t really have producers (or project managers if you please) for Halo 2—and the pain that it caused. From that point on I was all over project management and production for any type of creative studio. I read articles online, downloaded GDC talks, collected write-ups and presentations, and started looking for ways to plug my finance (and eventually MBA) skillset into the business of design. My passion for an awesome video game franchise developed into being consumed with making the creative process successful in a studio environment—which is what I get to do every day now with the best web designers and developers I know.

We’ll end the personal history there. My point is that inspiration is really important, but not in a gooey, feel-good kind of way. In short, not everyone is equipped to follow all of their passions in life, but inspiration can lead anyone to find new passions and achieve great things. Inspiration is something you find through passion, and it takes work to sustain it.

I love design, but I am not a good designer. I love illustration, but I can’t keep a consistent style with my drawings. I am enamored by beautiful and gripping video games, but there’s no way I could concept or code them.

Inspiration is that tricky blend of your passions and your skills. It’s something that can happen to you, but that you need to take control of. It should be harnessed and nurtured. In the business world, a popular topic to converse on is having the right people for the right jobs. Jim Collins (the writer of Good to Great) talks about having the right people on the bus and the wrong people off. One type of wrong person for any bus is someone that is super pumped about where he’s going, but has no idea where he’s supposed to sit; or worse, he’s sitting in someone else’s seat. Don’t be that person. I’ve been that person more than once, and it sucks.

I’ve by no means arrived at any form of perfection professionally, but I have come to the conclusion that I want to look for passion and help create inspiration. My challenge to you is to discover your passions. Figure out what really drives you as a person, and what can drive you as a professional. If you’re terrible at your passion, keep it as a hobby. If you’re great at it, feed it. Dream about it. Nurse that passion until you can find and create inspiration to do awesome stuff; work hard to find opportunities to take control of wherever it leads you.

If you’re already there, help other people find inspiration through their passions. We’re all willing to complain about how education needs to change, or say how much kids need great teachers and mentors. Be that teacher. Help turn passion into inspiration. Hand out opportunities.

*Disclosure: I owned and played many other gaming systems and games, some hand-held, others console and computer. If you’re interested in exactly how dorky I am, feel free to comment, email, or tweet at me and we can geek out over games.