2014 SIGGRAPH Speech.

TLDR: I want to make tools that allow anyone to direct a movie on their toilet, where they have their best ideas. Who will join us?

Hi. My name is Charles.

When I was a kid, I obsessed over videogames and movies. Not so much on a technical level, but for the worlds they created. The best movies create worlds that live with you far after the movie is over. Video games create equally fantastic worlds - especially with poor graphics, it leaves a lot to the imagination. When I wasn’t playing a game, I was wondering about what the characters were up to. I would imagine what was behind the hills in Super Mario Bros.

My parents wouldn’t let me have video games. I had to go next door to my friend Chris’s who had every videogame and R rated movie, which by default made him my best friend. But In 1985, he moved away. The next summer, I negotiated a deal with my parents so that if I earned enough money from mowing lawns, I could buy a Nintendo entertainment system.

So I spent the entire summer mowing lawns to earn enough. I was seven years old and I had never worked so hard for something, before or since.

I got the Nintendo. It was glorious. I became obsessed with figuring out how it worked. I remember taking a cartridge apart, prodding solder joints with a screwdriver. Where did Mario live? How did they get him in here? If I poke in the right place, can I change the way he looks in the game? The more I played, the more I was thinking about the games I would make, if only I could.

Thumbing through a videogame magazine I saw a photo of some Nintendo code in assembler. I studied the tiny photo of a screenshot’s worth of assembler to somehow unlock the secret to making your own videogame.

I became obsessed with making videogames, though I knew nothing about it.

Throughout the rest of my childhood, I was engrained in the PC demo scene, personal computers, homebrew console games; I somehow hacked my way into building things I wanted to exist.

Even though I had worked on a few released commercial games, I never considered myself a game developer. I’ve always felt like an outsider. Everything I learned, I learned on my own. I never went to school. I didn’t come from a long lineage of game developer craftsmen. I thought of myself as a creative person that can code because I have to. And code well, because that’s just more efficient. In fact, at some point coding reached a point of feeling completely trivial.

I never had any shortage of ideas. It was just so clear to me what should exist, and it really pissed me off that it didn’t exist yet. If I was passionate enough about the idea, I was going to will my idea of the future into the world.

To me, innovation is the distance between the way you think things should be, and the way they are. That distance traveled is value. Unfortunately, it is also the lonely road of hard work, paved with people telling you your idea is dumb. The way you think things should be is a sort of future. Not the future, but a future.

And when you make that thing, your first little vision of the future, the feeling of satisfaction is so great that no amount of money in the world can match it. When you first taste this satisfaction, and find pride in what you willed into the world, you won’t imagine a life absent creation.

From that point, I had to do everything my way. If people told me I was on the wrong path, it generally meant that I was probably onto something. I moved out of my parent’s house at 17. I got a job at an ad agency just to make money, to support my habit of building. In fact, if I had enough money saved up, I would quit my job. Pretty much all my free time was spent creating graphics demos and game concepts. If I came up with a novel way to solve a problem, I’d make a demo. If I had a game concept, I’d make a demo. I loved making demos. It was my way of learning.

In 2001, I was living and working in Tokyo. Game development wise in 2001, Tokyo was very lackluster. Everything was just more of the same – There was zero innovation going on.

One day, a friend of mine told me I had to jump on a plane and come to Seoul. They were doing something truly original with video games. Because of rampant piracy, Korean games were completely free. They made money by allowing people to buy items in the game that would give them a cosmetic and competitive advantage. It was genius. And they were making a shitload of money. Because the games were free, that meant everyone was playing them, especially people you wouldn’t normally consider gamers. Wide reach, low barrier to entry, very low friction to pay.

After 3 years of working and living in Asia, I felt like I had seen the future – All I had to do is apply it to the U.S. Market. It was a function of arbitrage.

So In 2005, I moved back to the U.S. I applied for a new program called Y Combinator, which has now become the most famous startup incubator. Even though I helped create some reasonably successful bootstrapped startups in the past, this was the first time I was given venture capital to create a company. I created a company called OMGPOP. I was extremely proud of what I was creating. We were creating a platform for multiplayer games with in-game purchase. Big surprise.

But the road was really hard. No one outside of a core group of investors wanted to invest. Almost everyone I talked to said that the idea might work in Asia, but it will never work in the U.S. Nothing had ever been so clear to me before, and everyone else was actively fighting me. Why was no one in the video game industry paying attention?

But it appeared to work. We had a million unique players, which isn’t a ton, but it was growing, and we were making money.

5 years into the company, I was asked to present OMGPOP for judging at a banker’s conference. The panel of judges included Barry Diller, from IAC, and Marc Andreesen, the father of the web browser and the biggest VC in the world. They asked me how I would know when the company would be successful. Rather than responding with dollar figures, I just said, “When I make a game so good a kid will mow lawns all summer just to play it.”

Over the next seven years we would produce 35 games. Some I was very proud of, but didn’t do so well. Some I was not so proud of, but did well. But on every single one, I tried to put as much love into the game as I could. I had no idea what was going to hit.

Like music and movies, video games are a hits-based business, and the only way you can mitigate the risk of a single title is to make a lot of titles.

In 2012 we released a game called Draw Something. It seemed to take the world by storm. It was on the top of the app store charts for months. At its peak, it was making a million dollars a day. There was a time when I was riding the train in Chicago, and I counted 10 people playing it on the train. Everyone at GDC that year had no idea how it had become such a hit. Neither did I. 2 months after the game’s release we sold the company to Zynga for 200 million dollars.

That was the hit. That was it. The company was sold. I became rich. Now I would be able to do any project I wanted without worrying how I was going to pay my rent.

It was all luck too. Don’t ask me how or why it was a hit. I’d be lying if I said anything other than, “Shit. I don’t know.” We put love into everything. Life isn’t a meritocracy. I have worked on tons of stuff I thought was going to be big and went nowhere. Some ideas don’t work. Some do. But no ideas work unless they are tried; and tried over and over until you bleed.

The secret to getting struck by lightning probably has something to do with being in the rain.

In the year that followed, I started another company. It was an OK company. It makes money. It was super easy to raise money. I knew the song and dance. I had done it before.

But I had a secret. My ability to see the future was fading. I was too inside the world of “Consumer Internet”. I no longer saw things from the perspective of an outsider. I no longer had an axe to grind. Instead of seeing the way things should be years into the future, I could only see things until Friday. It really freaked me out.

So I quit.

There is no point in working on something you are not passionate about. If you can’t put love into the things you create, other people feel it. So I stopped in favor of something I was really passionate about, which is really easy to say if you’re rich. But, if you are in the position to make something with passion and give it to the world, and you don’t because it’s easier not to, you’re an asshole.

I started thinking a lot about something I really have no business thinking about. I started thinking about making movies. From the outside, tons of things about making movies seem to be broken. I was starting to get feelings about the way things should be. And it felt really good.

The path from a wonderful idiosyncratic idea to an actuality someone can experience is in itself idiosyncratic. Everyone has his or her own way. If you suggest a process change to a creative person’s method, you’re probably in for a fight.

But the distance between a wonderful idea and tangible experience is way too long. In between is a whole lot of money, unions, time blocking functions, and regretful compromise. I think everyone can agree with that.

In software, every bit of work you put into the software has an impact on the release. It’s an iterative process. It goes through testing and rigor. Even after software releases, you can still make changes, in fact it’s almost never not the case.

What’s interesting to me about the business of VFX and General engineering around movies is that it does a lot to shorten the distance from idea to thing you can watch. VFX synthesize dreams into reality; instead of blowing up a city, you can just render an exploding city.

I’ve always followed VFX and SIGGRAPH from the perspective of graphics programming. It’s been immensely useful in video game development. I’ve implemented ideas from SIGGRAPH papers before; I love watching breakdowns and listening to the FX guide podcast.

But from a business perspective, the majority of the business seems pretty flawed. It’s a service-based industry where the tech becomes more and more trivial by the day, and the servicemen of the industry are bitterly defending their eroding positions as gatekeepers of that tech.

And that sucks! Most of the people I know in VFX have moved on to different jobs, or are actively looking. They are some of the smartest and most creative people I know, but they have families and cannot afford to worry if they will have a job next month.

I can’t help but think there is a huge missed opportunity here.

There will never be a shortage of demand for great content, but I do think there is a dangerous shortage of tools that allow people to make that great content.

This is the goal: I want to develop a great idea for a movie. I want to direct that movie on my iPad, or Oculus Rift, or phone. I not only want to direct the movie in that context, but also I want to write it in that context. I want to try something crazy only to realize it doesn’t work, but take what I learned and incorporate it moving forward. I want a tool that allows me to synthesize a movie with no technical or user interface friction. I want to be able to use it on the toilet. (Where I have my best ideas.)

This shouldn’t be thought of as some type of DIY Previs. The idea that a bunch of dudes chasing tax subsidies, puppeting rigs in Maya to complete the next linear step in a directors vision is not the future. It reminds me of the times when there was one computer at a university and you had to rent time to use it through a human operator. And that really wasn’t that long ago.

Our strength as a human race is our ability to build tools, tools that allow a person to do work greater than that single person. There will never be a shortage of demand for these tools.

These tools do not yet exist, certainly not in the way they should. And new creative tools will never be perfect. The interface will never be as simple as it should be, but building that is all value. You are those toolmakers. You enable the creative vision of many other people who have an impact on millions more.

I cannot predict the future, but I definitely see the way things should be.

I will build these tools. I will use these tools to make great things. I will make these tools available so any outsider can make great things.

Will you join me?

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