"Ive been talking with Neal Stephenson and his team," Gabe Newell wrote. "They are starting to come out of stealth mode. ... Every time I talk to them, my brain comes away buzzing. ... One thing they asked me to help them with is to find some more coders."
The email was sent to a Valve Software distribution list, called "HLCoders," that has been in existence since 2001. It serves as the backchannel for Source engine coding expertise. If you're serious about screwing around with the tools that made Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead you're already on it.
In addition to tinkerers of every flavor, every once in a while someone from deep inside Valve sends out a weird call for help, usually about some software quirk they've never seen before. It's not a list that's used to find new employees, and it had never been used by Newell until that day in October, 2010.
"I haven't posted to this alias before," Newell wrote, "but I thought this was an interesting enough subject that it would be worth a post."
The successful candidate would have credit on a triple-A game title, have experience with Source and various programming languages and be able to use them inside collaborative structures common to the games industry, systems with names like "rapid prototyping" and "iterative design." Pretty standard game dev stuff.
What made the job offer unique was that it also required experience in the formal study of either martial arts or dance.
In reality that email was a cryptic invitation to apply for a job at Stephenson's Subutai Corporation, an opportunity to work on the unannounced project that would become Clang, a motion-controlled sword fighting game. The game that would eventually be Kickstarted to the tune of half a million dollars.
Michael Chang was the perfect candidate. Not only had he studied mixed martial arts and Japanese sword fighting in college, but he had been working on a similar game since 2006.
And, unlike Stephenson, he still is.
"Instead of hiring a hundred animators to animate all these tiny bits of graphics they hired three programmers."
There's a joke among Taiwanese nationals, Chang says, that goes like this: If every man, woman and child in China spits in the ocean it will drown Taiwan. It's part of the reason he's a first-generation American, the son of immigrants who came looking for opportunity outside a sphere of influence that practically smothered them.
"For a lot of Taiwanese citizens you either stay there due to pride, or you don't have any other reason to stay there," he says. "It's your hometown, but for a lot of people it's their dream to move to America. So that [was] my parents' dream. They wanted to have a yard and cars and stuff."
Chang helped to build the family business in high school. His parents import easels from China and sell them to artists online in the U.S. using a website he built when he was a teenager, something he laughs about now.
"It's terrible," he says. "It's made in Dreamweaver out of templates. It works, but it still hasn't changed. Like any kid at that time my parents were like, 'Hey you know computers. You can make websites!'"
E-commerce wasn't his passion. He wanted to be an animator at Pixar, to make the kind of movies he grew up watching. His parents convinced him to do something a bit more practical with their stack of easel cash. That's how he ended up at UCLA in the Design Media Arts program. He studied programming like some would study oil painting — as a medium for expression.
"It allowed me to take my artistic skill set, but then to transform it. ... I became this sort of jack of all trades kind of guy, where any problem that presented itself just sort of clicked for me."
His specialty was procedural animation, a way of teaching computers to draw on their own.
"Instead of painting a painting," Chang says, "it's more like I'm teaching an animal to perform. And the animal might do what you want, but it won't do the exact thing every time."
One of his first tastes of success was building a program that made simple drawings come to life. As soon as the user lifted their pen a creature would begin to swim around the screen. It was exactly the kind of work that appealed to Will Wright when he was conceptualizing Spore.
"It was during their prototyping phase," Chang says. "Wright basically had a bunch of people look for hacker programmer types. … I've been a Will Wright fan for my whole life and I'd played SimCity. So I applied instantly, and I got the internship.
"The art director would have us go and print out some random imagery," Chang says. "During lunch … there would be these printouts laying out of fucking ramen noodles and a basketball and the Space Shuttle or whatever. He'd say, 'I want you to take each of these images and shuffle them and sketch out a planet made from those things.'"
Chang went on to design many early versions of the user interface elements that went into Spore's Creature Creator.
After college he joined the new elite of mercenary work-for-hire programmers in Los Angeles. He traded the chance at a steady job and medical benefits for a string of highly paid projects. As a result his work history is certifiably weird.
Chang has done data visualization for Yahoo: "They collect so much data about their users," he says. "They want a way of plotting it. And they want to see it in a cool, Tron-like way."
Chang has worked in the advertising industry: "Instead of hiring a hundred animators to animate all these tiny bits of graphics they hired three programmers," he says.
Chang has worked for the Church of Scientology: "It was in a Disney-like castle in the middle of the desert," he says. "They put all of us non-Scientologists in a separate room with no access to the internet. It was sort of a sweatshop where I was creating propaganda 3D art."
Chang worked from Shanghai for a startup that he cannot name: "I wanted to travel," he says. "It just seemed really cyberpunk, and I already spoke the language. ... Our clients included Sony and Microsoft, the usual guys."
And he did all of that, and much more, before he turned 30.
But the whole time he was also making a game.
"In 2006 a friend and I were sitting in the living room," he says. "Super bored. We're saying to ourselves, 'Look, Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast was a great game. It happened, but people stopped playing it. We really need something to scratch the sword fighting itch that we have.'" And so they began to make a game together.
His work history is certifiably weird.
When the Source Development Kit (SDK) was released in 2004 it opened the floodgates for game "modders" to come and play with Valve's code. People had always tinkered with Valve properties, adding new skins on familiar units or introducing other game modes and tweaks. There had even been so-called "full conversions," modifications so dramatic that barely any of the original game art or mechanics remained. The Team Fortress series started out that way.
But the SDK opened the programming language to more users, and gave even the most experienced modders powerful tools they had never had before. Chang's project was part of a boom in Source mods.
He and his friend wanted to make a fighting game that played a lot like Jedi Knight 2's multiplayer lightsaber duels. No hokey religion, just saber to saber. Steel upon steel. The duo trawled modding forums looking for help and built up a small, revolving team. In 2008, after two years of work, his friend dropped out of the effort. Chang stuck with it.
"The really interesting thing that happened that year was we were actually discovered," Chang says. Another team of modders, responsible for the hugely successful cyberpunk-themed multiplayer Source mod called Dystopia, was winding down its work. When its team members looked at all the games being built for Source, they liked Chang's the best and asked to join his team.
"Theirs was a pretty popular mod," Chang says. "They had thousands of concurrent players back in those days. They had a katana, and you could jack into cyberspace, and in cyberspace you could do cyberspace things like hack doors and cameras and stuff."
The leadership of Team Dystopia stepped aside. Suddenly Chang was in control of more than a dozen highly-skilled part-time game developers who slowly folded into the team, called Puny Human. Over the next two years their game, Blade Symphony, began to truly take shape. The art direction took on the brightly lit, glossy veneer Dystopia was known for.
But it was still a part time gig for Chang. In 2010 he was back in the states at the invitation of Google where he was doing data visualization, similar to what he had done for Yahoo but this time for external consumption. He did everything from Google doodles to 100,000 Stars, an experiment in programming for Chrome that was heavily inspired by Mass Effect.
But that fall his contract was up, and he had a few months off work before Google could offer him a new one.
That's when Newell's note landed in his inbox.
"I fired off an email," Chang says. "It wasn't cocky, but I said, 'You know what? This job was made for me. You have to take me.'"
He was granted an interview. Stephenson's team agreed that the job was made for him. He was working for Subutai Corporation two months later.
Subutai Corporation is a secretive enclave in the heart of San Francisco owned and operated by visionary author, journalist and entrepreneur Neal Stephenson, his partners and investors. Chang says that the Subutai that he knows exists for two purposes: telling stories and making games.
One half of the house creates and sells content for Stephenson's digital entertainment app, The Mongoliad. It's a subscription-based service that tells an alternate history where eastern and western swordsmen meet and fight, a fantasy where Japanese samurai engage European knights. Chang says that Stephenson, himself a student of forgotten western martial arts like Italian and German swordsmanship, views his project as an experiment in new ways of telling tales and monetizing fiction.
Chang was hired on to work in the other half of the house, which he describes as more of a startup. He was brought on to develop just one of the many projects there, one that would help players explore the action of The Mongoliad through games.
Chang was hired to make the early prototypes for Clang. His job was to help players inhabit the body of a samurai or a knight using an experimental motion controller, a device he can't discuss.
His background meant he was uniquely capable of filling the role of both animator and programmer, and his experience sword fighting at UCLA helped speed up the prototyping process. The team at Subutai hired him as much for his familiarity with the Source engine as for his skill with a blade.
"I took a year of kenjutsu in college, which is the Japanese form of sword fighting," Chang says. "It's not too dissimilar to kendo, but kendo is padded and it's a sport. Whereas kenjutsu is the actual art of killing people with a bladed weapon.
"My best experience in martial arts was when ... our master — our sensei — asked us to meet by the Pacific Coast Highway at a certain location on a Saturday morning in Bumfuck, California. ... So I drove there. When we arrived there was fog.
"There was also beach, sand and water underneath us. We had to practice sword fighting on the beach in the fog. And the point was to train our footwork. And so your footwork has to be really stable or when you try to block something you will fall. And fall I did. A lot."
What made it so important for Subutai to have a programmer who was also a swordsman was that sword fighting had arguably never been effectively reproduced in a video game. Many had tried and failed on the PC, and more recently on the motion-controlled Wii. Even the closest approximations lacked the weight and precision of actual combat, though. Stephenson wanted to bridge the gap between the real and the virtual, and Chang would be his architect.
"I know how important it is to have your left foot forward, right foot back versus the other way around — what motions can you do with that stance. When I turn with my right foot forward and my left foot back my sword arm is right in front of me. And that's a really defensive posture. The other way around ... my sword arm is already wound and I can attack forwards ... sort of like swinging a baseball bat.
"And so knowing all these things lubricated the communication process between what [Stephenson] had in his mind — as far as wanting to have realistic sword combat — and went into what was actually implemented in the game."
"I was sitting at this table with Gabe Newell on my right and Neal Stephenson on my left, and I'm thinking, 'Where the fuck am I?'"
Chang was able to create a rough framework for a game in just a few months. Over the course of a year he integrated that framework with the experimental controller, and then began to remove large sections of the game code and replace it with new code, testing various control methods and user interface designs.
The challenge was to simulate the physical feedback you get when you smash two giant knives together. It was a challenge that Chang had already met with his interpretation for Blade Symphony, which leans heavily on the mechanics of more traditional fighting games like Street Fighter.
"These are really big problems to solve," Chang says. "I'm talking research thesis paper big. These are not easy problems. ... They needed that sort of fluidity as far as prototyping goes.
"They needed a programmer/martial artist hybrid who also could do a little bit of animation because the project was clearly going to rely heavily on the quality of programming and animation meshing together. ... Likewise, learning martial arts and sword fighting was just as important."
While he was one of the few programmers on staff, everyone at Subutai was expected to be a swordsman. A core value at the company was to study and keep alive lost European sword fighting techniques through historical recreation. The offices are home to some of the only remaining swordsmen in the world who fight as knights did.
"We did these Sunday practices with longswords," Chang says. "A lot of it was not very rigorous exercise, but they did ask us to practice our swings at home. … We would meet at a park in San Francisco, with all these other people around you looking at you weird, because you have these plastic swords. And we would do these routines there."
So it is safe to say that Chang is one of the few people in the world to have studied under some of the finest living swordsmen, and to have practiced both eastern and western styles under them. But that wasn't the highlight of his year working at Subutai.
"I hung out at Neal Stephenson's house," he says, wide eyed. "Then [Newell] and some of his colleagues showed up for dinner, and I was sitting at this table with Gabe Newell on my right and Neal Stephenson on my left, and I'm thinking, 'Where the fuck am I? How did I get myself into this situation? There's gods sitting here.'"
One year later, at the end of his contract, Chang made the decision to leave Subutai. It's hard for him to talk about the reasons why he left. Given the nature of his work, it's hard for him to even talk about the reasons why he can't talk about it.
"Even to this day," Chang says, "I'm a little bit confused. I know that their Kickstarter was about to start. And I know that their direction was starting to shift from Source engine to something a little bit easier to prototype with, which was Unity."
After Chang left the company the Kickstarter for Clang went on to be funded at over $500 thousand. He says his prototypes featured prominently in the video Subutai used in the pitch.
But a little over a year later the project was put on hold. Many backers were frustrated that the team appeared to have burnt through their Kickstarter money without creating a finished product.
Subutai spun the news as best it could. Its last update cites an inability to find a publisher as a major reason to "hit pause" on the project. Chang says he was making presentations for Subutai in 2011 to publishers. They didn't bite then either.
But he never stopped working on his own game. When he was working for the Scientologists, for Yahoo and Google, even when he was working for Neal Stephenson, the production on Blade Symphony carried on with a core team of about a half dozen contributors.
For a man just barely into his 30s, seven years is a long time to work on one project. Given Chang's professional history, Blade Symphony has been the only constant in his life since college.
"A lot of developers have a lot of ideas," Chang says. "They go and they explore those ideas, and they just give up on them half way through and [don't] really have the stamina to pursue them to the end.
"If I don't finish this I will never start anything again. I believe in it so much that I have to finish this game development. If I don't do that then I can't — how can I even start another project? It would just be a lie. ... So I chose to go back to being a contractor for Google.
"Now I'm not doing game dev in the morning, afternoon and evening. I'm doing different things during the day, and then in the evening time I can explore my own game dev."
Blade Symphony is growing. Thanks to his own successful Kickstarter, which began and ended during his time at Subutai, Chang has the engine licensing he needs to sell the game. He bullied his way into Steam's Early Access platform in April 2013, and that summer's Steam Sale was a huge moment for him and his small team. He expects to release the game formally some time next year.
But there's still plenty of work left to do.
"We have a very specific international time where the Australians are just waking up and the Germans are just about to fall asleep," Chang says. "It's exact. And it's at that time that we can finally do a meeting.
"Right now we're at the point where we put the game out and it's currently undergoing huge amounts of player testing. Because it's in beta it's continually exposed to the fresh air of players. They're continually giving me feedback, almost to the point where there's almost more feedback than we can possibly handle."
To date as many as 10,000 people have played Blade Symphony. Chang is nearing the point where the list of features is almost complete, and the time will come to exit the beta period and finish the game.
No one is more excited than the growing community of players.
"The coolest part about Blade Symphony," Chang says, "is that the community self-organized into this dojo-like master/student system. There are in-game masters who would modify our maps and they would add these training poles. They will stand in front of these training poles, and they will teach students distancing.
"They borrow a lot of terminology from martial arts. There's a curve step, where they teach students to essentially shuffle to their right, curve around their opponent, and then swing left and hit their back. And they would have their students practice over and over again. In their off hours they will even create their own events."
These players are the "whales," Chang says, a term used in the free-to-play space for players that spend a huge amount of money on a game. But instead of money, the whales give his small team a disproportionate amount of their time.
What that tells Chang is he is succeeding at creating, in a virtual space, a place to study the kind of martial arts he enjoys training in. He is fulfilling a need players have, one that he shares from his time playing Jedi Knight 2. And people are paying for his game.
It may not be the tactile, motion-controlled future that sword fighting aficionados have dreamt about for the last few decades. But it might just be the closest thing available for a long, long time.
Photos: Michael Chang
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design: Tyson Whiting