How Flight Rising’s creator went from developer to deputy

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Darren Hill nearly died on New Year's Day.

It was a little after 4 a.m. The 29-year-old Pasco County sheriff's deputy was driving along State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel, Fla. when a red Ford F-150 veered into his lane and struck his patrol car head-on.

Hill, who was too injured to speak, managed to activate an emergency button on his radio. Someone in a nearby home heard the crash and came outside to help him, but couldn't open the door of his smashed vehicle. The Good Samaritan stuck a hand just inside the door and held Hill's hand until help arrived.

Authorities say the truck's driver, 25-year-old Bertin Jaimes, ran away on foot. He walked five and a half miles to his brother's home, where he, along with his wife, brother and sister-in-law, conspired to cover up what had happened.

Jaimes was arrested for leaving the scene of a crash with serious injury and driving with an expired license. The three family members who tried to lie for him were also arrested and charged with obstruction.

Meanwhile, Hill was airlifted to a local hospital.

"I knew what I was getting into," Hill said in a recent interview with WTSP, a CBS affiliate. (Full disclosure: The author is a WTSP employee.) "I knew something, someday, could happen to me. I never thought it would be a head-on collision."

Hill doesn't remember the crash that nearly took his life, but he's determined to bounce back from it and return to the job he loves. He also wants to return to his first love, now on the sidelines during his long recovery: making video games.

A new game takes flight

Darren Hill began work on a video game of his own back in 2005, when he met freelance artist Jessica Peffer on the Shadow Council server in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. Peffer mentioned to Hill over voice chat that she wanted to make a game involving dragons. He offered to do a quick demonstration for her, and it led to their first project — Flight Rising.

Deputy_hill_headshotDarren Hill

"I don't know if we could call that starting development on it, but that's when we started getting the idea together," says Hill. "We started creating some scripts, playing around with design ideas, things like that."

Flight Rising would be a browser-based social game focused on dragon breeding. First, you'd create your dragon. Then, you'd be given a randomly generated member of the opposite sex. From there, you'd incubate a clutch of eggs, with genes are passed down from the parents to the hatchlings. An in-game tutorial would even show you how to create your own dragon skins using image-editing software like Photoshop.

Like many social games, Flight Rising would encourage creativity. You'd be able to strategically breed your dragons to achieve a certain look, or pair them up randomly and take your chances in the genetic lottery. It's the type of gameplay that appeals to both experimenters and perfectionists, the kind of people who enjoy diving deep into Shin Megami Tensei's demon fusion or Pokémon breeding. It's all about creating something that's uniquely yours and sharing it with others.

Work on the game was slow at first. Hill spent a year in Korea teaching English (and getting schooled by his students in StarCraft), while Peffer worked on a series of how-to-draw books called DragonArt.

"We didn't get much development done that year because Jess had to focus on her book and I had to focus on being out of the country," says Hill. "But then when I came back in 2007, I would say that's when the development really picked up. I was back in Florida and I was working on my master's degree at the time."

After getting his master's degree in production management from Full Sail University, he moved to California in 2010. He hoped to work in the game industry, and applied for jobs with companies like Blizzard Entertainment and Red 5 Studios. But breaking in proved difficult. Instead, he got a job with Smarthome, a consumer electronics company specializing in home automation products like dimmers, thermostats and motion sensors.

Eventually, Hill decided to leave California and move back home to Florida to become a sheriff's deputy. Blizzard called him on the day he left, asking if he had time for an interview. He turned it down. Although he would have enjoyed working for Blizzard, his mind was already made up. He was going into law enforcement. It's a decision he doesn't regret.

"It's been what I've always wanted to do," he says. "I loved my job in California, but it was like — I don't know how else to describe it other than being hungry. When you're just a little hungry, you can sit there and ignore it, but the longer you sit there and ignore it, the hungrier you get. It was one of those things. I loved my job, but there was something else out there calling to me and I had to do it."

Meanwhile, work on Flight Rising was progressing despite a number of delays and setbacks. Neither Hill nor Peffer had ever created a video game before. They'd also never done web design before, and it took them a long time to develop the site.

"We restarted a couple times because we didn't like the design and we didn't like how a system worked. [With just] two of us, it was a very ambitious project," he says.

Then, there was the issue of money. Without the aid of a publisher or investors, Hill and Peffer paid for Flight Rising's development costs out of their own pockets. They spent thousands of dollars on server space and domain names. Hill was forced to pick up extra shifts at the sheriff's office, working local movie theaters and conventions as a security guard.

"We tried to keep [expenses] to a minimum because, you know, we were working jobs, trying to live our lives and also pay for development of the game on our own," he says.

"It just blew our minds that there were that many people attracted to our game."

Eventually, they brought on an additional programmer and illustrator to help with the project. After a successful beta test, the team — now calling itself Stormlight Workshop — launched a Kickstarter campaign. The goal was to raise $3,500 to pay for a new dedicated server that would increase the game's load speed, efficiency and capacity. The money, Hill said, would cover only part of a year's worth of server hosting — just enough to get the game going.

By the time the campaign ended, over 800 people had backed the project for nearly $39,000.

"It just blew our minds that there were that many people attracted to our game," Hill says. "So we were actually able to get additional server space and fulfill more Kickstarter rewards from that point. And not only did we get more server space, we got it for a longer period of time. They originally planned on giving us another three months of server space from the original Kickstarter amount. We ended up getting three servers for a full year with the new amount."

Once the hardware upgrade was complete, Flight Rising officially launched in April 2013 — eight years after Hill and Peffer first began working on it.

Unexpected success

Hill didn't expect much from Flight Rising in the beginning. He thought it would be a novelty item, a game with only a few hundred players online. Less than one year after launch, Hill estimates Flight Rising now has around 40,000 users.

That number might sound modest to many, but Hill says it's more than he ever expected.

Flight_rising_art_4

"My opinion was it was going to be ... 500 people online at the most at any given time. I really thought that's where it was going to go, but now we've got thousands online at any given time and it's just been overwhelming," he says. "We've had to review a lot of what I did because I didn't take that into consideration when I built it. I didn't think, 'I need a system that's going to handle thousands of users,' so it's been a lot of rebuilding. It's been hard to catch up."

The game is growing at such a rapid pace the team had to temporarily shut down new player registrations. It's making money too, thanks to its cosmetic (and optional) microtransactions. Although he's reluctant to talk about the game's revenues, Hill says the game hasn't made him rich, but it has given him a little more financial freedom.

"I will say it's doing well enough to pay for all the server fees and enable us to focus our time on it," he says. "It has made it worth it to focus our time on it, instead of having to work too much elsewhere."

Thanks to the game's success, Hill no longer has to work extra shifts. It's also allowed him to save a little money toward a down payment on a home, which is something he felt he couldn't do before with just a deputy's salary.

"I would have never been able to afford the down payment on a house. That was a challenge. But Flight Rising has [made it possible] for me to actually put some money toward my savings," he says.

Flight_rising_art_3

But with success comes some pitfalls as well. A recent hacking scare shut Flight Rising down for about a week after several players' accounts were compromised. At the time, the Flight Rising team said in a forum post there was no solid evidence of a data breach, that the problems were likely caused by attacks made against the game in its first month, before additional security measures were installed. A global password reset was issued as a precaution.

Just recently, Flight Rising was targeted by even more malicious activity. The team said the website was receiving heavy amounts of traffic from individuals likely exploiting the game through bots, which was causing item loss and load-time issues for other players. They responded by implementing backend restarts on an hourly basis.

Although Hill says security is no longer a big concern, incidents like this have kept the team from working on new content.

"There's a lot of features that we've had planned for quite a while, but we've been distracted from [them] due to stability issues, due to hacking incidents. Every time I take a step forward on one of these features, somebody does something and it sets us back. Either somebody finds an exploit and attacks it, does something malicious, or somebody tries to obtain our users' data," he says.

The road to recovery

Many of the features Hill was working on are now on hold due to the car crash on New Year's Day. Before his injury, he'd planned to tackle general site improvements based on player feedback.

Quality is important to Hill. When something in Flight Rising is broken, he takes it apart. He can't move forward on any other project until he figures out how to fix it. And that single-minded determination may help get him through the months ahead.

Deputy_hill_1

His right arm has a hairline fracture right below the elbow, and both of his legs are broken. The tibia and fibula in his right leg were shattered. It took doctors six hours and 52 staples to repair the damage. The tibia and fibula in his left leg suffered hairline fractures and his left femur is broken. He now has a titanium rod in his leg.

"Other than that, just some cuts and scrapes," Hill says. "No head injury. I've got a cut on my head, but no brain injury, no spine injury. So, I'm really fortunate."

Hill has received an outpouring of support from the Tampa Bay community. Hundreds of comments were left on the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Facebook page, many expressing outrage and shock over the accident and praying for the deputy's speedy recovery.

Some of his co-workers have nicknamed him "RoboCop."

The Flight Rising community has shown its support as well. One of his fellow Stormlight Workshop developers, illustrator Dana Pull, flew across the country to visit Hill in the hospital days after the accident. A forum post about the hit-and-run on the Flight Rising website is filled with sympathy and condolences for "Akiri," Hill's online persona.

"They posted a news post ... after the crash saying I had been in a crash and I wouldn't be on for a little while," he says, "and there was a lot of well wishes from the Flight Rising community. There was about 82 pages on our forum in that thread of just people saying, 'Get better,' 'Get well soon,' 'Hope you feel better,' just stuff like that. It was amazing."

News of the accident also inspired people to share their own experiences with hit-and-runs. Forum poster "Relansa" talked about an uncle killed by a drunk driver who was later caught in Poland. "Dragoness" mentioned a friend who lost her boyfriend and four dogs to a drunk driver with a suspended license. For "VaraAnn," however, the crash hit particularly close to home.

"I know exactly how it is to be in a hit-and-run car accident," she wrote. "Though my sister and I walked away with hematomas to our legs and had whiplash, the aftermath and what it did to our lives was unforeseen. I pray, hope, and wish for the best, and that everything afterward is positive and in your favor!"

Others took the time to create hand-drawn, dragon-themed get-well cards for their beloved codesmith, and all of their thoughts and prayers have not gone unnoticed.

"The players are amazing," Hill says. "They never cease to amaze me with their generosity with each other. It's been impressive."

Hill left Tampa General Hospital on Jan. 22. Since then, he's spent every day just trying to stand up, working to regain muscle strength in his legs. He expects it'll be at least four months before he can use his right leg again, because the bone in the lower part of that leg "was completely turned to powder."

When he's not doing physical therapy, he spends his time playing video games. "[I] went straight home and played on my PlayStation 4 with my brothers," he says. "We played some Assassin's Creed: Black Flag and then we played some Call of Duty: Ghosts."

Hill has also spent a lot of time with Final Fantasy XIV and Diablo III, and said he loves open-world games. "Those are my favorite kind. Give me a huge open world and I get sucked in for days," he says with a laugh. "I think that's one of the things that drew me to law enforcement as well, you know. Just one of those open-world things where you go from mission to mission."

"Once I'm cleared for duty, I'm getting back out there."

Once he's cleared for light duty, Hill will put his computer programming skills to work in the Economic Crimes Unit, an investigative branch of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office that handles identity theft, credit card and check fraud, forgery, exploitation of the elderly, computer-related crimes, internet-based crimes and schemes to defraud.

He also plans to create another game. Although it's too soon to share details, he says he'd like to make an Android app.

"Just because there's so many mobile platforms these days," he says. "It's a huge part of gaming right now. There are tons of mobile games out there, and I know I'll just be another one of them, but I'd like to have one out there."

Whether he ever creates another game or not, one thing is certain: Darren Hill didn't have to be in a patrol car on New Year's Day. He could've settled for a higher-paying job in a California office or a career in independent game design. But he chose to serve instead, and said he'll likely wind up back out on the roads.

"Once I'm cleared for duty, I'm getting back out there." Babykayak

Image credits: Pasco Co. Sheriff's Office, Stormlight Workshop
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