How one simple game helped a veteran developer re-examine the meaning of success and of failure.
Graeme Devine is hunched over his desk, studying a crumpled old photocopy from an ancient book on card games. He is reading the complicated rules of a version of the game Patience that was popular in England more than 200 years ago, one that has faded, almost entirely, from history.
The game survives in the memory of one of his fans, an elderly woman who has requested that he recreate her childhood pastime in modern, digital form. She wants him to make it part of Full Deck Solitaire, his evolving collection of Mac and iPad card games. For Devine, such tasks are not uncommon. Since he wrote the original suite of 16 games back in 2010, he has added dozens more, often at the request of the most devoted fans among his base of millions of Solitaire players.
Knocking out digital card games is a long way from Devine's career highs, which include co-founding developer Trilobyte and writing The 7th Guest, an era-defining puzzle game that was admired by both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Devine also worked alongside John Carmack on Quake 3, helped redefine real-time strategy design on Halo Wars and had a hand in shaping the mobile gaming revolution at Apple. In short, he's been around.
Devine's desk is cluttered with all manner of game developer detritus like cables, iPads and sci-fi statues. He reaches for a deck of playing cards, considers how he's going to alchemize the arcane rules of the game into less than a hundred lines of code. But his hand stays on an object, an entertainment artifact that's very different from a deck of cards.
It is an Oculus Rift. In the vast spectrum of video games, the shiny new headset-mounted Virtual Reality game system is about as far from card games as it is possible to imagine. The development kit has been in his office for a few days. Devine abandons his task, so that he can once again explore this new device. Its arrival has augured a certainty within him that he's just about had a gutful of solitaire. He is filled with an absolute certainty that his three years of messing around with card games are about to come to an end. He believes that in the Oculus Rift he will find a means of escape, a means of writing a game that's less about whiling away the hours in pleasant diversions, and more about scaring the living hell out of people.
Escaping from solitaire and getting back to creating leading-edge technological breakthroughs is, in a way, a return for Devine, back to a road he's been traveling his whole career.
Devine can place, exactly, the time and place wherein his Full Deck Solitaire deviation began, when he strayed from the path his work had taken him before. It was Christmas 2010. He was at home, relaxing on the sofa, watching TV, minding his own business.
A few weeks previously, he had quit his senior role in Apple's mobile games division, where he'd been in charge of making sure games were as good as they could be on iOS devices. He was looking forward to the New Year, a fresh start when he could indulge long-suppressed desires to work on something original, something that was entirely his.
Looking back now at that idyllic Yuletide scene, he can recall being faintly annoyed with his teenage daughter. He had switched on the TV for the latest episode of Doctor Who, something they enjoyed watching together. Yet here was his daughter Roque ("Rocky"), head down in her new iPad playing some game, ignoring the doctor's intergalactic exploits.
Roque has been playing video games all her life. Devine could see from her body language that she wasn't even enjoying this game all that much. Yet she was still playing. That's when he asked her what she was playing and that's when she replied that it was a solitaire game but it was really badly flawed and hey dad, why don't you, like, write a solitaire game, one that's better than this one?
Ever one for a challenge, and with a little time on his hands, he figured, why the hell not? The whole job would take up maybe three weeks of his life, he thought. He began doing the thing that he has been paid to do since he was a teenager, the thing at which he is undoubtedly very good. He began coding.
In fact it took only a few days to knock out the code and create a game that was, in his and in Roque's view, better than anything else out there. Yet somehow, three years later, he's still working on the same game. It is now his full-time job. It is his boss.
It would not be right to suggest that Devine's capture by Full Deck Solitaire has been without benefits. That Christmas and into the beginning of 2011, he and Roque and his wife Lori, also an iPad solitaire player, worked together on the new game.
"Actually, that was a fabulous time," says Devine. "My daughter would come to me with a build of Full Deck Solitaire, and she'd say, 'Dad, this is good, but I thought of this new feature. I just don't think you can program it. I think it's impossible.'" Devine laughs. "And of course that was all I needed to go back and try to make it better."
Lori and Roque kept making suggestions, about the user interface, about how the cards looked and 'felt' as they slid across the virtual table. And Devine, whose career has been built on solving technical problems, was happy to oblige, to impress them and to push his own skills. He felt he'd spent too long at Apple, managing things rather than making things.
The game that he had been planning to make, the great adventure game that he wanted to secure his reputation as one of the most important game designers in the world, could wait a few weeks. But soon, the ambitious project — a mystery set on a time-traveling train — was fading from his mind, the myriad design documents left undisturbed.
His sister and his mother, back in England, were recruited to beta test Full Deck Solitaire. They enjoyed it, and they had their own suggestions. Devine could see that his game was becoming very good. And it was bringing his family together in a common pursuit. He was having fun.
Full Deck Solitaire was released on iPad, where solitaire games are a dime a dozen, and in the brand-new Mac App Store where, happily, the competition was much less severe. On both platforms, it was immediately popular. Like most games of its kind, it was released for free.
Graeme Devine and his daughter Roque
"When we crossed the 100,000 download line, we thought that was huge," he says. "And then, in one-tenth of that time, we crossed a million downloads. We started to realize, hey, this thing is being played by an awful lot of people." And that was nice, but not much use. He had never given any thought to monetizing the game. Making the game had been a problem he had solved. Now he set about the issue of profiting from its popularity.
"We couldn't work out how to make any money from it. In fact, it was costing us," he says. "People who play solitaire are not core gamers. They're not even typical computer users. Support emails have to be made for old people who might have no experience with games. It's not easy."
Helping such users became Lori's full-time job. Many of the help requests asked for new varieties of solitaire to be added to the game. "That's how we worked out how to make money from the game," he says. "We made these game packs that add a whole bunch more games for money. People bought them. Lots of them."
There was one drawback to this happy little success story: "It was taking up all my time," Devine says.
Devine's plans to spend 2011 working on his big time-traveling train adventure game would have to wait. In very simple terms, Full Deck Solitaire was making too much money. It was making enough for Devine to live comfortably, to hire Lori and his sister full-time, to stash some money away for Roque's college fund. It would be downright irresponsible to turn away from something that was a bona fide success.
Of course, Devine knew about success because he had experienced it before. He understood that it comes with a price.
"We started to realize, hey, this thing is being played by an awful lot of people."
Success and failure
The 7th Guest
Oculus Rift's Tuscany demo, which inspired Devine
Full Deck Solitaire
Devine's career began in England, back in the 1980s, knocking out games for Commodore 64 and other 8-bit platforms, one every six weeks. He worked for a raucous outfit called Mastertronic that paid a few hundred bucks for the rights to games completed by talented teenagers and then sold them, by the thousands, for a couple of bucks each, in gas stations and newsstands.
"I wrote so many frickin' games for Mastertronic," recalls Devine. He wrote Turbo Champions, an Outrun-style game that sold very well. He was one of many lads making a decent living writing basic games, but there was one thing that made him valuable to Mastertronic's parsimonious bosses. "I was paid a bonus if I cut my games down from two discs to one disc," he says. "I wrote all this compression and loading code. I would take other people's games and compress them from two floppy discs down to one floppy disc so that I could get the $1,000 bonus for their games."
Flush with cash, Mastertronic decided to set up a U.S. subsidiary in Costa Mesa, Calif. Devine was sent West to America for a six-week trip to help set up the new operation. He's been in the U.S. ever since. At Mastertronic USA, he met with game designer Rob Landeros and they became friends. In 1990, they set up their own company, Trilobyte.
The new company's breakout game was a haunted house Full Motion Video adventure called The 7th Guest. "CD-ROM was just taking off then," says Devine. "7th Guest was an adventure game that people could enjoy, and that showed what the technology could do."
For gamers in the early 1990s, FMV was a revelation. Technology had fed the notion that games could feature movie-style visuals, and Devine was good at technology. His compression skills and the lessons he had learned working on dozens of games put Trilobyte at the edge of a new era in game design.
Published by Virgin, The 7th Guest was a smash success, selling more than three million copies, a vast number for a PC game at the time. Bill Gates described the game as "the new standard in interactive entertainment." Steve Jobs emailed Devine demanding to know when the game would be released for his Next computer and, according to Devine, became quite sulky when told such a thing was not practicable.
Trilobyte's cut of the first game's success had been small, about 30 cents per copy. But still, it had a million dollars in the bank and investors keen to back its next venture. A more lucrative contract was drawn up to release a sequel, The 11th Hour.
Seduced by success in this new adult, storytelling medium, Landeros pushed to expand into making choose-your-own-adventure adult movies for the incoming DVD format. Trilobyte went on a hiring spree.
When The 11th Hour managed to sell only half as many copies as its predecessor, when it began to emerge that FMV might not, in fact, be the future, things began to unwind in colorful 1990s-tech-success style.
"Success, in some cases, is awesome," says Devine. "But in the end it turned out to be absolute misery." Landeros left the company to begin focusing on an adult interactive adventure called Tender Loving Care. Devine, despite feeling a strong desire to move on, opted to stay on and try to save the spiraling outfit.
"It was such an albatross around my neck. It weighed me down," says Devine. He was no longer programming; he was helping anxious staff members, pushing away creditors, dealing with the banks.
"I was just so stressed out, so awful. The phone was constantly ringing from people wanting money and people wanting to get paid. I was unhappy."
"I was just so stressed out, so awful. The phone was constantly ringing from people wanting money and people wanting to get paid. I was unhappy." In the end, he closed the company, and sold all its IP "for a dollar."
The 7th Guest is now owned by Landeros, who recently released a port of the game for iOS and Steam and has launched a Kickstarter for a new game in the series. "The best thing I ever did was to get rid of it," says Devine. "I'm really good at making games. I really suck at running big companies." His time as a powerful gaming exec, as a boss, was over. "I just ran away," he says. "Who wants to run a company? I just want to make games."
Devine's career entered a sunnier phase. An old pal, John Carmack at id Software in Texas, needed some help redefining multiplayer first-person shooters. Devine signed on as an employee.
He sunk himself into the challenge of making Quake 3, losing himself in the minutiae of game design, a long way away from the pressures of running a company. "Some of the arguments we had internally about the spread of the shotgun and the number of pellets coming out — yelling arguments about how much damage it should do per pellet and stuff — they were the best game design arguments we ever had," Devine says. "We were arguing 12 degrees or 12.5 degrees spread."
Warming to Texas, Devine moved on to his next challenge. He signed on at Ensemble, famed for its Age of Empires series and also based in Texas, to help the company bring real-time strategy to consoles with Halo Wars. After that, he moved to California, to work with Apple in the company's faltering, tentative efforts to turn its new iOS gadgets into serious game machines.
"They had never thought that games were going to be huge on mobile," he says. "Each of them was a genius there. But they could not phrase questions that game people would understand. Game people would ask them questions and they'd sit there with blank faces."
Devine brought game designers in to work with the Apple engineers, to try to get both sides to understand each other. Early on in his time at Apple he was asked to look at a prototype of a new device. It was the iPad. "I saw straight away that it was so much more than just a bigger iPhone," he says. "I saw that it was an essential games machine."
Eventually, he grew tired of the corporate life at Apple. He longed to work on his own projects; he started to think about his time-traveling train. So he quit to go it alone, to rent a little office in Santa Cruz and make that great adventure he'd been dreaming about. But then Full Deck Solitaire came along. And just when he started to think that maybe the moment had passed to make his adventure, he saw the Oculus Rift, and it made him feel the same way as when he'd first come across CD-ROM back in the '90s and the iPad back in the '00s.
Back in a haunted house
"As soon as I saw it, I forgot about all my other game ideas," he says. "The train game was on a shelf. I just wanted to go make a haunted house game for the Oculus Rift that scares the heck out of people. After all, I have got a little bit of history making haunted house games."
There are plenty of people from the 1990s offering up refreshed versions of the work that made them famous. But Devine doesn't want to remake The 7th Guest. He wants to use Oculus Rift's power to envelope the player, to tell new kinds of stories, just as the memory capacity of CD-ROMs allowed him to spook people with The 7th Guest.
"Back in the '90s, people played that game close to their screens, in the dark," he says. "When you clicked on a picture, it put its hands out. There was no purpose in the game for that, but it frightened people. It was just all adding to the sense that this was a real haunted house. I think people got really immersed in that and being frightened. That was just awesome. But with Oculus Rift, the potential to create emotions is so much greater. Touching and playing with Oculus Rift, you realize it's a moment where things are changing, when you see that entertainment is moving to somewhere new."
In The 7th Guest and hits of that era, like Myst, players solve logic puzzles to progress from one place to another. "It's a popular type of puzzle, to be locked in a room and have to find a way out," he says. "Oculus Rift allows you to feel that you are part of the puzzle. It's more intense if there is something else in the room, or if there's maybe a monster on the other side of one of the doors."
Just as CD-ROMs opened up new possibilities in gaming, the technology and design mores of the day also had their limitations. "If you go back and play The 7th Guest, it is excruciatingly slow," says Devine. "You can't have puzzles like that anymore. You can't say, 'oh, here's a chessboard. Solve the puzzle on the chessboard.' It's so obviously a puzzle. You want the puzzle to be part of the environment, part of the adventure and the threat."
In Devine's haunted house game, he wants people to not want to solve the puzzle, explaining, "I want people to approach the doors and go, 'Oh, shit, I really don't want to open that. But I have to. I have to open the door and see what's behind it.'"
The arrival of CD-ROM technology 20 years ago inspired Devine to make a successful game, but FMV adventures were ultimately a dead end. No doubt, many of the new ideas and games that are bound to accompany VR hardware will also lead nowhere in the long-term, but for Devine, that is all part of the challenge.
Devine has been opening doors all his career, moving from one challenge to the next. In a way, Full Deck Solitaire has been a waiting room; a comfortable one, but not a place to stay too long.
He says, "At some point you have to say, 'Look, I'm not moving forward here. I just have to make the decision that there's going to be no more new solitaire games. I'm going to do this other thing.'"
Despite his achievements with The 7th Guest, Quake 3, Halo Wars and at Apple, Devine sees his career as a series of failures. "I've failed so many times," he says. "Trilobyte failed, in the end. I failed at being a good employee at Apple. I feel like I have just bounced around between failures."
And yet, now that he has a hit game, one that entertains millions and pays his bills, he's itching to move on. "I talk to Lori about it and she's like, 'Well, what's the worst that could happen?' Well, we could go bankrupt," he laughs. "I've learned to love Full Deck Solitaire, but I have to take that leap again. If you're not out in the world challenging it with the opportunity to fail, I don't think you're really out in the world."
Photos: Paul Henri Carvalho
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan, Ally Palanzi