If Diddy and "Sims" creator Will Wright were somehow combined, the result would be Eskil Steenberg.
Diddy is legendary for working hard, promoting his labors and making connections. He's the best. Wright talks about technology with a command and foresight that suggest he's already seen the future and is just biding his time in our humble era.
Steenberg, a programmer from Sweden who is making a computer game called "Love," combines all of those traits. He's 31, so maybe he's old to some people, but the sense one gets talking to Steenberg is that his future is still open and that this guy is going to be huge.
He tracked me down in San Francisco earlier this year, after I gave a talk about the need for independent game-makers to self-promote. I was impressed that he got to me, first by e-mail and then in person. I was more impressed when he wrapped up our conversation, told me he had a meeting, and walked over to another gaming journalist to offer his spiel. The next day, he was holding court with a roundtable of bloggers. He had orchestrated all of it, all by himself, just as he has made "Love," a potentially massive multiplayer game, as well as the tools he used to construct it, all by himself.
"What I want is to be able to say no if somebody starts screwing with my ideas," the programmer/artist/designer/self-promoter explained of his desire to make and release "Love" on his own. "This way, nothing can go wrong that isn't my fault. If this never happens, I can at least say it was my fault."
He apologized that the laptop he was using to demonstrate "Love" might crash. It heats up a lot. And when it did crash, he soldiered on.
Steenberg wanted to be a game designer, but in Sweden, prospective employers were always so impressed with his programming skills that he would up with programming jobs. For a year, however, he's been on his own, trying to make "Love" a reality.
"I'm not that into the industry," he said. "But damn, I love making games. That's where the title came from."
"Love" looks like a post-impressionist painting, an abstract 3-D landscape of blotchy colors marking grass, caves, trees and characters. The entire landscape is malleable. Players can raise and lower terrain and create trees or other objects, all in real-time for other people in the game's world to see. It's a bit more of a virtual territory in need of a game than a game itself, but it's fertile with possibility.
"I'm trying to figure out how to make stories that aren't prewritten," he said. He wants his game to have a story, not one made by him but by players. But that alone would be kind of easy. That's not unlike what happens in "Counter-Strike" or "Halo" multiplayer or any other story-free game in which wild things can happen during any sitting, and players can recount the events of who beat whom with how many seconds before the timer ran out.
What Steenberg envisions — and, of course, is making — is a game that is smart enough to react to anything a player does.
"Everyone gets that if you sleep with your best friend's girlfriend, everybody knows what's going to happen," he said. "How do you express these kinds of stories in a game? You could program a flow chart. You store a value per person about how much they like each other. But how do you express it?"
In other words, how could the game identify some unplanned thing that the players are doing and make something interesting happen as a result? Steenberg's solution: He wants to make a digital director. He wants an invisible, computer-generated Steven Spielberg crafting consequence in his game, nudging the way things unfold and making things constantly exciting.
"I believe that games need directors," he said, "digital directors that can figure out in real-time what's going on in the game, analyze what the players are feeling and doing and adjust to that and make the game do what it should do ... to make a dramatic balance."
How about a "Star Wars" reference to explain? "A digital director could do very small things. Like, it could say, 'Well, at this point [the player is] 2 feet away from destroying the Death Star. Maybe we should not fire the big gun at him right now. Just keep up with the player. Let him do that, because he's got a tiny bit of health. Let him be the hero."
Steenberg gets the irony that he wanted to be a designer, got hired to be a programmer, and is now figuring out how to program a designer into virtual existence. His digital director could be responsible for, in his words, "the most awesome game ever." The Death Star example is really just a small thing. A game like "Love" powered by a digital director "has to be able to generate stuff and add stuff and remove stuff and shift not just on the small level — the health and things like that, which is kind of easy — but you want that engine to be able to say: 'We need a powerful nemesis right now. That's a missing character. We need to generate that character. Give him a castle. Give him weapons.'"
Essentially, Steenberg wants to create a game that thinks for itself. And he's trying to build it. And no, he's not seeking backing. No, he's not selling his programming tools (he gives them away for free). He wants to begin by launching "Love" for 300 players on a server he has free access to. And if they pay the $10 or so a month he would charge, and do it for long enough, he would open another server and keep expanding, letting the digital directors create the grand experience and leaving out the rest of the gaming industry.
He's a solo entrepreneur, a tinkerer, a man working the room. "If I had 100 guys, I would say, 'Go do something else,' " he told GameFile. " 'I really don't need you guys.' "
To follow Steenberg's attempts to make "Love" come to life, check out his Web site, Quelsolaar.com.
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