James Portnow Portrait

James Portnow 1: Videogame Designer

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I met James Portnow, Games Designer, CEO of Rainmaker Games, Writer of Extra Credits,  Lecturer at Digipen and Games Industry Advocate  extraordinaire at MAGFest two months ago.

An erudite and inspiring speaker, he and his Extra Credits partner, Daniel Floyd, held us in thrall for FOUR straight hours, fielding questions on nearly every subject known to humanity. It was an exhilarating Roman Forum, with the audience filibustering the duo well past nightfall. Portnow and Floyd gave good debate and held their own, winning on a technicality: they exhausted their interrogators. All were satisfied, applause and general hilarity ensued, and then a huge line snaked up to the podium with yet more questions. Yodas of the Games World. Very cool.

Amazingly, he managed to be on another panel and to answer my own barrage the next day. Easy to see how he earned the creation of this meme. Portnow’s insights are as fascinating in person as on stage, and as detailed, so I’ve divided this interview into three parts. First we have his earliest memory of encountering the world of video games as a child.

Whatever your art-form of choice or interest, he speaks to the best creative self in all of us, so put down your pen/stylus/paintbrush/mouse, grab a cup of Lapsang Souchong and enjoy.

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DV: You’re pretty much an intellectual, how did you get into games?

JP: (laughs) I don’t know if I’d call myself an intellectual, but how did I get into games? OK, this is a long story.. Do you want how did I get into the games or how did I get into the games industry? How did I get into making games?

DV: How you got into them… Or both.

JP: I actually remember the very moment, it was one of my earliest vivid memories.

I was five and I remember driving with my mom, in Seattle, down to the Kingdome, which is our old stadium. We walked into this big boxy looking building which is an exhibition center next to our sports stadium, and everything’s lights because it’s the Nintendo of America World’s fair.

The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) is only a year old in the US and I’m six, five or six, and I’m SUPER excited, racing round the place looking at everything.

They had a blue banner with a city inside a crystal ball and a sword and axe behind it… You probably know what game this is… Just keep in mind, we were terrible at conventions at this point as an industry. I laugh thinking back because they didn’t limit how long  you could play. They didn’t actually have a demo there, they just had as much of the game as they’d built.

We’re waiting in line, and I’m the ONLY six year old in this line. I thought everyone was adult: they were probably thirteen or fourteen. We finally get up to the front, and its Final Fantasy, the first Final Fantasy, and in the beginning you’re sent off and you’ve got this villain to fight, he’s captured the princess and you’ve got to go rescue her. It’s the first RPG really that I ever played.

So I go do this. I rush up to them and go, “I’M FIVE!” I think the game is over. Rescuing princesses is what you do. It took me forty-five minutes to beat Garland, the first boss, and now it probably takes me ten.

I come back, I’ve rescued the princess and this game is over. I really liked it. This world is cool. Then they say, “Oh, thank you. Now we’ll fix this bridge.” When you step onto the bridge the music swells and there’s this gorgeous piece of 2d pixel art (gorgeous for then anyway) looking out over the castle, over the slaughter. You get your Star Wars style text scrolls up telling you about this adventure and a world opens up in front of you, an entire world for you to explore.

For my small situation, that’s something I can’t do in real life. The world to me was very small and constrained and here was a place I could live whole other lives and explore a whole other world. Exploration’s always been very important to me.

James Portnow

That moment I realized this was my world, a whole world just for me. That was the moment that probably led directly to me sitting here right now. And that’s how I got into games.

In terms of industry there’s a somewhat more amusing story. I was kicking round Seattle in a band, and my band-mates ended up doing the Leno/Letterman world tour thing and I did not. So I thought, “I’ll just have to find something else to do”.

I kinda thought about it, and I was actually on my way to become a lawyer, but I ended up getting my Master’s at Carnegie Mellon, the Innovative Technology program. A guy who I had known since kindergarten told me there was a school where you could go and study games, but I didn’t have enough time to take the proper test.. SATs, or MCATs.. one of those.

I’d only taken the LSATs, the law exams, so I sent them everything: a cd, my writing, a manual to a game I ‘d made and my last scores, and I said, ‘If they understand what all these things have to do with games, then this is the place for me,” and they did. They let me in.

I went because I wondered, other than music, what had I spent my entire life, most of my life dedicated to and I realized it was games.  I realized how much I wanted to DO with this medium.

A large part of the reason I was going into law was that I was looking to act constitutionally. I believe there is a greater good to be served. I realized how much opportunity there was.

I got through high school because of music. I was one of the kids who had my headphones on the entire time and I remember that the first time one of my friends gave me a mix-tape it had a bunch of Soundgarden on it. I had this moment when I was sitting in my car in Seattle and I just sat there: I had got where I was going and I didn’t get out.

I thought, “Yeah, this is real, this is it, this is what I’ve been looking for”. The music let me know there were other people who felt the same things, and I had felt so utterly alone before that. I realized games had an opportunity to provide to people what music did for me.

And that was it.

That was the big decision and the rest of the story is just getting higher prices, working on projects… But that part’s less important. That’s how I ended up getting into the corporate setting.

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James Portnow writes for Extra Credits. Try These Episodes:

http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/show/extra-credits

The podcasts are in cartoon form, brilliantly collaged and illustrated. There are so many cool episodes: SIX seasons of them. Both deeply thoughtful and funny, there’s something in there for everyone, whether gamer/game-designer/writer/other artist or regular human being. Start anywhere, or check out some of these:

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Read James Portnow Interviews:

James Portnow 2: Games vs Art

James Portnow 3: Games And The Greater Good.

Read More: Games

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