Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Giants of Surfing... and Game Development?

One of my all-time fave documentaries is Riding Giants, a documentary about three of the pioneers of big wave surfing. It focuses on three different 'eras' of surfing, telling the story of an innovator from each. I often recommend it to friends, and sometimes have commented that it makes a good parallel to innovation in the games industry. I'd never written up why I feel this is the case.

Recently, I recommended it to a friend, Mare Sheppard, who asked "Who is gaming's Laird Hamilton?". I figured I'd write up some thoughts as a response.

I love the documentary for many reasons. great footage and soundtrack, superb editing and pacing, etc. However, the thing I like most is that of the three innovators at the heart of the movie, each innovates in a very different way.

The film starts with coverage of Hawaii's north shore in the early 60's and Greg Noll. Noll is a big, brash tough guy with brass balls, who basically muscles his way onto waves no one else will tackle. He innovates with brute strength. In gaming, Noll's equivalent is maybe Rockstar, or Wargaming, or EA. Pick a goal, throw a pile of money and bodies at it. Take that hill.

The latter part of the movie covers Laird Hamilton. He (and to be fair, some others), invented "tow-in surfing", using zodiacs and jetskis to pull them into giant open-ocean waves at high speed - waves too big to paddle into. They innovated through the use of technology. In gaming, Hamilton's equivalent is Valve, or Epic, or Crytek.

The best part of the movie though, is the middle section, which focuses on Jeff Clark, the first person to surf Mavericks in Half-moon Bay, California. After a couple years of looking at a giant wave breaking off the coast into a death-trap of stones, Clark just decides to do it - because in his heart he knows he must. And then, after no one believes he did it, HE SURFS IT ALONE, WITH NO ONE WATCHING, FOR FIFTEEN YEARS! Clark's innovation is driven by passion. By love of the act itself.

Who is gaming's Jeff Clark? All those indies working on those perfect gems of games that have to be done the best possible way. Jon Blow, Chris Hecker, Robin Hunicke, Dan Cook, and so many others I have the privilege of knowing... including Mare Sheppard, which is why I recommended the film to her to begin with! :-)

[btw, while I recommend the film, if you haven't seen it, at least watch this clip on the Jeff Clark piece]