Last month, GamesIndustry.biz reported on Greg Zeschuk getting back into games with the upstart developer Biba. It was news to a number of people, including Zeschuk himself, as he explained to us in a conversation at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month.
"I was like, 'Am I back?' It's back, but in a different way," Zeschuk said. "For me, I'm back doing something in a related field. It is a game, but way off in left field, in a good way. I jokingly say at BioWare, we spent our careers getting people to sit on their butts for hundreds and hundreds of hours. So now this is a way to get kids off their butts and get them outside."
"I jokingly say at BioWare, we spent our careers getting people to sit on their butts for hundreds and hundreds of hours. So now this is a way to get kids off their butts and get them outside."Greg Zeschuk
Zeschuk is now chairman of the board at Vancovuer-based Biba, an outfit spun out of Zeroes2Heroes Media, an incubator for which he also serves as chairman. Biba is making free-to-play apps for mobile devices designed to help make time on the playground a more interactive experience for parents and children. The company has also teamed with equipment manufacturer PlayPower to create playgrounds specifically designed for integration with the app. In one demonstration of the app, the child pretends to be a race car zooming around playground obstacles, with the parent serving as the pit crew, timing their laps and pantomiming repairs to their child using the smartphone's motion-sensing capabilities. It calls to mind the gamification trend, but that's a word Zeschuk didn't wholeheartedly embrace.
"You could make that observation, but we're specifically designing it not to be [gamification]," Zeschuk said. "There are gamification elements to it, but the reality of it is that it's more about creating the magic of play, getting kids out there being kids. It's not focusing on this sort of voyeuristic gameplay thing, but actually getting out to the playground and doing stuff. If you see it in action, it's obviously not that."
The app facilitates interactive play between the child and the parent, Zeschuk explained. It's a scaffolding to help get play started, one that can eventually just be taken away once the child is comfortable doing their own thing on the playground.
"You've got, especially in San Francisco, a real disparity between people that have and people who don't have. And I think this could work for families that don't have a lot of entertainment options, necessarily."Matt Toner
Just as with many other apps, discoverability will be an issue for Biba. However, the discoverability problem could be compounded because people won't know such an app exists to go looking for one in the first place. Biba CEO and Zeroes2Heroes president Matt Toner said that's where the partnership with PlayPower will come in handy. PlayPower has 100,000 playgrounds worldwide--some with Biba signs and download points--and each one provides a social environment conducive to creating awareness of the app and lets people immediately play Biba's games in their proper context.
"I think there's nothing more compelling than seeing kids having fun when your kid's bored, and they can join that play group," Toner said. "Then it's 'Oh, well why don't we get this, too.' So this gives us an edge that maybe a straight-up app company wouldn't have."
Biba has been testing on playgrounds in Vancouver and Charlotte, but Toner said the company is not going to go huge right out of the gate. To start with, they'll target areas dense with PlayPower equipment. California seems a likely candidate.
"It's a good digital lifestyle market, families are sensitized to technology already," Toner said. "You've got, especially in San Francisco, a real disparity between people that have and people who don't have. And I think this could work for families that don't have a lot of entertainment options, necessarily. Playgrounds are playgrounds, kids can go to playgrounds, and if we're all a part of a digital society, this seems to blend the two together."
For Zeschuk, Biba marks another interesting turn in a career that has seen him work in medical software, video games, craft beer, and now playground equipment.
"I like doing radically different things at random times," Zeschuk said. "Quite literally. I get very engaged in something I find intellectually interesting or believe it's positive. I like the concept of getting kids out playing. We're creating this generation of digital natives where they're so stuck to screens, and I'd like to help figure out ways to prevent that. That's a general good, in my mind. And that's the kind of stuff I like to get involved with. I'm a very random, but random with purpose, kind of person."
"I was super burned out. It took me a year to come back to humanity, like literally, and I just look back and it's like I'd done what I wanted to do."Greg Zeschuk
When Zeschuk stepped away from games in 2012 in order to pursue his passion for craft beer, it was "random with purpose."
"I can look back a little more clearly now the further time has passed," Zeschuk said of his departure. "I was super burned out. It took me a year to come back to humanity, like literally, and I just look back and it's like I'd done what I wanted to do. I've been talking to some friends here and they're like, 'Oh are you making stuff?' And I'm like, nah, I did that. It may sound really weird but I want to do other stuff. I really like working with people and helping to create businesses. I still like products, too; I just don't have this need to make them. I have a strange need to want to brew beer. That's what I want to do now."
Zeschuk's sojourn from the industry meant he wasn't around to see much of the hostility related to GamerGate in the past year, but he was aware of it. While he had seen firsthand examples of hostility between developers, players, and the press before--the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy comes to mind--Zeschuk said he hadn't anticipated it would blow up as it did.
"For BioWare, because we'd do semi-controversial things all the time, our battling with the fans started on the Usenet of the '90s, literally," Zeschuk said. "Back in the Baldur's Gate days and Shattered Steel, before there were our own forums. I think it was an environment we were familiar with, but certainly with Mass Effect's ending, it got more aggressive and bigger than we thought. And then all of a sudden, I think it got to the point where it's kind of absurd. Sitting from the outside, I look back and it's just really disappointing. It's bad for the industry as a whole to have this strife. That's why in some ways, I go like, my life is in beer and bikes, so I don't have to worry about that. Now we're doing playground stuff, and I think that's pretty safe too. I'm sort of saddened by it, is the biggest thing I could say. I'm very much a 'I hope everyone gets along' type of person, so I would love to see that happen, but who knows?"