Taking on the (Virtual) Real World

Sarah P. Law

The men of Windward Mark Interactive kicking back.

Rare is the industry convention where you stick out wearing a suit, but six senior entrepreneurs are chalking up their success at a May 12 conference in Los Angeles to their sartorial savvy. “A lot of the people who are our age are programmers with blue hair and ripped jeans,” says Asaf A. “Asi” Lang ’03. “I think that our appearance demanded a certain amount of respect.”

The company is called Windward Mark Interactive, and its field is video games. Windward is the brainchild of Lang and his friend Aaron B. Siegel ’03. After forming a core group of collaborators, which includes J. Palmer Truelson ’03, Eric M. Tulla ’03, Bradley G. Kittenbrink ’03 and Christopher M. Colosi ’03, the team spent last summer hiding away in a DeWolfe apartment, laying the groundwork for their new company, and working all hours of the day—although “working” typically involved playing video games purchased as business expenses. The short-term goal of the project was to make a respectable showing at the E3 convention in Los Angeles last month. After doing work on graphics with Associate Professor of Computer Science Steven J. Gortler and completing an independent study on the business of video games with former Harvard Business School fellow William J. Coughlin, the team was ready to take their dream and see it through.

Some unexpected luck came their way when representatives from N Vidia, an industry giant, spoke at Harvard earlier this year. The team had studied and worked intensively with materials produced by N Vidia, and so when the question/answer section rolled around, they dominated the room. They were able to speak with the representatives after the talk, and tell them about the ideas that they had for the future of video games. N Vidia liked what they heard, and began sending the team experimental software that was not publicly available, hoping to see what they could do with it.

The members of Windward Mark hope to revolutionize the structure and rendering of video games. Computer game graphics are generally unrealistic—no one looks at Madden Football, for example, and confuses the computer players for real players. Windward is attempting to close the gap between the less realistic images in video games and real-life film footage. “It’s not as if the technology isn’t there,” says Lang, who then proceeded to show me two extremely lifelike graphic images that he and his co-workers had created. “It simply isn’t a priority for the industry right now.”

Another area they are seeking to develop is the psychology of video games. “When you read a book or watch a movie,” says Truelson, “you form connections with certain characters, and get emotionally involved in what happens to them. I asked myself: why don’t those same connections form with characters in video games?” In the same vein, the group is bent on increasing flexibility in video games. Games like the Mario Brothers series, in which the character follows a single linear path, give the player few options. The Legend of Zelda, however, allows the player to go wherever he or she wants in the game, and even have adventures that are unrelated to the final goal. These games are much more lifelike, since they allow the player to transpose his or her will directly on the character. Windward Mark’s brain trust believes that a player is much more likely to form a personal connection with a character firmly under his or her control than with a character whose movements are largely dictated by the structure of the game. Armed with these ideas and the skills to make them a reality, Windward was a smash hit at the E3 convention, and its members say it has formed legitimate connections with giants in the industry that will likely become partnerships.

Accustomed to unity in the pursuit of their goals, the members of Windward Mark grow tense when asked who is the best video game player. Most members demur, insisting that it “depends on the game,” and their favorites range from Privateer Wing Commando to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. At gunpoint, however, most admit that Truelson, when motivated, is always capable of being the best at a game. By contrast, they speak loudly and in unison about their least skilled member. “Aaron [Siegel] is the worst,” they say, and he nods his head up and down, accepting his role as the bottom man on the video game-playing totem pole.

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