Rusel DeMaria — Prolific Video Game Author

April 10, 2007 — Leave a comment

You know all those strategy guides you read for games? You know just how much detail they get into? Who writes this stuff? Who takes the time to dig that deep?
Rusel DeMaria does (disclaimer: he now works for me!) I just did an Amazon.com search for him and found 90 books. That can’t be them all, but it gives you an idea of his knowledge.
I hired him initially to help on my free Wiki book to help game designers, but soon got him involved in my other projects. He’s now the Assistant Director on all my games.
We were chatting today and I realized I’d never asked him for an interview, so here it is.

What did your mother want you to do as a career? Surely, it couldn’t have been to make professional video games!?

My mother was a professional flamenco dancer. I think she wanted me to do something other than be an artist. She told me that being a musician (which I once was) was a dead end. But she died before I began working in games, so I’ll never know if she would have approved. I think she probably would have been pleased, though.

What would you say to my mother, to get her off my back and let me make professional video games as a career?

I’d tell her to read my book, “Reset: Changing the Way We Look at Video Games.” Seriously. This isn’t shameless self-promotion. The book was written for non-gamers to help them understand the great potential of video games, not only for entertainment, but for learning and for personal growth.

How did you get started in the game industry?

I got started early. There were very few barriers to entry – in fact almost none back then. I played games whenever I could get my hands on them all through the 1970s, after having seen Space War in the late 1960s. I was hooked. Ironically, I grew up in the Palo Alto area and could easily have ended up working at Atari if I hadn’t been focused on being a musician in those days. So it goes. I missed my chance to be one of Nolan’s millionaires, but I did play a lot of games. Then, in about 1981, I began writing reviews of products – games and other products. My first published review was for a funeral director’s package written in dBase. It was all uphill from there.

I made my living for years mostly from productivity reviews, doing game reviews whenever I could. It wasn’t until about 1989 that I switched to writing about games exclusively, first as the editor of a small magazine that failed – Computer Play – and then as an editor for PC Games and GamePro in 1990. It was at that time that I also joined Ben Dominitz to form Prima Publishing’s strategy guide division. I ran the strategy guides as Creative Director for six years and managed, with a dedicated crew, to pump out dozens of strat guides of all kinds. (It was during that time that I first met David Perry, while working on the first of two Earthworm Jim guides.)

I would say that being an editor of a national magazine rocks! It’s all about information, baby, and boy do you get amazing access to information when you’re a senior editor! Doing the strategy guides was possibly even greater experience, however, because it made me analyze games very deeply, and learn how to articulate how they worked in various creative ways. It also put me in contact with some amazing people, like Ocean Quigley, who was my personal artist for years during the Prima days and is now the Art Director for Maxis (including Spore).

So, you might say it took ten years or so to really get my start, even though I was involved far earlier.

What skills did you have that made this sort of work possible for you?

The single most useful skill I’ve used is the ability to write with reasonable clarity and with exceptional speed. Being a freelance writer just about requires that you can write off the top of your head and have it be, if not publishable as is, damned close to that.

What skills do you wish you had, but never really learned?

I wish I had learned more math and programming. Back in the days when I was first writing, I tried to learn assembly and machine language, and they stumped me bad. I’ve spoken with other pioneers about those days – and expressed my admiration for their ability to get past those early programming barriers. I suppose that’s still a regret I have – that I didn’t penetrate the mysteries of coding.

Tell us about your start in the industry. What was your life like when you were younger and hungrier?

This is a funny question… because I’m just as hungry today as I was when I first played Space War back nearly 40 years ago. More than anything, I want to design the games I can imagine. And if I can’t do that, I want to keep writing and being involved.

People who never went to college in the video games business swear blind that colleges aren’t needed to get a job. Are they for real? Should I burn my books now?

My personal belief is that college is great for some people, but it’s not the only way to learn. For self-starters, the possibilities are endless. It just takes hard work, persistence, luck and vision. This industry is wide open to people with a variety of skills. Whether you go to college or you just jump into the industry as an intern, it depends on you. I dropped out of college after taking a variety of nearly useless courses like French, Hindi Urdu, astronomy, nutrition and some forgettable electives. I became a musician for many years, but kept playing games and writing.

Would you recommend that people follow your path?

Actually, my path has been hard and often disappointing. I can always write about the game industry, but if you want to do more than that, I don’t necessarily recommend starting as a writer. If I had it all to do over again I’d have joined Atari in my 20s. But seriously… I would gather a team of compatible, creative and brilliant friends and make the game I dream of. I once pitched some great game concepts to a lot of really successful video game professionals. They were all friends from my years in the industry. The most concise and telling advice came from Will Wright, who told me that no matter how good the concept was, “Ideas are nothing.” Without a team… without technology, ideas don’t sell. Once, long ago, they might have sold, but not now. So… no I wouldn’t recommend my path.

Talk about the less-glamorous work you did before jumping into games. Did any of that experience help you at all?

Well, I wouldn’t say that being a musician was less glamorous than the video game industry, but in truth I did learn a lot. I became friends with some world class musicians, like Paco de Lucia, Al Dimeola and Zakir Hussein. From them, and from my writing mentor Theodore Sturgeon, I learned about excellence, genius, fame and some other intangibles. Just hanging out with people like them is stimulating, inspiring, frightening and educational. But if anything, it did inspire in me a commitment to excellence.

Tell us about the first time you felt star-struck when meeting a leading game developer.

Interesting question. Given my background, I became used to famous people early in my life. My mother grew up in Hollywood and knew many movie people, so when I was a litte kid and asked to meet Shirley Temple, my mother just invited her over to our house to meet me. Of course, she wasn’t the cute little moppet from the movies. She was, like, a middle-aged woman, and a US Ambassador at the time. Oh well… Later, when I was 10, my mother introduced me to Walt Disney at Disneyland. Uncle Walt was another family friend. I DID have butterflies for that meeting. By the time I met people like Richard Garriott, Will Wright, Miyamoto, David Perry… I was pretty unflustered.

How did you become David Perry’s Assistant Director on his current projects?

About three years ago, David approached me to help him with a big project he had wanted to do for years, but just couldn’t find the time to complete. It was a Game Designer’s Reference book. He had seen my book, “High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games,” and figured I could probably handle a big project. Of course I said yes to it and worked with him on it for about two-and-a-half years. It got bigger as we went, and I still have stacks of books I used for reference. Ultimately, he had me put it in a wiki format and it’s currently on dperry.com.

Along the way, David would ask me to do other tasks, such as to develop the high concept for a game project he was pitching or write a piece for him, edit his writing, etc. It was, and is, a great association.

So, when David quit Shiny, he asked me to start testing 2Moons. Then, one thing led to another and I was working on all his game-related projects. I work hard for him… long and unpredictable hours. But I also have the freedom to do other projects if I choose, such as the Reset book I mentioned previously.

Why did DP pick you for this job?

Of course I can’t read his mind, but I think because I am willing to do any project… anything at all. I can write, design, test, moderate forums, even do a speaking engagement if he asks me to. I’ve even done voice-over work as an actor when called upon. He can spring things on me at the last minute and I’ll jump to it! Also, I am experienced and understand the games industry. And I always tell him the truth.

He once told me that the way to assess your job security is ask yourself if someone would be a fool to let you go. I have to believe that he would lose a lot if he didn’t have me. Right David?


Well Rusel, erm, I’ve been meaning to tell you something… Gulp!
Just kidding… Dude thanks for all your help! Just teach me how to play guitar PLEASE, as I suck.

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