The Super Energy Apocalypse Story

by Lars A. Doucet

Let me tell you the story if I haven't already. It's a story about an amateur game designer realizing his dream, and having a sort of conversion experience of sorts when it comes to environmental policy.

Once upon a time, I was a jobless little flash designer whose biggest desire in the world was to win a Jay is Games Casual Gameplay competition, so I wouldn't have to buy the next version of Flash, which I really couldn't afford.

dr_wurstwagen.jpgSo, on a whim, one of my best friends, Megan Bednarz (known better to you perhaps as Dr. Ananastasia Wurstwagen) sits down with me as we often do, and wants to design a game. She's an interesting character - she's very conservative, as am I (for certain definitions of conservative - she and I both voted for Ron Paul), yet also very environmentally conscious. She's American, but grew up in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and Australia. When they lived in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi is the capital I think), her mother had been a staunch advocate for stronger environmental controls in that oil-rich nation. This was the world Megan grew up in. I grew up in the suburbs of Texas (speaking Norwegian...but that's another story).

So, although we saw eye to eye on a lot of other things, such as religion (we are both Christians who have recently become involved with the Eastern Orthodox Church), and economics (see "Ron Paul"), I was a die-hard stick in the mud who refused to believe in Global Warming. Megan thought this was silly, and insisted that I engage with her on the question and reason it out. Of course, the place we wound up in is in a more nuanced place than the bitter controversy over this issue in public debate might suggest.

I acknowledged that maybe it [Global Warming] could be true, but that there were tons of other environmental problems that were ignored - such as plain ol' ground and air pollution, regardless of whether it was heating up the earth. I thought that I was very smart because I knew how to change the subject :P.

So, Megan took the conversation and turned it towards a language we BOTH spoke - game design.

We designed two game ideas - one, a base-defense real time strategy game about energy use and its consequences, and the other about home energy use and its consequences. We code named them "EnergyCraft" and "Energy Fortress." Energy craft became Super Energy Apocalypse, and Energy Fortress to this day is still sitting in its notebook, waiting to spring to life.

ralphremington.jpgWell, Jayisgames.com announced a contest with the theme, "Upgrade." Finally, I thought. I can DO this. The rest you're quite familiar with. I made a prototype trying to see if balancing energy economy itself was "fun" - found that successful, and put together a rather shoddy piece of slapdash code just in time for the deadline. I enlisted my friend James Cavin (better known to you as "Ralph Remington") to help me with level design and writing (which I have since mangled, I'm sure), and squeezed in right before the contest was over.

The game was buggy as all getout, and the research numbers were essentially made up on the spot. I'd paid my petroleum engineer roommate $50 to scour the Internet for some numbers for me, and although I trust he wasn't biased despite his major, the time I gave him to research (less than a week) simply wasn't enough to get anything like a realistic simulation.

vinod.jpgFast forward. Super Energy Apocalypse (SEA) takes 2nd place and suddenly, not only do I have a copy of Flash CS3, and a nice stack of money, but I have a GAME, a real game, that doesn't totally suck. I show it to my professor at Texas A&M University, Prof. Vinod Srinivasan (he's from India), who is really into "Serious games." He loves it. He's been wanting me to make something like this forever. He says, "Come to a meeting later this week, I have someone who wants to see this."

So on the morning of That Fateful Day, I completely forget about the meeting. Suddenly I remember at the last minute and rush over there, barely remembering to throw the game onto a flash drive on my way out the door. I arrive just in time to give a presentation to a room full of strangers, and when you have Tourette's Syndrome and Cataplexy like I do, that leads to some fun little gyrations and mannerisms as you try and "act natural". Blasting through my presentation in a semi-nervous half-daze, wondering if I'm connecting at all, Vinod (as he insists I call him) thanks me and goes on with the next part of the meeting. I sit there twiddling my thumbs for about 20 minutes looking at all these people and wondering who they are. One of them walks up to me afterwards and says, "My name is Robert Harriss. I'm the CEO of the Houston Advanced Research Center and we want to give you a job."

HARC.jpgSuddenly, I fell into what will probably go down in history as one of the best Flash Game sponsorships EVER. Since that day several months ago, I have been paid $13.00 an hour to develop this thing. For EVERY HOUR of labor put into it, any time, any where. At first I was worried about IP licensing issues, and wanted to get that squared away so I would know what terms HARC was asking for on my game. I figured for this much money, and a steady job, they might even ask for the game outright (heck, some flash portals do that, and for a lot less than I was getting paid!). I grappled with whether I should take the money and sacrifice the IP, and wondered if I was being either greedy on the one hand or stubborn on the other.

rharriss.jpgSo one day the Robert Harriss calls me into his office. He slides me a sheet of paper that basically says, "HARC relinquishes all right and interest to the IP of this game, and our paying you in no way implies any sort of ownership on HARC's part." It's got his signature on it.

I stare at Bob (as he insists I call him), dumbfounded. "Why on Earth would you give up all IP rights to a title you're just giving me free money for?"

"Don't you understand Lars?" says Bob. "We've been trying to do this educational games thing for years. You've hit something we've not been able to do yet. We're a non-profit research institution. We just want this to EXIST. It will motivate you better to work on the project if you own all the IP."

"Really?" I ask.

"Yes! Absolutely!" he says.

"Well, I imagine we'll have to get rid of the part about the zombies if it's going to be an educational game and all..." I mention.

"No! Please don't! The zombies are the best part! That makes kids want to play it!" Here I am talking to the CEO of one of the biggest research labs in Texas telling me to put more zombies in my video game, so that children will learn better. And you know what? He was right.

He also said he had no problems with me monetizing it through MochiAds, Kongregate, and all other sources. Wow, I thought to myself. What on earth have I ever done to deserve this?

So, he shows me to my office, and tells me that when the school semester starts up again in the fall, I can work from home if I have to, and just log my hours in my time sheet, and they'll keep paying me. So far, I am still on HARC's payroll to this day.

I was "at the office" a few days a week over the summer, and the rest of the time I worked from home. Mostly, I spent that summer doing research, research, research. I pored over EPA databases, through Toxic Release Inventory reports, and googled my brains out trying to get a hold of information on power plants, mining operations, everything. I called up trucking companies asking them what the average mileage and curb weight of a municipal garbage truck was. I called up power plants asking what the cost to build their facility was. (Some of them were short with me, especially the coal-fired power pants, suspicious that I was "up to something"). I looked up outputs for experimental thermal-solar plants, and all other sorts of fun information, like the composition of landfills.

I took all this information, and rolled it back into Super Energy Apocalypse. The game's balance radically shifted. Nuclear became a lot more expensive then I'd originally imagined. Farms and mines released more smog than I'd originally guessed. Geothermal started to look really good. "Fossil fuel" plants vanished because in the US almost nobody uses Oil as a power source (we use it mostly just for gasoline), and I replaced it with Coal, which is something like 90% of America's power. I could quote you better statistics, but I don't have my Spreadsheet To End All Spreadsheets on hand right now.

I swore to myself I'd stick to the facts - which was tough, because it means that you can only "balance" things as much as they are in real life. If one power source has no redeeming qualities - well, that's the way it is, so maybe you should write your senator. If a user complains that Nuclear is too expensive or that Solar doesn't work at night, or that Wind fluctuates with the weather, there's nothing I can do about that. Those are the facts.

But the job wasn't done that summer. Now I had to take on the task of fixing the mounds and mounds of bugs that my various bug reporting systems and beta testers had accumulated since initial release. It was heart-wrenching to see "2/5 stars. Would have been 4/5 or 5/5 if not for bugs" on Kongregate. Especially since I released my game the SAME WEEK as their all-time highest reviewed game, "Sonny."

I hacked, and I hacked, and then the semester started and I had barely any time to work on Energy Apocalypse. The project was forgotten temporarily as I focused on school.

Then I got a call from something called Indiecade. A man named Sam Roberts had seen my game, and although it hadn't made it into the main IndieCade showcase, he wanted to show it off at E-for All as one of his personal selections. This was really heart-warming, as I was crestfallen when I entered the game into both Pax 10 and Indiecade earlier that year, and gotten initial rejection letters from both. So, off I went, with a USC student volunteering his couch as my free housing. It was pretty great. The best part was, my new friend from USC, by the name of Joseph Spradley, had started a club about game design and wanted me to come lecture to their first meeting.

This was quite an honor, because my own school club, the Texas Aggie Game Developers, had routinely had our pants kicked in at Student IGF each year by those whippersnapper's from USC, with their "Cloud" and their "fl0w" and their loud rock music... :P

As the semester came to a close, I looked back on all I had learned through this dinky little project that had consumed the better part of my life... I found that, ironically, this die hard semi-conservative (or whatever it is I am) actually believes in Global Warming now. There's the nuanced understanding that are so many environmental issues at stake, that even if Global Warming were to go away we still would be in a heap of trouble. Thinking about it too hard would be enough to drive one mad, so I resolved that my job in life would be to do what little I could in each aspect of my life and leave the rest in the hands of Almighty God.

And, as my research suggests? The number one thing you can do as a person is to turn off the lights when you're not using them, and get rid of your lawn! Lawn trimmings account for most of the organic waste in landfills, which accounts for a significant portion of our emissions. And lets not TALK about the water we waste on them. Almost all the rest of our greenhouse gases come from Power plants, mostly in the form of coal. Vehicles are a tiny fraction. So buying a hybrid won't really fight global warming, but if you want to help the fight with your vehicular choices anyway: consider a USED car. The manufacturing cost of a new car, hybrid, electric, whatever, is way more than you'll really save in emissions on the road. Energy Apocalypse taught me to see all environmental issues as a complete system, not just one part.

Other fun facts:

  1. Plastic bottles and fast food waste take up a completely negligible portion of our landfills. They don't decompose, but they get packed really flat. It's actually OKAY to put this stuff in landfills, the key words being "put in landfills." When this stuff gets out in the environment in the form of litter, it causes all sorts of problems, especially in the ocean. So pick up your trash, and "Don't Mess With Texas!" (Apparently, very few outside our state know that that slogan is actually part of Texas' anti-litter campaign).
  2. The worst part of coal power plants is not the emissions (which are also awful), but the mining. Coal mining is incredibly harmful to the environment. Google "Mountaintop removal" and you'll see what I mean. So even "clean coal" isn't very clean when you take into account all the mining that goes on.
  3. Some solar panels are produced in China where they don't have environmental restrictions, and they just dump all the waste chemicals into the countryside. So! Be sure you know where your "green" technology is coming from! Google "greenwashing" and you'll see what I mean.
  4. Waste incineration is sometimes not as horrible as it sounds. That's because decomposing waste releases methane - which is many, many times worse than Carbon Dioxide. Burning it consumes the methane and releases just the CO2.
  5. A corollary to number 4: waste-to-energy plants are in the works that either use regular trash as a combustible fuel source for power, and other simply harvest the methane that would otherwise be released as an emission and capture it, bottle it, and sell it as good ol' Natural Gas.
  6. Both Liberal and Conservative politicians know almost nothing about energy policy and the environment. One summer working with real environment scientists taught me that. Also, there is a large range of opinions and world views represented at HARC among these people, and I would estimate in other places, too. I was afraid I would be subjected to ideological pressure, but what I found instead was an incredibly open and intellectually diverse environment. Like, really diverse. Not the fake kind of diversity where everyone has the "right" opinions.
  7. Did you know your appliances consume energy even when they're not turned on, just by being plugged in? This is "ghost energy" that is lost as the current runs through the wall and into the device and has nowhere to go. The output is of course lower than when the device is on, but much greater than zero. So unplug your computer and your TV at night!
  8. We actually have trees in texas? Lots of them! I'm so sorry for perpetuating the stereotype of Texas as a desert wasteland - the game is supposed to be POST-apocalyptic. :)

megan.jpgMegan smiled when I finally came around to her way of seeing on the issue. I pretended to not be convinced for a while, but eventually had to admit she was right. Dr. Wurstwagen had made an energy-conscious man out of me in the end. All I had to do was play the game she'd designed. And who says games aren't educational!

So turn off the lights, and you turn off a coal power plant, in part. Lobby for Geothermal if it's in your area, as well as natural gas, wind and solar. Nuclear's okay I guess, but it's a huge security risk and it's also not very cheap. But if you don't mind it in your backyard, that's your call I guess.

Here's the main take-away lesson I learned from it, though: you will find not a single reference to Global Warming in Super Energy Apocalypse, not a one. I don't even mention the word "carbon dioxide." This is completely intentional. The reason is, that as important a consideration as Global Warming is (in my current opinion), putting people into a box simply because they are skeptical does not win anyone over. Megan started with me essentialy by giving up on convincing me of Global Warming, and focusing instead on the whole host of other environmental problems that are as important or more.

Along the way I happened to pick up on this one particular belief, but I see now that to shun someone from the environmental movement because they don't believe in Global Warming is like shunning someone from working at, say, a private Soup kitchen because you disagree with their opinions on Government assisted welfare programs. I have strong opinions about it, sure- but what good is gained by requiring such ideological purity that you refuse to work together with someone you disagree with? Especially if there's some other thing to work on you CAN agree on?

Super Energy Apocalypse was made by a conservative to teach conservatives, among other people, that environmentalism has something to do with us too, regardless of what's happening with global warming and regardless of whatever Al Gore is saying. Smog is a problem as an air quality issue, even if it somehow isn't heating up the Earth. Pollution and chemicals in the water are a much more immediate threat than rising sea levels or melting glaciers. We can all agree that that isn't any good.

So, this has been the ramblingest letter of all time, but I assure you it does have a point. My life has been forever changed by this tiny little project. I no longer see environmentalism as a "liberal" or a "conservative" thing, (I realized this KUH-RAZY idea! You don't have to have all your ideologies gift-wrapped for you by a political party!), and I realize that, you know, this flash game hobby of mine might just become my REAL JOB.

Hey, it IS my real job! I already DO make a living off of this! I might actually be a grown up capable of sustaining a living and eventually turning this into some sort of real career! (Also, there are some other opportunities that have come up directly related to this project that are even more astounding that I'm not allowed to talk about yet....we'll see if they pan out :P )

And right about when I realized that I'm now a grown-up with some real career prospects, is when I asked Emily Caulfield, my girlfriend, to marry me. She said yes, and we're getting hitched next May :)

So, it's my rambly little article about game design, the earth, energy, life, love, and happiness.

And it all started because Jay Bibby decided to run a little contest, one he was pretty worried about for a while, as I remember, and wondering if he'd even get enough entries for it :) I don't even want to think about what would have happened if he didn't.

Thanks for the flash games, Jay.

My opinions and views represent myself alone, not necessarily HARC. Even though they're my sponsor and are proud of me, I'm just a kid who works for them and made a video game with semi-realistic numbers. I'm not an environmental expert or scientist. -Lars A. Doucet
lars.jpg

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