Entrepreneur Profile: Mark Long, Zombie Studios
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
HitPoints is pleased to present its interview of Mark Long, co-Founder and co-CEO of Zombie Studios, known for its recent XBox Live title, Blacklight: Tango Down. As with all of the interviews that will be featured on this blog, my conversation with Mark focused not necessarily on promoting a specific product, but in learning more about the personality, influences, and artistry that drives Mark as a game creator.
We spoke to Mark about his work before Zombie, the early days of getting the company started, his creative inspirations, his comics/graphic novel projects, the culture at Zombie, his perception of the future of the games industry, and his advice for game entrepreneurs and business people.
(Below are a couple Q&A excerpts from the full interview posted on marktanjutco.com)
Mark Tanjutco: Mark, first of all, thanks so much for participating in this interview. I guess I’ll start with the background questions. What got you into the gaming business and what were some of the things you doing before (game development) that got you interested in creating video games?
Mark Long: Well, I’ve always been a gamer. When I first took programming at the University of Texas, the very first thing that I learned was that you could hack other people’s accounts; this is back in the era of mainframe programming. You could use their time on the mainframe to play the space battle games that were online then, and all through the early PC games, I just continued to be a gamer.
Mark Long: I (then) worked in a laboratory in Princeton called the David Sarnoff Research Center, and (this) commercial laboratory was named after David Sarnoff who formed RCA; it was a really interesting lab.
The lab could do everything from basic material research to milling a TV cabinet with a CNC machine; and my partner Joann Alexander hired me to work with her to become virtual reality researchers in laboratories. This is 1991. You have two young virtual reality researchers, and we were doing (this) work when Hasbro (visited) and was looking for a laboratory to help them develop a head mounted game console they wanted to make. And this is even before 3DO. You know, this is even before N64. But it was going to be a head mounted display because at that time period, virtual reality was the hot thing.
(Pointing to shelves) Right, if you look up there you can see those old virtual reality head mounted displays. Some of them, we designed.
Mark Tanjutco: Is this before Nintendo’s project? The Virtual Boy.
Mark Long: Virtual Boy, yeah, before the Virtual Boy even. And we designed the whole thing and Hasbro took it all the way to tool and die and killed it. (Laughs)
Mark Tanjutco: You’re talking about artists and films: are there any specific individuals that, in either of those industries, jump out to you as real creative inspirations?
Mark Long: Yeah. Mark Ryden is a fine artist in the lowbrow movement. I think he’s amazing. He’s a very skilled painterly artist, but his paintings are kind of surreal. They might have featured all kinds of meats and sausages and Lincoln and toys from the ‘40s and ‘30s (Laughs). Then in terms of film, I tend to like the classics, (Akira) Kurosawa. It’s something I’ve been actually looking at a lot lately.
The past two years I’ve written two graphic novels and I never thought I would be writing. I never considered myself a writer. But I developed a graphic novel trilogy called Shrapnel with Nick Sagan and Nick is Carl Sagan’s son, so he, as you can imagine, he’s very bright and has a love of science fiction. But he also had a love of Greek history and mythology, like I do, and we found out (while working together) on the very first game we ever designed, Zork Nemesis, that we shared this interest. In time, we became friends, and we developed this concept: a Joan of Arc in space. It’s really the Peloponnesian War in space.
And we hired a writer to do it and we produced it ourselves, but we decided it should be a trilogy, so Nick wrote the second series and I wrote the third. Shortly after that the editor that we had brought on board, Jim Demonakos who runs Emerald City ComicCon here – he’s kind of like the Forest Gump of comics, man. He knows everybody and has been everywhere and done everything important. He plays in a nerd rock band called Kirby Krackle which does music for games like Zombie Apocalypse and he runs Emerald City ComicCon and owns comic shops. He edits and writes himself.
Nick encouraged me to write something personal so I wrote another book called Silence of Our Friendsshortly after. It’s an intensely personal coming of age story, about me and my family growing up in Eastern Texas during the civil rights movement. My father was a television newsman – which isn’t like it is today. It was more like a news reporter or paper reporter back then, very unglamorous and hard work. And he became radicalized covering the movement. And I was 10, 11 years old at the time, but I recall distinctly figuring out that we lived in the most racist neighborhood in the city, and this didn’t come into focus until he had tried to bring a black family, a black radical family to our house just to have dinner, and (I have memories of) how our neighbors responded and how their neighbors responded when we went to their house.
Anyway, I had this series of anecdotes but not really a story and Jim helped me (out); we co-wrote the story and Jim helped me turn (my anecdotes) into a story.
What I like about graphic novels is – video games, we slave over these things for two years, they go out for their release and I read some reviews on the web and that’s about it. I have zero feedback, you know? (Laughs) My friends play the game and they’re of course going to tell me, “Oh, it was great,” when it might be terrible. (Laughs) But (with games) you just don’t have any interaction with your audience, right? The thing about comics, and I think the thing that people miss when they look at ComiCon and they see these people dressed up as past comic characters, or characters from Star Wars, they think, “They’re just weird.”
But the truth is (the fans) have this profound sense of ownership for the art, because the art is on the small scale that both the reader and the creator share: they deeply influence each other. And, so in explaining all this (to you), you’re helping me understand that the stuff I like best is when everybody gets to have their say and gets to do their version of what they want to do in their heart: the art, the music, whatever, and it’s not so much this overbearing publisher wanting to hit certain sales numbers or reviews.
To read the rest of the interview, visit marktanjutco.com.