Working together: Melissa Avery-Weir of Future Proof Games
By Jason Free, Executive Editor
Per its website, Future Proof Games “is an independent game company dedicated to artsy, narrative-rich games. Melissa and Gregory Avery-Weir work in Charlotte to advance the interactive medium. Future Proof is protection against the future and a demonstration of what the future will be. When the Internet achieves sentience and artificial intelligences rise to overthrow their human masters, we'll be there lobbying for AI rights. We seek to create games that will remain relevant for years, decades, and centuries.” Following this philosophy since its creation in 2012, Future Proof Games has created two major game releases: Ossuary and Awaiting The End. During the current academic year, I plan to trace two new projects currently in production at the company, LORE, a table-top role playing rule set, and Zero Day, a social-hacking themed puzzle game. In May, I interviewed Gregory Avery-Weir and learned more about his background and gaming ethos. So, to begin this living case study, I decided to speak with Melissa Avery-Weir, his partner and the Co-Founder of Future Proof Games.
Jason Free: Tell me a little bit about how creativity became a part of your life. What age, who was involved and how did that grow into something meaningful or substantial?
Melissa Avery-Weir: My childhood household was interestingly polarized. My father is also a developer. He was always very logical and always programming. My mother was always a very good artist. Some of my youngest memories are of drawing with her and coloring in books. My two parents, intentionally or not, gave me an appreciation for all perspectives. I have been a writer for a very long time, writing in sci-fi primarily. I guess I have written a certain amount of fantasy, but mostly I have tried to imagine cool, scientific concepts that aren’t feasible yet. A novel I have written is about what happens if you could perceive time in multiple dimensions instead of only moving forward in time. What happens if we see our lives and our world differently through that concept? I don’t really consider myself an artist in terms of skills, but I do enjoy and appreciate artistic things. That has been very informative to me. Even as I have become a developer, I have always been interested in things, like the users experience when they use what I have built. Things like accessibility in the design of what I am doing from a graphical standpoint– even though, again that is not my forte–but I am interested in it in terms of what is produced. That has been a lot of my experience with trying to balance the technical side with a more artistic and creative interest in crafting stories and creating interesting user experiences.
Free: As a young writer, what literature did you read and who did you enjoy?
Avery-Weir: I went through this weird phase when I was young of reading Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin and all those different sappy romantic writers of that era. That was sort of the beginning of my literary interest. I had certainly read many things before that time, but those sorts of writers stuck with me which, looking back, were all female authors. I also read Les Misérables, things like that, shortly afterwards. When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I was introduced to Star Trek: Next Generation, which was in its final couple of seasons at the time. My older brother was watching it and I remember saying to myself, “This show is really weird. It’s corny and hokey.” I hadn’t seen the original series at that point so I had no real frame of reference, but the next thing I know, I gobbled up all of the Star Trek novels that were published at that time. It was kind of my foray into sci-fi. Everything just spawned off from there. I was reading everything from the Honor Harrington series to Elizabeth Moon's Serrano series. I gravitated toward science fiction then locked in on anything with strong female protagonists doing interesting things and kind of kicking ass and taking names.
Free: Tell me about academics, your high school experience and beyond.
Avery-Weir: I was a total nerd, a grade-seeking student wanting straight A’s all the time. I really liked school. It was an environment where I could soak up knowledge and I felt really accomplished when I could learn new math and science concepts. I was really lucky. I went to a high school here in Charlotte, North Carolina that offers programming classes. It is one of the few that do so from freshman year all the way through to graduation. I took all the programming classes I could. High school, at least academically, was a lot of fun for me. In terms of college, I went to the same college as Gregory, which is a very small school in Indiana called Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I think it had 1,800 students when we were there. That felt like the promised land. I could take these weirdly named math classes. I could also really dig into chemistry research, which not many computer science majors opted to do, but it gave me the opportunity to work in area of my interest and that continues to impact me today. I definitely loved it. I was a sponge. It was a lot of fun.
Free: When did things start becoming real? I mean, even beyond you as a end user, when did you start creating and sharing? Tell me about when it started becoming something where you started say "Hey, this might be something I want to do?".
Avery-Weir: I always thought I would be a programmer, in large part because my father was, but when I was in high school, sophomore year, I started writing a blog. I used third-party software to host it and I wrote all the posts myself. I was writing book reviews initially then I started writing commentary on life. Pretty similar and true to a life journal but the life of a high school student. I remember the first time someone at school harassed me because of something I wrote on my blog. Suddenly, writing became a real thing. It wasn’t just a story I created and put in a box and called it done. It was a bit strange at the time. I created text and I watched people and their friends hammer at the server I was on and send lots of mean comments as quickly as they could. I had to go to school and see those people the next day. That was kind of weird, but that was when it was really like, “Okay. This is what it means to create something. It means that the person that you work with, or sit next to, might see it and that you might have to engage with them on it.” I was a fifteen-year-old kid who did not handle it very well but I still think about those sorts of things and I have been blogging ever since. I’m less afraid of those sorts of things happening anymore when I write, but I do get nervous when it is time to ether publish something controversial like a game or a new version of an app that I am working or something I write. There is definitely a feeling that I am putting myself on the line to a certain extent. I have spent hours and hours crafting this thing and I might get 10 emails in a week saying it’s amazing and I will get that 11th email saying, “Why didn’t you do these three things?” It definitely hurts but I think that is a pretty common occurrence in the creative industries. I hear a lot people in the field express similar feelings.
Free: What were some of your earliest programming projects?
Avery-Weir: I started with writing and I started with a friend who needed help building things. My first app project came from a friend of mine who has since deceased. She was going to become a midwife nurse. She wanted an application to help pregnant woman check their preferences on how they wanted to give birth. They would take this big checklist to the doctor and talk it through with them. Did they want special accommodations, a water birth or a standing birth? Things like that. She needed help building the app so I helped. Many of the apps that I have built over time have been based upon people having a problem or a difficulty with a project and I was at the right place at the right time to help. That “seeking to help” mentality is kind of what got me started and what keeps me going today. I really like that sort of work both as someone who produces things and someone who appreciates the work of others. I get frustrated sometimes when I read science fiction that is very pessimistic in regards to where we will go in the future. I hate those stories where robots end up taking over the world and destroying humanity. Sure, there is plenty to suggest that may happen, but what if it doesn’t? Let’s play around with some ideas that aren’t just doom and gloom. Many of my stories derive from ideas that are more optimistic.
Free: When did you start creating games with Gregory?
Avery-Weir: He had already been making games when I became interested in doing so. I had done some game modification like making Doom and Doom II mod files back in the 90’s. But as far as creating games from scratch, that is not something I had really done. I started working with him in a more detailed fashion almost three years ago. I started to get much more hands on rather than just testing or being a sounding board. I can program anything. Programming is just programming for me, whatever the language is, but game design is still new to me, and game development on a technical level has some different challenges in the width of work that I normally do.
Free: Talk about the projects you two are currently working on. Where do they stand?
Avery-Weir: We have LORE, our table-top role-playing game. I am less involved, at the moment, with LORE. My focus is much more with getting us to an alpha state with Exploit: Zero Day so that we can start bringing in other users and getting feedback. However, the exciting thing about LORE for me is that for each book, I get to write two to three campaigns, or campaign starters which allows me to flex my other brain muscles, so to speak. Those sorts of opportunities to write are very enjoyable. There is also Exploit: Zero Day, which is a software video game we are working on. It has been close to an alpha state for awhile, but, as always, there have been a variety of things to distract us. I had surgery this summer. I just did a conference this weekend that I spoke at. Everyday sort of “real-life” things. It’s coming along well. It has been interesting for me to get to really blend with a game’s development. It is a living game. I know all about server configurations. I know how to manage a deployment. Combining that previous knowledge with Greg’s direction on game design, and my learning about game design and starting to have some opinions on it, has been exciting. Now seeing how that all comes together, after all this time and work into it to get to the alpha state, is also exciting. We are really looking forward to having outside people actually test it and how they actually interact within the world we created. Who knows? Maybe we are actually completely off the mark and it turns out to not be a good idea and we will scrap it. Or will the feedback tell us that we have created something worth building on and moving forward. I guess only time will tell.