Happy Lab Rat: Jamie Fristrom

Jamie Fristrom, founder of Happion Laboratories, is one of the developers responsible for the innovations that made Spider-Man 2 an award-winning game. He also passed on a chance to become a founding partner at Treyarch. 

For Jamie Fristrom, the separation between work and play is almost nonexistent. For most of his adult life, he’s made a living at what he loved best as a kid—games. There had been alternate career possibilities for this multitalented guy: He has a degree in psychology and is the author of Dionysus Logged Out, a very fine novel about growing up in the ‘80s. But ultimately, the lure of creating games proved irresistible, and his career has spanned more than two decades of game development, from the primitive days of flat 2-D graphics to today’s vivid cinematic style.

He was a programmer, technical director, and designer at Treyarch, almost from its inception and for several years after it became a subsidiary of Activision. There he created the dynamic, physical swinging system for the now-classic Spider-Man 2, which made several “Top Games of All Times” lists. In 2005, he cofounded Torpex Games, creators of Schizoid, “The Most Co-Op Game Ever,” for Xbox 360. Recently, he started his own company, Happion Laboratories, whose first game, Sixty Second Shooter, was a PlayStation Mobile Game of the Year award winner. It was also the first 3-D native client game to ship for the Chrome browser.

Is making games still fun for Fristrom? His answer, when we spoke with him, was an emphatic yes.

Get In Media: Let’s start back at the very beginning. Games were a big part of almost everyone’s childhood, but when did you first become interested in making them? 

Jamie Fristrom: I’d been making games as a hobby ever since I was a kid. And when I was in seventh grade, my parents sent me to a computer camp. It was there that I met a guy named Richard Garriott, also known as “Lord British.” He was working on a game called Ultima II at the time, one of the first computer fantasy role-playing games. And he instantly became my hero. I thought, “Wow, I want to do that.”

Then in college I had some friends who were working at Mindcraft Software, a small company with a game called Magic Candle. Making games was something I always wanted to do, but back then, around 1991, I didn’t actually know if this could be a real career. My friend asked the boss if he’d hire me, and when he said he didn’t have the money, this friend said, “You’ll be making a big mistake if you don’t hire him.” He basically talked the guy into hiring me as a programmer. Who knows what I’d be doing now if it weren’t for that.

GIM: Did you have any training as a programmer?

JF: In my senior year of college, we’d started talking about Mindcraft being a possibility, so I took a couple of extra classes in programming, but mostly I was self-taught. I did almost all my learning on the job. I’d taken one class in assembly language, which is what you use when you’re programming directly into the underlying hardware of the computer. But it was a little bit different on every machine, so you almost had to learn a new language. Today most people don’t have to program assembly language, which is harder and more esoteric. But back then it was the only way to make computers go fast enough to do those high-speed animations we wanted to do.

GIM: How did your career develop from there?

JF: I was at Mindcraft for several years, and after it shut down, the same two friends who’d gotten me the job there, Peter Akemann and Dogan Koslu, were forming Treyarch. They invited me to be a partner, but it seemed so risky, I turned them down. That was probably the biggest mistake of my life. A few months later, they showed me what they were working on and I thought, “Wow, that looks really cool.” It was Die by the Sword, one of the first 3-D games. I said, “Yeah, I really want to work with you guys.” And they brought me on, but as an employee.

“Small indie companies like mine are usually more interested in people who can do a lot of different things. But even when I was hiring game designers back at Activision, I was much more excited about people who’d made games on their own.”

One of Treyarch’s big breaks was getting the rights to do the Dreamcast version of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It was a really awesome, popular skateboarding game, and we smashed that one out of the park. After that we got to do the Spider-Man games, and Spider-Man 2 is probably the best game I ever made. It was nominated for a lot of awards and sold fantastically well.

GIM: What are some of the differences between creating games now and in those days?

JF: Programming was very different back then. Computers now are hundreds of times more powerful, so in no time at all, someone can whip out a game in Flash or HTML on a website that would have taken us months to make because we had to program these arcane processors. And if there were problems, we had to use guesswork to figure out what we did wrong. There was no way to debug it by looking at what the processor was doing and saying, “Oh, I see the mistake I made.” We also had to create our own game engines; now there’s a bunch of established game engines on the market that you can buy and use, and you don’t have to spend all that time creating the game from scratch. Of course, this is standard old man programmer talk. When I was young my mentor used to say, “I had to write my games on punch cards.”

GIM: What was it that made Spider-Man 2 such an outstanding game?

JF: In [the first] Spider-Man, you could jump and shoot webs out, but it didn’t feel physically real. It didn’t feel like the movie.

In Spider-Man 2 we gave players the feeling of what it might be like to really be Spider-Man. The webs attached to buildings, and he had some momentum and weight and fluidity to make it feel like the movie. It was also much harder to play. You had to pick where to swing from and try not to smack into walls. There was a certain fantasy realism to it—what if you really could swing from a building at high speed, what would it be like? It was similar to the beginning of the movie, where he’s awkward and out of control.

GIM: So now you’ve started your own company. What can we expect from Happion Labs?

JF: I’m working on a game called Energy Hook. You’re a lady athlete in the future with a jetpack and an energy beam, and it sort of reincarnates the game mechanics from Spider-Man 2, swinging off rooftops and swinging from building to building. Those kinds of games have pretty much gone away because they’re harder to play.

There are some games out there that are famous for being difficult, but in general, the mass market games try to be super accessible, even though you can crank it up and make it harder for yourself if you want to. They try to please the lowest common denominator, and they’re afraid of drifting away from that formula because a game can cost tens of millions of dollars to make, and they don’t want it to tank in the marketplace. The nice thing about being indie is that I can make a game for that small audience of people who want something more challenging to play.

GIM: What do you enjoy most about your work?

JF: One of the great things for me is that I get so wrapped up in it, that once I get started it’s hard to pull me away from the computer. It’s engrossing fun, day after day, and I never get tired of it. There is sort of a constant reward cycle with making games and programming where you set out to accomplish something that day—and it can be a really small thing—like today I’m going to make a sound when you fall in the water. Then you do a little work, write some code, it makes the sound, and you have that feeling of accomplishment. Whereas with writing fiction, say, you write some sentences and you’re like, “Okay, did I succeed in what I was attempting to do? Will people like these sentences. I don’t know.” So I think that’s part of why I enjoy the game development process.

GIM: Do you have a sort of dream project, something you’ve always wanted to do?

JF: One thing I’ve been dabbling with on the side is a game that could tell interactive stories and give players a sense of choosing and interacting with the game. But in general, as soon as you let a player muck around in your game, the story breaks. So it’s really a hard problem that lots of people are trying to solve.

RELATED: The most challenging part of the job, says Volition senior animator Nick Niebling, is setting his virtual puppets free.

GIM: What advice do you have for someone who wants a career in gaming?

JF: Just make games. It’s so easy now with all the free tools that are available. You can do everything yourself. You don’t need to say I can’t program or I can’t draw. Programming is easier than it used to be. There are tools for it and tools to help you create art.

GIM: And in terms of getting a job, what do companies look for when they’re hiring?

JF: Big companies are a lot more specialized now and end up needing people in narrow, specific roles: a sound effects programmer, someone who does a particular kind of graphics, someone who only does shader programming. So it makes sense to find out what you like and let your career evolve from that.

Small indie companies like mine are usually more interested in people who can do a lot of different things. But even when I was hiring game designers back at Activision, I was much more excited about people who’d made games on their own. A lot of people would come in and show me their student projects, but if someone said, “Here’s my student project, and here’s a game I just sort of made one day because I felt like it,” then that got me really excited because it’s like, wow, this is someone who’s really passionate about games. 

Related Content

Have some feedback for our editors? Contact Us