THE SOMA STORY

— CHAPTER 1 —

…in which our hero takes a long journey

This story is told from the perspective of Soma’s founder, Chris Skaggs.

One day in 2005, I was avoiding my web development job and reading the news. At that time, a very non-Christian video game was in the news and was in fact being excoriated by Congress who were planning to slap the game with a big fat fine and give it an AO rating. (FYI: it was Rock Star Games and GTA’s infamous Hot Coffee mod).

At that same time, I was reading another, counterpoint article about something called the Christian Game Developers Conference. Now I was/am a gamer but had never even heard of Christian games as a genre and certainly never heard of a whole conference surrounding it, so I kept reading. To my surprise, not only was the conference being held that very weekend, but it was also being held just a thirty-minute drive from my house. Maybe all of that was just coincidence, but as I read that story there was that ‘ring’ in my heart where God told me I should go.

Now that might be the first hee-bee-gee-bee moment in the story depending on who you are and what kind of background you come from. For the record, God did not ‘speak’ to me audibly like Moses or something, but it’s a long topic to try to cover in a few paragraphs. With your permission, please allow for the idea that God communicates with us in some way and we’ll move on down the story.

Anyway, I registered for the event and no more than 15 minutes later the conference coordinator sent out a global email asking if anybody was going to be in Boston that next Monday, (it was Wednesday) because there was a TV show that wanted to interview somebody from the conference. Again, in that quiet place in my heart, God told me that it was supposed to be me in that interview. Now keep in mind that I had zero knowledge of the industry, zero experience, and (Hello!) no video game company, but in the end I just knew what I had been told. So I wrote back to the coordinator saying something like, “You don’t know me from Adam and I just registered for the CGDC, but I think I’m supposed to be the guy going to Boston.” Huge kudos to Tim who in an act of either courage or failed-multitasking wrote back and said. “I don’t need to know you. If God wants you to go, you should go. Via con Dios!” And with that, I called the TV station in Boston and said I’d love to be on their show – where did I need to be and when?

It was at this moment that I started to ponder what had just happened in the last 30 min.

  • I had suddenly become aware of an industry I’d never even heard of.
  • I registered for an event I knew nothing about.
  • And I agreed to appear on a widely syndicated TV magazine show as an expert in the field.
  • AWESOME!

Now I like video games – and was conscious of the possibility that this might all just be happening in my head. I mean, it would be so cool for God to say in a thundering voice, “Chris – goest thou to produce console games in my name!” I mean that would be really, really great…just pretty unlikely. So as a way to check against my own fevered mind I told the Big Man that if He wanted me in Boston, He had to make it happen. I wasn’t going to spend one thin dime.In hindsight, it’s funny. In that moment I more or less dared God to operate in his specialty – making the impossible look easy just to prove that we really have no idea what “impossible” even means. Spoiler alert: He took the dare.

At CGDC

The next day I showed up for day 1 of the conference. Not knowing anything, and certainly not having anything valuable to contribute to the conversation, I just sat in the back and listened to a long discussion of distribution channels, or supply chains, or who knows what. I’m not saying the speech wasn’t good or useful, it’s just that I was in so far over my head that the guy might as well have been Charlie Brown’s teacher for all I understood.

The interesting thing is what happened at the end of this gentleman’s presentation. He picked up his notes and made a beeline through the crowd back to me. He just walked right up, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Tom. I think I’m supposed to talk to you but I don’t know why.”

I was a little shocked at this introduction but I told him the story of the last day and ended with something like “…and I’m supposed to be in Boston on Monday but I don’t know how I’m getting there or what I’m supposed to say.”

To which he replied, “Well in that case, I know what I’m supposed to give you.” and he proceeded to give me a 30-minute crash course in the finer details of the video game industry as he handed me a stack of statistics and numbers and graphs. Somehow he had come to the conclusion in the previous day that he needed to be prepared with these details for a meeting that he had no foreknowledge of. More to the point – God had been talking to him too. Like anybody I found the whole experience to be pretty surreal. It was simultaneously exciting and weird, validating and troubling – what was really happening? But honestly I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. This experience was wonderful and exactly what I needed – but not all that I needed.

Over the next three days that exact same thing happened no less than six times. Never once did I solicit information, introduce myself and ask for anything. Just speaker after speaker sought me out and coached my on every topic that might come up in the interview. It was like cramming for a test and by Saturday morning I was rather educated on the whole realm of games in general and Christian games in particular. In some cases the meetings were more ‘coincidental’ but most were like the first – the person felt like they had to be prepared for something when they came in that day and there we were. Somehow I had been reasonably prepared to represent this niche in about 72 hours.

In the mean time, God basically downloaded an entire 5-year business plan into my head including titles and concepts for three games*, a company name, a basic marketing plan, and we went to work putting together a website for this fledgling company in the same period. In addition, about a dozen random people felt called to pitch in to various things, from renting a car to paying for a hotel. It was crazy watching all of the details come together right before my eyes. But for all that, I still had no way to get across the country and that was kind of a biggie.

When Saturday’s final presenter finished his speech, he did what I had oddly come to expect – he walked directly up to me sitting in the back. After telling him the story, he said, “Well here’s what I can do.” and he handed me a plane ticket. I kid you not. But you know, it seems God just loves the drama and this wasn’t quite big enough.

The ticket Bill handed me was one of these open ended, fly standby type tickets. So I jumped on one of the computers that were handy and found one flight that would work, but now that it was Saturday afternoon, there was no available seat. Everything was booked solid. So, deflated, I said “Thanks, but no thanks” and wondered what was next.

Then, quite clearly, God said, “Chris – go to Borders.” Somehow knowing exactly which Borders He meant I drove across town and when I arrived I saw a friend sitting in the lobby. Mike was killing a few minutes before meeting some friends for dinner so I basically had a ten-minute window to see him here. When I walked in the door he looked up at me and got a strange look in his eye. In a tone that would have seemed impolite in any other circumstances he said “Why are you here? Something is going on isn’t it?” I nodded and then Mike heard my story up to that point which ended with, “…and then I knew I was supposed to come here…and here you are.” Now Mike Thaylor is an author of children’s books and as such he travels a lot and has accumulated thousands of sky miles on every airline in the country. With a Santaesque wink he reached into his coat and handed me a notebook with about 10 frequent flyer account numbers and says, “Somebody must have a seat to Boston. Use whatever you need.” An hour later, I had a seat on Northwest and it all seemed suddenly too weird to believe. (Mike – thanks brother. You rock!)

To recap, in the course of five days God had:
Convinced me to attend a conference on a topic I’d never heard of.
Arranged for an in-depth education on a very detailed subject.
Started a new ‘business’ in something I was a complete stranger to.
Made it so I was primed to represent that same, unknown industry, to roughly six million people.
And paid for every bit of it.
Just like I dared him to.
It’s worth noting here that God also provided something extra – a witness. Back on Wednesday I had called a good friend to tell him what was going on and get another perspective on the whole thing. As it happened Matt had some time between gigs so he offered to come along with me to the conference. He was just being friendly but wound up acting as a second pair of eyes and ears to witness and record what turned out to be a rather unbelievable chain of events. Every time my eyes would grow as big as saucers, his did too. We drove to Borders in his Jeep and since then he and I have gone over this story several times just to make sure we remember it the same way. I want to guard against this whole thing becoming a fish tale as I tell it over and over again. Also, to keep Matt as a kind of perpetual witness, he appears in each and every game we make even though he’s moved on to other things. At the time I was just glad to have a friend along. Now, I realize that God thought of everything, even things that I still don’t fully understand or appreciate.

Going to Boston

Given all that had happened to that point, the actual trip to Boston and the additional “coincidences” felt almost normal. The show in question was called Night Beat (I don’t believe it’s on the air any longer) and I was told the show went out to about 6M people on the east coast. The normal host cancelled the last minute and was replaced by a woman named Portland (!) who seemed to specialize in spiritual topics. Not to say she was a believer, but she seemed a lot more open to our mission than the normal host might have been. The other guest on the show was a fellow named Steven Johnson who had written a book called “Everything Bad is Good for You.” it appeared that the segment was designed to create some additional controversy and several of the questions seemed designed to be particularly provocative to the Christian on the show. You should decide for yourself from the video but I couldn’t help get the impression that they were hoping for an intolerant, dogmatic witch-burning Christian and the other guest was selected at least partly to stir the pot. But as it happened it felt as though I had been well prepared for the whole thing before hand. What’s more, I suspect the producer hadn’t read Mr. Johnson’s book either as it very unlike what you might think given the title. In fact he and I agreed on far more points than we disagreed.

All in all, the interview came off wonderfully and I climbed on the plane to Portland, OR feeling exhilarated and fired up to start making video games. BUT THAT WASN’T GOD’S PLAN. Somewhere over the Midwest I heard Him say that as fun as that was, the whole thing needed to cook a while now and that I had a lot of homework to do. I didn’t consider at the time that we were looking at a three-and-a-half year pause…

*At this point I knew about That Giant Robot Game You Have, The Race, and Dark Glass. We weren’t aware of Arc at the time. Also, I was imagining these as individual titles and probably for a PC or console. As we’ve pressed into this since then in prayer we discovered the Arc series which I’ll talk about in another chapter and also came to realize that what I was really seeing were allegorical worlds instead of necessarily specific game.