THE SOMA STORY

— CHAPTER 3 —

…in which our hero is getting busy

Back when this whole story started there were only a few options available and they were all expensive – bone-crushingly expensive (at least by my blue collar standards.) For a bit I did attempt to find investment, but really who’s going to hand a million bucks to a guy with no experience to make a run at a market that was littered with notorious failures? Since then the specifics of the business environment have changed, but broadly speaking commercial game development is still a very tough business with high walls, high costs, and high risk. To be sure the rewards are also very high but that only makes the capital more competitive and conservative Bible Belt money almost never gets to game devs. Little did I know that this gnarly sector was the “market” I was dropped into when I stood at the back of the Christian Game Developers Conference.

Back in 2005 The CGDC would be generously called a cozy affair. That summer it was maybe a few dozen people who were almost all hobby developers sitting around in a seminary basement. If I remember correctly there were only a few projects on display and almost everyone there was just glad to know they weren’t the only Christians who liked to make games. There were a few exceptions. For example, Left Behind was nearly complete and I remember a lot of excitement around that title, plus there were a handful of genuinely successful developers of secular games who were Christians themselves. There is also a kind of central, but friendly, schism in the group about what the word “Christian” is modifying. Are we talking about people or products? Put another way, is CGDC a group of Christian+Developers or is it about making Christian+Games? Of course it’s a “both/and” kind of thing as opposed to an “either/or” but it’s sort of the price of entry where every new member grapples with this question and all the veterans and sages try to help them to a place of peace. In the end I learned an important lesson: the congregation of Christian developers was, and remains, a small, close knit group who truly value the community we share more than the games we’re producing. The whole thing uses game development as a reason to get together, share stories, and care for each other at whatever step we are on our journeys. Gaming was a means, perhaps even an excuse, to build a kind of family.

CGDC 2004 logo
CGDC 2004 participant

There’s a story I like to tell about a letter we got from an artist at Activision. He had all manner of kind words for us and then said he was pretty sure he was the only Christian in the whole company. A week later I got a letter from another guy who was pretty sure HE was the only believer at Activision. When I meet these kinds of folks I almost always point them to CGDC, not as another professional conference to advance their career, but rather as a place to keep their hearts from breaking and build in them the strength to walk their faith without fear. I confess there’s a part of me that has always flinched at the “secret Christian” lifestyle where one hopes that we can “preach the gospel without words.” I twitch when a pastor offers an alter call with everybody’s eyes closed. To my mind Christianity is a public matter, at least in a place like the US, or it’s lacking a central life. I certainly understand the legitimate risk one would be taking at a place like Activision to say “Sorry everybody. I know we’re crunching but I can’t work on Sunday because of Jesus.”…and yet, to not do so I’d feel like a dead man walking. Again I was reminded at the profound value of community, especially in a group that is ‘outside,’ ‘other,’ or ‘bedraggled’ in some way.

As to my own answer to the “People or Products” question above, for better or worse I always felt like Soma should make mainstream games for a mainstream audience. I was always inspired by a C.S. Lewis essay that said:

The difficulty we are up against is this…the moment [people] have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted…What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects, with their Christianity latent…Our business is to present that which is timeless…in the particular language of our own age. …[Our work] must be timeless at its heart and wear a modern dress.

In another place he says of the Space Trilogy that he wanted it to appeal to the sort of man who would never go to church but would “find himself pondering eternal things.”

I wanted Soma’s games to accurately reflect my most precious values and beliefs in ways that were simultaneously “latent” and yet discernible to the folks who knew where to look. At the same time, again taking a cue from Lewis, I never wanted my faith to be a secret, even an open one. Despite several well-meaning advisors who said the combination of public faith and secular product was a bad idea, it was the only path that made sense to my heart.

All of that is to say that after an auspicious and dramatic beginning, the next several years were characterized by a lot of grinding through the learning curve and taking contract work to keep the lights on. We made out first game when the iPhone was brand new and when the barrier to entry was suddenly lower by two orders of magnitude. We jumped onto the bleeding edge and built our first app, G: Into the Rain.

In a market characterized by Solitaire and Reversi, G was a stand-out for its beautiful hand-painted art, professional VO, complex mechanics, and a deep story that is the first chapter in our outerspace-steampunk version of Noah’s flood. G reviewed quite well, it won a couple of awards, it got some critical acclaim, and it made us a little money…but just a little.

Wind Up Robots came next and performed even better, including some features and awards at big publications like Kotaku. Tucked inside was a deceptively simple story about spiritual warfare, God’s calling, and the difference between walking by sight and walking by faith.

All of this was fun, but in hindsight I think the real work was happening on the inside.

I’ve said for years that when God named this company “Soma” he never explained it. And Soma is a fascinating word that appears in many languages. In Finish, for example, it denotes something like “cute” or “pretty.” In Swahili it indicates learning. In Hindu mythology Soma is the “living water” the gods drink but it’s also kinda what made them gods in the first place. That’s not to mention several more definitions in other languages. As I look back, I think the most obvious meaning, and the only one I actually knew at the time, is the Greek meaning, “body,” which is used all over the New Testament to refer to the Church.

soma definition

Those beginning years are best understood as years of intense personal growth for myself and many others on the Soma team, but also the years where Soma’s corporate culture was pondered, formed, and taking root. We made specific decisions about rest, about work, about the priorities we’d cherish and about the regular practices we’d embrace. We pause every day as a group to settle ourselves and give God a chance to hug us before the day begins. We tithe our time every week to study and to worship as a group on the clock. We value our relationships, the sabbath, and the supernatural in our every day. Most importantly, we seek God’s voice all the time and we expect to hear it. I don’t know that any of that is groundbreaking but that’s not the point. For Soma, those first several years laid these principles as immovable foundation stones, mortared by regular practice that encouraged and enabled many people to grow mighty in our midst.

Yes, we were learning to make games.

But more than that we were learning to make deeper, richer, more faithful lives.

We were becoming a kind of mini “church” in the purest sense of that word: people of The Way living life together where the line between the secular and the sacred blurs to disappearing.

I thought God wanted us to make games.

But really he wanted to use games to make us.