The video game industry has exploded over the past few decades, with each new generation of players and creators building on the gains of the one before them. Robert Madsen, who started SynapticSwitch with his son Stephen in 2010 is excited to be on the forefront of the latest video game wave — virtual reality.
“VR is every computer geek’s dream,” says Robert. “The promise of VR has always been there but the tech was too expensive and cumbersome. There are three pieces that need to converge for something like this to happen: The magic trifecta of manageable cost, and available hardware and software. This time the tools are available.”
There are a number of VR hardware options ranging in price from the Google Cardboard at about $20 and the Samsung Gear VR for under $200, through the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift at $800. At the high end sits Microsoft Hololens at a whopping $3000 which Robert says may have priced them out of the consumer market for the time being.
“The lower end VR devices work with your smartphone as the processor and the screen. The Google Cardboard is literally made out of cardboard.” Robert shows me his folded cardboard goggle. “The Gear VR is more substantially constructed.” The smartphone snaps into place in front of the eyes, and special lenses allow for a VR experience. “The experience is limited by the processing power of the phone,” he adds.
“Hardcore gamers will pay the $800 [for the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive]. You get increased processing power because it’s run by the PC. There is a tradeoff, though, since you are tethered to the PC. You have long cables, but you have to be careful not to tangle yourself in the cord with too many turns.” There is no VR for mac. “With a PC you can pick your own graphics card. You can swap it out to be able to run VR. With a mac, it’s an integrated card, so there is no swapping it out.”
“SynapticSwitch is working on a VR game called Day of Destruction. You are an alien set on destroying Earth. You’re in the turret at the bottom of your spaceship, flying low over the city, trying to wipe it out. Meanwhile, fighter jets are coming at you from all directions.” The game is slated for a 3rd quarter release from Steam, the largest source of PC game downloads, and will run on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
“We are also creating a game for PC that can be played VR if you have it, or on just a normal PC. It’s called MarsCorp. You are trying to survive on Mars, building a colony. It’s allowing me to live my space exploration dream!”
Robert started his career as a programmer in 1979. He taught himself BASIC by finagling access to the local college computers. When Cal State Bakersfield objected to high school kids using their computers, a forward-thinking professor created a class. For $25 Robert signed up for Introduction to Computers, got continued access to the campus computers, and even earned one college credit which landed him his first programming job — one that required a college computer class. After working for years as a programmer, Robert started his own software development company in 1992, then moved to Grand Junction six years later. “By 2004 I was 42 years old, and ready for a career change,” Robert says. “I have always been intrigued by space travel, so my two directions were gaming and aerospace.” Robert’s son Stephen was set on game development as his career, so Robert and he attended E3. “It’s the world largest professional game convention, held in Los Angeles. It was the Disneyland of games: castles and rocket ships, all to promote the game industry and entertain. I thought, “Wow, this is what I want to be part of!” Robert’s course was set.
“I read every book I could find on game development, then applied to MumboJumbo in Dallas. I moved to Dallas for a year while my wife, Darsi, stayed here in Grand Junction. Just when she was about to move and join me, I got laid off. Then I got hired by Other Ocean Interactive on Prince Edward Island where my son was working. I was there for a year, then got laid off.” Robert explains how that’s pretty common in the gaming industry. “They hire lots of people to work on a game, then when it’s finished, they lay them all off.”
“I knew I either had to find a job in who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long or do it on my own. As a self-employed programmer for 26 years, I knew I could do it on my own.”
Robert moved back to Colorado to rejoin Darsi, who was working on her masters in counseling and psychology in Alamosa. They resettled in Grand Junction and Robert started SynapticSwitch in 2010.
As a programmer, Robert’s skill as a coder is one of the key components that make up the gaming industry. “But it takes other skills too: 3-D artists, designers and web developers. Designers are usually English, history or sociology majors. One way to break into that side of [the gaming industry] it to do QA [quality assurance]. You play games and document the process. Basically you are trying to break the game, doing things to make it go wrong, find the bugs. You have to be brutal.”
Robert’s model gives him the financial stability to continue creating games without being tied to one publisher. It’s rare that a game, or even a few games, will keep a studio afloat. “We do about 80 to 90% contract work and 10 to 20% creating our own games. The contract work pays the bills and keeps us running. We’re still here six years later when a lot of game development studios have shut down.” The father/son duo is unique in the industry and gives them a multi-generational viewpoint for their work.
“It’s the making of games that we find fascinating,” Robert adds, “it doesn’t necessarily have to be our own.”
SynapticSwitch is located in the Business Incubator Center. Robert is committed to teaching up-and-coming gamers about the business. To that end, he has spoken at school events in the Valley, and they are always on the look-out for interns. “We had three interns from CMU last semester, and ended up hiring one, Austin Stoner, to stay on.” For more information, visit synapticswitch.com and make sure you download their iPhone/Android game Minecart Rush available, free from the app store.