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Start Over

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Games designers, who work grueling hours and often miss sleep for days in order to meet a deadline, value the creative freedom that most in the field enjoy. They are prone to spend hours pondering how effectively Mars is represented in “DOOM 3,” or how well the Xbox is holding up. Because of their creativity and ingenuity, they usually are exempted from many corporate conventions. Typical are the entrepreneurs, even fabulously successful ones, showing their stripes by wearing T-shirts with action figures to work that the average fourth-grader would covet.

Joe Cassavaugh ’79 was drawn to games as an alternative to the 9-to-5 world. A New Hampshire native, Cassavaugh came to Rensselaer as a math major and assumed he would teach high school. Instead, he started on the winding path that would bring him to so-called casual games, an entirely different realm from the fantasy- or Hollywood-driven story lines.

“Our players are in their mid-40s and 50s. They’re not ‘shoot em up [games],” says Cassavaugh, who works out of his home near Binghamton, N.Y. “You can play them when you’re on the phone. They don’t take your full attention.”

He took just one computer course at Rensselaer, but the year after he graduated, the computer lab opened in the renovated Voorhees Computing Center. Cassavaugh visited the new space once and instantly decided to become a programmer. After various programming jobs, he found his passion at Interactive Network. The company made a hand-held unit that allowed people to play Jeopardy! and other TV game shows as they were broadcast. Two years later, in 1995, the company went under. Cassavaugh and colleagues started another company, Imagination Network, that made downloadable games.

“People were paying $8 an hour, plus phone charges, to play checkers, bingo, and backgammon,” he says. When AOL bought Imaginaton Network, he went out on his own to launch puzzlesbyjoe.com which, in his words, “made zero money for three years.”

But as video games have become more complex, there has been a steady interest in old-fashioned parlor games. Cassavaugh has discovered this as a designer and programmer for the San Francisco-based company iWin.

He was the chief designer and programmer on iWin’s “Mah Jong Quest,” an animated version of the classic tile game that sold 70,000 in its first four months. He was a member of the team that produced “Jewel Quest,” which was the No. 1 downloadable game last summer, selling 200,000 copies. These products furnish low-impact amusement that represents the polar opposite of the high-tension buzz of playing “Spider-Man” or “Grand Theft Auto.”

Cassavaugh estimates that more than 700,000 people have bought the games. He credits Rensselaer with raising his expectations of himself.

“At RPI you find out how good you really are,” he says. “The cool thing was really having smart people to bounce things off of, try different things. I know people who are programmers who are happy doing that first language they learned for the rest of their lives. But I get to be an entertainer.”

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