When you're a problem solver like Joe Ricks, nothing stands between you and your dream. For Ricks, the dream was the holy grail of any kid growing up attached to a controller: making video games. So determined was the cash-strapped man, that he risked it all to get the education he needed. Joe Ricks enlisted and went to war so that he could learn how to make video games.
"When I was a kid I played the hell out of Final Fantasy and got sucked into Everquest and Counter-Strike pretty hard in highschool," Joe reminisced to me over instant messenger. The relationships that he developed over playing Counter Strike and participating in a clan in particular seem to be one of the biggest influences in Joe's desire to make games.
He wants to bring people together. Over a decade since the clan's inception, his friends still rock the old clan tag. "That's how tight we are," he explained. Naturally, they're playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive right now.
"I just wanted to make something that was as fun for people as CS was to me. I still represent my old CS clan to this day just because it meant so much to me.
"I still play CS:GO with some of the same people today. But really it was the socialization of it all. People were able to just drop in and out of our server at will and we could do whatever we wanted in it. I just liked how if you were a regular on many CS servers it felt like coming to a bar where you knew everyone there."
Counter Strike, in a way, taught him that his calling was bringing people together—that's what he wants to do now as a game developer.
But going to school for game development isn't cheap—at least, not if you want to go to a good school. Ricks decided he wanted the best school he could find, regardless of what he had to do to get into it.
"I saw FullSail in an ad and got their information packet and they seriously had the best curriculum I saw for making video games. I just knew I had to go there."
When I asked him why he chose the army to accomplish his dream, he told me that it was a combination of lacking the money, and having a father in the special forces. "My dad was a green beret and I grew up outside and on Ft. Bragg NC, so [the army] ended up being an option to me," he explained. And so it was decided that he would enlist and stick it out for as long as he needed to in order to have his education paid for.
David Goldfarb, developer at Starbreeze Studios and previously of DICE, saw determination in Ricks early on. Joe sought advice from David years ago. "He asked me some questions about how to make games, what would I recommend doing. I told him what I tell most people, which is learn to code, and he nodded virtually and thanked me and went off. He seemed very determined and very motivated even back then," he told me over email.
They've kept in contact over the years, with Goldfarb recently noticing Rick's great progress after their early interactions. "It just makes me happy that he is doing it, and inspired that someone wants to do this shit enough to put themselves in the line of fire," Goldfarb stated.
Once in the army, given his techie background—Joe has always been proficient with computers—it's no surprise that Ricks eventually decided to specialize in IT. "I was a 25B. That's Information Systems specialist, I was an IT guy but also handled physical network topography like Cisco routers/switches and windows Active Directory domains, email servers and such," he said. In layman terms, he was the person that made it possible for people to use services like Google and Skype, as well as piping feeds of unmanned aerial vehicles to command.
You could say that even within the army, Ricks still did what he dreamed of doing: bringing people together, because he made it possible for people to "talk to their wives and kids, and make it a bit less shitty of an experience."
But that's not all Joe learned in the army. "It's pretty nuts because even though I was an IT guy the Army had me handling and learning stuff like Infantry Squad Manuvers and clearing houses."
He ended up being in the army for almost six years, deployed in Iraq for one year in 2005, and Afghanistan for 15 months in 2008. "It's nothing you could ever imagine I'll say that, haha. It was the worst time of my life at some points, mainly because of depression and all that, but oddly enough it made me who I am today."
In Iraq Ricks was with the 1st Armored Division. He lost some good friends there, but it didn't sound as bad as Afghanistan did. Afghanistan was "damn hot, lots of mines exploding, random gunshots when you weren't expecting it. Was in a couple mortar and rocket attacks on a FOB there a couple times. It was just nuts knowing someone could drop explosives on your head in your sleep" he detailed to me.
The worst thing he experienced involved a tank. "A friend had to throw a satchel charge out of his Bradley and it blew up killing one of his friends and mangling him pretty bad," he recalled.
Allowing him brief reprieve from such experiences, however, were video games. While deployed he took leave for 2 weeks to attend QuakeCon. "John Carmack is my idol," Joe revealed to me.
Not all of the things Ricks saw overseas were negative. He feels that the troops helped make a difference in some people's lives. "We actually helped people and it was just great seeing the things we could do for them to make their lives better. The unit we were part of Afghanistan would build houses for people, bring running water to villages and such. My unit would employ Afghan truckers to help move things across the country, so we employed many many Afghanis. I like to think it helped them not hate the US so much," he said.
All of these experienced helped shape who Ricks is today. "Hell if I could deal with this I can deal with anything," he claimed.
Joe also has a number of awards and medals from his time in service, but to him they're no big deal, and weren't for anything "heroic." "A lot of 'em are medals for being in the theater of operations, and the ARCOMs are for outstanding achievements. Just stuff I did really well and it was noticed by higher ups. Honestly I don't remember exactly what I got 'em all for, I never really put much stock in medals. The people that usually deserved them usually didn't get them," he modestly told me.
Curious, I asked him what he thought about the war. "I wasn't a big fan of the Iraq war, but it was my job and we got it done so. Afghanistan I always and still support especially since I've seen the things we do over there. We actually had so many countries soldiers helping us out there as well so I feel that most the world's leadership knows it's a good thing," he said.
He told me he knows its a bit selfish to go into a war you don't support just to have a shot at realizing your dream down the road, but he still saw it as the path to take to solve his problem. And now that he's gone through all of that, Ricks has an easier time dealing with game development. The army is a demanding full-time job, and likewise, game development can be grueling.
Now he is finally a student at Full Sail currently on his final year, maintaining a 3.5 GPA. The road there was a long one. He told me he is "still learning my way through the craziness that is code, so hopefully I'll make my magnum opus one day." Still, he loves it all. "I'm mind blown by the whole process. I love it. I can't believe the things I can do in code now, I would have never dreamed even a year ago that I could do what I do," he exclaimed. You can play some of the games he's developed over at his portfolio site, though his final project at Full Sail is still to come.
Was it worth it? Joe thinks so. "If I somehow traveled back in time before all of it, I'd do it again without a second thought."