Inspect #2: Handsome Jack Rugile

Jack Rugile, Ludic front-end creator

Jack Rugile is a developer and game designer in Denver, CO. In addition to being an engaged member of the local community, “Handsome Jack” was a featured speaker at the 2016 Develop Denver conference. Jack came to my house a while back and chatted software, music, and games.

How did you get into development?
The very first time, to be fair, would be in high school making a really simple HTML page with consistent navigation. There was a huge hiatus after after high school [2005], and then it was 2008. I wanted to make a blog, so it was kind of out of necessity that I got into it. I went down the WordPress route, starting off with an environmental minimal living blog. Eventually I found out that I liked developing the site more than I liked writing for it. It was a happy little accident, but I loved it. After that, I made a site that put together a compilation of all the metal shows going on in Denver.

2008 is a pretty big gap. Did you go to college or work in another field?
I started off studying music. I was in a band in high school, and we all moved out to California and went to school for a little bit out there. It was fun, but it kind of fell apart. I was just doing odd jobs here and there. Nothing really web-related or tech-related. I don’t play as much music now, but I still tinker from time to time.

Tell me more about the band.
I started playing drums in 5th grade, and then picked up guitar a little bit after that, and mainly played in punk bands and metal bands. I grew up in a small town near Aspen [Basalt, Colorado], and we had some mild success there, we won a few “battle of the band” type of things. That was a lot of fun, but it’s not until you really branch out and go to a scene where the real pros are that you really have that wake up call and realize “Wow, there’s quite a bit of talent and competition out there.” That’s what happened when we went to California. It was brutal. I still love playing, but I thought , “maybe this isn’t a lifetime career path for me.”

Sometimes I think that’s what it takes to reset your criteria for “acceptable.”
Oh yeah. Not just “becoming the best.” Your main goal. And that’s the great thing about creative things is you are not technically the “best”, but you still have the power to create something that no one else could, because of who you are.

There’s some parallels there with development, your definition of what’s “good” changes depending on who you’re around. How have you found that in jobs you’ve had?
It’s weird, because we’re working on the web where you’re almost never isolated if you’re on social media. For example, on Twitter, I’m following all these people I respect, and they are amazing. I’ve handpicked this curated list of incredible people, and I have to be really careful not to let their skill manifest as envy or jealousy in me. I need to just see it as inspiration or I have the tendency to get down about it. On a smaller level though, I guess there is the company-based comparison, or the Denver-based comparisons or your skill-level and it’s hard. I’m at a point right now where I want to surround myself with more experienced people because I feel like my learning has plateaued a bit. With trial and error, and pushing yourself, you can continue to learn, but it’s at a much slower rate.

What are your top three favorite projects in the last couple of years?
They almost always occur outside of my my main job. It’s usually personal projects that I really get passionate about. I think the project I was most proud of recently was a small game that I built for the Denver Creative Tech meetup run by Justin Gitlin. It took about a week to make. I got to make a game, and have it on display there for people to play. That was a ton of fun. It was kind of a one control game where you’re switching the gravity of the level and your character is jumping.

Mono Move by Jack Rugile

Like VVVVVV?
Yeah, exactly. That was one of my main inspirations, and you’re constantly moving in one direction so all you have to do is switch gravity. Most of my art style is pretty simple and geometric. When it comes to games, I’m not driving complex characters or sprites or anything like that. But, with that game, I got to explore the kind of aesthetic that I want to do for a game in the future. It was a lot of fun.

Another project I’m proud of was a game I got to make right at the end of 2015. I was able to explore a concept that I feel was completely my own idea. It was an original idea in my head, but I’m sure there’s some exact clone of it out there with just how many people are making games these days. It was a game where you had to control the left and the right side of the screen simultaneously. You had to split your brain to play it well. I was pretty proud of that one because it wasn’t “inspired by” anything that I knew of consciously.

Twin Condition by Jack Rugile

The third one was actually a project I took on at work, something I’d been kind of refining over the years. It’s a way for music festivals to have a line up and be able to log in as a user and pick your lineup, but make sure you don’t have any conflicting time slots. We do a lot of work for festivals that are multiple days and multiple stages, so you really need to plan out what you want to do. Building that as a little mini-app gave me a glimpse into the single-page app world.

So you mentioned art earlier. What’s your art background?
I’m really not an artist. My first step into that world was when I went to the Art Institute of Colorado. I went there for web design, but they put you through a lot of general graphic design, photography, and that kind of thing. I don’t call myself an artist, and I don’t call myself a designer either, but I feel like I have an appreciation for when things look good and feel good.

I think you literally call yourself a designer on your site.
You caught me! (laughs) Naming things, whether it’s naming things in your code or naming what you do is the hardest thing to do. I don’t know what I would call myself if I had to put in one word now. Definitely not an engineer. More than just a developer. But not a designer? I don’t know. Design dabbler? Something with games. Definitely front-end.

Ludic front-end creator?
Then it’s not locked to development, that’s good! Yeah, I need to get some new business cards.

From an art or design standpoint, what would you say are your biggest influences? 
I definitely use Twitter and my own custom RSS feed for following a lot of the styles that I like. I’m in love with Codrops. They put out really innovative tutorials and examples. Their style is always super smooth and really minimal, and those are the ones I keep going back to. I definitely like simple, clean, flat design. Someone I recently started following on Dribbble — Dave Chenell, is a huge inspiration for me. If I had to emulate anyone and completely ripoff their style, it would be his.

What are your favorite games?
My favorite console game is definitely Super Metroid. I just go into Zen-mode when I play it. I like to explore. I go for 100% completion every time. There’s something about that game that is different than anything else. It just has this dark feel to it. Even though it barely has any story at all, they still put little hints with the visuals as to what happened in that world. The music is insanely good. They’re not holding your hand, you’re just thrown into this world you have to explore.

On PC, my favorite game is StarCraft. After that, I kind of became a Blizzard fanboy. What’s funny is the games I make now are nowhere near the level of the stuff I played. They’re really small. That’s the crossroads I’m at right now — I want to start making a long term game project. Everything I’ve done so far has been a week here, a weekend there, and I end up with a small, polished prototype. My goal right now is to make a full-length game, and really dedicate 3–6 months on something. Something I can proudly share and be like, “This is my soul — here it is.”

I feel like I need to mention this one game that I came across recently that was a huge inspiration for me recently, SPACEPLAN by Jake Hollands. It was a web-based idle game that was made by an individual developer. It’s a pretty straightforward idle game, where you can leave your tab open, gain resources, and pick what you want to buy next, and has all the basic clicking mechanics. But the game had so much polish and such a cool feel, and it was really well-done by one person. Seeing one person put together a product in a few months that has this amazing look, and it’s a lot of fun, that a lot of people could play was so inspiring to me. It’s exactly what I want to do now. Not make that game, but basically emulate the polish level, the length of the game, that kind of thing. I get really inspired when it’s a single developer creating something that didn’t take multiple years to make.

SPACEPLAN by Jake Hollands

What are your tools of the trade right now on the front-end?
I keep things pretty simple. Mainly using Sass and a basic Gulp process for minification and concatenation. Most things that I build are integrated into a WordPress environment. A lot of our clients have the need for some custom fields, but they don’t need anything too crazy. To be honest, there’s a lot of gaps in my knowledge at the moment.

What’s the biggest black hole?
Knowing any of the hot front-end frameworks like React, Angular, Ember. I’ve never fully gone down the path of learning any of those. It’s funny because even though they interest me, it’s not the kind of thing I want to learn on the weekend. I’d rather put my efforts elsewhere, but considering how sought out they are by employers right now… it’s kind of a given that people know at least one of those these days, it’s just standard.

For certain types of work, it has become table-stakes, but there’s only so many hours in the day.
I try not to be swayed by all the trends I see. Just because an article on Hacker News got all this attention doesn’t mean I need to panic and start learning this new thing. I’m trying to take a calmer approach and really figure out what’s important to me and put my energy there. Like you said, you can’t learn all of it. But I think the most important thing right now is I still love what I do and I have so much passion for it.

Flip side of that question: What’s your “go-to” technology?
2D Canvas. I’d say I’m the most confident with that. It’s funny, because with a lot of the stuff I want to do, I keep on hitting performance limits with 2D Canvas, just from the nature of it. So I’ve been trying to branch out to more WebGL-based things, but I’ll always love how straightforward the canvas commands are. You’re literally telling it what to do. Change a fill color to this, draw a rectangle here. Clear it. You can walk through a program and get a sense of what’s going on. I think it’s a cool interface for people to start programming with, just to have some fun.

Where do you work now?
I work at The Firm Graphics. We mainly do music festival web sites, DJ web sites, musician’s web sites — that’s our bread and butter. We get to do a lot of fun work there, which is good and bad, because when a festival has new art or a whole new flyer for the next year, they usually want a new site to go with it, so what we build is pretty temporary. The sites will get hit with traffic hardcore for three months, and then the show is over and it’s dead, and then they want to rebuild it the next year. You never get bored, but you never really get to polish something and make it perfect. That can be painful sometimes when you just want to do things right. It’s ephemeral.

[Since the interview, Jack started working at Legwork Studio]

How long have you been there?
About five and a half years. I started right after college and have been there ever since. Talking with developers now, I’m realizing my path is pretty uncommon. I think the typical span is two or three years at a company. I think it would be healthy for me to try something new to get some new perspective and learn from other developers, but at the same time, I love where I work and I get to make some cool stuff. I have that battle with myself all the time: wanting to stay happy with where I’m at, or really take a risk and challenge myself somewhere else. It’s a scary thing, stepping out of your comfort zone.

If you started your own company, what would it be?
Definitely a web-based game studio. It would be something where I’d be pushing for strictly web-based projects and trying to push things on mobile and desktop, but not packaging them as apps. I like the idea of apps, but I like discoverability and shareability of the web more. I would want to focus on it being open to and playable by everyone. In terms of how I would want to monetize that? Having true clients would probably be the best way to go, and then maybe we could have our own line of games that we make just for fun. It’s a big idea in my head, but it would definitely be web-based games.

What do you wish you would have known coming into development?
From the lens of someone starting school, it’s important for you to go out on your own and start learning the things that interest you outside of school and start exploring, because there’s so many helpful tutorials out there. You’ll be learning at such a slow rate if you stick with just the curriculum. It’s super important to push yourself outside of the classroom and focus on the things you like. You can save school for the stuff you know you have to learn, and then explore the topics that really interest you in your free time. To really get anywhere fast, you’ll have to do do work outside of the classroom.

Also, I have social anxiety and self-confidence issues, so I think it’s important to not get caught up by with the amazing work and trends of the people that you follow. I think it’s important to take that as inspiration and not not get upset about it. It’s easy with all the amazing people out there right on your screen to get down about it, but just keep on working on the things that you love and take inspiration from those people where you can.

And finally, I’d say don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid. Drop your ego and ask for what you need because there’s just no time to try to look cool and pretend like you know something. Just ask and find out so you can move on.

Jack presenting at Develop Denver 2016. Photo by Kelly Bleck (@kblizeck on Twitter).

What’s your Develop Denver talk going to be this next summer?
What was hard this year is that I wanted to do something that wasn’t so game focused that people wouldn’t be interested if they weren’t into that kind of thing, but wasn’t so floaty and conceptual that coders wouldn’t get into it.

So, next year, I want to get more into the nitty-gritty about different ways of making 2D weapons and projectiles. I want to talk about making a weapon and then giving it different properties- maybe a faster firing rate, or giving it some spread, or making a rocket that follows the enemy, or maybe it’s a bomb and you’re setting a timer on it. There’s just so much you can do with basic weapons. It would be fun to go through the main concept behind each one and explain how you’d go about coding it. It might just be visually represented with white lines on a black background just to get the concepts down. I think that would be fun.

Thanks to Dan Hannigan, Glen Elkins, and Brooks Patton