While most of his teenage peers were preoccupied with playing video games, a young Michael Hicks was designing them.
The Mount Vernon native describes himself as a lifelong computer user, tracing his roots back to his father’s career as a programmer. He spent much of his childhood sitting on his dad’s lap, playing games on the computer.
By the time he reached junior high, Hicks took his interest to the next level and began supplementing his educational studies with extracurricular ones, as well.
“I bought books and studied examples online,” he said of learning Basic, a popular computer language. “I taught myself how to program.”
By seventh grade, Hicks had created his first video game, a simple two-dimensional space shooter. Unfortunately, after that success, programming kind of fell by the wayside. As Hicks moved onto Mount Vernon Township High School, his focus shifted to other interests, as he began playing across the region and St. Louis with his new band.
The interest returned, though, and Hicks upped his skills by learning three-dimensional programming. He began work on a new game — an update of sorts to his original — which eventually turned into “Honor in Vengeance,” a 3D space shooter. With the game complete, he began looking for a way to share it with the world
He ultimately decided to use Xbox Live Arcade, the digital distribution service for the Xbox 360 console that features works by many independent developers. But his plans hit a snag.
“When I’d finished it, I was only 17,” Hicks said. Xbox’s user policy requires developers to be at least 18 to post content on Xbox Live. “The day I turned 18 last year, I uploaded it.”
Since the launch of that game, Hicks has created two additional games, a sequel to “Honor in Vengeance” and “Sententia,” which was released on the Xbox Live Arcade on Tuesday.
For Hicks, “Sententia” was a vast deviation from his previous ventures. The game tells a coming-of-age story, as players take control of a creature that must use creative means to build bridges on a journey through his world. As the game progresses, the creature grows older.
“It’s pretty different in a way. It’s about the struggles of keeping your imagination and creativity alive as you get older and face challenges,” Hicks said. “It’s kind of an anti-game in a way. It’s challenging and experimental. I wanted to make a more meaningful game.”
The release of the game was part of a cross-promotional effort called Indie Games Uprising. A number of independent programmers and game designers joined together to plan nearly two weeks of daily game releases. Their efforts attracted the attention of top media in the field.
In the first 24 hours the game was available, Hicks was already finding reviews posted online. Some players had even posted videos of them playing on YouTube. The criticism was mixed, as some found the game too difficult, but that’s OK with the creator.
“It’s been a blast to see how people react to it,” he said.
At 19, Hicks is living in the Orlando area, attending Full Sail University and pursuing a degree in computer sciences. He’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 10 months and hopes he will be able to forge a career in game design. He knows it won’t be an easy task.
“It’s hard, but I definitely think it’s possible,” he said. “The people who have made it are those who have never given up. I don’t see myself quitting. This is what I love to do.”