ENTERPRISE — While the picture of a young gamer that often comes to mind is a 30-year-old living in his parents’ basement spending all day playing computer games, Enterprise’s Shepherd Newton is far from that.
For one, he’s a 12-year-old sixth-grader. Second, he not only plays games, he’s already created one and has a business model in mind for how he can make a career of it.
“I consider myself a ‘dev’ because I haven’t earned the ‘eloper’ yet,” he said during an interview Wednesday, March 10. “I have to successfully sell a game to earn the ‘eloper.’”
He explained he’s working at becoming a developer of computer games — and possibly other programs — that could earn a tidy living.
In fact, he comes by his interest naturally. His dad, Tim Newton, is a professional, work-from-home programmer who currently is helping school districts around the country — and the world — with software that helps them send their data to departments of education and management. Now, he is working with the California Department of Public Health with COVID-19 support calls. Mom Crystal Newton is a graphic artist and online marketer.
Both parents are extremely supportive of Shepherd’s endeavors.
“It’s very encouraging to see him doing computer development as opposed to seeing just word processing or just playing computer games,” Tim said. “He’s actually creating something that could be useful or foundational for later on. It demonstrates how early someone can begin developing.”
Noting that Shepherd already has a business plan in mind that many independent developers use, Crystal told some of what he’s learned.
“It’s not just for games,” she said. “(Developers) will talk about a product they’re developing and post information in videos on YouTube, they’ll gather subscribers, then they’ll start a Patreon account to get themselves support for what they’re doing. They’ll get subscribers to pay something — normally something low, like $5, but if you get 100,000 people giving you $5 a month, you’re doing well.”
Shepherd isn’t far behind figuring out what that’s worth.
“And that’s $500,000 a month,” he said.
In January, he participated in a “game jam” — short for game jam session — a contest where participants try to make a video game from scratch working independently or in teams. Contests usually last from 24 to 72 hours. Participants are generally programmers, game designers, artists, writers and others in game development-related fields.
Shepherd said he found a website that was started by an individual who goes by Black Thorn Prod where he could log on and request participation in the game jam.
“The first thing you need is a game engine,” Shepherd said. “You download it and use it to play the game.”
A game engine, also known as a game framework, is a software-development environment designed for people to build video games.
“It processes all the code and runs it,” he said.
It allows you to put visual items in the scene of the game being built. With it, the developer drags a circle into the scene. A “transform” allows one to put items into the circle and place them at X,Y and Z coordinates for width, height and depth.
“But my game is just 2D so I only use X and Y coordinates,” Shepherd said.
He went onto explain some of the technical issues involved.
“Then you have to create a new script, which tells it what to do under certain parameters using (computer) code,” he said. “Like, in a script, I could say, ‘On mouse, enter,’ which just means when you hover your mouse pointer over an object, it will trigger that thing, that part of a script. You also have opening and closing brackets. In there you say, maybe, ‘transform scale’ which means, you’re calling for it to transform to say, ‘I want my scale to +=’ which means to add it … on the X coordinate and the Y coordinate, an integer … and then it’ll add that to the scale whenever you have your mouse over it.”
Crystal was quite aware how far over the head of mere mortals Shepherd was speaking.
“He just described the programming terminology that they use to create a chunk of software that’s part of the game,” she said. “That one chunk would transform however many objects you assign it to.”
Crystal tried to translate it into English.
“We normal people usually don’t think about coding in that way. We think of a program as one long line, but programmers today actually think of it in terms of chunks of information that they can use over and over again,” she said.
They agreed a script can be saved and reused much the same way as a “copy and paste” function is saved and pasted in and out of a word processor’s clipboard.
“Eventually, it all compiles together and what the end user sees isn’t like the scripts he described, but the actions those scripts call for,” Crystal said. “It’s like packing a dresser and instead of one big object, there’s all these different drawers. This thing he just described is how you would define one action for a game.”
But how did a 12-year-old learn all this at his tender age?
“Generally, I just go on a webpage and type, ‘How do I do this?’ and I watch a ton of tutorials, and eventually your brain learns to comprehend something,” he said.
Crystal admitted much of what the rest of her family does with computers is beyond her.
“I will tell you, as the wife of my husband the mother of my son, I don’t think this way,” she said. “I think it’s pretty much a natural ability that they can handle it with the tutorials and the learning.”
While Shepherd’s game, called “Level Reset” didn’t gain a high ranking during the game jam — “Somewhere near the bottom,” he said — it was a start. He hopes to participate in more game jams later this year.
“He is working on some other games,” Crystal said. “I do artwork, so I’m creating some artwork for a game he and I talked about making. He’s always talking about different games he wants to work on. I think, what the game jam did, was give him a goal within a specific period of time that he had to achieve something he could submit.”
Shepherd doesn’t spend all his time on the computer. He’s been involved in 4-H, having raised a prize-winning 39-pound turkey, and participated in archery and robotics. He also plays games with his parents.
In a way, he finds it an advantage being an only child.
“If I had brothers and sisters, I think I might be hindered by them saying, ‘Let’s go play,’” he said.
His parents are eager to see how Shepherd’s computer skills blossom.
“We always talk to him about how he needs to build career skills through this,” Tim said. “We have expectations how he should use this in the future as a career or on a business.”
“For the first game that he made up, I was pretty proud of him — and he didn’t stop doing his schoolwork,” Crystal said. “We were doing school, too.”