Pampanga, Philippines. Bari Silvestre’s games have been played 60 million times around the world. He has circumnavigated the globe as a recipient of various honors from Singapore to Amsterdam to San Francisco to Tokyo and, most recently, to Shanghai where territorial tensions between host and recipient countries were set aside in celebration of great game design. That celebrated game is “Kill the Plumber.” And this is the story of how one of its creators fought and stumbled his way from the fringes of the fringes to end up at the center in triumph.
GROWING UP AN OUTSIDER
Bari grew up in a pawned house.
After high school, he had had thoughts of studying in the leading universities of the capital. But those were off limits as his family could not even afford the commute, let alone the cost of tuition.
He went to a nearby college yet financial considerations made his first choice – fine arts – off limits as well. He had to settle for the more practical course of accounting instead.
Just when he was about to graduate, his mother passed away. The family’s creditors swooped in and padlocked them out of their house even while they were still grieving. The only home he knew was now off limits too.
Bari was able to graduate but barely. He had to forgo the board exam as he could no longer afford review school. He lost no time to search for jobs. But the lack of both certification and a prestigious diploma barred him from most of the job market.
Eventually, he found work as a bookkeeper, then as a graphic artist. He got married. When his wife became pregnant, he realized that their combined income would never be enough to support a growing family.
In order to keep his loved ones, he had to leave them behind to work outside the country.
Bari got himself employed in a factory in South Korea, polishing an endless stream of flat screen TVs.
Work would sometimes stretch for 36 hours. Days off and vacations were unheard of. But the work paid the bills back home, so he soldiered on.
Unexpectedly, his contract was shortened. By this time, his wife had already given birth to a daughter.
ACCIDENTAL GAME DEV
While still in South Korea, Bari chanced upon a discussion of blogging on TV. He tried blogging for himself and the initial results seemed encouraging. When he returned to the Philippines, he decided to become a serious blogger.
After some false starts, Bari discovered his blogging niche in game walkthroughs. He would record himself playing browser games and post the videos on his blog. He made thousands of these videos.
In the midst of making all these walkthroughs, he had a lightbulb moment – why not make his own games? This way he could lead players back to his blog and increase his viewership.
Bari dove headlong into game development by devouring materials available online and relentlessly experimenting with what he learned.
His early games failed, repeatedly. If he did feel discouragement, he never showed it. The future of his family goaded him forward. “Gawa lang ng gawa (keep trying)” was his mantra.
Ten games became twenty, twenty games became thirty, thirty games turned to forty, and forty games to fifty.
Then on his 54th game(!) – “Splitman,” made in collaboration with Filipino artist Gilbert de Vera – he was invited to the Innovation Showcase at Casual Connect Asia 2012. His 57th game – “Pretentious Game” – won the Director’s Choice Award at Indie Prize San Francisco 2013. His 108th game – “Kill the Plumber,” developed with American artist Iskander Aminov – won “Excellence in Game Design” at the Independent Games Festival China 2015.
THE BARI WAY
Poverty had excluded Bari from many places all his youth. But by the time he arrived on the scene of game development late 2009, it was one place where access had been opened to everyone.
There was, and still is, a mad scramble for the top. Yet only a few have made it. What makes the success stories different? In particular, what makes Bari different?
Examining his body of work, the pattern that emerges is one of repeated hill climbing: He selects a genre. More often than not, his initial efforts fail miserably. But he pushes himself to make incremental improvements, one game after another. Until his work reaches a form of peak performance in the field. Then he starts the whole process all over again.
What makes Bari special is what he was able to do with his ordinariness. He was not born to privilege. He does not have a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. He knew nobody when he entered game development. Yet by fearlessly trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works coupled with a tireless dedication to constant improvement, he achieved the extraordinary – making that leap from Third World to world-class.
Khail Santia of Moocho Brain and The Bamboard Game Project
To (mis)appropriate the words of Chef Albert Roux, as a gamemaker, the first thing you must understand is you are a distributor of joy. So I do my best. Making games is the ultimate metagame for me; but more than that, I do think it can transform the world for the better.