This self-taught, self-motivated and self-made developer went from homeless to at-home at the highest levels of video game development.
“Right there,” Ryan Zehm says, pointing to the ground next to a dumpster pushed against the exterior wall of Boise’s main library. “That’s where most of my first video game was built. The library had everything I needed: books on programming, free internet, and a place to warm up when I needed it.”
Today, Ryan is the award-winning founder of NurFACE Games, a video game development studio that designs and creates games for mobile and PC platforms.
But just a few years back, Ryan was a homeless former Hewlett-Packard employee who split his days between the The River of Life Men’s Shelter and the Boise Library. Often, he says, those days were spent leaning against the north-facing wall along River Street, next to a dumpster and within reach of an electrical outlet. There he could sit relatively undisturbed for hours at a time creating his first video game — Space Blast — on his one possession of any value, a used laptop he found on Craigslist for about $25.
It was a long fall for an intelligent, motivated guy who showed, even from an early age, an aptitude for technology.
“We [Ryan and his brother Brandon, co-founder of TSheets] were both homeschooled our whole life and our parents never let us watch television,” Ryan explains. “But when I was five or six, my dad brought home a 286 computer. He told us there were games on there and that we could play the games if we could get it to work.”
They got it to work. And by the time Ryan was just seven, he had already programmed his first game.
“It was just a text-based adventure game, but I was hooked,” Ryan grins. “Game development became my lifelong passion.”
Throughout his homeschooled childhood (he was only briefly enrolled in public school, an experience he describes as “a disaster”), Ryan found solace and stimulation in creating other-worldly characters and environments both in games and in writing fiction.
“I can play in somebody else’s world or I can come up with my own,” he says. “Just having a pen and paper was stimulating, but the computer was way more stimulating.”
After completing his homeschool studies and briefly enrolling in a college correspondence course, Ryan took a job with Hewlett Packard in Boise running servers and other IT tasks.
Life was pretty good. Ryan was making a decent living doing work he found interesting. He owned a house, a nice car and was generally living out the American Dream.
Eventually, Ryan got tapped by his superiors for an assignment in Costa Rica, where he would train Costa Rican employees to hold positions previously held by Americans. Ryan spent months living and working in Costa Rica. He found it fun and interesting.
Then one day, things changed.
“I flew into Boise and went to HP on Chinden and the whole place seemed like it had been cleared out,” he recalls. “I found my desk and it was empty. I asked someone about the pictures and other items I had left on my desk and they gave me a box. I had been laid off.”
Ryan was upset about becoming a victim of corporate downsizing. It felt dehumanizing. He briefly considered following some of his HP coworkers to positions they were accepting at Micron, but determined it was time to take his career into his own hands.
“I decided I needed to stop this stupid corporate life and go do something on my own.”
So Ryan started his own IT consulting company, helping companies set up computers and networks. But being a young, first-time entrepreneur in the middle of the greatest financial downturn in nearly a century was not a recipe for success.
Ryan struggled, and could no longer afford the rent for his comfortable, suburban home. Fiercely independent, he found himself homeless. First living in a car, then a tent along Bogus Basin Road, then at the River of Life shelter. Some family and friends helped how they could, but Ryan wanted to do things his way, even if that meant living in a shelter.
“It wasn’t a great place, but you got a meal and a place to sleep,” Ryan says. “I was homeless for over a year, but I never begged. I never asked anyone for money. That’s when I said I’m going to make video games until I get off the street.”
That’s what he did, borrowing library books and the library’s surprisingly strong wifi connection to learn the ins and outs of video game development. After about five months, Space Blast, built entirely at the Boise Library, was ready for release.
“Eventually I started making enough money off of the [in-game] ads to afford a $300 a month apartment in Emmett.”
The isolation of Emmett allowed Ryan additional focus.
“I didn’t really do anything but eat and make games.”
Ready to grow, Ryan established NurFACE (pronounced “in your face”) and developed additional games for the Google Play app store.
He entered a number of game development competitions and finished at the top — or very near — each time. Ryan’s reputation and workload was growing.
“In Boise nobody knows me, but thanks to these competitions, when I go to San Francisco I get to meet with the CEO of Unity [game development platform] and one of the founders of Electronic Arts,” he says.
But Ryan wanted to find more collaborators locally. He began reaching out through Facebook and Craigslist to find other local game developers, and when he didn’t find much success, he formed the Idaho Game Developer’s Meetup Group, which has since grown to nearly 150 members.
While Ryan continues to develop games for mobile and computers, the recent interest and growth in virtual reality applications and Ryan’s success at VR-development game contests have opened a host of new opportunities.
“VR is going into everything: medical, classrooms, conference calls,” Ryan says.
“The only people with the skills to create VR content are game developers and Hollywood. Right now, most of my projects are VR related.”
Ryan’s vision is clear: to build Idaho’s first 100+ employee independent game studio. What’s not so clear is where the employees will come from to achieve that.
Boise State’s GIMM program is a great start, he says, but not enough. His most recent hire is working remotely from Utah, meaning dollars that could be circulating locally end up 400 miles away.
No matter what the future brings, Ryan says he will continue to share his lifelong passion of games with the world.
“It’s a lot of fun making it, but it doesn’t compare to the huge gratification you get when you share it with people.”
Photography by Chris Ennis of NuVision