Business

Once homeless, Boise man creates video game outside library, resets life

BuiltinBoise.com

Ryan Zehm in the main Boise Public Library in Downtown Boise. He used the library’s powerful Wi-Fi system to help him build a computer game while he was homeless.
Ryan Zehm in the main Boise Public Library in Downtown Boise. He used the library’s powerful Wi-Fi system to help him build a computer game while he was homeless. NuVision Productions

“Right there,” Ryan Zehm said, pointing to the ground next to a Dumpster pushed against the exterior wall of Boise’s Downtown 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, the 32-year-old Zehm 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, he 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 said, 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.

HOOKED AT 7 ON GAME DEVELOPMENT

“We (Zehm and his brother Brandon, co-founder of Boise’s TSheets) were both home-schooled our whole life, and our parents never let us watch television,” he said. “But when I was 5 or 6, 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 he was 7, he had already programmed his first game.

“It was just a text-based adventure game, but I was hooked,” Zehm said with a grin. “Game development became my lifelong passion.”

Throughout his home-schooled childhood (he was only briefly enrolled in public school, an experience he describes as “a disaster”), Zehm 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 said. “Just having a pen and paper was stimulating, but the computer was way more stimulating.”

A JOB, THEN A LAYOFF

After completing his home-school studies and briefly enrolling in a college correspondence course, Zehm took a job with Hewlett-Packard in Boise, running servers and other information-technology tasks.

Life was pretty good. Zehm was making a decent living doing work he found interesting. He owned a house and a nice car and was generally living out the American Dream.

Eventually, he was tapped by his superiors for an assignment in Costa Rica, where he would train Costa Rican employees to hold positions previously held by Americans. Zehm spent months living and working in Costa Rica. He found it fun and interesting.

Then one day in November 2007, things changed.

“I flew into Boise and went to HP on Chinden, and the whole place seemed like it had been cleared out,” he recalled. “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.”

He was upset about becoming a victim of corporate downsizing. It felt dehumanizing. He briefly considered following some of his HP co-workers to positions they were accepting at Micron, but he decided 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.”

HOMELESS FOR OVER A YEAR

So Zehm 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.

Zehm struggled. He lost his home to foreclosure. His family helped, but he wanted to do things his own way. Fiercely independent, he found himself homeless — first living in a car, then in a tent along Bogus Basin Road, then at the River of Life shelter.

“It wasn’t a great place, but you got a meal and a place to sleep,” he said. “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 Wi-Fi connection to learn the ins and outs of video-game development. In 2010, after about five months’ work, “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 Zehm additional focus: “I didn’t really do anything but eat and make games.”

KNOWN IN GAMING, BUT NOT IN BOISE

Ready to grow, Zehm established NurFACE (pronounced “in your face”) and developed additional games for Apple’s app store.

He entered a number of game development competitions and finished at the top — or very near — each time. His reputation and workload grew.

“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 said.

Zehm wanted to find more collaborators locally. He began reaching out through Facebook and Craigslist to find other local game developers. When he didn’t find much success, he formed the Idaho Game Developers Meetup Group, which has since grown to nearly 150 members.

He worked for a time at the WaterCooler, the business incubator at 1405 W. Idaho St., and now works from his house in Boise.

VIRTUAL REALITY

While Zehm continues to develop games for mobile and computers, the recent interest and growth in virtual-reality applications and his success at VR development-game contests have opened a host of new opportunities.

“VR is going into everything: medical, classrooms, conference calls,” he said. “The only people with the skills to create VR content are game developers and Hollywood. Right now, most of my projects are VR related.”

Zehm’s vision is clear: to build Idaho’s first 100-plus employee independent game studio. What’s not so clear is where the employees will come from.

A new Boise State University program on gaming, interactive media and mobile technology is a great start, he said, 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, Zehm said 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.”

Jeff Reynolds is co-founder of Built in Boise, a volunteer effort to tell the stories of Boise companies and the entrepreneurs behind them. Reynolds is also director of engagement at Trailhead, a Downtown nonprofit that helps startups grow.

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