Looking at the deceivingly youthful face of 23 year-old Mark Moran, you would never guess that he left a six-figure salary to come to Columbia's School of General Studies just one semester ago. A little richer, a little more independent, college came just a little later for him than for his peers.
But even in high school, Moran was not "typical." At the age of seventeen, while his friends were attending pep-rallies and high school plays, Moran, a self-professed computer hacker with entrepreneurial ambitions, started his own game company with capital he gained from selling $10,000 worth of bonds to relatives. Every day after school, he would put in a full day's work, up to 50 hours per week, developing a computer game prototype with the help of a couple of contract artists. Finally completed in 1993, Moran took his game prototype to the annual Computer Game Developer's Conference and there cemented his future.
Moran is just one of many undergraduates who have a "real life" story to tell before they even get to college. It is no longer the lost soul, the bad boy in the back of the class who barely graduated high school, that shuns four more years of school to join the workforce. The trend now includes the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and CEOs--intelligent minds who look to the world as their classroom. But, interestingly enough, these trend-setters always find their way back to college, when the time is right. Older and wiser with real life experience under their belts, they return to college hungry for an "education."
In Moran's case, he was fresh out of high school and accepted by Columbia University, his dream school, when Jordan Mechner, the legendary game designer of the classics, Karateka and Prince of Persia snapped him up to become employee number three of Smoking Car Productions in San Francisco. "I saw it as a chance to get a hands-on education and valuable real-world experience, combining all my interests--programming, history and the building of a company," reflected Moran. His mother, a teacher, and father, a lawyer, supported and encouraged Moran as he moved from his hometown of Los Angeles.
Moran became technical lead on the production of The Last Express, a computer game on CD-ROM that resurrects the fabled intrigue, treachery, and romance of 1914 Orient Express, during its last trip across Europe at the onset of the first world war. The Last Express was to be a new kind of computer game; historically accurate with the highly stylized look of an art-nouveau cartoon, realistic motion, and compelling, intelligent characters. Without teams of artists to create character images, Moran helped to invent a computer rotoscoping program which automatically cartoonized video footage taken of live actors, yielding the black-line, one-dimensional characters in the game--a patented technique which has since attracted the attention of Disney.
He also designed a "character logic" software package to control the activities of each of the 30 characters making them as life-like as possible. The game's characters seem to pursue their own activities and interact with each other, enabling the player's character to observe and follow them as they go about their business.
At the height of The Last Express's production, Smoking Car Productions' staff mushroomed to a fifty person crew, with Moran, the company's youngest, heading up a team of six programmers and eight technical artists. In 1997, four years and $6 million later, the game was released. Eight international versions followed. But 200,000 copies later, production was stopped by Broderbund, the game's publisher. Today it is considered to be a cult classic. Now he's back at school as a student of the School of General Studies (GS)--a college devoted to the returning of older students enabling them to study with Columbia's mainstream School of the Arts and Sciences. "At first I thought it was a continuing education program, but when I spoke with the GS admissions staff, I was told that the classes offered were the very same ones that Columbia College students took," said Moran. "At GS, the curriculum is more flexible and I'm able to take more electives than I would if I were an incoming freshman. What's more, GS has such an amazing student body. Every day I turn around to a new GS face-professional dancers, actors, musicians, computer programmers, child geniuses! What a place."
Like many of his GS peers, Moran's impeccable grades reflect a certain motivation and appreciation for academics that stems from seasoning in the real world. As Peter Awn, dean of General Studies, noted, "GS students are an enhancement to Columbia's intellectual discourse. Through their maturity and experience, they have much to offer Columbia," Moran does have a voracious hunger for learning. "I want to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, writer, film producer spending at least 5 years on each, ideally," he said with a grin. Realistically, graduate film studies will be the next step following graduation from GS with a bachelor's in literature and writing in 2002. When asked if he feels he's on the right path, Moran reflects, "To me education is the goal, not the means. And frankly, I'm just getting started."