moved back home with his parents and
taught himself to program 6502 assembly
language based on Steve Wozniak’s code
that came with his Apple 2 computer.
Founding a startup was not something he
specifically wanted to do at the time; the
thought was not even on his mind.
“I just knew I could write a game,
and I had a lot of great ideas for “Might
and Magic 1,” and I was learning how to
program, and making designs, and figuring
it all out. I really did not think about taking
the game to the public at all. I just 100
percent focused on how to make a game,”
he said, adding that his parents were happy
to support his hobby for a couple of years,
but eventually grew impatient and worried.
They threatened to stop supporting him
financially for fear of encouraging him to
forever be unemployed.
As he got close to finishing “Might
and Magic 1,” he decided to sell the
game to an established game publisher,
but was disappointed that he was
offered very little financial returns, far
less than he thought the game deserved.
“They said I could earn as much as a
dollar per game sold. I was outraged.
All they did was put the game in a bag
or box and charge $50 for a copy. Why
should I get only $1?,” he explained,
adding he resolved to make his own
boxes, manuals, and packaging instead.
“I was just a crazy kid straight out
of college who wasn’t gonna hear ‘No’
from anybody. I was going to see my
dream come true. So I took out a phone
number in my apartment, bought an ad
on the back of a magazine, and started
selling them myself. Forget the publisher
guys, I was going to sell it straight to the
customers,” he recalled.
That is the story of how in 1984
Van Caneghem founded New World
Computing, the now-legendary game-development company. His intuition
paid off and “Might and Magic” turned
Jon Van Caneghem
for a Generation
he said. Upon finishing high school, he
enrolled in the pre-med program at the
University of California at Los Angeles.
That would be his main area of study
for the next four years, intending to
follow in his stepfather’s footsteps. But
over the years, he became increasingly
disillusioned with the field of medicine
and wanted a change, confessing he
eventually recognized he could not
“Eventually I just said, ‘No, I can’t
do it, I can’t go down this path,’” he
recalled, adding, “I was always good at
math and fascinated with computer
science, so I just tore into these fields
instead, got addicted to them, and
decided to make the switch.” Despite
his change of track, Van Caneghem did
not know then what he would be doing
after graduation, nor did he have any
specific plans for the future.
BACK HOME WI TH HIS PAREN TS
As he was finishing up his undergraduate
degree, Van Caneghem also bought
his first Apple 2 computer that he
extensively used to play games.
While at university, he studied theory
and science-oriented programming
languages, like Algol and FORTRAN. His
personal experience with computers
revolved around games, and fairly soon
the glaring disconnect between the two
worlds led to him to wonder about the
kind of effort that would be needed to
write a computer game from scratch,
and how the graphics and mechanics
should all work together.
“Toward the end of college, I just one
day woke up and decided, ‘I’m gonna
make one of these!’ I don’t know what
made me decide. I was just gonna do it,
and I was gonna put my head to it and
figure out how to do it all.”
Instead of going out and getting a job
like many from his cohort, Van Caneghem
Jon Van Caneghem is an American
computer game director, designer, and
entrepreneur, who has been involved in
the gaming industry for almost 30 years.
His name is practically synonymous
with the “Might and Magic” and “Heroes
of Might and Magic” game series he
authored, inspiring and beautifying the
formative years of millions of children
and teenagers around the world in the
1990s and 2000s, myself included.
Having lived through the indeliberate
foundation, subsequent growth and
acquisition, and eventual dissolution of
New World Computing, the company that
defined his creative professional life, I
asked him to interview with XRDS, and
share the lessons he learned about what
it takes to leave a mark on the world
through one’s professional efforts.
NO T EVERYONE
SHOULD BE A DOC TOR
Van Caneghem, who grew up in Southern
California, remembers always being
interested in board games as a child.
What started as a passion for chess
and checkers led him to increasingly
complex classic board games like “Risk”
and “Diplomacy,” before he discovered
the addictive world of paper role-playing
games like “Dungeons and Dragons.” “I
was in a lot of groups of friends who got
together on Fridays and Saturdays and
played board games, which was a lot of
fun,” he recalled about his school years.
However, despite being allowed the
freedom by his parents to dedicate his
after-school time to board games, he
says his parents took a conservative
view when it came to his future
profession and what it would mean for
him to be successful as an adult.
“My stepfather was a [medical]
doctor in Los Angeles, and I think my
parents pretty much predetermined
my path in life to become a doctor,”
DEPARTMENT EDITOR, ADRIAN SCOICĂ