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Amateur video game maker almost sparked WWIII

You’ve probably heard this one before: Boy makes a video game; the game is drawn into a spat between global superpowers arguing over a deadly terrorist organization; the unexpected burst of attention makes the game an instant best seller.

Or maybe you haven’t. But in 2017, a year in which it sometimes seems the headlines are inspired by particularly dark television programs rather than the other way around, the idea may not seem far-fetched.

Unfortunately for Diego Wasser, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Well — parts of it did. Just not the parts that meant fame and fortune for Wasser, a translator and would-be game developer in Buenos Aires. “Honestly, I’m just laughing with the rest of the internet,” said Wasser, 37, in an email to MarketWatch.

On Tuesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry shared what it called “irrefutable” evidence that the US was aiding ISIS fighters in the Middle East. On Twitter, part of its case was a screen shot from a video Wasser published on YouTube in 2015 as he worked on what he hoped would be a career-making breakthrough: a war simulator called “AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron.”

Observers soon connected the dots, and the ministry eventually deleted the tweet, republishing one without the “AC-130” images. “Mistakes happen,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to the Associated Press.

The post nevertheless drew mockery from American officials. Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the ISIS task force, called Russia’s claims “about as accurate as their air campaign.” And the US Embassy in Moscow called the claims “nonsensical,” saying “we need to focus on destroying our common enemy and not play games.”

Global tensions aside, this might have been a boon for Wasser, who learned the news as he opened his email Wednesday morning, still in his underwear, and readied his preferred breakfast of chocolate milk.

Inbound messages — many of them media inquiries from around the world — were piling up. A page about his game on the INdieDB site suddenly began attracting visitors. “This kind of publicity is every developer’s dream,” Wasser said.

But that’s about as far as it went. The trouble: There is no game, because Wasser never finished it. (There’s another game with a similar name on Apple’s App Store, but it’s not his.)

Wasser started the project under the name Byte Conveyor, a one-man shop with no investors. The name, he said, was meant to invoke “a well-oiled machine” for getting bytes to the right place. (In a post Wasser published as his game became the subject of news reports around the world, he called himself his company’s “CEO, CFO, CTO, CIO, Creative Director, 3D Modeler, Programmer and Janitor.”)

“Well, I am the janitor,” he told MarketWatch. “Might as well wear that badge with pride.”

A longtime hobbyist game developer, Wasser said he wrote his first code at 8 years old and his “first proper game” at 13. But he’d never released one commercially and, determined to try a high-quality mobile game, he settled on an air-combat simulation for his most ambitious effort, inspired in part by scenes from 2007’s “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare,” released by the company now known as Activision Blizzard .

The premise: A player would become the fire control officer of an AC-130 gunship, supporting ground troops, protecting bases and trying to avoid killing allies and civilians. (The heavily armed AC-130 is often used in Air Force operations.)

“It just felt right,” Wasser said. “First, it was a subject I had read a lot about and was familiar with. Second, this specific genre was — and still is — largely unexplored in mobile. And third, the concept is quite simple, enthralling and easy to get into: I just toss a few characters running around, and the player shoots at them and enjoys the mayhem.”

He documented much of his progress on Facebook, though the last update was almost two years ago. In that posting, Wasser said the game was “about 70 percent finished,” confessing to funding issues that had hampered his progress.

“I want to both thank and apologize to all those who’ve been eagerly awaiting this game,” he wrote, “and wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, hoping that in the next one I finally get to reward you with a finished and entertaining game.”

Rising living expenses and other issues have kept Wasser, who said he sunk his life savings into the project, from finishing. Today he works as a freelance translator and still hopes to finish “AC-130,” though it’s unclear that he’ll be able to.

“I am barely scraping by working as a translator full-time,” he said. “With my life savings gone, I am now studying where I go from here.”

And even as world events cast a new spotlight on his work, he said, he’s received little in the way of offers of help or financial support. “From a business standpoint, this hasn’t affected me in any way, and I have received no offers,” he said. “Personally, every time something good happens in relation to the game, the feeling of impotence over not being able to work on it flares up.”

His disappointment aside, Wasser has maintained a sense of humor about an episode he called “comedic gold.”

“Here is a regular guy sipping chocolate milk in his underwear that suddenly finds himself in the middle of an international conflict between two military superpowers halfway across the world,” he said.

That may be at least in part because, while the incident hasn’t made him the ideal kind of Internet Famous — the kind that is also Internet Rich or, at least, compensated for his trouble — things could always be worse. As of Wednesday, he reported, neither the government of the US nor of Russia had come knocking on his door.

“Thankfully,” he said. “That would be a bit scary.”


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