Implicit Conversions:  The Origin Story

Interview with Jake Stine & Robin Lavallée, CTO & CEO @ Implicit Conversions

Robin Lavallée and Jake Stine, co-founders of Implicit Conversions, open up about their backgrounds and the reasons behind the creation of their emulation company which brings retro games to modern consoles.

A Curious Mind Unlocks the Code

A Nintendo leak in 2018 revealed source code for Starfox 2, released in 1995.

Jake always had an inquisitive mind. 

“I wonder how they did that?” he asked himself as he grinded Nintendo games as a child. 

Very early, he had developed the habit of taking things apart to see how they worked. “But with a video game, the hardware can only take you so far in terms of understanding how they work,” he explains. “If I wanted to have the whole story, I had to study the code. And that’s how I started developing software.” 

Jake discovered that he could develop the skills to fix the annoying bugs he sometimes encountered in games. He admits that he is not usually the one who comes up with ideas but he is very good at finding solutions to problems that are brought to him. In his youth, he had friends who’d come to him with an objective and they’d work together to find solutions to arising issues. They helped each other out with various video game projects, combining their sets of skills to achieve their common goal. 

A Friendship Formed Through Shared Passion

Robin was one of those friends. They met online; Jake lived in the U.S. and Robin in Canada – where he learned English through video games, notably Final Fantasy, which has quite a lot of text. Together, they endeavored to create an emulator so they could play Final Fantasy IV on their PC. “I was thirteen or fourteen, and I spent countless hours copying each tile manually, from my low-res TV in the basement to the computer. I even reconstructed the world map, click by click, so I could have it opened while I played,” Robin remembers.  Around that time, he decided that he wanted to make games.

For his part, Jake started to have occasional storytelling ideas that he liked to share with his friends. He’d take an editorial approach to existing games: edit dialogues, change the pace, the flow of the story, fix its timing,… Pretty soon, the two friends and other teens were working on their own video game projects. They were inexperienced but motivated by all the fun they had working together. “We focused on small, well-defined goals that we knew we could achieve,” Jake noted. “I’d naturally break out the projects into doable bits, as I had always done.”

Although most of their projects didn’t go beyond design and practice runs, they entered one of their demos in a gamedev contest and won third place, which would, incidentally, later get Robin hired at Ubisoft. 

From Self-Taught Developer to Emulation Expert

PCSX2 PlayStation 2 Emulator
PCSX2 is a free emulator of the Sony PlayStation 2 console for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X operating systems, released under the GNU GPL license.

As time went by, the two friends lost sight of each other, both finding their own paths to hone their technical skills.

Jake, who had never felt at ease in an academic environment, rejected the option of going to college, anticipating it to be a waste of time and money for him. He worked on his own, being his own employer, focusing on 2D engines and technical demos, learning by himself  how to develop user interfaces and websites. But without the degrees and connections in the field, he had a hard time making a living for himself. 

Although Jake was already an accomplished self-taught developer, he hadn’t much experience with emulation. He joined the emulation scene after attempting to fix bugs he encountered on an unstable and not particularly user-friendly PS2 emulator called PCXS2. He started to implement upgrades, such as the option to resize the window, and when he encountered bugs in the audio, he started to tackle them, emboldened by his earlier successes with these issues when he had worked on small video games projects.

He soon discovered that audio in emulation is an integral part of the emulator system unlike in modern game development where it’s separate. “Back in the day, the entire game was set on the audio, like a clock,” he explains. He learned how to fix that first audio issue which led him to branch out and work on other bugs and implement stable changes to the emulator. 

The original developers noticed and contacted him to work on improving their program. Jake joined the team because he enjoyed this type of work and the new skills he was developing. He didn’t expect to make any money out of it, but by 2007 PCSX2 had been downloaded a few million times and was bringing a small revenue through the sale of ad space. The team decided to invest into upgrading their hardware. Jake’s situation was improving as he finally had managed to monetize the skills he had worked so hard to teach himself. 

Just as he wondered how to reconcile the concern of intellectual property with the work he was doing, Sony contacted him.

They couldn’t tell him what he would be working on, but they wanted him to work for them. Jake was reluctant at first: he had no formal qualifications and had never worked in a corporate setting. “I bluntly asked them why they would want to work with someone who couldn’t give them any proof that he’d do a good job. And they told me that it wasn’t my concern but theirs. So I went along with the recruitment process and was hired as an engineer to participate in developing their PS2 emulator on PS4, first with the R&D team and later in Production.” Jake soon realized that, despite his lack of experience in corporate positions, his self-taught knowledge and the way he handled problems were a great asset for the project as well as the people he worked with. 

From Self-Taught Coder to Corporate Leader

Robin worked on the Assassin’s Creed Unity development team in 2013, as lead programmer.

Meanwhile, Robin followed a much more common path. He had always wanted to work in the video game industry and had already learned to code by himself. He received his bachelor in computer science at the Concordia University in Montréal in 2003 and soon after joined Ubisoft in Québec as a software engineer and gameplay programmer. He had solid programming skills and climbed the ladder over the years, all the way to the position of lead programmer. 

After almost a decade working on well-known modern franchises, such as Prince of Persia or Assassin’s Creed, he took on the position of Technical Director at Frima where he was the Technical Lead of the studio, making games for consoles and mobile for 3rd parties such as Disney, Nickelodeon, or the government, among others. Being the leader of a considerable team, he also participated in the business side of the projects and gained skills in marketing and sales. 

He then answered California’s call and emigrated in 2015 to join 2K’s team as a senior online engineer. He later moved on to Twitch where he mainly worked on video decoding and porting (from Web to Xbox, PS4, PS5 and Switch) for 5 years. He then became a software development engineer at Meta where he worked with very advanced technology for about a year,  developing Project Horizon and the Metaverse. 

Nevertheless, Robin’s first passion was and remains retro games. “When I was young, I used to draw Mega Man using my computer’s pixels,” he confides. “I’ve always been really fond of RPGs, such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. I used to pretend the monsters were the teachers I didn’t get along with.”

As an adult, he realized that he had been one console generation behind everyone else all his life: he had bought his PS1 when the PS2 came out, his PS2 when the PS3 was released, etc… “I am thrifty,” he says. “I didn’t see the point in paying full price for a game that’d be discounted in a few years. So I’ve always been behind current game trends.” He’s also maintained a fondness for fixing old hardware such as consoles. 

Bringing Retro Games to Modern Consoles: Jake’s and Robin’s Ambitions

The six years Jake spent working full-time at Sony starting in 2011 were incredibly instructive but he says the most important lesson he learned there was about brand alignment. “Sony is focused on the brand value of their products, and rightly so. But that leaves out a lot of third-party games that don’t necessarily align with Sony’s objectives. My hope is to make emulators that are available to everyone.  There is a lot of value to be found in many awesome classic games such as Legacy of Kain: Soulreaver, for instance.”

Meanwhile, as Sony restructured their emulation project, Jake went from employee to contractor. 

Jake created his own company, Implicit Conversions, in January of 2019. He didn’t want to carry out this enterprise alone, so he offered Robin, with whom he had recently reconnected, to join in. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the project didn’t gain much traction then. 

A couple of years later, Sony decided to once again turn to Jake to help them manage their “old” games. That’s when he asked Robin to join him full-time in developing Implicit Conversions’ activities. 

Together, they worked out if the project could be viable and how to make it worth it. Robin’s experience in business and budgeting came in handy and Jake’s connection to Sony helped them identify the needs and necessary workforce to answer the giant’s demands. “This company almost happened by accident,” Robin reveals. “We weren’t 100% sure of where we were going, but we were going there together.” 

Although they work closely with Sony, which covers its target market very well, there is still a sizable piece of the market where Sony isn’t necessarily interested. Whereas the video game publishers see Implicit Conversions’ work as a series of games to be added to their stores, Jake and Robin have a bigger vision for their company. 

Their plan is to work around console makers’ intellectual property on a technology long-established corporations view as outdated, in order to propagate the software they are developing. “I’d love to be able to play games such as Cybernator, Ninja Warriors Again, Peacekeepers, or Guardian Heroes on my modern console!” Jake points out. 

With their own company, independent from console makers, the two developers have enough freedom to share the technology to a greater number of people and are now happy to see their prospects and team grow to new heights. 

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