Playforce 1: How a Video Game Studio Became an Airshow Staple

If you think the only way we spread joy is through video games, think again.

by | Oct 18, 2019

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his year fans across the country will be entertained by something Playful has been working on for years.  But this piece of entertainment is not a Nintendo Switch Game. It’s a thrilling aerobatics airshow.

In fact, millions of airshow fans and aerobatics enthusiasts across the country have already been entertained by the incredible routine from Playforce 1, a customized Extra 330 aerobatic monoplane, as Playful Pilot Adam Baker pulls Gs above them in a dizzying display of maneuvers.

If you are wondering how a video game studio ended up becoming a staple on the airshow circuit, keep reading.

A First Generation Pilot Meets Playful’s Founder

It turns out, we have the scorching central Oklahoma summer heat to thank for Adam Baker’s career in aviation.  Growing up in Oklahoma City, Baker and his two brothers had a summertime lawn care business, but when Baker found himself mowing property near a local airport, his head was in the clouds. “I always saw airplanes flying over, and wished I was up there rather than mowing lawns in the OKC heat,” Baker recounts.

It wasn’t until college that Baker fully realized his fascination with aviation could become a long term career. Baker adds, “being a first generation pilot I think has really made me develop into the best pilot I can be. There are so many different types of jobs in aviation, and I have really enjoyed the process of figuring out what I like the most!

Baker’s career in aviation has spanned everything from being a competitive aerobatics pilot, to “flying celebrities out of LA and NY”, to giving private lessons at flight schools. It was at one of those local flight schools where he received a fortuitous phone call from Playful founder, Paul Bettner.

Bettner is best known as a video game developer, but he has also been fascinated by aviation since his childhood. “I got into flying when I was 11 or so, because of a teacher I had named Art Messler,” says Bettner.  Even though Messler’s courses in Computer Science became the foundation for what would ultimately become Bettner’s game development career, Messler was more than just a teacher to Bettner.  “He had a little Cessna 150 that we kind of built together, and that’s when I first flew; with him. And I just got really into it,” remembers Bettner.  Messler became a tutor to Bettner, their relationship being so formative in fact, that Bettner eventually named his son after him.

It wasn’t until years after those first flying experiences however, after Bettner had already started his career as a game developer, that Messler would serve as the impetus Bettner needed to officially pursue his pilot’s license.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a happy impetus.  Messler had contracted cancer, and was given six months to live.

Upon hearing the news of Messler’s cancer, Bettner’s first instinct was to travel back home and fly in the old Cessna 150 with him again, an expression of how much Messler had meant to him in his adolescence.  There was just one problem.  “If you have cancer, you’re not allowed to hold a pilot’s license, “says Bettner.

So, while he was working at Ensemble Studios, famous for the Age of Empires franchise, Bettner decided to spend every clear morning he could to pursue the necessary training hours needed to prepare for a pilot’s license exam.  Motivated by Messler’s dire diagnosis and his desire to fly with him once more in the old Cessna, Bettner passed his exam after just barely logging the minimum hours needed to prepare for it.  They fixed the Cessna 150 up once more, and flew together before Messler ultimately passed.

Messler’s influence on Bettner clearly carried beyond just flying.  “He was this scholarly guy who taught me not just programming, but a lot of different subjects.  Everything from classical music to poetry to Latin,” and with a laugh, Bettner adds “he was also sort of a cowboy in the air.”

A cowboy in aviation parlance is what you might expect.  Someone who bends the rules, and sees how far they can take it. One particular flight with Messler in an old Russian Warbird had a lasting impact on Bettner’s interests as a pilot. While Bettner had become used to the way the Cessna 150 handled, the Warbird was different. “It’s like you just sneeze, and the plane wants to flip over.  It’s so sensitive.”

So, in between exiting Words With Friends and launching Playful, when Bettner had some time on his hands to pursue aviation once again, he went shopping for a plane that could do what that old Warbird could do, and landed on an Extra 330. Then he made that phone call to Baker to inquire about more advanced aerobatic training. 

In their first flight together, Baker says “I got him upside down and then taught him how to perform a lot of the maneuvers. He was a natural and when we landed he couldn’t stop smiling.”

The two pilots continued their training, and have since amassed more than 2000 hours together in everything from bush planes to helicopters.  For Bettner, the genuineness and ease of the budding friendship with Baker was unexpected. “I thought, you know, you have these friendships that you make when you’re a kid, and it feels like you can’t necessarily make those kinds of friendships as an adult anymore,” Bettner says.  But, their long training flights sitting next to each other were reminiscent of long school days, and the two became fast friends as they joked, and laughed, and dreamed together in the air.

At some point, Bettner told Baker about his need for “a bigger airplane that he needed for a new venture he had coming up,” says Baker.  A “venture” that would eventually become Playful.

At the same time Baker had an opportunity to make a career transition, and so he became one of the early employees for Playful, helping Bettner pursue the necessary Jet rating to fly the larger aircraft the Playful team needed.

Bettner and Baker posing in faux-seriousness during one of their training flights after watching the new Top Gun:Maverick trailer.

Creating Playforce 1

The idea for a Playful branded plane participating in airshows across the country was not part of some big masterplan, however.  Bettner says, “It happened very organically was we talked during those long haul flights needed to get the Jet certification.”

At some point, Paul’s Extra 330 was enlisted as Baker’s plane for his increasing demand on the airshow circuit. The crossover for Playful’s brand IP to end up on the plane that Baker was flying was a natural conclusion.

“We (Playful) are really trying to reach and entertain the same people that Adam is entertaining at those shows.  So, we were just like, let’s put our Playful IP on there.” says Bettner. 

Since that time, the Playforce 1 airshows have become a tradition for Playful.  In addition to the aerobatics maneuvers, spectators can enjoy what Baker describes as “the most dramatic graphic scheme ever to be put on an aircraft.”  

Before each airshow season, the Extra 330 receives a completely custom wrap designed by Playful’s in-house Branding team. The custom wraps showcase Playful IP, emphasizing the latest game launches.

Playful artist, Patrick Olilla recognizes the unique design opportunity, and adds “it’s one of the things I love about working at Playful, how many people get to design wraps for stunt planes!?”

So, how exactly do you design the most dramatic graphic scheme ever?

“It’s a fun process that presents some unique problems to solve, each season our team discusses some pretty ambitious ideas with Adam and Paul to find a solution that’s really going to turn some heads.  Our goal is to make a bold design that works as well while seen performing stunts, as it does parked in the field and viewed up close.” Olilla says.

A mockup of the new Playforce 1 wrap featuring characters from New Super Lucky’s Tale.

Spreading Joy

With the large crowds that attend the airshows that Baker participates in there is a clear marketing opportunity. Baker estimates that the plane will be seen by about 3 million people this year.

Beyond marketing, however, the mission of Playforce 1 aligns perfectly with Playful’s mission to spread joy.  Baker describes his show as “uplifting and entertaining”, and he notes that while many of the maneuvers appear dangerous, the aerobatics industry actually veers away from referring to them as stunts.  He says that “Airshows actually have an extremely high safety record because almost every pilot out there knows their role. At the end of the day Airshow pilots are entertainers and motivators and everything we do is in controlled airspace with lots of safety margins built in.”  He adds that there are still a few maneuvers he is working on adding to his show, but “until I can successfully do it 100 times in a row I won’t even consider putting it in the show.” He is so confident in the safety of his airshow routine that he jokingly mentions he would rather fly inverted 10 feet above the runway than drive down one of Dallas’ crowded highways during rush hour.

Bettner’s dream is to one day have the airshows and Playforce 1 serve as more than just a unique marketing opportunity.  His hope is that Baker’s innovation and influence in the industry as one of the younger aerobatics pilots on the circuit can ultimately live on as part of Playful’s IP. “What I’d love to do is to eventually see the plane become a character in the games,” dreams Bettner.  

Baker still has a few airshows left this season, including the Bell Fort Worth Alliance Airshow on October 19th and 20th.  The annual not-for-profit Bell Fort Worth Alliance Air Show is one of the largest and most successful air shows in the nation, seeing crowds of over 120k people every year, and including shows from top performers like Baker as well as perennial favorites like the Blue Angels.

The rest of Playforce 1’s schedule for this airshow season is below, as well as some more pictures of Playforce 1 in action. 

Let us know if you make it out to one of the events!

Bell Fort Worth Aliiance Air Show – Fort Worth, TX Oct 19th and 20th

Bonham Festival of Flight – Bonham, TX Oct 26th​

Thunder Over South Georgia at Moody AFB – Moody AFB, GA Nov 2nd-3rd

NAS Pensacola Blue Angels Homecoming Airshow – Pensacola, FL Nov 8th and 9th

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