Sunday, November 2, 2014

Homebrew Brawling

Fading memoires
In the digital ages, all of our work is stored on hard-drives, clouds and floppy- wait- USB mediums. Too bad for the photographic developer branch, but the days of bringing film rolls -no idea if the photos you took wouldn't suck too much- are over. Or well, too bad... since that every telephone contains decent photographing hardware, people tend to capture more nonsense than ever. New shoes, selfie of weird me + GF's, selfie of me standing in front of some uninteresting building, baby doing funny things (hundred times a day), mass murders in the desert, the size of your doodle, et cetera. It's a good thing though. At least our fond memories don't fade away together with a handful of yellowed photos. When asking my girl for photos of her childhood for example, she really only has a few tiny (poor quality) pictures. In contrast, our little ape has been snapped a billion times; selfie of scary me + crying baby, baby walking, baby laughing, baby falling, baby crying again, size of her doodles, et cetera.

So it happened that friends and I were spitting through the photo-vault, looking for youth pictures of two good friends that recently got married together. Not a surprise, besides a few (analogue) photos of them sitting on donkeys, giving very first kisses to another boy/girl, smiling to the camera in Mickey Mouse shirts, and measuring their doodle sizes, 98% of the other photos were digital ones, starting somewhere in the late nineties when -exactly- the digital camera and mobile phones were invented. Being a teenager by then, donkeys were exchanged for scooters and cars, ice-cream for beer, Mickey Mouse shirts for shirts with puke, and as for the doodles... well nothing changed really. Anyhow, we had a good time sorting out the photos of course. If one of your friends will marry one day, do yourself a favour and make a photobook.


Analogue or digital, photos still get lost though. When I started programming, somewhere in the late nineties -yes, when the digital camera became popular-, I made a wild variety of games. 7% finished, buggy games, I must say. Shooting Galleries, Command & Conquer attempts, top-down view racing games, Bomberman clones, R-Type flying arcade games, side-scrollers. You name it. Comparing to Tower22, the cool things about them was that you could actually make a playable (prototype) game within a reasonable amount of time. Read days/weeks/months, not years. Nevertheless, pretty much all of them died sooner or later. A combination of losing interest, lack of experience, and getting in love with another idea. It's a darn shame, but most of these old games just disappeared. Like tearing, burning or throwing away the photographs of your ex-girlfriend, most of my old source code got "erased" after a hard-disk or computer replacement. There were a few CD-ROM backups (no USB yet), but being in love with another project, I usually figured we wouldn't need that old crap anymore anyway.

This is one of the few games that survived, and still works! Level 1 at least... sort of... It was inspired on Contra (Probotector).

A big mistake. Maybe your current girl/wife disapproves, but wouldn't you like to see back all your ex-girlfriends? On photo I mean, just for having a laugh and bringing back good or bad memories? Honestly I can't tell because I don't have any ex-girlfriends (still together with the first one), although I do have some ex-gameproject loves. They say your first true love is the strongest one, and maybe that is true for games as well. Once I knew a bit how to make (flickerless) animated sprites and some sounds, using Delphi4 and "DelphiX", a DirectX component library, I tried to realize my first *serious* game idea. An idea I had for a longer time, as that particular genre died out with the arrival of 3D consoles such as the N64, Saturn and Playstation. I'm talking about the brawl, aka "Beat 'm up" genre.


Fuck'm up!
If you didn't grew up with the (S)NES or Sega, you may not recognize the term. A "Beat 'm Up" game can be best described as a side-scrolling fighting game. You would walk through a street, bar, ninja Dojo, train, bus, Technodrome, whatever, and beat the shit out of every foe on screen. Except for your buddy of course. Beat 'm up games typically had a 2-player mode, which would double the fun. Unlike Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, you were usually able to walk up and down as well, and had to defeat a whole army of weaker enemies instead of a single foe. A good excuse to smack everyone in the city was usually to safe your daughter or girl. Business as usual for guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean claude van Damme, in the eighties / early nineties.

Gems in this genre are games such as Double Dragon, Final Fight and TMNT - Turtles in time. My first experience with them was probably in an Arcade somewhere in a German vacation park, where the Arcade version of Final Fight asked me to throw in some coins. Holy shit, after 2 minutes (when the stupid timer ran out) I got stabbed with knifes, pile-drived punkers, threw telephone cells to slutty women. Final Fight was one aggressive piece of game! If it only had a 2 player mode... My all-time favourite beam 'm up game must be Double Dragon for the SNES. How many times did my little brother and I play this game? I used to borrow that game from a guy every once in so often. Whether my little brother liked it or not, had had to help me finish that game for the 8092th time. We got so good in throwing monks from balconies, using nun-chucks against clowns, and enclosing foes to make a 300 hit combo's that we could finish the game without losing any lives. One of the most addictive SNES games in my opinion.

Just an average afternoon in our alley.

The genre faded away though. I'm not sure why, but I think "3D" killed it. The transition from 2D to 3D didn't quite match with the genre's gameplay. Filling the screen with multiple enemies hogged resources, producing fluent 3D animations was hard, and navigating / hitting somebody in 3D felt unnecessary difficult. Of course, many of the issues have been fixed with improved hardware, development skills, and tricks such as auto-aiming and improved shoulder camera's. See PS2 titles such as The Warriors, Mortal Kombat Shaolin monks or God of War. My guess is that companies at the time just didn't have the experience to produce a proper working beat 'm up game in 3D. And honestly, I think 2D still works better. Mainly the (auto)aiming is an issue. Enabling it makes it too easy to strike, disabling it makes it too hard.

Hey, here is an idea... Why not just do it in 2D again?! You are reading my mind. But 2D was not-done end-nineties. Buying an expensive "powerhouse" like the N64, then play simple 2D prehistoric games again?! Blasphemy! As with ex-girlfriend photo's, Nintendo/Sega/Konami/Capcom/.../ burnt and buried their old loves. It remains a mystery why the genre never really revived though. Nowadays 2D is Retro and cool again, but for some reason you will rarely see such a title. Maybe I'm just got stuck in the past.

I felt the same about it in 1998/1999 though. Making 3D was still out of my reach, so what would be the most fun, addictive, awesome type of game to make with good old 2D graphics? Of course, a Beat 'm up. And I would pick our school & village as a theme. Inspiring environments, ahum, beating up our teachers... Actually we had a teacher for English who looked awfully close to "Mike Haggar", the moustached hero (and mayor) in green corduroys, playing in the Final Fight series. I imagined two of them dropping down in a cage, in the labour classroom, fighting with lead pipes... Oh joy.

Face-Turkey-plant.


Make it clay
I was planning to mention this project earlier on this blog, but -surprise- I couldn't find any screenshots anymore. Indeed, the entire thing got flushed in the digital toilet. A bit odd though, as I snapped hundreds of photographs for this particular project. But guess what, searching old photos from my friends for their marriage, I stumbled over a couple of project snapshots as well!

As said, 3D was out of the option, and drawing everything as 2D sprites was just too much. Not that I didn't try though. Fighting games like these, were typically made of a layered background (street, buildings, far background, sky), a simple HUD (health bar, ugly mug shots of the current foe receiving whoopass), some foreground objects to destroy or collect (steak & pizza for health), and of course the puppets themselves. I started drawing backgrounds with either paint or pastel, and then scanned the images. That on itself didn't look too bad, but it turned out to be extremely difficult to mix it with the other sprites consistently.


The problem with sprites is that you'll have to draw frame by frame. The mister Miyagi crane kick for example would need 5 or 6 frames at least. Unless you're a skilled animator/drawer, it's extremely hard to draw the contours and colours consistently, using paper and pastels or paint. Computer programs like Flash would make life easier with vector graphics, but I never really liked the simplistic cartoon look in (Indy) games or cartoons. The animations themselves were hard enough already, but the result didn't blend with the background either. Weird perspectives, different colouring, no shadows. Just not good. If I wanted to make a game without help of pro animators and pixel artists, I had to come up with a different technique... Eureka! Clay!


The size was a bit (too) small to make a detailed environment, but all we had was some clay I got for Christmas.

I always loved clay, as you can create a puppet or object within no time. Ok, it may not look super realistic, but that is exactly not what we want anyway; the clay look itself, with its fingerprints and clumpy chunks, is charming by itself. And a bit scary too. Think about Nina Simone - My baby just cares for me, The Neverhood, Clayfighter, or Jackie Wilson - Reet petite. So, the plan was to model both backgrounds, objects and characters out of clay. Then make digital photographs, and edit them. Easier said than done, the early digital cameras had a low resolution and bad exposure, resulting in blurry/grainy pictures. But fun we had! I would make a piece of scene in clay, and snapshot it from the front (in side-scroller perspective). Only problem was the lighting, which always looked the same more or less. Didn't have coloured spots or mini-electrics to decorate the scene, plus I would need a bright spotlight to get a somewhat usable photo anyway. Editing the lighting was done in Paint Shop Pro afterwards, though my skills were still premature.

More spectacular were the animated guys. First I would make a clay model, 15 cm tall or so, then impale it with a metal-wire skeleton. This skeleton was used to make the model stand on its legs, and keep it in a certain pose. For each move, I would animate the skeleton and capture the model frame by frame. On a white background, to make it a bit easier to remove the background in Paint Shop using the flood-fill tools. It would still take many hours to brush away all background pixels though. And that wasn't the only problem hehe. There were so many moves -stand, walk, punch1/2/3/4/..., get slapped, get kicked, die, fly away, get locked in a wrestle grip, ... that it was impossible to snap all photo's at one time. And due all the movement, the clay joints would eventually tear apart. Knees cracked, hands and heads fell off, bodies got disfigured after squeezing and shaping it too many times. So it would happen that one animation would look a bit different than the other. Different camera distance, different environment light (day and night affected the attic where the shots were taken).


Nevertheless, the results were quite satisfying. The guys walked as drunk idiots, and some of the fighting moves didn't look powerful at all. But the clay-setting is forgiving. Another issue was still the perspective. In traditional beat 'm ups, the streets/floor is just a rectangular shaped area where you can walk up/down/left/right. But the clay worlds were more rounded, and more arbitrary. They had platforms and differences in depth. Via an editor I divided the photo in small tiles that told the game where you could walk, and how high you were. Also the sprites would scale a bit smaller when walking upwards. Yet, the result was a bit weird sometimes. Sprites getting too small compared to the environment, or not very clear where you could or couldn't walk. When ninja-kicking away a foe, it could fall in a pit (read drop below the screen), or get stuck behind an invisible column.

Oh well, recording punch & ouch sounds and seeing it all happen in your (first) game was magic anyways. After half a year or so, I got pretty far with the game actually. There were about 20 backgrounds, an overworld map (in this game you could decide where to go, rather than just finishing levels), an inventory (it was a puzzle-fighting-horror-beat'm up game, of course), several characters "finished", and computer AI that didn't work too bad. Oh, and best of all, one stage had a blue hill-billy pickup truck driving by randomly with "The Fresh Prince of Bell Air" theme song. The trick was to paralyze your enemies in the path of that truck so they would get hit and launch in the air.




Bye my lover
Of course, it also had its share amount of bugs and shit. Nostalgia tends to get blurry by warm memories, but there were reasons I stopped the project at some point. Or, lost interest so to say. When I started this game, "TMC Rumble" (TMC was the name of our school), I only half understood the principles of OOP programming and generic design. Every bit was hard-coded, so the entire thing quickly grew to a gigantic if (level = level1 and enemy = ninja512)...then...else mess. The game rules felt too random. Sometimes you would break your neck when getting smacked of the stairs, other times only a few damage points were given. Enemies would react somewhat randomly to your actions, making it hard to generate an addictive "learning curve" in this game, where the player can discover and exploit weaknesses of enemies. But moreover, I fell in love with glScene, a Delphi component library to make OpenGL applications. Just like the rest of the gaming industry dropped 2D like an old overdue stepmother, I did the same to my 2D toys. And forgot to make at least a proper back-up.

So, all that remains, are a couple of production-photographs (no in-game shots... probably I didn't even knew the PrtScr button back then). Probably for the best, as that amateur code would get me stuck sooner or later anyway. But at least I should have made a back-up. Thinking about all the complexity of making a game like Tower22, where you would almost forget the innocent fun of realizing your silly fantasies with rather simple tools, doing test-plays, and being proud of your quick progress, I'd definitely would like to do a "remake" one day. With clay of course. I would still need some help though, but at least making a beat 'm up is far easier than a full 3D game, plus there still aren't too many good titles around. So, who knows.


Last but not least, an enemy-sheet a friend, my little brother and I did for the "Contra" look-a-like game shown above. The best part of making games is drawing bullshit together. Programming everything on the other hand... sigh.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Music Television

When you are little, you're excited to get presents. When a little bit older, you're excited to give presents. Ahh, the smile on those little fat faces, as they are unpacking as quick as they can with their greedy little hands. Priceless. I got a few T22 presents on the shelve here as well, but can’t give them yet. That makes me just as nervous as one who would be waiting impatiently on new material. Thinking about it, I wonder how developers behind real big titles -such as a Halflife 3- would feel. It’s freak’n hard to keep your mouth shut about something you’re proud at.

I’d like to show you something that has to do with monsters & animations, but unfortunately we all will have to wait until the whole next official demo movie is done. Some more animation work has to be done first. The good news is that we have another little movie “ready”, to fill the waiting-gap that has become far too wide since last released movie, back in 2012.



Ok, there should be a Youtube click-link right here then… where is it? Well, I could click the “upload” button right now, but there are a few remaining issues. First of all, the term “finished” doesn’t exists in software-dev land. Anyone here who made programs for a living, knows the “when is it done?” question can’t be answered that easily. Technically it’s done, but…. There is always a “but”. Artists probably have the same issues with their canvases, music pieces, or craftwork. There is always a brush-streak to be added, a tone to be tuned, a corner you don’t quite like, and doubts on how the audience would receive your hard work. The combination of software and art, a game, is probably even worse. I find it very difficult to let things go and put a “done” stamp on it.

Don’t know how others do it, but maybe the only way is to make deadlines. Spend X hours on it at maximum, ensure A, B and C are at least achieved. And also, it always helps to take a step back, do something different, and look back later. Is it satisfying? Then you did a good job, didn’t you? Don’t forget that the audience usually doesn’t notice the small flaws you have been stumbling on. The audience looks at the bigger picture. So what if the electro spark particles look super-realistic? The whole sequence has to feel good, otherwise the verdict will still be a F-. The audience can be fooled, but is also unforgivable.


Since I can't show our animated monster yet, let's compensate with a concept doodle I did last week (got the idea while eating bacon for breakfast in England, burp).

In that context, I feel this demo needs a couple more improvements. To give some more details, it is some sort of music-clip. Hurh? Yes, a music clip. Not directly related to Tower22, nor super-scary bloody shit-bricks horror stuff. But of course, it is rendered in the T22 engine, using T22 assets, with some horror sauce. Making a clip is easier said than done though. Different cup of tea than games, mainly because the “visual motion” has to match up with an “audio beat”. Especially if the music has some pace. So far I think the theme and feel matches quite good, though the visuals lack pace and quirky camera sequences or events to tie the ties. The Tower22 editor wasn’t exactly made for making bouncy MTV clips, flashy space galaxy particle effects or cinematic delights.

Why on earth making a music-clip based demo then? Eh, just because. I heard the song, found it cool, and thought “why not use for a little T22 demo movie?”. The idea of using music was there already before the Tower22 idea really. So, why not? It’s sort of an experiment I made to fill the gap towards the official T22 demo (so don’t expect super new graphics either, it’s a programmer-art thing I did myself mainly).

Don’t worry, it looks pretty cool, and it certainly sounds cool (if you like that type of music, that is)… Which brings me to the next problem. Before I can release this “clip”, I should ask permission first. Now I didn’t hear new material from this -British electronic-dance-garage-punk-hiphop-whatever- duo quite long (in fact, it’s not even a duo anymore), and this particular song isn’t officially released as far as I know. Found it in a dark abandon corner on Youtube. This song might have been just as experimental for them, than this demo is for me really. So, I could just take the risk and dump it anyway. But… I was raised with manners. So let’s just ask.

That thought makes me nervous though. The risk of getting rejected (or just don’t get a reply at all) is pretty real of course. Or maybe more realistic, they follow a standard procedure and let me sign a complicated paper and have to pay them XYZ dollars. Now I can miss a few hundred dollars. Or actually, I can’t (made a new kitchen / floor / interior and baby-room last two months). But something tells me we won’t be talking about a few hundred dollars. I really hope they aren’t greedy, appreciate their work being used on a project where love was put into it, and just like the video…. So I’d better do some more last minute improvements first!!



Whatever the reply will be, this demo will be released, with or without music. The latter would suck of course, but just throwing it away would be a waste as well. And maybe our audio guys can have some fun with it. It’s hard to promise anything with a new baby coming somewhere next month, but I really try upload at least something before the end of this year! After all the waiting, you guys deserve that!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Post-mortem-review #4: Resident Evil (Remake)

Ah, Resident Evil. One of the Tower22 motivators, and my first wet-pants gaming experience probably. Games, books or movies rarely scare me. Then again I'm not really a horror-movie expert, nor did I play a whole lot of horror games. Of course there was Doom and such, but that was more shooting and laughing than actually getting terrified. So, the concept "horror-survival" was new to me, when I finally rented the Resident Evil 1 Remake for the Nintendo Gamecube, on a dark Winter sunday in 2003. Huh, rented? Yes children, kids back then didn't have parents with gaming hobbies, so we had to buy everything ourselves. So it was still somewhat common to visit a video store and rent a game, before spending your hard-earned money on it. And Resident Evil certainly wasn't a game I would have blindly put my money on.

Of course I heard about it, and remembered the (ugly) screenshots from the original PSX (Playstation 1) release in 1996. Never owned a PSX though, so this title passed. Something with zombies and giant snakes. Oh, and a female character, which wasn't new after Lara Croft, but still a bit uncomfortable for hillbillies like me. The screenshots reminded me a bit of Alone in the Dark, which was pretty cool, so you know what, let's give Resident Evil a try and rent it.


You are dead!
Well, quite an experience. Especially the "You died" screen that appeared after 2 minutes playing already. This was hardcore shit, and I wasn't even sure if I should continue playing. My brothers attic-bedroom was pitch dark, stormy wind and rain were smashing against the window, and my heart was pounding as I got caught by the very first zombie. Yep, I stopped playing. Had to drink beer with friends, a good moment to flee, phew.



My first minutes of Resident Evil kept haunting me that night. First of all, it looked really, REALLY good. Way better than the original Resident Evil, and also surprisingly realistic on this Nintendo platform, where the majority of games had a cartoonish touch. The music and sound effects of the thunders and ticking clock in the dining-room were terrifying (realistically). The eating zombie, turning his head and stiffly standing up in a somewhat stop-motion way was disturbing. And moreover, this game was going to be really freaking hard. I've killed so many demons, tentacles, mummies, skeletons on motorcycles and organic goop. Yet I wasn't able to shoot down a slow, dead-walking zombie. I've dropped Mario in a cliff so many times, had Duke murdered by pig-cops, and threw snes joysticks through the room on a "Game over!" screen. Yet, for the first time in a game, I was really afraid to die, and therefore afraid to pick up the controller again.

Resident Evil felt very uncomfortable, and that is usually a good reason to quit and do something else. Bake a cake, catch butterflies, surprise your mother, play Twister. The key of a good horror creation, is to chase you away with a leash on. You don't want to watch, but you look through your sneaky fingers anyway. You don't want to continue, yet you just have to know what the hell happened. Resident Evil chased me away that night, but its excellent appearance and my curiosity for this horror-mansion called me back the next day. With a light switched on this time.


Resident Who?
By now, there are about seven-billion titles in the Resident Evil franchise. Besides 1,2,3,4,5 and recently 6, we also have a 0, Revelations, Outbreak, Chronicles, Veronica and so on. There are comics, chainsaw-shaped joysticks, remakes of remakes. Heck we even have a Resident Evil movie. A bad one of course, as most game-inspired movies. Twenty game titles in total, and counting. Good job CAPCOM!?... Well...

The original Resident Evil brings you to a gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere. People went missing, and S.T.A.R.S -a special police unit of Raccoon City- was sent to investigate. Hell breaks loose quickly when Bravo teams’ helicopter crashes in the forest, and its survivors got chased by wild dogs into this mansion. The team is split up / missing, thus your first priority is to rendezvous with the others. You either play the game as Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, members of S.T.A.R.S. You will learn quickly that this is no ordinary mansion. The place is a mess, and the only “living” residents seem to be zombies. Evil residents.

All right, what happened here? This is where Resident Evil really started to excite me: finding clues, fantasizing of the people that lived/worked in that mansion, trying to figure it all out. Nowadays every game has a dramatic story (or at least tries to), mostly copied from other games, so the plot I’m about to spoil won't be a shocking surprise. But back then most games didn't have a proper story at all. Just give a gun, and we have fun. So my impression was that Resident Evil was merely about shooting monsters in a spooky mansion. Didn't expect an interesting plot to be revealed, as you find notes and other clues. Resident Evil isn't a real action/combat game. There are guns and goodies, and blood will flow. But you beat this game with your brains, not with your trigger-finger.


Smart girl. Got to admit... as someone who never understood the fuzz about Lara Croft made out of 6 triangles and 2 unnatural big hooters, I didn't mind looking at Jill. See, graphics matter.


Stupid architect.
The mansion is a maze of corridors, rooms and yards. And of course the architect decided to give each door a different key or hidden entrance. If you just count the amount of rooms or square meters, Resident Evil isn't a big game, square-meter-wise. But since you'll be puzzling and running around the building over and over again in order to unlock a new room, it will be lengthy game nevertheless (at least when playing it for the first time). The first rooms will be pretty much what you would expect from a ghastly mansion. Dusty furniture, old Victorian styling, broken luxury, spooky oil paintings, creaky wooden floors. But after a while more bizarre locations will be thrown in the mixture. Crypts, graveyards, caves, and even a large shark tank. On top, you will learn this mansion wasn't owned by a single family. A whole team of people seemed to have worked here on something, giving the many bedrooms, and letters you'll find. And all of them turned into zombies or committed suicide.

Yes, you know where this is going. Failed experiments. Evil plans that turned against them. But since that concept wasn't used a billion times before in 2003 (let alone in 1996, the original RE release year), I found it a shocking surprise to discover a hidden laboratory below the mansion near the end of the game. So this is what they were doing! This game wasn't just about shooting and surviving, but actually had an intelligent plot hidden in it. All the little pieces puzzle started to make sense. Scientists developed a secret "T-Virus" to turn humans into B.O.W.'s, Bio Organic Weapons. However, most "test-cases" turned into weak-ass dumb zombies instead, and unfortunately for them, an accident in the lab caused the virus to spread and affect pretty much anyone in and around the mansion.


Make your own sandwich asshole


Resident nonsense
The cool thing about this story, is that it is kinda plausible. God knows what people are doing in laboratories all around the world, and replace T-Virus with Ebola, and you're pretty close to the zombie thing. Less plausible is all the nonsense the Resident Evil series came with afterwards unfortunately. CAPCOM milked the shit out of the RE franchise cow. Milk that went from rich and fat into scrawny powder. Of course, the T-Virus spread further to the nearby Raccoon city, suitable material for a next Resident Evil (or two, or three, or ...) game. But with each instalment, the credibility of this once original story, was downgraded further and further. Old foes such as Wesker that keep coming back again and again, ridiculous super-conspiracy theories, zombies with mini-guns, Chris and Jill that have to safe the entire world at least three times a month from latex babes making summersaults, and so on.

Don't get me wrong. Most of the Resident Evil games are still fun. Especially RE 4, that introduced dramatic changes to the aged puzzle, control, camera and action mechanics from the previous titles, was a very fun game. Yes, a FUN game. Not a scary game (although getting chased by hordes of angry farmers and chainsaw maniacs had its thrilling charms). In fact RE4 was so much fun that I replayed it at least six or seven times. RE 5 was even less scarier and felt a bit stiff, but it still did the trick for me. Part six on the other hand... I don't know what they were thinking there. As if Adam Sandler had to write a next Schindler's List. Removed / reduced some of the elements that made RE 4/5 great, less action, and even more bullshit stories with new characters I couldn't care less about.

Well, at least CAPCOM isn't afraid to stir the soup, add ingredients, or to throw away the whole kettle and try something else... except that for the sake of having a somewhat believable story again, they maybe should just drop the name "Resident Evil" and all of its characters and virus mutations, and start over with a whole new, fresh franchise. Just an idea. RE has become a joke of itself, and its beyond repairs I’m afraid. The experiment blew up, and all new RE titles are just zombies now.


RE4 is a super game. But hopefully this picture explains RE can't be taken too seriously anymore.


The uncomfort zone
Anyhow, that doesn't change the fact that the original RE (and the Remake) was awesome. Their goal was to make a terrifying horror game, and they did an excellent job as all elements were complementary. This is extremely important for an horror game, as its all too easy to break the tension with misplaced elements. For example, the later RE titles are all visually appealing and have gruesome monsters, but have such ridiculous stories and over-the-top characters that it’s hard to take it serious. Many other games have the focus too much on action and shooting. No matter how scary and bloody your monster design is, they won't make you shit bricks anymore after killing it a couple of times. Repeating a certain pattern too often makes the player feel comfortable, and that is exactly not what a horror-game should do.

Yet other games just look or sound too bad to raise your neck hairs. The saying "make games, not graphics!" isn't quite true for the horror-genre. If stuff looks fake, it will break the tension. More than in most other game genres, any little sound or detail that feels awkward, can shatter the experience. Just take a look at a random Youtube horror gameplay-run, and you'll notice that people are making jokes and talk to themselves all the time in order to suppress fear. If a horror-game gives too much to joke about, it will drag you out of that "uncomfort-zone".

Resident Evil (Remake) scored good on every front. The audio to begin with, is excellent. I kinda miss the "catchy" tunes in modern games. It's either way too bombastic, or reduced to monotone background mumble. RE had a different music for almost every room/corridor, giving a different vibe. Some rooms sounded weird, some very threatening, yet others too silent for comfort. In a few rare situations, there were "safe rooms" (often where you could literally save the game). Lights on, and calming music. Finally, a moment to breath and not having to worry about zombies coming around the corner... right? Of course the different types of music allowed the makers to play tricks. Usually threatening music means troubles, but sometimes nothing would happen there, while other rooms that felt safe before, suddenly became a trap. All in all, very well done. I wish we can achieve the same on the Tower22 music.



Patience (door-opening scene playing)
Also the visuals are appealing. The realistic characters made it easier to create a bond and feel their troubles. Every location is worked out in great detail, and breaths an old and filthy atmosphere of dust, rust, mouldy wallpaper, spider-webs, and dried jerky zombie blood. The design and building architecture uses a lot of classic "ghost mansion" elements which may sound cliché, but works out nevertheless. Not everyone was charmed by the camera-system though. One unmistakable feature of the first RE titles (and also other somewhat similar puzzle/action games such as Alone in the Dark, Bioforge or Metal Gear Solid) were the fixed camera angles. The camera didn't follow the player over the shoulder, as in most later RE titles. Instead each room had one or more pre-defined camera positions. Sometimes placed on the floor or ceiling, which sounds artistically but made it hard to navigate your character smoothly through the mansion as the view would suddenly change to a complete different pose while moving. RE 4 finally renewed the camera-system with a dynamic shoulder-cam, and the whole world was happy about it. Yet I dare to defend the fixed angles.

As explained in this post fixed views are much cheaper to render. Older hardware, certainly the PSX, just weren't capable of rendering lots of polygons, beautiful lighting, soft shadows, reflections and other gimmicks. So they projected a pre-rendered high quality image instead. Cheap? Maybe, but look at it this way: Resident Evil would have looked far less impressive/atmospheric if they had chosen a 3rd or 1st person camera system. Which would have reduced the overall horror impact as well. You could add question-marks, as RE 4 still looked beautiful on the same Nintendo Gamecube hardware, but don't forget that RE 4 is a much faster paced game. Texture quality and the amount of tiny details is lower in RE 4, but you won't really notice it because you are running around all the time. In other words, you can't compare apples with coconuts.


RE is a slow game. Most of the time you will be searching items or going from A to B, instead of shooting. As said, part of the challenge is to remember locations where you could use your new found items, and to solve relative complicated puzzles. Whereas newer RE titles are all about action, and have "puzzles" that are so easy that they are an insult to the player. Another infamous thingie were the "door-scenes". Each time when moving into a new room, you would get a black screen with just a door opening slowly.

Obviously, when strolling clueless around the building, going from one room to another, the short door-scenes can become annoying. They said it was to mask the loading times (entering a new room means the computer has to load another music track, level geometry and pre-rendered images from disc), but I doubt if that is the one and only reason. The Gamecube (and previous Nintendo systems) always loaded everything extremely fast compared to other platforms. Hence there were no loading-screens in general. I think the makers also used it to make players nervous. What would be behind the door (especially if it’s a very dirty, rusty, large door)? As one google pic told me “You know a game is scary when even the fucking doors scare you!”.

The low-pace is one of the things that makes Resident Evil bone chilling. If you have to throw grenades and defend yourself all the time, it becomes a mechanism, a pattern you get comfortable with. And once comfortable, you are prepared and self-assured. Let them zombies come! If you don't have to fight all the time on the other hand, confrontations keep coming as a nasty surprise, something you'd rather try to avoid. The slowly opening door-scenes are a way to stir up your nerves. Of course this makes less sense when entering the same room for the sixth time, but the Remake also smartly added "Crimson heads" for that. Zombies would come back alive after an hour or so, stronger and much faster. The only way to prevent this scum, was by blowing of the head (lucky shot), or by burning the corpse after killing it. But since you would lack fuel all the time, you could still get the unpleasant surprise of a charging Crimson Head when opening the door to a room you have been many times before. Trying to remember where the unburned corpses is one of those little gimmicks that made the game extra scary. Knowing they are there is often more scary than actually fighting them.


Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed?


Where the hell did I leave my Ink ribbon?!
Last but not least, RE is a scary game because it is a hard game. Hard because you can't take too many blows, and because the narrow environments and fixed-camera-angles don't exactly help you keeping a safe distance. That is yet another reason why to defend fixed views. With a 3rd or 1st person view, it would be way too easy to spot and smell rotting guys from a distance and carefully aim for the head or turn around. RE 4 (and 5, and 6, and many other zombie games such as Left 4 Dead) fixed this by placing large quantities of zombies, and by making them much faster and agile. Zombies could run, jump, climb ladders, et cetera. But but... would the original RE still be scary if swarms of zombies stormed you like stinger bees? The game would be thrilling and exciting, but not scary. Trust me. So it seems the whole type of gameplay forced RE to use clumsy controls, door-scenes, and fixed-camera angles. And you know what, I'm still thinking about having them in Tower22 as well (the fixed views I mean). Not saying it will likely happen -first we need a bigger play-yard to experiment with- but I'm saying fixed views are still an option.

Drunk controls and non-helping camera's made it harder to flee from zombies. But the biggest challenge was the lack of ammunition, health-packs, fuel to burn zombies, and ink-ribbons. Huh? Yeah, you know, you have to find a type-writer, insert a ribbon, and save your game dummy. With a limited number of saves (and type-writer locations), you couldn't just save the game after each and every achievement. Very unnatural for modern gamers that are used to see "auto-saving..." every 30 seconds, but a good thing for the fear-factor. Dying in RE would suck even more, as you may lose quite some progress in case you didn't save the game recently. But since you can't save every time, you'll have to make decisions. Entering a new room (with the slowly opening door) would become even more exciting. It could be an empty room with some puzzle items. Or there could be a huge Tarantula boss behind that door, killing you and having to redo the whole fucking journey towards your current point. It sounds frustrating, but it sure helps you caring about your character/life a lot. If dying in a game isn't a big deal, then why be afraid of scary monsters or traps anyway? Got to note that redoing the same path goes a whole lot quicker though, as you know the puzzle solutions and locations where to go. That compensates the frustration a little bit.


We used to laugh about the zombie walking on the balcony above this room. Passed him a hundred times, and the poor thing was always too slow to catch us. Until the sneaky asshole came from a different corner and caught us one day after getting reckless.

Besides having to choose when to save or not to save, you also have to decide how to spend your ammunition and what weapons to carry in your limited inventory. Being armed to the teeth means you can't carry other puzzles items anymore, which forces you to walk back and forth to carry stuff over. Not being armed and running into zombies or worse, a boss, isn't smart either. And who to shoot? There isn't enough ammo to kill each and every foe in RE, so sometimes its smarter to just dodge and run around certain zombies. Which ensures traveling through the mansion keeps exciting; you can't clean-sweep the place and then relax and start solving puzzles with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Having to make all these decisions -when to save, what to take, who to shoot, where to go- is nerve wrecking. But also the key of successfully completing this game.



Buuhhh, I'm a mummy
Last, we should mention the stars of the show in this game; the zombies themselves. Horror games always do their stinking best to show you the biggest, ugliest, smelliest, and worst creatures you can dream of. Yet they often fail to impress, especially if you played and saw a whole package of horror games & movies already. What I liked about the RE Remake is the "modesty" in their creatures. How to explain that... In later RE games (and other series), monsters had to be bigger and gorier. More tentacles. Not two but six heads. Slime, spit and screams all over the place. But often the coolest characters are the simpler, more natural ones. RE 4 and 5 had many gigantic malformed bosses, but the most terrifying ones were still the Executioner, or the farmer with a potato sack on his head. Just hearing his chainsaw motor was enough have your little "oh shit, oh shit" moment.


Don't you agree that this zombified shark is scarier than all those HUGE multi-tentacle mutations recent RE titles had? Scares with modesty.

RE kept its monsters somewhat natural as well. Zombies were just zombies. Slow, dumb, dead. And other foes were basically just animals that grew a bit larger after snooping some T-Virus. Not tentacle-crazy multi-combi-morphing English talking bastards. Just Zombie dogs, zombie crows, big snakes, big sharks, big spiders, big wasps, big plants. "Plausible" stuff. There are a few exceptions, such as the Hunter, Chimera, "Lisa" and Tyrant. But because they are rare and have a background story, they are still cool. Lisa was a young girl used as a test subject. Now turned into an almost immortal "thing" that walks around carrying her mothers’ face. Yeah, your mother. The Tyrant, one of my favourite end-bosses all time, is what the B.O.W. (Bio Organic Weapon the scientists were trying to make) should have been. A piece of ugly perfection. Too bad they blew up the Tyrant with dressed, talking versions carrying rocket launchers in later titles and the movie. But credits to the "failed" prototype Tyrant in RE Zero then.


Encountering a zombie that doesn't fall apart by itself. The Tyrant is what this research-mansion was all about.



RE vs Silent Hill
As you may have noticed, I spend quite some time in analysing Resident Evil, RE Remake in particular. I rented the game for one week, and had to rent it again to finish it. Then bought it to play it again. And after that the story, the mansion and creatures kept living in my fantasies for quite some time. Symptoms of having played an impressive game. Now that I learned the "Horror Survival" genre a bit better, I observed other titles in that genre more carefully. Coming to a conclusion that (for me) the RE Remake is still one of the best horror games ever made. It sure beats the hell out of its later brothers, but how about that other one, c’mon, Silent Hill? I generally don't like such comparisons, but let's do one anyway.

Well, I recently saw the PS4 demo of the upcoming Silent Hill and I was almost crying. For mama. Never-ending corridors, changing interiors, eye-balls rolling in paintings, complete madness. Sounds like T22 ingredients. But since that game doesn't exist yet, we shouldn't draw immediate conclusions. I haven't played the very first Silent Hill games back in their glory days either, so that makes things unfair. Howoever, I think I can safely say that Silent Hill is more disturbing, weird and nightmarish than Resident Evil. Silent Hill feels like a very bad dream that never stops, while RE sketches a far more realistic (at least the first titles) story. In terms of graphical, disturbing, unpleasantness, Silent Hill wins. But in terms of a "good game", I think RE still wins the overall battle. Horrifying or not, Silent Hill isn't much of a fun game. The fights with headless dogs and tottering nurses are bland and dull. Silent Hill isn't a very difficult game either. The puzzles are suitable for short-term memory Korsakoff patients. Silent Hill just drags you through an (extremely hard to understand) nightmare more or less. RE on the other side feels and plays very different. It made me more nervous and afraid to die, yet it also managed to satisfy when getting rid of zombie-dogs and other scum. Fun is certainly not the most important element in a horror game, but in the end you still play a game to relax. Cracking puzzles and shooting down a boss with less shots thanks to the Magnum ammo you saved, feels good. To put it down simple, if I had to choose between playing RE or Silent Hill, I would pick RE.




Well, enough for this comparison. Both are great in their own ways. As I said before, you can't compare bananas with pickles. But since I nominated Resident Evil (Remake) as one of my all-time favourites, I'd better explain why. It was an unforgettable experience, and also opened my eyes for making a horror-game. Yes, Tower22 is an indirect byproduct of playing Resident Evil.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Game Ethic classes

Two weeks ago, some lunatic thought it would be a good idea to make a little internet game called "Euro BUK Simulator". In other words, using a Russian BUK anti-air missile system to shoot down (MH17) planes. In case you were in coma or in another stellar system past month, the MH17 was shot down above Ukraine, most likely by a BUK. Almost 300 people died, including about 200 fellow Dutch.

Horrible shit always happens -just turn on the news- but for our little country this disaster had an extra dimension. We never lost so many people in a plane crash, and the context of young families with children going on vacation, getting killed by a ridiculous accident(?), laying to rot in a warzone where drunk Separatists kept help and research on a distance. Well, you get the point. With all the violence on TV and internet, we almost got immune for beheadings, manslaughter, and war. But some disasters feel different. Each country probably had an ink-black day in somewhat recent history. A newsflash that turns your day upside down, an event you will never forget. News that makes you cry. Several Asian countries had heavy tsunami's, in Belgium a bus crash killed many of the little kids that came back from a school trip, and even though I got tired of all the drama and stupidity in the Mid-East, IS still manages to shock and disgust me every time with their demonic deeds.

But as a I was saying, some guy thought it would be funny to make a game about this plane crash. It could be compared to someone making a "9-11 Twin Pin" bowling game, one month after it happened. Or a "Sink the boat!" board game for the whole family, right after the Titanic sunk. Well, I don't have to explain that most people here weren't exactly charmed. Dutch that are normally neutral, calm and sober, now suddenly reacted furiously. Internet ninja's tracked him down, radio stations phoned, calling him sick and pathetic. I don't know, but I bet he received tons of hate-mails and death-treats by now.


My opinion about it? First of all, I think he's an idiot. If you have any empathy or moral, you don't make a game like this. Or at the very least wait until the wounds are healed a bit. Then again, I bet this game got more attention than any other (flash)game here. People judge and speak their disgrace, but download and play it at the same time. Same thing with porn. Of course nobody watches it. Where the billion hits come from each day? Nobody knows. It's in our curious nature to peek at everything God forbids. We hated the Separatists for showing Dutch passports without any shame or discretion at the crash site. But at the same time, we were all googling for the gory pictures. We consume horrible news like junk-food. More, more, more. With some bloody sauce please.

Bon apetit.


History lessons are fun
But moreover, there are more violent games -often based on real events-, where we kill people. Probably there is a "Taliban destroy-the-castle" catapult-thrower game out there (if not, here you go, a free idea), and then it's suddenly ok to see blood and limbs flying around. Some people are worth less than another. I must have killed at least a whole battalion of Germans in several WOII games. Napalmed countless little yellow men in Vietnam, and I'm still fighting with those nasty Russians and Chinese. Storming Utah Beach, the Tsjernobyl site, virus outbreak world domination. Fun as games, but don't forget that the actual events weren't so funny.

But, but but, except from the sudden Ebola outbreak, most of the examples I gave, happened a while ago. Our generation, the gamers, didn't fight in the Bulge or saw the news how president Kennedy got shot. I can imagine some elder people that actually lived through the war, can't understand how their grand children are shooting Jerries in “Medal of Honor”, with a bored look on their face. Grandpa was there, in the ditches, with a real rifle. Not with a bowl of chips in the sofa, with an XBox controller. But just because grandpa doesn't like it, is that enough reason to forbid using World War II as a game theme? If so, then we shouldn't make games about medieval castles, knights and princesses either. The dark ages were horrible as well. Crusades, battles, witch burning, slavery, starvation, ugly women. Well, pretty much anything related to historic dramatic events should be forbidden then. Some people may think that is an excellent idea, getting rid of those nasty games. But don't forget that should also include TV series, movies, fantasy novels, card-games, and making jokes about the past.

No. Most will agree that we should be allowed to make fun of the past. Making fun and games about it is just one way to get over with it. But at the same time, it also keeps the history alive. My little girl knows about pyramids because she saw them in a kids cartoon on TV. Should we forbid that, given the fact that the old Egyptian society was also based on slavery and bloodshed? Of course not.


The red line

Is it ok to shoot innocent Russian citizens at an airport? Yeah, if it was completely fictional. But given the actual terrorist attacks on metro stations and busses, maybe this comes too close? If you don't really care, google "Beslan" and think again...

Right. So, when is it ok to make fun about horrific events then? Do we have to wait two months? Two years? Unless you live in a caliphate or North Korea, there are no strict rules. It depends on what the majority thinks and feels. If the wounds are still open, it isn't very nice to throw salt on it. Then again, some people seem to stick forever. Grandpa-X that survived Auschwitz, probably has some more problems getting over the past than grandpa-Y, who joined the armed bicycle division and made a Tour du France. Some people forgive and forget, others don't. Some have humour and can put things in perspective, others don't.

Basically if you touch sensitive topics such as war, death, religion, or someone’s cultural background, it's almost impossible to have a light-hearted conversation without hurting somebody. It's hard to find a good balance. Some people love a fight, and keep kicking "sensitive spots". Then use "freedom of speech!" as a weak defence for just being an asshole. Personally I think you can say and make jokes all you want, but just be a bit careful about your company. You don't make vagina-jokes when having diner with your mother-in-law, now do you? In the other corner of the boxing ring, we have people that feel urged to "defend the weak", and raise their moral finger each time somebody says something that *may hurt*. Please stick that finger up your bottom, and don't treat grown-up like children that need protection. Bullying is a bad thing, but you'll have to produce some skin to avoid it as well. Get over it.


For games it's more or less the same. It's about context and society. Since 99% of us thinks abusing children is disgusting, we (thankfully) don't make child-abuse games either. However, the global opinion is a dynamic thing as well. Making mockery in the theatre about the church 200 years ago was the biggest crime you could commit. Now it's all normal. Things change.

Wolfenstein, one of the first games where you could shoot Nazi's, received a lot of criticism in 1992. And not really because you were mowing Nazi's, those are bad guys and deserve to die. No, the Swastika's everywhere was what made the game really "shocking". How could they! Twenty years later, nobody even cares when seeing a Swastika, unless its tattooed on someone's arm maybe. We learned World War II on school and in the movies. Germans were bad, Hitler even worse, Allies were good. We paid attention, it should never happen again, bla bla bla, but now it’s time to have fun and play shooting games.

And in the meanwhile, games got a whole lot more violent last twenty years. If Swastika's are ok... then maybe you can also uppercut your opponent in a cliff with spikes? Or rocket-launch zombies into chunks? Drive over people with pimped monster-cars to get bonus points? Or say "dang!" in a game. Or say "fuck" maybe? Steal cars? Or open fire on a crowd during a terrorist mission? Or, and please don't faint now, see 3D boobies.


The Violent Downward spiral
Making a bloody horror game, you can guess I'm not in the anti (violent) game camp. Yet that doesn't mean we shouldn't respect any boundaries. For one thing, I wouldn't make an airplane-shooter game (nor Twin Tower bulldozer challenge, nor Hiroshima puzzle quest, Hutu & Tutsi Conquer, or Pakistan Quake, Shake & Dance III). Neither do I feel the urge of pushing the limits further, just for the sake of pushing them and get my 5 minutes of fame. Just want to make an intriguing game, that's all.

But regardless what I say and think, there is trend towards violence. Not just those darn pesky games though. Movies introduced swearing and tits a long time before games. Cartoons like “Dumbo” have been replaced by hyperactive ADHD DisneyXD shit cartoons, where the main characters are cool and swift, instead of innocent and sweet. My little daughter sings she is a slut and wants to put her bum on your face. Not that she has any idea what she is talking about, but that is what the radio just sang. Put on the TV at 19:00, and lotion commercials will show you a boob or two. Zap further to MTV. More boobs, drunk sluts, and horny cavemen demolishing their house in Jersey Fuck or whatever the fuck that fucking fuck-series is called. Fortunately we still have the journal at eight o clock. Oh... your daily IS beheadings, Separatists playing with cuddles from a dead kid, and the news lady herself saying "boobies!" (really happened here, hehe). Right.


Bloody enough for you? Probably none of you will find this T22 corridor "inappropriate", yet some people do. It's a matter of perspective


You can blame games or movies, but it just seems the whole society is slipping away into extremes. Or at least into rudeness. Like I said, the society and its morals and ethics are dynamic. I think I’m a pretty decent man, but probably my over-great-bronze-age-grandmother would choke in shame if she saw me doing what I do.

Now the chicken & egg question: Did violent games and movies made us that way? Or do we like violent games and movies more than ever, because we are violent and sick in the head? Who shall say. Although I'm still convinced that the most violent places on earth, as well as our most violent history chapters, didn't have much to do with Grand Theft Auto or the Exorcist movies. Hitler didn't get a Gameboy for his birthday, Vlad the Impaler didn't watch “Natural Born Killers”, Khmer Rouge didn't play Doom before picking up their machetes, and IS sure isn't murdering because of Jersey Shore. Or maybe they are actually. I would.

Fact is, we all are just sick, twisted, violent, egoistic, disgusting, sexist, lying, hypocrite, but also lovable creatures. Games just surf that tidal wave. Maybe they push the limits a bit further sometimes, but blaming them for screwing up our next generation is very short-sighted.


As for the Dutch creator of Euro Buk Simulator, I still think you're an idiot. But I don't hope you get death-wishes or get lifted from his bed by the moral-police. I just hope you grow up and realize this was a very stupid move.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

We're all living in America

In addition to my previous chitchat about America, here some more subjective facts from a biased negative European. Normally I don't repeat what another says like a parrot, and have to see things for myself before putting labels. And dang, after another worktrip to New York (the state, not the city) the conclusion is that some of those prejudices are simply true, more or less.



I flew to Detroit, then back to Rochester. Finally a chance to see the GM-Building (General Motors, the dark towers mid-left), and drop by American Jewelry to kick up a fuss

Stuffed
Let's start with bashing American (junk)food. How original. Although I have to admit that during my previous visit nearby Minneapolis, the average person really wasn't all that large. It seems the kilo's added up when going towards the east-coast. Or maybe it was just the sunny weather and barbeque fumes that lured the big-guys out of their barns this time.

I've been eating in a couple of restaurants, ordered food at work, got fed in the airplane, et cetera. And although a bit too salty, I can't say I didn't enjoy. In fact... when nobody was looking during breakfast in the hotel, I nicked a banana… and a cinnamon roll. Yep it's all too easy to spoil yourself. You can just buy fruit and vegetables of course, but watch out not having your veggies come together with a 4 kilogram buffalo steak. Or having your apples covered in cheese. Everything is stuffed, covered, sprinkled, injected, gassed or raped with cheese. Had a folded egg kind of thing for breakfast and darn, it was filled with cheese. All healthy things go hand in hand with fat sauces, stuffing, and at least two beasts of meat per meal. And otherwise your Health-watchers diet gets ruined by a massive desert, containing a sugar plantation including slaves.


Guilty. Meat at 6:30 in the morning. And cheese stuffed eggs.

Chemtrails in the water
As for drinking, you hear slurping and slirping from cola/smoothie/milkshake buckets (>> drums >>containers) the whole day at the office. Not a big surprise, with all the salty junk food. So I come back in the hotel and try to kill my thirst with some tap-water, and ppprrfft what?!! For some reason it tastes like chlorine. Come to think of it, the water tasted and smelled weird during my previous visit as well. Now that I was paying attention, I even tasted that odor in the juices during breakfast. That. was. not. orange.juice. Screw it. A bucket of Coke is probably a healthier choice than chemical water. What a strange finding for a first world country where hi-tec technology comes from.


How are youuuu??, my name is Kaleyyyy!! How can I help youuuu? That stereotype is quite true. Enter a random restaurant, and you'll be greeted by two or three girls in a row, asking how you're doing and introducing themselves. But why really? Do the managers really think this "personal approach" (you get 3 seconds of attention in total) makes me think "holy shit, that lady really like me for being here!"? But moreover, why introduce yourself if every table has a computer where you can order extra drinks and pay the bills? That's right, the waitress is getting partially replaced by a small touch-thing on your table. The thing kept asking me if I want a new drink. Shut the hell up, in Europe we finish our glass of beer before ordering a new one. Fake smile or not, I'd rather have a human serving me. The Americans should have a look at Belgium or France, where people sit down, talk, and enjoy their food, rather than just walk-in, get stuffed (with cheese) and get the fuck out. Don't look at Holland or Eastern Europe though. Here you don't get served by robots (yet), but often by cocky people that never learned to say "Hello I'm Kaley! How are you!". In Poland I have been served by Slavic discus throwing ladies several times, that give an impression they really hate to cook for you.

Restaurants are everywhere, and the formula is more or less the same each time: parking lot, 3 girls greeting you, some TV screens with Basket- or Baseball, not too expensive, not too qualitative either. Just food/meat/cheese for the whole family, so you don't have to cook at home. Quite different from European restaurants that try to make you feel like an emperor (but often fail in doing that just as well).


The heroic Town Center adventure
Had to show my goddamn ID for buying a beer by the way. I don't look like an old rockstar, but c'mon, I almost could have been the father of some of those waitresses. Beer and Americans doesn't seem to be a very good combination anyway, although the popular micro-breweries might change that. My impression is that most people either just don't drink at all, or get berserk after 5 Blue Pabst Ribbon. But I could be wrong though, unfortunately I didn't have a real chance to find out. Because there is no such thing as a town center with pubs. An insult to the British and Irish (and Dutch, who also like to misbehave and puke all over the place every Friday night).

Instead of only working, going to a restaurant, and drop dead in the hotel again, I decided to go out. Finding a shop to buy a souvenir (and yeah, a real American flag is waving in my daughters room now!). On foot... Now that was a ridiculous trip. Basically, you can't walk much further than 10 meters once outside the hotel doors. Cars stop right in front of the hotel (don’t walk with luggage fool!), and the pavement stops right after the ashtray at the hotel corner. Now you're entering Car-Domain. American soil is made of asphalt, parking lots, and grass. Nice grass I must say, most houses had a big lawn, and Americans do a good job mowing.

The never ending road story


To enter the town, I had to cross a viaduct. For an African or some drunk soviet country I can understand that there are no pedestrian bridges or bicycle strips. But nothing helps the pedestrian in America either. I walked more than a mile before I saw the first signs of pavement, and had to cross that viaduct just by walking asides the road, cars speeding by with 60 miles per hour. Crossings at intersections? Hell no, just run and pray you don't get hit by a 40 ton lorry (stuffed with cheese). After walking a while and seeing absolutely nobody on foot or bike, I got a feeling passers would be thinking I was on Crystal Meth or chlorine tap-water. Who the heck walks?!

Without exaggerating much, walking from one building to another is quite dangerous, especially when it gets darker. And it gets dark pretty soon, as it takes ages to reach your destination. Just crossing the parking-lot of a Walmart already took me 5 minutes. In Holland, such large lots are unthinkable. And although Holland might be a bit too crowded and claustrophobic at some places, I actually like the idea of hopping from one shop into another. And I say that as a man who hates shopping from the bottom of my heart. All that people everywhere, zombie-ing around with stupid bags of your stupid girlfriend. But having to pick a car to drive from once lot to another... that's even less romantic.

The thing is, I couldn't find a "center". Maybe Americans consider giant shopping malls as a center, but in Europe, we think about squares and plaza's surrounded by dozens of small shops, pubs, restaurants and (cultural) sights. At least if you don't want to enter a terrible shoe shop, you can hang out and smoke a cigarette with other bored men, or piss in a fountain. In America (or at least the places I have been) that seems to be impossible. People don't gather and clutch together in narrow streets. Either they walk from their car into a building, or vice-versa.


Benches? Panflute musicians? Ice-cream vans? Fountains to piss in? Anything?


M-M-Mega stores
All in all, I couldn't find a central place or street with souvenir shops and such. I bet they are there, but scattered all over the place. If my girl had to buy shoes there, she probably had to buy yet another pair during the walk, because the distances are insanely large. Anyhow, I still didn't have a souvenir... but wait a sec... didn't I dwell over a gigantic Walmart parking-lot previous night?

Yep. I’d rather go into a little shop and ask an enthusiast man or woman with passion for the stuff he or she sells. But without having much choice and a Humvee for transport, I entered a Wall-mart. Holy shit. It literally sells anything. Cookies, cars, kitchens, elephants. Not really in Holland, but in the somewhat more stretched countries in Europe, we have big shopping malls as well. But of course, the American variant is yet one size bigger.


Useless automation
People say that Americans are lazy. I don't know. The guy who picked me up for work, was still sweaty from basketball or something, early in the (Monday!) morning. Sitting down and drink a beer in the hotel was impossible, but they did have a gym and swimming pool. And even overweight people watch baseball or American football on the many restaurant TV screens. I'm not the fittest either, and another guy who helped me that week was an enthusiast cycling fan (and I mean not only watching Toure Du France on TV with pop-tarts).

But I'm not talking about lazy as in (lack of) exercise, eating too much or excessive use of cars yet. I'm talking about their dependence on useless appliances. My colleague had his coffee mug placed on some sort of platform… Until I saw a wire I didn’t realize this was an electrical “coffee warmer”. Yeah, I hate cold coffee just as much anyone else, but maybe you could just drink it instead of keeping it warm on a desk? Just a silly idea.

And how about this one. In the hotel, there was a machine with a single button and some lamps on it. So I pressed it, the lamps turned on one by one, and in about 30 seconds a pancake rolled out of the machine. Quite nifty. I would almost buy one. Until you start thinking why the heck you need a pancake machine for. What is wrong with a lady + frying pan, and a kitchen stinking of oil? For centuries and generations, we've been using the good old frying pan to make pancakes, and now in all of a sudden we need a pancake robot?!


Americans wouldn’t be Americans if they didn’t invent something on all those little daily annoyances. Cold coffee, making pancakes, coke bucket holders in cars, driving your car into the hotel so you don’t have to walk with luggage, fully automated barbeques, “digital waitresses” on your restaurant table, extensive air conditioning, robot lawn mowers, and so on. Of course, we in Europe aren’t living the dark ages either anymore, and some of those gadgets can be quite handy. But it’s just too much. No miracle all those Teleshopping programs have American origins. Problems first have to be thought of, in order to introduce a new revolutionary energy-eating piece of shit you don’t really need.

People are more and more aware about their health, exercise and their food. Yet sporting still won’t help if you use a robot to help lifting weights, finish off with a smoothie sugar bomb, and drive home in a big car. It’s not a surprise that his country consumes far more energy for far less people, compared to most other places in the world. It would be good to drop some of that “materialism”, and get back to basic. After all, isn’t a real American depicted as a freedom loving cowboy on his horse?


Taco taco burrito

Although… a white cowboy male on a horse… It’s getting replaced with a Mexican on a donkey. Or in modern times, Hispanic in low-riders. In movies and games like GTA, they are making fun of everything being outsourced, and waves of south American migrants, mowing the lawn for a penny. Well, I don’t know if and how big the problems with migrants truly are. America is more or less based on foreigners anyway, and the average person I spoke doesn’t feel threatened by it at all.

But I just found it funny to see and hear Spanish commercial signs. British, and also Americans I spoke often apologize for speaking English only. Some Dutch turd visits, and speak English fairly well. They feel ashamed of not mastering a secondary language, but always make promises. “I’m planning to study Italian / French / Japanese / …”. But obviously, you won’t properly learn a new secondary if you don’t have to use it often. Most music, movies and the internet are still English. And without having close neighbour countries that speak differently, there is no real urge either.

Well, the good news would be that Spanish is becoming a true second language quickly then. Shops and services advertise with “Hablo Espanol!”, to reach the growing Hispanic population as well. Hence, there are even entire Spanish TV stations (including a commercial of a little boy who wanted to grow a cool Mexican moustache, just like his uncle, by eating kick-ass taco’s).



Ich bin ein American

Some of us Europeans, at least in Holland, we're ashamed to show any patriotic feelings. We only show our flags on a few special days, or when something terrible happened (like the recent plane crash). But other than that... the flag is hidden safely. Kind of strange though. Watching documentaries about shitholes such as North Korea or the "new caliphate" by IS, we shouldn't complain. In fact, we should be proud of what our ancestors founded.

Yeah, ‘Murica. Bold eagles, overweight people, useless appliances, arrogant attitude, shotguns on the counter. Is it all so bad then? Nah. The stuff above are merely funny findings and experiences. The bottom line is that all Americans I've met so far, treated me very good, the landscapes are stretched and awesome, they make nice machines, they (still) speak English, and I stuffed myself with cheese more than once, so I'm just as guilty.

And times change of course. More and more Americans are swapping hamburgers for healthy food. The superstores are a bit out of favour, as people are bending towards “fair products” and craftsmanship again. And some of the “Hi I’m Joceline!” ladies in the restaurants had genuine fun in the short conversations we had. Hence, Americans were interested in a real sport for a change, as they followed the Football World Cup during my visit. They even pronounced the names “Robben” and “van Persie” somewhat properly.

Admiring their guts compared to our passive wise-guy European attitude, being a fan of houses with a veranda and freedom (read not having neighbours and billions of rules like we do in Holland), I’m a pro American. I’m not talking about their politics and questionable acting on the international podia. I’m talking about the people and their way of living. A Russian guy on TV recently, who was shopping fruit in Poland due the current boycotts, said it very well: “Making war is for the higher chiefs, we’re just people, and I like fruits”.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Flying desks at Valve


Huh?

Stratego
Not long ago I wrote a paper or two about "the boss". No, not Bruce Springsteen, but the way how companies are tight together and rely on leadership. Hate it or love it, but hierarchy is a proven -although maybe somewhat dated- system. Imagine if the army didn't work with sergeants, captains, generals and Stratego spies. It would crumble apart, or at least get extremely messy (see terrorist cells). To begin with, even sport-freaks and sadomasochists don't like to get systematically barked at, skip nights, walk their off in the mud, sleep in the cold, or save private Ryan risking their lives. Higher ranks are needed to make people do what they should do.

You can guess what happens if the Lieutenant told his men to decide for themselves what to do. "You can walk a patrol, or stay in bed, whatever man". Ironically, maybe the Germans and Allies would be drinking Schnapps, play cards and chase farm girls. Instead of bombarding each other. The average soldier probably didn't want to get shot, or see his friends get shot. The average soldier didn't like to get shelled or murder another human being. The average soldier -a teenager/young adult- probably didn't even like to be in a warzone in the first place. So why did they kill then? Because they were told to.

"Group dynamics" is a fascinating thing. If a stranger would order you to eat your shorts, or slap another random by-passer, would you do it? Probably not. But what if your best friend would ask it? Or a hot chick? Or if that stranger asked kindly with a pistol in his hands? Hundred thousands of men didn't dump their souls in a war just because some elite fools had desires. Fear made them do it. Getting locked up (or worse) for desertion is an obvious factor, but maybe even stronger is the fear of getting isolated from the "group", being a coward. Monkeys see, monkeys do.

Nevertheless, contributing to a war, or just even doing service isn't exactly "fun", apart from those who love to push their bodies to the limit. Pressure from the group and reprisals are needed to make you give twenty with the nose in the dirt. But reprisals don't work if they come from a (physical) weaker person. So voila, a ranking system was made. Major Pain might be older, smaller and uglier than you, yet he still has the power to punish you and your platoon with toothbrushes + latrines.


Who’s boss?
The army is a very pure and logical example of a hierarchical system. But the same happens more or less in any other company. And if it doesn't, chances are big it has serious discipline and performance issues. Would dustmen still collect garbage if their boss doesn't give a damn? Did you work 10% harder and sweat more, plucking tomatoes on your first job, when the chief was nowhere around? Does your colleague automatically do the stinky boring tasks if you don't chase his ass? By nature, most people don't like taking orders. If my girl asks me to hang up those curtains already, I tell her I'll do it tomorrow (tired from work, stomach aches, don’t have the right tools). If she keeps whining about it, I'll shorten her kitchen-leash. Get cook'n woman.

Taking those orders from a higher placed person helps though. Besides refusing bed-duty or swapping me for a much cooler black guy, there is little my girl can do about my laziness. But a chief at work could fire me... or reward me if I'll do my stinking best. It works in both ways. But then if my "equal" colleague comes around the corner again, and asks for help, I'll say he can jerk off. Who the hell do he think he is?! Carry your own boxes.



Off topic, a new T22 asset

As usual I'm using Laurel & Hardy stereotype sketches, but you get my point. I'm old fashioned, and I believe in some discipline and hierarchy. But now the the story-turning-point comes!! Searching for some Halflife3 news (yes, I still do that now and then, and no, no news) I suddenly stumbled on this: "Valve- Handbook for new employees"
. Being a creative company, I could figure Valve working a bit different than the local beer-box-glue factory, or the army. But this paper was quite surprising. Refreshing.

Early in the Handbook, Valve explains its company hierarchy: There is none! There is an owner/CEO (Gabe Newell), but technically he is on the same level as any other worker at Valve. Well, hold on Rick, that's just some fancy floaty woolly "check us, we’re nice guys!" method to calm newcomers. Another hopeless way of telling employees "don't be shy, share your ideas, we won't bite!". Companies, schools and other instances often have slogans. "Customer is king" or "Your toilet is our mission", "innovative". Or "Respect". Whatever. Words are still hollow, if the customer can go fuck himself when asking complicated things, if the toilet couldn't be fixed, if ideas are decimated, or if kids bully each other while the coaches turn their backs.

But reading the Handbook further, they really are serious about it. Having no hierarchy isn't just some catchy mood-setter, thought by an anarchist, hippy-artist or spineless coward. No, it's deeply rooted in, well, pretty much everything they do. Allow me to explain.


Say what?!
Unlike the military we discussed, there are no higher placed "captains" at Valve, or lower "minions" for that matter. I know what you are thinking. You're thinking somebody still has to give tasks, cut ropes, or at least give long-term goals (like finishing that $#% HL3 game already!). But no, they don't. And here is where Valve differs fundamentally with 99,9% of the other companies. Of course decisions have to be made, but Valve doesn't assign such a task to a specific person. There is no specific "planner", "lead-artist", or "man with the wallet". Today you could decide to recruit and hire 2 new employees, tomorrow your new employee comes up with new ideas, and the day after that you tell Gabe Newell that you'll be working on GameX instead of Half life3 for the next month.

My old brain would crunch and squeak when hearing this. How..? What.. If? .. But but but? I can think of hundred things that can go wrong. Demotivation was explained already. But how about information and delegation? In the companies I work, I know which person can bring me parts from the warehouse, I know who to call when there are troubles. The Ghost Busters. Yell the electricians if the Volts are shocking, or have a chat with the sales department if you want to know numbers and figures. All the boys and girls in the factory know the official channels if they need something. Taking vacation, ordering new work shoes, calling of sick, et cetera. It brings clarity and rest. With that I mean an electrician doesn't have to care about what happens in the warehouse, and the warehouse guys will get their schedules from yet another person so they'll know what is coming.

On a more global level, most employees don't decide long term goals, or have to make important decisions. At every place I worked, people like to complain about their superiors, and sure they would have done everything different and better. But realize that the privilege of making decisions also brings responsibility. Firing people, disconnecting emotions when taking critical steps, getting well informed when choosing between A and B, and being unpopular whenever your decision hurts another. Unless true idiots are in charge, we should just be happy we have chiefs and bosses doing all that stuff for us.



But, as said, that's not how Valve works. They call their organization structure "flat". You don't have a boss, nor can you boss another. Instead, you could ask. "Would you kindly like to help me, drawing Alyx Vance naked?". Now if another artist thinks that's an excellent idea, you will likely get your help without having to force another. Valve does things in an organic way. A more natural way. Vice versa, you join (sub)projects whenever and wherever you think you are needed. To stimulate this, all the desks at the Valve office have wheels. You can move your desk elsewhere anytime. The idea is that small project teams or co-operations will naturally sprout (and also dissolve), as people with a shared interest cluster together. Remember, no chief is telling you where to help. You could drive your desk into the boiler room, lock the door, and work there for the rest of your career. Or move it to the massage or catering. Valve does everything to ensure their employees are comfortable and in top shape. Uh, mental shape, Gabe Newell isn't the best sportsman example...


Crunch-time?
The crisis may have snapped good intentions, but (in civilized countries) there still is a trend of increasing flexibility and caring about employees. My grandpa had to lift heavy bricks on a rotten wooden ladder at the age of 12, nowadays days we're too fat. So companies carefully started investing a little bit in bicycles, healthy food in the canteens, or offering discounts for the local gym. Both companies I work for, organize all kinds of events once in a while. Barbeques, fishing trips, sports lessons, drinking beer, and... more drinking beer. Just to relax and get along with your colleagues. The "company" isn't pure capitalism anymore. Chiefs feel the urge and importance to invest in health, a good atmosphere, friendships, and individual development. Not in the first place because they are much better people now, but because it pays back. If the company cares about its employees, its employees will care about the company.

Valve takes this a step further. Did I say massage? Valve also has a gym, and organizes company vacations to places like Hawaii. Those aren't some wild rumours, it all stands literally in the handbook. Another bidding you won't see in most handbooks, is to avoid overtime. Doing some extra "crunch-time" happens of course, certainly when a release is nearing. But Valve encourages its employees to take their rest, spend time with their families, and enjoy other stuff. How different is that from, for example the banking world, where young roosters have to prove themselves by working 24 hours a day?

I don't how wealthy Valve is, but all this Yoga Zen stuff may sound a bit overdone. Aren't they pushing this permissive, “out-of-the-box” thing too far? You may remember the "Internet Bubble" 15 years ago. Surfing on the upcoming internet, IT companies grew like weeds and made too much money. Even the Mexican cleaning woman would get an expensive company car, and the creative minds would go golfing or lay on purple skippyballs, brainfarting/doing nothing the whole day. Of course, that was too good to be true, and most of the weed died again as the bubble popped. This world is made on sweat, blood and hard labour, not on pleasure with purple Skippyballs.

Nevertheless, I think the "caring company" is a good trend. On Sundays, I really never go to bed with that "sigh, tomorrow work" feeling. I don't count the last 60 minutes, and when doing overtime (sometimes till past midnight), nobody protests. People here are proud on the products we make, and we don't leave the customer until the mighty machine roars and thunders again. That's royalism, but also just having fun and honour in our work.


Black Mesa Anarchy
Obviously, the open, “anarchy” structure Valve applies, heavily relies on royal and motivated people. Hiring a new person and directly giving him or her the same powers and mandate as any other (Gabe Newel included!), is risky. This strategy is based on tons of trust and courage. I've trained and guided a couple of people, and my natural (father) response is to hold their hands. Not with everything, they can pee themselves, but I want to make sure they understand everything and do a good job before I remove the handcuffs. And even after that, I'll keep interfering and reviewing their work, just to make sure everything goes as planned. Probably this happens more or less at Valve just as well, but basically it's in contradiction with the "flat organization". As long as I guide another, telling him what (not) to do, I'm more or less his superior. And even if I wasn't on paper, people like to dominate where they can.

Since we aren't robots, characters differ. Some work hard, some talk hard, some are natural born leaders, others are introvert, and yet some others are just assholes. How does Valve make sure the team doesn't get ruined by lazy employees, dominant personnel, or two captains that want to steer the boat in opposite directions? In a traditional company, higher ranked personnel can overrule and eventually throw out people that are a threat to the “flow”. As for Valve, the Handbook says no-one has ever been fired because of "mistakes". Instead they encourage you to learn from it. Very mature, but... unless they eat mushrooms in that canteen every day, there just have to be struggles and fires. Just looking at myself, I'm a kind person but I don't like to get steered into directions I wouldn't have chosen. Once I've put my heart and soul into something, I'm a diesel locomotive and you'd better not stop me.

To avoid group struggles and "Bold & Beautiful" soaps, Valve has tricks to keep the harmony. But before that, Valve filters out "mediocre" personnel by demanding high standards, of course. Two year Minecraft experience won't bring you there. Then again, it's kinda strange, as every employee is supposed to hire new people. As said before, they don't have a specific recruit team. If I like to hire my grandma, I can just do that. But that may lead to cronyism… Let's say grandma isn't such a good sound effect composer after all, but I'm too proud to admit my mistake and I love grandma... now what? Me and grandma drive our desks to a different corner, and there you have it; group rupture.


Halflife3 concept art? Halflife2 - episide 3 concept art? Fake fan art? Who shall say.

Well, I won't be surprised if stuff like this actually happens. Me and grandma leave the company, the rest of the team absorbs the shockwave and learns from it. And maybe it should be noted that Valve probably has financial space to let this happen. In fact some competition can be healthy. But to avoid drama, they have yet again quite unique ways to reduce this. First, with the flat-organization, everyone cares about the end-product. Unlike a cat-food factory, people don't work here just because they have to make a living. Everyone here wants to release Left for Dead, Portal, STEAM, ... not so sure about Half life 3 though, but you get the point. Nancy sleeps at work or spits puke in cat-food cans, because she doesn't care about the end-product. Only the high chiefs drive big cars and take the medals, she will never get further than the length of the conveyor belt she is working at. Others won't correct Nancy neither, because they only care about getting the hell out of there at 5 ó clock, and the monthly pay check. Valve on the other hand makes its employees feel important. Or actually they ARE equally important. So by doing stupid things, you will hurt *your* product, and this yourself and your team directly.

Second, besides making software, hiring other individuals is your most important job at Valve. And one particular guideline is to look for people that are "stronger than you". As written above, it's natural to hire a lower-powered employee. Somebody that is skilled and useful, but just slightly less cool than you, so you can boss him around. Otherwise that new guy could become competition, and steal your promotion to a higher rank. But hey... at Valve the hierarchy is gone, so being boss or getting "bossed" can’t really happen anyway. What matters is making an awesome game, so the better people you can find, the better your chances.

Third, they have a "Stack Ranking" system. If you thought for a moment that Valve is a surreal communistic fabric where everyone thinks, does, and earns the same, you're wrong. Your compensation depends on the judgement from the group. Once in a while, every person is judged by the group. How nice is he? How good are his skills? Any unique talents we certainly can't miss? How effective, how much people did (s)he hire, et cetera. If you act like a jerk, or won't come any further than the massage salon, you can expect a low rank and thus a lower salary. Also getting help from others for your personnel projects will become difficult if people don’t like to follow you. Doing your stinking best will pay off, clearly. And unlike normal companies, you don't have to go on your knees, beg your chief for a few extra dollars, getting laughed at, and then get fired.



“Valve Time”

Finally, why isn’t every company adapting this approach? The “Valve approach” sounds awkward and full of pitfalls at first, but the more you think about, the more sense it makes. And hey, they exists for almost 20 years now, grew from ~10 to more than 300 men, made some of the very best PC games out there, and are capable of funding company vacations to Hawaii. They must be doing something right!

Besides passion, most people want to promote or start their own business to A: get rich (or die trying), B: be in charge of another(feels good), C: avoid doing orders somebody else decided. Or in other words: Egoism. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, ambitions are healthy. But these motivations can collide with the “Valve approach”. You’ll have to accept you won’t be the richest, most powerful and superstar of the company. Or at least not automatically. I’m afraid that is something most egos can’t handle.

In a more practical sense, I don’t think it would work for more conventional business, like say, the Catfood factory. When making games, everyone in the team has to be skilled and smart. Whether you’re programming, drawing or writing plots. The catfood factory on the other hand doesn’t require (expensive!) professors behind the conveyor belt. That makes the intellectual gap too big to let the conveyor girls or handymen involve in *everything* the company is supposed to do. Read *everything* because there is no partial 50% Valve approach. Either every employee is equal to everyone else, or (s)he isn’t. Nothing in between.


Last but not least, “Valve Time” is out of the question for most companies. If we sell cars, we can’t suddenly change our mind and start making bikes instead, or tell the client “no clue” when he asks when his car is done. “Valve Time” is the equivalent of the infamous “When it’s done” phrase 3D Realms used to “answer” when Duke Nukem Forever would be finished. In other words, they didn’t know. Valve frankly admits they are terrible at making predictions or long term plans. For us consumers, it’s hard to bear that we still don’t know when (and if!) Half life 3 says daylight. But after reading through their handbook, it makes a lot sense why they can’t do predictions or promises. Since their decision making works like liquid, it could flow any direction. If I would join Valve and convince them to make Tower22, it may shove Half life 3 back into the fridge… hmmm… brings me on an idea…

But! Don’t worry too much. At least it’s not laziness or inexperience that’s giving hold ups. The thought that even their handbook reads away like an exciting comic book, comforts me. Can’t believe I’m saying that, as I couldn’t care less about business management on school. Too abstract, too much words from people that never made their hands dirty, too little action. But as for Valve… You got to admit, they are damn creative and therefore I have good hopes for Half life 3 (or whatever they come up with).


All right. One more funny fact then. Look at the end-credits (above, or from any Valve game). See anything suspicious? How about the "Programmers", "Lead artists", "Animators", "Funny men", "..." sections? It's just a single alphabetically sorted list. Do you know why? Because no-one has a title at Valve, everyone is just a "designer".