Only in Japan, Keita and Katamari

August 20th, 2015 by harold

Reading about how this game came out to being made makes me realize how much the Japanese game industry was gliding and surfing at  high speeds in the last years of the 90s.

But despite taking an induction course in development and being deployed on a few prototyping projects as an artist, he struggled to summon an interest in flagship Namco franchises such as Tekken, Ace Combat and Ridge Racer. He found those games formulaic and uninspired, and floundered for two years before realizing that what was missing from Namco’s lineup was a flowerpot goat.

You get hired to create assets for successful franchises and you say fuck that for two years, I want to make my own game?

I mean, who has that kind of power because in studios I’ve been in you would have been hired for three-six months and bye Keita the Weirdo.

The Japanese creative freedom inside mega corporations (At that time in 99, Namco was HUGE) is to this day still unbelievable.

Keita pitched the game to his bosses and they were like “alright, here’s $800,000.” I mean we live in a world where developers are literally begging for budgets. Imagine being unhappy in a big structure and they allow you to be creative director of your own game:

Also, it never happens. On the soundtrack:

At the time, Shibuya-kei – a genre of pastiche-pop born in Tokyo that was typified by artists such as Cornelius and Pizzicato Five – was just about passing, but it left in its wake a post-ironic fusion of leftfield electronica, bossa nova and jazz that meshed perfectly with Katamari Damacy’s anything-goes humour. Unusually for a game, most of the music had vocal melodies.

“I thought it would be fun to sing along while playing the game, which is why we decided to use vocal music,” Takahashi says. “But we didn’t have much money, so we looked for artists who weren’t on a major label, more like B-grade musicians, to make the music.”

B-grade musicians!!?? Who shops for not the best ever?? As a composer I have seen so often studios aiming to get the best musicians they can for their soundtrack, not realizing that good music can be made by millions of people. No, really.

There’s this elitism going on in game culture, it comes probably from the needed coding excellence and game inherent competition aspect but still, when we produce we are like other productions we have to make it work and go for the “good enough” that actually might be much better than what you thought.

Especially with music and audio, the biggest bang for the buck in game development. One last quote:

As he speaks, he denounces the industry, both the majors and the burgeoning indie scene that is so reminiscent of the PS2’s golden era of weird Japanese games, while developments that you might expect him to embrace, such as Nintendo’s GamePad and Kinect, do not interest him at all. “Gaming hasn’t been around very long, so devices like that are unnecessary,” he says. “They’re nothing but a diversion, created for business reasons.

The problem to me is that it’s adding complexity more than anything else. It’s this fallacy that is all over the tech world: more tech will solve our tech problems! No. People are working super hard to get VR controllers right but as Jesse Schell wrote, people like VR experience with mouse –it sounds bad right?- because they know how to manipulate a mouse by now. It’s hard-coded in their brains. Gamepads with 16 buttons are not. Moving in front of a camera is not and new input schemes are being made.

I’ll talk about input in games in another post.

Compton, story and story

August 20th, 2015 by harold

NWA story is not so great when you look at it without the Hollywood glitter:

A bunch of black dudes create a band that barely existed for 5 years –Ice Cube, the biggest star, left 3 years in-, promoted by a Jewish music executive who had $250,000 personal money to play with and start Ruthless Records.

They wrote lyrics of stories from the hood they were listening to. Stories. They get better each time. Crazier. In the end, those lyrics are as much fantasy than reality. NWA members didn’t fuck with real Gs, only Eazy was. NWA really wanted to not have to gangbang and it’s a part that everyone forgets. When I hear them boasting about the hood on wax I feel more desperation than pride.

They played with that. They were sitting on a huge pile of C4 with millions of $ in it. “Y’all motherfuckers, media, FBI, young white dudes want more crazy stories? We’ll tell them to you and we’ll get bigger. We don’t give a fuck. We hustlin dawg.”

And they did, all moved really fast from NWA –barely five years!- to their personal brands, relocated in nicer suburbs.

The end.

We knew about police brutality. We knew about poor black neighborhoods. In retrospect I don’t think those extreme lyrics helped in any way.

I’ve never understood how they could get away with how misogynists those lyrics are, really showing how society is sexist as a whole.  In the last Dr Dre Compton album that just came out, they fake-kill a woman and it made me so fucking uncomfortable like just stop this shit, stop this shit black people are dying in the streets too often stop this shit. Fuck.

Once again it’s about a narrative –keeping it real??- but the world doesn’t work this way, you’re supposed to grow up. You can’t be doing a fake murder of a black woman on a 2015 record when black women are getting killed by police or boyfriends. You’re fucking 50 Dre and you have a terrible past on that subject. You need to act on this. Be Real, Get Responsible.

Even this album cover is kind of a disgrace. For people outside the LA county, if you live in Compton you don’t go to fucking Hollywood, ever. You don’t see that sign, you don’t see those downtown skyscrapers. You just drive around unlimited suburbs with palm trees around, under a close sun that doesn’t give a damn about you and your broke ass.

The beats are good though.

Amazon, Tech workers and stupid thoughts

August 19th, 2015 by harold

So this article has been going around this weekend. Gawker had a lot of articles about Amazon’s workers conditions for the past few years. It is also how most tech companies work: commitment must be way up there. All of that is not new.

  • It’s not wrong to work your ass off for a company.
  • It’s not wrong for a company to use data to get the best of its employees.

What is wrong is having people being deeply dependent on a salary to have a decent life. Yeah, I question that. There’s too much wealth on this planet or in the US to just close my eyes and be like “this is fine just fuck me up”. 1% owning 99%, don’t forget. Never forget, that’s key in changing how society functions.

Like I tweeted Quality of Life shouldn’t be indexed to work. The good news is we can afford it, the bad news is most people can’t grasp that it’s possible. Jeff Bezos “made” $7B in 45 minutes when Amazon stocks jumped a hundred bucks a few days ago. Do you know how many things you can solve with seven billion dollars? Let me help you: a fucking shit ton.

If those Amazon people didn’t have to think about paying rent –being on average half of what we make right?-, they still would work as hard –I think even harder- but they would be freed from pressure if something happens in their lives it wouldn’t be a big deal, just a change of pace. And maybe they would come back to the hard tech world once they feel like they can again.

Failure costs would be at a minimum instead of a maximum: bankruptcy, guilt, feelings of being worthless etc.  All that, gone. Maybe that job wasn’t for you. Maybe you just needed a break!

We need to stop putting all the pressure on people, that’s why people break not because they work hard. We have wealth and we need to redistribute far more efficiently than the way we’re doing it today which is to sprinkle some money on the poor, allow stupid amounts of taxes to not be collected from a stupidly wealthy crowd and ask the middle to do everything more and harder. That’s imploding right now in our faces.

One more thing: Amazon is huge but Amazon is not profitable. You can’t say that you’re that successful if you’re continuously in the red for 15 years. So maybe if pressure comes off people shoulders they will start working on things that are actually making a nice profit for the retail giant and make customers happier. Just sayin’

Character creation and inclusivity

August 16th, 2015 by harold

And when I say character I mean avatar. Usually developers fail to:

  • Think ahead of time that this, avatar representation, matters.

And usually developers never miss to:

  • Argue that it doesn’t fit the settings/theme/story of the game.

I think the first point is easy to solve.

Especially if your game aims at youngsters and kids, the right thing to do is allow customization. It really counts, it has a tremendous positive effect. You know about the black astronaut who became astronaut because she saw a black woman in Star Trek, right? Tons of stories like that. I remember vividly seeing a black Iron Man and thinking in my little 7 year old head “fuck yeah!” or something. If you are a game developer and believe games can change things, this is a way of doing it.

For the second point, it gets more complicated: no, I don’t think it is a good argument to dismiss skin tone customization in games in which players will spend dozens of hours looking at their avatars by implying that that heroic-fantasy themed game is trying to be realistic or historically accurate.

Guys, there is no “real” accuracy in fiction, never will be. We can do whatever we want. Lara Croft could be Asian and black. Shit is mysterious? So be it. It’s fiction, it’s imagination. Imagination is personal, triggers your own world. You need to leave parts open in your design so that players can enjoy “building” their own interest to characters and stories according to their lives. That’s how you make things inclusive.

Now, I’m a grown ass man and I don’t necessarily need things to match me all the time. I can enjoy a movie and get engaged following the story of a Mexican woman or I can play Just Cause 2 for hours without thinking one second about character customization. In this game it doesn’t matter, the spectacle is the environment.

I need my black people but it’s like water and being hydrated, I don’t need an IV 24/7 for that.

Anyway as often, it’s a case by case thing. How long are you going to look at your character? All the time? Allow customization. Is the game going around your character or is it more about the rest? About the rest and your team is too small to afford to spend time on this? Have no customization.

You can of course make the game exactly like you want, for you and your friends first but if people buy and enjoy your game BUT want/wish they could customize their characters and that you tell them to go away, that’s not very nice. And kind of plain stupid.

Same day, different news

August 12th, 2015 by harold

You know, I really feel like we’re stagnating hard. It is exhausting. There are no debate, studies or discussions to have –been there, done that for the past three decades- we need this shit to stop, period.

Another whiny post about the web dying

August 11th, 2015 by harold

The web we have to save.

I just love reading so much. I think it’s because it allows me to listen to music at the same time, thing I can’t do if I’m listening to a stream.

I grew so much by reading things I wasn’t supposed to read –thanks hyperlink-, we all did. Algorithms totally suppress that.

No one cares about the web except nerds like us who spent so much time making it, setting up servers and domain names. Masses don’t care about technology/ethics they just use things and the easiest, the better. Then it’s too late.

What scares me the most about the open internet is when Facebook will start a micropayment system in such a way that no one will pay outside that system. The open internet needs that before walled gardens do.

Timing is everything.

Black atheist

August 6th, 2015 by harold

There’s this huge elephant in the black america room: religion.

I grew up non-religious in my foster family and then my Catholic dad adopted me, tried to get me into it but gave up when I just didn’t believe. As a kid it was easy for me to dismiss religion: God is good? Then why don’t have I my parents? He ain’t good with me so fuck him, I didn’t start the beef. Pretty sure a black church –through the power of music- would have converted me to a bigger extent but you know, white Catholicism in Europe is probably the best way to not make you religious, ever.

But it was deeper than that. Religion just didn’t fit the 80s, technology, rockets etc. Like, not at all. Go home religion, you’re drunk.

I think that’s why Ta-Nehisi Coates is more feared than appreciated for his glacial and fear-inducing vision of a world where there’s no god.

That’s where I connect with his writing, when he’s not pushing anything but as pure as possible reasoning and simple facts. Chirurgical, devoid of emotions, precise. He demonstrates that  sorry to be blunt, your prayers didn’t do shit and won’t, that black person will still get killed within systems –street, police, employment- that are all, all of them, human made.

This, is all there is. As Ta-Nehisi writes it down so well, it is scary to acknowledge that but oddly comforting to know that we humans made this. Because it means we can unmake this too. It’s not hope, a vague notion, it’s a fact like rocks in the desert: we can change what we made. It’s not hopelessness nor a focus on struggle, it’s a focus on the real, big work/tiny chance we have. That’s all we have. People always seem to prefer fantasy and we’re paying with flesh for that. So much inaction or action that doesn’t change anything.

I know, around 80% of black people in the US are into religion and go to church. I also know how messed up the relationship has been between black people, Christianity and  History.

You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice

Christianity to me growing up in Europe and studying there, is kind of a cancer that screwed an entire world up. Imagine a bunch of dudes going down Africa like “hey lil nigga, you heard about that book?”, tricking people into something. The church as a powerful institution is a failure of the state, supposed to provide. So I never had a great, positive view of religion besides watching black people dancing and harmonizing here in the US. We don’t need religion to sing and dance though.

In the end what frightens me the most is the future and  how religion isn’t helping black people, like making them averse to science for example. It’s still true in 2015 and knowing how the world is shaping up I really don’t like seeing that. It makes me feel I will have to wait more and I don’t want that.

Bill Fucking Cosby

July 29th, 2015 by harold

I had read his book “Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors”. It was one of the first time I was reading statistics about black people and those numbers were filling me with fear and sweat.

Yes, even in France the Cosby show was huge. Of course my white liberal parents loved it, probably for slightly different reasons I did (though some things are universal like father/son relationships). Fat Albert was big too, we had reruns in the 80s.

I don’t give a fuck about my Bill memories.

We know rapists get away with rape all the time, even when they are not one of the most powerful and respected black man on earth. We know women under-report rape because they know they will not go anywhere with “justice”. We know most rape happen within personal circles family, friends. We also know that people very rarely falsely accuse people of rape. You just don’t do that for fun. Standing up and having the courage to say “that person abused me” is not a little thing.

46 women, 35 together in an article and probably more who didn’t say anything. Yes, I too have this feeling of being wrong to take a black man down. We don’t have a lot of those, at the top, respected by absolutely everyone. In 2005 when the first “rumors” about him and his pills appeared, I didn’t want to believe it but I knew it smelled real: powerful man, young women? I’m going to go for believing the victims because Bill was way too weird about it. Ten years later I know we’re doing the right thing. Since the first reports appeared I couldn’t  trust that man, even from my couch.

James Brown was the first one that I had trouble to deal with, having pretty much invented a music genre I adore by himself and his band, band he completely abused and stole from. He threatened his wife with a shotgun at some point. People are acting like he was losing it, he wasn’t, he was like that from the start we just didn’t see it when he was on stage, looking at his foot work. Hot pants.

The last one I heard about is Marvin Gaye. Yes, another big black icon. The dude was 34 when he went on seducing that 17 year old foster child who will become his wife. Oh of course, he was already married with three kids. It’s already so wrong at so many levels but that’s the start.

Jan Gaye is releasing a memoir in which we learn how Marvin forced her to have sex with other people and other terrible things. This entire freaky, sense that women are things you consume, control and throw away, I’ll never understand. It broke my heart reading that about Marvin Gaye, another one bites the dust. Glad and proud of Jan for doing the right thing, tell the truth.

It’s just that most powerful men are powerful psychopaths with outdated values I guess. We don’t need them.

The body

July 23rd, 2015 by harold

It’s a wonderful story. Here’s the intro:

At age six, I ran away with my sister to escape the Rwandan massacre. We spent seven years as refugees. What do you want me to do about it? Cry?

It’s all about luck:

After a few months, Claire broke down — of course she did. This life wasn’t going to lead anywhere anyway, and marriage (however personally problematic) was a lottery ticket out.

Her sister got married to get a chance to live a better life, aka she was attractive enough to have someone take care of her.

I don’t mean to be rude or  judgmental or anything. It’s just survival. But it says something though: we’re bodies too. We’re bodies first, despite the intellectual tendency to make believe that mind and soul are independent from the envelope.

Ta-nehisi Coates has a book coming out focusing on the pain inflicted to black bodies. Look at how much bodies are important and determine so much: Clemantine and her sister are gorgeous and that’s what made them escape a probably terrible future. I was a cute baby, probably not screaming too much and people, multiple people wanted to save my orphan ass. I remember being struck reading about Simone Veil, a great and beloved French minister who survived Auschwitz and who said a bit annoyed by all the praise she got for surviving: “you know, I didn’t do anything. I was a kid. A beautiful little girl and that’s what saved me.”

The body. What women spend so much time and money to paint in the morning. The body, taller on heels which creates all kinds of social behaviors. Our abundant society that makes lean bodies more attractive than plump ones. The body, photoshopped in every single ad, that we still try to match regardless. The body, that trans people are not happy with because it doesn’t connect with who they are. How come smart and public people are pretty much always good-looking if not drop dead beautiful or handsome?

The body might not be everything. But it’s a lot.

Classic game writer mistake

July 22nd, 2015 by harold

Austin explains why he wishes Arkham Knight’s Gotham was more populated and analyzes the relationship between superheroes and cities.

Giantbomb is running this article that is perfect to explore the big issue with writing about games.

I know what Austin wants. I love it too, wandering in a virtual place that has a life is sweet. For some. For others, it’s not that interesting and when you make a game you have to compromise really quick. Why? Because really quickly when you have your prototype and your systems running, your characters on screen, assets, you realized that having a “real” city running in the background might be too much if not possible at all.

That’s really the core here. Writers so often think that design stuff is fluid in the build process, it is not. High level design (“make the city alive”) is attached to real things like machine performance, how good your code is, how many people work on this, and how much is already happening. Design is very fragmented at this point, fragile, dependent. And most people have no idea most of the time. Batman Arkham Night is a thick sandwich, there’s a lot going on. Making an open world game gorgeous with almost no loading is some serious achievement. It’s a performance and game writers often just don’t see it this way they think we can just put more stuff in front of the camera, that we just need time. Wrong.

Then, we always have this kind of dumb argument: “but game developer X did it before!” Please, never use that argument that’s the worst. It’s like saying “you can’t run the 100m under 10s? It’s been done before so often!!”. It is a dumb argument.

It takes a lot to make a city feel like it’s alive in a computer game. Taking GTA V as an example of how to do it is oblivious: everyone knows Rockstar is the only company that can/financially afford to do that. Stop being coy! GTA V is five years of development, half a decade with according to Wikipedia over 360 people. Austin goes on with The Witcher 3 doing the city well: four years of development with 230 people in Poland.

Rocksteady is 160 people in the UK. They had four years too but probably way more pressure (it’s the godamn Batman), even just financially (London is far more expensive than Warsaw).

I know, that producer shit is not fun. But when I see people complain –and I’m on Austin’s side, I like wandering in digital cities that feel alive- I’m always annoyed that people don’t realize that it’s not JUST design decisions. It’s not just TOP DOWN, there’s a lot of BOTTOM UP in game development and when an engineer is telling you “we can have an open world but forget about making it alive without HUGE issues” you don’t tell him “but I really want  that” you find ways to mitigate that aspect. Make the player drive that Batmobile a lot for example.

Welcome to game development where you can do anything while you can’t at all.