Review

Who started it?

In the final chapter of Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson assembles a bulleted list of Jobs’ greatest career contributions – the iPhone, Pixar, the whole App ecosystem – and of course the Macintosh, which Isaacson describes as: “[it] begat the home computer revolution and popularized the graphical user interface.”

Brian Bagnall, author of Commodore: a Company on the Edge, would beg to differ:

“[The] rosy picture of Apple starting the microcomputer industry crumbles under inspection,” he writes in the introduction to his book, “Commodore put computers in the hands of ordinary consumers.

Bagnall replied with his own list of what he believes were Commodore’s successes – first to sell a million computers, first major company to show a personal computer, and the first to release a multimedia computer.

In this way, Bagnall’s book begins as a direct challenge to Isaacson’s book, but aside from this opening salvo and fighting over turf, the books are excellent compliments to each other.

While Isaacson’s book is not strictly about Apple the company and Bagnall’s book is about the Commodore as a whole, both books have a lot in common - each author had a tremendous amount of access to the people involved in the history of these companies and saturated their book with quotes and firsthand sources, and both are very concerned with and detailed about late 70s and 80s computer history.

Commodore, who closed their doors in 1994, was the progenitor of the Commodore 64 and the manufacturer of the Amiga. Commodore has become emblematic of the shifting sands in the computer industry in the transition from the 80s to the 90s. Commodore had money, had technology, had vertical integration (much emphasized by Jobs in his biography) and yet, they couldn’t survive. While Bagnall has yet to publish a long-awaited follow-up to Commodore, The Future Was Here by Jimmy Maher, a book profiling of the Amiga, explains that Commodore just simply didn’t know what to do with their computers or how to market them as multimedia became a requirement of consumers. However, Jobs certainly knew how to market his machines.

Bagnall’s book makes a thorough and persuasive presentation of the contributions of Commodore and notably its technological heart Chuck Peddle. You can’t read Bagnall’s book and then look at Isaacson’s bullet point list of Job’s accomplishments without thinking “Well…..”

Unfortunately for Bagnall’s subject, history is written by the victors. Or rather, fans of the victors it seems.

This collision of these differing authors is central to a lot of what is currently being written about personal computing history. There’s a plethora of books available now that attempt to state who invented the computer, or who sparked the revolution (since it needs to be called that for whatever reason), or what influenced the revolution. Ultimately boiling down to the question - who was the first, such that they deserve credit?

Commodore, to its credit, is getting recognition - the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions, the aforementioned The Future Was Here, and the tremendous amount of retro computing interest has brought the company’s technology back into popular interest. Commodore for many of us, does sit as a time capsule of that era, perceiving its products unaltered by its present form, as is the case with Apple.

For myself and my near-peers, computing history is not just industry on its own merits, but also valuable because it is our personal history as well. We experienced that history, and many of the details filled in by books like Isaacson and Bagnall’s are enriching simply because we can say to ourselves “Oh yeah, I do remember that.” It helps us to explain and understanding the evolution of the digital world, one in which, we directly inhabit and is still quite new.

However, I don’t care who started it. Computer history is always a tremendous confluence of factors that assigning historical responsibility is a pointless task. Oh absolutely, individual people had tremendous impact or influence, but I can’t say Alan Turing started the computer revolution more than I can say Morris Tanenbaum did as well. In fact, it is the combining factors that makes the field of study so fascinating. The iPhone wouldn’t be half as interesting if we didn’t have social outlets such that we always had a reason to be engaged with and notified by our phones.

I commend Isaacson and Bagnall on their enormous efforts to document the history of personal computing and choosing such large subject matters and persons of importance. While I agree that Commodore has indeed been downplayed as Bagnall claims, the whole problem isn’t that Commodore isn’t getting its just desserts from history. Instead, the motivation to claim ownership of the digital age is going to be there regardless of history, especially when money, power and success are intertwined.

Game Programming Patterns

Most game programming books are one of two things: very specific – particular game engines, physics, rendering, AI – or very general, for the beginner.

Robert Nystrom’s Game Programming Patterns is right in the middle.

As the title indicates, the book doesn’t focus on a particular engine, individual component or language, though examples are given in a stripped down C++. Instead, Nystrom’s book takes its cue from the Gang of Four’s Design Patterns - presenting a problem, then a pattern that attempts to resolve complexity with higher aspirations of reusability and performance, both for the computer and the programmer.

GPP is an excellent companion to its inspiration for even the general design pattern enthusiasts. Games, at this point in time, are something most programmers have some level if not expert knowledge in, even if that’s only as a player. Framing design patterns within this context allows Nystrom to provide examples that are relatable and can move away from the Gang of Four’s need to be as neutral as possible when outlining their ideas. In other words - it clicks better because the content is very close to our experience.

The book is organized around groups of patterns and most of the chapters are focused on problems that are unique to game development.

The first section revisits several of the Gang of Four’s canonized patterns – command, flyweight, observer, prototype, singleton, state – even taking a number of them to task as misused, bad or at the very least poorly described by the original authors. Nystrom certainly could have chosen other patterns (composite, builder and visitor spring to mind), in fact, it’d be awesome if he extended the series, but he had to find a limit someplace.

The other sections dive more deeply into game programming specifics including sequencing, behavioral structures, decoupling, and optimization, but the descriptions still keep the discussion on the pattern level. These chapters cover problems that specifically arise in game development, as opposed to say web development, and Nystrom is even more strong-handed in the tone - use the pattern when you need it, not just because.

The patterns discussed near the end of the book specifically belabour this point, as their optimizations aim really make code more complex and difficult to debug, but can greatly affect performance for games that need it.

Overall, Nystrom’s book was a like a great pair programming buddy. He presents most patterns in the book initially as “hey, let’s just get it working”, then through the introduction of a pattern, refactors, and then asks question of “do we really need this?”, all the while with asides and geek notes in the sidebars.

While this information can come from other places targeted at game developers, Nystrom’s a good writer. I mentioned above that this book fits in the middle, in truth it probably does lean more towards the beginner, that said, the value of the book for the more experienced is to gain another perspective on patterns and code practices from an author who delights in it.

Game Programming Patterns is indeed useful for its titular topic, but as a whole, it made programming, patterns used or not, just fun.

Atari: Game Over

Currently on Netflix, the documentary Atari: Game Over does one thing very well - makes you very endeared to Howard Scott Warshaw.

Warshaw is the game designer and developer for the Atari 2600 game E.T. based on the film of the same name, that in 1983, supposedly killed the video game industry and thus, millions of copies of its cartridges were shamefully buried in the desert. 

This documentary is the story of the filmmaker's, Zak Penn, attempt to find those cartridges and to answer the question - What happened to Atari? 

Like a lot of recent video game documentaries, the film begins with some variant of "Now, video games are everywhere." This is probably an unnecessary line, considering the audience for this film has to be specialized enough to care about buried Atari cartridges but let's move past this.

The film uses Warshaw as the central character around the history of late 70s and early 80s video game development, explosion and subsequent downfall. Warshaw, who is now a therapist, had, before creating E.T., developed classic games like Yars Revenge and the adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark to Atari. Warshaw is naturally a part of this arc of history and admittedly realizes that he tried for decades to find the same high as he felt as a young man on the wave of the video game craze. 

While Game Over does the perfunctory history of the history of Atari and interviews with Nolan Bushnell, what it does so much better than its peer documentaries is tie it to Warshaw, who is person that the audience can actually connect to. In contrast Video Games: The Movie has a group of young people talking about how "AWESOME" Atari was, which may be fun for them, but when sitting in movie and asking yourself 'why should I care?' Game Over answers with Warshaw's experience and life. 

The climax of the film, not surprisingly, is the big dig, where Atari cartridges are discovered in a land fill. People come out in droves to see the dig and a cheer goes up as the old games are found. Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, is there too. He makes an appearance for several scenes throughout in a DeLorean from George RR Martin for no reason other than I can assume to throw some nerd-credibility in there, cause seriously, he serves no plot or historically illuminative purpose. But, really, his presence is a lot like the cheer as the games are found.

I am a game and vintage computer collector myself. I don't have a tremendous amount of money, so often I content myself with old programming books from the 70s. I own three Atari's including a Sears Atari. I own multiple copies of E.T. and my most rare game is Swordquest: Waterworld. I get excited about old gaming stuff, but not enough to break my bank. 

Nothing about the Atari dig excites me. As the different people at the end of the film explain, hating E.T. has become fashionable. There are far worse games on the Atari 2600, even the Atari 5200 in its entirety is terrible. The dig and its excitement in the film are Internet Exciting not actually exciting on a gaming level. That strikes me as a little hollow, like just throwing a bunch of retro gaming t-shirts on a character in a film and calling them a "gamer." To any screenwriters out there looking to exploit this market, I recommend you use Ernest Cline. 

I don't doubt anyone's authenticity, but self-congratulation and masturbation in gaming docs is horrendous, and it's the only part of the film that starts to dip into this realm. Fortunately, Warshaw carries it past this. 

Warshaw, having been demonized for his creation of E.T., is understandably touched by everyone's involvement, hardwork and enthusiasm. This is actually moving. It's validation to a person that his who had to give up a career he was good at and loved. As the film notes, there are no lifetime achievement awards for Warshaw. 

I didn't obtain any new information from this film, but it did make me like Warshaw more and that's for a guy who is already pretty likeable. If you haven't seen his series Once Upon Atari it's one of the more in-depth "documentaries" on gaming and programming history I've seen.

He Had Such an Impact

And I really had no idea who Tokuro Fujiwara was until recently. His short Wikipedia summary ends thusly:

He is notorious for making his titles difficult for the average video game player.

That is what I remeber and know best about Fujiwara's games. This is my short gush about how great of designer this guy was.

As the creator of Ghost 'N Goblins, Fujiwara can probably credit himself with creating one of the most difficult games of all time. If you don't know, not only is the game ridiculously hard, but you have to do it twice. The same game - twice.

As it turns out, Fujiwara had a much greater impact on my early gaming career than just frustrating me. Fujiwara also created or worked on as a producer fantastic, and some easy games, like the game adaptations of Ducktale and Aladdin, two games that I could probably beat right now if given the rest of the evening.

Fujiwara also worked on Strider.

Strider was a game I didn't actually play very much, but for some reason watching kids play it at the arcade enthralled me. Looking back at the longplay above, I can't really say it was the best designed game, but that flash of the sword still looks cool.

While, I guess you might consider a lot of these games one-off's, Fujiwara's most enduring contribution was his production work on the Mega Man series. I can't really pretend to add anything to the discussion of how great Mega Man is, but it was one of the more foundational titles of my youth and the majority of the games in the series still elude my victory yell. While he can't be credited with creating the series, looking through the rest of his CV, particularly Mega Man X, I get the feeling of "Oh, I knew something was familiar in that. "

In this way, Fujiwara is an internally divisive designer - his games in many ways annoyed me to no end, and still do, yet his work blew me away and has fascintated imagination for years. Even the difficult titles.

Randomly, one title stood out to me amongst his credits -Little Nemo.

I've been a huge fan of Winsor McCay and Little Nemo is one of those comic strips that is simple to describe but never gives you any sense of how wild and explosive the work was. I've always found it strange they decided to adapt the comic into a NES game. Not surprisingly, Fujiwara was invovled in it as well.

I really can't say much about the game as it wasn't one I really played growing up, but I will close in saying that the difficulty of Fujiwara's games did a lot to help me imagine how I would make games as much as the colors, music and levels. And after all, the difficulty has kept Ghost 'N Goblins on my mind since I was six.

Video Games: The Movie

This moth Netflix released Video Games: The Movie, the KickStarter funded documentary from director (writer, producer) Jeremy Snead. Before I sat down to write this, I was thoroughly confused why this history / culture review / look-ahead documentary on video games would solicit opinion from Zak Braff throughout, but then I saw he was the executive producer, which should give you the perfect context for the quality of the rest of the film. 

The main problem of the film is I'm not sure who it's for. Let's go to the source on the film's KickStarter page: 

One of the major goals of our film is to tear down the misconceptions the public has by revealing the truth about video game culture and the amazing, vibrant community gamers have created over the years.

Okay cool. So this is for people who are not gamers in order to tear down their misconceptions. Well that being said by the filmmaker (or whoever writes his copy), the film does a decent job. In a lot of ways it was a more slickly producer Gamers (though that film's focus was just on MMOs), going through the history of games, what gaming culture is like and what excites those who game. I would have been really excited to see this when I was ten and maybe caught it late night on some PBS documentary series. In the same way I was excited for The Wizard when it came out simply because it was talking about games. 

However, while there's a decent amount of background on gaming and introducing gaming concepts as if they were new to the audience, there's also a tremendous amount of watching Will Wheaton, a bunch of gaming journalists, game design / coding luminaries, and apparently whoever was around when filming happened waxing annoyingly nostalgic about their favorite games. There's no problem with cherishing memories of games, but it's not exactly interesting to put to film. Unless your intent was to generate in your audience the emotion of "Totally. I know what's he's talking about."

Right alongside this is the really long montages of game footage, which if this was for non-gamers, it's given no context. If it is for gamers, there's little exciting there except the feeling of "Hey, I like that game." 

On that film technique, the long montage of the "next, next generation of games" near the end, I had to mute. It was akin to an episode of Top Gear when they test a new model car. In TG, it's playing with toys that I'll never afford, even if it is a brand plug, however, in this movie, I'm just being advertised at, which is particularly obvious, if you end said montage with close ups of a PS4 and a XBoxOne. Seriously, the only difference between the below ad and this movie is that XBox labeled the games.

While I certainly imagine the fim being sponsored to some degree by game companies, and that's forgivable but, there's definitely something worse in the film. Going back to the quote above from KickStarter, which supposedly explained the purpose of the film, there is immediately a tone of defensiveness. This film is about fix what's been done to us gamers!

And it's throughout the film. Two sections are of note.

First, the culture section is a long collection of clips and quotes of how great the gaming culture is. Yes, totally, games and the people I've bonded with over games are great. Yes, people do make friends when they do similar activities. Oh, people have gotten married after meeting in games. People have probably gotten married through the oil business as well but yeah, we should devote 20 minutes to this topic. Not trying dismiss it, but this isn't 1979 - while gaming may still have stigma of fat white dudes, it's not as though friendship through games is an anomaly. Again, maybe this film is indeed for the uninitiated, however, the section is mostly self-congratulatory. 

Second, and worst, is when the film discusses violence in games. The defense that the film mounts against accusations that video games causes violence is both unnecessary and also incorrect. To be sure, it doesn't take much for most gamers or even non-gamers to remember a parent accusing gaming for rotten children's and teenagers' minds.  

However, first off, you have to understand blow back. New media brings blow back. That happens. It's no coincidence that the stock footage the movie used of uptight white people discussing violence in video games are from the mid-90s. Columbine was the last serious discussion of video game violence as a motivator for unstable people. But it's new, kids play games, and it's something easy for conservatives to be upset about the world going to hell. It's gonna happen, it's not personal. After Marilyn Manson and Doom, there was Eminem, who was destroying American culture. Which again, he's white, he's charismatic, he was just another threat. 

Second, the defensive lines about violence in video games are just a trope at this point. My favorite is "As I recall, Caine didn't kill Abel with a Gameboy". Uh, sure. However, while it won't get you anywhere to say that games have a statistical correlation with violence (they don't), it's also not valuable to reduce the argument to absurdity. And that's really the problem with most defensiveness regarding violence in gaming (suspending for the moment discussion of sexual exploitation, racism, xenophobia, and so on). 

Look - in the same way the films says cinema doesn't deserve banishment because it has violence, there must be acceptance that some games are trying to elicit a reaction, trying to be purposefully, explicitly violent. Killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto is intended to piss people off and blow people away with its violence. It's not an incidental mechanic. It's not even misunderstood by players. 

Movies like Salo: 120 Days of Sodom or A Serbian Film aren't trying to be oblique about their intentions. They are trying to say - look at this crazy shit we filmed, it's intended to fuck with you. 

The problem with the argument that people don't correlatively kill after playing games is it's an attempt to deny that anything is wrong or could be wrong with exploitative violence in games. Yes, there's violence in films. But you can make violent, hateful, misogynistic films that deserve criticism or just to be burned. 

So the issue that violence in games causes violence in real life, yes, statistically disproven is not the entire point. The issue is that explicit, exploitive violence in games could still nonetheless be wrong on a critical / cultural level. It's not that violence shouldn't exist in video games - instead, just that if you're going to blanket defend it, then own what's there. I have no problem defending violence against demons in Doom, but that does not mean that I can or will defend a game like Hatred

With these two parts and the initial stated purpose of VG:TM, it really saps from the more basic informative aspects and the film feels unsatisfying at the end. I went from, wow video games are neat to uh, okay, I guess video game violence should be okay because it doesn't CAUSE violence, and closed with, those new products are cool, I suppose. 

This film, like so much of literature about gaming generally, smacks of immaturity on the topic. It is possible to write serious discussions of gaming, game culture, history of games, violence and expression in games, but a bunch of people sitting around saying that stuff is neat is ultimately unspecific and uninteresting. When additionally defensiveness is the key component in multiple sections in the film and even within the stated purpose of the film, there isn't much to say that's interesting since the narrative is focused on a straw man. 

The missing opportunity here is making a film that makes games interesting and enriches those who are gamers in their subject matter. Narrative ingrained with its subject matter has been absent from so much of gaming literature, and those who finally take on the challenge will deserve their coming success. 

Turning's Cathedral

George Dyson's Turing's Cathedral is not particularly about Turing, rather instead about the work created out Turing's accomplishments. Specifically the book focuses on the Institute for Advanced Study and the construction and operation of the ENIAC/ MANIAC. John Von Neumann, for whom the Von Neumman hardware architecture is named, is the core persona throughout - lobbying for the IAS to devote funds to the construction of computers, assisting with wartime ballistics efforts, and corralling the brilliant minds who would put time in on the MANIAC for all manners of research. 

Dyson's book is exquisitely researched and for fans of technology history, this book is more a straight history with the IAS computer research as the thematic background. If you really want detail on the lives of early computing pioneers, the book provides in spades, but does not spend a tremendous about of time dealing the machines themselves. Some of the more interesting parts about the book are the surrounding small details such as the necessity for a complex air cooling system to keep the computer running and the constant tension between the IAS and its computer scientists, who were treated unfairly since they weren't studying a pure science as compared to the researchers at the IAS.

Turing's Cathedral would be a strong recommendation for anyone interested in the personality and climate surrounding early computer science work, particularly if Cold War or World War II politics are of interest to you. As I said above, since the book doesn't focus too much on the machines themselves, if you're just looking for technology history, it can probably be better found elsewhere. 

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Up front I'll just say two things - I am a huge AVGN fan and I did not care for his movie.

Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie goes out of the basement and follows the Nerd as he sets out to review the Atari 2600 E.T. (called EeeTee in the movie for obvious reasons). The journey is wrapped up in a promotion by game company Cockburn Industries (really?) to help sell their purposefully shitty game EeeTee 2, since, thanks to the Nerd, bad is good. On the trip, the Nerd becomes the taget of a government conspiracy, ends up in Area 51 and so on until a climactic battle ensues and the Nerd finally reviews E.T.

For an independent film and Rolfe's first effort at a feature length movie, the team did a great job, especially considering a lot of the work was done through a network of fans working simultaneously on different parts of the film via the Internet. But aside from just having to photograph a movie, Rolfe and his crew wrote a script that feels cohesive, every scene has a point, and the plot actually builds to something big and meaningful within its own world. 

My first thought though is - I really don't want to see the Nerd in some epic plot inside the real-ish world. The Nerd always worked great inside a temporary artificial universe where the Joker, Jason, and Freddy Krueger are real, and the NES Robotic Operating Buddy attempts to take over the world. These are fun because they take something that's maybe a 100x100px sprite and turn it into to something real, and something from the Nerd's imagination, something that he can punch and take out his aggression on. 

And that's the key - the imagination necessary for early games is part of the experience and part of the creative opportunity of AVGN generally. We play the game, but we're also playing in our own conception of the game. AVGN is about sharing in Rolfe's frustrated perspective, which theoretically is partially our own. 

So when it comes to the movie, we lose that opportunity. Some of the heart and play are lost in making the Nerd a fully fleshed out character who has a job, car, friends and can be manipulated by corporate assholes. But the truth is, if you are going to make a movie, you have to expand the world beyond the basement. And so, I get it. 

But with the play and exasperation gone, the identifying characteristics of the Nerd have to go bigger to fill in the gap. This is namely the Nerd's foul mouth. Look - I love cursing, I love hearing people think of beautifully expressively obscenities, such as - "This is worse than buffalo shizz. It's a combination of shit and jizz" - but all of that can't just be obscenities and outrageous analogies done because screen time needs things that sound funny. That's what a lot of the Nerd-ish language is in the film, and the observant fan may have noticed that some of the rants are from previous episodes. 

Consider Super Pitfall, one of my favorite of the Nerd's reviews. The line that always cracks me up is simply "Fucking Assholes!" The Nerd is ranting about a simple beginner's trap and after going on about how the developers should have just started the game this way, this simple insult perfectly embodies how he and I feel about this type of bullshit. That's all you need for obscenity to work. However, in the movie, the rants are referencing something that we're not seeing like the memory of a game or are too many words forced for the current situation. Either way, it's not fun and is distracting at worst. 

Still, compared to a lot of movies, at least the dialog is not meaningless or random or wandering even if it doesn't match up the Nerd's reviews. The same could be said of the action scenes, which are mostly done with small miniatures and simple pyrotechnic effects. They fit in the movie, however, they just don't work or feel that impactful. Sure, throw a crazy military dude in there and you're gonna get explosions, and that's about as motivated as the action scenes feel. 

I'll hand it to Rolfe and everyone who participated - if you want to make an epic movie, don't feel constrained that you need a Peter Jackson-sized budget to do it - just go for it. It's no surprise that Rolfe has said that Make Your Own Damn Movie by Lloyd Kaufman (who also appears in the film) is his favorite film book. I also happen to be a fan of this book. In it Kaufman, who runs Troma Entertainment, advises that filmmakers to make the movies that they can, in any way possible. Only have some Hot Wheels and your script calls for a high speed chase? Well, you're good. 

While this approach may lack polish, if it still tells a story you care about, then that's what matters. Otherwise, the story would never get told at all. Heartwarming as that sentiment is, I'm not sure Surf Nazis Must Die needed to be told, but to each his own. Going back to AVGN: The Movie, this ideal holds throughout, and there's a certain charm to low-budget films that are built by creative people, and that's where all this excess of dialogue and action gets in the way. 

Rolfe, while known for his rants, also has a lot of heart and love of gaming, and even within his rants, there's a voice and appreciation for the young gamer. It exudes a writer who really knows his topic and has found meaning in it. That above all is what was missing in the film. 

As pathetic as it sounds, I've enjoyed the Nerd videos because I've never really had anyone to talk with games about, particularly ones from my youth. Sure there were kids who I played games with, but to me they were never just things to be won, but worlds to inhabit and an experience in themselves. I don't doubt that other kids around me felt this way, it's just that it's a hard subject to articulate when you're young. 

However, I had a lot of anger at games as well, because I did and still do mostly suck at them, and I took this as a personal failing. Watching the AVGN, and in particular the Castlevania and Ghost N' Goblins episodes, it's apparent I wasn't the only one who felt this way, but also still loved the thing that was torturing me. 

It's an awkward situation to handle - you're playing shitty games because you love gaming, you want to enjoy them. Rolfe never states this directly in his Nerd character, and this underlying current is part of what makes the character so endearing and sympathetic. 

Outside of the Nerd character, Rolfe has had several other videos, where he mostly takes on film, that really pull on a thread that's unique to adults his age - the process of going through things you love that are difficult to share with anyone who didn't experience it but are also very corny and cheap. Rolfe's video store re-creation in his home is fantastic example.

While I can appreciate that Troma films and other shlock are part of Rolfe's youth and fit well within the appreciation of what makes his other content so great, the Nerd fits in a different genre than what makes good shlock. The Nerd video's cheap effects are not because of shlock, but YouTube and After Effects done with zero budget made for the internet. 

My point with all of this talk of heart and fit is that while Cinemassacre made decent film, they lost a lot of what makes the Nerd great in the process and the film took priority to the character it's about and what people love about him.

I'd like to see more of what Cinemassacre can do making feature length films. I think they are talented and invested enough to make things happen, and even get others excited about filmmaking on a low budget. But my personal recommendation, whatever that is worth, is to go for something that hooks into the threads of heart and childhood joy that made their other videos so fun to watch. 

Atlassian Summit Post-mortem

Okay, I'll admit it - I'm an Atlassian fanboy. I really enjoy their products (which I introduced to my company), I think their culture is awesome, I follow their blogs and lectures, and a lot of what they do I try to emulate.

Which is why going to the Summit was so tough. 

First, while I am a fanboy, I'm never a giddy fan, in any space. So going to summits is always awkward, because I'm around a bunch of people who are geniunely excited to be there - they clap at every product update, answer "MORNING!" when the first presenter says "Good morning everyone," and they wear their lanyard everywhere. I'm just not that guy. I don't have judgement who are that guy or girl. It's just not me. I get that that's part of the excitement of going to these type of things, but maybe I need a crew to go with and a couple of whiskeys before I get in that mode. 

Second, I've been told that while Atlassian may exude cool and awesome culture we never properly hear about the jerks and late nights explosions. While I believe that's fair about any company, I don't believe that's really the case with Atlassian and furthermore their culture or at least what they say their culture is meant to spread the pain and expose warnings as soon as possible. In other words, I have this perception if shit goes pear-shaped, it's not so bad as other places. With that I'll say - I make this concession to them knowing it could be not true.

Third, and finally, I saw a lot of good companies running great software and producing things in a very short time. And shit - I want to be doing that too. It's not that I'm not producing software, it's just that for every good that another company, group or whatever is doing with Agile and Atlassian products, it all the more reflects back on my own failings. It's a good thing, but it was a lot at once, and with every - "Oh man we should just do that" - it must be tempered with the reality of running a software team.

I certainly wouldn't mind going again, Atlassian does a great job putting together good sessions, but with a team. And maybe a more exotic location than San Jose. 

Mechner's Journals

Okay, I'll be honest. I had never played Mechner's games before I picked up Mechner's two journals - The Making of Karateka and The Making of Prince of Persia. However, naturally, I knew them and was fully aware of even the mechanics. 

This says a lot about the power of Mechner's games. 

These books are very similar to my review on Masters of Doom, neither really provides that much to a reader looking to learn about each game's production. Sure, they're great historical documents, and for someone, such as myself, who is interested in retro gaming and old computers, there's a lot there to enjoy nostalgically, but other than the time spent in the 80s and early 90s, there's really not a lot to learn beyond Broderbund is full of incompetent people and Mechner is exactly what you'd expect of a young person in their early 20s who has received a lot of success and attention. That on its own is ultimately boring, unless you enjoy someone debating what type of successful person they should be repeatedly.  

However, Mechner gets games. It's not as exciting from our 2014 point of view, but Mechner sees games similar to movies and is concerned with how mechanics, intros, art, sound and every other detail form a complete picture. Similarly, Mechner understands tension and anticipation, all inspiration from his interest and heavy consumption of film (he's even a legit screenwriter at points throughout the narratives). Considering that most games at his time were single screen puzzles, this is really what makes him most successful, and, again, that's obvious to us now, but I've still been in games discussions in modern times that either focus entirely on some widget-like component or some ridiculous storyline that all make you ask "And then...."

As pictured above, there were all these great snippets from his journals on how to construct his games, and I really wish more this was in the book. Both these books remind me a lot of Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade. I'd be more interested in how the games was built, not everything going on around the construction. Where were the missteps? What didn't make it in? Why the changes? Technical difficulties? Sure it's dull for most, but this is already a title for a specialized audience. 

All this critique said, there was one gem that bears sharing. In Karateka, Mechner outlines what he believes are the basis of any good game, and you can see how it drives his development process throughout his design career. Summarizing:

  1. You have to feel in control of the thing you're supposed to be in control of.
  2. You have to be able to control the form of your attacks - have a strategy. 
  3. There should be two goals. For example, getting points (primary) and clearing the screen (secondary).

He lists Asteriods, Pac-Man and Space Invaders as ideal examples. 

When Previously Recorded reviewed Sonic the Hedgehog, they incidentally go through almost every single one of these issues as serious problems with the Sega franchise. As a Nintendo fanboy growing up, I'm definitely inclinded to agree, but it also demonstrates how prescient Mechner's analysis of simple games was, while everyone around him was more concerned with flashing lights and cheap gimmicks. 

I can't really recommend this series unless you are either a huge fan of both of these games or someone who is very interested in the early history of personal computers and game development. Mechner isn't the best person (at his age) to spend time with and the thinness of his description to help to paint the world.

Credit where credit is due to Mechner's skill and creativity at his age, but looking back, it's probably better to just know these books are out there, and play his games.  

My FPS Engine and Masters of Doom

I really thought there'd be more to it. But running through a quick raycasting coding demo (something new to me, but always wanted to know how it work), I was soon able, after a couple of duh bugs, to get a running Java application spitting out a random wall grouping. 

Reminiscent of my first FPS game I played, Wolfenstein 3D, and the same idea that powered the raycasting technology that's the cornerstone of the book Masters of Doom.

I had thought that doing the coding would provide some insight into the book - like loads of Pernot while reading A Farewell to Arms. In both cases, it doesn't really help. There's plenty of summaries out there in the world of this book, so I wont' waste time summarizing except to tell the uninitiated that it's a history of id Software and its rise and collapse under the watchful and egotistical eyes of John Romero and John Carmack. 

This isn't to disparage either thing. I had a great time and learned a lot about modeling vision within an FPS raycasting system that was not altogether evident just reading through the code (my own Ahaa's found in the commented code). The book itself is well-written and is an adventurous story. Particularly one of young people who have discovered something incredibly powerful and are not sure what to do with themselves. I'm sure I would have been even less mature and more vindictive at their age. While, I'm still obviously less intelligent. 

Consider this - I collect a lot of cookbooks, and there's a moment of discovery in making a recipe you never have or even in making a recipe that puts better flavor into what you already know. There's a connection there too, between the cookbook writer and yourself (except if you're watching Julie and Julia, that is bullshit!). However, in there is labor in that process. You have to earn the work, and, well, sacrifices must literally be made. 

One of my favorite books on computers is The Elements of Computing Systems. I loved discovering how a processor actually works, how memory gets used, and how to build an OS from scratch (yes, yes, start with the universe, ha ha). But I know in reading it that I'm at an elementary school level. It doesn't sap my enjoyment of learning, but I won't be there with the chef as in my cookbook example sharing the same thing. 

Likewise in coding a raycasting FPS engine, I am so far behind, even within the narrative of the book which covers the development of Quake, that while I love the learning, I don't feel empowered. True, I don't need to fuss around with OS/2 memory management anymore, but more importantly, I can make a game like it if I want to using Unity. However, with cooking you can't substitute - you need to learn the recipes, otherwise, you won't be able to cook like the chef ultimately. 

So does the same thing hold true for coding in the steps of the greats? Are we able to say, "Look, learn this, skip Unity for now, and then go ahead." ? Do we respect that type of thinking as coders anymore, particularly within game development?

 

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