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A Warm Autumn Breeze at IndieCade Europe 2017

On the 30th of October at 08:15, the courtyard of Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) was softly lit by a heart-warming morning sun, occluded by grey Parisien clouds. Just like a cool Morrissey tune; no rain, no cold, no rush. Pure tranquility… At the womb of Art and Science, I somehow felt at home.

As I was wandering around the registration tent and looking at the statues of worldwide known scientists, I bumped into an elderly British gentleman, who was also wandering around alone. We looked at each other for a moment. With a gentle smile, I said “Good morning Mr. Livingstone. Such a great pleasure meeting you, again, Sir!”. As I reminded him who I was, we instantly started talking about the good-old days at Core Design (Derby), and the heydays of 8/16-bit video game development in UK for sure. – What a privilege! For a moment, I thought time stood still.

As the chit-chat and laughter started to peak, I have noticed that we were surrounded by a bunch of young game developers, carefully listening to Mr. Ian Livingstone… Well, it’s quite normal. One does not simply bump into ‘a living legend’ everyday!

Révérence!

Sir Ian Livingstoneyes, he has been knighted once or twice!– is one of the founding fathers of the UK games industry. He is the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons RPG franchise, author of Fighting Fantasy RPG books, game designer and board member of Domark, co-founder and chairman of Eidos (the company that acquired Core Design and started the Lara Croft:Tomb Raider franchise), and winner of a BAFTA Special Award! In the Wired 100 list for 2012, he was ranked the 16th most influential person in the UK’s digital economy… Now, you know what I mean by ‘a living legend’.

When he asked what I had been doing nowadays, I replied with a witty smile: “Nothing new. Same video game development thing for the last 32 years, Sir!”. We all laughed. He pointed at me and said “Look, we have a newcomer here!”. We all laughed, again… As he kindly looked into my eyes, I knew he was going to switch to something serious: “You know what, after all those years it’s time to start your own company, Mert!”. I gently bowed, and replied “One day I certainly will. Thank you, Sir! For now, I would like to keep on freelancing as much as I can”. He kindly nodded and smiled, as no one in the video game business knows the meaning of ‘freedom’ better than him. I thanked him again for his kind advice and understanding.

When the conversion was over, I felt like I was blessed by the God of video game business. I was relieved to see everything I have done in 3 decades was approved with a gentle nod. That means a lot to me. Relieved, by all means. – (Now, what would you call that; coincidence or destiny?)

The funny thing is, right after the conversation, I realized how young developers were strangely looking at me while whispering to each other: “Well then, who the hell is this long-haired mortal punk chit-chatting with the almighty Sir Livingstone?!” 🙂

Keynotes and Performances

Featuring two days of talks around creative industries, community support, and tools & technologies, there was something for everyone, from experienced designers and veteran artists to folks just getting started.

For me, the highlights of the meetings were;

  “Life is a Game” – Ian Livingstone
  “How Not To Kill Your Art Director” – Vincent Gault
  “How Not to Go Bankrupt” – Cliff Harris
  “The Late Game” – Brie Code

All meetings were held at the authentic Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) amphitheatres, the largest of which can accomodate an audience of 750. These amphitheatres are still heavily used today, as CNAM offers a doctoral degree-granting higher education establishment and Grande école in engineering, operated by the French government, dedicated to providing education and conducting research for the promotion of science and industry. It is a continuing education school for adults seeking engineering (multidisciplinary scientific program) and business degrees, proposing evening classes in a variety of topics.

Show & Tell Demo Area

It was certainly worth visiting each and every indie game developer at the demo area. Bringing young talents and industry veterans together is a step forward for developing better games. We learn from each other. No matter how experienced you are in the global game development industry, there is (and will always be) more to learn. It is in the nature of video game development business.

On the Way Home…

After 2 days full of playing games, meeting game developers and attending various game related events, it was time to go home – yep, for game development! The thing is, I wasn’t aware of the surprise waiting for me at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Even more games!!! 🙂

In case you wonder, here is the full list of locations you can play Sony PlayStation 4 games -free of charge- at Paris CDG Airport.

  Terminal 1: Satellites 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7
  Terminal 2: Gates A39, C85, D40 and D66
  Terminal 2E: Hall K Gates K36, K43 and K49
  Terminal 2E: Hall L Gates L22, L25 and L45
  Terminal 2E: Hall M Gates M25 and M45
  Terminal 2F: Gates F22 and F46
  Terminal 3: International boarding lounge

(L)egocentric day in Paris

During our recent summer holiday in Paris, my beloved wife and daughter decided to take a day off and go out for shopping without me. – What a gift! I felt very privileged to have been given back the opportunity of being a ‘freeman’, despite the fact that it was only for a few hours 😉

Against ticking clock, I decided to feed the never ever growing up child within me, and dedicate the whole day to visiting all official LEGO shops in Paris. – Sounds crazy? Well, if you are a LEGO addict like me, then you know what I mean…

When I googled for LEGO shops, I’ve realized that most of the information available online is either misleading or outdated. After a couple of trial and errors, plus many hours wasted on road, I have managed to visit all 3 official LEGO stores in Paris.

 The LEGO Store – Les Halles

 The LEGO Store – So Ouest

 The LEGO Store – Disneyland

During the metro trip back to hotel, I promised myself to write a clear blog post about all the information that I had gathered, so that it could be useful to other LEGO fans visiting Paris.

So, here we go!

The LEGO Store – Les Halles

This is a brand new 400 m² LEGO store established in April 2016. It is located at the center of Forum des Halles shopping mall.

The main entrance of official LEGO store 'Les Halles' in Paris
The main entrance of official LEGO store ‘Les Halles’ in Paris
Directions: Take Metro Line 4 (light purple), and stop at ‘Les Halles’ station. There are more than one exits at this station. No worries! Use whichever you like. Using the stairs and escalators, you will either find yourself in a huge underground shopping mall, or in the middle of a crowded street. In both cases, you are at the heart of the Forum des Halles shopping mall. The LEGO store is at street level (Level 0), on the left-hand side of the main entrance. It is the largest shop on this level. – (Link: Google Maps)
My daughter, Dila, is amazed by the beauty of mega Notre-Dame Cathedral construction built in LEGO bricks!
My daughter, Dila, is amazed by the beauty of mega Notre-Dame Cathedral construction built in LEGO bricks!

Les Halles LEGO store has a breathtaking showcase. On the left, the store welcomes you with a huge French kitchen set built in LEGO bricks. While looking at the cook, oven, pots, colourful cupcakes, and many other well-thought-out details, it is quite easy to be bewildered while dreaming in front of the showcase. When you walk to the right hand side, you’ll notice two more mega LEGO constructions; The Notre-Dame Cathedral and The Arc de Triomphe. Though both sets demonstrate top-notch brick architecture wizardry, the cathedral construction is a truly remarkable piece of art. The amount of detail –and even humour– that goes into making this set is unreal; tiny goblins and knights walking at the roof speak for themselves 😉

When you go into the store, the first thing you’ll notice is the wall-to-wall layout of shelves. They are clearly categorized with hundreds of boxed LEGO products on them. When you are at the entrance (facing the point of sales), the Duplo products (for babies) are on the left, and the Technic series (for teenagers and adults) are on the right, which is a panoramic categorization from left to right based on age. Simple and effective.

One thing that I really loved is the location of the point of sale. An ellipse shaped desk (with many cash registers on it) is right in the middle of the store! No matter how crowded the shop is, you can always find a shortcut to reach the cashiers.

* This was a real lifesaver during my second visit to this store. I brought my wife and daughter with me on a Saturday afternoon, and the store was so crowded that we couldn’t walk without bumping each other. That day, I really appreciated the wise decision of locating the point of sales in the hotspot of the store.

Last but not least, here comes the jewel in the crown: The staff members. They are simply amazing! Unlike typical salespeople, they are 100% enthusiastic about what they are selling, and specialized in various product categories. These young ladies/gentlemen are always smiling, willing to assist, and very polite.

* And, did I mention that all the French staff members are fluent in English? – Oh, yes!

I have to mention one staff member in particular; Mademoiselle Samantha. For almost half an hour, she patiently answered all my technical questions, visited the storage room (behind the store) a few times, checked the availability of hard-to-find items on my shopping list, made a phone call to one of the other official LEGO stores (So Ouest), reserved the missing items for me, and finally wrote down the directions to make sure that I’ll find my way to that shop safe and secure… Thank you very much, indeed!

The LEGO Store – So Ouest

This is a 300 m² LEGO store established in October 2012. It is located at So Ouest shopping mall in Levallois-Perret,  a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. Unlike the  previous LEGO store, this one is not at the center of Paris. However, if you follow my directions below, it will take approximately half an hour to get there. It’s not really far away…

So, is this store really worth visiting? Absolutely! This is a fantastic LEGO store in every way. Make sure that it is on your list.

The showcase of official LEGO store 'So Ouest' in Levallois-Perret, Paris
The showcase of official LEGO store ‘So Ouest’ in Levallois-Perret, Paris
Directions: Take Metro Line 14 (dark purple), and stop at ‘Saint Lazare’ station. Following ‘Île-de-France’ (Parisian region) directions and ‘SNCF Transilien’ (suburban train) icons on the signs, walk to the ‘Gare Saint Lazare’ railway station. Don’t worry, it will take 3-4 minutes to get there. Once you are at the main railway station, go up to the 2nd floor and find the ‘Île-de-France’ ticket office. Buy a ticket for line L. (Since this is a suburban line, there will be no seat numbers on your ticket). Go to the main hall, and check for the next train from the split-flap departure display. Your destination is ‘Clichy-Levallois’ – (line L, remember?). After leaving ‘Gare Saint Lazare’, it is the 2nd station on this line. It will take approximately 10 minutes to get there. When you stop at the ‘Gare de Clichy-Levallois’ station, follow the ‘Centrum’ signs. You will find yourself at the entrance of the train station. Now, your destination is So Ouest shopping mall! In order to get there, follow the ‘Rue Jean-Jaurès’ way for a minute, turn left to ‘Rue Victor Hugo’, walk for 3 minutes, and finally turn right to ‘Rue d’Alsace’. You’ll notice a huge shopping mall at the right-hand side of the street. That is So Ouest. Go in there, take the escalator down to B1, and Voilà! – (Link: Google Maps)

Compared to previous one, So Ouest LEGO store has a less-than-moderate showcase. No mega constructions to speak of, actually. However, the warm demonstration of recently introduced LEGO sets at the showcase instantly grabs your attention, and humbly welcomes you inside… A classy way of making you feel “Let’s see what they have here!” 😉

The "Pick-a-Brick Wall" at LEGO store 'So Ouest' in Levallois-Perret, Paris
The “Pick-a-Brick Wall” at LEGO store ‘So Ouest’ in Levallois-Perret, Paris

Contrary to the humble first impression of the store, the product range is simply premium. Don’t let the size and modest atmosphere of the shop fool you; they have everything here for you. All products are sorted by themes. Even on your first visit to this store, it is very easy to find what you are looking for. Everything is self-explanatory.

The staff members are superb! They are very polite, always ready to assist you, and willing to speak about the products that you are interested in. Somehow, you feel that you are being taken care of, and it makes you feel comfortable. From a customer point of view, this is something truly beyond the dated customer relationship lessons taught in business schools. It’s really nice to know that someone is keeping an eye on you.

Speaking of the staff members, please allow me to share my amazing experience with you… As I was gazing at the recently released Porsche 911 GT3 RS Technic set, I humbly came closer to one of the staff members, picked up a list from my pocket, and asked him if any of the hard-to-find items on my list was available, by any chance. The gentleman cheerfully looked at me, and said: “Oh, you must be the guy from Turkey! We were expecting you… Mademoiselle Samantha (from Les Halles store) phoned an hour ago, and told me about the items you are looking for. Your orders are ready, Sir!”

After the initial shock, I stuttered: “Well… Thank you!”

Thanks to Monsieur Damien, every item on my list was already collected from the inventory room, and packed. Besides being a very professional staff member, he was also a nice gentleman to talk with. His English was better than mine. For almost half an hour, we geeked out over the discontinued products, second hand LEGO market in France, and latest additions to my daughter’s LEGO train set collection. – A truly exceptional experience. Merci!

The LEGO Store – Disneyland

This is a huge LEGO store established in 2014. The name speaks for itself, the store is in the heart of Disneyland, Paris. Believe it or not, this is the most crowded LEGO shop I’ve ever visited in my life. Thanks to Disneyland’s reputation, this must be one of the most popular LEGO shops in Europe.

The main entrance of official LEGO store ‘Disneyland’, Paris
The main entrance of official LEGO store ‘Disneyland’, Paris
Directions: Take RER Line A (red), and stop at the last station, ‘Marne-la-Vallée’. This station is also known as ‘Parcs Disneyland’. (Both names are used on signs, in addition to a cute Mickey Mouse symbol.) When you leave the train, use the escalators, and go upstairs. If you have your train ticket with you, pass through the turnstiles. (If you don’t have any tickets, you are stuck! No ticket offices available around. You must find the ticket collector, and ask for help.) Leave the station, go out, and make a U-turn to left. Your destination is ‘The Village’ -aka ‘Disney Village’- a small virtual town where you can shop & dine. You don’t need a Disneyland ticket to get there. It’s free, and the LEGO Store is ahead of you. – (Link: Google Maps)
My daughter, Dila, so cheerful in front of the LEGO store ‘Disneyland’, Paris
My daughter, Dila, so cheerful in front of the LEGO store ‘Disneyland’, Paris

When you look from the outside, this store looks like an ordinary LEGO shop. The showcase is quite good, with a huge LEGO logo and a few 2.5D canvas paintings built in bricks. At first sight, it looks like there is nothing special in here…

However, when go in there, you realize how big the store is and immediately forget about the lacking showcase. The mega LEGO structures simply knock your socks off. They are everywhere! Pete’s Dragon hanging from the ceiling, an authentic life-size reproduction of R2-D2, a magnificent The Sorcerer’s Apprentice visual composition from “Fantasia” with Mickey wearing the blue wizard hat… These are spectacular items. Frankly, even better than the ones at ‘Les Halles’ store!

The product range is superb, just like the other stores I have mentioned. However, stock availability is a serious problem here. I was unable to find quite a number of products which were available in the other LEGO stores, such as pencil box, eraser, pen set, a bunch of recently released Technic sets, and almost all Power Functions products! When I asked the reason for missing items, staff members complained about ‘customer circulation vs lack of space’. I am not quite sure if this is an acceptable excuse.

Speaking of the staff members at LEGO Disneyland store, I have to say that they are simply the weakest link here. They are not smiling, not enjoying what they do, and keep themselves away from the customers. Somehow, they chat with each other by the exit. Nobody cares about you. Yep, I know that it is very difficult to manage such a huge store with such a large number of customers in it, but what I’m complaining about is more than that. When you ask a few questions, all you get is nothing more than “Yes”, “No”, or “I don’t know”. Being aware of the fact that Disneyland is a place most people visit once (and never come back again at least for a few years), I don’t think that you are welcomed as ‘loyal customers’ here. If these staff members think that people come and go, and more will come tomorrow no matter how they treat customers, I’m afraid that is a serious threat to LEGO’s reputation. As a lifetime loyal LEGO fan, I’m truly disappointed.

Conclusion

I love Paris! This was my second visit to the romantic city, and I’m planning to do it again and again, more frequently. For my next visit, I have 2 official LEGO stores on my list that I would love to revisit; ‘Les Halles’ and ‘So Ouest’. Great shopping experience in both cases. Strongly recommended.

May the force LEGO bricks be with you! 😉

Marking 30 Years in Video Game Development

(Cover Photo: Mert Börü, December 1986)

Developing video games is a way of life for me. The day I saw River Raid at a local arcade saloon, I knew I was going to spend rest of my life PUSHing and POPing pixels.

If you have ever wondered how people used to develop games during the 80s, please keep on reading this article. I am proud to present you Les Mémoires of a . . . [ehem] . . . [cough!]  –  OK, I admit it. As far as 3 decades of game development is concerned, “dinosaur” will be the most appropriate word 🙂

Retro is in the air!

It’s quite easy to bump into retro video gaming nowadays. Thanks to the current trend, I have noticed several books, articles and interviews that my former colleagues showed up. I am really very happy to see that researchers finally started shedding some light on the history of video game development. You can read and learn a lot about who the early game developers were, how they started writing games, which company they worked for, how much money they earned, and even where they used to hang around…

With respect to recently published materials, I have different things to tell you. Humbly being a part of the history both as a gamer and a developer, I have witnessed the glory and gore of game development scene in UK. Without falling into the trap of telling cliché technobabble that readers (you) would like to hear, I will assess pluses and minuses of the industry from a very personal point of view. I’ll concentrate on the essential elements of game development workflow from a retro perspective, and try to give specific examples by showing you original works (including both released and previously unreleased materials) that I produced almost 3 decades ago.

Through exposing my personal workflow, exclusive tips & tricks, and particular game development assets, you’ll hopefully get a glimpse of what it meant to be a game developer in those days, and notice that some things never change even after so many years of technological evolution.

PART I

“Game Design”

 

Out of nothing 

To be honest, game design was the most underrated aspect of video game development during the early 80s. It was the golden age of coding wizardry. In order to come up with new game ideas, developers had to concentrate on squeezing each and every bit of CPU performance by using clever programming tricks. It was a time-consuming process full of trial and errors. Due to limited time and resources, small development teams/companies were naturally more interested in programming, rather than game design. Considering the circumstances, lack of interest in game design was quite acceptable for such an immature industry.

Well-managed video game developers/publishers with good cash flow/sales ratio, like Ultimate, Elite and Ocean (inc. Imagine), were the true pioneers of artwork oriented game design workflow. These companies raised the bar for the entire industry by investing in artwork design. Title screens, menu frames, character designs, level maps and various technical sketches became a part of the production pipeline. These companies proved that spending time/money in game design had more things to offer in return, in addition to multiplied profits;

  Well defined story, characters and puzzles

  Error-proof production chain

  Cost-effective workflow

  Reusable artwork for advertising & promotion

Regarding the efforts mentioned above, I literally witnessed the birth of game design in 1985. As a freelancer working for some of the best game development companies in UK, I had the chance of being a part of “the change”. It was inevitable, and somehow very slow. It almost took a few years for the contractors to get rid of asking for quick and dirty jobs. At the end of the transition period, in-house expectations were higher than average. In order to serve and survive, I was forced to sharpen my skills, and supposed to deliver more planned, precise and polished works. In terms of self improvement, it was a turning point in my life!

“For 16-bit game development, game design was more than essential.”

In 1987, the trial and error days of game development were gone. As we shifted from bedroom coding sessions to collaborative teamwork meetings, we were also making a transition from 8-bit to 16-bit. The release of Amiga 500 and Atari ST heralded more complex computer architectures, offering faster CPUs, larger RAMs, and custom chips dedicated to specific tasks. In order to develop better games, we had to take advantage of these custom components. At that point, we realized that programming such complex devices required a more systematic approach, which emphasized the necessity of proper game design and documentation. For 16-bit game development, game design was more than essential.

Simple, but effective!

We used to design games using conventional tools; pen & paper. Until modern methods emerged during the mid 90s, 2D/3D computer aided design was not a part of game design process at all. Everything was designed manually.

Due to homebrew spirit of early game development era, teams were limited with only 2-3 developers, excluding hired musicians. As a result of the “minimalist” human resource capacity, either the programmer or one of the graphic artists had to take the responsibility of game design process. Most of the time, the guy with adequate artwork skills was the best candidate for the job.

In the heyday of 8/16-bit game development, I served mostly as an Assembly Language programmer. Besides programming, I used to do game design as well, thanks to my less than average technical drawings skills. It was better than nothing, actually. As a multidisciplinary game developer, I had the luxury of conceptualizing a scene in my mind, then sketching it on a piece of paper, and finally coding it. Regarding productivity and efficiency, it was an uninterrupted workflow. – Frankly speaking, being a “one-man-army” has always been fruitful in terms of creativity, as well as payment.

Let’s have a look at how we used to design games using pen & paper only. Here comes some of my drawings from the late 80s.

These are the sketches of a physics puzzle for an unreleased Amiga action adventure game that never saw the light of day. It was Spring 1989, when Elite asked me to design & code a puzzle mechanism similar to the one in the opening scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” movie. Nothing original in terms of puzzle design, actually. In order to overcome the lack of originality, I decided to concentrate on “gameplay mechanics”, and that is simply how I sketched the blueprints above.

  Sketch 1 – A pseudo 3D representation of temple corridor, with moving wall/floor stones in focus.

  Sketch 2 – A 2D representation of the moving floor stone. Upper graph indicates the idle position, and the lower one shows what happens when you step on it.

  Sketch 3 – The big picture, including Sketch 2. Stepping on the floor stone triggers a huge rolling stone ball.

By today’s standards, these drawings obviously look childish. However, considering lack of proper game design documentation routine of the 80s, the amount of detail given to such a simple puzzle is quite high. Appraising the mid/late 80s as a transition period for game development industry – (for leaving egocentric habits of homebrew 8-bit game development period behind, and moving on to team based corporate 16-bit projects) – these sketches clearly illustrate the importance that Elite had given to quality & professionalism in game design process during that time.

Since this was the preview of the design, I kept the rough copies in Turkish for myself, and delivered the final version in English to Elite. I no longer have the latest version. – The game was cancelled due to budget shortfall. Something so natural in those days 😉

Game design goes hand in hand with artwork design. Two different disciplines so close, so related to each other. As a game designer, it was inevitable for me to do artwork as well…

PART II

“Artwork”

 

Back to the 8-bit days

In the early 80s, I used to draw on semi-transparent graph papers using colour pencils. Working on these glossy, oily and super-smooth graph papers had many advantages.

Assuming each tiny box on the graph paper is a pixel, the workflow was quite creative and self-intuitive. Contrary to sitting in front of a TV set and trying to a paint a pixel on a blurry screen while squeezing my eyes, – (yep, we had no monitors in those days, computers were connected to regular TV sets!) – drawing on a piece paper was more natural for me.

Thanks to semi-transparency of graph papers, it was very easy to copy the image underneath. If the original image had the same size of a graph paper, it was super easy. If not, the original image had to be scaled to graph paper size. As I had no luxury of using a xerox machine in the early 80s, I had to do it manually. It was a painstaking process.

I can clearly recall the day when my dad advised me to use an ancient photography technique… As I was drawing faint reference lines on the original image and manually scaling the image on to the graph paper, he looked at me and said; “Why don’t you place the original image at a distance where you can look at it through the graph paper?” – He helped me building 2 wooden frames with adjustable paper clippers on them, and it worked like a charm! I used this technique for most of the artwork I did for Ocean and Coktel Vision. A few years later, I had a clear conception of the principle; it was camera obscura 🙂

The downside of using graph papers was time consuming paper-to-computer transfer process. I had to paint each pixel one by one. As you can imagine, counting painted boxes on a piece of graph paper and painting the same amount pixels on to the screen of a humble Sinclair ZX Spectrum was quite tough.

This time consuming process was quite simplified when I switched to an attribute (colour) clash free Amstrad CPC 464. I wrote a very simple tool capable of moving a crosshair (cursor) on screen using cursor keys, painting a pixel by pressing Space, and switching to the next colour by pressing Enter. – Simple, but effective.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” – (Confucius)

Worth a thousand words

In order to capture the essence of the era, let’s have a look at some of my 8-bit sketches from the mid 80s.

As you can clearly see, all sketches are drawn on graph papers. In order to simplify the copy/scale method that I mentioned above, I have used black for outlines and various colours as fillers. It was –and still is– a very common technique used by anime artists.

 Sketch 1 – (1985) – Outsourcing generic artwork to freelancers was a time/cost effective method for most game development companies. This is one of my “template” Sinclair ZX Spectrum title screen/menu frames that I designed for Ocean. I did it in a modular way, so that it can be precisely divided into 4 quadrants. Without saving the whole image, it can be easily regenerated from a single quadrant by flipping and copying in both x/y axis. A good example of memory efficient menu frame design.

 Sketch 2 – (1986) – The very first sketch of Top Gun logo and title screen. It was used as is on Ocean’s “Top Gun” release for Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. Below the logo, you can clearly see how I started sketching Tom Cruise using a very limited number of colour pencils for better Amstrad colour palette compatibility. The final version illustrating the famous Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise pose was hand-delivered to Ocean. Greetings to Mr. Ronnie Fowles for his great multicolour Mode 0 conversion on Amstrad CPC loader screen.

 Sketch 3 – (1986) – Speaking of car racing games, switching to a new colour palette and changing the billboards along the highway was a proven method for creating “new level” illusion! In order to simplify the process of developing rapid level/scene variations, I designed many generic billboards similar to this one, including a 4 colour Ocean billboard later used in “Wec Le Mans”.  For conversion requirements, I was asked to design the Pepsi billboard to be compatible with both Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC. – Apologies for the bad condition of this sketch. I am afraid, some parts of it has been eaten by Kiti, my guinea pig 😉

 Sketch 4 – (1986) – This is the Amstrad CPC title screen that I designed for “Lucky Luke – Nitroglycerine”. Halfway through the development schedule, Coktel Vision decided to convert the game from Mode 1 to Mode 0. Due to time constraints, I preferred sketching 3 more Lucky Luke images from scratch, instead of converting this one. All published, except this one.

Beyond 8-bit

When I switched from 8-bit to 16-bit, using Deluxe Paint on an Amiga was a larger-than-life experience; something similar to driving a Rolls Royce maybe. Plenty of colours, crop tools, adjustable brush sizes, cycling colours, and no graph papers. More than a dream!

Today, I have the luxury of using a colour calibrated multi-touch Wacom Cintiq tablet. It is absolutely a “what you see/draw is what you get” experience. Truly way beyond painting pixels on a 4 MHz Amstrad CPC, but quite similar to Deluxe Paint when using it with Adobe Photoshop. – Well, at least for me.

No matter what kind of equipment I use, still stick to the 8-bit spirit within me. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it.

PART III

“Programming”

 

A subjective definition

Programming is black magic. It is the use of computational “powers” for selfish game development purposes. By definition, more close to heresy than engineering 😉

Joking apart, programming is the melting pot of game development. Just like cooking, it is more than mixing ingredients. Programming amalgamates different types of assets and makes them look as “one”, so that the game will be greater than the sum of its parts.

First things first

During the early 80s, we used to code a proof of concept (a working copy of game with dummy graphics) before doing anything else. Coding a working prototype was at the top of our to-do list. Even the game design phase was one step behind it. I know, it sounds bizarre today, but it was actually a way of ensuring gameplay quality and testing technical limitations at the very beginning of the project. We used to sit in front of the TV set for days, play with the proof of concept, add/remove features, and make it more modular so that we can come up with tweakable ideas here and there. Due to technical limitations of 8-bit home computers, we had to guarantee a smooth gameplay experience right at the beginning of the project.

“Theory without practice is unacceptable.”

Nowadays, this is considered wrong! Regarding huge development companies releasing AAA games with budgets soaring to multiple hundreds of millions of dollars, programmers meet and argue for weeks without writing a single line of code. They don’t start coding until everything is clearly written down on the game design document. Yes, this method certainly makes sense for some projects. However, no matter how many weeks you spend for writing a game design document, if your proposal doesn’t make sense in terms of programming, I’m afraid you have a big problem. I have seen many promising projects that looked super great on paper, but didn’t work at all. Speaking of video game development, theory without practice is unacceptable.

Double Trouble

Back in the good old days, we used to chase two goals for achieving a great gameplay experience:

  Fun factor

  Playability

Games with both factors maximized were considered “successful”. If you pay attention to 8-bit classics, such as Donkey Kong, Manic Miner, and Knight Lore, you’ll notice that there is something more than what you see on the screen. They’re addictive. Despite the aged chunky graphics, there is something special that makes us hooked on these games!

Yes, it is the precise combination of fun and playability.

“Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.” – (Satoru Iwata, Nintendo CEO)

Even today, I stick to this formula. I try to design and produce games with these factors in mind. Sometimes, I’m criticized for making too much of these factors, which I really don’t mind at all. I know that it works all the time 😉

Nobody taught me how to write games. So, how am I so sure about these two relic success parameters?! What makes me think that this formula works even after 3 decades?

Well, let me tell you the whole story then…

The Age of Innocence

I started programming on a Sinclair ZX81. I knew that I had to go beyond BASIC, and start programming in assembly language. After realizing the fact that loading an assembler editor to a computer with 1K of RAM was almost impossible without a memory expansion pack, I switched to Sinclair ZX Spectrum with 48K of RAM. HiSoft Devpac assembler was my Swiss Army knife. I was finally able to write more larger and complex codes. After developing a few business utilities for TEPUM, the local distributor of Sinclair in Turkey, I deliberately decided to write games.

Due to lack of engineering and programming books in Turkey, I started disassembling games. Through reverse engineering, I learned that developing a great game required more than proficiency in Assembly language. I became aware of unorthodox programming methods for the sake of code size/speed optimization, and started developing awkward solutions to generic debugging problems, such as using a second Sinclair ZX Spectrum for instant disassembly, full memory dumping to ZX Microdrive cartridges, and disabling ROM page for more low-level control and free space.

The Power of the Dark Side

As I was very comfortable with reverse engineering games, some of my friends started asking me if I could crack this-and-that game, and add a trainer mode (with infinite lives) to it. It was a challenging request. I knew that it was immoral, as well as illegal, but couldn’t resist feeding my hunger for more information. Cracking speed loaders of Sinclair ZX Spectrum games could have been an opportunity for sharpening my skills. So, I said “Yes!”.

It was precisely the Spring of 1985 that I realized I was developing games as a day job, and cracking some other games as a night job – typical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde case!

Through cracking speed loaders of the original releases, I gathered invaluable information about low-level programming. Then, I started implementing custom loaders for my cracked ZX Spectrum releases. In order to build a good reputation in the warez scene, I wrote various less than 2K intros, and embedded them into my custom loaders. These were mostly tiny technical demonstrations showing off limited capabilities of the Z80 CPU, such as real-time game logo rotators, and silky smooth text message scrollers at 50Hz.

My Amstrad (left) and Amiga (right) assembly language programming notebooks
My Amstrad (left) and Amiga (right) assembly language programming notebooks

In less than a year, in addition to cracking ZX Spectrum games, I started distributing them as well. It was an opportunity for buying and cracking more games in return. The more I cracked, the better I coded. It was a true vicious circle! The best part of this mind jogging lifestyle was playing games. As a cracker, I had hundreds of games in my library. Inevitably, I used to play for hours and hours. I played so many games that I started taking down notes about my gameplay experience and keeping a list of the things that I liked/hated. In a way, it was DOs and DON’Ts of game design and development. Priceless information! – In addition to these notes, I also wrote down my reusable subroutines and generic piece of codes. A personal database, if I may say so. I still keep those notebooks for nostalgic purposes 😉

[ Although keeping a notebook may sound a bit old school today, actually I still stick to doing so. Instead of working in front of the computer for many hours, I do most of the work on paper, as I sit back at a café and enjoy the sun! ]

Goodfellas…

When I switched to Amstrad CPC 464, one of the first things that I did was buying a Romantic Robot Multiface II. Regarding the extra 8K of memory on this device, it was possible to load the dissassembler to Multiface II and get a total of 64K free memory on the computer! This was the opportunity that I was looking for since the days I had used Sinclair ZX81. As a developer, I was finally able to dedicate the whole memory to my games. So, I started using various techniques for developing better games, such as switching 16K banks, off-screen scrolling, and double buffering. Although Multiface II was designed to be a game copier device, I preferred using it as a debugging tool.

[ Despite the general consensus, you weren’t allowed to run dumped copies with anyone else’s machine. Multiface II was copy protected! ]

Speaking of the dark side, I kept on cracking and distributing games; this time for the Amstrad CPC scene! I wrote various checksum protected custom loaders for my cracked Amstrad releases. Lamers couldn’t crack them, naturally. They simply tape-to-tape copied and released them as they were, including my new intros. In a way, they spread the word for me. Through modifying Amstrad games by adding trainer modes and embedding intros, I became so popular that consumers started asking if the game had [cracked by matahari] logo on the game, before buying it. A seal of approval!

This is the original font that I designed for the logo. It became more and more popular with each release that I cracked and distributed, as it finally turned into my trademark. – OMG, it’s totally unleashed now 😉

The Summer of 1988 turned out to be the peak of my underground career. With the help of a true friend, we dominated the whole local Amstrad CPC game distribution channel. As a result of this fruitful collaboration, my cracked releases were everywhere!

[ Don’t worry, I’ll go into details of that period in an another article ]

So, what the fuss?!

Even after all those years, I can justify the benefits of “disassembling”. To be honest, I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t cracked games. Today, reverse engineering is a proven method for sharpening programming skills. A piece of cracked code can offer more hidden gems than a technical reference book. – Give it a try, you’ll not be disappointed.

However, a game is more than bits and bytes. Developing a good game requires more expertise than coding subroutines and pushing pixels on to the screen. Many people can show you the technical aspects of developing games, but no one can teach you how to write a great game. I’m afraid, you have to do it by yourself! Play as many games as you can. Concentrate on the gameplay, feel the tension, and analyze the experience you had. Keep a notebook, and take down notes about these analyses. Frequently, review you notes. The more you do this, the more you develop a sense of good and bad. And, that is what I did over the years. – Oh, does that make me a great game developer? Do I really know everything about writing GREAT games? Absolutely not!

I simply know what not to do.

“To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.” – (Confucius)

Privacy is everything

During the 80s, I was a humble programmer. With the exception of my family and a bunch of colleagues, nobody was aware of the things that I had been doing for the British game development industry. Unless necessary, I have never exhibited my talent. Even today, I still take advantage of privacy. No publicity, less headaches, more freedom 😉

“The Wise Man chooses to be last, and so becomes the first of all; Denying self, he too is saved.” – (Lao Tzu)

It is also worth mentioning that, I have never been a member of a cracker/scener group. I worked alone. Due to contradictory condition of being both a member of the game development industry and the warez scene, I took a vow of silence and kept things to myself.

What about today?

I stopped all my warez activity in 1990. Since then, I don’t do illegal stuff anymore. No more cracking, no more illegal game distribution… Period.

Alas, still programming video games! I have so many things to learn, and to do. As a programmer addicted to game development, this is a never-ending journey. No time for retirement.

Closing words for Programming

After 30+ years of programming, my perspective towards coding has evolved in a very positive way. For me, programming has become more than engineering; something more close to art!

In case you wonder, let me tell you why…

Independent of programming languages used, programmer creates mathematical patterns using a set of pre-defined building blocks; commands, keywords, opcodes, etc. When we decompose a video game, we can see that it is made up of various complex patterns.

  Composite Patterns – (code workflow, state machine)

  Algebraic Patterns – (artificial intelligence, animation)

  Geometric Patterns – (level design, animation, music)

  Behavioral Patterns – (object oriented programming)

The interesting thing is, all programmers use the same commands, keywords, opcodes, and somehow come up with unique code patterns. Just like poetry, literature, music, painting… you name it, where the artist uses a limited number of elements (words, notes, strokes, etc.), and comes up with unique patterns for expressing emotions.

Khayyám, Wordsworth, Pynchon, and Hemingway have one thing in common; they all have an understanding of life through art. What makes these people so great is, not because they are genius in mathematics, but because they are capable of expressing emotions using mathematical patterns in a way that common people can understand and appreciate both.

From my point of view, a good game developer should be doing the same thing! – Well, if a video game is all about creating an emotional experience through various mathematical patterns, am I asking too much?

“A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. I am interested in Mathematics only as a creative art.” – (Godfrey Harold Hardy, mathematician, University of Cambridge)

All right… ALL RIGHT!

I’ll cut the crap, and go back to the 80s as promised. 😉

PART IV

“Audio / Sound FX”

 

More than Chiptune

There are thousands of webpages dedicated to chiptunes produced on 8-bit home computers. If you are interested in retro computer music, I’m sure you have already visited some of these websites, listened to your favourite game tunes, and most probably downloaded them as well. Catchy tunes, earth shattering C64 basses, creepy Spectrum buzzings… I think, we all agree that 8-bit era audio was made up of 3-channel tracker music using “eerie blips-and-blops”.

“So, 8-bit audio simply means chiptune, right?”

“Partly true, sir!”

During the early 80s, besides simple waveform generating chips that started chiptune craze, we had sample playback technology as well. Not mentioning the holy-mighty-worthy SID and enormous variants of AY/YM chips, even the humble buzzer of Sinclair ZX Spectrum was capable of playing samples. And yet, sample playback technology was the most underrated aspect of 8-bit audio. Yes, it wasn’t up to today’s standards for sure, but it was better than having nothing!

In terms of gaming experience, it’s worth mentioning that “Ghostbusters” (Activision), “Impossible Mission” (Epyx), “A View To a Kill – James Bond” (Domark), and almost all CodeMasters releases made a real difference thanks to surprising samples embedded within them. “Robocop” (Ocean) and “Jail Break” (Konami) raised the bar so high that, sample playback technology justified itself being restrictively available for 128K versions of games. – Pride of an underrated technology!

Under the Hood

So, how did these companies sample those speeches? You need a piece of hardware that samples your analogue voice and converts to digital using n-bits, right? Simple!

Here comes the tricky part… Do you know any Analogue-to-Digital Converter (ADC) expansion device (similar to Cheetah Sound Sampler released in 1986) for Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 available in 1982?

I am afraid, there was no such device. – So, how did they do it?

Well, most of the time, huge game development companies of the early 8-bit era (Imagine, Melbourne House) used inhouse designed proprietary hardware. These were simple Analogue-to-Digital converter boards inserted into expansion ports of 8-bit home computers. Due to complexity and immature nature, only a few number of employees were allowed to use these special devices.

The 2nd option was getting in contact with ESS Technology, a multimedia company offering electronic speech systems. It was founded in 1984. Same year, both “Ghostbusters” (Activision) and “Impossible Mission” (Epyx) successfully demonstrated that Commodore 64 can actually speak, thanks to an expensive license agreement with ESS Technology.

Last but not least, there was an easier –and cheaper– way of dumping samples into an 8-bit home computer, that many people weren’t aware of… Connecting a ZX Interface 1 fitted underneath a 48K Sinclair ZX Spectrum to a professional audio sampler through the 9 way D type RS-232 serial port connector. – (Huh?!)

During the early 80s, professional audio samplers were widely available in high-end music studios in UK. E-mu Emulator (1981), Fairlight CMI (1979) and Synclavier (1977) were the kings of 8-bit sample era. It was quite easy to hire these VERY expensive devices for a few hours. All you had to do was; ask for a rendez-vous, bring your computer to the studio, sample your speech/music via mighty sampler, connect your computer to the serial port of that sampler, set the baud rate, dump raw 8-bit data within minutes, save it to a disk/cassette, and pay a few £££ for each hour you’ve been there. – Well, that was the easiest part!

When you’re back home, you had to handle the task of squeezing 8-bit sample data to a much lower quality. – (You’re not going to use the whole 64K of memory for a few seconds of speech, right?) – Depending on the number of volume envelope steps available on the sound chip, decimating the sample rate from 17 kHz to 4.7 kHz, and reducing the bit depth from 8-bit to 5-bit would be OK… But how?

Well, that’s the tricky part. You had to know how to downsample, and write a piece of downsampling code in Assembly Language for the humble Z80 CPU. – (Remember, we’re in 1982. No sample editing tools available, yet.) – And, that was simply what I used to do for pocket money during the early 80s. I was in touch with a few game development companies that would literally give an arm for that piece of code. 🙂

“Scientia potentia est – [Knowledge is power]” – (Sir Francis Bacon)

In-Game Usage

Using samples in games wasn’t limited to speech, for sure. It was possible to use musical instrument sounds as well; mostly drum samples. Although a few games tried to use kick (bass drum) samples on menu/title songs, using this trick during gameplay was technically an expensive approach on 8-bit computers. CPU had to take care of the meticulous process. Computer was literally halted until the playback was over. In other words, gameplay had to freeze during the sample playback. – Impractical? Well, not for “The 5th Axis” (Loriciels) programmers! This game certainly demonstrates a clever way of sample playback usage during gameplay.

This limitation was naturally history, when multi-tasking Amiga came up with DMA (Direct Memory Access) driven custom sound chip; Paula.  In regards to making sound sample playback without CPU intervention possible, Amiga opened the gates of 4 channel 8-bit sample playback era. It was finally possible to play any sound sample you like during the gameplay, with no hiccups at all.

With the introduction of Amiga 500 in 1987, using sound samples in games became an industry standard. The days of chiptune blips-and-blops were gone. Game developers became more interested in visiting music studios and using pro-audio equipment. It was a next-gen game development era full of hunger for new tools. In other words, a new opportunity for multidisciplinary video game developers, like me.

Regarding the announcement of Sound Blaster audio cards for PCs in 1989, sample playback technology became more than essential for game development. Thinking of the advanced specs, such as 23kHz sample playback, AdLib-compatibility, and MIDI, these were quite affordable cards. – Oh yes, I bought one!

In 1991, I decided to upgrade my modest audio tools to a higher level, for the sake of Core Design projects that I was involved in. I sold my noisy Sky Sound Sampler that I used during the development of “Paradise Lost”, and bought 2 brand new samplers for my Amiga:

(Photo: matahari, the synthesist – circa 1991)

In addition to these samplers, I bought simply one of the best synthesizers ever produced – a Roland JD-800. It was –and still is– an extremely programmable and a great sounding digital synth with incredible flexibility and control, not mentioning the hefty price! – (A few years later, I bought the rackmount version as well, Roland JD-990. Still regularly using both in my studio.)

As expected, combining high-tech gadgets with old school game development techniques led me to new Amiga and PC game projects. Can you imagine what you could do with an Amiga fully loaded with two samplers, and a PC expanded with a Sound Blaster card that is MIDIed to a Roland JD-800 synthesizer, in 1991?

Well, that’s an another story! 😉

So you want to be a video game developer, huh?

No problem.

Read this, then we’ll talk about it 😉

Myths & Facts

Many people believe that video game developers earn millions, live in Hawaii, drive a Ferrari, and date Victoria’s Secret supermodels. Well, maybe some of my colleagues do… Not me, for sure.

“Hey, where are the supermodels ?!”

Contrary to popular belief, career in video game development is full of challenges. Besides dealing with coding hurdles and release date stress, where time is your enemy in both cases, you need to handle egocentric teamwork meetings while keeping an eye on the tight budget. If that is not enough, you need to refine your skills forever and ever to make sure that you are keeping up with the latest technological achievements, even before they are released. – “Hey, where are the supermodels?!”

Despite all challenges, a game developer’s life is actually more upbeat than speculated. Forget about all the challenges for a minute; the best part is the necessity of refining skills. When you keep on sharpening your technical/artistic skills, you’ll have a chance of tweaking industry standard workflows. With every tweak, you’ll add a bit of haute couture touch both to the project you’re working on, and to your signature development methods. The more you sculpt a unique style, the more you stand out from the rest. And, that makes a real difference, by all means.

Education necessary?

Most preferably yes, but not essential. I studied both Science and Arts, but have always considered myself an autodidact a self-taught person. Nobody taught me how to develop video games! Through rewarding self-discipline skills, studying various topics in Mathematics, Physics, Architecture, Sculpture and Philosophy helped me to increase self-knowledge and unleash my creative potential. I’m an advocate of the mantra, “never stop learning.”

Regarding the opportunity for learning new tricks, a new video game project still makes my heart beat like a butterfly, even after 30+ years of active coding. – I keep the spirit alive!

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” – (Isaac Asimov)

Manners Maketh Man

Video game development is challenging, sore and tough. Doing video game business is worse!

Because of cheap and dirty business tricks that you are not familiar with yet, your heart can be easily broken. You may lose self confidence by getting discouraged, no matter how talented you are. Misery plagues creativity! When days turn into nights, melancholy takes over. Then, your talent starts to fade away. At the final phase, you start asking yourself “What have I done to deserve this?”, and the more you question your manners the more you lose self confidence. A perfect vicious circle! – Yep, I’ve been there. I know what I’m talking about.

No worries! It’s not your fault.

Unlike typical businessmen -underestimating your skills in a hot meeting, while puffing the fume of an expensive cigar right into your eyes- game developers are artists. I’m afraid, raw capitalist tricks work on us, simply because we are fragile.

Here is the cure – Act by the book! Follow the unwritten rules & guidelines of professionalism, and be happy 😉

Develop a thick skin.

Be prepared for the worst.

Settle with “less”. – Less is more.

In case of failure; get angry, not sad. Stand up and fight!

In case of criticism; embrace it. It is a chance for sharpening your skills.

Be good at what you are doing, not the best! Best kills creativity, and feeds pride.

You better be really good at what you are doing!

For starters, spend some time with experienced game developers. Speak less, listen more, show respect, and be gentle. Pay attention to how they tolerate mistakes. It is mistakes, that makes an artist a better one. Good artists are well aware of it, most probably you are not. That makes a difference!

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” – (Scott Adams)

Knighthood served as a “Free Man”

I have always been a freelancer; a “free man” with no chains tied to a game development company/publisher. I had the chance of picking the projects I wanted, working with people I liked, and always preferred creativity over materialism – Free as a bird!

Sounds too good?

Actually, it is a state of nirvana, that comes with a few costs!

Expect to work harder than full-time developers – You are a marathon runner, not a nine-to-fiver. Be prepared to work more than 10 hours a day.

“There is no substitute for hard work.” – (Thomas A. Edison)

Invest in yourself – Besides work, make some time for reading something “new”. Never underestimate the advantage of using latest technologies. Keep sharpening your skills regularly, and be ahead of full-timers.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – (Abraham Lincoln)

Expect no respect from full-time developers – They are going to hate you! Simply because, you have already become what they want to be. – You have achieved the goals of becoming a “free” game developer. You are no more afraid of taking risks. You have right to say “No!”. Your talent is appreciated. And, you are well paid… Enough number of reasons to attract hatred. So, be a professional by getting prepared for a bunch of miserable/jealous full-timers gathered around a meeting table. Do not let the meeting room turn into a battlefield. Take control of the conversation by tolerance. Make sure they understand that you could have simply become one of them, if you hadn’t taken the risks!

“Go up close to your friend, but do not go over to him! We should also respect the enemy in our friend.” – (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Expect no credits – None at all. If you are well paid and your work is appreciated, this is all you’ll get for a long time. Within years, you’ll start getting credits for your work, for sure. However, you better accept the bitter truth that you’ll never get the same “fame factor” that full-timers do. Full-time dedication to a single developer/publisher is always rewarded with full credits. I am afraid, this is how it works… As a result of your anonymous contributions; you will not be famous, you will not be invited to release parties, and you will be purposely excluded from development team photos. Most embarrassingly, your existence will be denied while your work will always be remembered! – It’s easy to deal with this case; don’t confuse fame with success. For me, success is happiness.

“Fame is the thirst of youth.” – (Lord Byron)

Expect no money – At least for now! You’ll make plenty of money, soon, but this shouldn’t be the ultimate motivation of your career. Game development is all about “passion”. A passion for coding challenges, artwork challenges, teamwork challenges, and even more challenges that you do not expect at all. Keep in mind that you are solving technical problems for the sake of art. It is 100% fun! – In return, you’ll get paid for it, sooner or later.

“A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.” – (Jonathan Swift)

Despite all psychological threats above, working in video game industry as a freelancer is the best way to serve and survive. Swimming with sharks in a pool will keep you prepared for anything. Contrary to full-time workers, take advantage of your freelance position; free your mind, be creative & productive, and dominate the pool. – In case you need Plan B, enjoy the luxury of switching to an another pool 😉

Beyond Barriers

Many people assume that living in Istanbul (Turkey) as a freelance game developer and doing business with international game developers/publishers would be the hardest thing to do. I hear, “But, you’ve got to be there!” kind of buzz all the time. – Actually, not at all. In addition to overcoming cultural complexities, living in Istanbul as a freelancer and doing business with international game developers/publishers has always been the smoothest part in my workflow.

Even back in 1984, it was a no-brainer process. Before our local post office had a fax machine for hire, I used to contact people by writing business letters and sending them my codes/artwork on cassette tapes. Yes, it used to take 2 months to get a reply from UK, but that was the way how business was done in those days! – Worth waiting every minute for, actually. Each and every day I used to ask mom if the postman had delivered something for me; an acceptance letter, a cassette tape with my next project specifications on it, a new release with my code/artwork in it, or a paycheck preferably.

When I started working in UK, things changed entirely. Peaceful days were gone. Never-ending meetings, heavy ego traffic, more chat, less work, and unsuccessful management tricks adding insult to injury by causing more stress as we get close to the release day! Yep, usual game development company stuff, same even today 😉

Take my word for it! Get rid of unnecessary distractors. If you are self-disciplined and well-organized, nothing compares to working at home as a freelancer. Today, we have e-mail, video conference and more than anything we need at our fingertips. Easier and faster than ever. Never mind the distance, focus on the business! Sharpen your skills. If you are really talented at something, there is simply no barrier for doing business globally.

The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, “Thus far and no farther.” – (Ludwig van Beethoven)

One final word, young man… Keep in touch!

A lot of things have changed and evolved during the last 3 decades of game development, except one thing; the necessity of keeping in touch with your contacts! If you’re in entertainment business, keeping your relations alive is everything. – Sounds easy, but is actually hard to do.

3-bit Node Graph Architecture for Next-Gen Game Development

Speaking of my latest video game development project, yet an another milestone achieved. – Quite a tough one, indeed!

But first, please allow me to focus on some of the very basic mathematical logic definitions heavily used in software engineering, so that we can clearly understand what’s going on under the hood of a decent game development process.

Don’t worry, it’s not rocket science 😉

Some theory

All video games have gameplay mechanics based on logic. A game is “a set of story driven goals to achieve” from a programmer’s perspective.

When you open a chest, solve a puzzle or kill an enemy, you are actually triggering a logic unit that is predefined within the game code. Depending on game’s technical requirements and gameplay complexity, there can be thousands of these units forming a web of logic units.

Game programmers tend to use graph theory for defining and coding logic units. Each unit is symbolized with a simple geometric shape. A box, a circle, anything… And these units are connected to each other with links.

  “Logic units” (nodes) represent tasks that the player will perform.

  “Links” (lines) represent the relationship between the logic units.

Behaviour Analysis

A node graph architecture is almost identical to an electronic circuit. When you start executing a node graph code, you are actually branching from one component (node, in our case) to an another by the rules you’ve set for the logic units, just like electric current flowing from a resistor to a capacitor. And, as you can guess, this type of signal flow is 100% linear.

When the player accomplishes a task, the node related to that event will be “expired”. In other words, it will be dead. Expired nodes cannot be resurrected. Once they’re done, they will be ignored (skipped) during code execution, forever. – Which is unlikely in electronics! An electronic component, such as a resistor, a diode, etc. cannot be conditionally turned on/off.

Back to 2002 for a “classic” implementation: Flagger

During the “Culpa Innata” development sessions, we precisely knew that we needed a node graph architecture for handling game’s complex execution flow. Many discussions were held on the method of implementation. All members of the core management & development team were expert electric/electronics engineers with no experience in video game production [Reference], but me! As a video game programmer, my perspective towards node graph theory was naturally very different, contrary to their classical approaches. I wasn’t thinking in terms of voltage, current, etc., but focused on just one thing: optimized code execution.

Thanks to my Zilog Z80 and Motorola 68000 assembly language programming background, I offered the term “Flag” for the base logic unit (node), and teamed up with Mr. Mete Balcı for 3 weeks. In December 2002, we developed a tool called “Flagger”.

Pros and Cons

Flagger was a C++ code generator with a very handy visual interface similar to UE4’s current Blueprint approach. Using Flagger, we were able to add nodes, connect them to each other, program the logic behind the nodes/links, and even take printout of the whole node graph scenario. When the visual logic design process was over, it was just a matter of selecting “Generate C++ code” from the menu, and source code was generated within minutes.

Over the following years, Flagger evolved into a more sophisticated development tool capable of handling various scenarios. Although it was a very handy tool and saved many hours during “Culpa Innata” sessions, there were a few problems with the classical node graph theory that the implementation was based on;

  Flags were single threaded. Only one node was allowed to execute at a time. No multi-threading.

  Flags were expirable. When a task was done, related flag (node) was marked as “expired”, not deleted for the sake of logic integrity.

  Flags were not reusable. Once they were expired, there was no way of resurrecting them. – Inefficient memory usage, thanks to hundreds of expired nodes.

  Flags were heavily loaded with variables. Too many dialogue related “customized” variables were defined for special cases (exceptions). – Inefficient memory usage, once again.

  Flag execution flow wasn’t well optimized because of node-tree search algorithm. The more nodes we had, the longer it took to accomplish the search.

  Flag execution was linear. When a node was expired, the graph code was first searching for related nodes and then retriggering the whole diagram from the beginning, like an electronic circuit simulator. – Well, that was ideal for modeling a circuit, not for developing a video game!

A Modern Approach: 3-bit Worker!

13 years later, I have once again found an opportunity to dive into node graph theory, and just completed implementing a new architecture for my latest video game development project. Unlike Flagger, it is something extraordinary! It is very… atypical, unconventional, unorthodox… Well, whatever… You got it 😉

First of all, it has nothing to do with classical electric/electronic circuit theory. This time, I’m on my own, and approaching the problem as a software engineer. Everything I designed/coded is based on game requirement specifications. In other words, it is implemented with “practical usage” in mind.

  I have defined the basic logic unit (node), as a “worker”.(Due to functional similarities, I simply borrowed this term from Web Workers.)

  A worker is a background task with adjustable priority settings. It performs/responds like a hardware interrupt.

  Each worker is multi-threaded.

  Depending on conditional requirements, a worker can expire and/or live forever. If expired, it can be resurrected and/or reinitialized, while preserving its previous state. So, a worker is a 100% reusable node.

  Each worker uses only 3-bits! No additional variables, no references, nothing else. – (If necessary, a worker offers flexible architecture for additional variables. However, I find it totally unnecessary. 3-bits are more than enough!)

  Workers are object oriented. They can easily be inherited.

  Inherited workers don’t need additional logic variables. All child workers share the same 3-bit information that they inherited from their parents!

  Each worker has a time dependent linear workflow. Just like a reel-to-reel tape recorder, it can be played, paused, slowed down, accelerated, fast forwarded, rewinded, and stopped.

  Workers can be non-linearly linked to other Workers! Which means, node-tree search algorithms are no more necessary. There is no “main loop” for executing nodes! Code execution is pre-cached for optimum performance.

  Workers are optimized for event driven methodology. No matter how many concurrent active workers (threads) you have in the scene, there is practically no CPU overhead. Ideal for mobile scenarios.

  Workers are managed by “Managers”. A Manager is inherited from base Worker node. So, any worker can be assigned as a Manager.

  Workers can communicate with each other and access shared variables via Managers.

  Whole architecture is 100% platform independent. For a showcase, I’ve implemented it for Unreal Engine 4 using C++ and Blueprints. It can easily be ported to other game engines; such as Unity, CryEngine, etc.

  And, most important of all, everything is meticulously tested. – It’s working as of today 🙂

Any drawbacks?

Sure… Due to complexity of comprehending “a set of non-linearly linked time dependent linear nodes”, debugging can be a nightmare. As always, designing simplified and organized logic sets reduces potential problems. – I keep my logic sets neat and tidy 😉

So, what’s next?

Well, to be honest, since all theoretical stuff is done, I’ll switch to game content development. I am quite sure that I’ll keep on adding/removing things to my 3-bit node graph architecture. I will keep on improving it while preserving its simplicity, for sure.

“It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” – (William of Ockham)

A glimpse of Fractals in CAD+ magazine

In the late 80s and early 90s, I was more than obsessed with fractals! Since the day I saw beautiful landscape pictures rendered with Vista on my humble Amiga 500, I was addicted to writing simple mathematical routines producing complex images. The philosophy behind fractal math was based on “harmony of contradiction”. You may think of it as a mathematical case where “simplicity defines complexity”.

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Lost Andy Warhol artworks discovered on Amiga floppies

A dozen previously unknown works created by Andy Warhol have been recovered from 30-year-old Amiga floppy disks!

The art experiments were produced in 1985 by Warhol under commission from Commodore, creator of the Amiga computer. Commodore paid the artist to produce a series of works to aid the launch of the Amiga 1000, and this particular batch of lost Warhol works was created on it.

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“Paradise Lost” found!

“Paradise Lost” is the first commercial Amiga game designed and developed in Turkey. It was proudly produced by Ahmet Ergen and me, and released on 4 floppy disks in December 1991.

Although it was a phenomenal technical achievement in terms of setting the bar for game development in Turkey by the early 1990s, it was a commercial failure. Thanks to problematic distribution channel and no media support, only a few hundred copies were sold. And, as far as I know, none of them have survived. It is a game that is no longer known to exist in any private collections or public archives. Long lost and forgotten, until now!

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