When Unreleased Games Make You Sad

I’m so mixed with conflicting feelings right now, I don’t even know how to begin.

To most people, I understand that the event is wholy insignificant and something that you would shrug off in a day or two, but to me, it spells the end of an era, a dream realized too late, and how time can truly make some things in life irrecoverable.

WARNING: Long rant ahead, so I’ll just clip the history lesson out and leave it for those willing to trend the road to my past. And by long, I mean it.

I will first present the meterials I saw that inspired the feelings:

First of all, Penny Arcade has every reason to do the things they do – they understand games that rock and games that suck and those intricate things about how games are made and how games work, and they poke fun at things with a true conscience; they don’t hype or bash things because they want to be “hip” or want to be the “in” crowd. Which is precisely why it hurts that they’re bashing Doom 3, and there’s nothing anyone can say to defend it.

Of course, those facts would give you the least bit of clues why I would feel so shocked and depressed over the entire ordeal. Well, since we were on the topic of traveling down memory lane, let’s take it all the way back to when I dream about what I’m going to be, shall we?

About 12 years ago, our family bought our very first PC. It was a 80286 with a monochrome screen and a single floppy disk drive, but it was actually an impressive equipment for its time. Computer softwares were hard to find back then, and games were virtually non-existant. There were, however, PC magazines that my brother was able to obtain, and from those magazines came games – ones that you actually had to type in yourself into the computer in order to have it run, and so, in those days we were easily amused with small text adventure games and the almighty dice betting game, which had me hooked for months with its digit dice throwing action.

Close to where we lived back then, there was a computer store that we frequently visited just to stare at the new VGA color monitor and this amazing thing called Sound Blaster, and to demonstrate the power of these two things they always displayed the demo for the most addictive game of its time – Castle Wolfenstein 3D. We would stare at that same pre-recorded demo for hours, looking at the same dog and guards being killed in the same way and the same route taken, and being amazed everytime by the blood pumping action and gory sound effects. I looked and the game and thought, “Whoever made this thing is GOD” (that is before I met the REAL God, but let’s save that part of me for another entry some other time).

Years later, when we replaced our old computer with a 486, the computer gaming industry was just taking off. If you knew anything about computer software and Hong Kong (Hint: Arrrrrrrr), you would know that we sure got our share of games off the shelf as soon as they came in from either Taiwan or the US. It was around that time when Doom and Doom 2 came out, and it stood out because once again, no game was even close compared to Doom… it was THE first person shooter and any computer gamer who wasn’t playing it was an idiot, period. We worshipped id, even from overseas, and we wouldn’t mind handing the world over to the guys who made these games if that’s what it takes for them to make another one.

Then, we took our leaves from the pirate paradise to the United States, where we were once again cut away from all the games we wanted and isolated into playing the games we still had over and over again. Aside from the occasional packages of games mailed in by my brother’s loyal friends, we were bored and frustrated and we didn’t like going out because nobody could understand us (in all sense). Once again I dug back into my old copies of QBasic and started writing codes again – this time, without any source code. I picked up old dusty books about programming from the library and swallowed the knowledge whole, and spend all of my free time writing one game after another. Whenever I finish one, I would force my brother to sit in front of the monitor and play, reluctantly, for hours until he faked a thumbs up and I started on a new game with a smile on my face.

My brother found his escape from me when he went to college. Because he was a CS major (in UCI no less), he found his way into archives of web pages and newsgroup posts about game programming. Back then, people were excited about anything they discovered about game programming, and whatever they had they were more than happy to show it. My brother, who started to become as interested in game programming as I was, started digging up files on drawing fractals, rendering fire (that was a favorite for many coders), manipulating bitmaps… anything and everything one needs to write their very own commercial quality blockbuster.

Here is a little side story: as I started writing games for the VGA 13h mode (320×200 with 256 colors), I realized that stick figures were no longer good enough for games, and that I had to actually learn how to draw in order to make better graphics for my games. It was then that I finally started seriously learned how to draw, and this is why it became my first major hobby today.

So, back to the story. One day, during a day of the usual file digging, my brother found the source code for Castle Wolfenstien 3D – the very same one that we spent our days gawking and dreaming over in the yore days of our first computer. Furthermore, we learned about the very story of John Carmack and John Romero – people like us who made their way into the big leagues all on their own. There was an entire generation of game programmers who wanted to follow their footsteps, and I became a diciple out of a river of followers. I started taking game making as serious business at this point – I wanted to make good games, games that can actually sell, games that the world would play and be happy about. Lo and behold – all the tools I wanted I have, and so I’ve spent years alone, living in my own little world of games I wanted to make and games I was making. Even though I got a copy of Quake 2 at the time as not to lapse out of the id chronology, the Daikatana incident was completely obscure to me – my world was mine and nothing else in the world mattered to me. Game was my life.

But even as I wanted things to remain that way forever, things changed, and slowly but surely the world became something I could not understand. As I upgraded my computer to an AMDK350 and complimented my video card with a Voodoo 2, a wave of second generation hardware acclerated video games came out and rocked the world. Unreal, Final Fantasy 7 – these things moved the gaming universe from 2D to 3D, and those low level algorithms that I once cherished were easily replaced by Direct3D and 3D Studio Max. I looked at the credit screens for these newer games and noticed how the list started to grow – game artist became an entire studio of game artists, there were modelers, skinners, and a host of other positions in game making that I could not possibly fill all by myself. So I still looked upon id as a beacon of something that’s a one man army and could still make it out in this changing world. Quake 3 was about to be released and I sold my soul to pray that those guys would prove the world wrong, that an elite few would make it, that I – following behind them – would make it.

Of course, Unreal Tournament came out when Quake 3 did and on a head-to-head clash, Quake 3 lost in almost every aspect, hands down. There began a hollow feeling inside me that I could not explain, even when the real world opened up to me and I actually worked with and made friends with real people in my real life. Perhaps I realized something that I could not explain already, but I didn’t want to admit it, and so the days go on and I continued to do my thing while my brother graduates and went to work very briefly for Blizzard.

I remembered the days when we literally jumped up and down like little kids when my brother recieved the letter that said he was hired; we haven’t done something like that since we were little kids fighting over Nitendo games. And so it came as a far greater shock when two months later, my brother simply came home as he usually did one day and said “I quit working there.”. At first, he simply told me that he wanted to work on a RTS, but Diablo 2 was the only game in production at the moment and he hated every aspect of it, so he quitted. I didn’t buy into that excuse at all. I knew him, and I knew he was far more patient than I was and if he wanted to work on something like WarCraft 3, he would have waited his life out in that office for a chance to work at it. This being personal business, and our family having a tradition of not probing person business, I avoided the big questions because I knew I shouldn’t be asking them. However, I understood also that his path would be something that I’m likely follow and I would want to know what made him change his mind when we were riding the same dream for so long, so one day we actually got into an argument over the topic and he gave me a grave statement that’d stay in my mind for a long, long time:

“Look, you may not understand this, but the gaming business is not what I thought it would be; I don’t like the way it is right now, and so I will not go back there again, ever.” and with that, the question was never raised again.

Then, I left High School and entered college myself. I didn’t worry too much over my career at first; I’m still riding high on my dream and I was busy having so many other problems with life that I couldn’t possibly be spending time trying to figure out what my brother meant when he said what he said. During this time I slashed my game making hours because school work finally caught up with me, and my knowledge of programming was starting to slip and fall behind until I stopped writing games at one point and simply continued my drawing career, which spawned from my involvement with the online artist community and ended in a big bang in that trip to Balitmore in 2001, which I recorded earlier in this very same LJ if you’re interested in reading about it.

By the time I transfered to UCI (you’re probably thinking, “thank God we’re finally talking about our own timeline now”), whatever game programming knowledge I had was basically trash, but I found Flash (which is essentially a perfect game engine) and NewGrounds (the perfect place to “sell” Flash games online). My dream career took a twisted turn as I now focus on making games for flash and putting them up on NG as my testing ground. My first two experiments were brutally torn by the crowd, both with good and valid reasons. I learned my mistake and knew what I had to do to get better, and so I did. By the time I was about to put Ronin up on NewGrounds, I was actually putting more than just a game at stake – in my heart, I want to redo that Quake 3 vs UT match up, my games against professional works done by entire game studios, a no bars held contest on a website where hundreds view your entry in minutes and you could rise from nothing to fandom in days, if not hours.

It was precisely why I wrote what I wrote about Ronin here in my LJ, although I didn’t realize that beforehand.

As a result, Ronin did well, but eventually it lost its way to bigger projects led by bigger groups of people who had more professional resources. I don’t regret a thing I put into that game – I made it so that I myself could’t possibly find a fault in it, but where my ability lacks the game would fall short, and there’s no denying that I had reached my human limits as a single person effort. Summer came and I had more than enough time to rethink my grand scheme of being “game programmer elite” in contemporary times as a little bit unrealistic. Combined with today’s conservative economy, I thought that I couldn’t possibly land a job in the gaming industry right now with what I have, especially since I could contribute to most things but didn’t specialize, plus I was totally blind to modeling, skinning, or mapping. Even as I toll people I wanted to do it, secretly I was building a coffin for the dream, as it was a thing of the past and it was probably going to make it.

So today, years after id came from nothing to gaming giant to geek cult Gods to the center of controversies, they are finally about to fall back into nothing. I can see it coming from miles away – years of delay, John Romero taking his leave and making his share of mistakes, and now this. Like hearing the music pump up as a big breasted bimbo walks into the shower in a horror film, you scream and pray “don’t go there” when fate forces things to go nowhere but there. I will cry when Doom 3 comes out, I will cry when it gets bombed, and I will finally pound that nail on the grave – no, the last nail upon the many nails that I’ve pounded in the past that sufficiently break the wood coffin down into wood splinters and ashes. I watched as two things that I love and respect from the past and present – id and PA, clash and tear my heart apart.

And that is how much one little rant means to me. Now, with the better half of my life gone, I’ll have to start from the ground up. Not only that, but I’m walking into an economy that’s no longer willing to pass free money out to amateurs; neither do I have a lot of time to learn anything else, since it is my last year in school and my debt will rear its ugly head very, very soon, even before this school year ends (financial aid will not cover my spring quarter). Perhaps the thing that’s going to walk into a shower and get chopped up by a murderer is I.

O woe, woe to the world indeed.

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