Saturday, March 26, 2011

Radical Beer: Part Deux

 Days Remaining to Next Beer: 354

Radical was my professional home for about six years. Sometimes, Radical was also my extended home, and many coworkers surrogate family members, with all the hugs and spats of siblings and country cousins of course. And one of the many aspects of Radical that made working there so dear to me is that while many companies brag loudly while pointing a Power Point presentations about their rich and wonderful corporate cultures, Radical actually had culture, and one of the many ingredients that helped to glue together such culture was beer. Not alcohol as an opiate of the masses sort of ingredient, nor a bribe the barbarians with beer and they burst through the barricades sort of grind house ingredient. Rather, beer served along side several ingredients to both reward hard efforts and, I would venture more importantly, as a catalyst for creating comfortable casual social interaction, the very core of culture.

Perhaps I felt immediately at home at Radical from the moment I walked off the elevator and followed the hallway to a locked door, and since I didn't have a key card or fob, I followed the hallway the other way to where opened up onto a balcony overlooking what I later learned was called the Great Room. Great indeed, particularly because across the way at the far end of that expansive space sat a full, complete, and utterly eerily familiar sight, a log cabin. Not dissimilar from the one in the park I played in as a child that claimed to be a replica of the one Daniel Boone had been born in, though idealized as though assembled from giant Lincoln Logs, a toy named after another cabin that also once housed someone famous during their formative years, though I've heard the yarns of a three-walled cabin were folk tales, a good thing since as a kid upon hearing those stories I thought it odd anyone would make a man president that came from a family too disingenuous as to erect a cabin to protect from hostile elements yet leave one wall off as though worried they'd miss the bus.

Speaking of cool cabins, my Granny Lou lived in a cabin across a two lane highway from the Milligan College campus and two doors down from our stucco sheathed house, a facade skin bristling with razor sharp seashell shapes. Granny Lou's cabin had been built from oily black rail road ties recovered sometime after the New Deal became old news. The mortar between the ties had been white, so at first glance I'd thought momentarily the cabin had been constructed from giant Oreo cookies. Granny Lou used a wood burning stove to cook, so even at the height of summer black smoke puffed and wafted gently from a crooked pipe jutting from her A-frame roof as she prepared blackberry pies and other delectable treats worth pretending to be sick as school for so you could be fetched by a parental unit and deposited in Granny Lou's kitchen for looking after while the parent returned to work. Her chicken noodle soup, all scratch made short of raising the chicken, better than anything from a can, and her chicken and dumplings, my oh my, Cracker Barrel is a pale comparison, though great for bringing back memories of our Granny Lou.

The home of Radical's log cabin, the Great Room, is also where the Town Hall meetings occurred roughly every month or three. Town Hall meetings were opportunities for management to call all the company employees into one centralized space for announcements and updates, to hand out plaques, celebrate accomplishments, and acknowledge anniversaries. The development teams could show project clips, concept art, tech or playable demos, and talk about their production progress. ATG, Radical's core technology group could show hints of futures possible, shooting tiny Tony Montana statues into shattering towers of glass and stone to demonstrate dynamic physics, destruction, and contextually driven mass to impulse reactions. HR could talk about the new benefits packages while Recruiting could remind folks of the referral bonuses waiting to be had.

Town Hall did more than this, though. Town Hall pulled everyone away from their desks and problems, gathered them together to encourage everyone to take a moment, breathe, look away from screens and bleating machines and remember that games are made for people by people, and while one might not always make games, when one does, one might also want a beer. Stay thirsty, friends. Like the scene in Starship Troopers when Michael Ironsides show's up after a hard day out slaughtering Tea Party sized bugs with several pallets of military crates that open up to reveal a day-glow violin and kegs of beer, Radical had a set of taps built into a bar on wheels that sat like an alter in the Great Room day in and day out silently promising robust rewards for hard work, and at the Town Hall event those taps sprang to life, tricky mistresses though they were requiring a firm hand and a steadily tilted glass lest your glass fill with nothing but foam, and for the impromptu bar master that happens to know how to pour a headless pint, he who controls the pour, controls the universe.

As the Town Hall about to commence email arrived into everyone's in-box footsteps could already be heard thundering up the stairwells while the elevator doors parted to release a spill of bodies appearing to crave front row seats for The Who in Cincinnati, 1979. Snacks lined the kitchen island, sometimes healthy, sometimes finger staining Cheez-Its, platters of ridged for our pleasure Ruffles, and upended buckets of Onion Dip. If large unmarked corrugated cardboard boxes sat on the porch of the log cabin, plaques were going out, an exciting time for everyone because plaques meant something had sold another million copies, would it be something I worked on? Would they remember I worked on that? Did they mistakenly think I worked on it? I have plaques for Scarface and Crash of the Titans, each has an image and a disc clamped between two thick planes of Plexiglas secured by four industrial bolts, one at every corner. If zombies were to attack my home, either would make for a handy bludgeon. Otherwise they look damn spiffy up on my office shelf.

Not every cardboard box stacked on that porch contained plagues, however. One time they contained bottle upon bottle of champagne to celebrate the purchase of Radical by Vivendi, the culmination of a courtship that had kept people guessing for months. I honestly can't recall if the champagne were good or subsequently re-gifted. I do remember that was the first time Radical had stocked an amber on tap, and after a 70 hour work week, hell of a grand way to kick off a weekend.

Radical and beer have other joint appearances. One is on team outings, such as the now legendary scavenger hunt my wife's team embarked on to build better understanding among contributors to the the project now known as Prototype. After a day of groups adorned in color coordinated t-shirts cavorting throughout the downtown core trying to work out clues and locate items, imagine the mayhem that converged on a sleepy, unassuming, utterly unsuspecting pub at the edge of Gastown. When I joined them, an honorary member of the Hairclub family thanks to my wife and the number of them that had come from my Scarface crew, many of them were nearly comatose from a long day of running themselves ragged trying to get all the items on the scavenger hunt list, while others were almost equally exhausted for collectively electing to shirk the contest and sequester their group somewhere safe for the day to chit and to chat and ultimately, whether winning or forfeiting the contest, managing to accomplish the goal of the day, that of improving interpersonal communication and interdisciplinary exchange through better mutual understanding. I arrived to a bevy of jovial faces, of artists sitting with programmers, members of QA sharing hots with tech leads, production managers handing out drink tickets while animators bought old and new friends rounds.

And I sat on the narrow patio with Russel, the dynamic character with the helicopter logger history and the hair like Christopher Lloyd on Taxi. The man that climbed an I-beam in the Great Room and dangled by one arm from the exposed ceiling girders two stories over our heads. The man that tried to merge pool with golf, also in the Great Room. The man that concocted the hexadecimal tiling system that inspired the revolutionized streaming system that made Hulk: Ultimate Destruction's world space viable. The man that afternoon on the patio turned me on to big green flip top bottle Grolsch beer. Sitting with Russel and his pal Danny, a world builder that formerly built commissioned cardboard and plastic scale replicas of architectural designs for downtown towers, I felt for the first time like I'd found my community, albeit a rather bohemian lot on the upswing of an industry still in it's relative infancy. Like Henry Miller gumming in Paris and fleeing joints after his pal had dropped a toxic deposit into a bidet, that afternoon was beautiful and certain to have stories for some folks, though none horrible or reckless or condemnable beyond ensuring no one drove home blitzed. I may have been a wallflower, as I had the great fortune to be for many Hairclub outings, however I can confidently testify to the strength of the bonds those outings built, the easing of personal boundaries and reductions of prospective workspace misunderstandings.

I'm not saying for a team to get along and be productive they need to run out and get shitfaced at the first pub they find. What I am saying is that for Radical folks social outings helped coworkers better collaborate inside the workplace because they knew each other better. I'm also not advocating the required drinking session after work a lot of Korean and Japanese businesses reportedly expect from their office men and women. Not at all. The events need to be seen as rewards, privileges even, and utterly voluntary. Frankly, nothing is gained if people don't want to be there.

I definitely think there are times when functional groups need to get out of the disctractions of the office to better put their heads together and work out what needs to get sorted. From my experience, a tremendous amount of design got worked out, often with hefty and mostly healthy debate, over the patio table at one pub or another with a pitcher of beer catching sunlight in the center of the table. Is beer necessary for great design? No, not at all. Beer might help take the edge off folks so they open up for ideas, discourse, to present content or criticisms they might otherwise hold back. However, from my experience, beer does not help with actual implementation or task completion. Great for brainstorming and churning through a myriad bits of minutia, however horrible for scoping or focus testing because beer can add a rosy tint to things that might cloud or misguide judgment. Wake up and find out you just cut cars out of your automotive racing game. Oops.

Radical and beer hang together for office parties. There were a few versions of office parties at Radical, though most weren't actually held in the office. One is the wrap party, another is a milestone party, and the last is the holiday party.

Over my time there, Radical hosted year end holiday parties both on site in the Great Room and off sight at exotic places like downtown pubs or the round reception area on the top floor of a downtown hotel. While the off campus events were fine, I actually preferred the on-site events because they felt like upscale Town Halls to me, with the added bonuses of people dressing up some and bringing their partners, wives, BFFs, what have you. Always an interesting test of character to bridal your gut response to seeing the unexpected at bring-a-date events, and a hoot to meet the people that influence or even sometimes subdue the firecrackers you work with day to day. My favorite memories of in-house holiday parties at Radical were winning an early round of Texas Hold 'Em at the casino tables Radical had hired in, and the memory of unlimited oyster shooters that tasted like suckling on Heaven.


Milestone parties were generally in house, more specifically, in team space. Hitting a meaningful milestone is always a big deal, and often on the more ambitious projects you would arrive on milestone ship date feeling like you were Steve Austin on fire tumbling down the Cape Canaveral landing strip. Like a Michael Ironsides moment, startled faces look up as a production manager or producer slams a two four or case of bottled brew down on a vacant work desk and announces work well done, time to celebrate. Sometimes, on rare occasion, the beer arrived simply because an inordinate amount of overtime had been worked by enough people, as a sort of thanks, and please keep working sort of bribe. Not often, however beer can grease the wheels of progress on occasion. Just be sure to lock Perforce after the beer arrives or strange things might end up afoot at the proverbial Circle K.

The Main Event, the Big Kahuna, is the Wrap Party. Shipping a game is like collectively giving birth, a momentous occasion that warrants phone calls, passed cigars, and glasses raised for toasts aplenty. Radical knew how to make wrap parties memorable, and the people organizing them took what budgets they were afforded to try their best to make every celebratory experience unique. Hulk: Ultimate Destruction occupied the Vancouver Aquarium and threw down with Beluga Whales for a backdrop. Scarface: The World Is Yours locked down and fully occupied a security guarded glass fronted shotgun joint on Granville typically reserved for jet setters and underage supermodel American Idol wannabes. Crash Bandicoot reserved a dock side clubhouse and let us pick the tunes to pipe in. Prototype brought in a full pig roast and held Stanley Park's Boat Club at bay (pardon the pun) well into the wee hours of the morning. That party should've lasted a week.


People danced, sang, hugged, toasted, milled, mixed, and rinsed, lathered, repeated. Sometimes beer tickets, sometimes open bars. All filled with celebration, with relief, with the full well knowledge that other projects died mid-term, others got canceled, team mates were lost, others went away. Next week there might be less teams, next fiscal quarter the studio could become vapor, the next title request shovel ware. Party like it's 1999 and for all tomorrow's parties as well, all within this moment on  this momentous day, when the game is finished, placed in a wicker basket on the river to replication, raise a glass and toast as you watch your baby sail away.

Six years is a long time to be in prison, and an even longer time to work in a single game studio. All companies have core staff that remain for the long haul, often for the full life of the studios, however the business of making games is trending to different circumstances that make maintaining a sense of community culture in a studio difficult. As publishers and developers look for places to cinch their belts tighter, contractors comprise larger percentages of development teams, and temporary employees don't empower a culture of greater whole. How emotionally invested do you get into a company when you're not a full time hire? When you have no benefits? When your contract can lapse and you have to hit the street again? You might care about your project and give it everything you can to leave your best stamp on it to better help you land your next gig, however that is about you and the project, not the company, not contributing to a culture of shared risk or consideration for the success of the greater organism, er- organization as a whole.

At Black Box and subsequently at EA when Black Box got called back to the "Mothership" in Burnaby, Beer & Cake happened every Friday afternoon at 4 pm and people gathered to get their drink on and chat up their pals before heading off for their weekends. On the surface, this sounds like Town Hall, and to some extent, it served the same function, getting people to come together and converse and enjoy a treat for all their hard efforts. Except a couple things were different, and struck me as deficiencies though I'd wager many folks having only known EA as an employer might beg to differ.

First problem, the regularity and frequency. Part of the charm of Town Hall was the unpredictability of it. Didn't happen every week, or every month necessarily, and the line-up for presentations or what have you varied. Curiosity drew folks in as well as free pints and treats, excitement about other projects from other teams and floors, questions about relationships with publishers, the merger, etc.

Also, the food, and sometimes the type of beer, varied from one Town Hall to the next. Cake is great even if it reminds me of Eddie Izzard, Marie-Antoinette, or Rome. Actually, panem et circenses does seem appropriate when I recall the weekly Beer & Cake, particularly because unlike the Great Room which had a large open space to better facilitate intermingling, the Black Box social space was compartmentalized, not unlike Colosseum box seats and that narrow trough flow of stadium rows, encouraging people to clump into cliques and shout at one another over the turned up digital DJ racket.


Regularly enough to take for granted free beer and tasty treats in an environment that subdivides or alienates people doesn't quite inspire me to hang about waiting to be noticed or to try to interject myself into people's conversations. Felt like the high school lunch room all over again, freshly moved to Kentucky from Tennessee and the only person talking to me is the neckless mono-tooth letter jacket Neanderthal wanting access to the seat I'm about to sit on that he'd claimed by line of sight from the lunch line some ten minutes back, with his pals standing behind him wondering if I knew the lay of the land, or needed to be laid down in it yet? Think Heathers, think Breakfast Club, thinking I'm too old to play reindeer games for a free pint. Instead I found myself stealing down, grabbing a pint and a snack, perhaps stopping to chat with the couple people I knew before heading back upstairs to wrap up for the night or to play some Left 4 Dead with my coworkers.

My crew at Next level Games has a handful of old souls from the school of Radical that predates even my years there. They have monthly Town Hall sorts of Announcements and Birthdays all hands sessions in their lunchroom and my team's producers bring in beer to celebrate significant milestones and to reward the hard work people put when the hours went long and weary asses fell off a week ago. The key difference, really, is that the nature of the games NLG makes historically cater to a different demographic that Radical, skew younger and more towards Japanese sensibilities. Not a thing wrong with that, every place is different, and more the better for that, I suspect. A fair bit of NLG's staff is contract based, changes the tone some from a situation where majority of the staff are full time hires. Still, there is a warm and fuzzy core to NLG's culture, and can't help but think some of that is contributed by the Radical veterans in the midst.

Radical and beer, the stuff some damn fine dreams were made of.


  1. Love reading about all the things, places, events that I only ever headrd about in passing over the years!