Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bring Me the Heads of Mario

Once upon a time I lived in Cincinnati. I’d thrown up my hands with worry of the future, indecision 5000 quarter-life crisis type stuff, and dropped out of university to go live with my girlfriend of the era, sparing the 90 minute drive south every weekend to discover how annoying I can be in two day doses, allowing her to have an all access up close and personal pass to my pesky potential a gloriously full seven days a week. Of course, moving to Cincinnati sans University diploma required for viable employability than a sure knowledge of the history of Larry Flint and every episode of WKRP.

Leveraging my esteemed record of collecting minimum wage to fill popcorn cups behind the Loews Theaters concession counter or collect empty ones from the aisles  throughout high school, I quickly landed a job as an assistant manager at the cinema in Kenwood Mall, where in those days you could smoke in the lobby and catch glimpses of Jerry Springer or one of the Clooneys in the food court, or warm yourself while the late show played to nearly empty houses by basking in the glow of earth’s whitest people during the annual Jimmy Buffett after hours party while a veritable blizzard tried to turn the mall into a velvety mound outside.

Historians will quickly point out that before returning to the “film business”, as we liked to call it, I spent some quality time in the official Firestone Insurance claim processing mailroom and meandered through a brief stint as a phone rep for Fifth Third Bank. Leveraging my artistic and authorial contributions to UK’s college newspaper, and following the suggestion of my girlfriend, I sought and got a job at the University of Cincinnati’s Clifton Magazine.

Sure, they thought I was enrolled in the University, and I never corrected that assumption. My girlfriend went to the school full time and I slummed there most days off, so I felt I'd only somewhat bent the truth to suit my interests. I suspect the managing staff for Clifton Magazine caught on to my ruse after three issues when I’d failed to ever file for or complain about not getting paid.

The second issue I produced material for in the winter bridging 1992 and 1993 focused on a key area of my life I spent far too much time obsessing over, namely, toys. Though largely action figures, my affinity for playthings ranged from wooden toys like pioneers used to steal from beavers to science fair fodder. I pitched an article that investigated where toys came from, how they were made, where they ended up as playthings, collectables, flotsam, or hot items on secondary markets.

As anyone as rabid about vintage Star Wars toys is well aware, Cincinnati is where Kenner lived. All you had to do was troll the local garage sales during the summer to verify that pretty much everyone in the suburban sprawl from Northgate to Ft. Thomas across the river had Kenner products stashed away somewhere in their house, proof of the bounty afforded Cincinnati kid’s every Christmas and birthday through relatives and kin folk that worked for Kenner somehow. Growing up, the Sears catalogue always had exclusive Star Wars toys like the Blue Snaggletooth or the pre-pre order Plastic Cape Jawa.

These rare jewels showed up as common as bingo wins in the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area,  and at least until EBay changed the secondary market forever, tended to remain in the region going from one sandbox to another, one comic shop to another, one collection to another. No surprise companies like Entertainment Earth got their start there with so many great toys around that would go for top dollar in other states and collector markets.

 Around the time I wrote the article, the initial Aliens toys had just released from Kenner. Though largely appearing to ignore the film that inspired them, they nonetheless were all the rage among toy geeks like myself. So imagine my surprise when one of the lead designers for the toys answered my phone call requesting an interview. I actually got to enter the Kenner building and hang out in an official Kenner meeting room! I totally peed a little. The gentlemen endured my largely na├»ve questions, and gave me a quick education about the toy design process, which for Kenner, meant also having to understand the injection molding process, and learn about the field called Industrial Design, which still resonates in my head as though announced with a booming voice from a mountain top to roll across the valley floor making children hide and manly men faint.

After that I secured an interview with a sculptor from Rudy Vap Studios over coffee at a local college diner. I learned about how the sculptors work with automotive clay and dental tools, among other things, to create the toys piece by piece for paying clients. Through the sculptor I gained a tour of the studio and time with Rudy Vap himself to discuss the history of action figures and how licensed toys work, and how a studio like his services the needs of larger corporate merchandising.

Rudy worked for Kenner for many years before launching his own studio in a rancher house turned studio space on a deceptively quiet, tree shaded, Norman Rockwell looking little street in the suburbs. Judging from his website now, his studio appears to have grown and may be more industrial trappings these days.

At the time, the main floor held all the sculptors working at desks with heat lamps to warm the clay while otherwise the place stayed nearly refrigerator chilly to ensure no sculpts warped or sagged. As it was October when I stopped by, I’d just assumed the heat hadn’t been turned on until my sculptor friend assured me the place almost always required jackets and scarves when they were in full production.

The basement, possibly my favorite part of the place, had been a wonderland of casting molds and prototypes, cast offs and mock ups, racks of sacks of powders and chemicals, vials and tubs, messy and layers, and something like a mad man’s workshop that Doc Brown would feel at home in. My favorite aspect was the way the staff would kit bask new toys out of discarded parts, or from casts they’d made off existing objects and toys.

The sculptural monsters they’d made and stashed around the basement were the stuff dreams and a few nightmares are made of. I want a workshop like that someday in my home, a place that reeks of creativity unbridled. And just reeks, too. The plastics and plasters and various compounds requiring safety goggles, aprons, gloves, and non-conductive palette knives to contend created the kind of  smell Robert Duvall might love to inhale in the morning.

 The top floor, barely larger than a room and a closet john, held Rudy’s office. His shelves were lined with his legend; the original wax sculpt of 12 inch C-3P0, two unreleased variants of the 12 inch Alien and his original sculpt of the 12 inch Alien’s chest and head. Rare toys from Japan, old Universal Monster model kits, Rat Fink cars. A lot of classical toys I didn’t recognize yet I commit to memory so that when I learned what they were later on I could afford Rudy my appreciation for retroactively.

 Rudy had been working on an original property and wanted some help with illustrating the story boards. I got a check for $250 and after expressing my excitement that his studio had been commissioned by ERTL to sculpt the figures for the live action Mario Brothers feature, a fist full of test sculpt heads including a mask for Dennis Hopper’s character that ended up not being included with the final version.

I’ve mentioned working in the “film business” at the time. My girlfriend did as well, however she worked for a different cinema, one that learned would be getting the local premier of Mario Brothers and her managers hoped to decorate the lobby and do something special to attract audiences. At the time, with the cast and budget of the film, there seemed no reason to suspect it would turn out to be a bit of a box office bomb, though as the wiki points out, has garnered a cult following, and for sure I retain a soft spot for the film.

 Having a cold morning sort of inspired idea, I phoned Rudy. Rudy kindly gave me his contact with ERTL, an old friend of his from back in the Kenner days, and that lead to a complimentary case of the toys being shipped to me for use as a prize on the opening night of the film for best costume. Unfortunately, despite having signs up in the lobby well before opening night advertising the contest, and having decked out the lobby and painted all the massive windows with Mario themed iconography, no one outside of the theater staff attended the opening night in costume. Clearly, this was well before the days of cosplay.

So the case of action figures ended up being parsed out among myself and the couple of interested ushers, and one rockabilly fan that was ecstatic to get Mojo Nixon’s dinosaur headed action figure.

Over the years I’ve passed on the action figures, but I’ve held onto those test mold heads from Rudy Vap’s studio. And recently, when approached by a couple fellows that love the movie and have tried to archive all they can about the toys, I brought the heads into work to solicit help from my colleague Beata Kacy to photograph them. Beata did me one better, and took Dennis Hopper’s unpublished reptile mask back to the studio she runs and made a casting of the mask in white bronze, truly bringing the toy full circle to the art.

 If I track down a copy of that article, I’ll post it. After the interview with Rudy Vap and his sculptor, it goes on to talk about secondary markets, garage sales, and is an interesting moment in time just before EBay caught the toy reselling market by storm and changed the collectables landscape forever.

How cool is this? I've just received scans of my article about toys from the archivists at University of Cincinnati. Huge thank you to Kevin Grace, Head and University Archivist in the Blegen Library. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Plethora of Playgrounds

I’m a 42 year old father of a 2 year old. We got late start having a family, focusing on our careers first before entertaining the notion of offspring. I’d spent the sixteen years of my life preceding parenthood working in the video game industry, helping to create escapist entertainment ideally intent on appealing to the child in all of us.

Surely as the video game industry collapsed in Vancouver and I found myself thrust into the role of full time caregiver, my vocation designing interactive experiences would have me prepped and ready for my son’s core interests and pursuits, right? Not even bloody close.

Sure, I knew how to get a bottle ready and how to cut one half with water to help avoid a constipated baby. I could and should write a post on that science alone. I knew how to change a diaper, having changed the very first diaper our son Otis ever deigned to soil. I unwrapped the present that is the meconium charcoal briquette. Black gold, intestinal tar.

I knew the ins and outs of walking and rocking a baby to sleep. I understood, albeit through trial and error, which half remembered eighties ballads would lull a slowly rocked and chest cradled child to slumber over others. I knew just the right wrist snap technique to unfold the BOB stroller just like the Super Mom on the BOB website’s sales video. I knew how to adjust the straps on the Bjorn with or without the baby on board. I knew how to tell whole milk from skim and why to save the creamy congealed goodness from the neck of the class bottle rather than throwing it away as a younger, less experienced version of me might’ve done.

Turns out I really didn’t know all that much at all.

Upon realizing that to make our staggering Vancouver mortgage, I as a freshly unemployed type would need to do more than bedtime baths and the occasional bottle prep. I would be accountable for full time parenting, down to dusk, three days a week. Me, myself, and I suddenly became a one stop shop for all of our son’s needs, and turns out, I really didn’t know the half of what he needed, wanted, or might benefit from. Turned out he and I would be learning as we went, together on the journey of Papa and Son.

As my chief financial officer (CFO) wife described my new calling in life, handing it down like a Dead Man Walking sentencing, I nearly fainted. I reassured myself with ample dumb sentiments gleaned from a lifetime of sitcoms and John Hughes movies. When in doubt, ask yourself, what would Alice do?

I’ve been through Navy boot camp. Learning to pack the stylishly camo patterned baby bag for a day out is on par with any Attention To Detail drill my Chiefs put us through back in San Diego.
Milk? Check. Thermos of refill milk? Check. Snack cup loaded? Check. Anything in the snack cup he’s not into this week? Nope, check. Fruit cup? Check. Box of raisons? Check. Banana? Check. Diapers? Check. Wipes? Check. Sun hat or toque? Check. Dry shorts / pants? Check. Extra tee shirt? Check. Plush toy? Check. Plastic toy? Check. Red robot toy he will be delighted to see we’ve found once all else fails and nuclear meltdown is imminent? Check. “Soo-soo” soother? Check. Backup soother in front center pocket? Check. Back up to back up soother stuffed into the narrow back flap pocket? Check. And yet, for all that, I’d still manage to remember all the things I’d forgotten half a block away and have an internal debate as to whether to turn back or forge ahead. Cup of apple sauce? Can pick up more in town. The Ziplocs of crackers conjoined with organic low sodium peanut butter I’d made the day before? They’ll keep, can replace with a muffin at the corner coffee shop. Those dry socks I’d left sitting on the steps just inside our front door? There’s a Hudson’s Bay where we’re headed today, isn’t there? And why don’t those cool dinosaur and robot socks get made in adult sizes again?

Packing a bag for my son that’s adequate for a jut chin facing of the day is a bigger task than I ever would have thought and an openly evolving task as well. A toddler is as openly evolving as can be, with contradictory opinions and fickle loyalties to match. Yesterday he thought the plain bun from New Town Bakery in Chinatown warranted parades and the sort of overly curly confetti public works unions would charge triple overtime to sweep up. Today, handing him a plain bun from the same fine bakery at the very same time appeared to equate to handing an air crash survivor part of a loved one for sustenance.

My son’s name is Otis though we’ve nicknamed him “OT” for short since he, like the industry my wife and I are both veterans of, likes to make us work overtime. His working title while still going alpha in the womb was Bacon, because we didn’t want to know the gender and besides, everyone loves bacon.

The first day OT and I hit the streets, I followed habit and steered his BOB stroller towards the nearest park, the same one I’d walked our dog in for the past few years, thinking as any dog owner might, if I can get my boy to run around enough to poop, he’ll then nap and I’ll be able to look for work. At this point OT had just reached 18 months or so.

This plan sort of worked, except I’d grossly underestimated the kid’s stamina. A child that’s fresh on his legs and has recent memories of only being able to crawl is a far cry from a five year old hundred pound mutt that has the science of fetching a ball a couple times before squatting sorted. OT worked the playground apparatus over like it owed him money, then began to trundle off across the field looking for fresh adventure. He’d played and talked and run away aplenty, yet he still refused to poop and showed no signs of slowing. So much for my canine owner insight.

I bribed him back into the stroller with his snack cup and a bottle of milk, then leaned on the push bar of the stroller and wondered what to do.  

I remembered that there were playgrounds and parks close to Commercial Drive, thinking of Britannia’s selection of recreational options specifically. If one playground couldn’t wear the tiny titan out, surely two could? Plan decided, I popped the brake with a toe and off we head across the softball diamond and grassy field littered with markers from the proceeding night’s Ultimate Frisbee matches.

As we rolled along I chat with him about things we saw, got him to repeat the occasional names of things, and tried to determine a decent theme song for our first day’s adventure, since any good effort should have a theme song. After a few different sing song attempts, Otis latched onto John Williams’ “Imperial March” for his first ever cadence call, a definite geek win for fathers everywhere. On subsequent trips he latched onto “Whoop! Whoop! That’s the sound of the police!” and “Whoop! There it is!”

Onwards and forwards like the Franklin Expedition went we, him lolling about plundering his snack cup’s bounty, me talking away as though still doing 10 am scrums and worried about synergy or transparency of some other part of big business bingo. I’d point out things and ask Otis the color, he’d uniformly identify them as red, and we’d have a good chuckle despite not really, well, not really remotely getting one another yet. It’s only day one after all, dum dum dum dah dee dum dah de dum.

Otis and I arrived at Britannia on Commercial Drive just as the dayschoolers have absconded into whatever shielded sanctuary they might withdraw into. Meaning, the park is ours for the plundering, and plunder Otis does with earnest, waddling, climbing, stepping off things expecting to be caught, running away, sauntering back, and laughing hysterically whenever something unexpected happens, rewarding more laughing hoots and howls for repetition of those things until he feels ready to move on. I learned patently as Pavlov to live for the sound of his laughter, crave it, seek it out, and get creative finding new ways to surprise and engage him.

After about twenty intense minutes the smell of canned tuna gone off inside an Easter Egg basket left out on the surface of the sun since last March wafts across the park and Otis looks concerned. Eventually he’ll learn to answer the timeless question “Poop or Toots?” but that day he simply looked concerned, brow furrowed, making a deposit of ample return. I fetch the wipes and a fresh diaper and lead him to a clear patch for a pit stop.

After a fresh diaper change he’s ready for the stroller, spent like a returning hero and just as ready to sup on the bottle still largely full from before. I yield milk and steer us for Commercial Drive. There is a kid’s place with beaded soother tethers I want to check out that my wife’d told me about.

Otis is asleep by the time we’re waiting for the first crosswalk. Noticing this, I describe a new plan for daddy daycare, a game of sorts, a system. Perhaps I’m not going to be a game designer anymore by trade, doesn’t mean I can’t try to devise systems of play to better understand and enjoy time with my son.

Most days after that we set out in a different direction to explore and find, and play on, every  jungle gym and playground device we could find and he could safely access. Many devices were for bigger kids, and those would get earmarked for later visits. Day by day we mapped out a slew of playgrounds, further, figured out the best times and routes to take so that Otis could get nearly exclusive access with minimums of strolled time in between stops.

Not all playgrounds are the same, though there are a variety of recurrent themes. Watching OT learn how to overcome an aspect, like the spring loaded teeter totter or the gridded rope ladder, and see his excitement because he knows he’s accomplished something he couldn’t or hadn’t previously done, is amazing. And over the weeks I watched as his coordination improved, his determination and confidence mounted, and his stamina increased seemingly exponentially. While getting him tired enough to nap took longer, his naps also became longer, deeper, and sounder such that transferring him from stroller to bed became a possibility, rather than having to park somewhere with the strolled until he finally woke up. Fortunately Vancouver is a good place to be if you want to lounge somewhere with your sleeping boy in his BOB, grab a coffee and browse job openings on your smart phone leveraging complimentary wifi somewhere.

Not all playgrounds are actually playgrounds. There are malls around Vancouver and surrounding suburbs that can be easily accessed by the Skytrain. For example, the Chinese mall by Metrotown is essentially a giant donut shape, and most shops don’t open until later in the day. Taking Otis there in the morning to run laps and press prints of his nose onto many shop windows brings smiles to many of the elderly Chinese folks also there to exercise, and the food court has cheap bowls of white rice, a favorite of OT’s. Ditto the Chinese malls in Richmond. In Vancouver there is Oakridge Mall, replete with a Lego store and ample spots for a little lad to stretch his legs and ample sized washrooms for the inevitable diaper exchanges. Not all malls work, some get too busy, others don’t have easy accessibility for a big BOB stroller. Metrotown for instanced proved a bit of a nightmare to get out of after discovering access to the elevated Skytrain station platform would require a massive amount of backtracking.

Some stores work well in a pinch for toddler exploration. The Zeller’s stores generally have two floors, and the upper floor is typically empty. OT will wander around the aisles as though conducting an inspection for well more than an hour, occasionally picking things up and putting them down, especially in the toy section, yet largely he stays in the center of the aisle, hands stuffed into his jacket pockets, looking around thoughtfully. Eventually he gets tired and wants to be carried, or to return to the BOB, nap time never far behind.

Now that’s OT is two, he’d prefer to walk rather than ride in the stroller, at least, until he’s ready to nap; that part hasn’t changed. I only get him all to myself one day a week now, once I went back to work I ensured my new schedule still allowed me a day with my son during the week, at least while we can afford that luxury versus our mighty mortgage. Pack the baby bag, load the stroller, pick a direction, and play hard until it’s nap time. 

I wish everything in life were so simple.

Editor's Note: I originally crafted this post as my entry for this gig with Erika Ehm's groovy Yummymummyclub site: http://www.yummymummyclub.ca/ymc-is-looking-for-a-dad-blogger?=EM. Might not have won the job, however at least got a good post from the opportunity.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

why run? are there zombies coming?

Kudos to Eric Madill for the PhotoShop additions

Been a while since I’ve written a blog post, and so made a lot of sense as I return to this to try and describe the one habit I’ve developed over the last year that has been nearly a lifetime in the making.

After I dragged my beleaguered laptop down from the upstairs office and wiped the cobwebs from its face, I thumbed my way through our downstairs Apple TV menus to Computer, to Playlists, to a recently assembled playlist of songs inspired by the English speaking remake of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and retro crime Drive called “Dragon Drive” and the first track to issue out of our TV’s speakers became  House of Pain’s “Running Up on Ya.”

Couldn’t be more apt. What better song to set the tone for a blog post attempting to divulge how and why a 210 pound and nearly 42 year old beer bellied misfit might decide to take up running half marathons?

Let me start from the beginning.

I hit seventh grade freshly uprooted and relocated from Telford, Tennessee to an even more remote patch of land among farm fields afar, a patch that wore Washington College Academy like a county fair best of show ribbon left too long to weather in the sun.

Up until the end of sixth grade I’d been ferried by my folks a half hour away to St. Mary’s Catholic School in Johnson City, Tennessee. Compared to the mile or more space between neighbors in Telford, Johnson City had seemed robust and dense packed, urban and full bodied concrete jungle. Retrospectively and a touch more world travelled; Johnson City is to big city what a goose bump is to Dolly Parton’s chest.

 I’d found myself enrolled at St. Mary’s early into fourth grade courtesy of the wondrous generosity of my great aunts up in Ohio. I graduated from St. Mary’s at sixth grade, the highest grade they went up to. I spent a summer in Pennsylvania. I returned to Tennessee just in time to help the rest of my family pack up for the move to Limestone, or thereabouts, where Washington College Academy sat stitched into a quilt of farmland and cow pastures gone to seed. I’d left St. Mary’s to attend Washington College Academy, once upon a time a women’s college and finishing school for local women from families of at least blue collar means. My Dad’s Mom went there back before the Second World War I believe.

Washington College Academy warrants essays I’ll work out some other day. For now, relevance is geographical and chronological. I arrived at the campus helping haul boxes from the pea green Ford into the tiny house owned by the school that came with the job my parents took running the school’s industrial kitchen.

One of those heavy boxes of books lead to my discovery of Devo inside the pages of a Playboy magazine, discovered when the bottom blew out of the box. Discovering Devo subsequently lead to a life long appreciation of potatoes and arty alternative music, further imprinted soon after by a key episode of Square Pegs.

Discovering the Playboys subsequently lead to learning how to discern, access, and not get caught reading my Dad’s stash of gentlemen’s magazines.

I helped sort, unpack, effectively unfurl my family across every available square inch of that small two story, two bedroom, one bathroom house with a couple weeks remaining before classes commenced. A couple weeks to fearfully stay close to the new home and spend considerable time helping my parents acclimate to taking charge in the kitchen with Mrs. Ramsey and her two kids, fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, both largely kind to me for more reasons than just my parents being their mother’s new boss.

I had a couple weeks to warm up to the idea of beginning seventh grade. Two weeks culminating with a patio party for the school’s ever angling and fiscally precarious president on the patio of his mansion at the tip of campus property. The school swung open her doors to welcome another year of students new and returning, the money most of the students’ parents were dumping into the coffers, and welcomed me into seventh grade, and with seventh grade came Mr. Mathews and gym class.

At some point prior to my arrival a generous donor had bestowed the school grounds with an uncharacteristically state of the art gymnasium. Upstairs you could find a reception hall lobby rippling with glistening trophy cases that accessed a massive basketball court and bleachers bristling cathedral, while downstairs dwell locker rooms, suspiciously spooky hallways, bare bulb lit service rooms, a machine shop, and a beautiful enclosed pool banked by a high wall of windows and rafters rife with birds nesting gaily.

This gymnasium building became a central aspect of my two years at Washington College Academy and warrants a separate post about bullies, underage kitchen servitude, a killer incinerator that provided ample lessons about the risks of combustibility, and a college student lifeguard that made air stop working like a Thom Yorke song.

For today, let’s focus on the Physical Education classes run by barrel chassis, bullfrog necked Mr. Mathews in his perpetual grey shorts and threadbare navy blue polo shirts straining across his considerable girth and perpetually rigid nipples.

In gym classes run like boot camp installments on that polished and waxed by the hands of minors wooden slat basketball court Mr. Mathews regaled us with nostalgic recounts of his days playing soccer as a youth, back before refs checked shoes before the game, back when the studs on the shoes were layers of leather held on by metal tacks and wicked boys were quick to figure out the vicious potential of those tacks once the layers of leather pulled away. Sheer a kneecap off a boy, Mr. Mathews would wistfully recount, glisten of a tear forming at the corner of his eye. I decided around then that the man embodied, or at least regularly channeled pure evil. Pure evil that inadvertently lead me to running today.

Mr. Mathews believed we were all of soft bellies and pampered existence, an assumption he made based on the place being a private school, ignoring the fact that several folks in the class, myself included, attended because our parents worked for the school. He made us jump the jacks, crunch and sit up, push up and wind sprint around like broken toys. He barked and coughed and barked again. He stomped the wooden floor and made it thunder like God’s own drum skin.

And he made us run.

Further, he made us run with competitive threats not dissimilar to those from BattleRoyale. Further back you were in the herd, the more punishment awaited you when running came to get done. Extra helpings of exercise sets, social ridicule, even personal errands for anyone slow to cross the finish line. Mr. Mathews excelled at mental bullying better than almost any drill master I ever encountered in Navy boot camp, or otherwise. I recall some upperclassman claiming Mr. Mathews had been in the Army and discharged for being too grumpy. Wasn’t a tough story to sell to those of us in his gym classes. Slack and get punished. Slack and feel the full regard of his loathing and fear his ire. Slack and wish to hell you’d just run harder in the first place.

And so I ran. Adverse to extra exercise, I ran. Adverse to being last man and made fun of by the one reigning authority figure, I ran. Adverse to ridicule, loathe being the social outlier when I seemed to always live in that turf anyway, I ran. And noticing that if I beat the folks that regularly mocked and bullied me, I could enjoy seeing Mr. Mathews humiliate them instead, I ran even harder.

And I ran with intent focus, lap after lap around that basketball court, trying with all my night to lap DeAngelo; a rich boy to pampered to let his jerry curls touch the ground without an interceding polyester rag in between. Lap Junior, class bully and destined for either America’s Most Wanted or America’s Funniest Videos, vote is still out. Junior might have been Mr. Mathew’s prodigy had the latter wanted to look into a mirror willingly. Trying to beat Rebecca, a butch girl that used to free throw bales of hay into lofts and could punch bruises into late bloomers like me with a look alone, though a really nice person otherwise, record be fair.

Trying to beat all the other kids, I ran. Small, scrawny, lanky, socially awkward, and about as much insecurity as an independent party public pollster volunteer, I ran because the rules favored my disposition. Simple goal, no balls to wrangle or teammates to appease, I simply had to focus on continuing to move, to catch up, to pass, and too stay ahead.

Became quickly apparent not everyone had the ability, passion, or interest to bother to run hard as though from calamity, regardless of threats about extra exercise or other ridicule. Also became swiftly apparent I would never beat the forerunner, I would at best, and most, be second place to Mr. Chuck Kennedy.

My classmate and fellow bully magnet Charles Kennedy never cut me a break; he high stepped his way around the track lap after lap as though running from all the issues afflicting him. As he’d been amply more bullied than me, perhaps he was, though he also seemed to simply enjoy running, so simple and pure, and perhaps he did so better because he never felt need to look back over his shoulder, to worry about loss, because he had his stride engaged to the best of his ability and couldn’t care less about the rest of the universe. I suspect Chuck also might have been autistic to some degree, however I’ll never know for sure.

I chased Charles through two years of PE classes, avoided whatever punishments and ridicule Mr. Mathews handed out to the slow movers. I never beat Charles, but I came close, and that remains the single fastest mile run of my entire life. I hurled afterwards into one of the urinals in the men’s room, shoulders heaving and tears streaming down my cheeks. Crying after a particularly intense run isn’t unusual, turns out, and sometimes I still do. I discovered that day how emotional running can be.

Outside of PE class I began running the 1.4 mile loop of roads stretched thin between cow pastures off the shoulders and hips of the school grounds. I learned the loop through joining the school’s soccer team coached by Mr. Mathews. Fortunately by the time I played referees checked foot gear prior to every game. Rubber spikes ok, screw on or layered spikes no. I guess enough kneecaps had been peeled to incite a sport overhaul for safer conditions.

I ran the loop for fun. I ran it with an eye for time. I ran it to impress, until the day I ran it to impress my Dad. I saw my Dad headed from our tiny house to the backdoor of the school kitchen and asked him to watch how fast I could run a mile. And then I ran, I opened up, I put my soul into running as fast as I could muster, because to describe my relationship with my step-dad as strained would be adding some lipstick to that pig of a circumstance at the time. I ran the four corners and whipped up the last bit of asphalt slope past Paul Gabonet’s presidential manor beneath droopy willow manes and found my Dad huffing from the kitchen back towards the house. He looked at me, amazed but unintelligible all at once, a version of dry humor and irony I didn’t perceive, understand, or appreciate until Dad and I became actual friends during my college years.

“That fast?” He said; dry as a dusty desert dinosaur bone. “Surely you didn’t really run the whole way?”

I stood huffing and puffing and clutching my kneecaps while my eyes went wide with disbelief and anger. I didn’t get the ribbing. I got offended. I didn’t speak to Dad unless forced to for days. I pouted. I sniveled. I became all the more withdrawn. And I never ran the four corners again.

Fast forward the clocks a bit, say maybe a couple decades plus or minus a half. I’m smoking a pack a day and weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds but have begun to worry about my health some. So I start playing soccer with the C league in Eugene Oregon. I suck but the elders in the league patiently teach me to properly play the most beautiful game until might appear to the uninitiated that I had half a clue. Apparently Mr. Mathews had overlooked a lot of the basics when teaching kids like myself the nuances of soccer. Like ball control, sweeping, setting up drop passes, and a myriad other things that wouldn’t bear relevant to a bruiser employed to take opposition down rather than worry about there being an actual ball or goal involved. In the C league I quickly learned that slamming into people is frowned upon, and smoking while suiting up really does little to help your performance out on the field.

Fast forward again to Vancouver, Canada. Still smoking, begin playing drop in soccer matches with a mix of people from Radical, the game studio I worked at. Most of them had been playing since they were kids. Fortunately their patience and the lessons from the elders in Eugene kept me from embarrassing myself too badly. With focus on defensive ball control, I begin to get the game at last. And as my skills improved, so did my sense of investment, and I began to take playing more seriously, smoking less, hydrating more, practicing more, actually stretching.

Around then I also began to make marathon hiking excursions around the city, a practice I retain to this day. I built up my endurance, directly increasing my effectiveness on the field, subsequently affording fresh rushes and perceived wins that empowered more endurance building and more effort expended on excursions all that much further away, like my somewhat precedent setting  hike from my friend Celine’s old place by Lougheed Mall to my old place in West End, Vancouver that started out at 4 am and rambled on well past dawn as I followed the Sky Train's elevated tracks and inadvertently took the less than direct route back into town past a lot of industrial park and through one very strange hobo camp that has since been replaced with a paved commuter bike route.

Fast forward to working at EA, a place that has a soccer pitch in the crook of the two key buildings and enough staff to populate two leagues of competitive soccer team action. At EA I began playing on a team, the first time since 8th grade, contrary to many the yarns I’ve spun about my high school years at Tates Creek where the Soccer coach happened to be my German teacher and hence required the lion’s share of his team to take his language class so he could better guide them on the field via his native tongue. I never played for him, nor had the balls to ever try out, although retrospect I really should have, Except that then I would have missed out on speech team, debate team, mock trial team, numerous plays, battle of the bands, yearbook, newspaper. Actually, I’m pretty happy how high school turned out, so never mind about the soccer team and lack of letter jacket then.

Just before I left Radical to jump ship over to EA, I quit smoking.

At EA I learned in proper matches how to play as part of a structured team. I became a small part of the nefarious and mightily talented Grey team, brought aboard by my friend Gustavo, an old pal from my Draw Jam days, a network of friends and series of events that warrents another post on another day.

Gustavo hooked me up on the team, and I learned very quickly like a drowning man hopes to tread water what I could and couldn’t do to help out; when to roll up, and when to put away. And the field didn’t let for a lot of strolling. The position and slot I fell most comfortably into called for a great deal of ball tracking and field coverage. I began running. And began running more. That I’d quit smoking just might have had some bearing. My weight had dropped down to below 220 by this point.

After EA I moved to Next Level Games. While at Next Level Games I signed up for a couple 5k runs following the lead of coworkers James Mansfield and Brennan Russell. Earth Day happened first, and I got to see David Suzuki live and in person, something of a definite honor and privilege, just wish I’d learned who he is prior to race day.

After that I ran a couple more 5k races, one from Scotia Bank, and another celebrating the beer and bratwurst of Oktoberfest. During the latter I had a pair of runners costumed as giant full headed beer steins run past me after about 3k. What more incentive does a runner need to pick up the pace?

Another job shift lands me at Slant Six Games, where I meet Vivian Tan-Ng, a fellow that runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week along the sea wall connected to Granville Island where the office resides. I join him and soon we’re trudging along quite nicely. I’ve also begun bike commuting at this point and the 5 kilometer bike ride to and from work definitely does wonders for helping my stamina. Within three months of working at Slant Six, my weight is down to 200 pounds.

More runners from the office join in, or rejoin from the Slant Six running groups of old, and soon I meet cats that have run marathons, and ultra marathons, and ultra trail marathons. One of more hard core runners, a fellow named Paul Martin, is also part of the Slant Six's owner group. Paul convinced the other owners to subsidize a running team for upcoming Vancouver races, the Sun Run and Scotia Bank Half-Marathon specifically. 

Paul has a friend named Ryan Melcher that is a professional distance running trainer. Ryan came into the studio every Thursday to help people transition into training regimen, though his tactics were considerably gentler than Mr. Matthews ever were.  Mostly, anyway. I’ve heard that the more experienced runners were pit against each other to race sprints up the Burrard Bridge as they worked on building up their leg strength,, the winners getting to break early while losers having to run more sprints. Coaching appears to be synonymous with tough love and competitive tactics for more advanced athletes, apparently.

I found at some point along the way over the past year that I wanted, even needed to run longer distances. Perhaps from peer inspiration, as another runner named Ben Hanke certainly afforded a lot of inspiration with the way he regularly runs marathon distances just for fun, as did my coworkers and cohorts Pete Doidge-Harrison and Naoki Terai who kept me on course to reach and exceed ten kilometers back when.

My neighbors have been my neighbors for almost five years now. Our starter home is  the north facing side of a duplex. Somehow, for almost this whole time, our neighbors and I never discussed running, sports, or anything else related to physical exertion one iota really beyond my marveling over my neighbor Joe’s Spam brand emblazoned biking jersey as he and his wife Lu Anne stomped past in their clip shoes with their touring bikes hoisted onto their shoulders. Five years of not knowing that as I began to run, I happened to live next to a couple of veteran Iron Man triathletes who run, bike, and swim regularly distances that I still find largely inconceivable. 
A bit more than a year ago I began this running thing with earnest and intent, and over the past year I’ve managed to creep my competence and confidence up by a kilometer at a time to finally managing thirty a time or two. I’m not breaking any speed records mind you, and I still have the non-Olympian habit of rewarding long runs with a burger and a pint or two. No wheat grass smoothies for me, thank you. I’d been gaining ground and distance a good six months or so though before I happened to finally run into my neighbors, pardon the pun.

One morning I took Boomer, our 100 pound SPCA rescue mutt for a run, for a run. I had determined to stick firmly to a schedule laid out for me by a trainer from Slant Six. A lot of the Slant Sixers had never or barely run before, and even those who had, like myself, were haphazard about training regimen at best. The trainer Ryan, who coincidentally is also the guy that helped fix my running shoe & support problem at Kintec, had anyone hoping for finish the Sun Run in 45 minutes or less running five times a week for distances that increased through the week, then tapered off allowing rest and recovery time for the next week, when the distances would all be longer. 

Rinse, lather, repeat. 

And frequent running sessions means finding new routes that afford new things to see, new places to strive for. One thing about Vancouver, no shortage of grand sweeping views if you follow the right trails or draft along behind someone who can lead you through the Endowment Lands, Lynn Valley, Stanley Park, etc. I discovered very early on that I needed to set destinations that would pull me into new areas and challenges. I'm not suited for running laps around tracks or fields, I get bored very quickly, and I start to focus to much on being tired, etc. A great run is feeling surprised when you discover how far you've gone, at least for me.

I began tracking my runs with Run Keeper on my iPhone and I began inching my goals up, a couple kilometers here, and a few more there. Ben and Paul remained role models for me as I pushed my distances out further and sustained my runs progressively longer.

While I only attended a couple of the Thursday training sessions, I took the training schedule to heart, and for nearly two months ran or exceeded the distances called for. And that meant running through the wet, cold, slushy Vancouver winter. Thank goodness I discovered Solomon store over on the North Shore. They've been my go to place for shoes, jackets, and tights. Solomon as a brand focuses more on trail running, however I've found their sizing, sensibilities about stream lining with adequate pokets, vents, heat and moisture management and deflection to suit my sweaty, heaving bulk quite well.

After a few weeks follow that training schedule, I took the dog out for a run, and I ran into my neighbor Joe. We laughed about my gear a bit, turns out we both have a penchant for picking gear that works but also makes fun of the sleek, expensive norms. Too tacky or cheesy appears to work for Joe and I. Chatting lead to a casual invite to come running with Joe and his friends one weekend. At that point my runs with folks from Slant Six Games and alone on some extended lunches along the way had pushed out to over 15 kilometers. That turned out to be the barrier of entry for running with Joe’s friends.

Joe, Lu, Des, Linda, and Mad Mary have all run and done things I wouldn’t previously have considered goals to achieve. Joe has completed innumerable swims, triathlons, half marathons, and a couple Iron Mans. Lu Anne as well. Des has 26 Marathons under his belt and I wore one of his old hand me down vests recently for my run first half marathon run in the 2012 BMO. Linda has, among a myriad of other things, has run a 100 kilometer marathon through South Africa, finishing in about ten hours and forty five minutes. Mad Mary has also completed multiple Iron Mans and a wealth of other contests and triathlons besides, like running the Rim to Rim that crisscrosses the Grand Canyon with her brother for a birthday lark.

Joe and his friends run together on most Sundays, early in the morning, somewhere new every weekend, or at least the route is. After a few runs with Joe and the gang, he invited me to join them to run the BMO half marathon. I noted that the BMO happens about a month before the Scotia I’d already signed up for, so why not? I checked with the calendar and my wife, then signed up, making the BMO my first ever half-marathon attempt instead of the Scotia.

I ran the BMO with Joe, Linda, Mad Mary, and a few thousand of our friends. I finished roughly mid-pack among the men, my age and otherwise, running twenty two kilometers in under two hours. I couldn’t have been happier to cross the finish line, except maybe for how I felt not to be running any more. 

I’m well known for having lots of interests and ideas and starts to personal projects among my friends. I’m also just as well known for being flaking and finishing very few of those things I set out to do, best intentions though I might have had. 

I ran the first half of the marathon with Joe, learning through doing how to pace myself, to utilize the water stations, how to duck into a Tim Hortons for a potty break to dodge the queues at the port-a-potty honey buckets that BMO had furnished. I learned when best to employ a gel, and that lemon-lime gel will haunt you for a good half hour souring the after taste of every burp and belch as you chug along.

After the midway point Joe checked his watch and gauged our pace, then decreed that if I wanted to finish in under two hours, I would need to find a way to shake the lead out and pick up my pace some. I begrudgingly agreed and unwrapped my ear buds from my jacket pocket, thread the line under the front of the jacket to hug the line close and prevent tangling, popped the ear buds in and plugged them into the iPhone and dialed up my running playlist. I waved to Joe, who waved back with a shoo fly gesture, and I picked up my pace to match the cadence of the first song that came up, some electronica dubstep thing, something by Spor I believe. Bear in mind that Joe doesn't slack along, so for me to pull away and go faster took some measure of magic I didn't know I had. Later on I caught up with our friend Linda and slowly passed her, though I never caught up with our other friend Mad Mary.


My running playlist has a strange sense of timing and often plays songs i have no recollection of ever adding into the playlist. As I came around a bend on the north western side of Stanley Park, I found myself running through speckled sunlight surrounded by a couple dozen female runners on a stretch of the race devoid of fans or much support crew really. I seemed to be the only man in sight for as far as the eye could see. And Hellen Reddy begins to sing "I Am Woman" in my ear buds. I felt my Mom would've been proud right about then, my Women's Studies teachers as well. And I recalled that macho joke from boot camp all those years ago, when a drill master might notice someone flagging behind or slacking off, and ask with a great show of knitted brow concern about whether particular parts of the suffering boy's anatomy might be hurting. Parts said boys don't typically have.
Nearing the BMO finish line, running out from from Stanley Park’s lush forest canopy into the tall glass towers of Vancouver’s financial district, sun just so among the grey wash of passing rain clouds, creating halos around the tops of the bow shaped sky scraper facades while seagulls wheel past, a epic remix of Prodigy’s “Smack MyBitch Up” pulsing in my ear buds from my carefully crafted running playlist, seeing thickening lines of people waving us runners on with signs and bellows as we pad and pound down the center of the wide avenue, pedestrians owning the vehicular jugular like a reflection across a teardrop of time, and ahead a sharp bend to the left, towards the finish line, and one song ends and another begins, Slayer picks up the pace to bring me Clydesdale heaving with everything left I have to give to cross the finish line with no baggage, burden, or breath left to give. 

Past the finish they handed out bottles of water and dropped heavy metal medals strung on thick blue ribbons around runners’ necks, everyone a winner, and everyone feeling like one.

Sometimes I feel like there is a lot I haven’t been able to complete or wrap up. There is a lot of potential accomplishment that I've yet to bootstrap myself up to tackle properly or cohesively. I suspect I’m incredibly lazy, disorganized, defeatist, and easily distracted by shiny objects. To run, to reach a goal, a distance, a pace that I know I couldn’t a year ago is satisfying, validating, and affords a degree of focus I’m now trying more and more to apply to other things. Like work, writing, drawing, family, and of course, running. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Game Expo 2012 Presentation Notes for "The Details Where Devils Dwell"

As you can see from the Power Point slide up there, the title of my presentation is “The Details Where Devils Dwell.” This blog post is intended to fill in the details and notes I had around each slide and cover some of the tangents and anecdotal examples I threw out during the live show at the 2012 Game Expo.

Before  I get into the meat of this, some hearty thanks are in order, so allow me to call out some folks critical to the success of this presentation now.

First of all I'd like to thank Dave Warfield for approaching me to speak at Game Expo, I feel very honored to be one of the presenters among such a cadre of caliber cohorts! Big shout out to all the folks that organized and ran the event, particularly Thuy Khuc who has the calmest demeanor during a tornado of activity I've ever seen.

Massive thanks to Christopher Molineux for coaching so well on how to speak to a subject I enjoy and bring an audience along for the ride.

Big burly thanks to Dan McBride, Ruth Spink, Anna Sloan, Stephanie Bachmann, and Paul Martin for supporting my involvement, allowing me to represent Slant Six Games during the Expo, and setting me up with both a coach and several media interviews. For my virgin effort as a presenter, this really turned out to me an amazing, albeit exhausting, adventure!

Last I'd like to thank all the folks that took time out of their own busy schedules to look at various forms of this presentation from inception to this incarnation. The end result would not be as succinct, palatable, refined, or chalk full of goodness without the feedback, ideas, opinions, and constructive criticisms you afforded. So stadium wave slow clap accolades for Kirsten Forbes, Tim Bennison, my amazing wife Lindz Williamson-Christy, and my confoundedly incredible colleagues Paige Meekison, Devon Detbrenner, Rebecca Lathangue, and Ben Hanke. A big chunk of what this presentation could be snapped into place while running the sea wall with the Slant6ers running consortium, so kudos to them too.

If at any point you read an acronym or expression that's unfamiliar or unclear, please don't hesitate to email me so that I can explain whatever jargon I might have slipped into this presentation without providing sufficient context or definition.

Allow me to quickly establish a bit of context. I’m a designer by trade, so if you’re hoping for deep insights about secondary lighting sources, you might be in the wrong room. 

I'm a 16 or so year veteran of the industry, starting out at Dynamix in Eugene, Oregon working on Starsiege and Tribes 2 among other things. I started out as a texture artist and learned on the job how to build 3D models, BSP (Binary Space Partitioning) architectural constructs, HUD (Heads Up Display) iconography, pause menu graphics and information, dialogue writing, audio slicing and processing, and a bunch of other things that still help inform choices I make and sensibilities I have today.

I later worked for Radical as Lead Level Designer / Senior Designer for Scarface: The World is Yours, Crash of the Titans, and other projects and demos and pitches. 

I've worked a brief stint as EA Black Box, another year with Next Level Games making the film tie-in merchandise game for the Captain America film. 

Most recently I'm working as a Senior Designer for Slant Six Games, currently acting as Lead Campaign Designer for the Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City game. Have to say now that SSG is one of the best places I've ever had the good fortune to work. When looking for prospective employers, remember that it's not just about the money, or the brand name. It's about culture, experience, and being surrounded by people you're inspired by and feel you want to learn from. Anything else is just a gig, and without positive culture, can become a grind very quickly.

For the extent of this presentation, the sorts of details I’ll be talking about relate to Intellectual Properties, or IP for short. Every game represents an IP. We won’t be talking about original IP games much today, as creating original IP is a whole other Pandora's Box of demonic details to consider.

Today we’ll be chatting about designing and creating games from existing IP content; both designing for an additional installment to an existing game franchise, and converting a non-game IP like a film or comic book into something interactive and fun to play.

I aim to demonstrate how understanding the limitations of your IP can help you to get more rewarding designs and gameplay experiences out of it and I’ll share some of the hard knocks lessons I’ve learned working with IPs like Scarface, Crash Bandicoot, Resident Evil, and Captain America.

And the biggest lessons I’ve learned have been about the potential gold that awaits deep down in the details of every prospective IP you might encounter. The real trick sometimes is knowing where and how to dig in. That said, before you dig in and start getting creative, you need t sort out where the buck stops are, and that starts with identifying who owns and can ultimately answer for the IP.

You can waste a lot of time asking the wrong people for allowances or details. Determine who can ultimately say yes or no to design ideas, and get those questions in from of those people as quickly and concisely as possible.

Before we get to the fun use cases I’d like to be up front about the most important lessons I’ve learned when designing around an existing IP. The IP must be part of the Filter you use to judge the quality and relevance of any design you come up with for the Game. I’ll talk more about creating Filters in a bit. Most importantly you really must identify the constraints of your IP, and once you start digging in you’ll be surprised how many there can be; marketing, publisher, licensing, story cannon, actor contracts & likenesses, other merchandising rights, target audience, etc. We’ll discuss some examples I’ve worked with shortly.

You need to make time to understand your audience and appreciate their needs and expectations, no matter how flimsy or fickle those aspects might at first appear. While you can’t just cater to your IP’s existing diehard fans you also can’t ignore them. Likewise you also have to consider whether or not your IP is stale and if your game is the chance to breathe new life into the IP and create new fans.

You should want to consider what features are required as “price of entry” for your game’s genre, while you want to avoid simply “Feature Chasing” other games in a similar genre. Throwing in features just to be competitive that don’t directly relate to your IP will feel awkward and you’ll end up writing in plot lines to justify features your fans might not expect or want.

The important thing is that as part of understanding your prospective audience, you include the wants and needs of your games entire target audience, not just fans of the IP or just fans of a particular genre of game. By defining the breadth of your overall target audience you can better preserve the integrity of the IP you are trying to leverage and empower.

You might notice I didn’t call out Designers as your target demographic. For sure designers play games, a lot of them; for fun, for research, for competitor analysis, and hopefully for fun again. While you may earn kudos from designers for clever designs, if you lose your perspective audience by intimidating them with overwrought, convoluted designs for design’s sake, then you may have made a mistake.

Designs that serve to empower and enhance the narrative and integrity of the IP you’re representing will serve you far better than anything you implement simply to be clever or to show off your designerly prowess.

OK, so that was a deluge of "You should this, you better that..." instruction. Let's back up and break this down so that you can decide for yourself what you actually want to take away from this presentation. Cool?
At the core, we’re going to talk about creating games from established IPs, creativity within constraints, and investigate some tips and tricks for adding depth to your games what will translate to consumer satisfaction that further translates into better financial returns, which is usually the bottom line after all.
So I’d been with Radical a couple months as a designer, and we were working briefly on a pitch for an open world 50 Cent game, I’d gotten elbows deep into researching project housing in Queens and urban distribution models in Brooklyn when I was asked to come into my Producer’s office to spitball the idea of making a game out of the movie Scarface.

50 Cent had possibilities, and certainly had me in the right mental space, however Scarface certainly made more sense for our team as a sweeping, epic crime story that spoke to a fairly substantial demographic across 20 years worth of fans. Another studio went on the make a 50 Cent game and made some quick cash and a whopping 48% Metacritic. Key point though is that the games eventually made for 50 Cent understood their core demographic, and particularly the second one, were pretty fun to play without being big sprawling open world situations. The games focused on allowing players to be 50 Cent just as we came to focus our game around being Tony fucking Montana. In the second 50 Cent game a mechanic went in where players could purchase more weapons or buy better profanity. Which do you think players maxed out on first? Genius.

Back as Radical, the intense design session quickly resolved that Scarface made sense as an open world adventure, a laundry list of questions became immediately apparent. Tell the story of the film? Maybe a prequel? He dies at the end, doesn’t he? Maybe in the game he survives? Should we include other characters from the film? If so, which ones? Do we even let people play as Tony, or someone in his gang?

Already in research mode, I switched gears and began researching the world of Tony Montana. I started with the film, then soon dug into the time frame the film represented, the actual history of drug trafficking and distribution into the US through Miami at the time, and the growing trade through Mexico that came soon after. I read the DEA website’s massive library of history, learned about the cartel heroes and conflicts, and the history of drugs through the Caymans, Bahamas, Cuba as well apparently. I learned about Norman’s Cay and dozens of other tidbits that could be peppered throughout our game to add integrity and connect the fiction better to reality.

As we answered the questions about playing as Tony, and in what time frame respective to the film, I could then pull ideas and concepts from the film’s script, the film itself, and the time period the film is set in and topics the film touched to create locations, landmarks, characters, narrative options, and more. Essentially laying down the restraints of the who, when & where for Scarface the game we then had the restraints required to judge all of our future design decisions and maintain the continuity of the game.
A Golden Age comic book inspires a film that inspires a video game. Here is where research alone wouldn’t be enough. With over 70 years of history, Captain America became a real learning opportunity about constraints.

Basically, the game’s story would exist within a tiny bubble that was is a montage within the film to briefly explain the origins of Caps’ military career. Since the game wouldn’t be telling the story of the film, we then had the freedom to make up our own. Except, we couldn’t conflict with the reinvention aspects of the film IP that may or may not match with the comic books. Yet we wanted to include characters that were classic to the comic book version of the character but not necessarily included in the film.

Other examples of existing IP include game franchises, like Crash Bandicoot, originally established by Naughty Dog, and Resident Evil from Capcom. Working with IPs like this, you have to ask yourself, is this a Reboot or an Installment?

Crash Bandicoot has a lengthy track record of games, some great, some others not so great. Working with this IP meant trying to find ways to reinvigorate the brand, rekindle audience excitement without alienating long time fans. Something we’ve seen brands like Batman do repeatedly despite many flawed installments along the way.

With Crash the biggest obstacles for designing for it turned out to be the legacies of the brand itself, partially manifesting with publisher unwillingness to financially subsidize a full brand reboot and the development costs that would accompany such a bold move. So the games, despite the best efforts of the team to infuse new energy, mechanics, and aesthetic sensibilities, simply felt like more installments of a serial that had jumped the shark with a nuked fridge several dev cycles ago.

Resident Evil is a whole other thing.

Films, toys, comics, games, and a very rabid fan base.

Identifying the constraints of the franchise, the hero and villain characters, the history of events as they unfolded in 1998 in Raccoon City, Capcom’s expectations, and both shooter and survival horror genre enthusiast expectations would be pivotal to working out how to weave together designs for narrative and gameplay experiences that would satisfy the full breadth of our perspective audience.

I joined the project later on and had to ramp up quickly in the lore of the land, what constraints we faced, so that at this late stage every nudge or judgement call I make is best serving the quality of the product and the expectations of our target audiences while also remaining timely and in budget.
I’ve mentioned identifying the constraints of an IP previously, however let me get a little deeper into what that means.

An IP has a narrative side. Story, characters, locations, plot points, and established histories that you need to be aware of so that any conflict you introduce is deliberate and not a result of sloppy continuity.

I recommend calling these things out during your research into the IP. Wiki is a great place to start for a lot of better known IPs, though go to the source content as much as possible to be sure you’re acting on fact rather than opinion.

For Scarface we went through the script and film and film credits and listed every name dropped, every person referenced, every location visited, and every action in the film that could be turned into a possible gameplay mechanic or system. Distribution, staffing, property ownership, and money management quickly rose to the top of the list. The characters we’ll listed soon filled in the roster of bosses and mini-bosses we would eventually weave into the game’s story to contend with.

Further, though, we learned we needed to match key beats and locations. The mansion, the Babylon Club, an Frank’s Motors with the famous Hawaiian wallpaper for example. We could add to those to make them more gameplay friendly, sure, but the spaces had to be there, and had to have the integrity of those iconic locations in the film.

The product you intend to make has a bottom line as well, and that also provides constraints that will affect your design. Your budget, your engine, your staffing, your timeline all contribute to making your designer life miserable.

Once you recognize and all out your fiscal and technical constraints, you can better begin to make smarter choices about what baskets you want to put your eggs into. What features contribute most to the integrity and quality of your product? What designs would cost most to implement? Designers that lose sight of cost, resources, and schedule are designers that will run late, go over budget, and burn a lot of OT that probably could have been mitigated by better, more frugal preplanning.

The other aspect that needs to be considered is what else your project is being bundled with or tied into. The Captain America game, for all intents and purposes for Marvel’s marketing and merchandising group, is another toy on the shelf to cash in on when the film comes out. Scarface, on the other hand, had competitors’ marketing to worry about externally, while internally there was a push to cash in on the unexpected success of a deluxe DVD reissue of the film while also making deals with companies like Def Jam and Bodog for cross-marketing opportunities.
As I'll describe shortly with a Captain America example, you must define your allowable cannon. What parts of the IP can you use, will you use, and do you want to use?

Also, once you know what is viable for you to use, work out what isn’t. For Resident Evil we’re restricted to the timeframe and events from the games RE2 and 3. We’ve looked to the films for inspiration, like using shipping containers as zombie spawners ala the RE film in Vegas. However, we aren’t using any of the film characters per say, or narrative events, like all the Jill clones.

For Scarface, we pretty quickly established a need to use Tony Montana as a filter, both his moral code and his demonstrated behaviors from the film. Let Tony dance in Babylon Club? Well, he did that in the film, so ok! Let Tony kill a bus full of nuns and orphans? No can do, violates his moral code. Let Tony be a pimp? Nope, would be subjugating women, more or less violating his moral code. He can kill pimps though to “liberate” the ladies if he likes.
Our contribution to the Resident Evil behemoth has been to move the IP into 4 person cooperative shooter space. This has the advantage of bringing the IP to new fans while at the same time risks alienating fans of the most typical, slower moving classic RE horror games.

This is something that needs to remain firmly fixed in a designer’s mind when making choices about the experiences in the game, the narrative choices or collectables or combat or use of monsters or puzzles or timers or any number of other minute examples.

Classic RE games have a lot of puzzle aspects to them. Shooter games, by and large, don’t. Classic RE games have a lot of inventory management to them. Shooter games generally don’t. As our game is a sideways sequel that’s returning to classic events and affording some fresh perspectives on that timeline, we were able to sidestep puzzles and inventory management that might slow down the action and found other ways to appeal to classic fans through hero cameos and more extended interactions with keynote monster characters, particularly in the Versus four on four multi-player modes.

Had we been a direct sequel like RE5, I believe we would have been far more required to include puzzles and some degree of inventory management, simply to remain true to the established brand’s enumerated titles. Being a one-off does have certain advantages, streamlining you design agenda definitely being one of them.

Take the character Dum Dum as an use case for needing to define narrative and IP constraints up front. He’s in Captain America the Movie, and he’s from the comics. Therefore he should be easy to include in the design, right? No.

Dum Dum has a pretty rich history in the Marvel universe. He’s accompanied Nick Fury through WW2, the Cold War, and later into the SHIELD agency where he spent considerable time and resources chasing down Godzilla. Unfortunately none of this history lines up with Marvel’s reinvention of Nick Fury as played by Samuel L Jackson. In the comics, Dum Dum was part of the Howling Commandos along with Falsworth and Gabe, though Dum Dum was never a part of the Invaders, a group of superheroes comic book Captain America fought alongside that included forgotten greats like the unfortunately yellow suited Whizzer. In the movie, the Howling Commandos have been stripped of Nick Fury and been renamed The Invaders. 

Confused yet? So were we.

Essentially, we were allowed to have Dum Dum in the game, however we weren't allowed to acknowledge his role in the Howling Commandos, friendship with Nick Fury, or have Godzilla show up as an Easter Egg, despite the relationship Dum Dum has to all those things in the greater comic book cannon. One one hand, as a designer, these constraints feel like missed opportunities, however on the other hand identifying these hard constraints helped ensure time didn't get wasted chasing designs the IP owners wouldn't go along with.

Through identifying these conflicts and from them resolving constraints that we would design within, we found ways to put characters and fact tidbits from the comics into the game without violating the continuity constraints we’d been given from Marvel.
One of the first things we needed to do on Scarface was determine what audience we were trying to reach. GTA fans, sure. GTA has paid homage the Scarface film enough through the years that the connection was self-evident.

But what does that mean? Urban youth?

Not exactly, that’s an aspect but doesn’t cover the market share. Urban culture. Broadening our target demographic to include fans of the sorts of things that reference the Scarface film suddenly gave us an initial idea of our target LCD.

From that we could investigate what appealed to that demographic. Brands, music, etc.

Our producers and the design team worked with Universal and Vivendi’s marketing groups to build relationships with other companies that were trying to speak to the same or similar audiences.  Soon we had cross-promotional deals with Def Jam and Bodog, and worked with Def Jam to include new and catalogue tracks into our game’s music player and soundtrack.
When we showed the Scarface game to press and various handpicked folks behind closed doors at E3, I had my first real encounter with prospective players of our game.

Sure, I’d played against other players on line when I worked on Starsiege or Tribes 2, heard them on the chat headsets and all, but meeting people in person and shaking hands and seeing them physically react to the events on screen gave me far more insights into what worked (and what didn’t so much) with the game.

Focus testing is always a mixed bag for designers. No matter how unbiased and pure you try to make the focus tests, the minute folks are in a room playing a game together, they affect one another as much as the game affects them. If there were a way, I’d love to try focus testing games by showing up at people’s houses on the weekend with pizza and beer and watch them play a build of the game the way people likely will play the game once it’s gone to market.

So while you can define a target audience and use that to help steer your designs, you also need to watch people play your game and keep a sharp eye out for what they get excited about. With Scarface, it turned out for some people to just be hearing him talk to people, a good thing since his dialogue feature turned out to be a tremendous effort in time and technology. We’d commit to that choice because Tony Montana is so often quoted, how he says things as much as what he says. So we wrote unique dialogue for him for every character in the world, so that whenever he talked to anyone, he had new things to say, and they had new things to say back.
Establishing your constraints and defining filters should be a key part of your initial preproduction, though they may change or become better clarified throughout your production process. It’s a good idea to revisit your agenda and ensure you’re still on target regularly throughout production, that you can make nudges and course corrections and cut with the most relevant and realistic information in hand.
Once you know what you can and can’t do, and have filters for measuring how well designs can benefit or enhance your product, you’re more than halfway to knowing what your product’s pillars are. They’ll probably match you’re filters, basically.

For example, the key filter for design on Scarface was “Be Tony Fucking Montana”. Sorry to go blue, however that phrasing mattered, as Tony says a lot of off color commentary and we wanted to remind everyone on the team to keep that frame of mind when dealing with the IP.

Another filter for Scarface entailed defining what we were and were not. Initially I believe we were inclined to simply look at GTA and say, “OK, we’ll do all of that, and better.”

Meanwhile Rockstar is making their own next installment and saying the same thing. As are the fellas on True Crime and Godfather, etc.

On Scarface, we did a dense competitive analysis to help inform our assessment of where the average mean of our audience, essentially the lowest common denominator, stood. However, by looking at our game as being Tony Montana, rather than another installment of open world crime and driving, we realized we needed to look at the breadth of the market and consider any games focused on empowering a character the way we intended too. Strangely, Zelda: Wind Waker became one of our inspirations for the way they handled emergent gameplay events and world discovery; despite the fact that by and large I have deep misgivings about elves.

We did much better developing our IP’s unique identity once we changed our mindset and world view from being a killer of something else, which is just an imitation with more antagonistic wording, after all.
Every designer has styles of game mechanics and compulsion loops they like and would like to play. Not every mechanic works in every game setting. Not all players go for the same tried and true compulsion loops.

For example, I love collectables and had been playing mad numbers of hours in Bethesda’s Fallout games. So when given the opportunity to design collectables for Captain America, I went a bit overboard. Retrospect, maybe we didn’t need quite so many.

Pick mechanics and compulsion loops that best suit and empower your IP.

Collection mechanics might work for a lengthy RPG, however for a romp and stomp superhero game, maybe not so much, despite how much bonus content the collectables unlock.

Also, resist the temptation to pad out a design with a bunch of staple mechanics you know or like from other games. Instead, carefully pick and choose what best suits your IP and intended audience.
During preproduction, or any time I join a project mid-stream, I deep dive the IP like a tax audit to learn everything I can about the IP and all associated spin-offs, merchandise, inspirations for it and things it might have inspired. I read fan sites, wikis, and summaries of the comics or books if time prohibits reading all the actual content.

For Scarface I watched a slew of other Brian Depalma films to better appreciate his cinematic techniques and choices to help inform player camera choices. I had the soundtrack cycling on my iPod for weeks.

If set in a period, I research the period. If set in a town or country, I research the places and look for things I can use or extrapolate from. I deep soak the IP so that I can think from inside of it as I design. I take notes and make potential outlines and mind maps of prospective mission and goal interconnectivities.

I think about compulsion loops, and try to map items that repeatedly crop up in my research to compulsion loops or gameplay mechanics to give them context that will support and empower the IP through gameplay.

Even a linear game has choices and strategies. To better empower the idea try to afford players choices that have consequences that are meaningful to the story, either immediately or overall. Both if possible.
In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator explains beating writer’s block by staring at a brick wall and describing each brick left to right in turn, starting at the bottom of the wall and working your way up. Eventually you will have to find something about the details to write about or die of boredom.

Consider the constraints of a product to be the framing that wall of bricks is mounted too. Digging into the grout and divots of the bricks is where the details live and inspiration can spring forth from.

During preproduction, or any time I join a project mid-stream, I deep dive the IP like a tax audit to learn everything I can about the IP and all associated spin-offs, merchandise, inspirations for it and things it might have inspired. I read fan sites, wikis, and summaries of the comics or books if time prohibits reading all the actual content.

My presentation coach, Christopher Molineux, pointed out that you can dig into catch phrases and characterizations to understand a market, however you need to dig into the reality of your subject matter to understand your possibilities. Through defining your allowable realities you can give your designs integrity. And through knowing and understanding the realities informing your content, you can make smarter choices about what to use and what not to use.

And example of this would be our research of Miami during the 1980's, the landmarks and neighborhoods and ethnic diversity, the cultural history that makes the city so iconic. Of course the film had done that, and I certainly cataloged every location in the film and tried to identify what neighborhood or area those locations would have existed in. Some were easy, like South Beach. Others were more subjective, like the Babylon Club. We knew we didn't simple want to make a photocopy of Miami, extrude a Rand-McNally map and try to make game spaces out of that. The landscape and level design of the Miami we intended to present needed to serve the narrative of our game, and the gameplay of our game, while also capturing as accurately as possible the feeling and spirit of both the film and Miami through the lens of how Tony saw Miami, pelicans and all.

Better understanding the real Miami, and all the other spaces I researched like the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Cuba, Costa Rica, etc. helped me to make better choices for what locations to pay homage too versus neighborhoods or areas we could occlude since they wouldn't benefit the story or experience of the game. I do feel bad we didn't do more with the Everglades, though.
A Filter is a technique I learned from a GDC presentation about applying Broadway lighting practices to game lighting and thought that the notion could also be applied to design.

The idea for lighting is to create a framing image, a single picture that sums up the cumulative experience of the game to compare all lighting designs against. The picture could well be a collage of images or image fragments, but the end result had to stand up as something that remained evocative and meaningful when viewed directly.

For design, while images do help, I think the idea is a bit more conceptual. Create a filter using the research you’ve done and the constraints you’ve defined and the expectations you’ve established. Once you have this filter, thereafter push all designs through it to see if they pass.

If the designs support the IP’s narrative, don’t violate any constraints, and would appeal to at least the LCD target audience, then they will pass through the filter and can be developed and implemented into the game with a knowledge that at least conceptually they’ll add value and integrity to the product.

These are the questions you need to ask yourself as you set up filters.

And these are some more questions you should ask yourself as you set up filters.

An interesting thing about filters is that they also can be used to together, like a chain. For example, something might work great for the IP, and be awesome for combat, however when filtered through your vehicle system, might bring the whole show to a screeching halt.

A huge risk for gameplay design is building mechanics in a vacuum irrespective to one another. The end product will have players potentially able to utilize several or all those mechanics at once or against one another. I love emergence and affording the player tools for ingenuity; however mechanics not filtered against or through one another can easily break, impede, or ignore one another, and that makes an over all experience feel ragged and disjointed.

Using the massive pad of paper slung onto a wobbly easel and wielding a fat marker that smells vaguely of grape, I shall attempt to step through this process of design, for demonstration purposes only so please don’t try this at home as I am a trained professional.

For the live event, someone form the audience suggested Doctor Who. We ran with that and began identifying constraints. Who owns the IP? Which version of the Doctor would we use? Narrowing to Tom Baker, we then ask which sidekicks? Abilities? Use existing narrative threads and threats or come up with new ones? Classic villains or new ones? Locations? Can the players tell the Tardis where to go or is the adventure linear? Who is developing the game, what studio with what Technology?

Fun fact, in the Green Room I mentioned to Skyrim's Director of Design Bruce Nesmith that the audience expressed hope Bethesda might tackle the Doctor Who license someday. He leaned close and said he'd let me in on a secret: never happen. Oh well, a fan boy can dream, can't he?
Identify your constraints. Publisher, IP owner, licenses, actors, narrative, canon or not canon, engine, mechanics, timeline, budget, resources, target market(s), etc.

Allow those constraints to fence in your playground, put boards up to hold in the sand for your sandbox, and then get creative within those constraints!

Don’t facilitate self-indulgent design phone-ins. Really take time to understand the wants and needs of your perspective audience! Nurture your IP into the outstanding and unique experience it has the potential to be. Rather than feel blocked by constraints, work within them get creative and make better, smarter choices to benefit your product, turning towards integrity and focus over kitchen sink and feature chase.

IP should always be a key aspect of how you filter your design choices.

Work with your team, publishers, marketing group, and through establishing your target audience to establish a set of constraints to better scope and mitigate risks for your project.
Keep your player in mind at the end of the day. Will they enjoy the experience? Sounds simple, however this is an easy perspective to lose sight of when deep in the brambles of production, swimming through issues and implementations like a commando air-conditioning repairman from Brazil.

I really appreciate you’re letting me speak here today, and I hope you’ve gained some strategies for your next design masterpiece!
 If you have questions or would like to discuss particulars that won't violate any of your NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreement) or mine, drop me a line at ichristy@slantsixgames.com

OK, so I am a week late with the blog, Sorry about that, things got busier at work than I expected and I wanted to do the presentation first before I commit to the content of the blog post. Hopefully the proverbial iron hasn't cooled off too much yet.

Kudos to Vancouver Film School for this snap of me in action, apparently teaching a favorite Hula move.