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Chance encounter

Last Saturday I went to have lunch with a friend on the terrace of a (literally) small cafe here in Vienna. Because of a nearby wedding, there were a lot of people around and the place was full. At some point two German tourists joined us at our table. After about half an hour or so, one of them asked where I was from, and then what my name was. And then it turned out he was a tester at Blue Byte back in the mid-nineties, when I worked there.

There is no deeper significance, except for general thoughts on time, and how it flies, and the world, and how small it is.

Sex and violence

The saying goes that in the US, you can show someone cutting off a breast, but you can't show someone caressing one. I have seen several cases where the artwork for European games had to be made more war-like for distribution in the US. I also know of one very interesting case of sex, or something approaching sex, needing to be removed for distribution in the US. Sadly, I don't think I can publish the details here.

However, this anecdote of a nipple being cut (in the sense of censorship), combined with the amount of hours I have spent in the last 9 months working on versions of GTA: Vice City for the Xbox with less violence than the US version, has made me decide that I want to try my best to not censor myself, within the boundaries of my sphere of influence and of what fits the project. I would be proud if the next game that comes out with my name in the credits will need to have parts censored for the US market that can stay in in Europe.

David Cronenberg, one of my heroes, once said something along the lines of that you shouldn't censor yourself, because someone will do it for you anyway (the way he said it made more sense). So why not do what fits the vision of the game, what needs to be done for the game to be coherent and consistent, and see how far it can be taken? It may run into opposition from the people you work with, it may not be feasible given the constraints of production, but it's important to have a balance of forces, and to make decisions in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons.

Ask me in a year or so how things are going.

Anti war protest

I just looked at the website for Gunner Palace, an unfinished documentary about US soldiers stationed in Iraq. Mike Tucker, the filmmaker, spent several months with units in Baghdad. He describes the making of the documentary on the website:

The purpose of my visit was to embed myself with a unit for as long as they would have me. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, owing to the fact that I was briefly in the military and come from a military family, I found a unit that embraced my presence. The unit, 2/3 Field Artillery aka the "Gunner" Battalion was based in Uday Hussein's Azimiya Palace-sitting in the middle of Adhamiya, the most volatile area in Baghdad.
This had become their movie, not mine-each person with their own reference. For the older officers and NCOs it was MASH. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. You could see it in the way they rode in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door-helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War. This was a war unlike any other. They had Playstations, souped-up gaming laptops and Internet access-Paris Hilton and Amazon on demand. The emails and the Sat phones helped them stay in touch with family, but all the technology in the world couldn't bring them home.
There's a lot of postmodern surrealism there. It's a powerful read.

And it makes me wonder: games are becoming more and more a part of global, everyday culture - something I occasionally try to document here. But is global, everyday culture becoming more and more part of games? Sure, we're expanding beyond the hyper-hobbyist obsessions of the past, but is it enough? And are we expanding in enough ways?

There has been a glut of games based on real wars and real conflicts the last couple of years. But have they explored the full range of what can be said about wars? What is the button in Battlefield: Vietnam to watch your best friend die, get hooked on drugs, and then return to a country that hates you? I'm betting it's not "Q".

How big is the gap between current squad-based shooters set in contemporary conflict zones, and Gunner Palace?

I'm advocating more variation, exploring more of what can be done in interactive entertainment. I don't want current war games to be abolished, I want them to be outweighed by other games which say different things about war and conflict. I want interactive to be a vibrant medium which can be used for the full range of artistic expression.

"Saying things about something" does not mean heavy-handed moralising. Again from Mike Tucker:

After seeing this war firsthand, I don't have any easy answers. In fact, I may have no answers. You try to find good in something like this; you try to find a reason. You try to explain death. I asked soldiers what they thought and their answers were simple. After nearly a year, it wasn't about Iraq, the Iraqis, democracy, Donald Rumsfeld or oil. It was about them. They just wanted to finish the job they were sent to do so they could go home.

Just because Gunner Palace doesn't have an easy message to convey doesn't mean it's not about something, something relevant even.

Although I can think of many reasons why - generally speaking - we are not doing this in games, I can think of no reason why we couldn't, or shouldn't.

Some more news on women in games

When I met roBin at the GDC this year, one of the quirky things she did was steal one of the bizarre Microsoft stand-up thingies from the lounge bar (the ones that look like the absurdly shaped and dressed woman from the Noir XNA demo) and claim she would use it as an award for particularly bad cases of sexist depiction of women in games at E3 ("the boobie awards").

Well, she's posted her pictures. And fine pictures they are. The Microsoft object is nowhere in sight, though.

Speaking of sexist depiction of women in games, what's with the Playboy Mansion vibe in this screenshot of Sims 2?

Video game culture vs mainstream culture

Society is still working the kinks out of the integration of video game culture and mainstream culture, and I'm not talking about Ray Davies.

Remember the whole Vice City "racism" thing?

Or how about the time when Sony had to remove missions involving biological-weapon-wielding Quebec separatist terrorists attacking Toronto from Siphon Filter 4?

Or the recent story of the guy whose helpful advice on Grand Theft Auto was misinterpreted, resulting in his arrest?

My favorite is when the FBI went after a video game crime boss:

It was the lead item on the government's daily threat matrix one day last April. Don Emilio Fulci described by an FBI tipster as a reclusive but evil millionaire, had formed a terrorist group that was planning chemical attacks against London and Washington, D.C. That day even FBI director Robert Mueller was briefed on the Fulci matter. But as the day went on without incident, a White House staffer had a brainstorm: He Googled Fulci. His findings: Fulci is the crime boss in the popular video game Headhunter. "Stand down," came the order from embarrassed national security types.

Game over, Buddhist monk

The Pratimoksha, the Buddhist monastic vows, have been revised, and now have something to say about video games.

The development of technology has penetrated the monastic world. Corruption in different monastic orders, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, is evident in many places. A revised Pratimoksha is urgently needed to deal with this situation. Cars, computers, television, electronic games and the internet all figure within the 250 precepts of the Revised Pratimoksha.
When I was in Thailand, I saw Buddhist monks use the internet and mobile phones and such. Is this a problem? Why? Is there only one Pratimoksha? To which branches of Buddhism does this apply? Who is doing the revision? What is their authority based on?

How does this fit together with the fact that hard drives can be used as prayer wheels?

I like Buddhism, but more the Zen kind. I don't think this will affect my life much.

I forgot where I got this from.

New look

I changed the look of the site a bit. The most obvious change is the color scheme. Feedback is welcome. (Graphical help as well, although I like these colors ;)

Oh yeah, if the site looks sorta kinda like it did before: hit refresh, your browser may be caching the stylesheets or something.

Bad stress

People who regularly read this blog, or should I say, people who regularly drop by to see if I've updated this blog, will have noticed my greatly reduced posting frequency of late. This is the first post in June. In May, I have posted five times, twice only to reassure my dwindling audience that I am not dead.

Well, there was a reason for that: I was too stressed, with the bad kind of stress.

I've been busy before. Last year I spent pretty much every day in the office for a few months. But that was good stress: we were all working on something achievable. Most of the time, it was kind of fun, and addictive. (I started a blog entry about this surprising conclusion back then - specifically, after five of us left work after an all-nighter, and went off to spend about 1000 Euros between us on consoles and games. I may finish it some day.)

At the start of this year, I was made producer on a new project at Rockstar Vienna. Rockstar's confidentiality policy being what it is, I won't be able to tell you anything about it until the well-orchestrated PR campaign has started.

Being a producer on a Rockstar title is a daunting thought, what with the huge sales numbers, the critical acclaim, and the intense attention to whatever the company does. This project also has a larger team and budget than what I've worked with before. But oddly enough all of this is not really a source of stress for me. Optimism is the hallmark of a producer - you have to be optimistic to believe that something great can be produced from nothing.

What turned out to generate significant amounts of bad stress was managing other, smaller projects on the side. I had already been doing this last year, when we were making the various localisations of the GTA Double Pack for the Xbox. Everyone was so absolutely exhausted from working on the US version of the Double Pack and the PS2 and Xbox ports of Max Payne 2 that it was very hard to be motivated to work on localisations. Consequently and ironically, these versions were, at least to me, much more difficult than the US version. Even though much less effort was involved, it was much harder to coax out and focus that effort.

This year brought some more of that. When I got back from the GDC I was producing a big project while at the same time producing a very small but also quite important project on the side, and having indirect responsibility for a third one. On this smaller project I communicated with stakeholders outside of the studio, I coordinated the efforts of various people, many of whom, like me, had responsibilities in other teams. I also made very detailed decisions on issues, and often solved them myself.

So I was thinking on many different levels of detail and many different time scales, for two to three projects at the same time. If this makes me sound super-human: well, think again. The stress I felt during April and May grew so strong that I lost interest in my job, the games industry, and the whole medium. I did not play games. I did not read about games. I did not think about games. I hardly talked with friends in the industry.

Each problem I saw was trivial to solve by itself, especially when discussing it with someone else. But everything together generated an overwhelming feeling that Things could Not be Dealt With. Especially not by me. Similarly to being depressed, the overall feeling caused by the bad stress colored my ability to objectively evaluate situations. Rationally, the problems could be dealt with, but emotionally I didn't believe it. This gut feeling that it was all too much gnawed at my self confidence, which only made the problem worse.

In retrospect, the solution was quite simple. At some point I identified the bad stress itself as the source of the problem. Logically, it wasn't the individual projects and their problems, nor was it me. It was the stress caused by working on these projects at the same time. I clearly communicated this to my boss, who found a solution allowing me to focus on my main project, and now things are slowly getting better. I am playing games again, and I am reading, thinking, and writing about them again, as you can see.

A friend of mine works for a large multinational financial company. When I told her about this solution, she remarked that in her job, having projects taken away is a bad thing, with bad consequences. I consider how the studio I work for reacted to this situation to be a strong sign of this being a good place to work. (My earlier point that on some level I enjoyed spending my weekends here last summer is another sign.)

I have discovered that, at least to me, producing means worrying. It's worrying about all the problems nobody else is seeing, that nobody else is responsible for, neither above nor below you in the organisational structure, including the meta-problems of trying to make sure problems are seen and dealt with as soon as possible, and covered by someone's responsibility. And I have discovered that switching between two sources of worry is deadly. It could have killed my career - not because of something that happened, or nearly happened, or could have happened, but because my mind's sense of self-preservation would have simply removed my volition to be involved with games.

Ironically, ever since the smaller side projects were handed off to someone else, I have still been involved in them every single day. I am still the guy who has most of the important details in his head, and who knows best how certain things are done. Now, two weeks after the hand-over, it looks as if the first side project is practically done. But, as I have assured the poor guy who is now producing in my place, just being rid of the worrying is a huge load off my back. Solving the individual problems is a breeze.

Most of the time, when I get home, I still prefer reading a book than writing something about the games industry (and maybe it's better that way). Even if I still need to do more thinking on ways of avoiding this kind of situation in the first place, I have learned a lot from doing these little side projects. What I have learned several times over is that if the end result of a project is a title that goes on a shelf, such as a localisation, it is more similar to a "real" 18 to 24 month project than you may think. I have also learned I can identify bad stress as something separate from myself, and can overcome my shame and deal with it in a productive way. And that feels pretty good.

So there it is: an explanation, perhaps, of why I haven't updated much lately, in the shape of the kind of personal post I never write, but that Robin is so good at. It feels strange - egocentric, because I just talk about me and barely mention the great people I work with. Overly cryptic, because I don't want to give hints of what I am working on. But I hope it conveys the insight about working in the games industry that I have recently gained.

Game censorship in China

Slashdot Games reports on Hearts of Iron, a World War 2 strategy game getting in trouble with Chinese authorities for (among other things):

"Manchuria", "West Xinjiang", and "Tibet" appeared as independent sovereign countries in the maps of the game. In addition, it even included China's Taiwan province as the territory of Japan at the beginning of the game.
Hmmm.... according to this site Tibet was an independent sovereign country until 1950. But what really caught my eye was the fact that the Chinese Ministry of Culture has a Game Products Censorship Committee.
The committee regulates that online games with content violating basic principles of the Constitution, threatening China's national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity will be banned from importing.

Update: Massimo Curatella wrote in more detail about this over at, linking to Xeni Jardin's BoingBoing post which links to her Wired News article.