Archive for June, 2008


the secret life of a strategy guide writer / 05

Last time: I gave a glimpse to what life is like on the road, visiting a world-famous developer or two. This time we reveal how some of the world’s most famous developers live.

Part 5: Raising the Bar

Of all the developers I’ve visited, Valve Software up near Seattle Washington has to be up there in terms of impressive working environments. Slotted in on two floors of a skyscraper with spectacular views, the place is a shrine to everything Gordon. The place is decked out in stained concrete, and the ceiling’s exposed duct-work has a real “Aliens” corridor look to it. Step into the foyer, and you’re greeted not only by a receptionist, but a five-foot high valve (what else?); a gift from Gabe Newell’s brother.

The really cool stuff adorns the walls of the conference room though; not only are there massive posterboards showing most of Gordon’s antics, a complete retrospective of Valve’s games, and the latest in conference telephony, but there are fan-made Miniguns latched onto wall slats, furry Headcrabs peeking out of ceiling pipes, and a modded PC clad in only the finest rusting metal, complete with Lambda logos.

Valve employees don’t work in cubicles either; they’re segmented into groups known as “Cabals”, and each group of five or so inhabit an executive-office sized environment. Classy to be sure, and usually dark and cozy, with the prerequisite whiteboard daubings, incomprehensible calculations, and other evidence related to the team’s latest endeavor.

Next time, My journey around the nation’s premiere software developers continues with a dash around Maxis, the creators of Spore.

Just finished: Writing cunning tactics about surviving multiple quests in Fallout 3.

Currently: Journeying through the Critical Path of the insanely massive Fallout 3.

About to: Eat, sleep, work, and dream Fallout 3 for the next two months.



Food of the Game Gods: Part 3/4

So we’ve already checked out the on-site food options at EA Redwood Shores and Ubisoft Montreal. Now it’s time to visit Microsoft and see if their cuisine is as rich as their founder.

Where: Microsoft in Redmond, Washington

Why I was there: I traveled to Microsoft in early 2007 to get my first look at Shadowrun. Specifically, I was embedded with the (now defunct) FASA Studio for a whole week, working directly with the game’s AI/core designer, Derek Carroll. The FASA crew was awesome. Derek set me up in a nearby office with a debug unit and an HD set which he generously pulled from his own desk. But the hospitality didn’t end there. Everyday the crew invited me to join them for lunch, which often involved driving to one of the nearby (or not so nearby) restaurants in Redmond. Very few (if any) of the FASA team ate at Microsoft’s cafeteria just down the hall. But on Tuesday I had consumed a rather large breakfast and didn’t quite feel like joining the guys for lunch at noon. So later in the day I decided to wander down the hall and see what the cafeteria had to offer.

The Facility: FASA was located in one of many Microsoft office buildings scattered across the city, disconnected from the company’s main campus. This particular building (referred to as the Willows building) has a rather large cafeteria on the first floor. What struck me first was the muted lighting, lack of windows, and soothing colors on the walls. In addition to catching a quick bite to eat, it appeared it would have been just as easy to catch a quick nap; a much different vibe than the EARS cafeteria. The dining area isn’t huge, but big enough to find a table where you’re not rubbing elbows with a neighbor.

The Food: The Willows cafeteria offers just about what you’d expect. There’s a grill where you can order burgers and a variety of other hot, grilled, and/or fried foods. They also have a rather extensive salad bar with lots of fresh veggies. Oh, and don’t forget the table with baskets of fresh (and reasonably priced) fruit. I like the idea of visiting the cafeteria for a healthy mid-day snack…not that I ever did. After browsing for a few moments, I zeroed-in on a cool make-your-own-sandwich counter. Of course, I stacked my sourdough slices with meat, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, and bell peppers. I rounded out the meal with some chips and a soft drink. When I went to pay for everything I was shocked to find that everything cost me less than $5. That’s the cool thing about this place. Everything is so cheap…probably cheaper than taking your own lunch and definitely cheaper than eating off-site.

Alternatives: The FASA office kept a stocked refrigerator filled with soda, energy drinks, and milk…even chocolate milk. So if you were thirsty, a cold complimentary beverage was never further than a few paces away. But when it came to eating, the FASA crew always seemed to leaves the office. The first day we hit a Chinese restaurant off Redmond Way, affectionately referred to as “Dirty Chinese.” See there’s lots of Chinese restaurants in Redmond so they were assigned colorful codenames including “Clean Chinese” and “Sweaty Chinese.” On Wednesday we went to a tasty (but crowded) teriyaki bowl place where I had a great conversation with the game’s core designer, Sage Merrill. Thursday was pizza day at a distant restaurant I can’t remember the name of. Then on Friday everyone was too busy to leave the office so Chris Blohm (the game’s training/tutorial designer) brought food in from Thai Ginger, a restaurant that has since become one of my Redmond favorites. As you can see, the FASA crew gave me a first-class tour of some of Redmond’s best eateries. This would come in handy a few months later when I was sent back to Redmond to work on the upcoming guide for the new Metroid game.

Next week: Nintendo


Command & Conquer Kane’s Wrath Contest

Command & Conquer Kane\'s Wrath Contest

Hi Everyone!  Thanks for participating in the Kane’s Wrath Contest.  The winners have been announced, so check your email to see if you’ve won and then check your mailbox!  Cheers!


Comic Timing

Check it out. There must be something in the air, but it seems like the whole comic/video-game thing is on a lot of people’s minds:

Comic List


Metropolitan Mayhem

In comic books it seems that super-heroes tend to congregate in large urban areas. This is not much of a surprise, crime statistics being what they are, but I have often wondered why every comic book city looks like New York. Or aspects of New York.

Again, the answer isn’t too hard to suss out. The whole super-hero thing pretty much originated in the big apple so it follows that they’d be drawing what was outside their window. But something happened along the way, the texture of the super-hero city became ingrained. It became almost necessary to have the tall buildings, dark alleys, and crowded streets to birth or house a hero. Which may explain why there aren’t many famous Los Angeles based super-heroes (yes, yes, Green Lantern, Coast City, yadda, yadda…GL’s mobility and interstellar duties made him “Earth-based”).

So it’s no surprise that the MMO City of Heroes has a tall building esthetic. But it also has swaths of park and shoreline that mix it up a bit. However, the genius of the game isn’t it’s environment, or even it’s gameplay. The real draw of City of Heroes is the character creation. The ability to customize your own super-hero is a rush for all comic fans and the level of detail offered is intoxicating.

The developers did a fine job of breaking down standard comic book powers into a few categories and then allowing for variations within those categories. And then the costumes! The colors, the styles! You could be a disco avenger or a speedo-sporting aquatic prince. Fantastic stuff.

City of Heroes did right by the creation system, without a doubt, and gave fans of both video games and comic books something to be proud of, super-heroes of their very own.


4-D Video Gaming—Part II

As I mentioned last week, I have been impressed by Disney’s Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters at Disneyland. There are similar attractions at Disney World in Florida as well as at Disneyland Tokyo. Disneyland just opened Toy Story Mania at Disney’s California Adventure. Therefore, in order to keep all of you readers informed on the latest in video gaming, I made the trek down to Anaheim along with my family to check out this new attraction.


Despite a record breaking heat wave in Southern California, and long lines, I finally climbed aboard the ride vehicles. Four people ride two by two, back to back. Each person has a cannon which is fired by pulling a cord and then releasing it. Riders don 3-D glasses and the vehicles stop in front of large screens where they play a variety of games. All of the games are based on carnival style games. Therefore, you will be shooting darts at balloons, launching rings at Little Green Men and rockets, firing balls at plates, and even shooting targets in a wild west town along with Woody.


Targets have different point values with those farther away and moving worth more than the larger and closer targets. Yes, I did say farther away. The games are 3-D, so your projectiles have to travel across the screen to get to the targets. Now you may be wondering what is the 4-D I mention in the title of this blog. That is what makes this attraction even better. When you throw a ring around a rocket, it takes off past you and a blast of air hits you as it goes by. Some of the targets are water balloons, and when they pop, you feel a splash of water.


Finally, each vehicle contains a video monitor located between each pair of riders. It displays your score for the current game, your total score, and even your percentage accuracy. Since this is the newest attraction, the wait for it is usually at least an hour or two depending on the day and time. If you get a chance to visit the Disneyland Resort, be sure to try out Toy Story Mania. It takes video games to a totally new dimension.




the secret life of a strategy guide writer / 04

Last time: I remarked on the giddy anticipation in a strategy guide author’s tummy, which later becomes an ulcer once the true enormity of the task at hand is realized. This time, I give a glimpse to what life is like on the road, visiting a world-famous developer or two.

Part 4: Home and Away

Writing a guide and playing an early version of a game to completion takes place in one of two zones; the first is the author’s home, where they’re crouched over a glowing television, typing furiously, and clad in only the finest K-Mart pajama pants. Some of the time though, a company wants you to visit them, and the project goes on the road. The author needs to be careful to ensure it doesn’t go off the rails.

When you’re traveling to a place by car, it’s simply a matter of packing up your laptop, hard drives, blood-pressure medicine, and high-definition screen capture unit. Oh, and another monitor. And keyboard. And clothing. If you’re flying to a developer in the middle of the Canadian tundra, or down in the sunshine and smog of L.A., everything’s crammed into suitcases, and you hope the airport’s X-ray machine doesn’t wipe your hard-drives (which it did during one particular fraught stay at Sega).

Once you stagger into your developer’s lair, you prepare to squish two weeks’ worth of work into one; your time at the company is incredibly valuable, and you need to be playing the game, speaking with the Testers, chatting to the Designers, and not waiting in the foyer for two hours for a guy to show up who’s actually on vacation. Then the room isn’t ready for you or the marketing department has double-booked it. There’s an out-of-date build. There’s no television for the game console you’re working with. You know, those sort of teensy issues to resolve. I once asked a gaming company rep if I could borrow a Memory Card to save a game I was about to play. The response was “what’s a Memory Card?”

But once you sit down and play, there’s nothing like having access to a team of dedicated professionals who can answer your gaming questions, and actually want to help you create a better guide. The distractions of home –- “what’s Gordon Ramsey up to now?” “Has my season pass of Ghost Hunters recorded?” “where are my pants?” — are gone, replaced by a creeping sense of fear that the game footage you’re taking will never end.

But it does, and next time, I’ll let you know how some of the world’s largest development studios stack up against each other. Who’s got the best foosball table? Who’s got a Starbucks inside their own office? And who’s living a gray existence in cubicle horror?

Just finished: Continuing a pillage across a continent-sized landscape, searching behind every rock, and rummaging through hundreds of corpses for that extra-special item.

Currently: Still writing cunning tactics about surviving multiple quests in a game I can’t mention.

About to: Start work on the Critical Path throughout this massive, sprawling, and massively entertaining game.

June 2008
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