By Kevin Ryan
Posted on September 8th, 2016
I read an eclectic mix of books ranging from technical ones covering math and physics to autobiographies like Dmitri Shostakovic’s and even occasionally kid’s books like Rex Lee Trailing Air Bandits. That last one had my uncle, Levern Lord’s, signature inside the front cover along with the date 1935. He was nine years old in 1935. My grandma took a photo of him dressed up just like Rex Lee at their cabin at Huntington Lake. My Moms now owns the cabin and the photo is hanging up on the wall there.
Levern was killed in action at Manila in the battle for Nichols Field during World War II. So when I saw his signature that made it a special book for me. A few years ago my Mom showed me the letter that his best army buddy wrote to my Grandma after he was killed. He wrote that Levern had refused to be medically evacuated until every one else who was injured had been and how they were shocked when he didn’t make it. Growing up I pictured him as an old guy like my other uncles who survived the war. He was 19 years old. Now, having had kids of my own that were that age, I realize he was very young. Too young.
My daughter’s fifth-grade class had a field trip, and I was one of the chaperones. We went to see a play called Freedom Train, about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. On the noisy bus ride back to school, one of the boys was picking on another boy, poking him and pulling his hair. The quiet boy being poked was developmentally delayed, friendless, I am told, and did not have a clue how to defend himself. Even before one of the adults could intervene, a petite girl seated just behind the two boys tapped the tormentor on the shoulder and said, “That’s really mean. Quit it.”
This brought up some old memories of my own. Back when I was around 7 there was a man that came in sometimes to run PE for our class. All us little kids would line up outside before going out to play kickball or something else. He went down the line having each of us say our name. “Stan” was a couple of guys in front of me in line. I’m pretty sure he was developmentally delayed. “My name is Stan Smith” (Note that “Stan Smith” is not my classmate’s real name). He had problems enunciating words correctly. The man made fun of the way he talked and made him say his name a few more times. Okay, wow, here I am tearing up just a little as I write this.
I can close my eyes and see the exact spot where he and I were standing when that happened. It is one of those moments that we all have in our life, good and bad, that are permanently inscribed on our souls. *** Phone call summer 1985 “Grandpa died” Dynamix office at foot of Skinner’s Butte Eugene. *** My son, Aidan, being born 1999 Clovis Community Hospital doctor not in room “oh no” deliver myself as doctor shows up and says “Your’re doing fine.” *** Twin Towers coming down 9/11 television home office Shaver Lake – what am I seeing as tower falls!? *** I’m sure everyone can close their eyes and list off their own moments. Some moments we all share and some are our own personal family ones.
I don’t know what path through life Stan has taken, but I hope it has been a happy one for him. Whenever I meet someone like Stan I know that, whatever path we taken to that point where our paths have intersected, his path has been harder than mine.
Lately I’ve been spending some more time on Twitter, both trying to post a little bit about what I’m working on and also general life stuff. I’ve also been checking out some of the different content that is there. It seems to me that it is like a very large information mountain interlaced with an amazing mixture of different stuff from all over the world. It’s the internet so there are trolls and silliness, but here and there with a little digging you can find real veins of gold.
Around the same time that I finished up reading those last two books, I was wandering around on twitter and came upon Andrew Selsky’s twitter feed. He had posted a photo of Stephen Stills from his Manassas days back in 1973 taken by his brother. He and his brother had great seats and got some nice photos. Oh, cool, I would have loved to see Manassas (that was a magic band and album), but they were just a little bit before my time. I finally got to see Crosby, Stills, and Nash at the LA Forum in 1977 when I was 16 ( I can drive!) and a couple of years later Stills with his band in June of 1979 at Fresno State. I took my little brother and we got in line early (it was general admission) and we were right on stage rail. Could’ve reached out and touched Stephen through most of the concert.
I started scrolling back through his tweets and scattered throughout are photos of hikes in wonderful places, some craft beers, more photos and videos of different musical groups (I discovered Johnny Clegg and got to see him when he played in Eugene soon after!). And there was even an old super 8 movie from his college days. I filmed some super 8 movies in the 1970s with my friends and little brother as actors/extras. I need to get them transferred to digital if only to see my then 7 year old brother in a dress playing a lady in “The Muggers.” Anyway, what I’m seeing in the tweets is lots of overlapping interests. It brought back to me the sense I’ve had for a ling while that the world is full of buddies that I’ve never met and may never meet.
Andrew also posted many tweets related to his job as a foreign editor/correspondent for the Associate Press (AP). There was a link to a story about marijuana – can’t remember any of the details on that one (that’s a joke – read the story). He has been and lived many places around the world throughout his career; so there are photos, videos, and stories about Haiti, Columbia, Afghanistan, and many other places.
And in some of these places if you are trying to make things better for your country and you say the equivalent of “That’s really mean. Quit it.” then those in power may kill you. Sobering thought. And the ones that say “Quit it.” know this and they say it anyway. Very courageous. Andrew’s job tells their stories to us. It is an important job. It can be a dangerous job. And the bad guys really don’t like these stories being told so sometimes they’ll kill the story tellers too.
Video by: Zoe Selsky
A short aside. Andrew is a novelist and has recently published a new novel called Cowboy Jihad which draws on his oversea’s experiences. I’ve just finished reading it and it is really good. Just a week ago I read a story in the New York Times about a Afghanistan veteran who reminded me in some ways of Stu who is a character in Andrew’s novel. Cowboy Jihad is the story of terrorists planning an attack on Facebook’s data in the cowboy town of Prineville, Oregon. It is also a story about the choices that people make, good and bad; and also about redemption. You can get it on Amazon.
More Serious Games
I originally had the bold above say “Mature Games,” but mature conjures up an image of things that are anything but mature; so I used “Serious” instead. And serious reminds me of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote a little over 100 years ago:
Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else. … Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German. … The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism. Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny “Gulliver” is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object. The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular. Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny. The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.
Games can entertaining, they can have humor, they can make you laugh; and that doesn’t take away from them also being serious.
So reading these stories from Andrew’s tweets/links and especially about his job started to get ideas of possible game projects percolating in my mind. Ideas and scenarios would pop up and drift through my mind as I took my morning walk through the forest. My job is creating interactive entertainment (computer games – but “interactive entertainment” sounds so much cooler, so humor me). I suppose the way that inspiration just magically appears is true in any sort of creative field like literature, music, movies, etc. in that it can strike you at any time from any place.
If you’ve been working in your field for a long enough time it seems like it becomes second nature. You can’t turn it off. There is something magical about the whole process. You snatch these ethereal phantoms out of the air, and soon there are words on a piece of paper telling a story, or new music, or in my case neat interactive things happening on a computer screen. It really feels like magic. You just sit down and apply yourself to your craft and you create something out of nothing.
Now unlike literature, music, or movies, interactive entertainment is a very young field that is just starting to mature. It is maturing in the sense of what types of games are now being created. I’ve been in this industry from the very start, basically from our “silent film” era and it has evolved to the point where now it is a creative medium that has moved way beyond Donkey Kong and Centipede. Not that those games weren’t fun. I spent many quarters in the basement of the Erb Memorial Union at the University of Oregon in the early 1980s playing different video games there.
Okay, one more short aside. Sorry. This time about the Erb Memorial Union. When I was a student you could write checks there for cash. So one time when I was home during school break I had my bank statement and some canceled checks and my Dad saw my checks made out to “EMU”. So he asks, “What’s this emu?” I was tempted to tell him that it is the great bird god that we worship at the University. Oh, and one other thing, you can see the EMU and a whole bunch of the University of Oregon in the movie Animal House.
Alright, back to interactive entertainment and how it starting to come into its own as a true artistic field. That Dragon Cancer is an example of how games are changing. Ryan Green wrote the game while his very young son was battling cancer. It is a game that tells of his family’s journey. It is a very tough journey. I bought it the day it came out to support the author, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to play it.
Another game that I have been playing recently is 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. You play a photojournalist caught up in the Iranian revolution. I’ve been playing a chapter or two every so often when I have free time. I’m currently partway through it. It is harrowing. It should be because it was a harrowing time in a dangerous place.
When I was younger computers were much less powerful than they are today. Huge orders of magnitude slower. So it was a big deal and you were a hotshot top-gun if you could get a bunch of things moving around on the screen at a high frame rate. I did that – wrote fast code at the lowest machine code level (6502 hex code – no assembler) that I knew was good. It felt good and was fun. I know I can move pixels fast. But, nowadays moving people’s hearts seems a much more rewarding and challenging task.
#hero of your own life. Pursue your dreams relentlessly. Help others achieve theirs.”
It is interesting how several different events in your life can collide at roughly the same time, one of them being that simple twitter post, and that can move you to move in a different direction in your own life. Serendipity – “fortunate happenstance” “desirable discoveries by accident.” I guess that is what happened. It is an amazing place that this world is turning into. Where a message can fly from South Africa to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, from fall to spring, instantly and nudge the trajectory of your own life. And then hopefully it can lead to you to help others to achieve their own dreams and nudge their lives in a positive direction.
By Kevin Ryan
Posted on May 5th, 2016
Designing in a Meadow
I used to do quite a bit of computer game design work at a meadow near Kaiser Pass which is up around the 9,200 foot level of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s about 40 minutes from our home at Shaver Lake. This was back in 1997 and I would sit with a yellow pad sketching down ideas and hole layouts for 3D Ultra Minigolf Deluxe while my kids would run around and have fun. It was a good work environment.
It was a neat place for the kids because there were a lot of frogs and if we came at the right time of the year there were also tadpoles or big groups of frog eggs. I can remember coming up to the same meadow back in the 1960s when I was their age.
Because it is at such a high elevation it would get very cold at night so things could freeze over even in the late summer. Depending upon the winter there could also be snow patches until late in the summer too.
So I got to sit outside in a beautiful environment and work on my game.
Eventually I’d have to go inside and sit down at a computer in my home to get the ideas into a specific digital form. It has been like that for me lately in that I can get a lot of creative work done, or inspiration on how to solve a problem, while just walking through the forest or even just driving somewhere in the car. For the minigolf game the “sit down at computer and implement” step would involve creating models of each hole in 3D Studio Max. I’ll write about that process a few paragraphs down.
Raindrops and Opening Screens
The idea for the opening of one of my very first published games, Black Belt (not the Sega game of same name), came back in 1983 when I was driving home from college in Oregon to my parent’s house. Somewhere near the Oregon-California border it started raining big fat occasional raindrops on my windshield and the way I wanted the opening title screen for Black Belt just magically occurred to me.
So when I got back to my apartment in Eugene across from Beall Music Hall (which I recently learned is pronounced “bell” not “be-all”) I implemented the idea. It is nothing awe-inspiring or great or anything, but the genesis of the idea seemed pretty neat to me and I’ve remembered it. Ha, someone uploaded it on YouTube, so you can see the opening here:
I suppose writing is like that too in that you can come up with general plot ideas, characters, situations, etc. anyplace, but eventually you have to sit down at a computer (anyone still use a typewriter?) and write down the specific words that make up the story.
A Minigolf Hole
The drive up to the meadow at Kaiser took about 50 minutes and on the way we’d drive past the Shaver Lake dam and the marina. The road there curves along the lakeside and I suddenly saw an alignment of geography that could be used as a hole in my game. When I got up the meadow that day I sketched out a design for the hole while thinking of any technical challenges that various elements would cause. Here is a view of the area courtesy of Google Earth:
And here is the sketch of the minigolf hole:
At this point the next work on a hole would be done in my home office where if I thought the concept was okay and had enough fun elements then I would spend a few days creating a playable 3D model of the hole. I would putt around on it, making different adjustments so that it played well and adding and/or removing different elements. Fun to play and works? Okay, good, keep it. Otherwise it goes into the trash.
The 3D model that I’d make didn’t have any of the artwork detail, only the shapes need to make the hole playable. The following scans are from the artwork design document. There would be three views of a hole: overview, tee, and top down. The top down view also had a very general description. (Sorry, printed them in black and white back then):
After making sure that it played well the last step was to get a concept drawing done of the hole that could be used by the artists who would be rendering out all the artwork. I was very lucky because I worked with Don Carson on this project. He designed Mickey’s Toontown in Disneyland and a bunch of other stuff. Click here to see some of the neat things he has made. And some more here in Part Two. Really click – his stuff is awesome. His blog is here and is worth following. I always knew that the concept artwork that I’d get back from him on any of my games would be just amazing! Here is the concept he drew for this hole:
Unfortunately I can’t show you how this hole turned out in the game because it wasn’t implemented. My design had 18 holes and I got them all to the playable state and Don did concept artwork for all of them, but because of budget issues only 9 of them were actually rendered off and put into the game. The rendering of all the artwork took a long time. Below is the Moon Base hole so you can get a sample of what a final hole did look like.
We had musical themes for each hole and that really added a lot to the atmosphere. Chris Stevens along with Ken Rodgers creates the music and sound effect. Chris has gone on to win multiple Grammy awards. Hit the play button and you can hear the moonbase theme.
So we come to Dynamite Cows. I live high up in the mountains and will occasionally make trips to Fresno, the closest large town, to do shopping. When driving through the foothills I’d see lots of cows in the fields. One day for some reason the thought popped into my head, “How about herding cows with dynamite.” I actually spent some time developing a product from that idea. Here is the title screen. Sorry again, don’t have anything but black and white printouts with me now. I’m sure I have source code and nice real art backed up somewhere on a CD.
Here is a very rough first pass at a game play screen.
And here are a few of the cows. Wish I had a color version of these screens.
Mercifully (for end users) I never got past some very preliminary work on this one. It was fun for me though and sort of a joke. “Mooooves” “Cowleidoscope” – shakes head. It is the nature of the beast to have things that don’t pan out. If you never have failed projects perhaps you’re not challenging yourself enough?
I’ll end with this little story from a biography of G. K. Chesterton.
Restaurants and pubs, in fact, not newspaper offices, were much more likely places to find Chesterton writing his articles. Charles Masterman remembered one such Fleet Street restaurant where Chesterton used to write articles,
mixing a terrible conjunction of drinks, while many waiters hovered about him, partly in awe, and partly in case he should leave the restaurant without paying for what he had had. One day…the headwaiter approached [Masterman]. ‘Your friend,’ he whispered, admiringly, ‘he very clever man. He sit and laugh. And then he write. And then he laugh at what he write.’
That seems to be the key for me. Enjoy what you do so much that you can laugh as you do it. My work has never felt like a job.
By Kevin Ryan
Posted on March 13th, 2016
I worked on Zoo Master during my senior year the University of Oregon in 1983. It was written for the 48k Apple II Plus in 6502 machine language. The Apple II was 1 Mhz so you would want to do coding tricks like unroll your loops for speed. Most of the instructions took between 2 and 4 cycles.
I think I remember the resolution being 280×192. The Apple II also had a interesting way of specifying pixel colors. If two neighboring bits were set then the color would be white otherwise the color would be either red, green, blue, or purple depending upon if the pixel was on a even or odd screen pixel location and also whether the 8th bit was set or not. Three zero bits in a row would give you at least one black pixel.
At the time I did not have an assembler so I wrote it by typing in all the instructions in HEX code into the Apple. The branch instructions in 6502 were relative to the current instruction memory location. So if I wanted to branch forward to an instruction 10 bytes ahead I’d use $0A and for branching backwards I’d use a negative number like $F4. For forward branches I had to estimate how many bytes my code would need to jump over and then go back and fix the branch instruction if I got it wrong.
Since I wasn’t using an assembler everything ended up being hard coded to fixed memory locations on the Apple. The upshot of this was that I had to write bug-free code because they would be a pain to fix. I actually did have a couple bugs where I ended up I having to JMP to a free memory area do what I needed to do and then JMP back using some NOPs to clean up in the patch area. Went against my structured code college stuff, but what else could I do. I think there was an assembler available for the Apple back then, but it was beyond my college days budget.
Funny how I can still remember what hex values correspond with which 6502 instructions – for example:
$20 – JSR — jump subroutine
$4C – JMP — jump
$60 – RTS — return subroutine
You had three 8 bit registers available to do computation with, but only the A register could be used for addition or subtraction. You could only increment (INX,INY) or decrement (DEX,DEY) the X and Y registers. There was an add with carry (ADC) instruction so you could do 16-bit computations easier.
I wrote this game for the technical fun of it. It was published by Earthware Computer Services, but never really sold. I actually played it online a few months ago somewhere online.
After Zoo Master came out I made my home town paper which made Mom and Dad proud.