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Slimming Down

Office moves are not uncommon at Rare. As projects, priorities and teams change, engineers move around to be closer to those they work with. It’s not a necessity given the joys of IM and email but there comes a point where you need to be around those sharing your common goals.

And so today I packed my stuff in a box and for the 20th time since I joined the Twycross studio moved desks. Thankfully it’s gotten a well practised routine as a good proportion of those moves being in the last year or so. It got me thinking though about how it used to be.

Casting my mind back I remembered I blogged about the pain of shifting desks at the end of Viva Pinata. Compared to the one trolley load I created this time it took me a mammoth eight journeys then.

Moving to an open plan office helped slim my stuff down (as I had no where to put it), as did realising I didn’t need to keep every document or note that I ever took. It’s strange to consider how or why I had all those possessions at work and decorating my shelves. I miss a handful of the trinkets that used to keep me company on the long crunch nights but at the end of the day, when you have a Megabloks Pelican, a large fluffy Kirby, and a pair of T-rex, you can’t complain.

Then.

old

Now.WP_20130912_001

And as someone pointed out at work; if I drank the Coke and scoffed the banana I’d be even more streamlined.

Racing Down Memory Lane

I often think that you should never go backwards through a series. Whilst you may have fond memories of a supposed classic, a creep of features and evolving controls can often make you wonder whether the prescription on your rose tinted glasses needs updating. Never was that more evident than last week as I took my Super Nintendo into work and hooked up the original Mario Kart for an office competition.

The theory behind our choice of game was that even though there were pockets of 3DS Mario racers and still some hardcore Wii Karters, the original entry in the series had not been seen on the premises in nearly a decade. Hopefully this extended absence would mean there were no hard-core fanatics ready to bust out a well-practiced hot lap. More so than that, the name alone promotes an accessible and familiar series that we hoped would coax as wider a range of people in as possible.

The theory was sound, but as I wired up the system, plugged in the cartridge, and sat on the starting grid for the first time in years, my fond memories were on the cusp of disappearing in a belch of exhaust fumes.

Our modern expectations of the number one racing series for plumbers is characterised by elaborate backgrounds, wide circuits and easy to control karts. There’s a lushness to each stop on the grand prix circuit that has grown over time, yet Mario Circuit 1 is anything but. As neat as the Mode 7 graphics are, that initial track is strangely bland. The mind’s eye paints in a lot but the misshapen doughnut road sits upon a dull dirt plateau, the only thing tying it into the Mario series being the iconic green hills sliding by in the distance.

Of course when you’re racing you barely notice anything but the pipes dotted about the track; you focus on the race and your character so the lack of franchise padding is of little interest. What is noticeable however is the incredibly unforgiving handling.

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There was a time that I mocked my younger sister for her uncanny ability to fish tail all the way down a straight. She seemed unable to point the cart in a straight line, always overcompensating, turning out to the other side of the track, forcing another correction and the cycle to begin again.

I now take everything back. A combination of sensitive digital controls and a large amount of over-steer saw me lurch back and forth, fighting to keep Luigi in his kart and out of the dirt. I daren’t even attempt power-slide as it was a sure fire recipe for ending up with Lakita flagging me down and kindly informing me that I was pointing in the wrong direction. It was a desperate return to a classic I had played for hours and hours as a teenager.

As I staggered over the line, my driver green in more ways than one, my high scores of 16 years past flashed up on screen. My younger self had somehow managed a 1:07.86, an embarrassing amount quicker than my stumbling return. My only thought was that over the years I had gotten soft with analogue controls and countless driver assists turned on. A culture of rubber banding and a need for instant success has caused me to forget how you had to work at games in generations gone by. And just before I popped my flat cap on and started moaning about the youth of today I vowed there and then that by the end of the week I would get back to at least the standard I had set to myself when I was 16.

If this were a film this would be the point where some enthusiastic 80s music would kick in and you’d see a montage of me honing my skills. A furrowed brow of concentration, the wringing of the pad at a misjudged turn, and a few choicely bleeped phrases, I can see it now.

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Over the next week early starters would come into the office and find me already tucked in front of the SNES, stealing some solid time on the track before the masses arrived and took their turn. And I needed a continual block as the odd lap here and there did nothing for me. From the narrow window for boost starts to judging the slide round a corner, I was slowly relearning the basics and only a series of consecutive races could help me settle back into the flow.

Second by second my lap time eked down but with that came all the memories of the subtle magic that Nintendo crafted into this very first Mario Kart. On a basic level you can easily pick a racer like Mario or Toad and zoom round the course, posting a respectable time and progressing in any Grand Prix you may be in, but there are glorious layers. The powerslide for one, which not only allows you to keep speed round bends but can be as tight as required, falls into the classic category of being easy to pull off but incredibly hard to master. Seeing some of our top racers hug the corners so tight there was a danger of asphyxiation whilst travelling sideways in a controlled skid was incredible.

Very rarely do you step back into the past and find that it still is as good as you remember but Mario Kart still stands up remarkably well. Though there is an initial learning curve as your privileged hands have to relearn digital controls, it is a welcoming and warming experience. If anything the stripping away of the presentation frills benefits the focus on racing and means the giant cheep-cheep that floats over you on the podium means so much more.

What meant the most to me however was my time at the end of the week: 1:07.66. I’m a whole fifth of a second better than my teenage self. Take that, young James!

A Rare Interview

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Some time ago I did a “day in the life of” for the Rare website. It was just after Viva Pinata released, which should date it suitably, and I spoke of my time bug fixing, the fresh VP community and my general duties.

Time for an update and after the Rare Editor approached me I refreshed things.

Plus it’s a great excuse for that photo to reappear.

 

Moving in with Rashberry

During my time at Rare I believe I’ve called six seperate offices my own, and am on the verge of claiming a seventh. During the development cycle, teams will grow and grow until the point of completition and then rapidly shrink as other projects plunder the resources that all of a sudden have a distinctly lighter workload post-launch. The Viva Pinata team are in that phase now, having launched before the Christmas rush we’re now of a size where we can consolidate ourselves in the top layer of one of our barns. On the up-side, I now get a penthouse view. On the downside, I have an awful lot of stuff.

When I was moving house twelve months ago, I made the mistake of bringing all my retro consoles and games into work to keep them safe during the transition. Since then they have made themselves very comfortable under my desk, embedding themselves to the point where I simply looked at them as part of the furniture rather than something I should return home.

What makes this scenario worse is that I’m now going to be sharing an office with our Team Lead, Rashberry. If there was anyone on our team who could rival them amount of bits and pieces I possess it is Rashberry. His collection tastefully takes in not only the usual gaming related paraphanallia but also a large selection of Lego Technic and Lego Train. Quite how how we are to compress all our belongings into a single office is not entirely obvious, although the thought of blending my assorted Halo tat with Lego does bring a smile to my face.

Wish me luck, I’m off to get a trolley.

April Fools

The only background you need to know for this is that a while ago we had a minor rodent problem (we are in the middle of the countryside), our old tester loved his beef based drinks and that we create builds every week for our designers to make sure everything is working fine and dandy.

From: James Thomas (RARE)
Sent: 01 April 2008 08:10
Subject: Build delayed

Hello,

It appears that the mice are back and that the residual smell of Bovril from former team favourite Mr David Wong has caused them much excitement around the build machine. Whilst munching on the crumbs on the floor they’ve also taken a chunk out of a few wires including the power cable and so we have a char-grilled critter to deal with, as well as the need for new cabling. Maintenance have been informed and should be collecting the body shortly (I didn’t think anyone would want it in their bin).

Anyway, the upshot of this is that the build for the week has been delayed. This does not mean that you should frantically commit back anything you have tweaked since last night, the situation still remains the same and consider everything locked down for the time being.

As soon as everything is back to normal down here I’ll let you know.

Many thanks,

James

And, yes, some people did actually go for it.

 Were you caught out by anything today?

Sound check

Team building exercises are great. Whether you’re trying to shoot your workmates in the face with a paintball or ram them off the road in a kart, they really help bond a group.

Yesterday we had quite an unexpected one in the form of a flash mob as just after lunch our Sound Engineer summoned us to the recording studio because he needed a batch of crowd noises and we were just the rabble to help him out. Cue fifteen minutes or clapping, ohs, ahs and the odd inoffensive yell (we do try for E ratings, after all).

The rounds of applause caused him most grief and took about four takes as everyone tried to get the last clap in to claim the glory. Each one was more drawn out than an Oscar winning death scene.

Anyway, it’s great to see what a quarter of an hour of impromptu silliness can do for team morale. Next week we’re hoping someone needs mocap.

Battle Report

A day late, but still here none the less, I present to you the battle log of the Humpday (also linked to in Articles on the side bar); a round up of all the slaying that occurred in the internet pipes linking Twycross to Redmond that is so big and juicy it deserved its own page.

Brace yourself.

 Edit: Bungie have also posted their own write up. Whilst they may have shown little enthusiasm for our final game, I do quite like the second paragraph in Game 2.

Evidence

I’ve finally managed to find some pictures of the Freeplay Lounge.

 These were taken by one of the MS chaps that were down there helping us, but as promised…

 There goes our E rating.

There goes our E rating.

Freeplay Lounge

Usually in the Bluu Bar in Nottingham on a Thursday night you will find Burlesque dancers; a troupe of provocatively dressed women there to entertain the businessmen of Robin Hood’s native city. So imagine the disappointment of the regulars when they rolled up and found their bar full of geeks playing video games. Not quite as titillating.

It was an interesting juxtaposition, as people played Viva Pinata beneath an illuminated poster of a woman’s slapped backside, but Microsoft and Rare had truly invaded Bluu Bar’s basement this week and had turned it into a gaming paradise dubbed Freeplay Lounge, part of GameCity 2007.

The aim of the evening was to create a relaxed atmosphere where all attending could circulate, try different things and generally talk about their shared love of the industry – whether that be trying to break in or trying to break out. A bit of shameless self promotion doesn’t go amiss, either.

Open to anyone attending GameCity, we had students, delegates, organisers and press drop by to see what was going on. A free bar helped attract in the sceptical and the addition of the Frag Dolls sealed the deal for a few.

The event poster

It seemed that an army of students had descended, some from far a field as Wales, and it was interesting chatting to them all about the different course on offer and answering any questions they had when it came to actually working in the industry.

360 kiosks were littered throughout the bar, showing off MGS’s titles and allowing us to run a few competitions throughout the evening. Time trials on Forza 2 and a high score Kameo battle were appreciated but the highlights were the Perfect Dark Zero and Halo multiplayer tournaments. The latter, especially, caused whoops and hollers from the crowd as the evening built up to a tense one-on-one decided as to who took home a limited edition Xbox.

For the first event of its kind that we’ve put on, I think it went well; it was very well attended and the atmosphere was good throughout. The one negative is that considering we were there to be talked to, there was no way of distinguishing the Rare staff from any of the other attendees but this is a minor point and something we can address next year when we hopefully return to abuse the promotional account once more.

The Comic Con Interview

I was going to write about Ali’s first go at Halo but that has been postponed as Gamasutra have finally published the interview that Justin and I did at Comic Con a couple of months back. Here it is, complete with a lewd typo that I promise I never said.

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I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Combine this with my “mention” on 1UP and I believe I’ll be in full control of the gaming media by next June.