"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hit & Run 11.2.00


James Hague was the Lead Programmer on the PlayStation2 version of Summoner. He also maintains a giant list of classic video game programmers.

How much influence do hard-core fanboys have over the industry and the direction of the games?

They don't tilt things in the sense of saying "I think the characters should carry umbrellas that give them +2 in combat when it's raining" and then we implement it. It's more that you see these guys all the time on forums like Usenet and you know that if you do something outside the usual fanboy realm you're going to get verbally smacked and have to deal with the negative vibes. But some of the biggest games in recent years have been completely outside the fanboy realm, like Roller Coaster Tycoon and The Sims. It is very tempting to put my fingers in my ears for the entire development cycle and shout "I can't hear you!" just so I don't get so stressed about everything. I'll try it in a meeting and see how it goes.

Where does the stress come from? Below, meaning the fanboys, or above, meaning your bosses who might be listening to the fanboys?

There's a great tendency toward negativity on the web, and that's draining. I don't understand Dreamcast owners who post phony (bad) reviews of PS2 games, just to spite Sony, or people who feel a compelling need to enlist in the supposed console battle and sport obnoxious signatures. Hey guys! They mean an economic battle! They don't mean a personal crusade!

The day Summoner hit stores it became obvious how few purchasers of the game had read much about the game or even followed web sites. They never heard of popular game sites like Daily Radar or IGN.

Obvious how?

Obvious in an unscientific-but-I'm-sure-I'm-right-anyway kind of way. One guy here who waited in line to buy a PS2 on launch day made a point of asking people about the game. The responses were far away from the kind of thing you hear from people who've been spoon-fed the same set of issues that many game sites have been concerned with. You can always tell when someone is a web news junkie. The first comments are always something about something technical like anti-aliasing or video memory capacity or polygons per second. To me, that's weird. You expect people to talk about funness and how catchy the music was or how bored they were. "Please sir, refrain from using psychiatric terminology during your session."

Why do so many people focus on the technology?

There's the same behind-the-scenes fascination that started with documentaries on the making of Star Wars and Close Encounters, plus the obsession with numbers from the PC world has carried over to consoles. You don't say "my PC," you say "my Pentium III 633." The speed is a title that shows your relative importance in the world. The only trouble is that no one knows what those numbers mean. They're huge, unthinkable numbers, like the national debt. Usenet arguments about the amount of video memory in the PS2 are about the same as grandpa saying at Thanksgiving dinner, "You know what the problem is with America today?" and then expounding his theories.

Is the PS2 everything that's been promised? A lot of the initial reactions have had a backlashy element to them.

The backlash doesn't surprise me, because people looked at the movies from Kessen [a game] back in 1999 and thought "Oh, man the PS2 is cranking that out in real-time!" Of course it was all pre-rendered FMV [full-motion video], and game site curmudgeons even pointed that out, but the hype had too much momentum by that point. You ever hear someone ramble and rave about the wonder of AI? It sounds pretty impressive when talked about in an abstract, mystical way. But when you come down to an implementation of AI for a particular application it's pretty mundane under the hood, a collection of rules like "if good guy has weapon more powerful than me, then cower under a rock until he's gone." Boooring. I don't think the average game player gave much thought to what particular PS2 games would be like, just that they'd be amazing in some unqualified way. Don't get me wrong; the PS2 hardware is still a complete beast that will be getting lunch money payola for some time to come.

There has been a lot of talk about how "hard" the PS2 is to program. Is there any truth to this?

Now here's a good example of something quickly growing into a top concern that's mentioned everywhere from Slashdot to teenybopper game magazines every time a sentence includes the acronym PS2. Hard to program as opposed to what? The cakewalk of DirectX and Windows? DirectX initialization is one of the most contorted things imaginable. The difference is that you can walk into any local Borders and find a dozen books along the lines of "DirectX for Self-Deprecating Types." There aren't any such books for the PS2. I've done development for the Super Nintendo, 3DO, and Sega Saturn; and the PS2 is par for the course.

With experience on so many systems, what's your favorite, then? What would you most miss not having in your house?

I'm not a fan of gaming systems as much as I am of great games. The Sims is a great design. Crazy Taxi is a blast. I'm impressed with Crash Bandicoot 3 on the PlayStation because I can't figure out how the creators did so much with so little. I don't understand people who talk about how great a game system is outside the realm of the games available for it. How many polygons per second do you need to 100% guarantee fun?

How close is Summoner to your vision of what it would be?

I can't take credit for the Summoner vision, because that came from a bunch of people, the most important of whom was holed up in a fort made of pizza boxes and Coke cans for most of the project. I went in there once and saw him playing EverQuest on two different computers at the same time. After that, I kept to myself. He scared me.

So how divorced is the implementation of a project from its design? Are specs handed down from on high, or is it a more collaborative process?

The design and implementation are intertwined. You can get only so much design on paper before you have to start making scenery and characters, and the time involved on the art side can add up quickly. Everyone runs along together in an organized stampede, with a few people in front who occasionally hold up a sign that says "I think there's a cliff up ahead." So we take a detour though someone's yard and trample the petunias. The code, art, and design all changed to meet the needs of the other two throughout the project. There's no way to nail everything down up front. It doesn't work for game development.

Were you ever frustrated by being on the "code" side of the house?

No. It's great to be able to stay out of some arguments, or at least to have the option of staying out of them. You can't force your ideas on twenty or more people. Even the designer can't do that in many cases. He'd be like the Border collie who goes insane trying to herd chickens.

Was there anything that you wanted in the game — either in the design or in the code — that didn't make it?

Speaking for the team, there were some things we wanted to do, but had to give up on in order to get the game done on time. It's tough to think, "Man, if I just had a week more," but that's how game development goes.

What do you think of the final product?

Honestly, I'm happy with the way Summoner turned out. The days following our first submission to Sony, I sat down and played the game for real. I had a great time; it was lots of fun. A bunch of us would even watch other people play on the big TV in the conference room for hours. I was really impressed by the game.

From a technical, design or story standpoint?

Watching on the big TV, just seeing a group of three adventurers fighting a demon, with everyone casting spells or getting knocked down, was stunning. How the heck did we do that? It's a combination of art and tech and what the tech is being used for. Fifty thousand spinning cubes would have been impressive technologically, but who cares? Tech is irrelevant outside the scope of a game.

What's it like working on a project that's been subject to so much scrutiny? Did the expectations affect what you shipped?

Before it was even available in stores, there were three five-star reviews at Amazon.com. The first one said, "The cover looks cool. This game must rock." That review was tagged as having been useful to two customers. The second review was from someone who saw the Summoner Geeks D&D parody and misinterpreted it as being the game trailer. Four customers found that useful. That kind of support is great, but I have no idea what kind of game the guy who liked the box was expecting. Maybe he's been slurping the froth off his beer and saying "Hey look at me! I'm a rabid minotaur" since the seventh grade? Not knowing was a blessing, because we had no way of modifying the game to fit his expectations.

For all the hosannas being sung in this the first week of Steve Allen's career as a dead versatile and accomplished comedian, pianist, composer, raconteur, author, proto-hipster and serial dictaphone coxcomb, you're unlikely to hear many words about Steverino's humility. Even the composer of 5,000 songs (or 3,000 or 4,000, depending on source) was never really "on" except when singing his own praises. In an era when self-deprecation was perhaps less common (and with a strange capacity for taking the polite self-deprecation of others as serious tributes to himself), Allen never quite figured out that to be the father of modern talk show hosting is to be the butt of a cosmic joke. Not only is braggadocio unseemly in a talk show host, it betrays a lack of awareness of the profession's central requirement — having nothing to brag about. It's not for nothing that Regis, who is visibly intimate with his mastery of nothing, who recognizes his lack of any useful skills as his greatest skill, is the universally acknowledged gold standard for the industry. As demonstrated in great detail last year in Suck, it may have been a painfully repressed awareness of his job's essential weightlessness that led Allen to become such a grotesque figure in later life (or for that matter in midlife: The "historic" appearance of Elvis on the Steve Allen Show was in reality a mean-spirited setup, in which the composer of "This Could Be the Start of Something Big" tried to humiliate the young rocker by having him sing "Hound Dog" to an actual hound dog). Decrying the filth in our culture (Allen had only last week taken out his latest newspaper ad urging more positive images on TV) or lamenting the dumbing down of American culture (if Allen's almost-finished Vulgarians at the Gate doesn't get a posthumous publication, you can always cuddle up with his Dumbth) sure beats acknowledging the bittersweet truth that you had a few good years of filling up space on television and should in fact be grateful to the culture for having provided you with such a cushy job.

Sadly, if Johnny Carson's recent debut in The New Yorker is any indication, this trend toward poor social skills is general among hosts emeritus. Titled "Proverbs According to Dennis Miller," Carson's charticle pokes fun at the Monday Night Football whippersnapper and his high-falutin' allusions. More to the point, the piece features jokes so weak ("9. Nothing is certain but death and...Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.") they function as neither lighthearted tribute nor wickedly apt parody (though they might be useful to pass out at Allen's funeral to prevent unseemly fits of laughter). If the former Tonight Show straw boss can't muster any kind words for a younger colleague, he could at least hire a writer to come up with some clever ones. What did the already (and unjustly) maligned Miller do to deserve the insult? Did he show up without an invitation, Rupert Pupkin-style, at Johnny's summer house? Was Johnny in the running for the MNF color job? Or is the growing shrillness of longtime talk show hosts just another symptom of the decline of civility that Allen knocked us all out trying to combat?

WWJD? In a tussle that pits gorillas against members of the animal kingdom, the World Wildlife Fund is charging into a grudge match with the World Wrestling Federation over the rights to use the initials "WWF" on the Internet. The jocks have been surprised from behind by a metal chair of a lawsuit, charging them with the violation of a 1994 agreement concerning logo and trademark privileges. The domain wwf.com, says the WWF, belongs to the WWF. The WWF disagrees.

But a better solution than a courtroom smackdown might be a merger, where the animal huggers and the bear huggers could really do each other some good. Instead of the candy-assed half-step of the XFL — the wrestler-acronymed Extreme Football League — a combination of the two WWFs could get down to what people really want to see: gladiator-style fights between hulks and beasts. Triple H versus the Black Rhino! The Rock versus the Serpent! Pit an endangered giant panda against "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and suddenly you'd have millions of maladjusted, gap-toothed yahoos, ages 13 to 28, forking over tons of cash for Giant Panda t-shirts, Giant Panda pay-per-view events and the Giant Panda tell-all autobiography. If Mankind can do it, so can the animals.

Amid the bush-beating surrounding Richard Ben Cramer's disinterment of Joe DiMaggio — and its astonishing revelation that the "Daig" was a loutish, greedy jock with Mafia ties — practically every eager reviewer has dangled one prominent feature before the eyes of potential readers, fans, and necrophiles: Joe D.'s wang. That DiMaggio's member turns out to be more newsworthy than Cramer's dismembering may be a vindication of the oft-reviled Life hack whose panegyric praised the young ballplayer for not smelling of garlic.

But the pantsing of the horse-hung DiMaggio raises hard issues. It's good news for divorced men everwhere that Joe's finally starting to measure up to his connubial fellow icon, the depths of whose own genitalia, difficult as it is to believe, have been plumbed even more frequently since her passing than during her brief, notorious transit. Not even the dumbest, most overrated sex symbol deserves the kind of posthumous gang-banging Marilyn has received from near-greats and formerly greats, especially since they all profess to diddle her corpse for the sanctity of her image as a victim-goddess. It's enough to make you wish she'd lived long enough to extract her own revenge, if not to betray the very legend itself.

The eyewitness in DiMaggio's case is a former Miss America who claims to have seen the alleged Supersoaker while Joe sat drunk on a staircase in a French hotel. The telling piece of verisimilitude in 1951 pageant queen Yolande Betbeze's tale? That DiMaggio's bat was bigger than even Uncle Miltie's legendary eleven-inch sidekick. While Cramer strongly implies Betbeze also had occasion to get up close and personal with Mr. Television's appendage (page 378, for those of you with limited Barnes & Noble browsing time), it should be noted that Berle comparisons are a familiar trope in tales of celebrity endowment.

Whatever the actual circumstances, we fault Cramer for failing to uncover more than a couple of nuts here. What of Joe's competitors — just how did DiMaggio compare with the respective lengths and breadths of Willie or The Mick? Was the Yankee Clipper clipped? Did "it" wear a batting helmet?

But for Yankee haters, the Cramer revision was a welcome respite from last week's depressing rite of dynastic succession. And the good news may not end there. While it's too much to hope that The Hero's Life might discourage runtish singer/songwriter Paul Simon from ever playing that "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio" song again, at least it'll give a new meaning to the "woo woo woo" part.

"They do clearly know about other things such as Internet search engines and rock music. But the fundamentals of what I would call cultural literacy are sadly missing for too many of them." No, that wasn't a US Presidential candidate complaining about a so-called "education recession." It was Chris Smith, culture secretary for Great Britain, addressing a new study that reveals Britain's 18-24 year olds to be as dumb as hammers. A third of British youth can no longer identify Winston Churchill and fully 90 percent can't name pivotal English cultural and historical figures. The demo that "came top" in the survey included 45-to-54 year-olds — and we're taking a wild guess that this is the same age group that wrote the test itself. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Sceptre'd Isle has spawned a generation of unreconstructed mouth-breathers, and that's an unexpected piece of good news for the US. Simply put, we're no longer blowing the global curve in ignorance. Long seen as the buffoon of the Western world, America has allowed its culture of speaking loudly and carrying an even bigger stick to be tainted by a national inferiority complex toward our humorously accented forefathers. Despite countless soccer riots, Royal soap operas, Chamberlain's Munich pact, screaming tabloids, Joan and Jackie Collins, Are You Being Served?, Churchill's Italian campaign, and Tina Brown's TALKcertain misguided Americans continue to view the English as our upper class cousins, the ones we put on a tie to have dinner with and hope they don't notice the cracks in the china. But it's time we embraced the UK not just as the foundation of our literary and intellectual culture, but also as the foundation of our white trash, Hee Haw, bucktoothed, trailer park culture as well (especially the buck teeth). We may have perfected it, but we didn't invent it. So the next time you read that 75 percent of American youth can't find Britain on a map of Britain, remember: They can't find us either.

courtesy of the Sucksters