To Stardock and Back

No shit, there I was.

(Forgive the expletive, but my friend Nathan Regener is of the opinion that all great stories start with “No shit, there I was” and I concur with him.)

Okay, both of my previous posts were made when I was exhausted for one reason or another, so I’m going to start over and tell the whole story.

No shit, there I was. Tuesday night before the flight, I go out and buy a rather nice netbook called a Gateway LT31 so that I can stay in touch with my family and show my interviewers at Stardock any of my previous projects that they might want to see. I spend practically the entire night scrubbing Vista off it and putting XP on, installing Visual C++ Express and Visual C# Express, syncing with my Subversion server and then making sure all my stuff compiles. Um…while Warcraft III and World of Warcraft install in the background. I also get my certification from Apple to install games I’ve compiled on actual devices so I do some updates on Inaria (it’s > < this close people, really) and install it on my iPod Touch. (Which is actually Ryan's but let's not get into that again.)

So I get very little sleep, but honestly, can you blame me? I finally fall asleep around 4 AM after everything is proven to work (except WoW which continues to download for another three or four hours; that game has just gotten out of hand).

I wake up at 7 AM and help my wife get the chilluns off to school. I then pack (which I should have done the night before, of course, but I was too busy fiddling with the computer). I bring with me some books to help me review, including Effective C++ and Game Coding Complete, Third Edition. I get to the airport around 10 AM for a flight that leaves at noon. I kiss my wife good-bye and enter security.

Now, I haven’t flown in ten years. You’ll notice that that’s before 9/11. I knew security was going to be tight, but I was surprised that I had to take my belt and shoes off. Once I escaped from security I went to my gate and, of course, had about an hour to wait. I thought I’d get online and send a message to Jamie telling her what was going on…when I realized that the airport did not have complimentary wi-fi. No, they had wi-fi service for four dollars an hour. Since I was going to be there less than an hour I figured it wasn’t worth it, and decided to call her.

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have the cellphone. I’m not in the habit of carrying it everywhere, so I’d left it at home. This is not merely inconvenient, it’s really going to bite me in the butt later on; you’ll see.

So the flight boarded. I was pretty worried. In the end, I’m not afraid of flying per se, I just hate takeoffs and landings. And…I was worried abut my anxiety level. But despite feeling afraid, nothing bad actually happened to me. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything to listen to (I hadn’t thrown any actual music on the iPod) so I basically just sucked it up the entire flight. I did get a little sleep, but mostly I was scared the whole time.

Which, frankly, was stupid because all in all, it was a great flight – smooth takeoff and landing, very little turbulence and we landed twenty minutes early because we had a good tail wind.

So I get off the plane into the largest airport I’ve ever seen. They’ve got people movers. They’ve got a tram. They’ve also got this long tunnel connecting one half of the airport to the other that has frosted glass on the walls that light up different colors in time with the muzak that is playing overhead. Seriously.

That was very cool and surprisingly calming.

But still, I’m in Detroit, Michigan. I do not know a soul. I have no phone. And while I’ve got an address for my hotel I’ve no idea how I’m going to get there. I don’t even know if it’s in Detroit or closer to Plymouth (the town where Stardock is).

So I ascend an escalator just outside the Tunnel of Sound and Light and as I get off it I look to my left. There I see – and I am not kidding – a stand for the Traveler’s Aid Society. And here I thought it wasn’t going to exist for another three thousand years.

Taking this as a sign, I approach them and take out the address for my hotel. And they kindly, kindly give me a map that has both Canton Township (where the hotel is) and Plymouth on it. And point me in the direction of the cab stands.

Now, the direction of the cab stands was also the direction to the shuttles that ferry people to the car rental places. Since I was going to be driving out of Detroit and back I figured I’d do better renting a car than taking a cab everywhere. So I take a shuttle to Budget car rentals. There I am informed that renting a car will be $126 and can I please see your credit card? I hand the nice lady my card; she runs it and frowns.

Now, you see, I don’t have a real credit card. I have a couple of check cards tied to two different bank accounts. Both of them had enough money to cover the rental, but because they weren’t “real” credit cards they couldn’t be used to rent a car. So…no car. I’d been dragging my bags around for an hour now, and I knew Jamie had to be getting nervous because I hadn’t contacted her yet. So I ask the girl at the counter to call me a cab.

I cabbed to the hotel, which was pretty easy to find. As I entered the hotel parking lot I noticed the nearby White Castle restaurant, which also bode well. I paid the cab driver, went inside and said, “My name is Anthony Salter. I have a reservation.”

I’ve always wanted to say that.

Checking in to the hotel was painless and they had free wi-fi. They’ve also got these things called “phones” in each room, so I call Jamie. I tell her everything that has happened so far, and of course, now I’m about to drop dead from exhaustion. But I’m also starving, so once I get done talking to Jamie I walk out to the White Castle and get four of them, which I then bring back to the hotel room and eat with relish. Uh…not really with relish, just with great enjoyment. A White Castle already has pickles on it, it doesn’t need relish.

ANYway, as soon as my stomach is full I cannot keep my eyes open any longer. I plug in my laptop so it can charge and I hit the hay. This was at about 6 PM local time (Michigan is in Eastern Time, an hour ahead us here in Texas). I set the alarm to go off at 9 PM.

Which it does. I start boning up for the interview. I skim through what I think the most relevant parts of Game Coding Complete 3 will be (tools, matrix math and debugging, mostly). I do this for about two and a half hours and go back to bed around 11:30 PM. Interview is at 1 PM the following day.

I wake up at 3:30 AM. I toss and turn for a half-hour before I realize I’m not going to get back to sleep. So I get up and do some more preparation for the interview. I answer some C++ trivia questions online. I read through parts of Effective C++ again and also skim some of my questionnaires that I still had from previous interviews. I shave. I realize that I left my nose hair trimmer at home so I spend a painful half-hour doing some hand plucking. I upload some music to the iPod, thinking it’ll help on the trip home.

Around 6 AM I start feeling sleepy again. I set the alarm clock for 9 AM and get back in the bed.

I wake up at 11:30. The alarm clock had been set to radio and the static that was issuing forth wasn’t enough to wake me up. My interview is in an hour and a half and I am in my underwear.

Now I’m panicking, not only because of my interview but because check-out time at the hotel is noon. I shower really fast. I throw on my nicer clothes and lace up my stormtrooper boots. I throw all the detritus that I’d spread around the room back into my clothing duffel and my backpack, hoping I don’t forget anything. I call the front desk and ask them to call me a cab. I race downstairs and check out just before noon. My cab arrives. I go out and throw the bags into the back of the cab. The cab driver says, “Where are you heading?”

It is then that I realize that I cannot remember Stardock’s exact address. All I remember is that it’s in Plymouth. But I know exactly how to find out; it’s all on Stardock’s web page. I pull out the iPod, run back into the hotel, and try to look it up.

Except that suddenly the hotel’s wi-fi has stopped working. It keeps connecting and disconnecting, never actually bringing up the page. The cab driver honks, so I jump in and say that I want to go to Stardock Corporation. The dispatcher can’t find a listing for it. Finally I say, “Let’s just head to Plymouth and we’ll figure it out from there”. I’m hoping that we’ll drive by an unsecured site long enough for me to bring up the page, but that never happens. Finally we get to Plymouth and I jump out and enter a small coffee shop. It doesn’t have wi-fi, but it does have a phone book.

Which doesn’t have a listing for Stardock.

At this point it’s a few minutes to one. One of the things that I think defines me is that I am never, ever late to an appointment. Ever. And here I am, about to be late to one of the most important ones of my life!

So I ask the nice girl behind the counter (notice how nice everybody has been so far? It’s almost like Texas) if she’s got a computer I can use for a minute. She can’t let me, but I write “Stardock Corporation” on a piece of paper, she goes back to the back and her Google-fu is obviously mighty because she comes right back with the address and phone number. I am so grateful I nearly cry.

I hop back in the cab to discover that the cab’s dispatcher has also looked the company up on the internet and discovered the same address. So now all we have to do is follow the GPS.

Right.

When we got to where the GPS told us to turn, it was closed off with a chain. There was a McDonald’s right next door, so I knew we had to be close (Brad used to talk all the time about eating at a nearby McDonald’s on the Poweruser Podcast). I suggested that we turn into the road next to the McDonald’s. The cab driver says, “Nah, nothing back there but McDonald’s parking.” So we find another way into the complex with the chained-off entrance and drive around the big building there. The cabbie stops someone coming out and asks him if he’s ever heard of Stardock. Nope. Then he asks him what the address on the building is. It’s 14990 and we’re looking for 15090.

So I ask the cabbie, “Please can you turn into that road next to McDonald’s? It’s got to be there!” The cabbie grumbles, “All right, but I don’t think…”

Please observe the following map image.


View Larger Map

Notice that while it denotes the address, it does not give you any information about how to get there from the street. So let’s switch to satellite view!


View Larger Map

The building just east of Beck Road with the green roof is the McDonald’s. Notice how the road next to it keeps going past it, dips down a hill and ends up at a mysterious building!

And thus, I arrived at Stardock Corporation, about twenty-five minutes late. I gave the cab driver a huge tip, picked up my bags and walked inside, certain that I was doomed from the start.

A nice HR lady instantly finds me and gives me a place to put my bags. I apologize profusely about my tardiness; she brushes it off and tells me that she was late to her own interview for the same reason. She then sat me down in a conference room, brought me a glass of water and summoned my interrogators – uh, I mean, interviewers. Once again I was talking to Scott Tykoski, Cari Begle and Jesse Brindle.

And thus began one of the best interviews I’ve ever had. There was nothing difficult or confrontational about it. They asked me again about what games I liked to play. They asked me very, very little about my previous work history, preferring to focus on the games I’d done for myself on the side. I told them about how Inaria had started as a forty-hour challenge and then been ported to the iPhone. I passed around the iPod and they all took a look at it and seemed impressed. Scott asked me if I’d done any other challenges, so I told him about the One Page Game I wrote.

To my utter, utter surprise, at no point was I required to answer C++ trivia questions or write code on a whiteboard.

Indeed, after a very pleasant conversation with the three of them, Scott and Jesse got back to work and Cari took me to see Brad. Again, I had an incredibly pleasant conversation with him – not about my previous work, but about what games I’d played and enjoyed and why.

Then Brad asked if I wanted the tour. Did I.

Brad showed me around the very nice office space at Stardock. He told me that the building had been built for lawyers and doctors but they had trouble renting (possibly due to the fact that it’s so darn hard to find) and so Stardock has been slowly buying the whole place up. The building is gorgeous and is surrounded by not one but two ponds. (Ponds! Standing pools of water that don’t instantly dry up! What a concept!)

He took me around to meet all the developers, artists, and support and marketing teams. I saw the Whiteboard Wall and even got a brief look at Elemental. He even took me out to see the bees, which was awesome. Then we headed back to his office.

It turns out that Stardock shares something in common with Valve, Bungie and Irrational Games – they don’t have dedicated designers. Everyone contributes to the design. This is why they needed someone competent at programming, but also very familiar with game history and design.

Which is why he then offered me the job. In fact, I found out from Cari later that they’d pretty much decided I was the right guy after the phone interview and just flew me up to make sure I was who I’d presented myself as on the phone!

And while it may take a while for us to get up there (we’ve some things we need to take care of here) we’re definitely going. I’m going to work for Stardock on Elemental and have a White Christmas this year.

Eating White Castles.

Name That Game 65!

What? Could it be? A new Name That Game!? Yes!

This one shouldn’t be hard at all. This game was all the rage back when I was at Origin. It started off as a free game and…kind of died when it became a pay game, probably because it was darn fun, but didn’t have enough depth to justify X dollars a month.

Name and developer, please! If you win, I promise that next time I’ve got you in my sights, I won’t shoot you down no matter how much juicy cargo you’re carrying.

The Sojourn, Part 2

Amount of sleep I got last night? Very little.

Amount of anxiety I experienced on takeoff? High.

Fortunately the flight was uneventful…but attempts to rent a car were stymied by the fact that I don’t have any real credit cards. I finally had to take a cab to the hotel, which is in a little town called Canton. (Stardock is in a little town a little farther out called Plymouth.) I’ve got my laptop, wireless internet, and WHITE CASTLES for dinner. White Castle doesn’t exist in Texas. We don’t even have Krystals in Texas. So if you want teeny-tiny burgers smothered in pickles and onions and you’re in Texas, you’re pretty much out of luck.

This by itself might be a reason to move to Michigan. Also, the weather is nice, the trees are…trees (as opposed to Texas, where our trees are simply tall bushes) and it’s nice and cool. Yes, I know, that cool is going to turn cold but right now it feels great.

Stardock tomorrow at 1.

The Sojourn Begins

In about three hours I’ll be at the airport. In about five my flight leaves. In about eight I’ll be in Michigan.

It is going to be hard keeping my inner fanboy in check. If I’m not careful I’ll end up giggling excitedly the whole time I’m at Stardock.

Updates will follow, mostly posted from my brand new netbook. I had several people tell me, “Just try it, you’ll get used to it” and when I found out that there were some netbook models that were slightly larger than the typical ten inches I decided to go for it.

So I ended up with a Gateway LT31, which I’d never heard of until I saw it at Best Buy. To my surprise, it had almost everything I was looking for. The screen is 11.6 inches at 1366×768, and while it’s widescreen I’m not having that much trouble reading it. The keys on the keyboard are nice and big, it’s got a 250-gig hard drive, an AMD processor, two gigs of RAM out of the box and a dedicated Radeon graphics chip instead of the awful Intel 950 integrated graphics most models of this type are stuck with. And the price was $379.

Cons? It came with Vista, which I had to scrub and replace with XP. And the AMD processor and graphics processor suck up a lot more power than your average netbook, so the battery life is only about five and a half hours…which, goshwow, is more than enough for me.

Visual Studio Express installed just fine and Planitia compiled cleanly (though it runs a little slow, surprise surprise). Warcraft III runs just fine, but I haven’t had a chance to put it to the WoW test…that game takes a long time to download, dontcha know.

Dream Log 1

Yeah. This website just got a little weird.

The thing is, I’m absolutely amazed at how creative I am…when I’m asleep.

When I’m awake? Not so much. Let’s think about this: all my games have been rehashes of older games that I enjoyed that no one is making any more. That’s not particularly creative.

In my dreams, though? I’ve composed music, written entire stories (which play out like movies), and designed much more creative video games.

For instance, just a couple nights ago, I dreamt I was watching an anime about a young girl who is normally sweet and kind, but has a magical, demonic side that she must struggle to control. I remember the name of the anime: Avertigo. I even remember the anime’s logo. But I woke up before I saw the ending.

A while back after a day working on Inaria, I dreamt I was in a cathedral-like structure, bright with clouds near the ceiling. In the center of the floor was a circular map of a fantasy world. Realizing I was dreaming, I stepped over to the map in order to try to memorize it. As I did so, a gospel choir started singing:

‘Cross this great world I have trod
Stood astride it like a god

And then, maddeningly, I woke up. I remember the lyrics and even the tune, but I have no idea what the next line was going to be.

I also recently dreamed that I was a new hire at a software development firm. The facility was incredibly impressive, with futuristic-looking corridors lit by soft light, a huge break room with tons of arcade games, huge glass windows that looked out onto a beautifully-landscaped quad and…um…a room full of pods that you could step into that would clean and dry both you and your clothes in a matter of minutes.

That one was probably Stardock. When an issue is weighing heavily on my mind, I tend to dream of two extremes – the best I can imagine and the worst I can imagine.

F’rinstance, there was one Christmas when I was twelve or thirteen where my sleep was incredibly fitful – and every time I managed to fall back asleep, I’d dream one extreme and then other. In one version, our presents were ornaments our mother plucked off the tree; in the other the living room was packed with presents and there were hoverbikes and such.

But the biggest problem is that while I’m sitting there, effectively munching popcorn and watching this incredibly interesting scenario unfold, I tend to realize that I’m about to wake up. Your dreams are most clear and coherent when you are at the end of your sleep cycle, and then I wake up and I’m just boring old me again, and I try to grab as many details about what I was dreaming as I can.

I have once (once!) managed to complete a story in my dreams…but I think I’ll save that one for another time.

Update from Maccyland

I miss Left 4 Dead.

I must say, the Mac Mini is a nice little machine. In the end, the thing that infuriates me most about Apple isn’t their hardware; their hardware is well put together.

It’s that they charge double the normal profit margins on their devices and then get people to buy into their “cult of personality” to justify paying that much.

And their “Mac vs. PC” commercials absolutely infuriate me because they use a debating tactic called “scripting your opposition”. What PC says in those commercials isn’t written by Microsoft or Dell or HP. It’s written by Apple.

The potential computer buyer says, “I want a computer that just works, without thousands of bugs and viruses and crashes.”

(Let’s not even mention that the biggest problems facing computer users today aren’t viruses or bugs, but browser-based phishing, malicious tracking cookies or snooping of private data, all of which a Mac is just as susceptible to as a PC.)

PC should then say “Microsoft operating systems have been inherently stable since Windows NT 4, and the most rudimentary virus/malware protection like AVG Free will ensure that you never have those problems.”

But no, he acts like an idiot and says “Every PC is going to have those problems.” Which is a bald-faced lie. Why? Because he’s scripted by Apple, the opposition.

(This was why I eventually gave up on the TV show The West Wing. Despite the likable characters, snappy dialog and interesting plots, in the end the show was written by Democrats. And the writers would always, always, always misrepresent non-Democrat views in order to easily dismiss them.)

So I hereby present the “Mac vs. PC” commercial I’d most like to see. I must admit I didn’t come up with this, I saw it in someone’s sig.

Mac: “Hi, I’m a Mac!”
PC: “And I’m a PC.”
Mac: “Hey, whatcha doin’ over there, PC?”
PC: “Playing a game.”
Mac: “Oh yeah? Which one?”
PC: “All of them.”

And then PC slugs Mac in the stomach.

I may have added that last part myself.

Moving to Maccyland

Ryan (he of the inestimable fame) Clark suggested that since my professional and my hobby projects were on the iPhone, that I make the Mac Mini my “home” computer for a while.

So I did it. This is how they get you, you know.

The Mac Mini felt sluggish to me in development, and I knew it probably wasn’t because of the processor – it was probably due to the fact that the poor thing only had one gig of RAM.

I also must must MUST have two monitors when developing. (I’m now spoiled and cannot go back.) The video ports on the back of the mini are tiny and they are both different, requiring not only one adapter to run a monitor but a second, completely different adapter to run a second monitor. I only had one of the magic adapters and so could only run one monitor.

So the job this morning was to run out and get another gig of RAM and another video adapter for the Mac Mini.

This little sojourn began with me taking the thing apart. The Mac Mini is basically the guts of a laptop crammed into a cute little box. But unlike a lot of laptops, the thing is not designed to be user-expandable. You’re supposed to take it to an Apple Store (c) and let a Certified Apple Genius (c) work on your Mac Mini (c).

So the day started with me taking the thing apart. I’d already done it once when David shoved two DVDs into the drive at the same time, causing it to do nothing but attempt to read the discs over and over and over forever. To the device’s credit, after I removed the top of the DVD drive and took the discs out, it worked fine again.

But this was different. I was venturing into the dark heart of the machine, where no end-user is meant to go. The RAM sits on the very bottom level of the machine, underneath the drives and other guts, on the motherboard itself.

The thing about doing this type of disassembly is that there are lots of clips and pins holding the top half of the machine onto the bottom. So when you unhook the Airport antenna and take out the screws holding the top half of the computer to the bottom, it’s easy to unhook something and not realize it. Fortunately, I was looking very closely at what was happening as I opened the computer up and saw that I’d unhooked two pins from their clips.

But the bottom of the computer was finally exposed and I could fish out the single RAM chip. I took it with me to Best Buy to make sure I got absolutely the right memory (I think I’ve already established how with Apple, you play by their rules or you get kicked in the nuts).

So I go up to Best Buy. They don’t have Mac Mini RAM but it’s obvious that the MacBook uses exactly the same RAM, so I buy a two gig stick (all they have). I also get the second display adapter.

Got back and installed both RAM chips back into the computer – so yes, this computer now has three gigs of RAM in it. Got the clips put very carefully back into place, and boy are they finicky little suckers. Got everything reassembled and the machine works fine.

Time to get the second monitor hooked up. What the – the adapter goes right on the end of the VGA cable, which plugs right into the port on the Mac mini and starts working with no problems?! That’s not how things are supposed to work with Macs! I guess I got lucky.

So now I’ve got an upgraded Mac Mini with two monitors, a machine that is probably at least as good as my PC. World of Warcraft runs fine, and WoW is pretty much my benchmark for whether a machine is usable or not.

And hopefully I’ll be posting a progress report on Inaria soon.

The Renewing of your Mind

In many ways I feel like a wind-up toy.

I wind up, I get excited. I’m going to do it this time. (It being lose 50 pounds, finish Inaria, clean the house, whatever.) Then as I start to work I wind down, and I always wind down before I’m finished. Thus I have to finish the task when it doesn’t excite me at all; it’s now drudgery.

But then something happens! I get wound up again! And this time I know it’ll last! This time I know I’ll succeed!

The thing that winds me up the most when it comes to game development is talking about games. Not making them – the effort of making them tends to unwind me. But discussing games, reading about game design, reading other people’s development blogs – all these things wind me up.

But I’ve had a hard time getting wound up since…well, pretty much since the Great Unpleasantness last October.

For a long time after my surgeries, I had anxiety problems. Bad anxiety problems. I-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed-because-that-might-trigger-my-pacemaker anxiety problems. At the time, when just driving to work at Aspyr would trigger a panic attack (what was I going to do if it went off while I was driving?) I yearned for it to be a year later…after my anxiety had resolved and my heart was doing fine and everything was okay.

Well, it’s almost a year later. My anxiety problems are almost completely resolved (though I am still on some medication for it). My heart is doing fine.

But everything isn’t okay.

If you’ve been reading my professional blog, you’ve probably seen the decline in both the quality and quantity of posts over there. It really does feel like I’ve lost something – like my heart problems knocked something off me that I haven’t recovered. Or perhaps I’ve gained something; something that has mired me into almost not caring about game development any more.

Almost.

I need something to wind me up. Sitting at home working on stuff isn’t doing it. Perhaps what I’m saying is that I miss the social experiences that come with game development.

And…I’m back to reading accomplishment porn. That’s never a good sign. Right now I’m reading Mike Hommel’s development journal (and watching his Behind the Dumb series of videos) and it’s great stuff. Mike just keeps everything so light and airy and fun and I just don’t feel like I can do that any more without it feeling forced.

A year ago I wished it were a year later. Now I still wish it were a year later. Or that I could shake this malaise that is preventing me from finishing Inaria and Let’s Play Starflight and that video on Startopia I’ve been wanting to do forever…or even posting a new Name That Game, which would take, like, fifteen minutes.

There’s a Bible verse, Romans 12:2 : “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

Now, I’m not terribly big on religion, but the phrase “the renewing of your mind” sounds like just what I need. I just don’t have any real idea how to get it.

Saw 9 Last Night

And I really liked it. If you’ve ever seen the original Shane Acker short, you might be disappointed since nothing will really surprise you. Fortunately, I hadn’t. While the plot was pretty predictable, the characters were easily identifiable despite only having numbers for names, and the action pieces were pretty darn awesome. The voice work was very good, and I was surprised at how dark the movie was…it’s a post-apocalyptic movie, so at some point you have to show the apocalypse. I think they pushed the limits of PG-13 there, despite there being almost no blood in the movie. Took the older daughter, had a fun time. Got Amy’s ice cream afterwards.

9-9-09

Today is the tenth anniversary of the release of the Sega Dreamcast in the United States.

In the end, I think there was one thing and one thing only that killed the Dreamcast: it didn’t play DVDs. Sony’s hype machine for the PS2 was absolutely incredible. If the Dreamcast had played DVDs it would have probably lasted until Sony’s hype wore off and people realized that the PS2’s “Emotion Engine” didn’t produce graphics significantly better than the Dreamcast’s. (Plus Shenmue II wouldn’t have had to come on four CDs.)

A lot of people don’t recall that the Dreamcast offered the first real console online multiplayer experience…unfortunately using 56k modems. Now, it’s not impossible to write online mulitplayer games that can run over a 56k modem…but it is hard, and “lag” wasn’t something console players back then were used to. Xbox Live’s success came from their willingness to explicitly state, “If you don’t have broadband, go away.”

So the poor thing was simultaneously ahead and behind its time. If it had played DVDs and been easily upgradeable to use broadband, we might still be playing it (or a backwards-compatible successor) today.

And now I’m off to play Jet Set Radio all day.