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Kaif Ahmed is a video editor, camera operator and motion graphics designer currently based in Cape Town, South Africa.
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Brother Kaif
3:46 PM on 12.06.2012

My highlight of 2012 was when I experienced a feeling with a game that I haven’t had for a long time. The game in question was Hotline Miami, but the feeling it brought out in me is a little bit harder to describe.

I think it may have been a number of factors coming together at just the right moment to produce this chemical reaction in my brain that I found so profound and moving that I chose it be my highlight of the year.

So there I was in my flat in Cape Town playing on my laptop. My character is in this neon soaked pixel vision of Miami, standing in a corridor full of mutilated bodies. I was standing by a door, two guys were in the room next to me armed with shotguns. I waited there, observing their walking patterns, running through the plan of what I was going to do in my head a dozen times over. Replaying this imaginary scenario of smashing the one guy in the face with the door, then quickly throwing my baseball bat at the other guy before he gets a chance react and shoot me, quickly running back to guy I knocked out with the door and beating his face to a pulp before sprinting back to the other guy I threw the bat at before he gets a chance to recover and pick up his gun. I ran through it in my head over and over, trying to work out the right timing. Looping this plan constantly through my mind, tensely waiting for the right moment to pounce. Then I felt the ground beneath my feet turn from the cold tiled floor of my flat in Cape Town, to feeling like the old green carpet of my Grandparents house. I looked down and noticed that I was no longer holding an Xbox 360 controller but I was instead holding a green N64 controller. I look up back at the screen. I’m no longer sitting at my desk playing on my laptop and instead I am playing my old N64 on a tiny TV. It’s a hot summer’s afternoon, the warm orange sunset shines through the large windows of my grandparents house. I’m playing Goldeneye, the Facility level. I was standing by a door, with two guards in the room next to me armed with AK47s. I know there’s only two people inside, but I’m scared to go in, I’m only 12 years old, the tension is unbearable. I don’t have much health left, a single shot will kill me. I compose myself, think it through. “What would Bond do?”, I think to myself. Then, with a deep breath, I charge in. I go in all guns blazing, unloading my clip into the one guard on the left, his body slumping to the ground in all its perfectly motion captured glory, then turning to the second guard. My PP7 clicks, it’s empty. The guard kneels down and raises his rifle to my head. Almost in slow motion the muzzle flashes come out of the end of his gun. The screen begins to fill with red, the Bond theme tune plays.
I sit there staring at my dead pixellated body. The one guy with a shotgun patrolling as normal with my blood soaked corpse laying in the middle of the room. The 80s synth sounds of Hotline Miami playing out of my laptop speakers. The “R to Restart” and “You’re Dead!” messages floating up and down in the corners of the screen. I was back in Cape Town.

For some reason when I was playing Hotline Miami, I felt genuine nostalgia. It wasn’t a “ah, I remember the good old days” feeling of nostalgia. It was a full on flashback.
I felt like I had actually transported 15 years back in time. I felt like a kid again, sitting in my grandparents house during my school summer holidays playing Goldeneye. I felt like I was physically there. I can’t work out why I felt that way. Hotline Miami isn’t really that similar to Goldeneye at all, so why did it trigger this powerful memory? Maybe it was reliving that feeling of tension I had all those years ago? Was it the sound effects that sounded similar? Perhaps it was the weather being similar to that Summer’s day in London. I may never know (and according to Wikipedia, it looks like not even medical science can come up with an explanation). What I do know is that no other medium has been able to produce such an intense emotional response in me. It was a game that triggered this wonderful moment of nostalgia where I briefly returned to a more innocent time and for that, it is my highlight of 2012.

Brother Kaif
1:36 PM on 11.18.2012

Moving from London to Cape Town has made me realise how much I appreciate the existence of download services like Steam, GOG and even The Humble Indie Bundle.

When I was in the UK, I took the amount of media options available to me for granted. I could watch TV online via on demand services like BBC iPlayer or 4od. I could listen to almost any track I wanted with Spotify or buy them on iTunes. I could watch a whole bunch of films on Love Film and Netflix. If I wanted to get a book, it was just a few clicks away on Kindle. Finally, games were easy to get hold of thanks to the many online stores out there.

So once I got to Cape Town I realised that a lot of the things I got used to in the UK were no longer available to me thanks to the idiocy of regional copyright. I couldn't watch any of the UK TV sites anymore because of copyright restrictions. Spotify and the iTunes music store do not exist in South Africa at all, once again, due to the music publishers short sighted views on international markets. Films are a similar problem with a lot of film studios not licencing to Netflix-like services outside of US and Western European markets. Amazon also have to deal with insane copyright restrictions where publishers won't allow their books to be read in markets that they do not operate in (regardless of the fact that the operational costs of international digital distribution are no different from domestic digital distribution). All of these services have been held hostage by pointless region locking from the content holders.

I am aware that I can use a VPN service like Tunnel Bear to access my old UK services again, but the point is, I shouldn't have to.

But, the one medium that is truly leading the way in this area is gaming. My entire Steam library is usable here without any problems. Nothing was gimped because I was living outside of the US, it was normal Steam that I know and love.

As for GOG, one of their major selling points is the fact that games are not region locked. GOG are keen to stress that they go through a lot of effort to ensure that they secure international distribution rights for games.

Finally there's the Humble Indie Bundle which not only gives you DRM free versions of games, they also try to be as internationally accessible as possible by offering a huge amount of payment options.

So why are other forms of media so against the idea of distributing in other "emerging markets"? One of the reasons is the fear of piracy.
This is of course the wrong way of approaching the issue. If you give people no legal means of obtaining a product that they demand then the only option available is to pirate it.

Gabe Newell pointed this out in an interview in 2011 when he said “The people who are telling you that Russians pirate everything are the people who wait six months to localize their product into Russia. It doesn’t take much in terms of providing a better service to make pirates a non-issue.”

Of course there are still major problems. Hardware costs are still way higher than in the West or Japan. There is also the issue of brick and mortar stores only selling mostly mainstream titles here also at a hugely inflated price compared to overseas.

Most of us accept that digital distribution is the way things are heading and, in my personal experience, it has proven itself with the ability to overcome some of the geographical boundaries that have plagued other forms of media. I hope that other games companies follow the example of Valve, GOG and Humble in understanding that gaming is global.

Do you live in a country where you've been denied content? Vent your frustration in the comments.

When I was at University my flatmate tried to introduce me to his obsession, Ultima Online. I was skeptical and really didn’t want to play with him because I’ve never liked MMORPGs. But he decided to go through a lot of effort to get me to play. Not only did he dust off one of his old PCs and set it up a LAN in his room, he even paid for a second account for me. I realised it would have been rude for me to tell him that I didn’t want to play considering the amount of work he put into getting it all set up. So, reluctantly, I sat down and played with him. There I was, standing next to him in Ultima and I ask “so, what are we doing?”.
He turned to me, with a dead serious look on his face and said in a hushed monotone voice
“we need to pick cotton”.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because if we don’t pick cotton, then we can’t make bandages and we’ll die really quickly when we go out to kill monsters and stuff. Obviously!” he replied.

So we walked around on this giant cotton field, clicking on all of the white blobs that represented cotton. We did this for a whole 2 hours, at which point I got up and said “fuck it, I don’t think I have the patience for this, I’m gonna smoke a spliff and play GTA3”.
“Your loss mate” he said as he carried on picking his cotton.

That was my first introduction to grinding and from then on I have never been able to tolerate a game that has even the slightest hint of grind in it.

Peter “it’s not on rails” Molyneux and his team have released the much hyped (by him) “Curiosity”, a mobile game where the whole world is invited to manually chip away at a giant cube consisting of billions of little cubes. But, inside this massive cube is what Molyneux describes as “life-changing”. The catch is that only one person in the world will see it, that person being the one who chips away at the final block of the cube. Over the years I’ve grown wary of Molyneux ability to talk utter bullshit, but seeing as this app was free, I thought I might as well smell it first hand.

The most constructive thing I did in Curiosity.

Upon loading the app we are presented with a bit of spiel at the beginning telling you how amazing it’s all going to be, and then the cube comes into view. The thing is indeed massive and the marks of everybody else can be seen from afar, but it’s only when you zoom in that you see the scale of the thing. So I zoomed in on a location and started chipping away. Quite quickly it becomes apparent that this is not a game at all. Whilst it does contain some game like elements (like getting more coins for clearing a screen or keeping an unbroken chain), this is just digital bubble wrap. Nothing more.

This isn’t to say that it’s shit, I actually really enjoy popping bubble wrap. But do I actually care what’s inside this cube? Nope. Do I feel that Molyneux has created one of the most profound and interesting mass scale social experiments that will further our understanding of the collective mentality of the human race? Nope.

What Molyneux and his team have done is taken grinding to it’s logical extreme. This is just a pure grind and there is virtually no chance it will pay off for you (as only one person gets to see the life changing prize). It is the most pointless use of your time that will benefit no one, especially not you. Clicking those cubes is a meaningless exercise in scratching a pavlovian itch. But, as I learned from my flatmate back at university, some people like that. Fair play to them.

What do you think of Peter “we’ve got an amazing innovation called dogs” Molyneux's social experiment thing? Please let me know in the comments. Cheers.

Brother Kaif
6:10 AM on 11.04.2012

One of the games I’m thoroughly enjoying at the moment is the ultra violent murder fest that is Hotline Miami. Whilst the game does have it’s flaws particularly in the areas of AI it is still a well realised world. In a recent interview with Edge Magazine the designers talked of how they created the game with Game Maker. Whilst most players wouldn’t know or even care what the game was made in there appears to be a dismissive tone levied at games made in Game Maker, Unity or other tools of a similar nature. For some, these aren’t considered “real” games as they haven’t been hand coded.
Perhaps there is a feeling that due to the creator of the game not having to go through the endeavours of coding an engine from scratch they are somehow less invested in game design as a craft and as a result can never truly be considered a games designer.
In my opinion, the introduction of these tools that get rid of a lot of the grunt work in games development and lower the barrier to entry for people other than programmers to come in can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole. The expanding of the industry both in terms of the players and the developers is a sign that the industry is maturing.
Take my industry, video production, as an example. Due to (relatively) cheap tools like Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere becoming popular in the past couple of years there has been a massive influx of video editors who have not had any traditional media training. They’ve installed the software on their home computers and have been able to do the job of an editor using a fully kitted out Avid suite that would have cost nearly 100 times as much. Whilst the old-school editors may be annoyed at the fact that these new, non-traditionally trained editors are coming in, the truth is that it’s been great to get some new ideas and perspectives into the industry.
Another upside to having these simplified game development tools is that they reduce the need to perform a lot of the tedious jobs and allow the games creators more time to focus on the creative aspect of game production. There’s no point reinventing the wheel. If it wasn’t for tools that eased the development process, you probably would not see a majority of the AAA titles you see on the shelf. Do you think that most games companies spend millions developing a state of the art graphics engine? Nope, they mostly use off the shelf ones like Unreal Engine as a base and modify it. Reckon that those amazing physics that you see in some games was programmed in-house? It was probably something like the Havok’s Physics Engine. Asking game devs to reinvent the wheel in order to prove that they are proper game developers is counter intuitive.
Of course the one downside with lowering the barrier of entry for content creation is that you end up with a huge amount of terrible and pointless material. YouTube has shown that the availability of affordable and cheap cameras and software has meant that for every FreddieW classic, there’s a about a hundred reply girls. Indeed, the same is true for games. Just a quick browse of the App Store or Google Play will show hundreds, if not thousand, rubbish games. But there are some innovative and amazing games out there that would not have been possible if it were not for these tools being available.
Of course I am not suggesting that it is bad to go out and program a game yourself from scratch. Games designers should feel free to use whatever tools they need to bring their ideas to life. If an off-the-shelf package like Game Maker or Unity isn’t quite getting the results you want, then roll up your sleeves and get coding. These tools have severe limitations and are no substitute to coding by hand. But as a starting point for games development they’re proving effective. Yes, these easy to use tools have meant that there is more poorly made titles out there. But if it allows for people who previously would not have considered games production as an option to go out and produce great stuff then I am all for it.

What do you think? Are easy developer tools making games rubbish? Or are they helping the industry grow? Post your feedback in the comments.

Brother Kaif
3:25 PM on 10.29.2012

It’s happened to us all at some point. You’ve bought yourself a cheap memory card that dies on you; You have a power cut whilst the save logo in the corner of the screen is spinning around, politely reminding you not to turn your console off; Or, as in my case, you decide to totally wipe your computer clean for Windows 8 and forget to backup your saves.
The internet is full of horror stories of people losing save games including one recent tragic tale of Japanese dev Masahiro Sakurai who lost nearly two decades worth of game time. Mine wasn’t nearly as bad as that, I simply lost 6 hours of Retro City Rampage that I was playing, but for some reason, I’m finding it much more annoying than normal.
I just can’t bring myself to play through it again to get back to where I was. Even though it’s only 6 hours (probably less as I know how to complete the missions from my previous run), it just feels like a slog that I’m not in the mood for putting myself into. All those brilliant game references that I found funny the first time round will lose their impact slightly on my second play through. All of that witty dialog that I enjoyed between missions will now just be hastily skipped in an attempt to conserve time. I will no longer be enjoying the experience, I will merely be working to get back to where I was. The rhythm of the game has been interrupted for me and it will take a while for me to get it back.
There are of course games where it has been a blessing in disguise to have my save game deleted. My Fallout 3 character “Lord Gorman” was destined to be a well dressed and sophisticated master of social manipulation specialising in the dark arts of hacking and pickpocketing. He turned out to be useless and I was over the moon to find my save game corrupted as I actually had a reason to discard those many hours spent leveling up a character who would have been killed if a person were to merely fart near him.
But, with Retro City Rampage, I feel like I would be doing it a disservice by rushing through it. My non-gaming wife offered some good advice; “Just play a different game for a while and then come back to it later when it feels fresh again”. I think she may be onto something there.

Have you had any save game horror stories you’d like to share for all the internet to cry digital tears over? Please leave them in the comments. I need some cheering up.