Sponsored By

Making my first game : a 20+ years quest.

The story of my journey since I first knew my purpose in life, how I almost lost it, and how I hanged in there for more than 20 years to make it happen. Making it a matter of Death or Life is what it took to become an Indie. Especially being Moroccan.

khalil arafan, Blogger

June 25, 2014

43 Min Read

Hello world !

Khalil Arafan here. A 33 years old starting game designer/programmer from Morocco.

I tried to find an appropriate structure/tone for this blog post for the last couple of days without success.

As it is my first attempt ever at formalizing or at least somehow gathering my thoughts around what have been an eternal crusade to get to that very point in time and space : writing about how it all started, how it went for years, and how do I feel about all of it, at the right time.

The right time being : at least when I made something I can call a videogame on my own as an independent developer. 

Even if I did manage to work for a couple of years in the industry so far, including one AAA project participation as a UI programmer from pre-production to release through debug and the whole developement cycle in a team, the challenges are not the same at all as a one man team.

Especially when you know about all the details that led to me being finally there at last after more than 20 long years. So even if I am still not sure how to feel about it, I always knew that when I get to it, however the state of my skills at that point, whatever it is that I ended up making, I will try to convey that story the best way I can, hopefully without it being too long and/or confusing.

As I also can't go about it without delving into what made me want to do that and nothing else since childhood (as in a matter of life or death, yes, that important), the player background will also matter a lot, even if most of that side will be kept for an eventual future design-focused paper.

So here it is, like it is, as long as it takes (sorry, 20 years is a long time span). I just know that typing those words one after the other is also a way to cope with all of it and provide some closure as I close a very long chapter to hopefully start the one I've been struggling all my life to open at some point or another, always somewhat delayed, reported and/or simply crushed.

I intended to release the whole story as a serie, to celebrate the upcoming release of my first game on iOS hopefully this week. Then switched the decision again essentially because it makes more sense as a whole story that can't really be told as bits and pieces. 

The same way you can separate different crafts involved in making a game, but each one does need the others to call it a videogame.

My first write on Gamasutra a little more than a month ago was the part never intended initially to be written and a happy coincidence with the 50th anniversary of the BASIC language. You can find it here.

So without further ado, I just dive head first like always when I need to make something happen, even if English makes it more complicated for me to have the flow I usually have when writing in Arabic or French, the languages I master the most as a native Moroccan.

It is structured in several parts covering each major period. The best way to read it is maybe a chapter a day ? Feel free to read it at your ideal pace, but I suggest you grab your favorite drink :)


Part 1. On NES & childhood : one eternal dream.

Other than the super early encounters with electronic games ( neighborhood friends in my small town in Morocco, around 8-10 years old in the late 80's ) including the Atari and Game&Watch pocket sized devices as well as classic arcades when we went to Marrakesh to visit family on week ends and holidays ( where I litterally bankrupted mom's purse each time ). It was still sporadic at this stage mostly, as I had no grasp yet on when/where to play, as friends moved out of town and such.


first zelda game&watch

First Zelda game I really played :)


donkey kong game&watch

The other Nintendo exotic Game&Watch a friend had

Life was essentially made of outside old school play in those days.

Then a new kid in town showed up with a GameBoy from Denmark (my dad was part of that trip too as engineers abroad on a mission with colleagues), but I didn't have a GameBoy from Denmark.

So I started complaining non stop. Waiting for occasional meet ups when kids were gathering after school to have a chance to even look at Tetris blocks let alone have enough play until it was over, was increasingly frustrating.

Sure enough, my father being the awesome dad he is, when he asked my aunt living in France for what was the best thing my cousins were playing over there, and if for their next summer holidays back home they could bring it to make me shut up about it already, she advised : Nintendo. Her kids were all nuts about it apparently.

Finally : my own console at home. The NES pack with the Ninja Turtles game !

At this stage you are maybe expecting a happy beginning etc.

Nope. Not for me : as soon as I unpacked it to start plugging all cables after giving a giant hug to my father, I couldn't find the A/V type of plug in the back of the old Siera Moroccan TV model. The NES being Europe PAL standard, it had that special connector.

The infamous 'Peritel' PAL A/V connector

Double frustration etc..I don't even remember how I dealt with it as I type right now.

Except for checking with a friend in the neighborhood if by any chance the TV at his place had that kind of plug : Not the big one at his place either. But the extra small one was more recent. And it was equipped ^^

So there went my first scheme to be able to play on my first console until we had a new TV at home : I told the best buddy to call me on each saturday after lunch to invite me over so I can pretend with my strict mother that he was the one inviting me over : back in time she didn't want me to disturb her neighbors on their saturday afternoon. Even if they were friends of the family.

She is that way.

it became pretty much a routine that whole year : saturday afternoons playing Ninja Turtles and passing the controller to each other at game over.

Pretty soon, everyday in school was just a long wait until week ends when real magic happens in that little TV screen. Despite my mother starting to tell me that I shouldn't disturb family friends on their week ends. Even if the friend started to grow frustrated too with me asking for another run after losing just to get passed through that darn fire ennemy just after a low ceiling jump across sewers waters that I systematically failed ( that unbelievable moment when it was not only chance to pass it but actual technique : I could press the A button for a shorter period of time to make a half high jump, oh boy ! ) : I started to owe him many runs when he decided to just leave me playing there and go out play soccer with other kids outside...

The first real playing session I had was the summer of that same year : holidays in Marrakesh with grand parents, they just purchased a brand new big screen for their new home, a german solid Blaupunkt. 

First nights playing until 3 or 4 am. also first english words learned, whenever I got stuck or didn't understand some text, I asked the uncle and/or father about the meaning with the help of an english/french dictionary.

The next mishap went on that same summer : I played so much in a row, that an afternoon when I was advanced enough in the game and with enough continues to make it far, I had to go out with the family, but that game had no save (in fact, for all I knew at this stage, there was no such thing as a saved game for later, when you die, it is game over when you don't have any more continue game left.. that same thing as when I was way younger and couldn't grasp how come the TV did not resume playback from where broadcast was left off when TV is shut down..true story ! ).

So I left it on pause to resume play after coming back from the errand.

Once I turned back the TV on that evening to get back at it, there was no image on screen. I flipped channels to make sure it was on the right one : yup.

Console still powered on ? Yup.

Checking A/V cable on the back of the screen : pure horror vision.

It literally melted down ! As in plastic melt down all over cables intestins fused together..and burning.

I let your imagination do the work and fill in the blanks for what I heard from the whole family that day..Lucky the house didn't burn down.

Marrakesh summers can be over 45° celsius easy, coupled with long play hours..I guess Nintendo R&D didn't account for that back in time :p

So there went my hopes of finishing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that summer as it was almost school period again.

Memory is fuzzy about those years still, but mostly I had to wait until next year and cousins visit from France to have a new cable as it was not sold separately apparently. With more games.

I was 11 or so by then, and the first sit down catching up with cousins the eldest said : he plays way better than me !

I didn't expect that one since he had more games and leisure to practice than me. I also didn't expect to add mario bros and metroid to my game library.

I stopped playing Ninja Turtles right away and went full crazy on the new ones.

I loved Mario immediately. I don't know if the first game trained me well, or if I simply reached the appropriate age for things to finally click, but Mario for some reason despite the difficulty kept me feeling that it was a fair challenge I can overcome with enough practice/shortcuts discovery little by little.

Metroid on the other hand, was a whole other story.

I almost immediately got frustrated passed the first rooms that you can explore with only the morphing ball without being aware yet that you can bomb stuff while rolling on the dark planet ground. 

So I spent that whole summer playing mostly super mario bros and finishing it. Then getting back to Metroid still getting frustrated with it. And switching back to Ninja Turtles and kicking Shredder past the Bronx and the Technodrome at last :)

I even tried to convince my mom to try Mario : how to move, how to jump : she got all excited when she made it with the right timing after that first gap in the first level, so excited that she promised to convince dad to buy a new TV. 

Yup, still remembering that one. Also that running THEN jumping was too much for her all of a sudden before she drops it telling me those things are not for her age in frustration.

I tried to get back to Metroid before it was time for school again and getting back home away from one the best holidays of my life. I even figured out that the code they give you at the end of the intro could be typed as a starting game password, instead of the ones you get after dying that are continue equivalent (first time I started to get aware of the fact that game over didn't mean you have to start all over again ) : you then get a better start with an additional energy tank.

But I still got frustrated about the lack of progress I made into that really though universe. Even if those new UI elements hinted clearly that there was something important going on there with code M510 ( Also my dad explaining with his engineer superpowers that if my code from previous game overs were not working, it is simply because O and 0 are made distinct on digital symbols with a slash across the 0..those codes were a mess to type in even if the  galaxy federal police was almighty galactic.. )

It was the first year of mid school at this point. So even if we finally had a new TV, the first reaction of my father when he came back from work that day, finding me playing was : unplug right now. School is getting serious. No playing until week ends.

I played along with grade scores defying any critics, so it went on : I don't remember when I heard about the legend of Zelda first exactly, most certainly one of the cousins or a Nintendo game catalog they had, but I begged for that one and made a deal : if I was the first of my class, I could have it. 

So I was the first of my class that trimester. And still remember every detail about that unique day among all : lunch break that spring trimester when my dad came home. I was waiting on the doorstep as soon as I heard his work allocated Renault 4 car number 492 engine stop right outside. A two days tired beard as he steps out holding newspapers and work files.

His amusement when he saw me clearly looking for any hint of the whereabouts of his promised end of the deal. Him holding back just a little more to get me crazy before shouting at him : soooooo?

And a frank smile when he pulled out a golden cartridge from in-between the newspapers like a true magician.

And me almost crying of happiness hugging him quickly before seizing the golden treasure stamped with the Nintendo seal of quality. them keys, hearts and lions on that glorious cartridge.

From that point on : too much epicness all over the place.

I went full gas on that gem of a game that defined my generation for life.

To this day, if I have to choose what game made me realise clear as the day what I wanted to do with my life without a shadow of a doubt, it is definitely this one. And to be as clear as possible : if there is anything comparable to that feeling of knowing instantly something in every atom of your body and soul close enough to what would be a purpose in life. Without even having words to articulate it in a verbal form yet. That was it.

it was not summer yet so the adventure got interrupted by the time I dealt with the last school trimester before getting back to that Blaupunkt goodness, and more importantly no parents around limiting playtime to reasonable hours so I could have my first dive completely immersed all lights off in dungeons, and mysterious lands filled with secrets, traps and powerful ennemies.

I even started to make my English learning a little more efficient : remember that old man in the grave to meet ? Well, I was calling my father on the phone from Marrakesh to be sure that I got it right about the sentence with only a dictionary's help , as I still had to make the connection between grave headstones to push to find secret stairs leading to the last sword upgrade.

I got stuck quite a while also on that hungry ennemy not hurting you, but not letting you pass either until you use that meat you can purchase.(but again, I had trouble younger learning left from right hand, my brain is just wired glitchy I guess..)

As a kid with a limited reach around as no one else had a NES among friends at that time, cousins not coming to Morocco that much anymore, and no Internet back in time or even magazines to have game solutions, let alone game genies and such to cheat my way through, I had to do it all by myself, figuring every tiny detail designers left for me there : game pictures on cartridge cover, game manual, and english language to overcome while at it.

So when I suddenly killed Ganon that afternoon, and learned what the word staff means at staff credits roll (one eye on the dictionary, the other on the screen), I remember that as the moment that made me flip to the other side : I didn't want to play games only at all.

I wanted to make them whatever that meant and whatever the implication behind it was.

I was so crazy excited that afternoon that I had to share what was happening to me with someone : no one was around but grandmas help, a very pragmatic lady that couldn't care less about that crazy kid staring endlessely at a screen pushing buttons with his thumbs.

I told her that I found what I wanted to do in life and she smiled even if she couldn't understand what the fuss was all about before getting back to making bread. She smiled though. I guess passion is contagious after all even if not understood.

I then went on right away pulling Zelda cartridge off and applying the newly learned skills back to that Metroid. I also noticed that my saved file had a sword beside the link before switching games. I would go even more crazy once I understood the implications of a completely shifted world for a second different quest in the same world. I also discovered on my own that using zelda as a save file name get you straight away to that second quest :)

After some days of trying again to figure out what I was missing in Metroid though, I suddenly realised that while rolling and pressing B button, I could drop mini bombs that explode.

Then I figured out that the said bombs could destroy what looked like fragile blocks.

From that moment on, it was my first experience as a somewhat 'aware' aspiring designer, and not only a player looking up to finish a game for the challenge of it.

If Zelda was the first game that made that initial spark be there, Metroid was definitely the hammer that nailed the potential uncertainty down for good.

The more I delved into the planet Zebes abyss, the more I had to explore of it, the more items I found, the more sense I made out of previous enigmatic sections encountered.

That pure game design logic from Nintendo classics stayed with me since then for its absolute elegance, mind blowing perspective on the amount of concrete universe to explore ratio vs small cartridge size ( what others saw as pure virtual insanity was all the opposite for me ).

More than once I heard from a relative or another that I would go crazy if I didn't stop playing to go out a little more.

I didn't care, I was unfolding a whole planet deeply burried mysteries with no one having any clue about the epicness of it all.

Then Samus removed her helmet. And it was also my first encounter with a woman videogame character that was not kidnapped.

It made it even more awesome after a whole year just on that game.

I was for the first time of my life aware on a rational level of the complete and utmost novelty of the medium, its potential, and I started asking myself how in the world those magnificent works of pure interactivity were even made in the first place.

The last game I played on NES was Blaster Master, I didn't own it so I never finished it in the timeframe I could borrow it in, but it was also a very early shaping experience. I missed all sequels to mario and zelda,megamans and castlevania, had from batman only some plays until I met the wall jump mechanic for the first time before having to return it also. But with only the few games I played on that legendary console, it is to this day the one I had some of the most cherished memories as a player and a human being all around.

I even initially didn't want to go into such length about how I started to play games, but since it is a very relevant part to what I became along the road, it had to be out of my system somehow.

Fun fact : the extra courage needed to delve deeper was found thanks to Tom Happ, creator of the upcoming Axiom Verge, this very afternoon in his excellent interview with Jonathan Holmes that you can find here. I really recommend if you love those old school games. 

It made me connect back to those early years, even after all that time I was thinking that I was alone in having trouble with Metroid morphing ball, turns out I wasn't :)

Also, when I heard Edmund McMillen, designer of super meat boy and half of Team Meat, say that he had to break into neighbors house to play Zelda since he was one of the latest kids having a console in his neighborhood : I definitely relate to that too. You can find the interview that I also recommend here.


PART 2. on SNES, fathers, sons and fanboyism.

Around that period, I saw the first magazine in a kiosk during a holiday in Agadir city with the family : Joypad (same French media family as Joystiq when it was paper format only I think..), wanted it badly, dad's answer : no way, 55 dirhams is a kg of meat price. I caught him on a bad day. He still felt bad about it and back from his next trip to France for work I was spoiled with tons of them magazines.

Nintendo player mostly, where I started to learn from interviews with game makers, news, solutions about super nintendo games I was only dreaming of at that point. I asked for the sequel to Zelda if possible in the meantime. A friend of the family in his generous kindness wanted to make me happy, sadly (?) he just iterated a step too much : I had a Zelda 3, already out in Europe, but I had no SNES.

I was sleeping at night with that cartridge under my pillow.

Every single night just hanging in there for a day where I would have that one. As I was aware since always that I can't ask for things unreasonably due to family budget. As harsh as my berber stubborn dad reactions can be sometimes, his lessons towards real life priorities were always a balance centering me when I got too much head in the clouds ( son of a soldier, with a brother and five sisters, he had to fight quite hard to get to where he is in life like his father before him may his soul rest in peace ).

But dreamer I was, dreamer I am still. His DNA in the first place :p

I naturally started lobbying for it when I saw Street Fighter 2 ultimate graphics for the first time at an older neighbor place when I visited him an afternoon when he was sick. I was team Blanka from day 1. But mostly now that I recall it, I remember my first amazement as not screen related : it was tactile.

The difference between the NES controller and the SNES one was definitely the first futuristic impression on me. Those nice curves in the corners that didn't break joints after too much use like the hard edged NES one. Then I died : after some fights, I tried Star Wars..

That desert. That blonde Luke Skywalker amazing hair animation !

I went back home at sunset that day eyes all blinded with pixelated stars.

Then I naturally exploded all grades in school and got me my SNES. I didn't even ask for the package with street fighter, as I saw in Player One ( I stopped reading Nintendo exclusive press also at that point, one of the many lucky coincidences that shaped my life are often seemingly insignificant at first glance, but since I had a bunch of magazines, I could decide for myself which seemed to cover more diverse and developer centric content than the others, this one included also news about Japan/pop culture..Otaku years ahead..) in the ads pages the prices for new and used games and consoles from various French retailers. So I asked for the cheapest possible : new but only the console with one controller. I had a Zelda3 to deal with first.

That was the start of me learning optimal strategies.

Once received and after a long while without a new universe to dive into, I didn't expect to turn into a voracious player all of a sudden. I was finally somewhat at more or less the same western/eastern worlds pace tech wise in my corner of the Earth.

I decided that Shigeru Miyamoto was my new hero when I started to learn about legendary developers making videogames. And how they were made. Also that my years with the NES gave me a proper training : I literally ate Zelda3 in two weeks. Original Zelda goodness elevated to such amazing heights. The first time I experienced what the subconscious mind is capable of was also thanks to this game : I was never stuck except for one puzzle late in the game with the last item. One had to make a block appear on the rolling stairs with the cane of somaria to hit an otherwise untouchable switch, even with the boomerang, bombs etc if I remember correctly.

The fun part was that I saw the solution in sleep : all the steps, the start button push to make the item screen scroll, selecting the right one and executing the solution. Just like that. I saw it all in the dream and tried it as soon as I woke up and it worked. 

Once finished I was expecting to starve that summer until the next year, luckily another youger kid got an SNES too and more games. And he was stuck in Secret of Mana. Tigror boss.

I was stuck too as it was my first encounter with the concept of RPG. It took me sometime to figure out that new concept of leveling up and choosing the proper equipment as an integral and important part of the play experience. Even if the game came with a fully fledged manual, I didn't want to use it until being really stuck. I went full speed on it too. For some weird reason it made me infamous : the kid stopped lending me games because it was unfair to him that I finished them before him.

Next year was the most magical on many levels : donkey kong country buzz was around the corner, Nintendo Player special edition that november for my birthday was packed with a VHS record with a documentary on Rare Studios explaining how they managed to pull it off : silicon graphics machines pre rendering, depth in a 2D game..so many mind blowing concepts for my hungry learning brain back then. Also, a key point I encountered for the first time : those Brits accomplished a technical feat that even Japanese devs believed to be impossible to achieve. Interesting : not only there was many design schools, but programming done at its best is the key to that magic. Getting much more from a console than initially anticipated with original production techniques. Also : so many paths to go ! Those testers seemed to have tons of fun. Making a living playing games before everybody else. If I was not good enough in maths, I'de go that way. 

Amazingly enough, I just found out that it was a Nintendo Power documentary looking for it on youtube just in case :) I still have that tape with French subtitles. It can't get more 90's or hype than that. Advanced computer modeling! 20 computers in a box : the challenge from Silicon Graphics used for Terminator2 special effects, I was in nerds heaven !

( Kids, this is how we were kids back in the days :D hidden track : killer instincts buzz..imagine my state that birthday, even as a Muslim kid it was Christmas before december... )

But for some reason despite all that hype ( and your should pretty much have the picture by now to say the least..) the game I badly wanted was about an earthworm. Called Jim. I don't exactly know to this day why I had an extreme fascination for Shiny Entertainment team ( the fact that my only regret of not having a Sega Megadrive is to this day Aladdin, may have something to do with it. As the fascination was specifically with David Perry's work ) but I rooted for Earthworm Jim being my next game. The other kid rooted for Donkey Kong Country. So we swapped them after each one had plenty of time to explore them. I also managed to play the jungle book that year. My taste for platformers grew a lot more. Even some more gameboy that year as hacked versions with 50+ games started to show around too. Mario land was amazing. I also remember finding the device useful to play in secret, as I did not play those during holidays, and I was still not allowed to play as I'de like to. So starved to play that an afternoon out of nowhere I suddenly had the opportunity to play Aladdin on a Megadrive at a remote friend's friend house. I wanted to see all I could of it in that small window I had at it : I think I reached the last level when I had to get back home way past sunset, and my first migraine/vomit induced crisis due to too much videogames in a row.

David Perry was my hero back then ( beside being the coolest of cool :) ) because the interviews he gave about his games, were very insightful and filled with hints about how games are done. As clear as was my objective to me, I still wasn't aware of what road to take to get there craft wise. Going the programming road was the only option as I had no talent in drawing back then and still. Past a smiley or a stickman figure, I couldn't draw to save my own life ( widespread programmers disease as I understood later, but more of a natural consequence for heavily analytical minds ). And it was still scary. As it was my last year in mid school before serious high school would start, parents were not joking around with future to prepare. I remember to this day : Nick Jones, Nick Bruty, Doug Tennapel, as the first concrete entities making magic happen code/art/animation wise to inspire me further :)

And that was always coming back : maths are important.

My first fail at school in that very specific field still happened. Back then, in public Moroccan school, if inclined towards sciences, there was only two majors. Biology or Maths. The aim being to shoot for prep (very selective) schools and the engineering path in France. Without even being in the French system (private schools in Morocco affiliated with Francophony programs all over the world) it made it a double challenge. 

I kept trying even if the gear shift was the same for everyone, I was not doing as good as usual, but not that bad either. Not good enough for the dad though. Not only I was not allowed to play. But even magazines, posters were all confiscated. I was thinking too much about games. My room had to be one of a monk. Too dispersed. In the kingdom of the blinds etc.. : formulas I kept hearing over and over again. Tolerance towards them started to get lower accordingly.

I was not doing well. But kept working despite it being the first time I felt utterly betrayed somehow. I was used to my mom scepticism, she was not into anything that was not concrete reality at all. But my engineer father going extreme on me old fashioned berber way. It was somehow all of a sudden not the same man that made me love reading books simply by giving me the first one : Akio Morita memories on Sony's empire story from humble beginnings post WWII.

I still hanged in there. And even maths started to click with slightly better grades. I was doing pretty good on the Physics side, all the year I couldn't wait to get to the lessons on transitors and electronics. That was the first year English teaching was official at school, I was doing very good on that side. So I decided to write my first fan letter to Laguna Beach, 3 pages long, with ideas for Earthworm Jim 2 including : push-ups as still animation, spaghetti plate ennemy in a food themed level, Kangaroo boss with baby kangaroo hitting Jim with a frying pan at the end of that level (yes, I wanted it so bad to be a fan letter on that Shiny Entertainment reception hall board I saw a picture of in another interview, typed on the first Macintosh I saw and faxed after my dad called them to have the address). An LCII mac that the uncle in Canada sent to the new office of my aunt in Marrakesh. We played Tetris with a loud game over man! that we had to tone down when we sneaked into the office with the cousin. Another cousin was also back to Morocco from years in Oman (architect father), and he had an Acer. With Gods from the Bitmap Brothers. Boy that thing was glorious. Same pattern, but waking up before dawn to sneak into that other office.

All of a sudden I was aware of the gaming amazing power of serious computers. Way more powerful than my Sinclair Zx Spectrum.

Also Donkey Kong country 2, secret of evermore and Yoshi's Island. That game was the first I 100% like crazy ( the 3 donkey kong countries too after that). Platforming at its finest to this day for me. The artistic direction, gazillion of ideas rate at every frame. And those graphics that demanded a special chipped cartridge for oversized bosses. Very fond of that gem. I got way better at playing games. But I was still starving for how modern games were made. I even attempted to make my own design some years earlier based on Egyptian mythology, I was fascinated by the Pyramids, and that initial Star Wars spark inspired only a level and a puzzle : you run from left to right, suddenly fall to the ground while running and you uncover a shiny metal reflection hidden in sand, if you press the B button for action (A is of course for jumping), you reveal a hidden tunnel that leads to adventure. And we stopped there with the buddy I agreed with to split revenues in half in case we managed to make it together : him drawing, me programming. 

Kids innocence can be pretty cute.

The year was 1996/97, and first satellite channels reception was finally affordable in Morocco. And there was a Belgian show about comics and videogames broadcasting on tuesdays while I was at school. Either I programmed the VHS recorder to start recording at the show time insisting to leave it on that channel and/or asked my mom to tune in to record it for me when she was available. Or at least not mess it up if she changed channels, it happenned many times : getting back from school finding stuff I didn't care about recorded instead of Super Metroid segments. That game was a blast on so many levels. I had it second hand since at this point it was not easily found in France where my father was still travelling once a year for work. But I also started to travel occasionally to Casablanca where I discovered that there was a very lively games (black)market. My first game purchased locally was Illusion of Time. It was weird on many levels but loved it for those some weird reasons. It was feeling off somehow, sketchy compared to the designs I was used to until then. Maybe because it was the first time I was able to play even outside week ends, even for lunch breaks can you imagine ? :p But school was getting way stressing with results to secure, tons of after school private lessons in maths and physics.

Better late than never, I could finally borrow super mario world or was it super mario all stars? The fact is what happened that day was not the best memory I have : dad coming back earlier from work, maybe again a bad day but he didn't like my tone when I answered : I did nothing to his question asking if I worked that afternoon, while still making Mario Jump staring at the screen.

I somehow felt it before it went on, but he unplugged all the cables out of nowhere, took the SNES, went to the hall, raised it high, then smashed the heck out of it on the floor.

The first week I didn't speak in my life. I just said nothing that week.

To anyone.

Things went back to normal slowly with time, my father even bought me another one when he saw me trying to get it fixed eventually in Casablanca ( blackmarket shop owners were doing miracles  to fix broken electronics from what I heard ). I don't know if that unfortunate event was the reason I shifted focus little by little to PC, or just the same process booting again for new tech, but that was the first time of my life I started to feel what depression looks like. 

Not that I knew back then what depression is, but some sort of constant sadness never left me since that somehow. ( as hard working teenagers, I was familiar with burn outs, happened to some of the best in math class around us ).

There was a break when the youger cousin back to NES days was back around for holidays, and I could buy some second hand classics from him, he was either done with them and/or could find them back easily in France : Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter 2 along with the first Donkey Kong Country since I never purchased those. Super Mario Kart was insanely good.

The other reason of being depressed was that I also heard about a French school being the best Computer Science wise. ( EPITA ) 5 years to become an accomplished Computer Scientist. I wanted to do that. But it was private ( 35K francs at the time, more or less 7K euros/USD a year ) and I was already going to cost a lot just with living costs abroad for the family. So that made it a non welcomed desire in the first place. Dad was constantly insisting on top of it about the fact that it was not an officially stamped state enginner diploma. He was all about French public super elitist schools, where I was constantly telling him I am not good enough for those schools. Most importantly, I didn't care about any of it being the best diplomas about general engineering, or even giving some better chances at better jobs.

I wanted to learn how to make videogames and make my childhood dream come true.

So I looked for other ways out : the one that made the most sense to me was the IUT structure ( Institut Universitaire de Technologie). The second best French technical option : a less general theoric curriculum, more specialized and focused on specific disciplines, that could be done in two years to give you the practical knowledge to get early into working life, and could be still a good start if one wanted to pursue a bachelor degree at University after. That solution was also out of the picture : you shall be a major French engineering school graduate like your father or nothing son ! ( after wanting to do medicine school initially, his soldier father conditions as the eldest son were making it out of the question when he was at the same stage : engineering was a reasonably less longer road to go, he went through all of it, internship high school in Casablanca, major engineering school in Morocco, then Ecole des Mines de Nancy on a grant from Moroccan government to perfect his mining knowledge..) so maybe there was some pattern there, but still : watching his friend (the same gifting me the Zelda3 cartridge) deciding for my future with him without me not having a word in it : more and more depression.

I spent all of it on games, hidden, as even the computer I was not aloud to use for other than homework..but all in all, amazing last high school year.

To start with : my first CD containing games I chose on a catalog that the guys in the blackmarket at Casablanca then burnt as long as there was storage space. For 200 Dirhams ( a little less than 20 euros/USD ) I had : Little big adventure, Interstate76, Diablo, MDK, DOOM I & II, Duke Nukem, Bermuda syndrome, Fade to Black, Heroes of Might & Magic 2, Red Alert, Resident Evil... I was reading PC team by then, all depression vanishing when I could dive full into the brand new Pentium100 that the family purchased (once passed an initial fuse blowing since 110V/220V plugs were still marked wrongly around the house..) : after satellites reception, PCs were the new hype. What made PCs popular all over the world was no exception in Morocco. late consoles adopters would not have to spend money on both : PC was ideal both for gaming and work. Needless to say that gaming was still the major use out of it for me. Escapism from all of it as soon as I could.

I was disapointed that Diablo didn't work. I had a blast with little big adventure (first time I heard of the French game designers, second one would be the legendary Eric Chahi on a photo at E3 later that year as he was showing Heart of Darkness to a wild David Perry polishing a Wild 9's already and a Doug Tennapel coming back from a secret meeting with Dreamworks about a yet unrevealed Neverhood..) and Fade To Black..I was amazed by 3D, but most importantly the incredible diversity available out there. So many gameplays. The new discovered ones blew my mind. I tried 3D goodness before on DOOM a year earlier when first saw it on friends computers. But the immersion really got me in Fade to Black and MDK. Those two universes had a huge impact on me in their minimalistic polygonal graphics, even with their early collision quirks that made platforming feel quite different from classic 2D ones I was used to (even tried Jazz Jackrabbit but didn't feel that good on a keyboard vs SNES pixel perfect precision), both games were completely new and innovative, whole new potential out there..I was quite addicted to Heroes of might & magic as it was the first turn based game I experienced ( those music themes made me feel that sounblaster audio cards were indeed sound blasters :) MIDI goodness.. ), Also that MDK ending featuring Billy Ze Kick.. And when I was thinking I had no more games in a while, a gaming buddy that asked for that CD figured out that Diablo was working ! How did he manage ? Simply by copying the folder in the computer first. So far I was just playing directly from the CD-ROM player..First encounter with Windows inner workings/software cracking techniques. From there on I just kept digging. I loved real time strategy too, those missions in Red Alert 2 when I had to alternate between units missions and only heroes for infiltration..I even somehow made father sit through it one day to prove to him games were not only about shooting as in Interstate76.. Resident Evil was a major reveletion too : even in a tiny windowed mode on my Pentium100..first time I jumped indeed from my chair thanks to a videogame..survival horror it was :)

First going in a whole new place with that game : GOSH ! random level generation. Dark quest and adventurers with tons of equipment, gorgeous graphics/mood.. Fun fact : one of the most interesting glitches that ever happened to me. When I reached the last boss, I was playing as a magician, fireballs expert. Prepared this time after countless failures : tons of health and mana potions. Tons of extra hydra scrolls Just before entering the trigger to the boss fight, I just invoked tons of fire breathing hydra heads all over the map, then went for it, running away from diablo, forcing him to walk into hydra fireballs, shooting others with the character. On and on until I had no more magic or health left. Then I died. Then I was sad and almost clicked load saved game when I saw that some invoked creatures kept breathing fire hurting the boss. Even when I was in the all red game over screen. Then diablo died and the end cinematic still played even if it was in game over state. One of the rare frank smiles that year. I was proud of my gaming level at this point.

I had to level up the technical side then. So I tried some tools that were packaged in magazines along shareware and game demos. Click & Play. It was magic : no programming needed. You could assemble little games just in the editor. I don't remember why I didn't persist. Mostly exams and selection contests for major universities approaching and/or qbasic seeming more of a serious way to do it. But I also installed an early 3DSMax copy that the uncle of a friend gave me. He was just graduated from a Moroccan engineering school and was all about computers. Finally ! Somebody I could relate to ! He was never in town unfortunately as he lived in Rabat. But he provided tons of insight on where to go next from there. I made some scenes even without having a single clue. Like always just experimented with the thing when I could, inferring from there on my own the best I can.

The other crazy thing that year was of course the upcoming playstation from Sony entering the Arena. Revolutionary graphics and CD player on a console ( those long gone poor Jaguar and Mega CD..). I would experience it first hand when that school year was almost done. Dad promised the goodness I was all crazy about if I made it to a classic prep school in France : the N64.

Since I first saw it that summer E3, and even if I was mind blown by what I first saw from a school friend's Playstation incredible games : Crash Bandicoot, Destruction Derby..A 64bit machine with a full 3D Mario..I mean : those water splashes when Mario landed into water...So I did my best to secure the best grades possible. I even passed the written exam from one of the best engineering public elite schools in France : ENI (Ecole Nationale d'Ingénieurs..) with no clue whatsoever in the 'technology' exam : the third discipline beside maths and physics that was not dispensed at my school at all. Industrial design mostly. The whole thing was two days with French and English exams too. When I learned that I was qualified to the oral exams in France, the notification was 4 days before the deadline and still had no visa at that point. All the other applications sent were a no go until the last one ; a classical prep school but focused on industrial design too (PTSI : physics, technology, engineering science) when I mainly applied for the other options : MPSI or at least PCSI (chemistry) since I never studied industrial design.

But I had no choice at this point. I tried one last time to convince the dad that I'de better go for an IUT on computer sciences and/or imagery in another city. But he kept insisting that I could pull it off even without the necessary 3 years that applicants for industrial design option had to go through in high school usually. School was almost done at this stage : I could borrow the Playstation from the friend while he was already on holidays and had a blast with two amazing games : final fantasy 7 (gosh!) and Resident Evil 2 ( them cinematics..). They were both in Spanish. I had two weeks and did not speak Spanish. So I couldn't finish (beat?) either one even if I managed to get pretty far ( yes, dad speaks Spanish too..). Especially that a surprise opportunity to go study in Japan was around : Osaka University selecting the best from here. Again that industrial design exam among maths and physics (age limite was 21, so I had even local prep school students passing the test with 2 years ahead in all the disciplines. I was 17 back then..) I did pretty good given the handicap, but of course it was the Playstation playing fault that I didn't get it..

The last event gaming wise that year was then my N64 with Mario. 

120 stars on my own in the first summer holidays week.

To conclude this part, as I type those words, I am hearing my little brother downstairs celebrating his magic summer past midnight : he sold his PS3 and Xbox360 this afternoon at that very same market in Casablanca to buy the wiiU ( besides his cutting edge PC setup ). Mario 3D World in da house tonight. My first friend in France (topic of the next part) also shared his Steam library with me yesterday. I was aiming at Kentucky Route Zero for a long while now too. So, yeah, enough typing for today, the controller is calling.

Life cycles can be pretty amazing :)












Read more about:

Featured Blogs
Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like