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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.

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 b

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