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Making my first game : a 20+ years quest. Level 3.

Parts 4/5 : University years, back to Morocco and landing my second job in the industry.

khalil arafan, Blogger

January 15, 2015

17 Min Read

Part 5 : University.

2002 kicked in. I was numb on every level with no clue on the next step. Almost took the decision to call it a day and get back home if not for Guilhem, my other brother in arms ( the kickass assembly programmer from the C64 demoscene... ), who kindly proposed to provide shelter with his family until I got back on my feet. As much as I loved all the new friends that I made that first half of the year, it was pretty chaotic situation wise. On the bright side : started playing percussions with an Afrobeat/Funk band, adventure that would last 4 years, thanks to the new introductions, that I still cherish like brothers and in contact with to this day ( les frères Smith second album is due later this year :) ), more gaming & LAN parties, writing a science fiction novel (yes, I did, 350 pages long in French, bad, but still did and even registered rights and submitted to some publishers...) and even another job interview in the game industry : GBA years, programmer position on the adaptation from Titeuf, the comics French character. I had a couple of weeks to program a running prototype of a character walking around and offscreen memory buffering for the scrolling...The recruiter gave me a CD with the SDK they use with the official kits from Nintendo. It was my first real encounter with professional grade tech used by the one publisher I am just deeply in love with since I was a kid. And again failed miserably. I was stuck on making the pipeline work properly with Visual studio, makefiles for different compilation steps involved.. I was still in a total fog from the previous year, where I wasn't solid enough on system programming skills, tried my best with the docs but I lacked the general computer science background let alone confidence to see it through. They had a guy from EPITA school I wanted to do initially do the whole demo in 2 days. 

I tried hard to not let it grow on me, most importantly, I couldn't even afford that luxury. The foreground worry being that I knew my administrative file was still between immigration services since my work visa procedure didn't go through with the previous employer. So I went again to deal with it a week before the last temporary visa expired. It was March or so by then, and told the lady there the whole situation. She asked me to wait for a hierarchical superior (first time it happened in 3 years..), and for the first time I felt treated somehow humanly by the administration, a gentle lady past her fifties. Heard me out explaining the whole mess of the year, but also looking at me closely letting me know with no words she was no fool. I told her basically that University file submissions for next year are almost there, and that I was not in France to live illegally, I tried to build something, it failed, if I am accepted in any university I'de give studies another run. If not I'de go back home. They gave me another 3 months visa. Sent applications to ParisVI, ParisVII and Créteil (Paris suburbs, nearest one to my buddy's house that had computer science degree ) universities. Moved out by end June to various other friends places for a couple or 3 weeks each, more than abused Guilhem's family generosity. I had almost no energy anymore to deal with all of it when I had approval from both Créteil & ParisVII. Went with the latest since it was a more theoric solid background. Renewed visa for 3 months and went back home for the first time in two years that summer with Martin (band guitarist, previous years it was Guilhem and other buddies). I recharged batteries some and went back to hopefully a fresh start. 

And it was, after the initial search for a place to stay. Once rent was dealt with ( room chez l'habitant, a house where me and a Libanese engineer at l'école des mines had each a room, shared facilities, 250 euros - half my monthly budget ), I could finally get back to learning. And I did. Loved every new aspect of the things I never did so far computer science wise : algorithmics, language theory ( grammars, Turing Machine, compiling..), more abstract mathematics (second order logic..), and more programming with Java that year. One of the projects due that year counted for both algorithmics and Java programming. Sorting algorithms to implement, with binary trees and tabs. 2 with each data structure : a slow algorithm and a quick one to illustrate differences. input being a text, output being words count of each in that text, sorted in a dictionnary. Spent that christmas holidays on it, even slapped a graphic interface on top of it : 17/20 was the grade. I still had no Internet back then so it was limited anyways about activities. Mostly played some Freelancer. Made a bunch of new friends also. One of them being a Nintendo fan also, I was again like a kid those couple nights he invited me over to give Metroid and the wind waker a try on his gamecube. Then by end January, a week before mid term exams, had to go to my appointment for visa (appointment taken by September, since I was living in a new area I had to go to Versailles Prefecture for this one..waiting line was apparently six months long..), to see myself being treated like shit by the administration, also for the first time : the lady asking me for required papers went along until she started to go through my previous year. Then she called her superior. Shouting at me litteraly when she saw I was without situation for six months the previous year. " WE ARE NOT FRANCE TO KNIT SIR ! IT WILL BE A RESIDENCE INTERDICTION FOR YOU SIR "..I couldn't even say a word to explain that in the last year prefecture they understood the situation and let me stay until I subscribed to studies again..She almost threw back my passeport at my face, mumbling it is a pass for 3 months but I won't get a visa. "Wait until you hear from us"..I was livid.

I couldn't even write a single word on paper for exams. Spent those 3 months almost in bed, reading this most excellent book (well worth its 50 euros) and praying to the skies, utterly depressed for good, waiting for the mail telling me to get out of the country anyday.

By end April I went back to the prefecture since 3 months temporary visa again expired but I didn't hear from them. They kept me waiting from 8am to 12. I saw that very same lady moving around, looking at me from afar once in a while then going back to whatever. I kept reading ( I always read when I have waiting time of any kind ) then they told me : " we did a favor this time. You can stay."

I wasn't even relieved at this point. My whole year went south. Did my best to salvage what I could from that semester modules : system programming/databases I think. First semester was to redo almost entirely. Landlord was getting more racist by the day also (mainly because we were both smokers, me and the other new roomate, Turkish, the Libanese one couldn't take her shit for long ), so again to moving in with buddies until I could find something in Paris this time, transportation to suburbs was eating time and money anyways. Bag got stolen one afternoon, yes, with passport in it. So I couldn't return home that summer. Worked at a fast food instead to make some bucks and better prepare for next year. Finally found a room that I could call mine despite it being over expensive (285 euros, sixth floor without elevator, 12 square meters..) after many failed attempts as soon as they heard I was Moroccan. Still no Internet. But tried to get back on my feet, some DirectX (still hard), gentoo Linux on spare time. Played maybe Syberia and Severance...old games that could run on my computer getting old again.

Spent a couple more years trying to get that bachelor degree in absolute misery juggling between harsh finances, papers.. mostly the feeling of total insecurity I was having constantly by then. I never recovered from that previous day when I realised my whole destiny was depending on a whim of public administration employee. New laws then went something like : if you are a student and fail two years in a row, your staying can and will be questioned. 

Plus tired just by thinking about the total waste of energy and most importantly family's money on me not delivering.

So I sent it all to hell and quit France after 7 years trying to build a life there. it was August 2005.

Part 6 : Ubisoft

Back to my homeland that summer. I wasn't even knowing how I did feel or should feel for that matter. I knew I was a disappointment to my family. Heck even a guy I ended up sharing the road back home with in a bus through Spain with my 80 kilos worth of possession (computer central unit, screen was left behind, mostly books) was making fun of me : people do all they can to go the other way and you're going back home ? Even the director of a private school my parents tried to convince me to get into to pursue studies was like : most our students aim to start studies here and go for a phD in Europe after, why did you leave France ?

And I was like : fuck all of it. And played all the games I could on a ps2 my uncle generously offered me. I started with Fahrenheit. Prince of persia(s), Devil may cry(s), Jax & Daxter(s), god of war then Ico...What can I say ? I missed so much. I started to heal again. Uncle even more generously offered a new computer. There went Half Life 2, and the first attempt to make something on my own...old acquaintance from France ( I was teaching his son some maths/physics back at Paris ), also Moroccan and starting his company in Casablanca. He wanted an assistant. There went my first job back in my native land. It didn't last since the company never kicked off and I was never paid. So I went doing tech support at Dell for 400 USD or so a month. It was the most stable thing I could find then given my skills and the state of computer science related industry in Morocco. It was mostly databases. I wanted to make videogames. So I went with something I could do without frying what was left of my brain during the day and work more seriously on making something by night. I ended up mostly playing, it ate way much energy anyways fixing printers by phone in French. So God of war 2, shadow of colossus and Okami it was. The holy trifecta for me back then. I couldn't take it anymore also at Dell and moved on to an adventure with a programmer I met to make websites. He was in the biz for some years on his own and wanted to go bigger with a team. We made some websites until he disappeared on us. Out of nowhere. It was 2007-2008 by then. And I heard Ubisoft was creating a campus for students in Casablanca, including a computer science curriculum along animation, modeling and level design ones. I applied but also had by a mere coincidence an opportunity to meet someone who was there as a programmer. He was kind enough to communicate the email of  one of the leads there to send a resume to. I did but was apparently not good enough since I barely had a bachelor degree and not a full engineering one (master or engineering school) to make it as a programmer. I was told my resume was on the level design pile. And I was fine with it. Willing more than ever to do it all over again to get a foot in the door. Because : VIDEOGAMES ! I waited more than a month, contacted them back, still no news. So I had to take another job to go by in a call center ( tech support for the Free Telecom operator in France ) until I had a concrete start.

My little brother was 9 by then btw, and he had his own DS ( you guessed right, I am the culprit putting a PS2 controller in his tiny hands when he was 6, Jax and Daxter, he was crying at gameovers but he sure wasn't behind as I was at least :p ), so I borrowed it to fool around with homebrew stuff... Remember that failed GBA programmer job interview ? This time around I had compiled code written in C language with Visual Studio and a working side scroller playable from the console with a homebrew cartridge. Sorry to say piracy is still rampant around here. The only way for many to get games they can't afford otherwise. ( One of the promises to myself since my N64 is to purchase all that library of games I loved in digital form if I ever end up making a living someday ...)

One of the buddies from Dell years (he was into world of warcraft, bonding was pretty obvious :) ) made it as a level designer at Ubisoft. He told me there was an open doors day for potential students of the campus. I went straight away and hanged around with the people I already met. It was pretty crowded and since it was an opportunity to meet the studio head in person, I waited until all presentations were finished with the groups then asked him if I could have a word. He generously agreed to do the presentation again even for me alone before I told him I already applied for the computer curriculum that was cancelled after all. It was meant to be in collaboration with an engineering school in Casablanca but only other disciplines were maintained. Also that I sent a resume to apply as level designer and still waiting for a potential interview, and my background back in France. He promised me a call from HR soon, the company was between moving to new offices and handling all students files for the new campus. But they were expanding teams and the need was definitely there. Hope came back for the first time in a very long while again when I was finally called for an interview with the lead Game Designer. I quit the new job and went for it. 

After answering several questions about games I love or hate and why plus an informal discussion, I was asked to produce a game design on one page. I detailed a decent RTS concept I had from some years ago in an hour. And went back home pretty satisfied. A month or so after they called back for an interview with the new official HR ( the one I talked to so far is a programmer as I would find out later ) from Montréal. At some point when we were going through the detail of my background something just clicked in my head and said : " I am fine with level design if it is the only position available, but if by any chance you need a trainee among programmers, I would love that too ". To my utter amazement she agreed since my background was in computer science. Meeting went well and she told me they would contact me soon for either possibility : level designer job, or programming trainee offer. 

Mom : "Why are you asking for more when you are not sure to get the first job in the first place ? " ...

They still called back for another meeting with Prince of Persia forgotten sands on Nintendo DS Project Director. Also a previous programmer in the company and the HR. It also went well and had even a small compensation for the training period : 200USD. Covered bus and smokes just fine since I went back to living with the family who moved to Casablanca since my father retired in 2008.

And there I was happy again. Fact reinforced by being in my own country, working for a AAA game studio, in programming. But I was still not there yet. All the programmers around were rock solid, and I had to get back on the C++ saddle as quick as I can. My task was to improve on some tools needed by animators and artists. Displaying animations lists on the DS screen and a basic interface they could work with to scroll between characters and animations. I was loving all of it : having access to official Nintendo DS kits, docs, and C sample code commented in Japanese. I couldn't be happier. Learning from veteran programmers, most of them were there since 1998 and the studio opening in Morocco. Some were openly making fun of my lack of skills, it didn't help gain confidence as I was already feeling like a fraud as is. It was hurting double since I admired all of them without exception.

I still kept at it. Learning as much as I could even if I didn't make it past the training period. 

Then I made it. First six months contract signed to be apart of Prince of Persia forgotten sands engine programming team. Pre-production was just starting and my role was to handle 2D programming. Mostly the HUD, 2D mini map (went 3D in definitive), credits screens, menus... It was not easy everyday since finding my way through a huge in-house engine and learning many new tools (Perforce, CodeWarrior...) on the go as well as working in a big team where one's work had impact across all other disciplines, but I ended up handling my part from pre-production to debug and release. At the end of that project things started to shift. The studio director changed. Students from campus finished their year ( trained mainly by co-workers ) and there was no clear project ahead. Decisions were mainly made in Paris on that front as far as I understood it then. I was mainly struggling to get code done and not piss off more experienced devs asking for help much. So we went into availability period. Term used in house for members not assigned to a particular project. So we were on jam period, doing research on mini games/social games around Prince of Persia theme. 

Then one morning we see a veteran programmer leave on a contract end. The very one that trained me. And my turn next even if technically it was more of a not renewed contract in my case. He was there from 1998. I had 2 * 6 months contracts (on top of 6 months trainee period ) signed so far, labor laws in Morocco dictates that at this stage either a non duration determined contract was signed or no recruiting at all. I didn't sign any new contract. Economical crisis and so on as a reason given to me. 

As it turned out many more left soon after (around 20). Layoffs were brutal as size reduced to handle only one project for next gen consoles. Many students left opportunities to go into the campus, they were not all recruited as promised neither. What were level designers supposed to do ? At least other fields could be applied elsewhere. Most of the ones I worked with were also left on the side.

There I was having to do it all over again from scratch. 

At least this time around I had my name in the credits of a AAA game, my C++ code passed Nintendo certifictaion without crashing and I implemented a crash bandicoot like camera effect in menu screen for fun without it being in the official specs of the said game.

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