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making my first videogame : a 20+ years quest. Level 2.

parts 3/4 : Studies abroad in France, associate degree in computer science and landing my first job in the industry.

khalil arafan, Blogger

January 13, 2015

23 Min Read

Part 3 : France.

Past the first days of discovery (and an increasing anxiety about leaving my country for the first time to live abroad ( I went to France and ex-USSR as a teenager before for group travels with other kids whom parents were working in the same company as my dad ), end 1998-1999 was the beginning of a whole new chapter.

We drove through Spain after taking the ferry in the north of the country, with an engineer friend of the family from my hometown who my father helped when he was younger as a trainee in his company, and who was living for years in Paris region, always coming back to our town in summer holidays to visit his parents. So that year in September we had that road trip.

Once installed in the student quarters in Champagne-Sur-Seine and met my two roomates, opening a bank account ( my first, I was still 17, legal representative had to sign ) and stamping the student visa on my passport ( temporary for 3 months until I gathered the missing papers as school didn't start yet ) : I started the adult life at last !

I was scared as hell though. There was no issue to make contact with the fellow students. Most of them were coming from other cities, so they all had a room in the students residence. Priority was given to students coming from modest families and/or that lived far away. So most of them also left on friday nights where I stayed alone on week ends. No TV. Barely the CD player of my roommate to listen to radio/music.

And maths, physics, industrial design. Tons of it. All the time. Everywhere.

My first panick was during first practical works : 4 hours, industrial machine tool, and a teach explaining he wanted an engine piece out of a cubic block of metal... First time of my life I had no clue whatsoever what I was doing there. I tried and tried to keep up with the pace with a total lack of background in Industrial design. All other students were already familiar with it for 3 years each at the very least since they all came from technical heavy high schools. They all had as objective industrial design schools that hired top engineers to Renault, Dassault whatever...Some even made their own miniature combustion engines racing cars competing in the residence parking... Physics got way harder too, but I managed my way through most of it including Schrödinger equations.

As of mathematics : absolute king that year :D

I still remember that year start when sun was still shining and school barely starting, how I met my first friend over there ( still a brother to this day ) : Some second years ( prep was typically in two years : math sup and math spé were the terms, as in superior mathematics, and special mathematics , with one chance to redo the second year if you had no school at entry exams or not to schools you wanted in primary list of choices ) didn't believe me when I was asking for hints on how to do good without previous knowledge in industrial design, and told them I already had Linear Algebra, Euclidian spaces and such in high school. So I showed them my last year manual in Arabic, with keywords with French since we had those to prepare for University years. They told me ok mathematics wise you're fine for the year :)

Then Fred from his balcony yelled : who wants to play some Final Fantasy 7 ?

I was definitely in, as he had a small TV and a playstation.

And so started the banding with the gamers in the group. I discovered my first dungeon & dragons/shadowrun role playing week ends also thanks to him. LAN parties. Ghost in the shell. All his doings :) 

First holidays break was during halloween one : I spent some days with the family friend before going back to the extreme solitude of the residence almost empty. I could use the playstation in my buddie's room : so I bought metal gear solid and spent the holidays on it and school work. ( I lost some hours trying to find that radio frequency when it was simply on the back of the CD..got me on this one Kojima, not on the second controller Psycho Mantis boss fight though...)

Went back to Morocco in December for new year holidays and my first come back to the country. I remember that Ramadan I got a cold and was stuck on the ice that I had to melt down with the blue flame in the Ocarina of Time. I told parents week-ends and holidays were a misery without a console. And I was 18 anyway since the november before ( and they missed me around so they couldn't say no to basically anything at this stage :p ) so I took back my N64 to France. I could borrow a small TV from buddies around for week ends when they left for their homes. I was living on a minimum budget ( to stay there, a paper signed from dad's bank had to prove that each month I could receive 5.000 Dirhams on my bank account, something like 3000 Francs back then, roughly 450 euros/USD, or half the family budget to make it a more relevant point. A requested paper to obtain the visa also and justify for how livings costs as a student were handled ), so I couldn't afford to mess around with expenses : I paid the rent. the food. the transportation if I wanted to go visit Paris for the day. Phone card to call home. So I had to cut somewhere if I wanted to buy games and/or music. I couldn't resist Banjo Kazooie. Shadowman ( even the memory extension for the N64 that I was plugging the whole time without turning the feature on in Shadowman until I finished it..since it was a small TV no difference anyway..), Diddy Kong racing..I was doing less and less good at school after those holidays. No matter how hard I tried, industrial design was not clicking at all. I felt a big pressure of wasting family money. More depression. Until the year was almost done where I was still majoring in Maths. not too bad in Physics. But no industrial design skills. French and English were a go too ( tremendous progress on spoken English that year..since every couple of weeks we had an exam on hearing a tape spoken in pure British, the ear had to work hard )

So I sent a resume to the nearest IUT in computer sciences hoping for the best as I was sure more or less at this stage that I wouldn't make it with such low grades in industrial design. I also went to Paris to pass the exam of the EPITA in case I could take a loan in France to pay for it myself. I was accepted, but as a foreigner, the banker explained to me that since some students from Tunisia took some loans for studies and went back home without paying the debt back, it was not possible as their policy changed and my family had to be fiscally established in France to be eligible for a loan.


Back to public schools then. I was accepted in Fontainebleau IUT by the end of that year. A lovely city not too far from the one I was in back then. The hardest part had still to be done : convince my father that it was best for me. Family interveined since not too long ago my little brother was born and the global mood was cheerful. So that summer was globally happy times with more N64 gaming and first contact with serious computer science. The one exception among students living in that residence that year into programming, was the one I heard the words : C source code from.

I did not have enough time though to learn more from him, except that he was talking about his own graphics C library. Too much was going around, so I spent that year mostly adapting to a new culture ( even if as a Moroccan kid from the 80's I was pretty familiar with it ) and establishing contact at a human level. Dealing with extreme loneliness as well. As an extremely shy person since childhood, I had to adapt to Arab (to not say pretty racist) jokes mostly. Especially that I was Amazigh ( North African indigenous ) if it comes down to ethnicity roots. More than often, I had no patience to explain it. Depression was also for a ton of it mostly due to a cold climate as I grew up in a sunny country. And the failure. I was still living it as such where it was clearly a bad orientation choice forced upon me from the beginning.

So the next year was one of the best on tons of levels : real freedom for the first time to pursue what I wanted to so badly after so many years. Relatively know territory. A gorgeous lively town with everything nearby as the students residence was in the heart of the downtown. The year before was in the very same vein of the city I grew up in : a dorm suburbs town with low activity. But most importantly : tons of new friends all focused on computer sciences and coming from role playing/gaming backgrounds for most. The previous year was quite nerd heavy ( ranging from Game Boy Link's awakening players to manga hoarders ) but this one was taken to whole new levels. 

The major shift was that I finally could start learning what I wanted since always : operating systems architecture (hard), Unix (super new), Databases (boring), programming in C and algorithmics (FINALLY), maths (super easy). There was the ultra nerds : all work. No joking around. The kind that was already writing CDROM drivers in assembly, running exclusively on Linux machines. The kind that was there not caring a bit about it, but heard that there is good jobs with good pay in databases for when they graduate eventually. And the kind in between like me who either didn't make it in prep schools, and/or not aiming at theoric advanced studies and wanted a job right after a short period of studies for diverse reasons. I happened to relate immediately with the one who will become my next brother for life from France : started on Commodore 64 in the demo making scene in assembly language, huge strategy games fan and compulsive smoker. The first break that day since I knew nobody yet, and saw him go outside to smoke with nobody around, it was pretty clear that others already had some history since they scattered in multiple small groups, I could as well hang with him. We could only spend time together in school since he was not living far and went home by car. Most other students owned cars already. So in the evening it was mostly hanging with friends back at the residence. My roomate was in the second year in the same school, and from Moroccan origins. French citizen born and raised in France. It made that year easier. I still didn't owe any computer though, all practical knowledge was gathered from sessions in school either on Borland compilers or native Unix terminals for systems/SQL databases practice. The most advanced ones were all on their machines installing varieties of Linux flavors. 

I still was the only one that year to ever reach a 19/20 in a math exam. I did pretty well since I was 17/120 in the year leaderboard. Yes you guessed well, the dad still found room that summer back at home to gratify me with that now legendary : " in the kingdom of the blind.."... Also : I had to watch my money use since I had socks with holes but tons of new games/CD's

I still didn't care and had a blast with Diddy Kong Racing, Golden Eye, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong 64, Rayman 2...I don't remember precisely which summer of those I played which one of those classics, but I had an old TV around the spring of that year from a fellow student not using it anymore, so I started grabbing those classics as I could in the budget I had. My buddy from France and another I met since also came to visit that summer. 

Then 2000/2001 happened.

On the technical side : C++, UML, Java, Assembly, Tcl/Tk, php, economy, web design (Fireworks/Dreamweaver/Flash suite). Also my first computer hacked around the second semester thanks to Fred that I continued to see around holidays when he invited me for a stay at his parents place instead of staying alone in the residence ( I was alternating mostly between him, Guilhem and the family friend mostly for Ramadans or some week ends ) : so more games but he was a PC fan with his brother. The computer he generously hacked for me was an AMD K6 ship or something along those lines. It was old and slow, but it was functional. It played Warcraft II at least ( yes, first time I played it... ). I could use it to put together my first website (also 19 in the imagery class). The windows machines in the lab at school were often crowded, but I played around with Bryce3D and Terragen when I could for fun. I was fascinated by rendering but way behind in pure graphics programming. Not that anyone around was into it ( except some demomakers assembly geniuses, but they were doing it the old school way). I remember my frustration of wanting to be at that level. Chatting was also pretty popular in the machines Lab ( my first encounter with the Internet was back in 1997 at Marrakesh in the first cybercafe, Netscape and all :) ) 

The previous year I heard for the first time about Quantic Dream with Nomad Soul, one of the biggest French hits, and saw on their website the job opportunity for scripters and kept it in mind. Gaming that year also included : Black & White, Sacrifice, Giant Citizen Kabuto, Counter Strike and Unreal Tournament. I was not that much into shooters and still. Also the first voxel engine I saw in action on a Celeron processor machine of a resident student :  Outcast. 

That second year was pretty harsh on many levels though. Long stories short : severe depression due to a broken heart ( suffice to say that I am single more or less since ), picked up on smoking, and a half time job in a fast food to finance the new expense..Learning Java/C++ properly and handling the end year project were pretty fuzzy ( still managed to model the whole database of the school with MySQL plus interface with php in a single application handling teachers entities, students, schedules and the logic of it all..). I felt like I should redo the year though..teachers insisted that I still deserved to pass so I found myself on summer 2001 with no immediate perspective about the next step. I was more than eager to get into the industry one way or another, hopefully as a programmer, but never got to that spot of enough confidence about my skills. I wrote to some French studios for the mandatory trainee period to get the associate degree. Kalisto and Infogrames if I am not mistaken. Still have the rejection letters somewhere.

Then one afternoon I stopped by to say goodbye to the system admin there in an empty school, everyone was already on holidays and remembered out of nowhere that previous year job opportunity at Quantic Dream. I checked again but there was no new job post. I still sent a spontaneous application. I also contacted for the first time the one and only David Perry and he was kind enough to reply. Heck I even sent a resume to Lionhead studios..

And I got a call back for a job interview with the legendary Olivier Nallet.

Yes, the very CTO on the Nomad Soul himself.

I couldn't even believe it.

Part 4 : Quantic Dream

I remember that day as if it was yesterday. In fact, I tried to get back to writing this several times since the last post but couldn't simply do it. Even 14 years after the events. Especially with all the stuff going around in France lately. Still : one of the best days of my life so far.

Interview date was settled. Sunny July day, heart full of hope for the first time in a very long while, showed up at Davout boulevard utterly excited and scared. 

A wild Olivier Nallet appeared at the door. The office was empty, neat open space, he told me he forgot that it was a RTT day ( special leave days you can take in French labor law, I was technically eating one day of his year holidays ), then we went on with the interview. Checklist of all the things I know about in programming : Visual Studio ? Nope. MFC/Win32 ? Neither. C++ : Ok. DirectX ? Nope. For a long time I was reading stuff like 3DSMax manuals (without even a computer to run it) thinking it woul get me into making games somehow.. I communicated my level honestly, passion also, background, fully aware I was in for a scripter position, he reassured me gently about the checklist being simply to assess if I can be of any help with the R&D team. Kinda my goal back in time : to be as good as those guys someday hopefully technical skills wise.

After the meeting I sat on the first bench I found, breathing again, lit a cigarette and called my father in Morocco from my mobile. Couldn't care less about the cost of the call at the moment, I was not sure at all I'de get the job but felt the urge to share the optimistic feel with him. I was finally getting somewhere with my crazy dream against all odds. 

The most inspired week of my life followed, after all this pain, and even before getting there officially, I was at the same time almost sure I would get it, without being sure at all.

So I played Homeworld.

And David Cage called in person a week after. 

I got the job.

I still couldn't believe it while not being able to even cry of happiness.

I went to the the office again to sign the contract, six months of trial period, renewable. This time everyone was there and I was super amazed by the feels of finally seeing what it is like to be in that buzzing busy bees environnement full of super talented creative people. It was the 08/08/2001.

I had to start the procedure that was scaring me the most : apply for a worker visa. I was in France on a student one since 1998 that I renewed every year. And apparently it was far from easy from what I heard. For the part time job, as a student I couldn't work for more than 21 hours a week, with 3 months during the year that I can do fulltime, with a total max of 800 and some hours a year.

To work fulltime I had to apply for the worker visa. I was also worried for a place to live since I had to leave the school campus residence by end August. Luckily my new buddy from that year proposed to share his small studio until I was sure papers and contract were definitive. So I applied and started work on Fahrenheit the indigo prophecy that was due on PC release online as episodes back then. I was introduced to everyone in the team the first day, got along with everybody, stars all over the eyes to learn little by little about everyone. I couldn't also believe the beauty of the thing when I saw it running for the first time onscreen as my direct team lead was showing me the tools and pipeline used. Scared first from the sheer newness of all of it, feeling somehow like a total fraud after the previous year, but got the hang of it by the end of the first week : scripting the diner opening scene of the game logic like I was doing it for the longest time. The team had its own tech, using an IDE similar to Visual Studio for scripting. I also had a copy of the first couple of episodes scenario to read in order to make all elements fit together : animations, scenes, logic, cameras... First time I heard about that QTE thing. Had a hard time wrapping my head around it since as a player it didn't make much sense to me. The engine was not ready for all of that yet. Another part of my job as most of the scripting team was not programming saavy per se is to interface with the tools/middleware team for the code skeleton to prepare for the other members before adding their logic into it as well as feedback on different features added to tools : syntax coloring, compile times and so on..Best moments of the day being in the morning with the coffee watching over graphic designers shoulders sketching stellar stuff and lunch breaks, going from programmers gatherings to artists ones. 

Then 9/11 happened live that afternoon in the office. I was with my mom on the phone. She was somehow mad at me for leaving school for something that could put my situation at risk since I had no fallback plan in case it didn't work out. She was worried about me not having any visa yet for that year and not finishing my studies mostly. I was upset that she couldn't even acknowledge the victory there. Never been in any private school. I was not even 21 and had my first job in one of the top world videogame studios as a junior programmer, paid 9.000 francs back in time. My first real salary. Creating my own luck with perseverance and skills I gathered painfully over the years even if they were way far from being sufficient to make it as a R&D programmer. I was there. From my little hometown in Morocco.

After hanging the phone I saw all the team slowly gathering behind an animator screen, the towers were collapsing. My situation too shortly after that.

It began with the boss asking for me one morning in his office, telling me he received papers from the administration asking him for fees about medical exams I had to pass for the Visa. The rate was different between Moroccans, Algerians, Libanese, Tunisians etc.. It was about half my salary so he asked me what he should do. I told him he could cut that out of my payday. He replied that he couldn't. So we went with a lower salary for the first six months, and raise it back up after. It was more than they asked of him, but went with it anyway since I didn't have much of a choice. ( Did I ever mention I was a crazy shy guy since childhood ? ). 

By end October 2001 I had the verdict from the foreign workers office : rejected. Motive : for my line of work, scripter, in Paris region, there were 971 jobs demands for less than a 100 offerings, so in clear : priority to natives. Which I perfectly and fully understand. The thing is as it turned out : they were confusing jobs. Apparently according to my recruiter, the administration confused it with scripters on movie sets. I could appeal their decision, by providing a letter from the boss explaining why I was relevant as a candidate to recruit me instead of a French worker, along with a motivation letter from me appealing for my case.

Panic mode kicked in for real but did my best to hold on to that last summer hope. Wrote a 3 pages long letter explaining the what and why of my situation as a Moroccan trying to make a decent living from his lifetime passion in France. The boss redacted a neat paper explaining what a scripter is in the videogame industry and what skills were required, adding the shortage of talent in France to the mix. And crossed my fingers. Depression still started kick in again as parents were worried more and more. Dumped by the new girlfriend. France winter. Living in 12 meters squared room with my buddy without working commodities still, doing a couple hours train ride a day back and forth between Paris and Fontainebleau. I asked David Cage then if my work is satisfying or if I should register at University as a fall back plan for a student visa in case my file didn't make the appeal. He told me not to worry, the whole team is happy with me and my work. That at least kept the hope alive somehow until December, along with Max Payne and Outcast ( That soundtrack ! Seriously ! ). The engine now had pathfinding, polygon count for the PS2 version of the tech was over 2 millions, dinner party even for the team members who crunched some nights to be ready for a demo event...I admired those guys and still like insane. Some were in conflicts and were no longer part of the team. And it was apparently my turn. When my paperwork had the greelight, I was told there was an issue with my work. Not delivering scenes in time. I lost some time one afternoon due to a bad manipulation archiving in visual sourcesafe ( was not used to it and lacked focus anyways those days..), plus I guess the fact that I told my team lead it was useless to write scripts in advance for features not available since the syntax was not defined yet in the scripting engine..And/or other reasons most certainly. I didn't even try to argue and make my case that day I was told it wouldn't be possible to continue with them. I didn't even have the will to fight anymore when I heard David Cage tell me to not hesitate if I needed anything for the papers and the visa.

I needed to stay there at least until I had the worker Visa to be able to find something else without worrying about immigration.

I needed that 6*1500 francs deduced from my initially agreed upon salary to see at least a month or two coming.

When waiting for a visa I had 3 months temporary ones until the one issued for the year comes through.

So there I was that December 2001. Visa due to expire in February. No school. A dream crushed quickly after a bite from the paradise. No money. No roof.

Videogames !

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