Gunpei Yokoi – The Mother Brain

Think of Nintendo, and what do you see? Mario jumping on a Koopa, Miyamoto’s irrepressible grin, or one of the many consoles, perhaps? The few photographs that survive of Gunpei Yokoi don’t have the same iconic quality – but maybe they should. If Miyamoto is emblematic of the company’s seemingly endless imagination, then Yokoi stands for something just as important : its way of thinking. “The Nintendo way of adapting technology,” said Yokoi, “is not to look for the state of the art, but to utilise mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply.” Think of a man saying that in the seventies: then think of the DS and Wii.

Gunpei Yokoi
Gunpei Yokoi

Yokoi joined Nintendo in 1965 straight from Doshisha University, where he’d studied electronics. The serious young man, a Kyoto native, had made the rounds of local companies after graduating, and Nintendo had hired him to maintain its many machines responsible for turning out their Hanafuda playing cards. Yokoi would later confess, with one imagines a twinkle in the eye, that he chose Nintendo over others because it was an easier commute! Little record remains of Yokoi’s first few years in the company, but there is one clear fact: the job could not hope to contain his restive and ingenious imagination. In his spare time, Yokoi had constructed many toys for his own amusement – a natural tinkerer, he built things out of whatever was around. In 1970, fully five years after joining Nintendo, Yamauchi saw one of Yokoi’s creations.

It was a contraption made out of a wooden lattice, with a grip bolted on one end and a handle on the other – if you held the handle and squeezed, the wooden ‘arm’ extended and the grip closed. Despite having no practical applications, it brought a smile to Yamauchi’s face: though very far from a whimsical man himself, he understood the value of playfulness in a product. Yokoi’s invention would become known as the Ultra Hand, and sell more than a million units – the first success of a career that would be defined by Tokoi’s restless re-purposing of technology.

The Ultra Hand
The Ultra Hand

After the Ultra Hand, Yokoi was no longer Nintendo’s maintenance man, but the star of its new Games division. Its success made him Nintendo’s ideas man, tasked with coming up with the next big thing on a regular basis and presenting his labours to Yamauchi for a verdict that would dictate the product’s future. Nintendo’s president was a mercurial man with absolute faith in his own judgement, who would unhesitatingly dismiss an invention or immediately start full production – but in Yokoi’s case, the decision was nearly always positive.

The Don, Hiroshi Yamauchi
The Don, Hiroshi Yamauchi

Over the next few years Yokoi produced hit after hit: The Ultra Machine, the Ultra Scope, the Love Tester. “It was a time of great fun,” said Yokoi. “I saw myself as a cartoonist who understood movements in the world and created abstractions of them.” These inventions were full of shrewd touches. The Ultra Machine pitched baseballs to be hit – but they were lighter than a normal baseball, so the machine could be used indoors. The Ultra Scope was a periscope that kids could use to spy round corners or over the top of fences. The Love Tester, a device that Yamauchi instantly saw would be huge, was Yokoi’s first electronic toy – a boy and girl gripped a handle each on the toy, and held hands to complete the current. The machine would then feed back a number that measured their ‘love’ – nonsense, of course, but in 1970s Japan any excuse for young couples to hold hands was daring and had that sweet tinge of the forbidden.

In 1973 came a shift in the scale of Yokoi’s ambition, and a glimpse of the future. Yokoi had been shown small solar cells that the electronics company Sharp was producing, and he wondered what fun application they could have. The answer, as ever, was both simple and ingenious: a very basic solar cell would serve to pick up a light source, and this could be used to trigger a circuit. To put it another way, you could aim a beam of light from a gun and, when it ‘shot’ the right spot, a can or bottle or plastic pigeon could explode as if hit by a bullet. This became the Laser Clay Shooting System, and was wheeled out into custom-built venues (former bowling alleys) – it was a great success, but soon demand faded. Yet Laser Clay Shooting would later become a standalone home game called Duck Hunt. Later still, Duck Hunt would be remade for the NES, with Yokoi’s team not only developing the game but also the NES Zapper to play it with – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

From 1974 onwards, Nintendo’s focus narrowed: home electronics was where its future lay. Though Yokoi continued to invent physical toys and Nintendo still manufactured them, perhaps the most impressive being the fiendish Ten Billion Barrel puzzle in 1980, videogames were now Nintendo’s industry – and they were proving themselves masters of it. The Color TV 6, a home console that played six variants of Pong, was Nintendo’s first home console, and designed in collaboration with Mitsubishi. Price was of the essence – Yamuachi dictated that it must undercut the existing competition by a large margin.Yokoi worked on this and its various successors, becoming one of Nintendo’s very first videogame designers in the process.

Color TV 6
Color TV 6

The evolution of videogames is, of course, inextricable from the evolution of technology. But Yokoi thought differently about Nintendo’s creations, believing that using old technology in new ways was the surest path to success – nowhere is this better seen than in the invention of the Game & Watch. Yokoi had noticed something when he was commuting: bored businessmen. One had a pocket calculator, an increasingly common (and therefore cheaply mass-produced) electronic object, and jabbed idly at the buttons to pass time, fiddling for the sake of it. Yokoi put two and two together and realised that, using similar technology, Nintendo could make something much more fun than a calculator. But would people buy it?

Yamauchi thought so, and Yokoi and R&D1 were instructed to make what would become the Game & Watch – the game was what everyone would really buy it for, while the watch side was a useful extra function that let its players claim they were checking the time. Yokoi used a simple LCD screen layered over a painted background and produced Ball, the first Game & Watch – no bigger than a pocket calculator, and selling for a similar price.

Game & Watch: Ball
Game & Watch: Ball

Its success was instant. Over the next decade Nintendo would produce sixty varieties of Game & Watch and sell over forty million of the devices. Game & Watch would also lead to some of Yokoi and Nintendo’s most crucial innovations – the dual-screen design that would later be used for the DS was a Game & Watch original, as was the clamshell case of the GBA SP. The Game & Watch also presented Yokoi with a problem that he solved in one of the most brilliant moves in videogame history: too many buttons. The earliest G&W devices used distinct buttons for movement, but as the games became more complex the device risked becoming over-crowded with individual buttons – and Yokoi considered a joystick, but found it far too clumsy for a portable device.

So Yokoi invented something that Nintendo still hold the trademark for today: the d-pad. Simple and brilliant, the history of videogames is unimaginable without it. The d-pad was immediately incorporated into the design of the Famicom (NES) controllers, and every subsequent Nintendo console. More than that, the continued success of the Game & Watch series throughout the eighties showed that Yokoi’s philosophy of affordability and long battery life was sound: the foundations, of course, for the Game Boy.

A quick word about R&D1. Yokoi had been in charge of his own team since the mid seventies: Yamauchi divided his employees into three groups with different responsibilities. Genyo Takeda, Yokoi’s protege and current senior managing director at Nintendo, described his former mentor as “the sharpest designer” at Nintendo, and Yokoi headed up Research & Development Group 1, the team that among other achievements designed the Game Boy. This small team of engineers, a subtle and quiet group of operators, were described by one Nintendo colleague at the time as “a band of samurai” – dedicated, fiercely loyal, and unquestionably brilliant. Yokoi, although undoubtedly their leader, would have insisted credit be shared.

The Game Boy, R&D1’s finest moment, is yet to come. In the early eighties Nintendo’s efforts were focused solely on the Famicom, and making it a success first in Japan and later in America. Yokoi and his team turned their hand to making games for the system, and the first wasn’t too bad: Metroid. This was followed by Kid Icarus and Famicom Wars (known in the West as Advance Wars), an astonishing start – but one of Yokoi’s other inventions arguably had a more direct impact on the fortunes of the NES.

The Robotic Operating Buddy, better-known as R.O.B.
The Robotic Operating Buddy, better-known as R.O.B.

Everyone remembers the Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB for short. In truth ROB didn’t do much – it picked up blocks, linked to a couple of NES games, and swallowed batteries at a prodigious rate (the only one of Yokoi’s inventions to do so). But it looked cool, like a super exciting toy, and that made it the perfect Trojan Horse for the NES, faced with an American market still wary of the word videogames following a market crash of 1983. Nintendo decided to market the NES as a new kind of toy, moving as far away from the stink Atari had created around ‘videogames’ as possible. Nintendo’s marketing blitz was ROB-led, the system came with ROB as a pack-in – and it flew off the shelves. A year later Nintendo would quietly retire the accessory, but it was an essential differentiator and selling point for the early days.

By this time, Yokoi was working on perhaps his single greatest invention: the Game Boy. This device would build on the principles Yokoi had outlined many times: it would be affordable, use existing technology that was cheap to mass-produce, and have low power consumption. It would also compete at the cutting edge of the market. These two things never go hand-in-hand, and sure enough by the time the Game Boy was ready for launch in 1989 its rivals – Atari’s Lynx and Sega’s Game Gear – offered full-colour screens and more powerful processors, and weren’t shy about mocking Nintendo’s offering in uncompromising terms. A monochrome display? In 1989?

The one and only Game Boy

Nevertheless, Sony understood what Nintendo had done – a lasting rumour from the period is that Sony’s own R&D team were bawled out by their superiors for not inventing the Game Boy. It may have been ‘underpowered’ in obvious ways, but the design was exceptionally slick: small, light, and offering up to twelve hours of play from four AA batteries (where its rivals used six batteries for less than half that time), the Game Boy also had the advantage of being made by Nintendo, and thus supported by a stellar library of games.

Overnight it was a smash, and over the next fifteen years the Game Boy would sell just under 120 million units. Yamauchi’s original estimate of 25 million over three years looked tame. Yokoi and R&D1 created the software that propelled the system – the likes of Super Mario Land, Balloon Kid and Dr Mario – and Nintendo secured the rights to Tetris, the game that would become synonymous with the system.

Yokoi and R&D1 continued to create great software for all of Nintendo’s systems – including the likes of Fire Emblem, Super Metroid and Wario Land – and Yokoi’s last great project at Nintendo was begun, the Virtual Boy. Though widely regarded as a blip in Nintendo’s history, the Virtual Boy perhaps deserves a little more respect. It was an attempt to provide an at-home 3D experience and, according to who you believe, was allegedly rushed out of the door so Nintendo could focus their in-house resources on the N64. It also outsold the Saturn during its only year of release – not bad for something that Sega of America’s uncouth executives referred to as a ‘dog.’

Nevertheless the final years of Yokoi are a sad tale: there is the image of him, immaculately dressed as always, relegated to a side room at the Shoshinkai Game Show while the rest of Nintendo focused on the N64, trying in vain to interest journalists in the then-failing Virtual Boy while everyone gawped at Super Mario 64. Accounts differ on whether the Virtual Boy was what resulted in his finally leaving Nintendo, but in August 1996 Yokoi resigned from his position at Nintendo and struck out on his own.

The remainder of the tale is tragically brief. After working on several smaller Tamagotchi-like products and on the first stages of the Wonderswan, a Bandai handheld, Yokoi’s life was cut short in a traffic accident on October 4, 1997. He was 56.

Gunpei Yokoi is one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of an enigmatic company. Not much is known about his life and work beyond the highlights – in the west, at least. But for anyone who loves videogames, those highlights are more than that. Think of Nintendo, and what comes to mind? Some of us remember christmas morning and a boy ripping open a parcel to find a Game Boy – a piece of technology so precious, so amazing, that its existence can scarcely be concieved. That day and that joy is one of my happiest childhood memories. I remember the invention, of course, rather than the inventor. But you suspect that that’s how Gunpei Yokoi, a humble engineer of titanic genius, would have wanted it.


The Worst Job I Ever Had


About a year ago I was reading a thread on reddit, which I’ve since lost, where people were talking about shitty jobs. If you’re a games journalist then recent months have been the pits. The constant begging to do work for a pittance is one thing, but now there’s an internet mob of angry morons convinced we’re the Illuminati steering a multi-billion pound industry. Anyway. Things are bad, but it cheers me up to think of the worst job I ever had.

I spent most of my teenage years in a town in the North East of England, South Shields. It’s known as Catherine Cookson County, because ‘Wor Kate’ lived there, and appropriately enough is rather grim and nondescript. It was in the news last year for a local who decided threatening American children online was funny, until he caused a shutdown of Ohio’s school system and got locked up for 2 1/2 years. Much as I knew (and know) good people there, I couldn’t wait to leave South Shields.

I got an early chance to do this when I was sixteen. My mum had been talking to a friend of a friend who lived and ran a business in Florida – in fact, it would turn out, she ran several businesses. Between them they came to some arrangement whereby, in the summer after leaving school, I could fly over to Orlando – and this woman, whom I’d never met and my mum barely knew, would put me up for a while and let me work in her restaurant.

6 feet tall and pencil-thin, with the delicate milky skin of a true Scotsman, I knew only that being a waiter in America was basically the first step towards Hollywood fame. Off I went with a new passport, showing my younger self topped with a whole tub of Brylcreem, which rather embarrassingly I had to use until I was well into my twenties and a hunk. This led to several priceless delays at immigration, e.g. Texas: “Here [points at picture] you’re some kid, but now you look like Harry Potter.” Actual words spoken by a human.

At first things in Florida went like planned. My host was an energetic do-it-yourself type, and ran a restaurant with another friend of hers who was a bit more weaselly. I waited tables, washed pots, and pretty soon was cooking (most of the menu was pre-prepared in huge batches and just needed heating up).

Some crazy shit happened in that place. Perhaps the worst of it was when the entire row of buildings the restaurant was in got infested by rats. Despite the immediate intervention of pest control, those things took weeks and weeks to get rid of – and, thanks to a mess of rancid dumpsters nearby, never really went away. I was once given the job of drowning a rat (I secretly let it go). But this wasn’t the worst job I ever did, not by a long way.

For reasons too convoluted to detail here, but basically involving the restaurant going arse-over-tit, my host soon began finding me other work to do on certain days. She and her friend seemed to have a variety of going concerns which they’d juggle around, and it turned out one of these was cleaning empty houses.

So it was that one sunny morning I found myself in the passenger seat of her SUV, being driven into classic American suburbia – white walls, freshly-mowed lawns and a good sprinkling of flagpoles. Flagpoles are one of the nuttiest fetishes Americans have, which is saying something, and I’ve often thought they’re a direct result of those famous words schoolchildren have to parrot. “I swear allegiance to the flag…” Swearing allegiance to a flag. As David Foster Wallace noted in his post-9/11 essay ‘The View from Mrs Thompson’s House,’ in some places they reach a concentration where you’re making more of a statement by not having a flag. 


These houses were in a long curve, and they all had huge driveways going up the side – soon enough we were parked on one. My boss opened the house and we poked around the large entrance room. “We need this place tidy, no-one’s been in it for a while. I’ll be back at five.” And off she went, leaving me with a pair of rubber gloves and a bag of cleaning products.

I was raised to do my chores and pitch in; I wasn’t unfamiliar with scrubbing or dusting or polishing. But I wasn’t a professional cleaner. I started in the entrance hall, which wasn’t too bad despite a few roach carcasses in one corner. It opened onto a large open-plan living area, part of which was a relatively clean kitchen. And so I spent the first hour or two in the entrance and kitchen getting rid of junk, washing sideboards, and scouring a thick layer of grease off the oven.

I opened a Coke and began to consider the living room and its abandoned centrepiece; a beige couch, unevenly marked with long and thin brown stains. My masterplan was to shove it in the corner while cleaning. As I walked towards it I noticed, again, a few roach carcasses around the base. Up-close I could see there were also dead roaches around the cracks of the seats. I’m not squeamish, and I had gloves on, so after walking around it a few times I gingerly began to push the couch.

The unmistakeable crunch of lots of roach corpses. Suddenly I started seeing what, somehow, I’d missed before. In two corners of the living room there were dead roaches, slanted piles several bodies deep. I began examining the house more closely and jumped out of my skin as one crunched underfoot like an eggshell. Upstairs and around the first floor rooms there were strange little conga lines of dead roaches, arranged around cardboard boxes and shooting off at random angles. A utility cupboard had a pyramid of bodies in the exact centre of its tiny floorspace. And then there were the corpses snaking upstairs to the second floor.


Dead or alive, roaches are grim things. And the quantity I’d found suggested a serious problem. I went outside to consider the situation, which wasn’t looking so good. My boss would be back at 5pm that afternoon – and it was about 11am. I had the restaurant’s number but no mobile phone (this was 1998), nor did the house have a working line, and I couldn’t see a callbox anywhere near. I didn’t know where I was, or have transport. At times like this, suburbia may as well be a desert.

My biggest problem, though, was that I was a teenager. If something like this happened to me now, I’d walk out and get the right people involved. As it was I simply decided I’d have to deal. This is a funny thing about teenagers, I think; adults often underestimate the determination of the nearly-adult, and the kind of logic that runs “You wanna take advantage, huh? Well I *did* it, smartass!”

I went back in and for the next few hours filled carrier bags and then black bags with roaches. They were all between one and two inches long, with a deep red-brown colouring, and as I shovelled pile after pile what I couldn’t quite believe was that they were all dead. Despite the surface horror of the task I began mentally drifting, wondering how on earth this had happened – how long had the house been abandoned for? Had they starved? It seemed the only logical conclusion. Did the owners know about this when they booked a cleaner and just leave it as a nice surprise?

Soon I had two black bin bags filled with 20% household junk and 80% insect corpses. I double-bagged and moved them outside, then scoured my gloves and lower arms as best I could in the kitchen sink. The ground floor wasn’t clean, but it was roach-free, and the same was true of the first floor. I’d prepared a sandwich that morning and went outside to eat (strong stomach, right?), sipping my second coke and knowing that next was that snaking line of corpses going up to the second floor.

Something was strange about it. Elsewhere the roach bodies were in disorganised piles, little collections here and there with no discernible pattern. But this was a line, more or less unbroken and two to three roaches deep at every point, and that suggested something more. What was up there? Thanks to a boyhood infatuation with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I’d once read about the urban legend of rat kings, multiple rats with their tails knotted together that are supposed to ‘control’ the hive mind with unusual intelligence, and this came back into my mind with the force of unarguable truth. Was there a roach king up there? Was I the idiot in the horror movie who goes upstairs to investigate? I crunched the coke can in on itself, and went back.


The line snaked up the second-floor staircase and I followed in no hurry, scooping the husks up with the careful slowness of someone showing no fear to no-one in particular. There were two rooms on the top floor and of course I went into the other one first – a few piles of roaches, the same as downstairs. Then I opened the room where the line had to terminate.

It was a bedroom. If it wasn’t for the line of dead roaches, it would look like any other slightly shabby bedroom in the world – an old dresser, a chair, a cupboard, a dusty window. But of course there was a line of dead roaches, and they led straight to the bed. I suddenly became quite scared, I didn’t want to get on my knees to scoop up any more corpses in case – what? In case they suddenly started flying at me. In case something emerged from the bed. In case anything moved.

Nothing moved, so I did. The bed was a bare mattress on a base, and the line of roaches went up to the base and then seemed to end, with a few scattered atop the mattress. I finally worked up the courage to get on my knees and clear the floor, and after a much much longer time put my head to the ground to see under the bed. Not much, a few more corpses. At that point it all seemed like a big joke, like I’d followed a line to nowhere. Then I noticed the almost imperceptible bulge in the middle of the mattress.

I knew instantly that, whatever was waiting, was waiting in-between the base and the mattress. The roach king, his meal finally arrived? By this stage I was so inured to handling dead insects that I didn’t want to delay things any further. I made sure I had an assortment of ‘weapons’ within easy reach, worked my fingers into the gap, and lifted.

Think of the size of a single bed. What I saw was a flattened brown oval, about 2/3rds the bed’s length, of corpses piled atop corpses. At the thin ends it was three or four insects thick, in the thick centre it was simply hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of cockroaches. The mind plays tricks, and I saw movement – but it was just where I’d unsettled the edges of this mass grave, where long-compacted husks were exhaling by millimetres. And then a putrid, sweet smell of decay made me gag.

I heaved the mattress against the wall, and stepped back. It is hard to feel empathy towards insects, but a mass grave is a mass grave. I was nauseous. I coughed, but couldn’t put my hands near my face. Suddenly I really felt the need to have my hands out of these gloves, to be out of this room. I started retching.


I decided that, whatever the consequences might be, I wasn’t dealing with this, and turned around and walked out. I finished cleaning downstairs, then sat on the sidewalk for a few hours. When my boss arrived I refused to do any more cleaning jobs, and went back to the kitchen with the rats and weasel-faced assistant.

There’s no moral to the story. I never think about the dead roach house much, except when I need to remember that someone somewhere always has it much worse.

And if I hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have refused to do that kind of work again, and would never have been on a plane home a few weeks later – where I ended up sitting next to a kind woman who spoke to me the whole way, and convinced me that university had to be my next stop in life.

Hindsight always makes your own life seem like a story, a series of events leading to now. Truth is a lot of the time you’re just moving away from the things you definitely don’t want – and get lucky. But yeah, writing about videogames? I’ll take that over clearing out roach infestations. Even if, in the worst moments, they can seem like the same thing.  

Recent(ish) Work: Selling Candy to Babies

Disney's 'shop window' on the App Store.
Disney’s ‘shop window’ on the App Store.

For the time being at least, I’m no longer a freelancer. Instead I’m working on a book, due to be published in Spring next year, on the history of games. Don’t get excited: in all honesty it’s something that’s probably destined for The Works.

My life as a games journalist began on Edge magazine, where I was lucky enough to work with a great team of people producing something that felt valuable. Every month there would be late nights and a bit of a crunch come deadline, but that feeling when the magazine itself – the object – came back from the printers was pure magic. I still remember the first issue I worked on, and the then-editor Margaret Robertson handing me a copy and saying ‘congratulations, you made a magazine.’

So I liked the idea of working on something that felt a little more permanent. I’ve been writing almost exclusively online for five or six years now, and sometimes this feels like throwing work into the void – here today, gone tomorrow, and you can’t even wrap your chips in it. I’ll write more about what I’m hoping to do with the book soon (promises promises).

One of the last major pieces I worked on was for Polygon, and it focused on the free-to-play business model as it is currently being used in children’s games. I’d been thinking about the topic for a while, and in my opinion Polygon is the best outlet around for serious longform stuff, so it was a good match.

It was also an enormous privilege to work with the Polygon features team, Russ Pitts and Matt Leone, because they edited the hell out of that piece. One of the things about writing online is that few outlets do any kind of editing at all – which, as a writer who wants to get better all the time, is an awful state of affairs. Not here. The finished article is ten times better than the first version, and it’s all thanks to those chaps and others putting me through the wringer.

Here’s the piece. Fair warning: it’s a long one!

Selling Candy to Babies

Selling Candy to Babies

Selling and possible mis-selling to children is an emotive topic in any sphere, but in a nascent industry like ours it has the potential to be explosive. In the days after the piece went live I ended up in several twitter conversations with people who were clearly enraged at my treatment of the topic. I remember one guy in particular who was furious I had given Disney and Nickelodeon no right of reply. In fact, as the article states clearly, I contacted both several times to ask for interviews and / or comment, but received neither.

But in the weeks and months since, something worth noting has happened. One of the games I covered was Disney’s Frozen Free Fall, which is basically a Candy Crush-alike with the movie’s visuals. The reason I was interested in this game is that my four year-old niece was into it – because it had the Frozen characters and she adores the movie. The piece goes into detail on exactly how this game operates, but in summary it’s one of those that starts easy, then has a sudden difficulty spike, and offers IAP power-ups.

It's no Bejewelled Blitz, but then what is?
It’s no Bejewelled Blitz, but then what is?

Even though Disney wouldn’t speak to me about Frozen Free Fall and their other games (of which there are an enormous number), since the piece went live the game has been updated several times – and it has all of a sudden become much nicer to its players.

The update that added 'free' power-ups
The update that added ‘free’ power-ups

Not only does the game now let you earn free power-ups, but yesterday my niece was round again and – to my delight – when she started up the app it asked for the player’s age before continuing.

There used to be a standard pop-up window about IAPs, but this is the new starting screen.
There used to be a standard pop-up window about IAPs, but this is the new starting screen.

This is good to see, because the audience for the game is extremely young children. Who knows if the article had anything to do with these changes, but whatever the reason I’m very glad they’re in place. I’d wager that the developers behind Frozen Free Fall feel a little better about themselves too, but perhaps I’m projecting.

Things like this are, of course, a bit of a band-aid on a problem that the wider industry seems circumspect about addressing – though Apple and Google recently seem to have become much more serious, and that’s fantastic to see. The best option for the industry, by far, is self-regulation of IAPs, and hopefully that’s where we’ll end up.

It was great to work for Polygon, and I’m super proud of how the piece turned out – I hope you enjoy it. I’ll do more of a whirlwind round-up of other (more lighthearted!) stuff in the next few days, and go into detail on the book. Cheers for reading!

Happy ending! XD
Happy ending! XD

REVIEW: Doublefine’s review embargo for Broken Age

The first thing to say is that the graphics for this review embargo are just super. Why, it was almost like a REAL LIFE EMAIL.


Here’s the short version: Double Fine, the developers best known for Tim Schafer, have finished the first part of Kickstarter-funded game Broken Age and sent it out to backers. These backers may include members of the press or even people with blogs. Any ‘reviews’ were not allowed until 24th January. EMBARGOED.

I’m sorry, what?

This minor saga annoyed me, and the discussion around it annoyed me, and when I tweeted about it people seemed to think I was just sniping at Double Fine. I don’t think anyone has this dog by the right leg.

Embargoes are a simple transaction. A developer or publisher agrees to show you what they’re working on, and in return you agree to keep the secret until a mutually-agreed date that works for both parties. Embargoes are not a one-way deal; you agree to them in exchange for access or information that is not available to the public.


What we have in the case of Broken Age is something different. The promise of Kickstarter, as I see it, is to remove the middlemen. To take away the publishers and restore a direct link between the creators of a product and its audience.

This is especially important when it comes to a company like Double Fine. Let’s be under no illusion about why it went to Kickstarter to fund Broken Age; it was the only way to get the project off the ground. Publishers wouldn’t back an adventure game, but nostalgia-fuelled fans would.

And they did back Double Fine Adventure, as it was then known – not to the tune of $400,000, the original target, but to a whopping $3.45 million. Not bad, and even better when you consider that Double Fine subsequently said that wasn’t enough and split the game in two.

Point is that Broken Age was crowdfunded, which is another way of saying it was paid for by individuals. That’s awesome. And upon the game’s release to these individuals, Double Fine tried to tell them they can’t write about it.


To be clear about this; I don’t think Double Fine is evil. Not in the slightest. But this is fucked up yo, because the implication is that Double Fine regards the people who funded Broken Age as customers rather than backers. One of the reasons Kickstarter is attractive is that it slightly changes that power dynamic between creator and audience – yes I’ll fund your thing, but I get some kind of acknowledgement for that, whether it’s a tweet or a t-shirt.

Attempting to force an embargo on the people who’d paid for this game to be made shows that Double Fine disagrees. It shows that Double Fine regards Kickstarter backers as customers who pre-ordered, and perhaps even a slight inconvenience, rather than the whole reason Broken Age exists at all.


I once met Tim Schafer, in EA’s UK offices around the time of Brutal Legend’s launch. I’d played the game and hadn’t enjoyed it, so I didn’t really want to make small talk with the creative mastermind, and I imagine Schafer was just thinking about when he could possibly get away from this awful place. We both sat in a small airless room for a few minutes and exchanged about ten words total, avoiding eye contact, waiting to be called forth by the PR machine and play our parts.

Pretty awful. And when I saw Double Fine Adventure’s Kickstarter that memory bubbled back up in its grey entirety, and I thought ‘at least he doesn’t have to go through that misery again.’ The schedules, the embargos, and those meeting rooms with windows looking onto buildings.

But maybe I misread the situation. Maybe Schafer really really likes that shit.

At the time of writing Double Fine has decided this was all a terrible mistake, and withdrawn its attempted embargo. Which obviously will affect the final score.



Pre-empts potential dissent

Looks just like real life!

Gives the marketing department something to do


Is Stupid

Didn’t work

Smells like bacon and oppression, man.

Double Fine’s Broken Age review embargo receives 3 out of 18. 

The night they switched off Halo 2

This is something I wrote a while back about the evening that Bungie switched off Halo 2’s matchmaking servers. The best console shooter of its age, by a distance, I spent many many years in the curving loops of Midship and mastering the angles of Lockout. What a game.


Even now, Halo 2 is the most important Live title Xbox ever had: the ultimate proof of concept. It dominated online, sold hugely, and established the best matchmaking system out there at the first time of asking. And on April 15, 2010, it was turned off.

No other last-generation game had its legs: when Microsoft announced the impending closure, everyone had the same thought. Got to play Halo 2 again. The end of Live support may not have been a good thing for the remaining playerbase, but it did at least let everyone make plans for the funeral – without such a prompt, it’s doubtful many would have gone back at all. This was a chance to say goodbye.

Marty O’Donnell’s score starts up, its notes finally achieving the poignance they’d always suggested. The old loading screens, wireframe backgrounds with blue marines, and as alwways you’re into a match surprisingly quickly. Hit the Double Team playlist for a warm-up, face up to Nomad Pr0phet and Mr Supreme 69 on Lockout, & it’s all coming back.

Soon we’re playing Tower of Power, a mad variant of the Ascension map: one team has a tower with a mounted gun, the other has a lot of open ground to traverse and shotguns. The lucky gunner nearly always has a field day. There’s time for a sudden death win in CTF on Zanzibar, a few custom games of zombies, and an extended Warthog run on Coagulation. A familiar Halo 2 thing happens: it’s much later than we think.

Tired and emotional, we notice Bungie’s got in on the act, staff members cropping up in matchmaking, the ‘Did You Know’ boxout between matches full of arch messages (“I am your father! Use voice masking to add at least 10 years to your online persona.”) and ultimate n00b tactics (“Dual wielding. When all else fails, circle strafe.”) Team Slayer on Midship for the last time, no looking back and both teams know it.

Both reach 40 kills, both get cautious. The real reason Halo’s multiplayer design surpasses its competitors is right here: it’s a game that rewards teams rather than individuals. The persistent levelling of a COD rewards regardless of the success and failure of the team – Halo 2’s persistence is in one number indicating your level, one that can go up and down.

Every kill, every death counts for something. Team Slayer games are the first to 50, and even new players understand that when your opponents get close, your lot have to be a little more cautious. Halo is very rarely two loose alliances running at each other just trying to rack up kills.

And back on Midship, it’s over. Not with a neat sword slice, or a typical dual wield, or even up-close and personal with the shotgun. It’s a sticky that seems to hang forever in the air before landing with a sizzle on the floor, just as an enemy turns the corner. Blind luck, really. But sweet as a nut all the same.

In the end we had to switch off, because there could have been as many last games as we wanted – the deadline didn’t quite fall like an axe. I later learned that some of the truly hardcore had stayed on for weeks. Every player will have had a different Halo 2, and a different ending. For us, it was Midship and a fluked sticky. That’s the way Halo 2 arrived, and the way it went out – not with a whimper, but a bang.


Seamus Heaney 1939-2013: Finders Keepers

"Sure it's water."
“Sure it’s water.”

My first job was a little unusual; from around 2004-2007 I was Arts Officer at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, working under the late Dr Robert Woof. The job title is a little nebulous. What it meant was I booked and ran the Trust’s contemporary arts program, a huge year-round series of poetry readings, exhibitions and residencies. Robert was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and he was insistent on one point; the WT could not depend on Wordsworth alone, but had to continually make itself relevant by helping to pay and promote today’s writers and artists.

I say this only as background because Seamus Heaney, of course, did not need promotion in any sense. He was great friends with Robert, and any time he’d visit was An Event. The first time I met him was at the 2005 opening of the Jerwood Centre, the WT’s research complex, and by that time Heaney was a Nobel Laureate and perhaps the most well-known poet in the English language, hence the affectionate nickname deployed by many contemporaries: Famous Seamus. As with almost everything, Professor Heaney thought that was a great laugh.

Though that was the first time I met Heaney, it was only the latest connection in a long line between himself, the Trust, and more importantly Robert. On this occasion Heaney wasn’t doing a reading alongside the opening, which Robert cunningly realised was a chance to book him in for the next year’s program – and Heaney agreed this was an excellent idea. It soon turned out that the opening of the Jerwood Centre came just in time; five months afterwards, in November 2005, Robert died. This was not unexpected, but it was devastating; for me and, I know, many others.

I remember my hesitation in writing to Heaney at the end of 2005, to find out if he’d still come. It felt somehow inappropriate, but I needn’t have been concerned. The Wordsworth Trust’s postcode was LA22 9SH, and the reason I still remember that now is his first reply came back with a big circle around the last two letters – pointing out that this, surely, was fate.

Heaney came to see us and deliver the biggest reading of the year in August 2006, visiting with his wonderful wife Marie for five days and attracting such a crowd we had to move to a larger venue. I remember his turning up on the first day (Marie was getting a train a day or two later) in a cab I’d booked from Liverpool airport. I was horrified to see the company had sent one of the old-school black models, which must have been very uncomfortable for a man in his early sixties to ride in for hours. “Ah well, I’m sure I’ll be comfortable enough now.”

I made sure of it, as did we all. Tagging along with Heaney for the next few days, what struck me more than anything was that he had time for everyone. It didn’t matter where he was – in a restaurant, a bar, walking along or even reading a book – if someone made the time to come up and say hello he gave them it back in spades. He was an incredibly funny man, too, and seemed to rejoice in opening conversations with a one-liner, more than a few of which made me the butt. “Excuse me are you Seamus Heaney?” “Well yer man’s in trouble if I’m not!”

I especially remember, on the day of the reading, my mum coming over to Grasmere from the North-East – she teaches English, and so is intimately familiar with those poems of his on the syllabus. Despite the fact he’d clearly had that conversation a million times, Heaney propped himself up on a wall outside the Jerwood and talked to her for an hour like some kind of softly-spoken saint – and eventually I was the one that had to break them apart.

I’d call him a class act, but that has some implication of artifice and with Heaney there was none. Instead I’ll do something he’d have liked and take the phrase straight from my father; Heaney was a top-class man. A few miscellaneous memories. On his visit to open the Jerwood, we went for dinner at an Italian place in Ambleside – and I can’t quite remember what we all had to eat, because of the four bottles of top-quality red it went down with. God the old man could drink.

At that second reading, the Low Wood hotel totally screwed up the sound system. This was a problem because there was an audience of 300 people and one incandescent boss (mine) who, after ten minutes of amateur fiddling, grew increasingly irritable until Heaney decided he’d take it upon himself to project a little over this long room – and, by merely talking about this and that, quietened the hubbub enough for us to fix the issue and get things underway. From the bottom of my heart I still thank him for that.

I remember, too, on that second occasion watching nervously as he signed what must have been hundreds of copies of his own books over the days. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask if he’d sign my books, and of course he would, but the problem was I had a copy of pretty much everything. So he said that was fine, but I’d better take him somewhere quiet first and get the drinks in. Over what turned into quite a few glasses, he not only signed every book I had but wrote something unique in each one. This is my favourite.

Finders Keepers

One final thing. The Wordsworth Trust is not a rich organisation. Every year it was a battle to stretch our budget as far as possible, and every year we’d just about make it by the skin of our teeth. Robert’s approach was simple, and I stuck to it like gospel. We couldn’t pay a top fee, but what we could do was pay a decent fee, plus all the travel, plus put you up for a few days in the heart of the Lakes. It is interesting who does and does not go for this.

After Heaney’s reading, I wrote to him for one of the last times, thanking him for it all and enclosing a cheque for his travel and the fee. He wrote back enclosing a donation to the Wordsworth Trust, and never cashed the cheque. It is the kind of act that not everyone can afford, to be sure, but even so a special one – giving without expectation. As the man himself put it in a very different context, it is receiving a gift that enjoins you to remember the giver.

I last read Heaney only a few days ago, when some half-remembered line from Death of a Naturalist sent me in search of my dog-eared old copy. One would like to think of him up there, but Heaney was more than anything a poet of the Earth. So I hope he’ll forgive me for raising a glass in his memory rather than offering a prayer. And I hope you’ll agree that the reward of a life well-lived is in itself – or, at the very least

               heaven enough,
To be going on with.

                               (To Mick Joyce in Heaven, District and Circle)

Finders Keepers