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The Last and Final Word: Nenad Jalsovec

Nenad Jalsovec was already well respected for Counterclockwise, a remake of an Spectrum game called Knot in 3D. However, his popularity rose significantly after winning the TIGSource Procedural Generation Competition with Rescue: The Beagles back on June 26th, 2008. After he had completed the post competition version on December 5th, 2008 and answering some user comments, he seemingly dropped off the face of the planet (even his website disappeared) with some eventually enquiring as to his whereabouts.

Age? 

*cough* 37 *cough*.

Location? 

Zagreb, Croatia.

Development tool(s) of choice? 

C++. A little old fashioned, I know. I’ve been tinkering with C since I was 12. It kind of flows naturally. I’m aware there are productivity tools out there and will probably use some of that stuff in the future. However, I rather like programming closer to the hardware. For my pet-projects, it’s a preference of enjoyment of the process over the mere efficiency. I also like Python. It’s good for quick prototyping. 

On the visual side I use Illustrator, Photoshop and Maya

What do you do? 

I’m a visual artist, for the most part doing graphic design and illustration. Currently, I’m participating as an art director and graphics producer in a small team, working on a commercial strategy game. My preferred mode of operation is tackling self-initiated experimental projects of various kinds. Games included. 

Other dominant interests include programming, obviously, and reading speculative non-fiction. I have a peculiar intermittent love-hate relationship with programming. There are stretches of months I adore doing it for 10+ hours a day, followed by periods of total aversion. Even glancing at the screen would make me cringe. I’m sort of bipolar in that respect.

I also love to engage in classical drawing and painting. The process involved tends to offer a great sense of freedom and flow. There’s something surprisingly liberating in doing things, unburdened by the constraints of digital technology.  

I keep a rather elaborate sketchbook. I introduced this habit a few years ago and it reinforced both my visual and non visual thinking immensely. By now my notebooks accumulated a solid library of notions and concepts and a ton of plain old drawings. I can just use any of that stuff directly or develop it further in any media I see fit. 

Other things… I’m into outdoor sports, largely focused on competitive orienteering and longish hikes in remote areas.  

 How did you get into game development? 

The long version? In 1983, I coerced my parents into buying a ZX Spectrum, my first computer. From there on it was a typical downward spiral: C64, C128, Amiga, PC, each step exponentially flashier and more addictive than the previous one. As a nerdy teenager I played a lot of 8-bit games. All of them, down to the crappiest one, looked like pure magic to me. I was pathologically curious to find out how this magical stuff was put together. How to become one of the super humans capable of conjuring it? 

So I put some effort in and taught myself Z80 and 6502 assembly, and C soon after. That level of coding knowledge was considered basic computer literacy back in the ’80s. At that time I made many small programs that wanted to be games but never got to fully finish a project. I was probably too young to understand all that was needed to complete a whole game. It was just too big of a bite. 

At the same time however, I had more success in making non-computer games. These were far easier to produce and I still got the full kick out of designing a whole game system. This brought about a couple of completed board and card games with my own rules and artwork. Well, to be honest, the rules were variations and spin-offs from games I was already familiar with and the artwork was “strongly influenced” by the likes of star wars (intentionally not capitalized) and similar rubbish. 

I went on to study computer science. After several years I had enough of it. It was boring, chiefly because of a lack of connection with the visual world. I abruptly switched my studies to graphic design. This was much more interesting and still complex enough to feed my obsession with convoluted stuff. It was always the sweet spot between these two things - digital technology and visual arts - that captivated me. Computer games somehow connect the two in a profound way.  

After getting a university degree in design, I kind of decided to go back to programming “on my own terms” - sloppy, strictly goal-oriented and always with colourful output on the screen. This led me to excessive experimenting with OpenGL. GL was fascinating as it was a way to control the graphics hardware almost directly (massive incentive for an early age assembly freak). It inspired me to try to go back to make games, this time (in contrast to my childhood efforts) for real. I reasoned that I finally had enough of technical, design and artistic skills and discipline to pull it off. And indeed, it all led to my first finished game: Counterclockwise, an artsy-fartsy remake of the 8-bit classic, Knot in 3D. 

For me, designing games is quite similar to other design disciplines such as product or graphic design. You design an intangible system of rules, mechanics and concepts, which are then produced into a virtual or material object. This object is henceforth used by people to induce a series of experiences. 

Outwardly, it would seem that you have been inactive in the game development community - is there anything going on behind the scenes or have you moved away from game development altogether? Is Ablation X dead? 

I haven’t “officially” moved away. However, all my personal game projects are currently on hiatus. As I already mentioned, I do work on a commercial game, still indie though. It’s a team effort and I’m covering complete visual side of things. The project is quite substantial and the game is currently in the final stages of production, just entering beta.

Ablation X… it may happen! It’d make me very happy if it indeed does. AX is quite an ambitious project. I was aware of that from day one. The amount of work done on it so far is immense. All the core tech functionality is in place. I’ve made a good set of foundation tools: a solid level editor, an enemy design framework, a scripting platform in Python. The “only” thing that is actually left is content production - enemies and levels. And that’s always a sore spot for a low budget or no budget game, especially if the quality of gameplay depends heavily on the enemy design, as it does in this case. So yeah, AX has come a long way. Would be really regrettable to let it die (note to self). 

There are two other game projects I should mention here, in the dreaded “nearly finished” section; Dawn and Pastoral. Each of them have reached a critical point in development. Dawn is a kind of dumbed down 3D version of Ablation X. Pastoral is conceptual ecosystem game. Both projects are paused - waiting for the actual content to be produced, both pretty much similar to AX. 

At the present time though, the visual arts are predominantly where my interests are. It could quite possibly be that I’m getting too old for the videogames altogether. I don’t play them at all. I feel my gaming “career” is, as a matter of fact, behind me… except for an occasional round of beat ‘em up on MAME. After playing a lot of games I came to the saddening conclusion that the whole computer gaming phenomenon is basically not too different from online casino addiction. In other words… it’s a complete waste of time. Gosh, this does sounds disturbing. Seriously, the only thing that still somewhat interests me about games is putting them together.

Rescue: The Beagles has had a lasting impact on the indie community, winning the TIGSource Procedural Generation Competition, receiving a lot of positive coverage (it was even featured at Babycastles arcade) and stole the hearts of many gamers. What were your expectations for the game while developing it and once you saw the reaction after release, what was your reaction? 

I’m not really sure how much of an impact Beagles actually did have. The feedback and press coverage was of a rather modest volume, although it was exceptionally positive. I was, in fact, surprised how positive it was. Some people were delirious about the game. This made me very happy, of course. I would just have loved the game to reach more people. Interesting thing is that all the impact it did have was attained solely through word of mouth. I haven’t put a single iota of effort into publicizing it. 

After an initial crop of warm reactions from indie fans and devs, I was motivated to try to push the game upon a wider audience. However, it never really happened. I did some preliminary research, which proved its slick gameplay simply wasn’t enough. The game was lacking, considerably in the graphics department. I’m talking about the mainstream audience here, not a handful of 8-bit aesthetics enthusiasts who, surely, concluded the game looked spectacular. But if you look at it objectively, the thumbnailed screenshots look like shite. In order to gain wider acceptance, the game would need a serious graphical facelift and, additionally, the softening of it’s arcade-ish unforgivingness (things that are still on my long term to-do list). 

As for Babycastles, I’m glad that Beagles was included. It’s sound proof that people do love to play it. A real arcade cabinet is certainly a fitting place for the game. 

During the Beagles development, there was zero expectations. I normally try not to grow any expectations when working on a game (or any other project for that matter). In the case of Beagles, I just wanted to get it right for the players who may have similar gaming sensibilities to mine. In that respect the game proved to be a hit. This fulfilled all the expectations I might have had. 

There was a lot of competition from some pretty well respected developers. What sort of effect did winning the competition have on you? 

I wasn’t particularly bothered by all that competition stuff. I just used the competition deadline to force myself to finish the prototype quickly. Winning the compo was just a lucky by-product. 

I knew some of the developers and their work from before. However, I never felt there is any kind of rivalry present or that winning the competition meant being better than anyone else. The whole competition went on in a very light-hearted and overly friendly and supportive tone. I sincerely enjoyed trying out all of the entrant games, both the good ones and not so good ones. It’s always interesting too see other peoples’ creations and to peek in right in the middle of their process.

In my opinion, Beagles was not the best game in the competition. Some other highly ranked games were later worked into the full blown products and sold online, a feat that Beagles unfortunately failed to accomplish. 

But I was extremely pleased that people ‘got’ the game. That fact was instantly obvious from the first feedback. They got the vibe, the background story, and the gameplay quirks the way I wished them to be perceived. This type of reception was particularly satisfying. 

Although, some reviewers completely missed the good stuff RtB has to offer. Different sensibilities I suppose. The meat of the game - its cascading, fluid gameplay - simply went below their radar. They picked only the “frustrating” bits at the very beginning of the, admittedly steepish, learning curve and just left off there.

You stated once that you aren’t big on platformers, so it is somewhat ironic that your most popular game is a genre that your not particularly fond of. Why a platformer - did it suit the development for something with procedural generation? 

Did I really say that? Well, it may be I softened up on platformers a bit since. 

But if you look closely, RtB is not actually a platformer in its essence. Under the guise, it’s structured more like an infinite chain of micro-maze problems. You are constantly presented with a maze-type challenge. An inadequate choice of path can cost you a resource or a life. This “maze” is perpetually transformed for you via the forced scrolling. As you proceed along the level, you always have a fresh set of problems to work on. 

Route choice solving, the cornerstone mechanic in RtB, could have easily been made into an entirely different type of outward representational system. Even a different set of basic rules could have been used. I chose a platformer-like front end because it was something I wanted to explore at the time. It was a sort of “heck, let’s try something like a platformer!” approach. On top of that I did have a vague conception of layered mountain terrain that I wanted to use in the game. It seemed to fit perfectly with procedural generation, as terrains of any kind generally often do. 

However, all of this was of minor importance. What I was focused on was to make a fluid motor skill based system. The imperative was to exploit real-life player skill as opposed to using virtual (symbolic) skill. This is indeed a “retro” approach to design. Most of the old arcade games were relying on that exact concept.    

In a real skill game you, as a player, need to invest time and effort to build up an actual skill, useful in solving problems inside the game. It’s almost like sports training: real effort in, real benefit out. On the other hand, in a symbolic skill system, after investing some passive amount of time, the game will just announce you gained a certain amount of nominal skill.

In the latter case, the benefit is locked inside the game world with no chance to lurk out into real world. In the former case, however, the benefit is real. For instance, you can impress your girlfriend or boyfriend by flashing some motor skills while playing, not to mention the attainment of a state of flow when putting a well trained skill into action. 

The interesting thing here is that the player skill can be lost gradually over time if you don’t train it. Symbolic skill is permanent (unless you manage to misplace your saved games or delete your account, that is). The real skill games therefore have more of the intrinsic replay value potential as you are constantly challenged to prove your worth. They are also less negatively escapist because of stronger ties to the real world.

Being a fast paced game, played in quick sessions, Rescue: The Beagles would seem to suit the casual audience that browser games are played by. Have you ever thought about porting Rescue the Beagles to the browser?

Actually I have. I know Flash rather well so it wouldn’t be a problem to port it. I might do it if I find time in the future. I have even gotten offers from community members interested in doing a port. We couldn’t agree on the terms though…

The game would probably sit nicely in a browser. Some softening up for the casual audience would be in order, like getting rid of everyone’s favourite, falling-into-death-from-heights. I conducted some tests regarding that. At first it seemed this was a crucial balance element and that the game would not work well without it. But it appeared everything flows even better when you cannot die from falling off cliffs. It’s a bit easier to play, sure, but there is still a plenty of challenge. On the first few levels it’s just enough for casual players who are normally agitated with the harshness of the old arcades. 

In the case of a port, I’d still like to redo the graphics, as there is a plenty of room to make the characters and environment visually more prominent and articulated, aiding to the immersion side.

After learning the rules of the game, Rescue the Beagles seems to have a very finely tuned difficulty balance. How much time did you spend on tweaking the difficulty?

A lot… compared to total development time, of course, which was altogether not that long. At least one quarter of all that time went into tuning. It took a whole intensive week before the beta release, and then an additional week or two until the final release.  

All the tuning was done by directly changing the numbers in the code, compiling, then testing the effect, tuning again… ad nauseam. Since almost every aspect of the game is generated, all the other things were adjusted that way, stuff like plant density or the color scheme generator. 

I have read in a review somewhere that Rescue: The Beagles is not a real procedural game but a game with mere randomly created content. Well, no, it’s a hundred percent procedural game. Everything you see is generated procedurally; terrain, actor appearance, vegetation, colours… if the seeds were not scrambled at the beginning of each go, everything, up to the last pixel, would be exactly the same every time you start a session. A degree of randomness was intentionally introduced on top of this strict procedurality, just to keep the experience fresh. Randomness is, naturally, kept within the limits making the important global things always feel the same, such as difficulty curve.

Was there anything specific that influenced Rescue: The Beagles? 

You mean the gameplay or the ‘background story’? Well yeah… several things influenced the game on different levels. 

Not long before the work on Beagles started, I saw a theoretical game concept sketch on one of the game-idea blogs. Can’t remember the name of the site… it was an idea for a tiny role-playing game. This mere sketch triggered me to start thinking about the fundamentals of what would later become the Beagles mechanics. Note that what the actual rpg idea presented was entirely inconsequential. Influences often work in strange ways. 

So I came to a rather vague abstract notion of making a game with several ‘tracks’, each having different cost / payoffs for the player. The player would have to negotiate his path, choosing the best track at any given moment. This was somewhat compatible with the platforming logic I wanted to explore. The whole thing then got figuratively shaped by my relish for mountaineering and spiced up with an accidental quirky story I stumbled upon in the news. The main characters and enemies just grew out of the story. I’m actually still surprised myself how all this stuff seamlessly blended together into a coherent whole.

The visual aesthetic was directly influenced by 8-bit classics, River Raid and The Sentinel. Furthermore, these two games also were amongst the first to introduce completely procedurally generated environments. So the influence they had on Beagles was twofold.

The “story”, which it seems caused most of the fluster around the game, was inspired by a real beagle incident that happened in the city I live. Researchers at some pharmaceutical institute broke an animal protection law by badly mistreating a dozen guinea pig beagles. A local animal rights organization brought this to attention of the general public. That’s pretty much it. Of course the story in the game was maniacally blown out of proportion for grotesque effect.

Some reviewers were trying to impose the idea that the game bears a strong political message, others even accused it to be a PETA “advertgame” and propaganda. Phew! People really do tend to project what’s inside their heads. Let me clear the commotion right here. “Activists vs. scientists” is nothing more than a backdrop theme. I used it because it was in my focus at that moment. It was bizarre enough, controversial enough and fresh enough to stir interest. I never saw anyone using a similar theme for a game so I thought “just perfect!”, original and potentially ironic. And for most people who loved the game, it was exactly that.

If you look closer, there is no propaganda in the Beagles whatsoever. I’m not a big fan of the politics of animal rights, in fact I’m quite petulant about it. In Beagles, there’s a strong ironic angle towards the whole thing - rescuing the dogs while abusing owls and killing people. In the design document there had been even more devastating features planned for the activists, like chopping trees and throwing them at enemies or causing landslides to kill them. These things didn’t make it into the final version because they interfered with gameplay smoothness. 

So accusing Beagles or its creator for indulging in politics is quite like saying first person shooters are murder propaganda. Well, maybe they are… to a paranoid schizophrenic. It’s nothing more than a theme. 

Having put that aside, let me get to the important thing. RtB is all about the design. Everything else you see in the game is secondary and is subordinate and minimised at the expense of its design. The development time was very short and I decided to spend most of it on tuning the design elements and obsessing over the details of the mechanics. I do consider the story and the audiovisual parts to be design elements too but only to the extent that they actively participate in the mechanics. In Beagles, they were developed to a level to support gameplay with ease. Not a single bit over it. There was really no intention whatsoever to “add value” via perceptive qualities. We could say that the game has a minimum amount of make-up. It’s all “form follows function”.

How do you usually approach the development process and when you enter a competition, does the process change substantially? 

I don’t enter competitions of any kind too often. Just don’t feel the need to. However, entering the PG competition with Beagles did not change my usual process. It just sped it up a bit, which was a good thing in this case. 

When working on a game, I usually start from a single, clear, strong point. It can be almost anything as long as it has a prevailing quality; a visual idea, a story, a gameplay / mechanic hook - as was the case for RtB… and then build firmly around it. But I take care never to leave this central motive out of sight. It has to dominate throughout the process and in the finished product. All good games are constructed that way. Well, not just games. Any human creation of any considerable value possesses a clear, observable, articulate focal point… fortified with a lot of ambivalent superstructure. 

What have been the biggest obstacles that have gotten in the way of game development over the past couple of years? 

Coding? Finances? Inadequacy of the “game medium” in terms of artistic expression? Not necessarily in that order.  

I consider myself a decent programmer but I’d rather someone else handle the coding so I could focus on the design and visual side. 

Then there’s this constant questioning whether games are really worth all the effort. It’s a massively time consuming activity, more so if you operate as a standalone game author and need to do most things yourself. It’s true that this could be fun, especially if you have a certain type of personality and are of a certain age. However, all that you produce is practically convicted to be short lived due to the short-attention-span nature of the game audience and press. It’s a rare occasion that a game begets lasting interest. This is true for both indie and mainstream production. Moreover, I never really found one can fluently express oneself, in the artistic sense, through game crafting. Your hands are simply tied with all the demands to make it… playable. It’s too much compromise with the potential audience. That’s not really in accord with proverbial freedom of self expression. Even if your games tend to be on the experimental and artsy side of the spectrum, you are still making a mere game. I wouldn’t want to go into slippery “are games art?” territory but one thing is obvious to the point of banality: the more you make your game art, the less it will be a game. A work of art is never functional and rarely strict in its communicational methods, while a game need to be exactly that - functional and non-fuzzy. In some crucial points, games and art are antagonistic by definition. Well, except of course, for a type of person who claims making knockwurst is an artform just because he accidentally happens to be in a sausage production business.  

Until recently, due to my geographical position, I was unable to put a simple working donate button on my website. This was quite unnerving. Not that I would expect any kind of relevant income but it would be good to have at least a possibility to know that someone cares about what you do beyond posting a comment on your blog. Which leads us to third thing I mentioned - finances. If game production is something you primarily wish to do, you won’t get far operating in hobby mode. Sooner or later, you’ll need to start to search for a viable business model. In that respect, the eventual future 16x16 games will most probably be developed within a firmer commercial frame. 

Like many game developers, you seem like a pretty harsh self-critic of your own work and abilities. If putting a game together is the only thing that still interests you, regarding videogames, does this mean that once you are done with a project that you don’t play it? Do you ever revisit your games or do they lose their charm as time goes by? 

Self-critic? Nah, all the criticism it uttered mostly in false modesty mode. It’s just my charming sardonic persona emerging from time to time, doing its thing. But I do tend to impose some standards on the stuff I do. I mean, what’s the point of investing your time and effort in things done sloppily, yielding poor results nobody is happy with. Quality is always a good thing. It pays off in the long run even if you temporarily need to suffer a bit. Gimmickry and fashionability can only take you so far… not very far in fact. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not of the procrastinating perfectionist types that never get anything done because it’s never good enough. I actually firmly believe that quantity is a proper way to reach quality. Not the mindless blurting out of as many things as possible but more of a mindful sort of over-productivity. And certainly not all that is produced needs to be shown to the audience. So yeah… as a game creator I’m just not as prolific as I’d ideally wish to be.  

I love to revisit my games. I do it frequently several months following release, just to check out if the game is still playable as it was on the last day of testing. After that initial period I revisit it somewhat less often, once in a while in a sort of auto-ironic way - to make sure it’s aged well. Here I can judge it from a “historical distance”, almost objectively. All the games I have produced I’m actually happy with, playing them now. This sort of confirms that the time working on them was well spent. So hopefully there is a persistent value there that will not wear off. It’s a nice thing when you revisit your own game after a long period of time and it pleasantly surprises you with a well thought out detail and you’re like: “Hmm, clever, clever… whoever did this knew what they were doing…” 

My games are special and different near the end of the development process… just about when the game is starting to look like a real thing but it’s not quite there yet. In that period I go and act like a most obnoxious, drooling fanboy. Playing eagerly over and over, I let the yet-incomplete game affect me on some primal level and entice my imagination with its possibilities. The game in this state is fragile and extremely loveable, like a precious, weak, half old baby-kitten waiting to open its eyes on you. It’s yearning for all the love and support it can get. Who could resist that?

Notes

  1. flightdreamz reblogged this from quote-un-quote
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  3. shortbread reblogged this from quote-un-quote and added:
    Awesome interview with Nenad Jalsovec, developer of Rescue: The Beagles, which is probably my favorite game I’ve ever...
  4. quote-un-quote posted this
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